In 2017, opposition parties failed to grab the opportunities given by their presence in the parliament and the government’s declared readiness to slightly increase the role of parties in the political system. The state did not dare to give any room for their development and indefinitely postponed decisions on shaping the party system. At the same time, in 2017, parties succeeded in finding tools to represent interests of different social groups. However, the overall contribution to protest actions and social and political campaigns did not make parties stronger in terms of staffing, and the preparation for the local elections showed it well.
- The bandwidth for development of political parties remains narrow;
- Parties continue differentiation into support and representation groups, allowing significant success in advancing their socio-political agenda;
- The parties’ presence in the National Assembly has not yet facilitated their organizational and political buildup.
Social and political campaigns
Successes of political parties are mainly related to their involvement in civil campaigns, which address matters of concern of a significant number of Belarusians. The campaigns of 2017 exhibit the absence of a single center for managing parties’ actions and civil initiatives, their orientation to different segments of society (i.e. objectification of the very term ‘party’ in their activities), or effectiveness in social media. Moreover, separate interaction with their target groups (certain social groups instead of the entire democratic ‘array’) basically results from numerous failed attempts to create a single managing center.
These tactics had effect in Poland in late 2016 and early 2017. The Polish government was considering Belsat TV channel funding cuts and switching to broadcasts in the Russian language, or even closure of the channel, which gives voice to politicians and public figures. Petitions, signatures, personal statements and campaigns in social media helped to keep the channel alive, although Minsk and Warsaw agreed otherwise.
Activists of the Young Front and civil society–Dmitry Dashkevich, Pavel Severinets and Eduard Palchis – were at the cutting edge of the campaign in defense of Kurapaty. They appealed to society through social media and directly to the residents of neighboring houses, and literally threw themselves before bulldozers to keep workers from constructing an entertainment center there. The developer (who has an official construction permit) and the state did not dare to escalate the conflict. Activists of a large number of political organizations were keeping vigil in Kurapaty and held a mass rally there on March 3. 1 Presidential Administration’s newspaper SB Belarus Today supported the Kurapaty defenders. The government stopped the construction, announced a memorial in Kurapaty, and even suggested Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich to chair a commission to choose a draft of the memorial. 2
The campaign against decree No.3 was most successful, first of all, because the authorities had to back off and abolish the quasi tax on ‘social parasitism’, and also because political organizations found a way to coordinate their actions without creating a managing center.
The degree of public involvement in mass protests against the ‘decree on parasites’ was different. ‘Sabotage’ of the decree (evasion of the tax on ‘parasitism’ and waiting for an outcome of actions of more active social groups) was the most popular strategy. A significant part of society was ready for street protests. Political parties and democratic associations acted in accordance with the degrees of this readiness: human rights defenders offered legal advice and defended activists in lawsuits; the Belarusian National Congress led street protests in Minsk; right-centrist organized protests in the regions assisted by Member of Parliament Anna Kanopatskaya; Tell the Truth campaign gathered signatures for the abolition of the decree, organized appeals to the authorities and held public meetings; independent trade unions gathered signatures, challenged fines in court, and provided organizational assistance.
The people could choose from safe or potentially punishable options, and the number of protesters and their determination increased as the campaign evolved. As a result, over 75,000 signatures against the decree were collected, nearly 500 individual appeals were filed, around a thousand people took part in the meetings, and 12,000 rallied across the country with or without permission of the local administrations. 3
The versatile approach of political organizations to the protests forced the authorities to respond in the same manner by mitigating enforcement of the decree in the regions to keep the heat down as much as possible and prosecuting the ringleaders. The usual tactics of pre-emptive detentions and administrative prosecution of political leaders was not as effective as before, because the protesters were mainly ‘ordinary citizens’, i.e. previously politically inactive individuals. Fearing a further increase in protest sentiments in society, on March 9, the government announced suspension of decree No.3 4, but came down hard on opposition leaders. Anatoly Lebedko, Vitaly Rymashevsky, Yuri Gubarevich, Vladimir Neklyaev, Ales Logvinets and Pavel Severinets were arrested.
Since the basic environment for political mobilization has changed, most political organizations – members of the Freedom Day organizing committee (the right-centrists and the Belarusian Popular Front) – did not find common ground with Nikolai Statkevich’s Belarusian National Congress regarding the format of the event. Shortly before the Freedom Day, organizer of the action in the center of Minsk Statkevich disappeared, Belarusian Popular Front leaders Aleksei Yanukevich and Grigory Kostusev could not get through police cordons arranged densely all over the city center, and other members of the organizing committee (Andrei Dmitriev, Tatiana Karatkevich and Alexander Milinkevich) took part in sanctioned rallies in the regions.
Although the protest leaders were not there, a part of participants in the Minsk rally managed to organize the crowd and led thousands through the city center. Some of the detained were released on the same day, and some were fined or sentenced to 25 days of administrative arrest. The crackdown on the March 25 action in Minsk stopped the protests, but the authorities had to revoke decree No.3. It was announced in June that those who had paid the tax (62,000 people out of 450,000 officially notified) will get their money back.
The tactic of multiple centers continued in other socio-political campaigns, for example in the Korzhych case, when many civil and political groups supported the bold appeal of the mother of private Alexander Korzhych, who died in the Pechi army training center, and pressurized the authorities demanding a thorough investigation. 5 As many as 10,000 signatures were gathered for the dismissal of Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov. The government was forced to resume the investigation into the death of the soldier and other suspicious deaths death in the army. Some personnel reshuffles followed. Conscripts were given some more freedom in communicating with their families, and families were given more possibilities to communicate with unit commanders. The defense minister remained in office, though, and the investigation into Korzhych’s death was still unfinished as of June 2018.
Certain success was achieved in promoting the Belarusian language, recognizing the cultural value of the white-red-white flag, and including historical events of the pre-Soviet period in the official historic narrative.
Differentiation of the party zone and change of the leadership
As a result of the protest spring of 2017, two centers for coordinating street actions emerged within the opposition. One of them–the Belarusian National Congress headed by Nikolai Statkevich–advocates unsanctioned actions in the center of Minsk. Another center – Chernobyl Shliakh-2017 – organizing committee joined by the right-centrists, Tell the Truth and independent trade unions–choses safe tactics of sanctioned events. None of them managed to repeat the success of the protest spring of 2017, firstly, because the authorities resumed pre-emptive arrests of protest leaders with alternating permits and bans of rallies and demonstrations, secondly, because the opposition leaders’ rhetoric changed from social to political as protest actions in spring 2017 were intensifying, especially after the brutal dispersal of the March 25 rally, and, thirdly, because of the confrontation of the two organizational centers, whereas during the spring protests, there were many centers, and they complemented each other.
Aside from the protests, political organizations acted within their areas of specialization that concerned not so much ideological differences between the proponents of changes, as differences regarding the desired pace and nature of changes. Statkevich’s supporters want decisive and swift actions and accelerated reformatting of the political system, while supporters of Tell the Truth adhere to the idea of gradual and progressive changes without a demolition of the existing socio-political system once and for all. Right-centrists stay somewhere in the middle prioritizing political and economic reforms, the Belarusian Popular Front being with them, but focusing on culture.
Orientation to different social groups was manifested in different political methods. Statkevich and his BNC called for street protests (for example, against the army exercise West-2017). Tell the Truth, which obtained state registration in 2017, was building regional branches and preparing them for official registration. Tell the Truth leaders Andrei Dmitriev and Tatiana Karatkevich promoted non-confrontational tactics: meetings with representatives of ministries, the Presidential Administration, heads of district and regional executive committees, gathering of signatures, and holding regional forums and meetings.
Leaders of the right-centrists Anatoly Lebedko (United Civil Party), Yuri Gubarevich (For Freedom) and Vitaly Rymashevsky (Belarusian Christian Democracy) offered amendments to bills and lobbied EU’s pressure on the Belarusian government with a view to economic and political liberalization, particularly amendments to the law on elections, abolition of Article 193-1 (actions on behalf of an unregistered organization), notification of mass events instead of applications for permission, and registration of Belarusian Christian Democracy. The latter also paid much attention to Mothers 328 movement 6 and mitigation of the inadequately harsh punishment for drug use.
The Belarusian Social-Democratic Party (Hramada) was actively pursuing local social agendas, combining protests (for example, against the construction of a battery plant in Brest) and lobbying. The BPF traditionally focused on promoting national values, and entered into a tactical alliance with MP Elena Anisim in 2017.
The BPF continued replacing leaders of political organizations (the leaders of For Freedom in 2016 and BSDP (H) in 2018). The nomination of candidates for party chairmanship shows that parties cherish the existing differentiation of the political field. For example, Olga Damaskina, activist from Polotsk, was the most likely candidate for party chair. When she spoke in favor of rapprochement with the right-centrists, the party leadership and the core group supported former presidential candidate Grigory Kostusev, who won the election.
Preparation for local elections
The 2016 events, in particular the results of the parliamentary elections, aroused too optimistic expectations in the parties, which believed that they could enter the parliament. Many leaders of political organizations interpreted the unique coincidence with the situation in 2016 – non-confrontational perseverance of the parties, specific criteria for political progress set by their international partners, a certain lessening of tensions in the political field, and support for the idea of political diversity on the part of a group of state officials – as genuine interest of the authorities in variegating the political design using party system elements.
The government, however, wants parties to prove capable of strengthening the Belarusian political system. The year 2017 did not bring any arguments in favor of increasing the role of parties. At the same time, it seems that the government has not yet completely abandoned the idea of their greater role in political processes.
Since parties began preparing ahead of the local elections scheduled for February 2018, participation in the elections was not actually a matter of debate among entities with stable political presence, and no preconditions for participation were set. However, it became clear that the long-term tactics of boycotting and ignoring elections demotivated party activists and voters.
Besides, seeing the rapid strengthening of UCP candidate Anna Kanopatskaya and her desire to occupy her own segment of the political field by organizing Forward Belarus movement (announced in October 2017), UCP Chairman and informal leader of the right-centrists Anatoly Lebedko questioned the desirability of nomination of fellow party members to local councils. On the one hand, parties hoped that some of their candidates would enter the councils unobstructed, believing in the authorities’ interest. On the other hand, right-centrists did not put forward a criterion of inclusion of party members in local councils as an indicator of electoral system progress, and other party members were not strong enough politically to put this point on the Belarusian-European agenda.
As a result, it became clear long before the elections that parties’ involvement would be limited. Their representatives were nominated and registered as members of election commissions in 2017. Candidates’ initiative groups were also registered. Parties nominated the smallest ever number of candidates at all stages, and the authorities turned down a large number of democratic candidates for election commissions. 7 The Democrats nominated 100 fewer candidates than in the previous local elections: only 400 people, 169 of them representing Tell the Truth.
Last year, political parties came to realize a new reality: growing politicization of society, better opportunities to influence the government’s agenda, and poorer effectiveness of previous mobilization methods. The 2017 campaigns showed that people are ready to massively protest against injustice, as they understand it, put signatures for the nomination of candidates, or support other concrete actions of political organizations, but they are mainly not ready for regular political efforts, or, in general, for any regular actions, having low motivation for that.
The differentiation of the political field is associated not only with values or political strategies, but also reflects sympathizers’ willingness to act: to protest (once a year or on rarer occasions), put signatures (relatively often), and participate in election campaigns (regularly, but rarely) and participate in local initiatives (regularly and often). Some actions are relatively safe (signatures under petitions, non-confrontational promotion of local agendas, or campaigning during elections), and some are risky (particularly, participation in unsanctioned protest actions and running as candidates with a confrontational agenda).
By the end of the year, most political organizations began choosing legal and safe forms of political actions, and this trend will most likely continue in the future. Regular political activities and staffing are still problematic. Having inflated expectations for the involvement in the local elections, parties surprisingly nominated the smallest number of candidates. The result of the February 2018 elections was predictable: only two representatives of political parties were admitted into village councils.