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Belarusian opposition vows to fight on amid clampdown

The opposition in Belarus says it will keep pushing the regime towards dialogue - putting President Lukashenko before a political dilemma. DW spoke to leading opposition activists as a government crackdown continues.

"The gap between the regime and society is growing," Andrei Dzmitryeu, a leader of one of several opposition groups in the ex-Soviet country, told DW. "But Lukashenko's tactics no longer scare people as they once did," he adds.

Dzmitryeu made his comments as police in Belarus' capital, Minsk, continued to arrest demonstrators. The human rights organization Vesna said 30 people were arrested on Sunday. About 100 people had congregated in the capital's main square demanding to know where friends and relatives detained in the breakup of a mass protest the day before were being detained.

The protests have channeled broader discontent with the state's running of the economy under President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for 23 years.

Some 400 people were arrested on Saturday while participating in an unsanctioned protest against the Lukashenko government. About 700 protesters braved the threat of a crackdown after police earlier raided the offices of a human rights organization and arrested an opposition leader. Among those arrested were roughly 20 journalists, according to the Belarusian Journalists' Association.

Belarus has seen rare protests drawing thousands of people in recent weeks against a new tax for those who work less than six months a year. The government has suspended collection of the tax, but the trigger had been pulled, Dzmitryeu says, claiming, "Lukashenko can't put the champagne back in the bottle."

Lukashenko initially allowed the protests but this week warned Western intelligence agencies were supporting a "fifth column" of provocateurs to overthrow him. Lukashenko has long warned of a "color revolution" such as those in Ukraine and Georgia toppling his government.

"He now needs to mobilize more state resources to achieve less," said Dzmitryeu, who thinks protesters will return to the streets in force. "They are no longer motivated just by calls to demonstrate by opposition leaders. They want new jobs, and they want respect," Dzmitryeu says.

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More than the economy at stake

"It is not only about the economy anymore," Franak Viacorka, an international relations expert at the American University in Washington DC, told DW. "Protests started out against economic policies, but now people want the resignation of Lukashenko."

Some residents in the country have corroborated this.

"I would say there's definitely more resentment, because of worsening economic conditions," Alona, a dance instructor from Minsk told DW. "But this time the crowd did not look as it usually does. There were more old people and more of the kind of people you would meet in factory districts," she says.

"The so-called 'Parasite Law' meant that about half of a million people - some of them pregnant women, others workers laid off from state factories - were sent demands to pay," says Anton Rulou, a project manager at Press Club Belarus. "Also, these demonstrations - unusually - started in the regions, not in Minsk. They often had no leaders at first. These are new developments," he adds.

Riot police at an unauthorized opposition protest to mark the 99th anniversary of the establishment of the Belarusian People's Republic on March 25.

Riot police storm an unauthorized opposition protest on March 25

A regime in stasis

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"The last several years of so-called liberalization have not been a change in Lukashenko's strategy," said Vincuk Viacorka, former head of the Belarusian Popular Front Party and now an academic and civil activist in Minsk.

"He allowed no institutional concessions - neither in real democratization nor in economic reform, nor in real convergence with the West. There was only the appearance of change," he says.

Viacorka believes there has been no impetus to reform the economy because Russia has long supplied energy resources at much lower prices than to other countries.

"But with its aggression against Ukraine, Russia no longer has the resources to support Lukashenko as before," he says, adding that this drove Lukashenko to call on Western countries and international organizations for financial support.

"Against this backdrop, and as a result of the drastic drop in GDP, the authorities made desperate decisions to dramatically cut already modest social guarantees - raising the retirement age and the introduction of the tax on the unemployed," Viacorka goes on.

"Social protests then began and quickly became politicized," he says, noting that the authorities tried to neutralize them by promising to freeze the unpopular decrees, while also jailing the leaders of opposition groups.

"But - surprisingly - the protests continued and new, 'bottom-up' leaders emerged. The main slogan has been the demand not to cancel the decree but (for) the resignation of Lukashenko and his ministers," Viacorka adds.

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

A double-edged sword

The protests in Belarus place Lukashenko in a tricky position politically, Jan Mus, an academic at Vistula University in Warsaw, told DW.

"Although pro-European and pro-freedom in their accent, they also benefit Putin and Russia," Mus says. "Lukashenko has been trying very carefully not to offend the Kremlin and also at the same time engage European partners, and some have responded to this call."

From a geopolitical perspective and in terms of regional relations, the demonstrations in Minsk are therefore very challenging, Mus notes.

"If the EU response is to reimpose sanctions, Belarus will be pushed even further into the iron arms of Putin. If the protests escalate and Lukashenko loses some control, even if this is illusory, Russia will have a pretext to intervene in order not to allow another Maidan [Ed. note: reference to Ukraine's street battles against the regime] to happen. One way or another, the EU has to play a very careful game here," Mus says.

Viacorka notes that the next big protest will be on April 26. "I think it should be not so mass, and we will see how many prisoners will still be in jail. Lukashenko always coordinates his activities with the Kremlin. Maybe this is a trick to draw attention away from what is happening in Russia," he says.

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Hundreds arrested at Belarus protests

 

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