On March 25, riot police in Minsk apprehended over 700 people taking part in downtown rallies devoted to “Freedom Day” (Tut.by, March 26), which this year marked the 99th anniversary of the foundation of the historical Belarusian People’s Republic. The presence of large numbers of police, including those dressed in riot gear, as well as the fact that many demonstrators suffered violence at the hands of the authorities, contrasted sharply with the seemingly peaceful character of the rally. Nonetheless, most of those apprehended were released from detention on the same day or a day later.
It seems that much like on December 19, 2010, one of the guiding principles of the crackdown was a political decision to disregard the opinion of the West. This is despite the fact that Minsk is treating rapprochement with the West with utmost seriousness at the moment, much like it did during the comparable process preceding December 2010. Indeed, last week, on March 20, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka declared his intention to invite observers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the massive “Zapad 2017” Russian-Belarusian military exercise, to occur in September. Though pilloried by Russian “patriots” (SvPressa, March 24), this announcement was welcomed by the North Atlantic Alliance (Belta, March 21). Moreover, on March 24, Lukashenka received an invitation to Kansas City to celebrate, on April 6, the anniversary of the US entering World War I (Tut.by, March 24). Apparently, however, on March 25, in the eyes of the Belarusian leader, some powerful factors outweighed the desire to curry favor with the West.
To tease out those factors, one may recall that weekly rallies protesting Lukashenka’s decree on social parasites began on February 17. Although the authorities did not consent to these demonstrations until March 11, they nevertheless proceeded unobstructed. That emboldened the opposition. On March 21, in a speech in the city of Mogilev, Lukashenka revealed that a couple dozen militants with ammunition had been apprehended (Belta, March 21). Subsequently, the Belarusian KGB disclosed that those arrested are members of the formally defunct White Legion, a paramilitary club; other detained individuals were allegedly connected with a similar club affiliated with Malady Front, registered in the Czech Republic, under the guidance of Dmitry Dashkevich, a diehard anti-Lukashenka warrior (Belta, March 23).
In response to the European Union’s and the United States’ harsh criticism of the crackdown, Press Secretary Dmitry Mironchik conveyed a statement from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry that stated the constitutional right of Belarusians for peaceful meetings is not in doubt. The keyword, however, is “peaceful.” If, however, Molotov cocktails and weapons are delivered to the gathering point, the peaceful character of that rally is, in fact, in doubt. “As terrorist threats have been on the rise and their geography has broadened, it is important to […] preempt the attacks rather than face consequences. It is the lesson that we extracted from recent acts of terrorism in London, Berlin, Brussels and Nice.” Mironchik described the police actions as matching the scale of the threat and of being gentler than those of Western police under similar circumstances. He underscored that the events of March 25 are no reason to stop dialogue with the West (Tut.by, March 26). Mironchik also noted that the authorities did not allow the rally. In fact, one “initiative group” solicited permission but did not receive a response from city authorities requisite five days in advance of the event. In fact, the permission was issued only on March 24 and the peripheral Bangalore Square was assigned to the solicited rally. However, by March 24, the group had already withdrawn its request, either under the assumption that the authorities would not intervene or, potentially, in pursuit of confrontation.
Belarusian reactions to the March 25 crackdown and to the detentions that occurred days earlier, have taken three different forms. The dominant opinion of the Westernizing opposition is that Lukashenka has become viscerally afraid of public protests against his decree on social parasites, so on March 25 he acted in an irrational and even “suicidal” way, simply out of a desire to scare the protesters. Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty (Tut.by, March 25), Alexander Feduta, a political consultant (Naviny.by, March 22), and Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Prize winner (Svaboda.org, March 24), laid out this version most articulately.
The second kind of reaction, expressed by government-friendly pundits, points to radical forces. Thus, according to Piotr Petrovsky, undercover activity by radical nationalists, possibly under the guidance of Western intelligence agencies, triggered the arrests. Peter Liesegang, who visited Belarus in the autumn of 2016, is seen as a possible emissary of the purported puppet masters. Interestingly, Petrovsky underscores that in Belarus, civic institutions are weak and independent non-governmental organizations (NGO) are lacking. Consequently, radicals, not state-friendly mentors deal with people prone to protest. Belarusians lack the skills for political dialogue, so protests are more for letting off steam (Eurasia.Expert, March 24). “The nationalist underground is routed,” writes Alexei Dziermant, editor-in-chief of ImhoClub, an online political journal (Facebook.com, March 22).
The third kind of reaction—expressed by the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, otherwise known as the Tsarik-Sivitsky duo—is akin to the first but emphasizes the critical role Russian agents play in spreading disinformation to the Belarusian leadership. The aim of such operations is to allegedly sever the evolving bonds between Belarus and the West (Csfps.by, March 23).
One of the precautions the authorities exercised was to apprehend opposition leaders in advance of the rally. Thus, Vladimir Neklyaev, a 2010 presidential hopeful, was detained in Brest, on board a Warsaw–Minsk train. Mikalai Statkevich, the most active opposition fighter, was not responding to calls and e-mails for days. Statkevich was just released from a KGB detention center on March 27 (Nn.by, 27 March). Three other opposition leaders received 15-day sentences that ended on March 26. And the heads of the Tell the Truth civic campaign, Andrei Dmitriev and Tatyana Korotkevich, participated in rallies outside Minsk (Tut.by, March 26). Having isolated each opposition leader for the day of the rally, the government precluded the emergence of a new political prisoners problem for itself.
Thus, unlike the fateful march on December 19, 2010, the Freedom Day rally in Minsk was entirely devoid of opposition leaders and yet it still received harsh treatment from the authorities. One more crucial difference is that by December 2010, Minsk had wrested important concessions from Russia, whereas today the bilateral stalemate over gas prices and oil deliveries lingers on.
In any case, March 25 may mark the end of another political thaw in Belarus. The future is as obscure as ever.