It has been almost a month since public demonstrations began in Belarus. In an unusual scene for the country, a dozen participating towns have hosted thousands of protestors. Belarusians largely perceive themselves as tolerant and passive. However, the wave of public upheavals currently rolling across the country has dispelled that stereotype and looks to have some unexpected effects. There are seven lessons to take away from this evolving situation.
1. A tax on the unemployed triggered demonstrations.
In April 2015, a new presidential decree on preventing social dependency in Belarus foresaw a tax on staying jobless for more than six months. An equivalent of $240 was to be paid yearly in return for access to such amenities as public health care and education. Labelled as a parasite law, the aim of this decree was to tax those hiding their wages, but instead it stirred the society at large and provoked public protests across the country, starting around its first deadline in mid-February 2017.
2. Protests were sparked by the dire economic situation.
In January 2017, President Alexander Lukashenko amended the decree, shifting the responsibility to local authorities and enabling them to make exemptions for groups or individuals. But protests continued. In March, in an attempt to save face, Lukashenko froze the law for one year and threatened the organizers with consequences. This step, however, did not influence much. People in regional towns marched against their impoverishment and demanded the president’s resignation.
Lukashenko's rule since 1994 has been sustained through a perceived social contract that guaranteed an economic minimum (the vernacular shot and a pork rind, Bel. чарка і шкварка), peace and stability in return for loyalty to the president and his system. So long as people can make ends meet economically, they would not take to streets. Moreover, how can you make demands when there are no instruments to influence the decision-makers? The only decisive argument is a protest.
3. Public frustration reflects the true depth of the economic abyss.
Protesters are very angry and do not shy away from independent media when talking about their attempts to make ends meet and demanding Lukashenko’s resignation. While the country faces its first serious recession since the mid-1990s, the Belarusian government has continuously failed to recognize the current economic crisis or the necessity of structural reforms. Meanwhile, incomes fall, wages are cut, and the middle class becomes poorer.
At the same time, demonstrations have been unheard of since the summer of 2011 when, after devaluation of the national currency to 56 percent and other dramas of domestic economy, Belarusians took to the streets for several consecutive Wednesdays. Because demonstrations must be authorized, people gathered without any slogans and simply clapped their hands. These so-called silent protests came to a close as plain-clothed policemen violently arrested hundreds of clapping participants. The economic situation later improved.
Ironically, Lukashenko believes that the people are not ready for the changes and reforms they demand today — but he is. However, comprehensive reforms are very unlikely as they would mean that the regime would lose control over the country. Thus, the regime will most likely target the protesters than heal its wounds.
4. Protests take place against the background of a relaxed political atmosphere, but the screws are already being tightened to stifle upheaval.
Belarus saw a cycle of repression and loosened its reins due to multiple attempts by the government to abstain from violence against its opponents in return for enhanced cooperation with the West in order to balance its political and economic dependence on Russia. The previous liberalization period of 2008-2010 ended with demonstrations and their brutal dispersal. After the release of political prisoners and peaceful re-election of Lukashenko in 2015, Brussels made another attempt to normalize relations with Minsk and abolished almost all sanctions that were in place since 2004. Since then, dissidents have only been subject to fines, not arrests.
This thaw has now ended with almost five dozen civic activists and opposition leaders being arrested during the protests and then tried, even journalists have been briefly detained — as many during these weeks as during last year all together. March has several traditional street actions, but with jailed leaders excluded and rising fear of being arrested, it is very possible that these mostly non-political protests will subside and stop.
5. The absence of opposition is part of the success of the demonstrations, but opposition is gaining momentum.
Aversion to any political activism is not at all surprising in a country where during the electoral campaign in 2006 joining a peaceful demonstration was considered an act of terrorism. It is no wonder that political opposition has maintained its existence underground for more than a decade and is now almost extinct. Initiatives and nongovernmental organizations have limited access to the general public and public spaces. In an unprecedented move in 2016, two female activists associated with the opposition were basically appointed into the parliament that used to be politically sterile.
Thus, the silent protests in 2011 drew masses as people came together not under the flags of political opponents, but clapped in unison regardless of being for controlled or market economy, Lukashenko or opposition. Similarly, the current demonstrations unite people with different experience without the need to agree on a political agenda. At the same time, street actions would need leaders to bear fruit. Protesters have already been protective of those who risk being arrested and rely on naturally civic or political activists who are more experienced.
6. There have been no signs that Moscow meddles in this public outcry.
While Belarusian state-controlled media blames Russia for interfering with internal affairs and disturbing the stability of Belarus, there have been no pro-Kremlin slogans and no activists promoting the Russian agenda. At the same time, Moscow, the closest political ally and economic partner, has turned into its biggest threat economically, politically, and militarily. But it is good news to see that Russia does not have a plan or the capacity for a Ukraine scenario in Belarus.
7. The explosive atmosphere has demonstrated that Belarusians know what is actually happening, and this gives hope.
Angry protestors are now speaking openly to independent journalists who cover the demonstrations — an act once unheard of by Belarusians — as they know that state media allows little room for deviant views. People are protesting in the streets now, not waiting for an election that they believe will be manipulated. They are calling for Lukashenko’s resignation because he himself insists on having full control over the country, and is the author of the economic system in which Belarus relies on cheap gas and subsidies from Russia.
Belarusians might not take to the streets to protect rule of law, but they are prepared to protest against the manifold rules of the regime. And that is definitely a step to reload the situation in Belarus.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.