Can anger sustain the Belarusian protests?
On 17 February of this year, Minsk saw the largest civic protest since 2010, when demonstrators gathered in the capital to protest the results of the presidential election . However, this recent demonstration of ‘angry Belarusians’ was significantly different from most other Belarusian protests.
This time, rather than the conventional crackdown, the Belarusian government opted not to break up the protests. It is possible that the authorities permitted the demonstrations because they recognised their mistake in instituting the controversial 'social parasites' law and are looking for an elegant way to abolish it.
Conventional Belarusian protests
Most Belarusian protests have traditionally been against the government. However, demonstrations with socioeconomic aims tend to attract more people. The largest protest in the history of independent Belarus occurred in 1991, when more than 100,000 people gathered in Minsk to protest economic and social decline. Later, in 2006 and 2010, Belarusians protested against election results, although the demonstrators’ numbers never exceeded 50,000 people.
The most recent demonstrations, against the decree on ‘social parasitism’, took place on 17-19 February and attracted a total of around 5,000 people. The law requires unemployed citizens who spend at least 183 days a year in Belarus to pay a €220 tax.
Representatives of the opposition have participated in every protest and aim for maximal visibility and leadership during street demonstrations. During political protests, the opposition has formulated the main demands and guided demonstrations. During social protests, the opposition has tried to include their own demands in the general protest agenda.
The march of social parasites as a new generation of protestors
Immediately following its introduction, the ‘social parasite’ decree sparked heated debate among Belarusians. Beginning in social media, Belarusians expressed anger at this infringement of their rights. Citizens created numerous petitions and sent appeals to the Ministry of Tax. They also protested by refusing to pay. According to the latest data, only 54,000 of 470,000 people have actually paid the tax so far.
Aliaksandr Siamionaŭ, a resident of Homiel, became the first person to file a court claim stating that the decree violates his constitutional rights. However, the day before the hearing, Siamionaŭ received a job proposal and a notification that he was no longer obliged to pay the tax, and on 21 February the court closed the case. During the hearing, more than 200 people supported Siamionaŭ in front of the court.
The protests were a culmination of the fight against the decree. Despite initial prohibitions by local authorities, protests took place in the six largest Belarusian towns.
The state-controlled media portrayed the protests as an attempt by the opposition to use this window of opportunity to increase their support. As Belarus Segodnya wrote, 'The state has no right to yield to the "protests" of noisy groups who came to demonstrations because of the calls of oppositional politicians, who see an opportunity to fish in troubled waters'.
Opposition leaders themselves have apparently failed to present themselves as a united body heading the protests. Some oppositional leaders, such as representatives of Movement for Freedom, Belarusian National Front, United Civic Party, were not even present at the demonstrations. They predicted that the demonstrations would be too modest for them to risk compromising their image. However, Niakliajeŭ and Statkievič took a chance and stepped up as strong leaders for the demonstrators.
While the majority of previous demonstrations had used only political slogans, such as simply 'Go away', the protests of 17-19 February had particular economic demands and were able to mobilise more social groups. For the first time in a while, large leaderless groups and citizens without any party affiliation joined the protests. National themes and calls for a regime change were secondary.
The protests also provoked debate about whether they could became a way for Russia to destabilise the country, send troops in, and 'protect' people who ask Russia to save Belarus, as happened in Ukraine. Nevertheless, many experts believe that such a scenario is highly unlikely. As Valieryj Karbalievič stated on Radyjo Svaboda: 'Given the current situation in Belarus...pro-European forces are stronger, better organised, and more politically mature than pro-Russian ones...It’s hard to imagine a pro-Russian Maidan here'.
Law enforcement has become an increasingly common way to deter potential protestors and crack down on demonstrations. In 2006, the police detained hundreds of protesters after demonstrations against the results of elections held on 19-25 March. Post-election protests in 2010 ended in almost 1,000 Belarusians being repressed. Police brutality and repression have become a predictable part of any protest in Belarus.
However, this time the authorities deemed the use of violence undesirable. If the authorities had behaved the way they normally do, they would have had to imprison not only members of the opposition but also those who trust the government. Predicting possible conflict with Russia, the authorities might also be seeking to increase the number of citizens who are loyal to the current regime. A crackdown on oppositional demonstrations would hardly surprise anyone, but suppression of social protests could cause more resentment.
In ignoring the protests, the authorities also seem to be seeking the best way to abolish the decree. Several days before the protests, the authorities realised that demonstrations could occur and attract large numbers of people. They organised special meetings for citizens with government representatives in order to 'clarify' the meaning of the decree in an attempt to avert protests. The authorities are most likely willing to abolish the decree but are afraid that this could be taken as a sign of weakness.
Making the protests work
On 17-19 February, Belarusians gathered to articulate their position against the government's decision in a massive demonstration. The political opposition received a chance to get closer to ordinary Belarusians by helping them stand up for their rights. The demonstration of 25 March should, for this reason, focus on the economic demands which are the people's primary concern.
If the authorities abolish the law, oppositional leaders will be perceived as successful defenders of civil rights and receive more support. If the law remains, the protest activities of Belarusians will only grow, along with support for the opposition. Thus, no matter the outcome, the Belarusian opposition will benefit from the ‘social parasite’ decree. The amount of angry Belarusians will grow; this could later create a more lasting atmosphere of protest, making demonstrations more powerful.
Demonstrations can achieve their objectives when a significant amount of people are ready to support both economic and political aims. The difficult economic circumstances preceding the protests jeopardise trust in the government among large swathes of the population. The social character of the protests also decreases the chances of a crackdown, and opens more space for citizens. For now, it looks as if Belarusians are becoming less afraid of protests. They just need a proper impetus to express the 'anger'.