Belarusian opposition aims to expand support base amid growing tension in society
Most opposition parties are attempting to reach out to new social groups beyond the traditional opposition electorate from those affected by the decree on ‘social parasitism’. Different opposition groups offer a variety of approaches to opposing the decree on ‘social parasitism’ and albeit conventional supporters of the opposition are somewhat disoriented, it creates the preconditions for expanding the support base of democratic institutions and achieving success in revoking or amending this government initiative.
"Tell the Truth" campaign has invited ‘social parasites’ from across the country to discuss an action plan.
The opposition is using a wide range of means to engage those affected by the decree on ‘social parasites’ in party activities both, in the capital and in the regions. This includes signing a petition to abolish the decree and recall MPs; sabotage; litigating with the authorities; holding pickets, marches, round tables, and meetings with government officials; inter alia, through the Internet and social networks. By using different approaches, the opposition is able to reach out to broad population groups, which somewhat bridges diversities among the parties.
Organizers of the Belarusian National Congress (BNC) aim to mobilise supporters of street actions by organizing a ‘March of perturbed Belarusians’, an unsanctioned rally. “Tell the Truth" campaign aims to recruit new activists with no experience in politics by applying ‘safe’ pressure on the authorities. The centre-right coalition aims, on the one hand, to stop their supporters from joining the BNC led by Statkevich with harsh rhetoric and street actions (sanctioned by the authorities); and on the other hand, to attract new activists through MP Kanopatskaya and other forms of legal activity.
Amid growing tension and discontent in society, the authorities are showing concern about growing potential for street activity and engagement of new social groups. In the regions, local authorities refuse to sanction mass activity organised by the opposition in support for the abolition of the decree and impose heavy fines on participants in unauthorised actions. However, so far, the law enforcement has not taken any preventive action against the organizers of the unauthorized March. Perhaps, they count on differences among various opposition centres to build up over pressure strategies on the government.
Overall, some democratic organisations are attempting to step beyond the traditional opposition core inclined to boycott election campaigns. Should new social groups start supporting the opposition, its electoral potential would enhance by the local elections, scheduled for early 2018.
The Belarusian authorities have revived the cyclical political agenda, including preventive crackdown with the use of force during the Freedom Day rally in Minsk and a loyal attitude to the participants in the opposition events in the regions. The protest rally in Minsk has evidenced that the Belarusian society has freed from the post-Maidan syndrome and showed high self-organisation capacity during the event in the absence of opposition leaders. In the future, the authorities are likely to expand the framework for sanctioned and legal activity for the moderate opposition in order to reduce the potential for street protests.
The Freedom Day march in Minsk on March 25th, 2017 was marked by unprecedented and brutal detentions before and during the event.
The Belarusian leadership has managed to stretch in time the political cycle - liberalization followed by repressions - and move beyond the electoral campaigns. Simultaneously, Minsk has demonstrated a rather high mobilisation potential under political slogans, despite the pressure from the state media and security forces before and during Freedom Day, including the presence of armed officers and new special equipment to disperse demonstrations in the streets of Minsk. That said, in other towns (Vitebsk, Gomel, Brest and Grodno) the Freedom Day march led by the opposition, was sanctioned by the local authorities (except Vitebsk), albeit there were fewer participants than in February and March protests against the decree on social dependants.
The Belarusian leadership has depersonalised (removed leaders) the protest, preventively weakened the protest movement, and has not opted for the harsh crackdown like in 2010 with many injured and hundreds arrested. For instance, some party leaders were preventively arrested or detained (Lebedko, Rymashevsky, Gubarevich, Neklyaev, Logvinets, Severinets) before the event. Nikolai Statkevich has disappeared and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Some could not pass through the police cordons (Yanukevich and Kostusev) or participated in the rallies in the regions (Dmitriev, Korotkevich and Milinkevich).
Despite the lack of protest leaders, some demonstrators managed to self-organize and march down the Minsk centre. The march was unauthorised but gathered several thousand participants. Many were detained by the law enforcement and later released without charges. In addition, the Belarusian law enforcers used some tactics of the western riot police against peaceful protesters, allegedly in order to mitigate the criticism from Western capitals.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities have used the entire set of propaganda and power mechanisms applied during the highly politicised 2006 and 2010 elections - criminal prosecution of the opposition leaders, preventive detentions and arrests of activists, harsh propaganda campaign in the state media and, finally, the crackdown on the protest action in Minsk with the use of force.
Overall, the mobilisation potential of the Belarusian society remains high and the authorities are likely to expand the legal framework for public participation in politics in order to absorb superfluous tension.