A series of protests took place in Minsk and several regional cities in Belarus on March 25, which marked the 99th anniversary of the founding of the Belarusian People’s Republic. Some in society (especially among its most active circles) see the date as a historical landmark that laid the foundations of the country’s sovereignty and celebrate it annually as “Freedom Day.” This time, the traditional anniversary bore additional meaning. Some in the opposition had branded the date as a potentially decisive day for the already month-long protests against the so-called “parasite tax” and the overall worsening of the socio-economic situation in the country (see EDM, February 28, March 20).
It was difficult to tell how exactly the opposition was going to mark March 25, but their statements definitely worried some in the government (see EDM, March 20). The preparations on the side of the security services looked like a huge special operation: the number of police officers and special forces on Minsk’s streets was unprecedented, and the variety of riot-control vehicles resembled a small military parade (Svaboda.org, March 26). On the event’s eve, the police detained several hundred active participants of previous public protests (Naviny.by, March 23). One of the most radical opposition leaders, Mikalai Statkevich, who claimed responsibility for the demonstration, also disappeared and his Facebook account was restricted (Kp.by, March 24).
The Minsk authorities kept delaying their answer as to whether they would allow the demonstration until the very last day. And when they did finally authorize it, the organizers withdrew their application on the grounds that they had no time left to properly inform the participants about the exact venue (Bdg.by, March 24). Technically, this made any mass gathering in Minsk on Freedom Day illegal (Mfa.gov.by, March 26). At the same time, the local authorities in Grodno and Brest allowed demonstrations in their cities (Nn.by, March 25).
However, the authorities were not alone in contributing to an atmosphere of fear and confusion. The opposition could not agree on a single plan for the demonstration; and its most radical voice, Statkevich, before his disappearance, simply suggested that the crowd gather in the city center and then decide what to do next on the spot (see EDM, March 20). Together, these factors discouraged some potential participants.
On the day of the protest, the police effectively split up different groups of the participants, so it is difficult to say how many people turned up. Some opposition sources reported 2,000–3,000 people, but the figure of 1,000–1,500 seems more realistic. The police adhered to the strategy of detaining without much discussion those who looked like protesters. As a result, several hundred were arrested (Tut.by, March 25). Pictures of violence quickly circulated in the media. However, it should be noted that, on balance, the police were much more reserved in the use of actual force than they had been on December 19, 2010, when the notorious post-election crackdown took place.
Most of the detained were freed later in the evening, after spending several hours at various police stations. At the moment of writing it is difficult to say how many received short-term prison sentences or fines, as court hearings are continuing. Importantly, Mikalai Statkevich returned home on the morning of March 27. He claims that the police found him at a secret apartment and simply detained him for three days and then released him without initiating a criminal or even administrative case against him (Nn.by, 27 March). If so, this is an obvious signal to the West that Minsk wants to continue dialogue.
The biggest concern, however, is related to the authorities’ allegations about some paramilitary groups preparing to carry out bloody provocations during Freedom Day. About two dozen people have been arrested based on those accusations, including members of the formerly active right-wing organization Bely Legion (“White Legion”) and a registered military-patriotic club in Babruisk (Tut.by, March 24). Reactions to their arrests vary from open accusations in the state media to complete dismissals in the opposition circles. At the moment, it cannot be totally excluded that some paramilitary preparations might have taken place (Author’s interviews with officials and experts, March 23–27). This is not to say that the Bely Legion case was necessarily at the center of the story. Interestingly, the authorities also reported the detention of two Russian nationals who carried weapons, military uniforms and a Ukrainian flag (Tut.by, March 25). However, it is difficult to confirm or fully disprove anything at the moment.
Several important questions about what is going on in Belarus remain unanswered. Nevertheless, the events of March 25 demonstrated that the long-term stability and sovereignty of Belarus remains hostage to numerous vulnerabilities and weaknesses among both the authorities and the opposition.
Opposition groups have been actively propagating the idea that a revolution is in the making as the regime has started losing its traditional support base. However, even if the latter were true, nothing points to the spillover of this support toward the opposition itself. The latter remains as weak and split by infightings as before (see EDM, March 20). Thus, it is at best illusionary on the side of opposition leaders to believe that their uncoordinated calls to protest will somehow lead to a mass uprising. And at worst, it is an irresponsible way to expose hundreds of unprepared protesters to police brutality without even trying to streamline public discontent into a more sensible and forward-looking political process.
At the same time, the authorities’ actions also reveal multiple weaknesses. The state machine looks incapable of acting in a flexible manner when pressures on the system in general and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka personally increase to a certain point. As a result, all cases of excessive police brutality make headlines in Belarusian and international media and paint a dramatic picture that effectively annihilates all attempts at normalizing relations with the West and facilitating civil dialogue inside the country.
Against these vulnerabilities, Belarus becomes an easy target for external manipulation. As Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty put it, “In the Kremlin, they have probably had some cognac to celebrate what happened on March 25” (Tut.by, March 25). If both the authorities and the opposition fail to learn important lessons of the past, the outcome of the current escalation could be similar to that of December 2010, when Belarus found itself internationally isolated and internally deeply frozen. Perhaps, one important difference exists: the ability of Belarus to provide for its economic stability and security is significantly lower today than seven years ago.