The struggle with the opposition grows lenient
On April 6, an employee of the JSC “Grodno Nitrogen” filed a lawsuit against ex-presidential candidate Dmitry Uss claiming damages of Br 1 million for Uss’ appeals to introduce economic sanctions against Belarus. An identical claim for Br 500 thousand was filed by a worker of the Mozyr Oil Refinery against the Head of the Organizing Committee of the People’s Assembly Mr. Ivashkevich.
Broad public media campaign, supporting both claims implies that the authorities continue mobilization on the eve of the parliamentary elections. The National TV channel reported about the claims during the prime time. Earlier the National TV showed a series of critical films about a number of foreign embassies in Belarus and their partners among the opposition.
Traditionally, election campaigns in Belarus are accompanied by criticism of various external forces and by creation of an image of the enemy, which is set off as a negative background to report about the achievements of the Belarusian authorities. In this particular case, the broad media campaign about the civil lawsuits against citizens who called for economic sanctions against Belarusian enterprises is used to mobilize the working class against the opposition politicians and for the support of official policy.
Apart from social mobilization, civil suits against the opposition give the authorities a formal excuse to restrict their rights temporarily, in particular their right to travel outside Belarus.
In both cases courts have banned Mr. Uss and Mr. Ivashkevich from leaving Belarus immediately after accepting the suits. Both gentlemen are known for their harsh criticism of political and electoral system of Belarus and worked on boycotting of the election campaign (Ivashkevich) and on monitoring of the voting (Uss).
So far the travel ban for the political opponents of the authorities has been informal (and often illegal). The authorities have a lot more stringent measures at their disposal, for instance, article 369-1 of the Criminal Code, “Discrediting the Republic of Belarus”, which envisages arrest for up to six months or imprisonment for up to two years. Previously the Prosecutor General has issued warnings about potential criminal liability for calling for sanctions against Belarus.
Most likely, the authorities assess the long-term effects of the use of harsh legal measures - both for themselves and for the opposition - as greater than the negative effect of the short-term scandals that accompany the use of informal and semi-formal measures against the opposition. Opening of new criminal cases is likely to result in further deterioration of relations with the West (and Russia). Therefore, the authorities continue using situational interventions against their opponents: banning them from leaving the country without explanation, taking them off the trains on suspicion of the trafficking of drugs, confiscation of passports, civil lawsuits and other.
Last week, Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei participated in the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Eastern Partnership and Visegrad Group initiative hosted by Warsaw. The Belarusian FM emphasized Belarus' interest in cooperation in the transport sector, which could be due to Belarus’ desire to export electricity surplus after Belarus finished construction of the nuclear power plant in Ostrovets. Minsk expressed concerns about Warsaw’s stance on the Belarusian NPP, as it refused to buy electricity from Belarus and supported Vilnius’ protest on this issue. Following accusations by the Belarusian leadership and the state media against western states, including Poland, of training "nationalist militants", Minsk did not agree on the visit of the European Parliament deputies from Lithuania and Germany to Belarus and to the NPP construction site near Ostrovets in particular. In addition, the Belarusian authorities have stepped up efforts to enforce education in Russian in Polish-language schools in Grodno and Vaukavysk. Should a rift in Belarusian-Polish relations persist, the Belarusian authorities are likely to step up the pressure on the Polish-speaking minority in Belarus.