On 10 March, a court sentenced six football hooligans to lengthy jail sentences for a fight between fans of FC Partyzan Minsk and a rival group of ultras which occurred in June 2014. The football fans received particularly severe sentences of twelve, ten, six and four years in jail.
In sentencing the leftist hooligans to imprisonment, officials intend to keep anarchists and football ultras off the streets during the countrywide social protests which started in Minsk on 17 February.
Despite the fact that human rights organisations have not recognised the ultras as political prisoners, the sentence can be seen as political motivated. Fans of the currently defunct football club were well-known for their antifascist views and had links to the anarchist movement.
Following the violent suppression of peaceful political protests in Belarus, many policy-makers Western capitals are at a loss. Should they re-impose sanctions? Ignore human rights violations for geopolitical concerns?
To resolve this quagmire, it is important to understand why the Belarusian authorities have resorted to violence.Why are Belarusian authorities overreacting?
Although no one doubts Alexander Lukashenka's willingness to resort to violence against peaceful protestors, expert opinion differs over why exactly he chose violence this March. Over the past several years, the authorities have refrained from resorting to large-scale violence. Unsanctioned opposition protests were monitored, but large-scale violence was not used until this month.
During a meeting with defence minister Andrei Raukou on 20 March, president Alexander Lukashenka demanded 'absolute transparency' at the forthcoming West-2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercise. The Belarusian government is working to counter the negative repercussions of such a massive show of military force in the region.
These repercussions have certainly been felt. On 9 February, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė stated that during the West-2017 exercises 'aggressive forces are concentrating in very large numbers, this is a demonstrative preparation for a war with the West.'
On 22 March, Alexander Lukashenka revealed an extraordinary discovery – the authorities had arrested armed fighters who were planning to overthrow the government on 25 March, the day when the Belarusian opposition traditionally celebrates Freedom Day with mass rallies.
The fighters allegedly had training camps inside Belarus and in neighbouring countries. The official media also reported on a series of related incidents, such as gunmen in a car attempting to force their way through a border checkpoint in Ukraine. This all comes in a context of mass arrests of oppositional activists protesting the ‘social parasites decree’.
While many Belarusians call themselves religious, less than 10% regularly visit church and only 33% believe that religion is important, according to a Gallup study of religiosity. Despite the fact that Belarus is among the top-15 least religious countries in the world, according to Gallup, the Orthodox Church remains influential in the public sphere.
The Orthodox Church maintains a special status in Belarus and takes advantage of this to promote pro-Russian and military values. The regime and the Orthodox Church both benefit from cooperating with each other. At the same time, due to its complex structure and Russian links, Lukashenka has been unable to bring the Belarusian Orthodox Church completely under his control.
Arrests infographics, Washington conference, MediaBarCamp, feminist protest - Belarus civil society digest
The toll of activists detained as a result of street protests against decree #3 reaches nearly 200 people, sentenced to 982 days of arrests and $7,600 of fines. TUT.BY visualises statistics of the "protest spring." The two-week defence of Kurapaty protected area seems to have ended in the victory of activists: construction works halted.
On 15 March, Belarusian authorities detained dozens of citizens protesting against the social parasite decree. Anarchists were one of the most noticeable movements at the protests in Brest and Minsk, causing an immediate reaction from the police.
Anarchists in Belarus, who have a long history, tend to participate only in particular political events. Their creativity and integration distinguished them from other groups during the last two weeks of protests.
The regime has put considerable effort into diminishing the influence of any uncontrollable and integrated group of dissidents, including anarchists. Independence Day on 25 March will show whether the anarchist movement in Belarus is ready for social and political protest or whether it will continue to operate mostly underground.
Minsk alludes to 'shared values' with Europe as Brussels downplays repression - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Security services have so far detained over 150 protesters following mass rallies in Belarus. Many were arrested or fined, and some were beaten.
However, the authorities' return to mass repression of the opposition has provoked a muted reaction from Western democracies. The government’s actions have so far failed to disrupt the intensive dialogue between Minsk and European capitals.
High-level diplomats from Germany and Belgium visited Minsk when the repression was already in full swing. Belgium’s deputy prime minister de facto condoned the administrative arrests, while the German diplomat warned Belarus against ‘backsliding in terms of democracy’.
The recently published survey Civic Literacy in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus revealed that the civic literacy rate is lower in Belarus than in Ukraine and Moldova, except when it comes to such issues as budget and taxes.
The survey attempted to determine how people in the three countries understand the principles of interaction between the state and citizens, how they participate in public life at the local and national level, and what kind of knowledge they are lacking. The survey sample in Belarus included 1005 people.
Several corruption scandals shook Belarusian sport in 2016. They demonstrate that even Alexander Lukashenka's favourites are not safe from corruption.
Perhaps the most discussed case was the five-year prison sentence of Maksim Subbotkin, the General Director of the most successful ice-hockey club in Belarus – Dynama-Minsk, whom the court charged for embezzlement.
In spite of the fact that the Belarusian state prides itself on its achievements in fighting corruption, bribery remains widespread in all spheres of life, including sport. Moreover, corruption has become a part of the Belarusian political system. Corruption scandals perform an ideological function and serve to control the bureaucracy.
In 2012, Belarus became 18th out of the world's 20 leading arms exporters, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published last month.
Despite this achievement, the situation of national arms industries remains precarious. Belarusian arms producers are increasingly loosing sway on the post-Soviet market. Since 2007, The Kremlin has pursued a policy of substituting Belarusian products with Russian ones.
Under these circumstances, Minsk is focusing on traditional Soviet-era markets (such as China and Vietnam) and cooperation with conservative regimes in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. For example, Belarusian firms are currently seeking a contract on modernisation of Malaysian MiG-29s. At the end of February, Belarusian officials signed new agreements with a major defence company from the United Arab Emirates.
The government will postpone the ‘social parasite’ decree but not rescind it. The Minister of the Interior claims that the opposition is waging an information war against his ministry. A round table with Belarus Segodnia discusses whether Kurapaty should become a National Mourning Memorial.
The Belarusian government reveals a Russian official's vested interest in banning Belarusian imports. The Belarusian president hosts his Georgian counterpart Giorgi Margvelashvili in Minsk.
Minsk may restore cooperation with the Russian company Uralkali. This and more in the new edition of Belarus state press digest.
Recent statements by Belarusian officials have confirmed that the country's citizens should not expect a more liberal visa regime with Europe in the foreseeable future. Belarus's decision to introduce a conditional visa-free regime for nationals of eighty countries, many of them European, does not mean Europe has to reciprocate.
Georgia and Ukraine, Belarus’s fellow inmates in the Soviet camp, will soon join Moldova in the group of countries which enjoy visa-free travel to the Schengen zone. Meanwhile, Belarusians are subject to the strictest Schengen visa regime amongst all Eastern European nations.
In Soviet times, extramural education was extremely popular in Belarus – the Soviet Union took pride in having created a system for obtaining almost all educational degrees remotely. It was the first in the world to do so.
Extramural education still remains popular, although its utilisation is less wide-spread than in neighbouring countries. Promoting distance education in Belarus would make education more accessible to broader circles of society, including those who are constrained by physical or economic factors.
On 8 March, women the world over will celebrate International Women’s Day, which commemorates women's emancipation and their achievements. However, Belarusians largely celebrate the 8th of March in a different way, putting an emphasis on women as mothers, housekeepers, and wives.
On 17 February, the Council of Ministers signed a national plan on gender equality for 2020. Although Belarus generally performs very well in gender equality indicators, women nevertheless earn 24% less than men and occupy high academic positions in only 23% of cases.
The weak representation of Belarusian women in politics and business should have the potential to galvanise them to demand rights. However, the women’s movement in Belarus is woefully underdeveloped, disorganised, and disoriented.
Aliena Arciomienka, BISS, analyses the impact of the crisis on the potential of street protest in Belarus. Thomas De Waal, Carnegie Europe, suggests Lukashenka’s balancing act is made easier by the confusion coming from the White House as to what constitutes current U.S. foreign policy.
High basic civic knowledge, low trust in influencing government - Pact presents key results of the Civic Literacy Test survey in Belarus. Aliaksandr Klaskoŭski reflects on a meeting between Lukashenka and chief editor of Narodnaja Volia independent newspaper.
The new papers added to Belaruspolicy.com database include a study of the Belarusian High Technology Park, joint stock companies, and the 8th issue of the Macroeconomic Review of Belarus.
The recent visit of Alexander Lukashenka to Sochi on 15 - 26 February 2017, which did not include an audience with Vladimir Putin, casts the relationship between Minsk and the Kremlin in an ever more ambiguous light.
Tensions between Belarus and Russia have been mounting over the past months, as the Kremlin puts more and more pressure on Minsk. The nature of this pressure is perfectly encapsulated by the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine of hybrid warfare. According to the doctrine, Belarus and Russia have entered the 'pre-crisis' stage of conflict.
In an interview published on 23 February, Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou announced the forthcoming purchases of state-of-the-art Russian weaponry.
He specifically mentioned the Su-30SM fighter aircraft and 120mm Nona-M1 heavy mortars. Earlier, on 4 February, armament director of the Belarusian armed forces Major General Ihar Latsyankou said that Minsk would purchase these systems this year.
In other words, despite its dependence on Moscow, Minsk has prevailed in its dispute with the Kremlin over defence issues. Moscow initially did not wish to provide Minsk with weapons, intending instead to replace Belarusian with Russian troops. However, it has conceded one positions after another. Minsk has thus emerged victorious in this spat.
On April 2, 2015, President Alexander Lukashenka signed Decree No. 3 “on preventing social dependency”, otherwise known as the “idleness decree” or the “social parasite tax.”
The new law requires nearly half a million jobless Belarusians who did not pay taxes for more than six months, to pay an annual fee of approximately $245 (as of January 1, 2017).
This fee is quite high, particularly for a jobless person, considering the average monthly salary in Belarus is roughly $380. Those listed as officially unemployed are exempt from the decree, as they must do work on behalf of the state to receive their benefits (such as street cleaning).
The presidential press service of Belarus describes the tax as targeting those who “do not live within their means and use all amenities such as free education and healthcare services.”
Second Annual London Conference, growing Belarus-Russia tension, Bologna process – Ostrogorski Centre digest
The Ostrogorski Centre co-organised the Second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies in cooperation with University College London and the Belarusian Francis Skaryna Library and Museum.
In February, analysts of the Ostrogorski Centre discussed Russia’s attempts to destabilise the region around Belarus, the possibility of Moscow toppling Lukashenka, and the outcomes of Belarusian foreign policy in 2016.
The Centre has also released an analytical paper entitled ‘Challenges to Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area’, which resulted from the Fourth Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish Conference.