Regional demonstrations in Belarus in February, 2017 (Image: svaboda.org)
Over the last ten days, something remarkable has happened in Belarus: Protests against Minsk’s efforts to extract more money from the population via the now notorious vagrants law have shifted from being about the economics of that action to being a political protest against the country’s president Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
That transformation which has been chronicled by many Belarusian observers (e.g., charter97.org), reflects the coming together of three things: the sense that no one in the country now supports the vagrants law, the conclusion that the regime can’t imprison all those who won’t pay the tax, and indications that Lukashenka is now frightened.
Reports from around Belarus show that no one backs Lukashenka on the vagrants tax and that he and his regime can’t possibly imprison all those – now estimated at more than 415,000 people – who say they won’t pay it.
And that conviction that the situation has now become a contest between the Belarusian people and Lukashenka has been strengthened by the fact that Belarusian lawyers are now rushing to help those rejecting the law, much as US lawyers did in response to US exclusion order.
Moreover, with protests continuing all week at the site of the Kuropaty mass graves and with the Roman Catholic archbishop coming out in support of them, ever more Belarusians now view the fight over the vagrants law as a fight with Lukashenka about the future of their country.
More mass protests are planned in the major cities of Belarus today and tomorrow. They are likely to be larger and more political than those last week, and there is now evidence that Lukashenka’s regime may now be more afraid of provoking clashes than of using them as his dictatorial regime has in the past.
Security officials have announced that they are going to pull some of their special forces off the streets, effectively yielding them to the people and showing that there are many within the Lukashenka regime who are already looking beyond him and don’t want to be tarred with their past ties.
Nonetheless, clashes between the demonstrators and the police are possible, especially at Kuropaty where protesters say they expect more provocations from Lukashenka forces. But in the current environment, any use of force by the Minsk regime is more likely to spark more protests rather than to intimidate anyone.
In short, Belarus has entered a revolutionary situation, one in which Lukashenka is unlikely to survive. What will come next depends on the Belarusian people, those inside the Belarusian government who have to make their own calculations about the future, and the attitudes and actions of Moscow and Western governments.
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