Cycling As a Threat to the Belarusian Regime

picture: toxaby.livejournal.com

On 17 August, Minsk cycling fans gathered to make an unusual ride – they agreed via social network to dress in 1950s style clothes. Around 50 people participated in the event, and it even drew the attention of Belarusian media.

Yet on 2 September police summoned Iryna Bijnik, the organiser of the ride. The police composed a record of evidence and the same day the trial occurred – Iryna received a fine for organising it. 

It came as a surprise to her and her friends when they learned that she had violated the law on mass actions, amended after 2011 silent protests. According to it, any public announcement of collective action (including the Internet) should receive the authorities' permission. Now, a company of friends that agreed to have a drink on Facebook can theoretically be accused of breaking the law.

<--break->Events with similar outcomes happened in Vitsebsk and Brest earlier in the summer. They indicate that the regime still perceives organised citizens, even apolitical, as a threat to its stability.

The Limits of Absurd in Regime Security

The 2011 summer appeared to be a quite nervous time for the Belarusian regime. With the Arab Spring in the background, it experienced the one of its most serious economic collapses and the widespread dissatisfaction of the public with state policy. This led to mass protests, which took place in many cities of Belarus and received the name “silent protests”, because people clapped hands instead of shouting slogans, which authorities could qualify as a violation of mass political actions and therefore initiate legal proceedings.

The authorities quickly realised this loophole in the law and in early autumn of 2011 the notorious Minister of Internal Affairs Anatol Kuliašoŭ presented amendments to the law before the Belarusian pocket parliament. The parliament announced that its sessions were closed for media and adopted the amendments in one day, as hardly any discussions are possible when it comes to the regime's security.

According to the amendments, organisers of an event cannot publicly invite people to participate in it before they receive permission of local authorities. Importantly, this concerns any mass gatherings regardless of their aims - political, entertainment, or any other.  The law also extended the list of places where mass actions cannot take place, and stipulates how those places, where organisers who have received permission, must have surveillance devices, fences and checkpoints.

Civil society took the amendments as a further restriction on civil liberties of Belarusian citizens, although the authorities rarely apply it since its adoption. However, in the summer and autumn of 2013 several cases of its ridiculous application finally took place.

Collective Cycling Prohibited

On 17 August, Minsk cycling fans gathered to make an unusual ride – they agreed to dress in 1950s style via social network. The event drew the attention of Belarusian media, which reported around 50 participants. Iryna Bijnik, who organised the ride in social networks, said they did not plan any particular number of participants. All interested people could join the ride.

After two weeks, Iryna unexpectedly had to visit the police. The same day the court imposed on Iryna a fine of BYR 2m ($220).

The police initiated the case because one policeman noticed the information for the gathering on the web after it had already happened. No policeman witnessed or made a report of the live event on the day it happened.

The head of Minsk cycling society Jaŭhien Charužy considers this fine a dangerous precedent. “Collective cycling takes places almost every day in Minsk, and up to 250 people take part in it. It is often spontaneously organised and it is hard to define the organiser”, he says. Now, as such cases are starting to happen, the police can interpret any gathering of people as an unauthorised action and therefore declare it as illegal.  

No Candy Showers Too

It turned out that not only the Minsk authorities see collective cycling as a potentially dangerous action. A similar case took place in Vitsebsk on 5 September. Uladzimir Bulaŭski had already organised two cycling tours around Vitsebsk for all interested people and was going to hold another one. He arranged the meeting on a social network and provided his contact information, but the authorities did not contact him on.

Instead, on the day of the tour the cyclers found a number of policemen in the place of meeting. The police fined people right on the spot and even those who had no intention to participate received fines. Some people were detained for “absence of rear-view mirrors, bell and flashing lights”. Bulaŭski says the cyclers will definitely fix all necessary technical issues if the problem lies indeed there. But it seems not to be the case.

Earlier in July, another curious happening related to the law on mass actions occurred in Brest. During the opening of a new mall, the company decided to surprise the people and organise a candy shower. It announced that at the opening ceremony they will throw a ton of candy from the roof of the building.

The organisers requested an action of 500 participants at local authorities for this occasion. Instead, 5,000 people came while only 6 policemen were sent to keep order. The police ordered not to throw the candy to avoid a stampede, but the organisers ignored their orders. As a result, the police initiated a case against them for breaking the law on mass actions.

The Fear of Organisation

Authorities try to explain that a public announcement in social networks can be dangerous, because it can gather an inestimable number of people and the situation can get out of control. Some officials understand that permits for daily collective actions of citizens like cycling seems ridiculous, but they have to obey the law and recommend to cooperate with authorities on these matters. For instance, they suggest that people hold their actions under the aegis of local authorities or security services, which do not need permission for such actions.

But the reason behind the actions of authorities appears not to be their concern for the safety of the participants. They simply demonstrate that citizens in Belarus have no right to associate with one another without the state's approval and control. Such irrational fear of harmless actions like cycling looks like nonsense, but it precisely shows the logic of the regime-society's current coexistence.

The people in power regard organised citizens not as partners in the resolution of public problems, but as a potential danger to regime stability. Therefore maintaining an atomised society remains a priority of internal security in Belarus. 

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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