Belarus Protests

Belarus has defended the arrests of hundreds of people who were taking part in rare protests on Saturday.

About 400 people were arrested on Saturday while participating in an unsanctioned protest against the authoritarian government of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has stifled dissent and independent media during his 23 years in power.

More people were arrested on Sunday in further demonstrations in the capital, Minsk, and other cities.

Belarus tolerates little dissent but has recently been seeking to improve ties with the West and reduce its dependency on Russia.

The human rights organization Vesna said about 30 people were arrested on Sunday. They were among about 100 people who tried to assemble on Minsk’s central square.

Before police seized her on Sunday, demonstrator Elena Gonchar said: “Belarus has been turned into a prison. What difference does it make where you sit, in a cell or at home.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is caught in the crossfire of a much larger battle. He’d like closer ties with the European Union (EU) and weaker ones with Russia, but the drift appears to be drawing popular protests driven by growing dissatisfaction with his repressive policies and failed management of the economy.

Lukashenko, whom Condoleezza Rice had once short-sightedly called Europe’s last dictator, has always had more trouble than, say, Ukrainian leaders in trying to play Russia and Europe against each other. His regime was dependent on Russia for cheap natural gas and other indirect subsidies, goodies came at the cost of hewing close to the Kremlin’s course.

But Lukashenko was mostly fine with the arrangement, sharing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic instincts and tendency to see political opposition as enemies to be suppressed. He also knew Belarus’s state-dominated economic model wouldn’t survive broader exposure to Europe.

Then Russia annexed Crimea in March, 2014, which sparked sanctions from the EU and the United States. Lukashenko refused to back Putin’s move, fearing his small country would be next in line. When Moscow tried to punish the EU with counter-sanctions, Belarus was hardly in lockstep, happily serving as a fake country of origin for many European products. Last year, Belarus failed to agree with Russia on the price of gas and paid only half of what the Russian state supplier, Gazprom, demanded, accumulating more than $500 million (Dh1.83 billion) in debt — about six weeks’ economic output.

In January, Lukashenko signed a decree allowing the citizens of 80 countries, including Europeans and US citizens, to enter Belarus without visas for five days. This was an attempt to raise tourist revenue in a shrinking economy, but the Kremlin responded by putting out a terse statement and setting up border checkpoints.

Belarusians have demonstrated since early February against the imposition of a tax equivalent to £200 on Belarusians who have been unemployed for more than six months and who have not sought work at government job centres. The campaign has been run under the slogan, “We are not parasites,” a reference to President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s 2015 introduction of the tax to fight “social parasitism”.

 

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One Response to Belarus Protests

  1. shulquist says:

    Kenneth Yalowitz William Courtney
    March 29, 2017

    For 22 years Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has tacked toward Russia but kept channels open to the West, while maintaining an authoritarian grip on power. Frightened by Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, he assumed the mantle of defender of Belarusian sovereignty. Reverting to form, however, Lukashenka recently unleashed riot police to suppress an upsurge in anti-government protests. Does unrest threaten Lukashenka’s power? Might Russia intervene? And does the West have a role?

    In February, popular discontent broke out when the authorities announced enforcement of a 2015 “law against social parasites.” It levies a tax of $250 yearly on those who work less than 183 days in a year, but do not register with the government labor office. After thousands of people streamed into the streets, the regime retreated. The tax would not be collected for 2016, but would be for 2017.

    Discontent did not subside. More than 300 civil society activists, opposition figures and journalists were arrested before the March 25th anniversary of the founding 99 years ago of the Belarusian People’s Republic, a rallying mark for the opposition. On March 25, several thousand demonstrators braved a ban and conducted a peaceful anti-Lukashenka protest in Minsk. Riot police arrested hundreds and beat many.

    Declining living standards also fuel frustration. Last January former central bank head Stanislau Bagdankevich said Belarus was “witnessing impoverishment of the population, falling income, decreasing wages, inflation.” And the “situation is only getting worse,” with further income declines likely in 2017 and possibly 2018.

    Despite the unrest, for now Lukashenka’s grip on power remains tight. He controls the security forces and is popular in mostly rural Belarus. As well, the opposition is weak and divided, and the business community is not restive.

    Frictions exist between Belarus and Russia, but they are bounded. Lukashenka has long sought close ties with Russia and has been seen by Moscow as an ally, although these days Russian media criticize him.

    The largely unreformed Belarusian economy is buttressed by Russian subsidies, but there are commercial quarrels. Moscow demands that Belarus pay higher prices for fuel. Another spat relates to Belarus’ reexport to Russia of European agricultural products banned there.

    Political and security relationships are also uneasy. Belarus objects to Moscow’s recent erection of border control points, and maintains substantial ties with Ukraine. More serious is Minsk’s rebuff of strong Kremlin pressure to host a new Russian air force base.

    If unrest in Belarus or frictions with Russia were to grow, might Moscow seek to replace Lukashenka? Or intervene militarily?

    Neither is likely. Lukashenka may deflect protests in Belarus by pressuring and wearing down demonstrators and by delaying implementation of the parasite law. He could lose some leverage if Russia, facing its own economic challenges, reduced subsidies for his statist economy. But civil society in Belarus is weak, and risks are low of a large-style political uprising that might stir Moscow to roll tanks.

    Lukashenka never lets confrontation with the Kremlin go too far, and he ensures Belarus’ participation in Moscow`s favored Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union. The Kremlin might not be above intimidating Belarus via the West-2017 Russian-Belarusian military exercise next September, which may be why Lukashenka has said NATO observers can monitor it. A worry for him is that after the exercise, some Russian troops might remain.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys taking bold and unexpected steps, but military intervention in Belarus would be very costly. While Belarus is of high strategic value, Russia is burdened by a sputtering economy, by military preoccupation in Ukraine, Syria, and potentially Libya, and by Western sanctions and isolation. Military interference would also undercut Moscow’s efforts to influence European politics and win a lifting of Western sanctions. Finally, the West would react strongly.

    The West is not much engaged with Belarus. Its participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership is minimal. Recently Lukashenka modestly improved Western ties by presenting Belarus as a bulwark against Russian power, but his crackdown on peaceful demonstrators may undo these gains. The West has limited options to influence developments in Belarus, but should keep doors open as politics evolve.

    Public demonstrations in Minsk and across Russia in recent weeks hint that winds of political change and disillusionment with stagnation and corruption may be reaching both countries. Both countries’ leaders will blame the West, try to ride out protests and, despite differences, will likely stick together.

    Kenneth Yalowitz is the Director of the Conflict Resolution Program at Georgetown University and a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson Center, and was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia. William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the U.S.-Soviet Commission that implemented the Threshold test Ban Treaty

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