Anti-government protests that broke out in several Belarusian cities in the past few weeks now seem to be losing momentum. They have not seriously damaged the country’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko domestically, nor have they had a major impact on his foreign policy course, which aims to improve relations with the European Union in order to obtain additional leverage in the ongoing Belarus-Russia dispute.
On March 15, up to 2,000 people took to the streets of Minsk (population of around 2mn), and some 800 people turned out in the regional centres Grodno and Mogilev.
Observers and journalists believe that the protests have become less crowded, with a significant role in this diminishment being played by traditional lack of popularity of the Belarusian opposition in society, as well as recent detentions and arrests of participants by the law enforcement agencies.
Dozens of protesters were detained in the course of the latest rallies. In particular, 27 people were arrested following this week’s protest in Minsk. All but one were given jail terms of 12 to 15 days, BelaPAN news agency reported on March 16.
A new wave of repressions against the opposition was initiated by Lukashenko, who instructed national law enforcement agencies on March 9 to introduce “perfect order in the country” during anti-government rallies, taking case-by-case measures against protest leaders and the most active participants.
The president urged the imposition of tough measures against “Maidan fanatics”, who went to Ukraine “to look for the organisers [of anti-government rallies] there”, he told a government meeting on March 9. “Some 300 to 400 people led by our Maidan fanatics ... will try to instigate aggression. They will find 10 to 20 professionals like those who opened fire in Kyiv [in February 2014]. This will lead to bloodshed and disaster. Therefore, we must do our best to prevent it,” Lukashenko said.
However, under the pressure of the protests, Lukashenko instructed his government to suspend collection of the tax during 2017. “Those who already paid the tax in 2016 will not have to pay it in 2017 if they still out of work. If they find a job then the money will be reimbursed on request,” he told his ministers.
What sparked the protests?
Protests against the BYN360 (€180) payment to the state budget for people, who failed to pay taxes to the government in 2015 but resided longer that 183 days in the country that year, started in Belarus a month ago. However, the demands of protesters, headed by opposition activists, grew to include broader anti-government slogans, including calls for free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections.
According to official data, 51,600 people had paid the tax by the deadline, February 20, their payments totalling BYN15.6mn. About 470,000 people had been ordered to pay the tax for the year 2015 by the Belarusian tax authorities.
The law exempts registered job-seekers, homemakers, subsistence farmers, and those working abroad more than 183 days during the year. Unregistered unemployed persons can also avoid the tax if they pay the necessary minimum amount to the state's pension and social security fund.
EU sanction dilemma
Lukashenko’s ‘hybrid’ oppression-with-concession approach towards the protests can be explained by his desire not to compromise Belarus’s minor improvements in relations with the EU over the past year. Good relations with the bloc are crucially important for Minsk, due to its continuing dispute with Russia over oil and gas supplies, border security and the terms of its membership in post-Soviet integration organisations.
The recent events could undermine “the fragile process of normalising of our relations”, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told journalists on March 15. “We understand perfectly well that there are certain values in the EU that the organisation's member states adhere to,” Makei said. “And we understand perfectly well that these values are of great importance to the EU.”
However, at the moment the EU seems not to be ready to take a tough stance towards Minsk, both due to the ineffectiveness of sanctions in recent years and the changed geopolitical situation in the region. Since the Russian military aggression against neighbouring Ukraine, Brussels has tried to leave open a window for dialogue and cooperation with Minsk, with the aim of preventing Belarus from ultimately falling under the Kremlin’s control.
On March 13, Maja Kocijancic, a spokesperson for the European External Action Service, called for the immediate release of the detained protesters, adding that the EU is committed to “a stable, democratic and prosperous future for Belarus, for the benefit of its people, and will continue its work with this objective firmly in mind”.
Some leaders of the Belarusian opposition, such as former political prisoner Nikolai Statkevich, have responded to the EU’s moderate reactions by calling for the re-imposition of sanctions against Belarus until the regime stops persecuting political and civil society activists and journalists.
However, other opposition leaders argue that the EU sanctions will only worsen the human rights situation in the country and negatively affect the country’s economy.