Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Belarus in protest of the so-called tax on ‘social parasites’. The Belarussian authorities are detaining peaceful protesters en masse. This is the first protest of this calibre to occur in Belarus, as more and more people, including those who would have previously remained ambivalent, are choosing to actively speak out against this decree.
Hromadske's Nataliya Gumenyuk spoke to Andrei Yeliseyev, Belarussian journalist and analysysts.
I know you are closely following, not just what is happening in Minsk, but what is happening around the country. What are the most important points? I think our audience has been following the protest, but what do we need to know?
As far as I know, yesterday the protests in Minsk took place with about 5000 protesters, were brutally dispersed and today at noon in Minsk and other cities, people came to the streets again, about 1000 people in total. And again, they were largely detained by the authorities. So as we see in response to growing social protests, the Belarusian authorities started mass arrests as they did in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential election, but this time, most of people detained were later freed without administrative arrests.
So, if you can compare the level of the way how police reacted during the last protest and this one, you know, do the how about the other people who are still in custody. So, and what we expect to happen next?
Well, the protests have been taking place for about 5 weeks already. So despite the fact most of the people who were detained yesterday were later released, hundreds of people, who were detained before yesterday, are in custody, and tomorrow the courts will take place and review the administrative cases of those who were detained yesterday. More than 200 people were in custody even before yesterday’s mass protests in Minsk. And we also aware of further tensions of people, who are considered by the authorities to be the ones who prepared, or had the intention of preparing mass riots. We also talk about those in custody and criminal cases, not only administrative.
What is happening in other cities in Belarus? Is anything happening outside of Minsk?
Importantly, the protests are an important social phenomenon in a present day Belarus because they have indeed spread on a regional level, and many people who joined the opposition rallies in the past weeks have never taken part in similar events before. These protests go beyond the traditional opposition electoral base in Belarus. Also what is important is that we can see that people are gathering through social networks, mainly through Vkontakte, the Russian analogue of Facebook. We can see that, firstly, people in the regions have now started taking to the streets and secondly, even though the opposition structures are insolvent, and in many cases unable to gather people, people themselves gather through social networks, which is an important phenomenon in today’s Belarus.
We have to understand the previous protests in Belarus. Protests do not happen that often in Belarus, they were more political, so there was always a clear distinction between the people who are really politically active and the larger society. What is the feeling about this particular protest amongst most people- those who usually remain silent, and are the silent majority?
The actual trigger for this protest was the decree for the prevention of so-called ‘social parasitism’, and the requirements of the protesters in the first protest were mostly of economic nature, to first, revoke this degree, and second, act against the ineffectiveness of the economic policy in general. But many people who took to streets also support the political requirements aimed at the authorities, and many people call for Lukashenko to resign. So these protests are not merely economic anymore. They also already have a political agenda.
What is the official reaction from Minsk, and in particular from the president of Belarus, Lukashenko? He is usually very tough on protesters. And can you also put this into a geopolitical context, we know that there has been a kind of softening relationship with the European Union, Lukashenko has had a a bit of a quarrel with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. So there was a very interesting moment when there was hope that Belarus would move a bit closer to the West, and get slightly further out of the Russian sphere of influence. To what extent is this possible? How could these protests influence this? Because it definitely would evoke a tough reaction from Brussels from Europe, they can't remain indifferent. And how could this situation be played out by different parties in the context of geopolitics?
How do Lukashenko and the other officials treat the protesters? There’s an ongoing state campaign media which discredits the opponents and people who come to streets. Lukashenko likes using the term "fifth column" to discredit all opponents who dare to protests. Also, in the aftermath of yesterday’s protest, there were a number of fake news from the authorities, as you know, about an alleged car filled with weapons which tried to come to Belarus from Ukraine, or, when an illegitimate camp, a patriotic camp was presented as a militant camp, preparing people for mass rights and so on. So we can see that the authorities do the best to, firstly, intimidate the people who take to the streets, secondly, to discredit the opponents, and thirdly, to legitimise any disproportional measures taken by the authorities in relation to the protesters. And as for the situation in foreign policy which Belarus itself refines, it is a really difficult situation now for Lukashenko and his team. Indeed, as you mentioned, Belarus is trying to continue its dialogue with the West, and with the mass arrests and repressions this dialogue will be flattened. So far, Belarus has not found a solution to the complex of problems with Russia. We can see that both in foreign policy, and of course, in domestic politics, Lukashenko finds himself in probably the most difficult situation ever.
Read more: Things To Know About Belarus Protests