Belarusian president reiterates independence and sovereignty talks to relax tension in society
Amid lingering recession and falling living standards of the population, the Belarusian authorities focus on threats to Belarus' sovereignty and independence in order to defuse protest moods in society. The president’s statement is likely to weaken the opposition’s mobilisation efforts. The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue cautious and often inconsistent attempts to weld a nation by promoting Belarus’ independence and strengthening national identity.
Last week, President Lukashenka said that some attempted to question the sovereignty and independence of Belarus.
The president is attempting to ease protest moods in society, which are used by the opposition to mobilise those dissatisfied with the current government policies. Virtually all main opposition alliances, including the centre-right coalition, "Tell the Truth" and the Belarusian National Congress (BNC) said to attempt to engage those affected "by the decree on social parasitism", who make up a significant part of the population, in some kind of activity.
Official rhetoric about the threat to Belarus’ sovereignty aims to weaken supporters of street protests and determined opponents of the Belarusian authorities. Part of the opposition, led by former political prisoner Nikolai Statkevich seeks to use speculations about ‘Zapad-2017’, a joint Russo-Belarusian large-scale military exercise to mobilise its supporters within the framework of the BNC "regional military commissions". The arrest of Regnum [Russian news agency] authors, and restricted access to ‘Sputnik and Mayhem’, an odious web site, could also reduce the protest capacity.
Apparently, amid exhausted capacity of the ‘younger brother’ (‘younger sister’) strategy in relation to Russia, the Belarusian authorities started a careful revision of the Belarusian statehood ideological constructs. The authorities’ rhetoric started echoing the rhetoric of the national-democratic opposition as regards the Belarusian sate’s origins. For instance, the authorities plan to erect a memorial sign ‘Polotsk is the cradle of the Belarusian statehood’ in the Vitebsk region, one of the most Russified regions. That said, since the mid-2000s the Belarusian authorities regarded the Great Patriotic War and the election of the first president as major milestones in the Belarusian state formation.
The Belarusian authorities’ actions aimed to strengthen national identity remain cautious. For example, the Belarusian parliament and the government expressed scepticism concerning legislative changes envisaging the mandatory use of the Belarusian language along with Russian by manufacturers, despite strong pressure from civil society activists. Even such cautious steps caused biting attacks by the ‘Russian World’ supporters in Russia.
Overall, the Belarusian authorities seem ready to take over slogans and ideas from their opponents in order to strengthen the sovereignty and independence of Belarus and to weaken the opposition’s influence on the protest social groups.
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.