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'.
Moscow erects border with Belarus, undermines its links with Ukraine and the Baltics
On 16 February, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin's press secretary, announced that the Kremlin does not plan to introduce a visa regime with Belarus. His statement comes in a context of increasingly harsh measures on behalf of Moscow towards Belarus over the past half year, beginning when Russia decided to partially reinstate its border with Belarus, which had been abolished in 1995.
The Kremlin is also working to undermine economic ties between Belarus and its other neighbours, paying special attention to the energy and transportation sectors. Results have been tangible: Belarus has already decided to stop importing Ukrainian electricity. Moscow is also doing whatever it can to convince Minsk to use Russian ports rather than ones in the Baltic countries.
Russia accuses the West and its allies in the region of undermining links between Eastern European countries. However, its own policies pursue exactly the same aim. Minsk must fight hard to resist these efforts by the Kremlin.
Not a Joke: Russia Worries that ISIS could infiltrate Belarus
According to a version of the story widely circulated in the Russian media, probably also supported by the Kremlin, Moscow had to partially restore its border because of Minsk's negligent policies. First, for years Minsk has been re-importing sanctioned commodities from the European Union. Secondly, the absence of border control between Belarus and Russia has allowed persons unwanted by Russia to enter its territory via Belarus. Thirdly, President Lukashenka's introduction of a five-day visa-free regime on 9 January for nationals of 80 countries has critically compromised Russian security.
Only the first of these claims can be seen as legitimate, albeit with serious reservations. The rest are highly dubious. After all, any real border control between Belarus and Russia disappeared in 1995; unwanted people have been able to enter Russia through Belarus for years. Even though the Russian government has not reported any gross violations or crimes since, this has all of a sudden become a problem.
Explanations from Russian officials regarding why Moscow suddenly decided to partially close the border seem ridiculous. On 10 February, Russian ambassador to Minsk Aleksandr Surikov stated to TASS news agency that Moscow is establishing border control zones along the border with Belarus to prevent extremists from Syria, specifically ISIS terrorists, from entering Russia through Belarus.
Belarus-Russia border checks: Who started it all?
The timing of the decisions taken by Minsk and Moscow further undermines Russian claims that it is merely responding to moves by the Belarusian government. Last autumn, Russia – apparently without prior notice – shut down its border with Belarus for third-country nationals. This seriously hurt Belarus, which is striving to become a major transit hub.
Next, towards the end of December, the director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksandr Bortnikov, signed orders establishing a border control zone in Russian regions adjoining Belarus. The orders remained secret until 1 February, creating an impression that he was responding to Lukashenka's decision to liberalise the visa regime. In reality, the opposite could have been the case: Lukashenka could have made his decision after learning about the FSB move.
This seems more logical. Minsk had been reluctant to liberalise its visa regime for years – most probably because it worried about Moscow's possible response. However, following the FSB's decision, the Belarusian leadership realised that it had nothing more to loose.
the reputable sociological institute VTsIOM has shown that 78 per cent of Russians are in favour of introducing visas for Belarusians Read more
Both the closing of the border for third-country nationals and the establishment of border-control zones coincides with increasingly negative media coverage of Belarus in Russian. The latter factor leads to more Russians supporting the former. Last week, the Russian mainstream media gave much airtime to the results of an opinion survey conducted by the reputable sociological institute VTsIOM, which showed that 78 per cent of Russians favoured introducing visas for Belarusians.
Moscow seeks to redirect energy and transportation flows
Russian government officials and political commentators have criticised the EU and former Eastern-bloc countries for destroying decade – even century-old links – in the region, as Eastern European countries integrate with the EU. Although this criticism sometimes rests on facts, the Kremlin's behaviour makes such complaints seem hypocritical.
On 8 February, Belarusian Deputy Energy Minister Vadzim Zakreuski announced that Belarus agreed to purchase more Russian electricity. At the same time, despite available opportunities to buy electricity from Ukraine, Minsk failed to reach an agreement with Kyiv on prices.
Belarusian purchases of Ukrainian electricity had been falling since 2014, due both to the unreliability of the Ukrainian energy sector and Russia offering lower prices. Thus, in 2015 the Russian energy giant Inter RAO doubled its annual deliveries to Belarus from 1.4m MWh to 2.8 MWh. This was mostly connected by reducing purchases from Ukraine.
Russia resorts to similar, seemingly economic mechanisms to redirect Belarusian export and import flows to its own ports in Leningrad Province. Since 2006, Moscow has urged Minsk to stop using Lithuanian and Latvian ports and switch to more distant Russian alternatives.
Minsk realises the dangers of Moscow monopolising its connections with the outside world and has so far resisted such proposals. Yet the Kremlin continues in its efforts to deprive the Baltic states of transit revenue. Last October, the Russian Railways granted Belarus a 25 per cent 'unprecedented discount' to redirect its oil-product exports away from the Baltic states to Russian ports.
Commenting on this proposal, the Moscow-based Kommersant daily conceded that the move could be political. It implied that the offer emerged after plans to suppress transit through the Baltic states had been discussed by special representative and confidante to the Russian president Sergei Ivanov. At a conference he held in September, various Russian firms and government agencies reportedly discussed how to convince Belarus to commit itself to using Russian ports.
Yet Putin's attempts to drive a wedge between Belarus and its neighbours have produced scanty results. A case in point are Moscow's efforts to take over Belarusian export flows – Minsk has resisted them since 2006.
On 24 January, Sputnik-Belarus, a media source associated with the Russian government, commented that: 'A discount was given to Belarus [to facilitate its export through Russian ports] yet to no avail.' Minsk's actual investments and plans clearly demonstrate its willingness to keep working with the Baltics. For instance, Belarusian Potash Company has been buying up shares in Klaipeda port facilities since 2013. Moreover, Minsk would probably use Latvian ports if it wanted to bring Iranian oil to Belarus.
In other words, the Kremlin only has limited leverage with Minsk, despite the Russian leadership's interest in convincing Belarus to use Russian ports. After all, the ports in question are reportedly owned by personal friends of Vladimir Putin.
Minsk is aware of the risks of decreasing diversification in its links with the external world. Even the decision to stop purchasing Ukrainian electricity may have more to do with instability in Ukraine than willingness to obey Moscow. The Belarusian government adamantly refuses to side with any party in ongoing regional conflicts. The situation with the Russian border shows the price Minsk must pay for this position.
The Kremlin actively contributes to undermining the legacy of Soviet and pre-Soviet integration between Belarus and its neighbours, including Russia itself. The collapse of links between states in the region increases the risk of instability and conflict and guarantees the deterioration of living standards.