Belarus: ( No) Freedom Day

Arseniy Sivitskiy, Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies (Minsk, Belarus)

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In March mass protests resulted in repressions of activists and arrests of 700 protesters. Nevertheless, these events had no real influence on the relations of Belarus and the West. The worsening relations of Belarus and the Russian Federation remained the biggest problem on the foreign policy agenda

Domestic Policy: Mass protests increasing

Like a month ago, March protest dynamics went on intensifying. The protests took place in the following places: Maladzyechna (1000 participants) on March 10, Pinsk (350 participants) on March 11, Bobruisk, Brest, Orsha, Rahachow (a total of 2050 participants, the most numerous protest taking place in Orsha with 1000 protesters) on March 12; in Minsk, Grodno, Mogilev (3250 participants, with the biggest number of protesters in Minsk, namely 1750 people) March 15.

On March 1819, a series of protests took place in the towns of Luninets, Kobryn, Mazyr, Svetlogorsk, Slonim (with the most numerous protest of approximately 300 protesters), and Baranovichi. An attempt to organize protests in Barysaw failed. However, all of these protests, unlike the previous ones, were organized exclusively by the anarchist movement “Revolutionary Action” and were not supported by other opposing structures and media.

The anarchists themselves explained the low number of protests by the shortage of their media resources. Yet protest organizers admitted that those actions were only rehearsals for March 25, key events in Minsk.

In overall, the protests followed the previous scenarios. Therefore, they were the entirely peaceful protests with a specific demand to abolish the Decree No.3 on introducing a special tax for unemployed citizens of Belarus. There were also another minor political demands as well. The authorized protest in Minsk on March 15, unlike the regional protests, featured a high number of the participants including professional activists from various opposing structures.

The main feature of the Belarusian authorities behavior in these protests was the absence of any readiness to deal with them. In fact, the authorities were late to react to the events happened and did not even attempt to regain the initiative. It appears that the only domain where Minsk managed to keep self-control and strategic priorities was its foreign policy.

As for the domestic policy, the authorities used a set of standard reactions: the suspension of the decree, “saving face” by refusing to abolish it, some liberal signals on March 9, regarding the public dialogue, tough signals and repressions allegedly aimed at activists, provocateurs and protest organizers. As a result, during the entire period the authorities in fact demonstrated a lack of strategic vision and no clear action plan aimed at stabilizing the situation. Both actions aimed at deescalating of the situation and escalation dominance tactics were implemented in such a way that they contradicted each other and brought to naught positive effects while magnifying the negative aftermath.

The intimidation tactics and repressions are not the protest deterrents anymore

The main political development of the month was the unauthorized protest taking place on March 25, on the Freedom Day. The protest was, as a matter of fact, broken up by the authorities with the help of preventive arrests of the opposition activists and harshly dispersion of the protest participants by the special police forces and internal military forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (700 people were detained).

Despite the brutality shown by the special forces on March 25, on the Freedom Day, the next day numerous rallies took place in support of the detained activists in Minsk and in a number of other places. This means an even deeper devaluation of the authorities uniformed forces under conditions of the social and economic slump the country is experiencing. The intimidation tactics and repressions are not the protest deterrents anymore.

This event became the climax of the political crisis in Belarus, started after the first protests on February 17. Despite the overall negative international feedback on the events in Minsk on March 25, Belarus still managed to avoid the worst-case scenario of the situation development in its relations with the West, meaning sanctions.

Economy: Ongoing recession

According to the recent March data, despite the optimistic forecast of the authorities Belarus’ GDP went down 1% in January-February, 2017, against the same period in 2016. Belarus’ GDP decreased mainly due to the shortfalls in oil deliveries from Russia.

In overall, the standard of living in the country has a decreasing trend, with a price increase planned in some sectors. For example, on March 1, Belarus prices went up for some cigarette brands, as well as for the landline calls. Moreover, prices on natural and condensed gas subsidized by the government were adjusted according to the annual inflation rate, as well as electricity, heating and hot water rates.

In this context, Belarusian authorities continued their actie negotiations with IMF. On March 16, the IMF Mission Chief for Belarus Peter Dohlman, the IMF European Department Deputy Director Thanos Arvanitis, and the IMF Senior Resident Representative for Central and Eastern Europe Bas Bakker visited Belarus by the President of Belarus invitation.

The economic and social situation was one of the points of their discussion, as well as social support system for those who most need it. In April, IMF will continue talks with Belarus on a new 10 year -loan of $3 billion at 2,28 % per annum.

Besides this, on March 29, Alexander Lukashenko also had a meeting with Kyle Peters, the World Bank’s Senior Vice President for Operations. His visit had to do with developing and adopting of a new program for 34 years. There are nine programs totaling $1 billion on the agenda now, namely in the fields of infrastructure, water supply, energy, transport, and new cooperation in education.

Yet there is a serious risk of freezing of the cooperation between Belarus and the international financial institutions, if the official authorities continue to harshly suppress the protests of citizens.

Foreign Policy: Russia-Belarus confrontation intensifying

The BelarusRussia relations remained a system forming factor in the situation inside and around Belarus. Increased confrontation was accompanied by the inconsistent attempts to normalize the situation and quite strange steps made by the Belarusian side, signifying the lack of the strategic will and no consistent approach.

In the course of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council meeting in Bishkek, the Prime Minister of Belarus Andrei Kobyakov publicly announced the main claims Minsk has for Moscow in the frames of the Eurasian Economic Union and bilateral relations, namely trade limits and high gas prices. However, the Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev fenced his Belarusian colleague with a statement that Belarus always has an option to leave the Eurasian Economic Union. Further comments made by President Lukashenko had to do with the inadmissibility of an “accounting approach” to the Belarus-Russia relations. However, the Medvedev’s press service replied that “accounting” in the bilateral relations is inevitable.

Russia also launched an offensive in the oil and gas sectors, reaffirming its stance on the necessity of Belarus repaying its entire debt worth $700 million for gas deliveries in 2016 and in the beginning of 2017 as a preliminary condition to reach a compromise regarding gas prices in the future. Moreover, later on the Russian side announced the necessity to increase gas prices for Belarus up to $41 million per 1000 cubic meters, with such a price seen as quite reasonable by the Russian side.

However, the Minister of Economy Alexander Novak admitted a possible compromise on the price after Belarus repays its debt in total. A schedule of the oil deliveries to Belarus of 16 million tons up until the end of 2017 (4 million per quarter) was also approved by Russia with it being 6-8 million tons less than expected by the partnering Belarus. And it looks like this schedule does not depend on the results of the gas talks. The main reason for the oil deliveries cutting is not related to the gas controversy but has to do with a necessity to guarantee Transoil income from using the second line of the Baltic Pipeline system and the new infrastructure of the Ust-Luga port.

Despite the existing contradictions, according to the president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus is not going to stop its military cooperation with Russia due to their divide in other spheres. The aim of this statement was to confirm the Belarus’ commitment to its military and political obligations in the frames of being a union state, yet to reproach Russia for violating its own obligations to Belarus in other spheres.

In this context, Belarus faced a rather loyal attitude from the Western countries. Despite a full scale repressions against the opposition and the civil activists who participated in the unauthorized rallies opposing the decree on social parasites in March, the key international institutions (EU, OSCE, UN human rights council) had a rather muted response, which can be considered a serious success for Belarusian diplomacy.