Over the past few months, protests have been taking place all over Belarus in opposition to a new tax which seems to target the unemployed. The unrest escalated last weekend and resulted in the arrest of hundreds of protesters. Listen to France 24 correspondent, Gulliver Cragg’s analysis of the situation in which he explains the so-called ‘tax on social parasites’ that triggered these protests and how Belarus is dealing with this unprecedented social demonstration.
What do we need to know about protests that started on a positive note? They started against this law on ‘social parasites’.
The protest started earlier this year against this proposal to tax, what Aleksandr Lukashenko calls ‘social parasites’. It seems like a tax on unemployment, anyone who only works half the year should pay this tax. Of course, it’s actually designed to penalise people who are working in the grey economy and not declaring their income, or who are working for foreign companies and declaring their income and paying their taxing outside Belarus. It’s not not actually so cruel as it seems, but in a context where Belarusian people have seen their incomes fall really drastically in the last two years, there has been a recession in the country and living standards are falling very sharply, and unemployment is really starting to be a major issue in Belarus, which it hasn’t been up until the last couple of years. So people were really angry about that, and that’s what made these demonstrations different from previous demonstrations that there have been in Belarus. It wasn’t really people protesting for human rights, or for democracy and those kinds of issues, it was people protesting because they are sick of getting poorer.
You talked to the people, so can you describe what kind of people were there? Because if we recall the previous protests, they were usually after rigged elections.
This year, there have been protests in towns that have never seen protests before, since Aleksandr Lukashenko has come to power. So absolutely is people that have never been involved in any kind of political activism. So this is very something new. In Minsk though, it’s a bit different because having seen this grassroots protests springing up around the country, the traditional political opposition saw this opportunity to capitalise, and have a big demonstration in the capital, Minsk, so people coming to that were a lot more of the usual suspects; the middle class, people campaigning for democracy and for greater openness in Belarus. But I did meet people that had come in from small towns to this protest in Minsk, and perhaps naively, because the protests this year had been more or less tolerated, with some arrests. They were expecting to be able to go to a big demonstration, and then they got to the place where the demonstration was supposed to be taking place, outside the Academy of Sciences, and they saw that the police were just arresting everybody.
The police presence was so huge, they had police vans queued up around the block and anybody who tried to go to the protest site was just arrested. The police would say, ‘Don’t come here or we will arrest you’, and then if somebody tried to go they would immediately be put in the van. There wasn’t even really a point where a crowd of any size was able to accumulate. they had been blocking people from coming into the city centre of Minsk since the morning, and the previous days they had been arresting people who might be planning to participate in this demonstration. They really shut it down, the protests didn’t even really happen.
You’ve covered a number of protests in Eastern Europe, and the Belarusian police can be pretty brutal, so was this what usually happens?
No, they were much more systematic, in that they were arresting everybody who was trying to come to protest. But they were less brutal- there were some cases beating people, I think there was some video where you can see people being beaten- but mostly it wasn’t even necessary for them to be brutal in the sense of being violent, because there was so many of them, they just so completely outnumbered the protesters. There would be about four policemen per protestor, and they would just carry them into the van.
Besides the usual Belarusian opposition, a lot of them are in exile, some are in the country, so were there any new groups of people organising themselves, being more active? Have you seen some new grassroots movements or organisations?
I don’t know if there are any new organisations that have sprung up, but it’s just like I said, not so much in Minsk, but in all these other towns around Belarus where there have been protests, it seems very much to be a grassroots thing that isn’t being led by any of the traditional opposition parties.
We are looking towards what will happen next, especially with President Lukashenko who seems to be a different position. Previously, he has had strong arguments with the West, he has been called ‘the last European dictator’...
He likes being called that.
Now we have an even bigger and more important dictator in Vladimir Putin. But we haven’t really heard any strong condemnation for the West. This is a very interesting time, where Belarus is balancing between Russia and the West. We can’t really say that there are really bad relations between Russia and Belarus, but it’s really the relations between Belarus and the European Union that are getting better.
Yes, Lukashenko has been trying to improve relations with the West. Sanctions had been lifted at the beginning of 2016, and I think that was why there was no clampdown on the protests earlier this year in other towns around Belarus, because they didn’t want draw anger from the West. But for some reason, he took fright, and on March 21st - that’s when he announced that there was a plot for a violent uprising or a provocation of some kind for the 25th March, that’s when he started arresting people- and I think it took a lot of people in the diplomatic community by surprise. According to one senior diplomat I spoke to in Minsk, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry were very disappointed that they were forced to have this sudden change of tact, because they felt they had been making a lot progress in improving relations with the West, and then when the president suddenly decided to go for a clampdown, instead of tolerating the protests. I think there are a lot of people in Europe, although there are differences of opinion, but I think that there are a lot of people in the European diplomatic community that think that the answer to this is not reimpose sanctions, or to end this process of dialogue with Lukashenko. They think that they need to try and improve the dialogue, particularly with the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, with whom they seem to have better relations than with the president.
Being a journalist that covered the protests, what will be the story that follows?
Everyone I spoke to in Minsk is very pessimistic about the economic situation. They can’t imagine any solution while Lukashenko is in power. You can’t expect him to impose the kind of reforms that are needed, which would be very tough reforms, and which would probably make him even more unpopular.
Without cheap Russian gas, for instance?
So they’ve got this ongoing dispute with Russia. It’s not only because of the dispute with Russia, but because the Russian economy is doing badly. That’s the thing actually, a lot of people thought that Lukashenko was the ‘winner’ of the crisis in Ukraine, because his image improved, he brokered the peace talks in Minsk, and so on, but actually, that’s not the case, because the crisis in Ukraine has led to sanctions being imposed on Russia. The Russian economy is doing very badly, and, Lukashenko refused to recognise the annexation of Crimea, which made Putin angry with him and want to put pressure on him. So Lukashenko is in a difficult position, and the economy is likely to get worse, and if the economy gets worse, the people are going to become more and more unsatisfied. The big question now is : how much have they been scared by this very very big show of police force that they put out last weekend? Probably, for a while, there won’t be any more protests, or not attempts to have a big protest like that. As people’s living conditions deteriorate, especially, I think in smaller towns around Belarus. One analyst told me that it’s not necessarily clear how much you can count on the loyalty of the police in these very small towns, where police know the neighbours of the people who might be coming out to protest and they’ve known them for years- are they going to be prepared to go through with a big clampdown? Of course in Minsk, yes, but in smaller towns it’s not so clear. What a lot of people are predicting is that November will be the next big moment to watch, because, much as in Ukraine, the Belarusian authorities are using up tariffs on gas and electricity, and people are going to be faced with huge bills that they won’t be able to afford to pay, and they’re going to be angry.