Belarusian opposition transforms people’s natural discontent with government policies into organised pressure

February 20, 2017 10:13
Image: svaboda.org (RFE/RL)

The Belarusian opposition has channelled spontaneous protest activity of Belarusians into the organised massive pressure on the authorities. Despite differences in approaches, the opposition parties have avoided mutual criticism and made a cumulative impact on the Belarusian leadership thanks to various activities. The authorities are likely to attempt to ease tension in society and weaken the protest movement by suspending the decree ‘on social parasites’.

Last week, Belarusian opposition leaders met with representatives of the Presidential Administration to discuss the decree on ‘social parasites’.

Public pressure on the government to abolish the decree on ‘social parasites’ has built up and prompted the Belarusian authorities to launch a large-scale campaign aiming to neutralise the protest movement. In addition to the information campaign in the state media, officials from the presidential administration held numerous meetings in the regions and in Minsk in order to ease tension and prevent people from participating in street protests. By criticising local officials, the ruling elite is attempting to localise people’s discontent and somewhat relieve outrage against the top leadership.

The opposition is attempting to channel spontaneous protests of citizens into an organised activity by using both, legal means within the legislative framework (eg "Tell the Truth" and the centre-right coalition) and unsanctioned non-violent street protests (eg the Belarusian National Congress). According to independent media reports, in the past month, parties and independent trade unions managed to collect more than 75000 signatures for a petition to abolish the decree.

Despite the differences among the opposition about the unauthorised ‘March of Angry Belarusians’, the organisers managed to mobilise unexpectedly many participants (more than 2000 people), including many new people from the regions. This proves that previously politically passive Belarusians have somewhat radicalised. In addition, the March organisers are attempting to legitimise themselves as leaders of the protest movement in order to impose their agenda in negotiations with the authorities and to strengthen positions among other, more moderate opposition parties, which could build-up tension and lead to conflicts among the opposition.

The popularity of protest activity among the opposition is likely to enhance along with the radicalisation of the rhetoric by street leaders. The authorities are likely to suspend the decree in one way or the other.

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.