System updated with slight liberalisation of the authorities’ monopoly on communication with the population

January 03, 2017 11:07

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.

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Death penalty discussion in Belarus: yet not ready for either abolition or moratorium
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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.