"Freeloaders" against Lukashenko: what is happening in Belarus?
On the 25th of March, Freedom Day, mass protests have been expected in Belarus. This rally is the culmination of the largest protest since 2010, which has lasted for over a month already. Belarusians are deeply concerned with the so-called "parasite tax", introduced by President Alexander Lukashenko. People very quickly joined the movement for abolishment of this decree.
What chances of success do Belarusian protesters have this time? Won’t Russia, which isn’t happy about the behavior of “batska”, take advantage of the situation?
What caused the protests and what makes them different from the previous ones?
So-called Decree No.3, or the "parasite tax", has caused Belarusians take to the streets. According to this decree, every Belarusian, who has been unemployed for more than three months, must pay a tax. The fee stands at 360 rubles (about $170). The law was approved back in 2015. However, people had to make the first payment by the 20th February, 2017. Only 54 thousand out of the 400 thousand Belarusians who received notification of the tax actually paid it. “It’s the first en masse refusal of Belarusians to do what is ordered by the authorities”, - says Viktor Malyshevskiy, director of "European Radio for Belarus", one of the few free media in the country.
A lot of pensioners, who had not yet retired and have remained unemployed since 2015, have been affected by the decree. They are among those who have taken to the streets. That’s what makes these protests different from the previous ones.
Photo credit: publika.md
"Those are people who voted for Lukashenko in 2010 and 2015", said Arsen Sivitsky, Director of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk. The main catalyst for their anger is severe economic situation in Belarus. "There is no work here. That's the issue. Authorities are blaming the people for not working. The people blame authorities for the fact that there is no work", says Malyshevskiy.
What make these protests special is that they are taking place not only in the capital, but also in other regions of the country. About a thousand of people took to the streets in Mozyr, Baranovichi and Pinsk. That's quite a lot for Belarus, this amount of people are only usually seen at rallies in Minsk.
What is the reaction of the government?
The Belarusian government did not expect that the “decree on freeloading" would bring thousands of people to the streets. Nobody was arrested at the first rally, but an activist was detained in Vitebsk on the 26th of February. Later, participants of the rallies were detained in Brest and Molodechne.
This is a protest in western Belarus city Horadnia. People say: "Basta! Enough Lukashenka!" pic.twitter.com/LA4hQxOMeT— Belarus Headlines (@newsbelarusby) March 15, 2017
A mass rally was held in Minsk on the 15th of March which more than two thousand people took part in. After the rally, people in civilian clothing detained about 50 protesters, who were charged with hooliganism, disobeying police officers and using of profane language.
President Alexander Lukashenko referred to the organizers of the rally as "the fifth column" and called for them to be "picked like raisins from a bun".
The government began to intimidate Belarusians through the controlled media. State TV channels were aired films in which protesters were called enemies, anarchists and puppets of terrorists. "When the government tells you to not go outside, it constantly hints at what happened in Ukraine. Look what happened in Ukraine when people took to the streets. Be careful, some third force may benefit from it", says Malyshevskiy, a Belarusian journalist.
Considering that the protests have happened en masse, Alexander Lukashenko said that he would postpone bringing Decree No.3 into force by a year. He noted that this does not mean that he is bowing to external pressure, but that the government recognizes the fact it made a mistake. However, a few days later, “batska” changed his mind and said that he had neither abolished nor postponed the decree.
Photo by Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA
Do the protesters have a high chances of success?
Protests against Decree No.3 and the economic situation quickly turned into the rallies against the regime. People took to the streets with slogans such as, "Decree No.3, Lukashenko, go away", "We’re tired of you", "No to dictatorship", "Live Belarus!" "A number of opposition representatives – Statkevich, Neklyayev, Dashkevich – are trying to turn these protests towards politics and not only seek the abolition of the decree, but the resignation of the government and Lukashenko especially", says analyst Sivitsky.
“However, the chances of success are not high. Belarusian opposition, as in previous years, is not united and does not have one leader. Moreover, there is no-one among them, with whom Lukashenko is ready to negotiate”, thinks Journalist Malyshevskiy.
Photo by Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA
The role of the "third forces": the EU and Russia
After years of sanctions, Belarusian relations with the West have started to improve. Lukashenko is struggling to save face. There was minimum police presence and no arrests during the first rallies. On the 15th of March, the authorized rally of “non-freeloaders” held in Minsk coincided with the visit of the EU officials to the country. Officially, the police did not disperse the protests, but people in civilian clothes were quietly taking participants of the rally into unmarked cars.
"What will Europe think of this? Europe could see the fights in the streets of Minsk, one person fighting with another. There were no police at all", says Malyshevskiy. Andrea Rigoni will be in the country on Freedom Day. He is a PACE rapporteur on Belarus, who unexpectedly extended his visit by a day.
Photo by Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA
The situation in Belarus is carefully followed by Russia. Lukashenko is aware of this and is afraid of a so-called "Ukrainian scenario". "We may face various sabotage groups aiming to provoke bloodshed between the government and protesters during the demonstrations”.
There is no doubt that Russia will use this instability as a pretext for interference in the internal affairs of Belarus in political or military way. Exactly as it happened with Ukraine in 2014”, warns Sivitsky.
“Lukashenko is afraid of "Russian world", but is prepared to resist it”, adds Malyshevskiy, recalling the recent military exercises in Belarus. "The state administration building, which is almost in the center of the city, was being protected until the regular forces, the army, came. It was protected by the rebels who were given weapons. Basically, everyone can see that they are taking into account the Ukrainian scenario".
The government monitors the publications in the Russian media which say that the Belarusian language and nation does not exist. Several criminal proceedings were opened. In one of the cases, the editor of the news website "Regnum", Yuri Baranchik, a Belarusian national, was arrested.
by Olga Tokariuk, translated by Olga Kuchmagra