By Paul Goble
Regional officials in Belarus have little experience in dealing with protests and have not been given the kind of guidance one might expect, Vladimir Matskevich says. As a result, the regions are allowing things to happen that the center might not and thus are on the way to becoming “the main threat” to Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime.
The Belarusian analyst says he expects the current wave of protests to peak between March 26 and April 26 and then recede but adds that “in the current unique situation, no one can guarantee that the protests will not revive again in the summer” (eurobelarus.info/news/society/2017/03/20/vladimir-matskevich-regiony-mogut-stat-glavnoy-ugrozoy-dlya.html).
The Minsk regime clearly already sees that “people are going out into the streets not at the urging of opposition politicians but because they are fed up with the current situation” and thus it recognizes that the “old means of dealing with protests” by force alone isn’t going to stop them, especially since economic projections remain extremely bleak.
That sense is dictating what the Lukashenka regime is trying to do: first, making sure that the opposition doesn’t have a chance to link up with the people in the streets; and second by finding a way for the government to officially suspend the infamous vagrants tax decree without Lukashenka himself having to take any public step in that direction.
Until that happens, Matskevich says, that decree and others like it will “hang like the sword of Damocles over the heads of Belarusians” and the regime will use the threat that it is about to enforce them all if people do not calm down and stop their street protests.
What has made the street protests of the last two months so threatening to the regime is that those who have gone into the streets are those who voted for Luakshenka in the past, “residents of small cities, workers of state enterprises, government officials and so on.” Indeed, this wave is beginning to reach “the force structures,” Matskevich continues.
Lukashenka’s hyper-centralized power vertical up to now works only for transmitting orders downward. On the one hand, that means that the center often remains uninformed about what is happening in this or that region. And on the other, it means that the center often doesn’t provide guidance to the regions. In the absence of such guidance, each region works on its own.
“Officials heard the words of Lukashenka for example during his meetings with journalists and experts, but they all the same wait orders and not words. Note that in all the actions outside of Minsk, the powers that be have acted variously: In Orsh, for example, they arrested journalists, but in Pinsk, they didn’t arrest anyone.
“This need not be treated as the self-action of the authorities,” Matskevich says. “They simply didn’t receive any directives or orders” and so were forced to make decisions on their own. And because there haven’t been any protests in many of these places, they have no precedent for action.
That puts them in a very different situation that the one officials and courts operate under in Minsk where there is a long tradition of having to deal with protests and political opposition, the commentator says; and that opens the way outside of the capital for officials to behave more honestly and humanely than many might expect.