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Do mass protests have any prospect in Belarus?

After this spring’s mass protests, which resulted in forceful reactions from the authorities, criminal cases, and detainments, protest activity in Belarus has died down. At present, anti-government protests gather few supporters. At the same time, opposition politicians and their...

Mikalaj Statkievič on 21 October 2017. Source: nn.by

After this spring’s mass protests, which resulted in forceful reactions from the authorities, criminal cases, and detainments, protest activity in Belarus has died down. At present, anti-government protests gather few supporters. At the same time, opposition politicians and their organizations are unable to capture the attention of the media and society.

The opposition mainly concentrates its activities in Minsk. The Belarusian provinces appear largely forgotten. The result is low levels of trust and support for opposition parties and movements among many Belarusians. Still, some actors in the Belarusian political field attempt to organize mass protests. Indeed, these actors appear to demonstrate ambitions to take over this sphere of social life and even brand it their own.

Radical agenda becomes repulsive

Ex-presidential candidate and former political prisoner Mikalaj Statkievič, after the hardcore suppression of protests on March 25 this year, promised to organize new and even larger demonstrations. He predicted the growth of discontent in society by the autumn, so decided to organize the second “Angry Belarusians’ March” in October. The first march in February 2017 gathered around 3,000 people in Minsk.

Unfortunately for Mr. Statkievič, his recent efforts have failed to attract many participants or any serious media attention. On 21 October, only about 200 people attended the event called “Angry Belarusians’ March,” which lasted less than an hour and failed to gather much attention from media and society. Seven days later, Statkievič helped organise another street demonstration near the KGB (the national security agency) headquarters, which brought out fewer than 30 participants.

“Angry Belarusians’ March” in February 2017. Source: nn.by

Several reasons explain the small scale of these October protests. Firstly, protest sentiments in society have ebbed. This is also due to the partial stabilisation of the economy. In addition, the authorities suspended the highly unpopular Decree No. 3 (commonly known as the “anti-parasite decree”) and announced other steps for liberalization of the economy.

It should also be noted that Statkievič has confined his mobilization campaign only to Minsk. For some reason, the provinces, where the economic and social situation is much worse than in the capital, have been left out. It would appear the provinces have a much greater protest potential than Minsk. The experience of spring events confirms this statement.

Secondly, the fear of a violent state response still holds a strong influence over Belarusians. After the brutality Belarusian law enforcement agencies showed at this spring’s protests, as well as the criminal cases against activists and independent trade unions, people are less eager to take part in protests.

Indeed, the demonstrations that took place on 21 October were also characterized by preventive detentions of opposition activists. At the same time, the loss of a job after participating in protests is a common story in Belarus. Taking into consideration growing unemployment—despite a stabilising economy—the prospects a not too attractive for anybody.

Thirdly, the only organisers of this October’s street protests were Mikalaj Statkievič and his Belarusian National Congress. Other political organizations did not lend their support. Certain opposition groups have recently switched to promoting an “evolutionary way” and consider dialogue with the authorities possible, at least on some topics. Meanwhile, Statkievič remains more of a hardcore revolutionary.

Most of the political establishment in Belarus considers Statkievič’s slogans extremely radical. For example, during the march on 21 October 2017, participants raised a banner reading, “Lukașescu – you are a monster! Stop robbing our people!” The slogan compared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka with the Romanian communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. This, along with other provocative slogans, appeared to do more to repulse rather than attract support. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a situation where many organisations, such as Tell The truth! with their main credo “For peaceful changes,” will support Statkievič’s radical statements.

So far, people react most to campaigns dedicated to local problems or concrete pressing issues, rather than global ones. For example, the rise of prices for communal public services, gas, public transport tickets, and the elimination of “green spaces” in cities, etc… In times of economic downfall and a constatnt decrease of living standards, social slogans, and not political ones, are what really bring people together.

Why so unpopular?

The above-given points characterize Belarusian protests as a whole, not only those organized by the Belarusian National Congress. At the same time, it is necessary to pay attention to the overall state of protest sentiments in the society as well as to the factors influencing them.

First, one should take into consideration the lack of media exposure given to the Belarusian opposition. In fact, there are no political media in Belarus, which can transmit the messages of this or that political power. The coverage of political events can openly be called miserable. Opposition political activists inconsistently receive media attention, and sporadically appear on-air only during major occasions.

The banner comparing Lukashenka to Ceaușescu. Source: nn.by

But the opposition politicians also suffer from a common problem: they try to reach their audiences only on major occasions, too. Sometimes, it seems that the political powers only come in the lead-up to some big event (a national holiday) or to some egregious failure of government.

In the meantime, people become unaware of the opposition activities if politicians do not stay in touch with them. In turn, the political powers lack feedback from the people and sometimes are ignorant of real problems and concerns within society.

Here, one should pay attention to the way protest organizers promote their events. Usually, their outreach efforts are limited to rallying cries on social networks and rare diatribes in the media. For the first time in recent years, Minsk residents saw leaflets and stickers all over the city calling people to join protests—coverage seemed quite large-scale, at least in the capital. Such a grass-roots approach is important for enlisting the older population, who are not active internet users and tend to consume media 100 per cent under state control.

The spring events once again demonstrated the protest potential of the Belarusian provinces. Unfortunately, the political opposition still focus more on the capital. The economic situation in these regions is much worse than in Minsk. This would logically make Belarusians in the provinces more willing protesters. Moreover, the provinces experience an extreme lack of media attention, too. This is why anyone who brings attention to provincial problems becomes labelled a local hero. Any wide, national protest movement needs to be in touch with all the Belarusian regions, not only with Minsk.

Branding protests – Statkievič ™

The largely negative, radical protest agendas are deficient in ideas for how to change the country for the better. Audiences have grown tired of them and have started to lose interest, which plays a big role in the small scale turn-outs at mass protests.

The second “Angry Belarusians’ March”. Source: nn.by

Still, the authorities consider the protests a serious threat. At times, state propaganda has claimed Statkievič was the leader of all “radicals” and street protests actions in the whole country.

Preemptive detentions before 21 October demonstrations, as well as attempts to disrupt the march by blasting loud Soviet music over Independence Square (where the marchers planned to gather) confirm this opinion. Finally, Statkievič himself was detained on 30 October 2017.

The number of protesters out on 21 October is not so important—what holds greater impact is the manner of the protests themselves, and the substance of the anti-government statements. Statkievič’s long-term goal appears to be to become the undisputed leader for any protest event of any scale in the country.

Street protests will be in demand in any state with any political system. At the moment, demand for radical slogans and street protests appears to be low among Belarusians. But as one can see, the situation in Belarus can change quite quickly, and in the event of a systemic crisis in the country, protest sentiments can grow and result in truly unpredictable consequences.

Dzmitry Mitskevich
Dzmitry Mitskevich
Dzmitry Mitskevich is an analyst at Belarus Security Blog and editor-in-chief of 'Varta' magazine.
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