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Crackdown on Belarusian Protesters Escalates

Minsk has been heavily criticized for its handling of peaceful demonstrations against President Lukashenka. 

14 March 2017

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The European Union and Amnesty International have called for the release of protesters arrested last weekend, with EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic saying that the police action against the protesters was “in contradiction with Belarus' declared policy of democratization," according to RFE/RL.

 

The protests started in mid-February after the authorities pushed for over 400,000 people to pay a special tax on the unemployed and semi-employed for the first time since legislation was amended two years ago. Although the law has since been suspended, the protests calling for Lukashenka’s resignation continued over the past weekend, resulting in the detention of at least 48 people, including journalists and others who have been charged with attending “unauthorized” demonstrations.

 

 

The confrontations between protestors and the authorities have unsettled many already on edge over escalating tensions with Russia. The relationship between the two countries has often been rocky in recent years as Lukashenka has tried to balance improving relations with the West with keeping Russia content that Belarus will not leave its “orbit.” Moscow has banned certain Belarusian meat and agriculture products, and limited oil exports to Minsk. Earlier this month, Russian agriculture watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor issued warnings to two large Belarusian cheese producers over their use of a preservative, causing some to wonder if the motivation was rather political than for health reasons.

 

A month ago, Russia has established controls on its border with Belarus for the first time in what appears to be a reaction to Minsk’s decision to abolish some tourist visas, and another sign of the two countries’ deteriorating relationship.

 

Such arguments have ignited fears of a Russian intervention, with some analysts speculating that the mounting protests in Belarus could be used as a pretext for Russian President Vladimir Putin to move as he did in Ukraine, according to the LA Times.

 

The situation could potentially escalate, according to Andrei Porotnikov, a security analyst with the Belarus Security Blog. “What the Lukashenka administration doesn’t accept yet is that the Kremlin is only giving ultimatums now. Things aren’t going to be resolved in the same way they previously were,” Porotnikov told the LA Times.  

 

In an article for Forbes, Paul Coyer, a foreign policy expert, wrote of the current dilemma faced by the Belarusian president: “Lukashenka is not in an enviable position – he cannot afford to antagonize Moscow too greatly as his continued rule depends upon Russian support. At the same time, he doesn't want to throw away all of the effort he has undertaken over the past three years to warm ties with the West.”

 

 

 

  • However, falling oil prices and an economic crisis in Russia have driven down yearly incomes, from $7,500 a year for the average Belarusian in 2014 to $4,000 this year.

 

  • Lukashenka announced that those who had paid the tax for 2016 and would find a job this year would be fully compensated.

 

  • Lukashenka has served as the president of Belarus since 1994 and is often referred to as “Europe's last dictator.”
Compiled by Mate Mohos
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