System updated with slight liberalisation of the authorities’ monopoly on communication with the population
In 2016, amid oscillating popular ratings of the state and public institutions, the Belarusian society demonstrated high adaptability and reduced its requirements on the state. Social tension caused by the decline in the people's wellbeing and cutbacks in the state social guarantees, neither transformed into open protests and enhanced support for the opposition, nor boosted electoral activity. Spontaneous and localised protests by regional entrepreneurs were the only exception, but the authorities had successfully neutralised them by the spring, i.e. by the time the opposition normally woke up.
Some business organisations attempted to unite SMEs and channel the protests into a constructive stream without the street protests, which was the main negotiation requirement by the authorities. Entrepreneurs attempted to distance themselves from the opposition and did not politicise their demands, which, however, became stronger as the authorities refused to address them. Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities managed to mute protests by making small concessions, relaxing power pressure, involving local administration in the negotiations with the protesters and delaying the conflict resolution.
In relations with the opposition and civil society, the authorities abandoned harsh repressions and focused on the financial pressure, legal restrictions and economic discrimination. Despite some political liberalisation, the Belarusian authorities pre-emptively expanded the legal framework for repressions in the case of social unrest and "hybrid" threats. In addition, new faces emerged in the protest movement from high-profile cases and prosecution of active citizens not connected with the titular opposition.
The government became more open to contacts with opposition representatives in order to improve its reputation internationally and divert protest sentiments. The Belarusian authorities somewhat increased the opportunities for the opposition to communicate with the population by allowing some limited access to the state TV and the print media.
During the parliamentary elections, the authorities increased the opportunities for the opposition to hold campaign events, but retained full control over the election process and the election results. The authorities made minor concessions to the opposition during the election race, (yet not at the legislative level) in order to create a favourable environment for the normalisation of relations with Western capitals.
Apparently, thanks to the joint pressure from Western capitals and the opposition with a constructive agenda, the Belarusian leadership granted two seats in the Parliament to the opposition.
Amid plans to reduce the state apparatus, anti-corruption pressure and unattainable economic growth plans, the nomenclature stepped up the competition for seats in the new parliament to "wait out" a crisis in a more comfortable "parliamentary" environment. The fact that the competition within the state apparatus became visible meant there was a certain imbalance in the public administration system.
In addition, the authorities milked some businessmen proxies, who built their wealth by being close to the authorities and public resources (eg Case of Yuri Chizh). Security officers were often used as a final argument in the struggle for the resource redistribution; they firmly anchored in Lukashenka’s environment, while large private businesses somewhat lost their influence and political representation in the Parliament.
The government attempted to limit pro-Russian activity in Belarus and allowed ‘soft belarusisation’. That said, the authorities adopted some opposition's popular slogans, symbols and ideas promoting independent Belarus.
Amid lingering socio-economic crisis, expectations of a steady decline in public institutions’ popular ratings prompted the authorities to take a final decision on ‘killing off’ independent sociology: the only independent sociological agency in Belarus, conducting regular polls on social, economic and political issues, IISEPS, ceased its activity entirely.
The All-Belarusian People's Assembly demonstrated that the authorities lacked new ideas and strategies for driving Belarus out of economic recession; that the Belarusian leadership was committed to the state monopoly in the economy and immutability of the political system, while gradually waving social responsibility.
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.