Belarusian opposition parties to fight for regional activists
The Belarusian opposition is attempting to strengthen party structures, consolidate regional activists and reach out to new audiences before the local elections. Parties continue to cooperate within the existing alliances, but coalitions avoid even minor coordination among them, regardless of the similar political agenda. Apparently, as the local elections draw closer, the fight for regional activists among different oppositional structures is likely to step up.
In 2017, ‘Tell the Truth’ campaign is set to focus on the Belarusian regions and hold a forum ‘For the peaceful change’ in each one of them.
The opposition parties are attempting to boost their influence in the regions and consolidate regional activists in order to strengthen their electoral potential before the local elections, which will take place in late 2017. High tension between the centre-right coalition and the initiators of the Belarusian National Congress (BNC), who support street protests, is very likely.
The BNC, headed by former political prisoner Nikolai Statkevich continues its expansion into Belarusian regions: two new structures appeared in Soligorsk and Vitebsk in early 2017. The centre-right coalition is also attempting to consolidate regional initiatives and put pressure on the authorities by using the potential of their MP Anna Kanopatskaya. ‘Tell the Truth’ campaign launched a party building process and said to focus on the regions; it also promised to bring new faces in politics.
In addition, the opposition is stepping up efforts to reach out to new audiences and recruit new volunteers from those dissatisfied with the current public policies. Virtually all opposition groups are attempting to mobilize so-called ‘social parasites’ by using various activities: collecting signatures, street agitation, holding a ‘March of the parasites’ (the centre-right coalition), and public hearings during the "parasites meeting" (‘Tell the truth’). In turn, supporters of street activity are likely to organise spontaneous protests for those affected by the “tax on social parasitism". Yet the BNC leaders have not announced any plans for a collective action, but launched an aggressive media campaign against the decree on ‘social parasitism’.
Most political parties are likely to participate in the local election campaign, and in the coming months will attempt to mobilise new leaders from those dissatisfied with the current government policies. Their success largely depends on the actions of the authorities and the intensity of the state’s financial pressure on the population.
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.