On Saturday, Belarusians will commemorate March 25, the Independence Day of 1918 or as it is more simply known, the Day of Freedom. This year the march has unusual significance because it takes place following a series of protests and mass demonstrations across the country. How serious is unrest in Belarus and what will be the likely consequences internally and for its relations with Russia and the West?
In April 2015, amid growing economic problems, the government of Belarus introduced a ‘social parasite law’, penalizing the unemployed a fine of around $245, in lieu of taxes that would have accrued had they been working. The law affected all those who had not paid income tax for 183 days of the year. The fine is the equivalent of about eight months of the current average salary.
Once the law came into effect, workers responded with unusual alacrity and determination. Protests took place in all major urban centres and in early March 2017, in an unprecedented retreat, President Aliaksandr Lukashenka suspended the law for one year. The protests, however, have continued, and their focal point now appears to be the president himself. Slogans brandished demand the removal of the long-time president and more simply “Enough!”
Opposition leaders have tried to lead the demonstrations with mixed success. For one thing the Belarusian opposition is far from united. For another it has relatively small media presence and none at all on television, other than the Polish station Belsat, which recently lost its government funding. In May 2016, it established a Belarusian National Congress, whose leaders include former presidential candidates Mikola Statkevich and Uladzimir Niakliaiev, former state leader Stanislau Shushkevich, and Young Front Co-Chair, Dzmitry Dashkevich.
The most prominent figure active in Minsk is probably Statkevich, the 60-year old chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (People’s Assembly). He is one of the few leaders not subjected to short-term detentions following their appearance at protests, no doubt to ensure their non-appearance at the larger March 25 events. He received prison sentences after the 2004 referendum on extending Lukashenka’s time in office, as well as after the 2010 presidential election. He was released only in August 2015 after refusing to sign a confession.
Human Rights and the EU
Of late, the president has undermined the opposition’s links with the EU, stepped up after the 2010 presidential elections that ended violently, by taking conciliatory steps toward that organization: releasing the remaining political prisoners; allowing two token opposition members to win seats in the recent parliamentary elections; and refraining from the use of violence in the 2015 presidential election. The result was the lifting of sanctions by the EU last February.
Linked to this statement, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has compelled the Europeans to approach Lukashenka’s Belarus as a prospective ally to a revanchist and ambitious Russia. Lukashenka has encouraged such approaches by taking on the role of peacemaker in the Minsk Protocols; remaining neutral in the conflict even though the public is heavily pro-Russian; refusing to recognize Russian-backed republics Abkhazia and North Ossetia as anything other than regions of Georgia; and discouraging the establishment of a new Russian air base in Belarus. He also refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The liberalization of Belarus, however, is largely symbolic and based more on rhetoric than reality. The regime has consolidated its authority during a time of unprecedented economic decline by taking further repressive measures, which have received unusually sparse publicity in the West. These include prohibiting access to the Internet outside the government domain, the execution of numerous death-row prisoners, arresting protestors and imposing hefty fines, raiding homes of potential troublemakers, removing the more progressive elements from the administration, and even mulling the possibility of extending the presidential term to seven years from the current five through a national referendum.
This latter development resulted from an initiative (so-called) from the Liberal-Democratic Party, but as a report in Naviny.by suggests, the move “did not appear out of nowhere.” At the same time the proposal suggests elections based on party lists rather than individual candidacies and a vague commitment to increasing the authority of the parliament. In short, by ostensibly moving in a more democratic direction, the president would simultaneously be extending his term in office, which would have the opposite effect.
National surveys suggest that Belarusians pay little attention to democratic values and more to economic stability and freedom from conflict. Thus some degree of authoritarianism is acceptable if it comes with order and relative prosperity. When the president wishes to justify his own administration, he cites by contrast the “years of chaos” between 1991 and 1994 when Belarus faced a leadership crisis, mounted a brief experiment with the national language, and suffered a dramatic economic decline because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The “years of chaos” are associated with moves toward market reform, accommodating Western demands, and moving Belarus away from Russia, all of which Lukashenka promptly rectified once in office.
Currently, however, authoritarianism comes with economic instability, rising prices, and a shaky currency. Lukashenka’s promise of to return the average wage to $500 per month in 2017 can only be attained by printing money, which is likely to result in hyperinflation similar to the situation two years ago. Thus today’s situation is somewhat similar to 2011, when many analysts predicted, mistakenly, that Belarus would default on foreign loans. It is arguably more serious, however, because of the volatility and unpredictability of Russia.
The Belarusian government is undergoing a period of trauma and adopting pre-emptive measures to deal with it. If one examines the Lukashenka period in totality, then there is a certain consistency of pattern: repression followed by conciliation, and returning once again to harsher measures at times of international tension or economic uncertainty. In the past, however, the economy was always stable, thanks to the importing of subsidized gas and oil from Russia.
Russia’s response has been ambivalent. While the Russian leadership has long supported Lukashenka, tensions have arisen in recent times. Vladimir Putin is clearly frustrated by Lukashenka’s attempts to attract EU support, including the introduction last month of a 5-day visa-free regime for tourists from 80 countries entering Belarus through the Minsk International Airport.
In response, Russia established new border controls with Belarus for the first time since independence. Russia has also periodically suspended Belarusian goods, raised oil and gas prices, and subjected the Belarusian leadership to derogatory coverage on national television. Russia is concerned that Belarus may experience its own Maidan.
Lukashenka has responded with arrests of “several dozen” so-called ‘armed groups’, mainly associated with the ‘Patriot Club’ based in Babruisk, and has claimed that they are part of a plot, supported by Ukraine and perhaps Poland and Lithuania, to overthrow the government on March 25. The Patriot Club, as Vadzim Smok points out in a recent article for Belarus Digest, has been fully registered since 2003 and not associated hitherto with violence or anti-government militancy.
Three activists were arrested on March 22: Artsiom Leuchanka, Siarjei Palcheuski, and Dzmitry Dashkevich. The latter’s wife, Nasta, left their apartment to find out his whereabouts, returning to find the door open, and $400, and Dashkevich’s cat missing. Nasta Dashkevich has chronicled the detention of many other activists on her Facebook page. Thus Belarus seems to have returned to the conditions of 2011.
One inference is that the president of Belarus is demonstrating to the Russians that he is capable of his own ‘house cleaning’ and can still crack down on protesters with ruthlessness. From Moscow’s perspective, the show of force may be less than convincing. Photographs of demonstrations exhibit both the ‘nationalist’ white-red-white flag and official red-green state flag being held side by side, implying that the government has lost some of its former supporters.
On the other hand, Belarus is not Ukraine and a Maidan is very unlikely. Statkevich has warned of the results of violent confrontation, arguing that they can only benefit Russia. Conversely, he advocates that the Day of Freedom march should advance from October Square to Independence Square, the same route and locale that led to the riot police attacks in December 2010. The government is unlikely to tolerate such a move and has not authorized it.
In September Russia and Belarus will embark on a large military exercise ‘Zapad-2017’ and an estimated 3,000 Russian troops, along with their military equipment, will be on Belarusian territory. There is a fear in some circles that the military exercise could be used by Russia to occupy parts of Belarus if a situation of political chaos continues.
Crucially, as yet there is no alternative source of power in the country and no clear route of succession once Lukashenka steps down or is removed from power. The tradition of a strong presidency and weak legislature continues but the entire structure revolves around one man and is susceptible to his foibles and whims. The president’s only preference of note has been for his 13-year old son Mikola (Nikolay), who accompanies him on many foreign trips and official duties.
Ironically, a form of official Belarusian nationalism has been in place for the past 3-4 years as a mechanism for keeping Lukashenka separated from the Russian orbit. That is its key purpose, but the additional benefit to the government is that it has weakened the opposition, which could argue hitherto that the president was an enemy of native traditions, language, and identity.
March 25 will likely not provide a clear answer to the question of the succession or regime change. But for Lukashenka the problems mount: repressive moves will alienate the West and lead to further sanctions, perhaps even a return of the travel bans on various figures; yet a mild response would be regarded both locally and in Moscow as a sign of weakness, signalling a danger that the president no longer has firm control over his country.
For Putin, a weaker and more compliant Belarus appears to be the natural order of things, whether the leader is Lukashenka or a successor. Under no circumstances can Belarus be permitted an attempt to break away completely and indeed it is very unlikely as long as Lukashenka is at the helm. But the situation is extremely tense.