Belarusian Freedom Day 2019: are the authorities warming to the idea?
On 23 March Hrodna, the Western city in Belarus, hosted Freedom Day celebrations. The occasion attracted up to 5,000 people. Although the authorities officially allowed the celebration of the alternative independence day for a second year, it is still too early to hope that this represents liberalisation in the country.
Permission for the celebration in Hrodna and the absence of mass repression have contributed to an image of democratisation, but the authorities also detained several activists.
Independence Day in Belarus: from crackdowns to concerts
Despite its short history, the Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR) that emerged on 25 March 1918 has become a symbol of the Belarusian opposition‘s struggle for independence and democracy.
For a long time, the authorities either resorted to repressions against those who publically celebrated it or allowed its celebration only in remote areas of Minsk. In 2018, on the eve of the 100-year anniversary of the BNR, the opposition obtained permission for the first time to hold a ceremony and a concert near the central Opera House.
Remarkably, civic activists – not politicians – took on the leading role in organising the event. Instead of political slogans, the organisers emphasised the celebration of the 100th anniversary in a format intended to appeal to ordinary citizens; they gathered almost 11,000 people.
Since last year, the Belarusian state-run media has gradually changed its rhetoric concerning Freedom Day. Until 2018, they called the BNR a puppet-state created with the support of the occupying German forces. Today they more often portray Freedom Day as a stage in the formation of Belarus’s statehood or give only minor critical comments. For example, On 25 March 2019, the main state-run outlet SB-Belarus Today wrote that Freedom Day should be celebrated by everyone, but that the musical artists in the programme were not interesting enough.
Hrodna as epicentre: forced decentralisation of Freedom Day
The same team of organisers as last year, primarily consisting of civic activists and inspired by the success of Freedom Day 2018, submitted an application to celebrate Freedom Day in the city centre. Authorities refused this request, however they suggested holding the celebration at Kiev Square, located further away from the city centre.
Considering the liberalisation of official Minsk’s rhetoric on the Belarusian national idea, this response unexpectedly disappointed the Freedom Day organisers, especially after the events allowed in 2018. In September last year the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dapkiunas Andrei, said that the BNR is part of Belarusian history and that Belarusians should not ignore it, according to Radio Liberty.
In a similar vein, the newly adopted document on national informational security views the preservation of the Belarusian language and history as a ‘security factor’. However, during a press conference at the beginning of March, Alexander Lukashenka publicly said that he saw no need for a mass and solemn celebration of the 101st anniversary of the BNR.
The authorities’ refusal to allow Freedom Day celebrations in the centre of Minsk divided the Belarusian opposition into two blocs: political parties celebrating in Minsk on 24th March and civic activists marking the event in Hrodna a day earlier. This year the Hrodna authorities, known for their cruel treatment of activists, allowed the celebrations in the same place and hoped that the celebrations would not be large. Around 5,000 people gathered in the city’s central park for celebrations on 23 March and formed the biggest ever crowd for Freedom Day in Hrodna, almost twice as large as the assembly on 24 March in Minsk.
Although Freedom Day was conducted without large scale repression, the compromise steps that civic activists had to take have a rather weak relation to political manifestation that the Freedom Day used to have before 2018. In that way, the “something’s better than nothing” approach led to a Freedom Day fully regulated and controlled by the regime. Such a model can unlikely indicate any real freedom of the part of those that want to celebrate the 101 years of the BNR’s proclamation.
Litmus paper for the West and East
The Belarusian authorities used its permission to carry out Freedom Day 2018 in Minsk as evidence of the democratisation of the country when negotiating with the West. At the same time, louder signals about the need for “better integration” come from Moscow, including the possibility of unification into a single state. In this situation, the tolerance of mass celebration of Freedom Day could be seen by Moscow as a demonstration of the Belarusian authorities to strengthen sovereignty. In the context of almost total economic dependence on Russia, the authorities considered it dangerous allowing the celebration of Freedom Day in Minsk.
On 24 March, the Russian nationalist media outlet Regnum, two authors from which were sentenced in Belarus last year, published an article criticising Lukashenka and highlighting the “failure of Belarusian nationalism”. The rest of the Russian media paid almost no attention to Freedom Day this year, which could indicate that the celebration will not cause any serious changes in Belarus-Russia relations.
In its turn, the West, through the US State Department’s representative, said in an interview to TUT.by on 6 March that the approval of the 25 March celebration will demonstrate the continuation of the movement towards democracy in Belarus. Ignoring this promise in the current geopolitical realities, too, can become dangerous and, therefore, the authorities allowed the celebration in the periphery.
In Hrodna, Freedom Day 2019 took place peacefully and ended without arrests of activists. In contrast to previous years, the celebration of Freedom Day in 2019 has resulted only in a few detentions: of the oppositional activist Zmitser Dashkevich (the court hearings happens on 25 March), Vital Rymasheuski, and several other people including a musician Liavon Volski. This contrasts with around 50 detentions last year.
The authorities’ response to the Freedom Day celebration showed that official Minsk, on the one hand, has allowed a limited expansion of the space for freedom of expression in the country. On the other hand, the authorities want to demonstrate their readiness to use force if any signs of a political protest appear. It seems that the Belarusian authorities tried not to disappoint Moscow while preventing civil society and opposition forces from feeling that they can change the country.