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Analysis: Crackdown during Opposition Rally to Result in Additional Protests; Wider Instability Remains Highly Unlikely

Category: Unrest

Severity: 3 (Moderate)

Source: Drum Cussac

03/27/2017 (Belarus) - On Saturday, 25 March Belarusian opposition activists held a rally in Minsk. The event marked a key commemoration as anti-government groups organise annual rallies on 25 March. These are held in memory of the foundation of the Belarusian People's Republic, an independent state founded in 1918 and absorbed with the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1919. In 2017, the lead-up to the protest and the actual Freedom March resulted in a major security crackdown in Minsk. Special police of the OMON unit along with internal intelligence officers of the KGB supported regular police. Dozens of security vehicles were deployed along Independence Avenue.

According to local human right activists more than 700 protesters and members of opposition groups were detained. At least 120 of them were detained on 24 March in pre-emptive police operations. It is highly likely that these detentions are temporary and the majority of those in police custody will almost certainly be released in the short-term. However, the local opposition is condemning the crackdown. The 25 March protest did not result in any widespread unrest in Minsk. Follow-up small-scale demonstrations took place on 26 March in October Square. These were attended by dozens of activists and police promptly intervened to disperse the crowds. Those challenging police orders were detained.

The 25-26 March demonstrations are linked to an attempt by the Belarusian opposition to build upon anti-government sentiment sparked by the implementation of a new tax. Since mid-February protests have been taking place sporadically in Minsk and throughout the country's regional capitals. These were sparked by a presidential decree that was signed by President Alexander Lukashenko in April 2015. The decree came to be known as the "social parasite" tax bill. It imposes a tax of approximately USD 210 on some segments of the Belarusian working population that have worked less than 183 days per year. President Lukashenko stated the measure would not be implemented in 2017 to mitigate the risk of social unrest. February and March's anti-tax protests are noteworthy as they took place nationwide while in general most opposition protests tend to occur only in Minsk. However, these do not generate a wider risk of instability in the country.

The political opposition in Belarus lacks the necessary organisation and support needed to mount a credible challenge to President Lukashenko's power structure. While opposition figures, newspapers and activist groups continue to function and are partially tolerated by Belarusian authorities, they are closely monitored by the internal security and intelligence services. Ahead of the 25 March protests, President Lukashenko stated that domestic and foreign militants may try to use violence to destabilise Belarus. While it is unlikely that foreign groups will pose a direct threat to the country's stability, it is probable that a small number of Belarusian opposition activists may try to use tactics applied in Ukraine to challenge the local government. President Lukashenko's statement also highlights the ruling authorities' will to crackdown on any opposition protest using the claim of national security issues.

Members of opposition groups periodically conduct protest rallies and marches in Belarus. These mainly occur in the centre of Minsk, but demonstrations are also sporadically held in regional centres. Protest activity generates a low safety risk in Belarus. Opposition protests are generally attended by small groups of activists that range from a few dozen people to a hundred participants. Larger demonstrations such as the 17 February and 25 March ones are an exception. Opposition protests are generally tightly controlled by police and special police units. National intelligence officers in plain clothes are also likely to monitor larger rallies.

Unsanctioned protests are likely to be disrupted by police officers and activists trying to antagonise security forces are likely to be detained. Protest activity in Minsk and throughout the country does not generate any wider operational and travel concern; however, it is strongly advised to avoid the vicinity of all opposition protests to mitigate the risk of being exposed to police operations and monitoring by local intelligence officers. Current security operations targeting opposition groups are likely to be met by condemnations by the EU and human right groups and may result in additional periodic anti-government rallies. However, these will almost certainly not pose a heightened risk of instability in the country.

Copyright © 2017 Drum Cussac

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