In light of sovereignty threat, Belarusian opposition questions ‘maidan’ scenario

April 22, 2016 18:48

The Belarusian opposition is revising its strategies for the 2015 presidential elections, calling into question the feasibility of gathering people on the ‘square’. Influenced by the events in Ukraine, those who advocate for a dialogue with the government in order to retain the country’s independence are strengthening their positions. The opposition and the Belarusian authorities are attempting to take steps to smooth the deep rift in the Belarusian society over values.

Last week, discussions related to Ukraine’s lessons for Belarus took place. In particular, on April 2nd, a discussion took place in the “Tell the Truth!” offices in Minsk.

During the first months of the Maidan, along with the increasing protest activity in Kiev, the Belarusian opposition was very optimistic about the opportunities for large-scale public protests in Minsk. Most opposition leaders were supportive of the power change in Ukraine and expressed support for the new Ukrainian leadership, some even visited revolutionary Kiev. Although the opposition -minded people were doubting the possibility of Ukrainian scenario in Belarus to remove President Lukashenko from office, the opposition leaders started regarding ‘the square’ scenario as a likely development during the 2015 presidential campaign.

However, the bloodshed in January, the Russian invasion, the annexation of Crimea, and the Kremlin’s attempts to destabilize the situation in mainland Ukraine, have prompted the Belarusian opposition to reassess the potential negative effects of harsh confrontation with the authorities.

Ukrainian events have shaped the opposition’s agenda in two major ways. On the one hand, some opposition parties have started referring to Ukrainian events in their public addresses, organizing various activities in support of Ukraine. However, most people reacted cautiously to the events in Ukraine and do not show support for pro-Ukrainian rhetoric.

On the other hand, the threat of losing sovereignty has prompted the ‘People’s Referendum’ organizers to start discussions about the need to consolidate the Belarusian society around the idea of independence. They propose putting pressure on the government to introduce gradual economic and then political transformations.

Most opposition leaders understand there is a need to balance Russian influence on Belarus with a coherent European policy. But rapprochement with the EU is impossible while there are political prisoners in Belarus – that is also a principal issue for the opposition.

Despite strengthening the repressive mechanism against any protest activity, the authorities simultaneously attempt to smooth over the value-based split in Belarusian society. For example, the Belarusian leadership has allowed a cautious increase in the amount of Belarusian language used and historical discussions in the information space.

As the Belarusian state becomes weaker, and external threats to the country’s sovereignty increase, the opposition has started thinking about other scenarios than the ‘square’ for the presidential campaign in 2015. Opposition parties are not interested in sharpening the confrontation with the Belarusian authorities.

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Following crackdown and arrests of participants in the spring protests, the authorities resumed arrests as punishment for participating in street protests in addition to fines, which for some time were the only punishment for political activity. On September 22nd, 2017, the riot police detained the Belarusian National Congress leader Nikolai Statkevich, the opposition politician was placed in detention centre on Akrestin street. On the same day, after serving seven days of arrest, another BNC leader, Vladimir Neklyaev, was released. He was sentenced for organising a street protest on September 8th against the West-2017 exercises. Other participants in the protest have been fined too. The authorities are likely to continue to use fines and arrests against political activists to punish for their protest activity.