The Minsk city administration allowed the opposition-based Organizing Committee (OC) of the centennial celebration of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) (see EDM, January 25) to organize a meeting and a concert downtown, at a square park adjacent to the capital city’s massive opera house. Both events are to occur on March 25. On January 25, the OC submitted a request for a meeting-concert-rally triad; and in late February, the authorities issued a response, declaring that “rally” was taboo, but a concert and a meeting were allowed. Moreover, the municipal administration in Minsk offered its own amplifying equipment, suggested that it would not require the OC to pay for ambulances and police protection, and even agreed to install a memorial plaque commemorating the BPR (Naviny, February 27). It is worth noting that just one year ago, the opposition’s annual rally on March 25, which it had christened Freedom Day, ended in violence and multiple arrests (see EDM, March 27, 2017).
Since then, however, the Belarusian government has changed its bluntly dismissive stance vis-à-vis the Belarusian People’s Republic. Heretofore, the BPR had officially been considered a historical “faux pas” of sorts because it was declared (in March 1918) under German military occupation, was antipodal to clinging to Russia, and because some leaders of the BPR subsequently collaborated with the Nazis. However, at the end of 2017, the main government daily conducted a roundtable discussion about the BPR and qualified it as perhaps a hapless but still the earliest attempt by the Belarusian nation to establish statehood. Also, the authorities’ new policy of soft “Belarusianization” (see EDM, July 20, 2017) itself changed the ambient environment, in which such events as a conference on the BPR at the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History (scheduled for March 2018) became possible. Moreover, the presidential administration has even solicited the Academy of Sciences to research a “scientific justification” of the BPR’s role in Belarusian history (Gazetaby.com, March 1).
In light of these changes, the following episode was not particularly advantageous for the opposition’s public image. Specifically, on February 26, the 13-member OC held a meeting to discuss the opposition’s response to the decision of the Minsk city administration. This meeting was live-streamed online, courtesy of the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty. The broadcast exposed cheap theatrics, vanity and a lack of mutual respect between the members of the OC on a grand scale. In the words of one of the broadcast organizers, “If the Belarusian democratic opposition indeed wants to, at some point, win popular elections, it should either temporarily ban TV cameras from its meetings or begin to talk differently to each other. As of now, the former solution is more realistic” (Svaboda.org, February 26). In the words of Alexander Feduta, a literature critic and a seasoned member of the opposition, who spent three months at the KGB detention center following the December 19, 2010, crackdown on the post-election rally in Minsk, it is difficult to avoid foul language while commenting on this live-stream broadcast. The government, he exclaimed, “ought to showcase this meeting daily […]! This would work to strengthen the authorities more than all those [in charge of government-run media outlets]! Having watched such a broadcast, not a single normal human being would vote for such people!” (Belsat, March 1).
Augmenting what has been an open secret for quite some time, such a harsh formula allows for several conclusions:
First, the opposition has long been split into an intransigent fraction and one prone to negotiate with the authorities. The former is headed by Nikolay Statkevich; his idea is to fight the government every step of the way. For Statkevich, yielding to the authorities risks losing respect in society, whereas the part of the opposition willing to negotiate is the “opposition of His Majesty” (Svaboda.org, February 26). Such views are no longer in lockstep with much of the rest of the opposition, however. Thus, even Zmitser Dashkevich, a former leader of the Young Front (a Belarusian group registered in the Czech Republic), and himself a seasoned street fighter, observed that “we have long been scattering stones; today, it is the time to collect them. For a long time, we organized protests, and many of those were rightful ones; but today, when there is such an opportunity, one has to take advantage of it and solemnly celebrate the BPR’s centennial. As for the sword, it is always at our disposal, we can always take it out of its sheath” (Zmitser Dashkevich, February 26).
According to Iosif Seredich, a long-time editor of the opposition-minded Narodnaya Volya, “Representatives of the opposition have no idea about proper culture of debate and do not know what they want. In contrast, the authorities took the right stand and made a big step forward. Twenty years ago, nobody could even think about a celebration of the BPR. Of significance has been the Ukrainian experience, from which they are drawing conclusions” (Rzeczpospolita, February 27). Pavel Daneiko, in charge of the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Management, Belarus’s oldest private institution of higher learning, remarked, “The civil war is over. Not everybody is glad; but those who are not, work in favor of one neighboring country [implying Russia], whether wittingly or not.” Daneiko left this comment on Yury Drakakhrust’s Facebook page after the latter posted his article devoted to the split in the opposition (Tut.by, February 27).
Second, it looks exceedingly unlikely that electoral fraud alone is predominantly responsible for members of the Belarusian opposition losing elections—despite this being the opposition’s mantra since 1996. That does not mean there is no electoral fraud. Rather, it means that the opposition is genuinely unpopular on its own.
Third, it is likely that Western sponsors of the Belarusian opposition made a mistake effectively sustaining a group of not-always responsible activists, who are more accountable to their foreign patrons than to ordinary Belarusians. This has been evident for quite some time, but is impossible to neglect anymore.
So if the three above observations are correct, Dashkevich is probably right: the time to collect stones is now. At least for the time being, street fights seem wholly counterproductive.