Lukashenka in full control of power agencies in Belarus
The national security leadership in Belarus has no political personality and no aspirations to gain one. The Belarusian security forces have no corporate solidarity what so ever. However, there is a noticeable interdepartmental competition for Lukashenka’s attention, which manifests in the desire to fulfil his orders as promptly as possible and identify shortcomings in activity of other law enforcement agencies.
The harsh clampdown by the Belarusian law enforcement on the most recent protests has promoted talks about Lukashenka partially losing control over the security forces. Some analysts believe that the national security leaders have deliberately distorted information for the president in order to disrupt the Belarusian-European dialogue and prompt a political crisis to meet their own or Russia’s interests.
Since coming to power, Lukashenka has applied significant efforts to destroy alternative or potential centres of power within the state apparatus. In order to preclude a threat to his sole rule, he is constantly ensuring that the national security leaders remain loyal. For instance, he has fragmented the law enforcement and created two special services empowered, inter alia, to exercise control over the state administration. In addition, ensuring the internal security in the state is an often-duplicated function.
Currently, there are 16 government agencies in Belarus fully or partially involved in ensuring national security, law and order. By posting senior and middle security officers to unfamiliar regions, the president complicates the formation of influence groups at the regional and national levels.
The rivalry between the law enforcement agencies for Lukashenka’s attention (i.e. budgetary funding and personal career prospects for officers) is manifested, inter alia, through revealing the shortcomings in the activity of other security agencies. That said, the cases when security agencies were providing false information to the president were always associated with concealing own failures and never with political goals.
There is no question of manipulations or a conspiracy against the Belarusian president: there are neither conditions for it, nor officials, who would be ready to assume such a responsibility. Lukashenka has access to quality information about the state of affairs in Belarus. Lukashenka’s decisions are likely to base on his own opinion about a particular issue (except, perhaps, some foreign policy decisions). Power officials in Belarus tend to avoid political issues and choose to implement the president’s orders as is.
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.