It's Just the Beginning

Disorder in London

"It's just the beginning" reads the top headline of Belarus Today, the main official newspaper in Belarus.  The story covers not the economic crisis in Belarus but the ongoing riots in London. The newspaper hints that reduction in unemployment benefits and subsidies on youth and social centers were the main reasons for London riots.

Belarus Today stopped short of comparing the London riots to protests in Belarus organized through social networks this summer. But the article does draw a parallel with the Arab spring.  According to the official newspaper, "Londoners who were inspired by Twitter revolutions are now logging on Facebook with fear to see which district of the capital will be next". The comparison is straightforward but wrong.

Unlike the London riots, protests in the Arab world and Belarus were politically motivated and largely non-violent.  Both in the Arab world and in Belarus, protesters peacefully required changes of their rules who had been in power for decades.  London rioters have no political agenda, despite the Belarusian official press hints. London youth from poor districts loot stores and ATM machines, attack police officers and set buildings and cars on fire. In a stark contrast to London events, protests in the Arab world and Belarus were almost always peaceful.

Police in London tries to deal with provocations of hooligans while Belarusian police was reportedly involved in preparing provocations. The only serious disorderly episode in Belarus was in December 2010 when a group of young people smashed several windows in a government building.  Then although tens of thousands moved to the government compound and the authorities knew about it well in advance, the main government buildings were left unprotected.  Thousands of police officers were waiting in the nearby yards. 

When several windows in a government building were smashed, it was used as pretext for beating and jailing hundreds of protesters. Many were subsequently released, but the most active, including three former presidential candidates, will spend years in Belarusian prisons.

Well-educated and politically active constituted the core of protesters in the Arab world and Belarus. In London, nearly all rioters come from poor backgrounds and have little interest in politics. Another difference is that the majority of Londoners clearly disapproves the rioters - thousands took to the streets to clean the streets and attempt to stop further riots. There were no demonstrations to support the election results in Belarus nor anybody other than security services tried to prevent the protests. In some Arab countries, the rulers were successful in taking their supporters to the streets but many of those actions were staged by the authorities.

In London, police is careful (sometimes too careful) to obey the laws and hesitate to deploy additional anti-riot equipment such as water cannons or rubber bullets. In Belarus, security services have a carte blanche and are certain that they will remain unpunished. They do not hesitate to use excessive force even against peaceful protestors for merely gathering in a public place.

Current regulations in Belarus make it nearly impossible to organize authorized protests in Belarus. The rules may become even harsher soon. According to draft legislative amendments recently introduced by the Council of Ministers, any mass presence of citizens in a public place, organized for the purpose of “action or inaction” to publicly express social or political views or protests would require official authorization.

International organizations such as the OSCE and Amnesty International have already expressed their concern about the proposed amendments. But their arguments are unlikely to persuade Belarusian authorities who are seriously worried about future unrest as the economic crises in the country deepens.

However, the Belarusian authorities need no new amendments to do what they want even now.  This summer plain clothed men arrested thousands in Belarus on suspicion in participation in the "social networks revolution".  Even the official General Prosecutor's office called to stop relying on plained clothed agents and vehicles without license plates to beat and detain people. The security services paid no attention to these calls.

In a country where legislation serves only the interests of the ruling group, the notion of the rule of law is very different from that in a democracy. The recent detention of a prominent human rights activist on tax evasion charges in Belarus is another recent example of that.

Using law as an instrument of repression is a traditional tactic of all authoritarian regimes and Belarus is no exception. Activities which are illegal in Belarus or other authoritarian states today may be glorified in history books tomorrow.  The London rioters will end up in history books much sooner. And certainly for very inglorious reasons.

YK

Yarik Kryvoi is the editor-in-chief of Belarus Digest and the founder of the Ostrogorski Centre.

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