No new mass protests in Belarus due to harsh repression

The opposition in Belarus promised a 'hot spring' with new mass protests against Lukashenko. But active repression in the last months precluded that and from 25 till 27 March there were no demonstrations to be seen. It is a failure for the opposition and a seemlingly victory for the regime, but the deep distrust has not disappeared and some day the anger of the people will erupt again, says Kamil Klysinski of the Warsaw thinktank OSW. 

belarus repressionMass protests in Belarus were effectively prevented by mass repression (picture TUT.BY)

by Kamil Kłysiński

This year Freedom Day, which the opposition commemorates on 25 March (the anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918) and which is not recognised by the Belarusian regime, was feted without a single large demonstration held by the opponents of Aleksandr Lukashenko. In several places huge white-red flags were hung on buildings and in the evening rather small firework displays were held in some parts of several cities (including Minsk, Hrodna and Vawkavysk). There were no larger gatherings organised on Saturday 27 March either. Opponents of the regime declared it the main celebration day, a public holiday of street activity of rebellious citizens.

The Minsk municipality rejected the request submitted by several opposition groups (among them the ‘For Freedom’ Movement) to commemorate Freedom Day legally due to ‘radical inclinations of the organisers’ and the epidemiological threat. The majority of Belarusians adopted a passive attitude despite appeals from opposition leaders who have emigrated, Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya and Pavel Latushka, and announcements on popular social media channels, suggesting several options to demonstrate in opposition to the Belarusian government.

Neither did an online vote, held on 18 March, proposing to hold talks between Tsikhanovskaya and the regime in order to ensure a peaceful transition of power, mobilise Belarusians to join protests. This proposal was supported by nearly 760,000 citizens (out of 769,000 of those who took part in the vote).

Strong warnings

For more than ten days in the run up to 25 March, Belarusian law enforcement forces sent a series of signals that they were fully ready to firmly prevent the opposition from seeking to ‘provoke radical street gatherings’, aimed at destabilising Belarus’s internal situation. This included a warning by the head of the State Security Committee of the Republic of Belarus (KGB) in a special television interview.

Justifying recent personnel changes in the law enforcement sectors and in the army (on 11 March), Lukashenka emphasised that the main opponent to the Belarusian armed forces was the ‘internal enemy’, who is seeking to dismantle the present legal system. On 26 March, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus reported that a man had been arrested for allegedly preparing two terrorist attacks (one in and one near Minsk). The allegation was that the attacks were commissioned by the emigrant organisation BYPOL, established by former law enforcement functionaries.

In order to further intimidate potential protesters ahead of 25 March many heavily equipped law enforcement forces (mainly OMON and the internal troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs) were dislocated in the centre of the capital.

Despite little activity from protesters on 25 and 27 March, the police detained both random passers-by and people suspected of wanting to join protests. In total, over 400 people have been arrested in recent days. Some of them have already been sentenced to detention of up to 15 days, others were released after their identity had been checked. 

Effect of repression

The lack of mass street protests in Belarus is above all the effect of a huge wave of repression during the last few months – hundreds of people have been sentenced to long prison sentences (usually from two to five years) for having participated in demonstrations held in 2020. Similarly, even the smallest manifestations of dissent, such as wearing white and red clothes or hanging illegal symbols in the windows of private flats, have been severely punished.

belarus 322 politieke gevangenenPolitical prisoners in Belarus since summer 2020

Journalists, social activists and human rights defenders have also been targeted and this has been accompanied by intensive propaganda in the state-owned media. These measures, aimed at intimidating Belarusian society, have so far proved rather effective in almost completely demobilising the resistance movement for protests of 25 March (a symbolic date for opponents of the Belarusian regime). However, the low level of engagement in the protests (it was the lowest on record for Freedom Day) does not stem from changes in their political preferences since most of them still expect Lukashenko to step down from the presidency which they believe he has been holding illegally following the rigged presidential election held on 9 August 2020.

The lack of demonstrations is a failure for the opposition leaders, who announced a ‘second wave’ of protests, following a decline in the dynamics of street protests in winter. The announced mobilisation on the streets (described by some media as a ‘hot spring’) was intended to demonstrate the high mobilisation potential of the opposition and to provide a political advantage for its leaders in their possible talks with the government, as was stressed by Tsikhanovskaya.

The leaders of the opposition not only were unable to convince their supporters to participate in risky street protests, but also to take part in online voting en masse, the safest form of expressing an opinion. The number of votes cast [to demand a dialogue with the Belarusian regime - ed.] is so far 200,000 lower than the result Tsikhanouskaya obtained in an online vote for presidential candidates held on the same internet platform in summer 2020. That vote was meant to be an alternative to the official elections and Tsikhanovskaya won it. This may mean that, even though many of Lukashenko’s opponents have been intimidated, some of them are also disappointed with the lack of outcomes of the mass post-election protests held in summer and autumn 2020 and the ineffective actions undertaken by the opposition leaders, who have no genuine impact on the situation in the country.

Success for the regime

The lack of protests between 25 and 27 March is a great success for the Belarusian regime and it will be used for propaganda purposes. Not only repression as an effective means to subdue Belarusian society will continue, but the authorities will escalate. It will be used to completely discredit Belarusian democratic circles (portrayed as a group of radicals and terrorists) and to take full control of the internal situation in the country. It should be stressed, though, that the dissatisfaction of Belarusian citizens has only been muffled in its external manifestations while its causes have not been eliminated. Large-scale outrage present in society poses the risk of another rebellion which may get out of control not only of the regime but also of the opposition leaders outside the country.

This article was published by OSW Warsaw