Public Protests in Belarus: The Opposition is Changing Tactics
While in Ukraine large scale political demonstrations are just a regular instrument used to influence the authorities, democratic activists in Belarus are prosecuted for nearly any kind of public political action. Trying to adapt to the current conditions, the opposition is changing its protest tactics.
Evidence of these new tactics has been described in a new analytical paper “Protest activity in Belarus in 2013: manifestations, political performance and social conflicts." The Institute of Political Science “Political Sphere” published this report at the end of February. The report shows that individual picketing and flash mobs have become the most common forms of political protest in Belarus.
Political protests have been seriously affected by open repression of democratic activists, a process which has steadily intensified after the political activism of 2010-2011. Most political protests end with arrests and fines, regardless if they are officially sanctioned or not.
Meanwhile, the participants in social protests rarely face any reprisals. Moreover, entrepreneur strikes, as well as housing and labour conflicts very often conclude with positive outcomes for the protesters.
Out of 64 political protests that have occurred, only 24 have successfully been carried out without the Belarusian authorities going after protesters.
To penalise activists, the police typically employ arrests and fines as their primary means of dealing with protesters, though they have also been known to turn to violence and beating activists to disperse them.
The police have not shied away from using repressive measures at sanctioned demonstrations such as Chernobyl Way or Freedom Day – the anniversary of Belarusian National Republic establishment.
political organisations have switched to organising political performances and individual pickets Read more
To minimise the likelihood of repressive measures being used against them, political organisations have abandoned traditional forms of protest and more often than not organise political performances and individual pickets. These tactics help them to achieve the primary goal of having a protest – to attract the attention of media and the wider world. At the same time, it is a rather pragmatic approach, as it results in fewer activists facing the risk of being arrested.
The Belarusian Christian Democrats and Belarusian National Front parties have been the most active in organising protests. It should not, then, be surprising that most of political protests in the country have been tied to historical issues – the proclamation of Belarusian independence, Stalinist repression, the anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy etc. While these issues remain prominent, another reason for protest has also been popular – solidarity rallies with political prisoners.
Most protests in Belarus have taken place in the capital, Minsk. The Institute of Political Science “Political Sphere” report, through monitoring political protests, has revealed a very small number of political protests in other large Belarusian cities. In Hrodna – a sizeable city near the border of Poland, protests have not occurred at all in recent years.
The report documented 39 instances of social protests. Mainly these protests come as reaction to housing policy conflicts, or labour and entrepreneur-led strikes. Assemblies, walkouts, hunger strikes, and the collection of signatures were reported to be the most widespread forms of social protest utilised.
Unlike political activists, participants in social protests very seldom faced any kind of repression. In their report, the Institute of Political Science “Political Sphere” took note of only a few episodes where protesters were suppressed. Moreover, more than half of social protests that were carried out can be viewed as successful insofar as they achieved some or, occasionally, all of their goals.
Protestors have often been successful in getting their demands met: from enterprises have been able to eliminate wage arrears to entrepreneurs have managed to achieve postponing of the introduction of new trade regulations that would effect their operating costs.
Unlike political actions, social protests have not exclusively taken place in Minsk, but in different regions throughout the country. Minsk has led social protests in one area, however. It leads the nation in the number of housing issues that citizens have had with the authorities. All other forms of conflict that have led to protests have unfolded mostly outside of the capital.
Protesters often prefer not to attract journalists or media to their demonstrations, since they feel it can only end up being a source of interference and not allow them to achieve their goals.
In contrast to typical labourers, small business owners willingly communicate with the media and are interested in articulating their interests publicly. At this point in time small entrepreneurs represent the most highly organised group in Belarus that is able to carry out a strike and protect their own interests.
Just two protest demonstrations with over 500 participants took place in 2013 in Belarus. This figure is significantly lower than in Ukraine where in 2012 a documented 131 demonstrations occurred with 1,000 or more participants attending each.
Just two protest demonstrations with over 500 participants took place in 2013 in Belarus. Read more
The largest political protests in Belarus occur during presidential elections. Even taking into account the fact that there were no elections in 2013, a total of only two large scale demonstrations is a significantly small number. Between the 2006 and 2010 election campaigns, 6 to 8 large scale demonstrations were taking place every year.
Political repression, it would appear, is the culprit in the diminishing level of political protests in Belarus. Clearly, in the intervening years the level of repression used against democratic activists grown and its nature has become more intense.
After the demonstrations that occurred between 2010 and 2011 the authorities took a hard line against demonstrations and any form of protest. For that reason small pickets have become a substitute for large demonstratoins. This phenomenon has led Tatiana Chyzhova to call 2013 the year of individual protests.
In most cases individual protesters hold membership in a political party or an NGO, and frequently their protests are planned in advance. Using the tactics of individual picketing, the protest actions of political organisations will maintain their current strategy in the lead up to the presidential election campaign of 2015, when it should be expected that an increase in protest activity will occur.
The growth of grassroots initiatives against construction projects in Minsk was also a notable trend in 2013. Most likely the number of protests related to housing will not see a noticeable decrease in 2014. Housing and retail space construction in Minsk continues to be carrying on at an intense pace.
Labour strikes have seen an increase following the country's steady economic deterioration, beginning back in 2011. Due to Belarus' poor economy, it is quite likely that the number of conflicts related to labour disputes will keep growing.
A contentious issue, however, is buzzing in the air: will the revolution in Ukraine influence potential protests in Belarus? Confidently, it can be predicted that the reaction of the Belarusian authorities to any protests will be unforgiving.
Tatiana Czyzhova admits that it is very likely that over the next few years the level of repression against participants in political protests will intensify. According to her, any kind of political protests on the streets of Belarusian cities may soon become completely prohibited.
Ukrainian Conflict in Belarusian State Media – Belarus State TV Digest
The Belarus state media widely covered the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine. Some of those featured by Belarusian state TV argued that external forces, including the EU and USA, provoked and financially aided the protesters to overthrow the government in Ukraine.
Others believe that the Ukrainian authorities were completely detached from the people so the Ukrainian events were not surprising.
At the same time, a visit by Uladzimir Makei to the Baltic States drew the attention of the media. Journalists pointed out that Belarus' relationship with Vilnius and Riga remain positive. The officials also discussed improving Minsk-Brussels relations.
Catastrophic situation in Ukraine. According to unnamed experts quoted by Belarusian television, the chances for a civilised settlement of the conflict essentially zero. The Ukrainians are clearing the shelves of products in stores because they are increasingly worried about the developing situation in the country.
Long queues to ATMs prove that they also fear losing their savings, while international banks are closing their branch headquarters in Kiev. “Nobody knows what will happen in the country tomorrow,” one journalist noted. Fires, pogroms and chaos remain Ukraine's present reality. “The most horrible event is the death of dozens of people. This is already a national catastrophe,” state TV journalist concluded.
The high price of the present political crisis. A state TV reporter commented on impeachment of the president Victor Yanukovych, while new elections look like they will cost Ukraine US$2bn. However, the country can receive financial aid from abroad, an amount estimated to be around $35bn for both this year and the year ahead, she continued.
The new Ukrainian authorities have already requested financial aid from their international partners, including Poland and the USA. “It has already been proposed that an international donors’ conference should be organised with the EU countries, USA, representatives of the International Monetary Fund and other international institutions,” the journalist added.
Yanukovych met with representatives of media in Rostov-on-Don. He stated that was still the official head of Ukraine. Yanukovych also apologised that he was not able to prevent bloodshed. “Experts say that Ukraine is on the brink of economic collapse,” the news reports. According to the National Bank and Ministry of Finance, the treasury has been looted and is barren, she continued.
To save the economy, the new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk does not exclude the possibility of increasing the price of gas, as well as cutting subsidies and social programmes throughout Ukraine The reporter also noted the outbreak of protests in Crimea, with its participants do not recognise the new Ukrainian leadership. The Council of Crimea has elected a new Prime Minister for the autonomous republic, Sergei Aksyonov.
Moscow decides to intervene with its military in Crimea. The Council of the Russian Federation supported Putin’s proposal for the use of the armed forces on the territory of Crimea. Earlier, the chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, requested Putin to help secure peace in the region, the journalist reports.
ONT TV talk shows on Ukraine. Recently the state TV talk show Pazicija covered the conflict in Ukraine twice. The host of the show, Vadzim Hihin invited a few guest speakers, among them representatives from the minority Ukrainian and Russian communities in Belarus.
The first show was called “Ukraine: Between Peace and War” introduced the situation in Ukraine to the audience with some brief reportage done by by Tengiz Dumbadze, an ONT reporter. At the very beginning he explained that he aimed to present an objective version of events, and thus visited both Eastern and Western regions.
People in the East are less aggressive than in the West of Ukraine. Dumbadze noted that 70-80% of the protesters in Kiev came from western Ukraine. In his opinion the Donetsk region has always been the most hard-working and stable, and even today there is relative stability. In the eastern region of the country, people work hard, mine coal and earn money for the good of the country. “A fact is a fact. Here people talk less about politics, and instead just work,” he commented.
The reporter presented the opinions of the students from the east who argued for a peaceful settlement of the crisis and compromise between all parties. Later on, the ONT journalist visited Lviv where he talked to some old men who criticised Yanukovych and his entourage with sharp words.
The correspondent commented that Ukraine's politicians failed to learn anything from the previous revolution and again created problems and suffering for ordinary people, and they should rather think now how to prevent any further escalation of the conflict.
The Ukrainians envy Belarusians' political leadership. The ONT correspondent talked to some random people in Eastern Ukraine and some of them praised Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenka. “A leader like in your country is needed here,” an older man stated. According to the journalist, politicians have divided people into two camps and the nation has become the hostage of its politicians.
On another occasion, the talk show Pazicija again focused on the Ukrainian conflict. The programme was entitled, "The Ukrainian Tragedy" and was hosted Maira Mora, the Head of the EU delegation to Belarus, Yauheni Preiherman from the Liberal Club and several government-friendly analysts and activists.
Why the EU wanted to sign an association agreement with a corrupt Ukraine? One of the commentators noted that there were two nations in Ukraine with completely different mentalities. Another participant argued that the former Ukrainian authorities have parted ways with society. If everything would was going well in the country, nobody would take to the streets to protest.
The moderator asked Moira why the EU wanted to sign an association agreement with a country like Ukraine. The official replied that the EU was a tool for changes, not a goal itself. “It is a tool to obtain the know-how, and it is readily available, free of charge,” she said.
A Communist Party representative ironically commented that a ban of the Communist Party in Ukraine meant the new values have made the country truly democratic, with plenty of freedom and space for diverse opinions. He suggested that the USA and Europe inspired and financed the Ukrainian revolt. In his opinion, the Ukrainians are one with the Russian and Belarusian nations.
Participants pointed out the threat stemming from radical groups in Ukraine. Moira argued that the EU did not financially support any of these groups.
Positive dynamics in EU-Belarus relations. Alexander Lukashenka met with Uladzimir Makei, the head of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss politics.
“There is no point in pursuing some kind of global politics. If we have a place where we have economic interests, regarding the diversification of our exports and external trade, then we have politics there,” Lukashenka stated.
They also discussed the improving relations with the European Union. “No serious breakthrough has been reached. There are real obstacles in our relationship, which cannot be, unfortunately, removed in a day or a month,” Makei said after the meeting.
The State TV journalist commented that Minsk is ready for dialogue both with its European partners and the USA, but “not at the cost of restricting our national interests.”
Makei visits Belarus' good neighbours: Latvia…. The reported goal of the official visit was strengthening bilateral relations with Latvia, but also Minsk's co-operation with the EU. This time, more attention was paid by both sides to Belarus' ties with the EU, the journalist emphasised.
…and Lithuania. Minsk is enjoying rather fruitful co-operation with Vilnius as well. “Exemplary Belarusian-Lithuanian diplomatic relations show that stability is a wonderful foundation for mutually beneficial co-operation,” the journalist concluded.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.