By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
The current mobilisation in Belarus’ streets demonstrates once again how social tensions can quickly morph into political contestations. But speaking of a Minsk Maidan seems a step too far for the moment.
At the moment, Belarus is living in a kind of political limbo between the 15 March demonstration on Constitution Day, which attracted two thousand people, surprising both the authorities and the organisers; and the now approaching ‘big rally’, which on 25 March will test both popular support for protest movements and president Lukashenko’s instinct for survival.
All started on mid-February with the adoption of the “law on inactive people”, quickly renamed “law on parasites”. The law targets the hundreds of thousands of Belarussians who are working part time abroad (mostly in Russia) and spend the rest of the year unemployed in Belarus, paying no taxes. Now all the citizens out of work for more than 183 days a year, excluding people officially unemployed or on social benefits, will have to pay the state the equivalent of $250 in compensation for lost taxes — a serious amount of money in a country where the average monthly salary is less than $500.
The decision to enlarge the fiscal basis has a logic. The economy, still largely state-owned, is suffering from two years of recession due to the fall of oil prices and a reduction of in the demand for Belarussian goods on the Russian market. A decreasing budget leaves the President with two unpalatable choices: to obtain some aid from abroad, with strings attached to it, or to reduce the social redistribution system largely inherited from the Soviet period, which keeps a majority of citizens attached to his regime.
With unemployment increasing and reduced salaries sometimes paid late, the law played the role of a catalyst and in the space of a few days socio-economic slogans were replaced by an open contestation of Lukashenko’s regime.
Which explains why, in an unusual fashion, the President made a U-turn and postponed the implementation of the law, under a revised form, to next year. In the process, he even met some members of the opposition, in an attempt to divide it, but also to demonstrate a new appetite for “national dialogue”.
In any case, Lukashenko’s dilemma is also about geopolitics, with his small country of 8 million, on the border between East and West, being trapped in a three-sided game: between Belarus, Russia, the West.
In Belarus, Lukashenko has for 22 years shown an evident talent alternating tension with détente in direction of the West and of and then Moscow (see our archives, 8 October 2015). This time he may have overplayed it, especially when he hinted at the beginning of the crisis that Russia was behind the movement to punish his independence drive, then changing his mind by mid-March and accusing the hand of the West of preparing a new “coloured revolution” in his country.
When he pointed the finger at the Kremlin, he argued that Russia supported popular discontent as a revenge for a series of unfriendly measures due to show to his people and the world that “Belarus was an ally of Russia not a vassal”. For instance, he has in a few months questioned bilateral military cooperation, reopened the old dispute and energy, and taking measures contravening rules of free trade and visa regime of the Eurasian Union (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan). This demonstration of independence from Moscow was also supposed to attract financial aid from the West. After all, the EU lifted its sanctions in February 2016 on very slight basis of further democratisation.
But then he got cold feet when a complex picture emerged out of Russia. On one hand, liberals were talking with great hope of a ‘Minsk Maidan’(after Kiev and before Moscow) which they wanted to support in company with NGOs and the experience of Ukrainian “revolutionaries”. On the other side, the Kremlin, too, was speaking of a new Maidan which it described as another Western plot for changing the regime and was a way to remind Lukashenko the fate of other presidents, such as Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich, who had tried to play Moscow against the West in the illusion that they might extract concessions from both – and were squeezed out in the process.
The irony of the story is that the West does not look like having the stomach for another violent adventure on the borders of EU and NATO. And even less for a chaotic scene in which the former Polish and catholic regions of Belarus would support a different type of regime from that of the other russified orthodox territories. The EU has enough problems of cohesion without risking a rift between members, especially with Poland.
Obviously, the Ukrainian case is not perceived as following the dreamed-of pattern during the past years. For more than a year, Brussels and Washington have multiplied contacts and programs with Minsk without having to promote a new Maidan. Of course, there are still circles hoping that Belarus will turn against Russia, jumping into the Western arms, and reducing the scope of Russian efforts towards imposing regional structures on the former Soviet republics. Poland (and on minor scale Lithuania) have been very active to support or shelter the opposition including. US-financed Radio Svoboda is very active to promote “real” information to counter Russian orientated one.
But at official and institutional levels, care is the master-word. Even the fact that the Western media have been tight-lipped in a further sign that nobody wants the NGOS, mostly financed by the West due to the internal repression, to go in quest of Western public opinion.
In any case, Belarus society does not have a nationalist core similar to that of Western Ukraine – even if the nationalist opponents raise the old flag and coulours of an ‘independent’ Belarus, and privilege the Belarussian language. The level of corruption is also lower, partly due to the absence of privatisations (the basis for the creation of oligarchies in the other post-communist countries).
This is why the West, and certainly EU, would prefer a Romanian scenario, with huge crowd-demanding reforms, rather than a Ukrainian one with chaos and economic collapse. Which would also reduce the potential for another confrontation with Russia.
But in the end, all will depend on the capacity of the opposition to gather enough participants to impress the authorities, but without violence. And on the methods used by Lukashenko to show he is still the president without repeating the excesses of 2010, when the violent repression of the demonstrations against the falsification of the presidential elections led to the Western sanctions.