Why Europe’s last dictator’s crackdown will only further radicalize Belarusians



A rare and large-scale protest took place in Belarus on Saturday, when hundreds took to the streets to protest a tax — the so-called “tax on parasites” — against the under-employed, PBS NewsHour reports:

By Monday, as many as 1,000 people had been arrested in connection with the unsanctioned demonstrations, one Belarusian human rights group told the Associated Press. The detained reportedly included five members of the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground theater group that has held secret performances — often on taboo topics — since 2005.

The crackdown ends a period of relative ‘repressive tolerance’ on the part of the regime, analysts suggest.

“From now on, protesters in Belarus are likely to face elevated risks of death and injury and of detention,” wrote Alex Kokcharov, senior analyst at IHS Markit, in a country risk report published on 27 March.

Belarus authorities raided the offices of a prominent rights group Saturday, detaining dozens of people ahead of the planned protests, including foreign rights workers, AFP reports.

But the weekend crackdown has only further radicalized Belarusians, analyst Paul Goble suggests:

  • First, Belarusian police were seen to attack elderly people, a violation of social norms among Belarusians who retain far greater respect for their elders than is the case in many countries. And in the wake of the police attacks, people began to collect money for those arrested.
  • Second, various groups in Belarusian society declared that they would remain in solidarity with the population against the dictator.  Among the most significant of these are Belarusian students who have played and likely will play a major part in future protests against Lukashenka and his regime.
  • And third the Roman Catholic churches in Belarus offered prayers for the future of Belarus and Belarusians yesterday, an action that many in Belarusian society will see as a vote of confidence in them and even an expression of support from an important social institution.
  • But perhaps the most obvious indication that Lukashenka has failed to intimidate Belarusians but rather by his actions has had exactly the opposite effect is what Belarusians themselves are saying in  the wake of the mass arrests.

Lukashenko himself is more a modern media-populist than a Communist functionary, says Peter Pomerantsev, the author of “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Surreal Heart of the New Russia” and senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.

His ideology is liquid: He can play the Belarussian patriot when he needs to stand up to Russia and the Russian loyalist when he needs to push away Western influence,” he writes for The Washington Post:

Similarly, the propaganda narrative that holds Belarus together does not rely on bromides about Soviet progress. Instead, it focuses on the idea that things will get worse if Lukashenko leaves. According to this vision, Europe historically brings bad things like World War II; Ukraine is at war now; Russia is filthy and corrupt. ….Lukashenko’s mix of keeping the country economically partly open to the world while simultaneously keeping his country in a psychological vice beholden to the past has worked well to shut down the ideologically driven liberal opposition. If they represent change, then why should people embrace it when change brings catastrophe?

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