On May Day social activity was acceptable for the authorities
On May 1st, the International Labour Day, rallies and demonstrations were held in several Belarusian cities.
Traditional May Day demonstrations allowed the authorities to assess the social protests meter and to test mobilization capabilities of the state and the opposition. May Day has demonstrated that protest activity is manageable and not threatening the authorities.
The largest May Day demonstration took place in the Minsk centre and was organized by the ‘official’ Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus. Independent media reported that about 10 thousand people took part in the demonstration (according to the FTUB - 30 thousand). The participants of the demonstration expressed support to President Lukashenko’s social policies, demanded from the Myasnkovich’s Government to protect the interests of labor collectives during the privatization of enterprises, backed the Eurasian integration and called for the removal of all restrictions in relations between Belarus and the EU.
The most important about the event was not what the protestors demanded, but the demonstration of the FTUB mobilization capabilities to organize a mass event in the capital. FTUB uses the administrative resources (transportation, food, entertainment and overall support of the city authorities), to control Belarusian workers’ important tradition of mass recreation. May Day demonstration in Belarus is primarily a celebration, rather than a political rally.
At the same time, the FTUB, which lists about 4 million members, is an important measuring instrument and a valve for social protests in the Belarusian society. Therefore, in the most critical times the FTUB leadership puts forward ‘harsh’ demands towards the government (to raise wages, to respect the worker’s rights, etc). However, these demands are mainly rhetorical, aiming at justifying President Lukashenko’s policies.
The decision of the Brest City authorities, granting a permission to the opposition Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) to hold a May Day demonstration, was rather unexpected. About 200 people took part in the demonstration, representing various opposition parties and movements. There were no detentions during the event. Most likely, the authorities allowed the demonstration to test oppositions’ mobilization capabilities in the region and the protest potential of the local population.
The May Day demonstration has empirically confirmed the independent sociologists’ assessments of the low protest potential of the population. Simultaneously, the Labour Day has allowed the authorities to shift the attention from the President to the Myasnikovich’s Government, claiming his responsibility for the social policy failures. If social problems deteriorate, the president will sacrifice the government.
Nevertheless, shifting responsibility will not solve the ruling group’s main problem – where to find the sources for long term financing of the current social model. The authorities do not seem to have a long-term strategy; they act tactically, addressing socio-economic problems as they occur.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.