Hundreds of protesters in Belarus under arrest

, by Alexander Steinfeldt

Hundreds of protesters in Belarus under arrest
Demonstration in Minsk on 15 March 2017 © Human Rights Center „Viasna“

In Belarus, the opposition and civil society strive against a tax for the unemployed. After nation-wide protests President Lukashenko temporarily suspended the ‘parasite tax’. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of opposition politicians and journalists detained. A chronicle by Alexander Steinfeldt.

Alexander Lukashenko, “Europe’s last dictator”, who has governed Belarus autocratically for the past 23 years, introduced a law in 2015 against people who work less than 183 days a year and are not registered at the employment office. This so-called parasite tax concerns about 470,000 people in Belarus. This year the first penalties were due.

Biggest wave of demonstrations since 2010

A few days after the shipping of the penalty notifications people collected more than 60,000 signatures against the law. On 17 February for the first time 2,000 people got together in the capital Minsk for the ‘march of indignant Belarusians’ as the activists called themselves. Two days later, demonstrations in many Belarusian cities followed.

Still in September 2016 at the parliamentary elections opposition avoided bigger demonstrations and marches despite the obvious violations against a free and fair election. The fear of arbitrary detentions and repressions against protesters like in previous years was too great. But more and more people met now to demonstrate against the parasite tax like in northern district capital Vitebsk on 26 February or in Brest on 5 March with always more than 1,000 protesters.

Lukashenko politically under fire…

Then Lukashenko’s withdrawal came. On 9 March the president announced to suspend the law for one year. He explained this step with “bad implementation” of the law in the local administrations. Many people were classified as social parasite unjustly. He ordered the authorities to compile a list of the people who are actually covered by this law.

This was a first win for the protesters who however announced to continue to go onto the streets and to mobilise even more people. Namely, opposition politicians took over rapidly the independent grass root protest groups and wanted to use the movement on the streets for further political improvements.

That’s because Lukashenko not only gave in with the parasite tax but also stopped a controversial building project close to the forests Kurapaty where ten thousands of people were killed and buried in Soviet time. “We have to continue demanding a completely different situation”, said the leader of the opposition United Civic Party Anatol Lyabedzka. Lukashenko’s announcements were only an attempt to “calm down the protest wave.”

…and fires back

Already one day later, disillusionment followed. At a demonstration in the city Maladzyechna in the north-east of Belarus several opposition politicians and a journalist were detained by security forces. On the same time the leader of a youth organisation was detained as well because of his activities against the building project in Kurapaty.

The opposition still marched the next days, on 11 and 12 March, in Pinsk, Babruysk and Orsha. After a major demonstration, the situation escalated. The repressions against protesters increased disproportionately. Arrests without hearing (so-called administrative detention) and financial penalties were imposed. In addition, security forces became more visible and there were preventive talks with activists.

Till 17 March more than 200 protesters were kept in “administrative detention” including opposition leaders and other politicians, journalists, and human rights activists. Half of them were arrested for 15 days. The reason for detention was not always taking part in the demonstration but antisocial behaviour or swearing in public. Physical and mental violence in jail, even against minors and women, were reported in social media and also confirmed by the human rights organisation Viasna. Other human rights organisations as well abroad are demanding the release of all political prisoners.

Day of Freedom ends in detention wave

Security forces block the main street in Minsk city centre at the Freedom Day on 25 March 2017 (© Human Rights Center „Viasna“)

The major demonstration planned for the unofficial Day of Freedom on 25 March in Minsk was prohibited. However, several hundreds of protesters rallied in the city. Thereupon more than 400 of them were caught by violent means and temporarily arrested including foreign journalists. Overall the work of the independent media was made impossible. The office of the human rights organisation Viasna was stormed and the internet was blocked in the centre of Minsk.

The suppression of the protest movement as a provisional highlight of the demonstration of Lukashenko’s power is a setback for the opposition and the local initiatives. But already the previous marches, assemblies and protests changed the country. For the first time, people could be mobilised for demonstrations independently from election time. Furthermore, protests weren’t territorially limited to the capital Minsk but spread to district capitals and smaller cities. The social topic and injustice led to an “almost revolution” as political scientist Andrey Suzdaltsev characterised it.

Harsh weeks are lying ahead for the opposition and activists. President Lukashenko will proceed with an iron hand. It’s getting more and more visible what he is ready to do. A strong and extensive civil movement like the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine shall be prevented by all means. On the one hand, Lukashenko will defend his power and policy ruthlessly, on the other hand, he doesn’t want to give up the slightly improving relations with the European Union. The president appears struck, but the bell for the last round hasn’t sounded yet.

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