Power block in Belarus to redistribute resources in 2017
Downsizing in one law enforcement agency in Belarus could be due to the need to allocate additional resources to another agency. The external environment and uncertain prospects for preserving socio-political stability in the country require capacity building to counter potential threats to national security.
The financial and economic crisis in Belarus has limited the authorities’ capacities to mobilise additional resources to respond to the new security challenges. Without additional resources, the Belarusian authorities may start redistributing available funds within the power block.
On January 24th, 2017, at the debriefing with Interior Minister Igor Shunevich, Lukashenka talked about the prospects of downsizing the Interior Ministry. He also said that the saved resources would remain in the Ministry. The day before, Interior Troops Commander, Major-General Yuri Garayev noted that staff reductions would affect managers who were not directly engaged in the law enforcement activity.
In 2016, mass layoffs were carried out in the Ministry of Emergency Situations. According to unofficial reports, the Ministry’s personnel was downsized by 10%, while the Ministry’s budget was cut by 12%. The Interior Ministry is very unlikely to retain funds freed up due to layoffs.
The unfavourable internal and external environment does not allow asserting unequivocally that the above measures are aimed at cost savings in times of a crisis. Amid budget deficit, Minsk is facing new challenges, which require an adequate response. For instance, Russia could introduce full border control at the Belarusian-Russian border, which would require reciprocal steps from the Belarusian authorities.
Layoffs in the Interior Ministry could become a part of the overall redistribution of funds within the national defence and security sector in 2017. The most likely beneficiaries include the Defence Ministry, the Interior Ministry Troops and the State Border Committee - in order to increase the combat potential of the Belarusian army, to build capacity for armed riot control in urban areas, and enforce (if necessary) border controls at the border with Russia.
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.