News & Analysis

In Belarus, protest has become a part of everyday life

belarus protests

Minsk on December 6 was a familiar sight for anyone who has been following events in Belarus since a rigged presidential election was held in August.

Widespread demonstrations by opposition supporters calling for a new, free, and fair election in Belarus were met with the customary brutality of the country’s authorities on December 6, who arrested around 300 people, often at random, bringing the total number of those detained since the protests began to over 28,000.

While in the early days of the protests most of those arrested faced administrative charges and were sentenced to fines or detention for up to 15 days, in recent weeks the authorities appear to have changed tactics, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

“Increasing numbers of demonstrators are being charged under various articles of the Criminal Code, which sometimes entail heavy prison sentences,” said Bachelet, a former president of Chile and political prisoner during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, on December 4.

“Overall, in the context of the elections, over 900 people have reportedly been treated as suspects in criminal cases, including opposition presidential candidates, supporters of the opposition, journalists, bloggers, lawyers and human rights defenders.”

Systematic human rights violations

Bachelet added that her office’s monitoring and analysis of the Belarusian demonstrations since August indicate that “although participants have been overwhelmingly peaceful, they have been systematically, and in most cases, violently dispersed, including by tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and stun grenades.”

Since August, 373 journalists have been arrested in Belarus, six of whom remain in detention, with three facing criminal charges.

Meanwhile, lawyers involved in human rights violations are also under pressure – with some disbarred and others facing criminal charges – and disciplinary sanctions are being imposed on protesting teachers and students.

The high commissioner called on the government to put an end to ongoing human rights violations by, among other things, immediately releasing all those unlawfully detained and ensuring independent and transparent investigations into all allegations of torture and other human rights violations.

There is little chance of that happening.

Indeed, in response to Mrs Bachelet’s comment, Belarus’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Yuri Ambrazevich, said that most people in the country “are continuing with their normal lives” and that “the government is functioning, as are factories and offices”.

Mr Ambrazevich’s comments were a reminder that despite the continued support for the opposition movement, the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, who by any objective measure was soundly defeated in August’s election by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, remains in control of Belarus.

Strike

In October Mrs Tikhanovskaya, currently in exile in Lithuania, and whose husband is one of the many political prisoners still in detention, handed Mr Lukashenko an ultimatum: step down or face a general strike.

“All enterprises will begin a strike, all roads will be blocked, state-owned stores will no longer have any sales,” she said on October 12.

It hasn’t quite worked out like that.

With the vast majority of major firms still owned by the state, it has been relatively easy for the authorities to prevent widespread strikes by use of threats. For many workers, the risks of striking are simply too high: it is not just their jobs at stake, but in many cases those of their families, and their children’s education.

The weekly Sunday protests nevertheless continue, and remain a thorn in Mr Lukashenko’s side.

“Protest has become a part of our life, as integral as work or time with family,” Mrs Tikhanovskaya said ahead of the latest demonstrations. “Each march is a reminder that Belarusians will not surrender.”

A struggling economy

Eventually, it could be the slow drip of constant protest and economic hardship that does for Mr Lukashenko. While the general strike did not materialise on the scale the the opposition hoped for, the protests have already cost Belarus an estimated 500 million US dollars: the country’s entire economy is only worth a total of about 60 billion US dollars. Late last month is was reported that country only has nine billion US dollars of reserves, equivalent to just 2.5 months of imports. Exports have plunged 15 per cent since the beginning of the year.

International credit ratings agency Fitch Ratings recently downgraded its outlook on the country’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to negative from stable, following a similar move by agency Standard & Poor’s.

To survive, devaluation of the Belarusian ruble will probably be needed. The currency has already fallen 30 per cent against the euro since the beginning of the year due to an energy row with Russia. The government has also had to spend 1.5 billion US dollars in hard currency reserves to shore up the ruble since protests began.

Last week, Mr Lukashenko admitted that 2020 had been the country’s most difficult year economically “for decades” and announced that discussions regarding the country’s next five-year plan would be delayed until January.

Many in Belarus will be hoping that by then, he is no longer around to chair them.

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