After several weeks of mass economic protests across Belarus in February and March, the government’s response has finally taken shape. The wave of rallies has forced President Aleksandr Lukashenko to repeal the unpopular “social parasite” law, which would have forced all unemployed people to pay a yearly fine of $190. But the authoritarian leader couldn’t afford to let it look like he was making concessions, so his first move was to find a target for counterattack.

Lukashenko and state TV attacked opposition leaders, who by that point had successfully taken control of the protests. Official rhetoric suggested that the people had been justified in their anger: the presidential decree wasn’t perfect, and the boyars had of course botched its implementation, but the politicians trying to harness the protests had been manipulating the frustration of the ordinary people to nefarious ends.

This idea of supporting the people while discrediting the opposition was supposed to disperse the rallies, but it didn’t work. Subsequent protests were just as large, and so the state moved into full-fledged attack mode, arresting both ordinary protesters and opposition leaders at regional rallies.

At the same time, a scare campaign was launched to prepare the public for a harsh response from the state. Border patrol reported that a jeep full of weapons had attempted to enter Belarus from Ukraine. Kiev immediately denied these allegations and published a record of a joint border patrol meeting in which the Belarusians relinquished the claim, but the sinister story made it onto the Belarusian evening news all the same.

Various TV channels ran loops of hastily cut footage depicting preparations for a Maidan-style uprising in Minsk, in which half the shots were of corpses and bombings taken from stock footage of Serbia and Donbas.

Next, 25 people were detained on freshly concocted charges of preparing mass civil unrest. Every night, Belarusian television depicted new caches of weapons, as well as shots of ransacked apartments, in which grenades had been placed carefully along the bookshelves.

As this was going on, preventive arrests were made of activists and politicians across the country ahead of Freedom Day on March 25, when the Belarusian opposition and politically inclined intelligentsia traditionally celebrate the anniversary of Belarus’s declaration of independence in 1918 with a sanctioned march in Minsk. Additional social protests were planned for the occasion this year.

On top of these measures, mandatory volunteer activities were scheduled for March 25. Schools were instructed to keep students busy and not to let them out without permission slips from parents. One government-run newspaper’s horoscope section advised every single zodiac sign not to participate in Saturday’s mass events.

The social media accounts of opposition members were hacked to announce that the rally had been canceled, and on the eve of the march, special task police began patrolling Minsk’s central square with machine guns.

The Minsk city government broke the law by not telling the protest’s organizers whether it had been approved or not by five days before the scheduled event. The night before, the government suggested it should be held in a remote city park. As expected, the organizers refused. On the evening news, Minsk Mayor Andrei Shorets announced that if that was how they wanted to play ball, the following day’s rally would be considered illegal.

On the morning of Freedom Day, every single well-known member of the opposition was in prison. Police armed with batons dispersed the rallies and detained everyone who refused to leave. Prison trucks took away up to 1,000 people.

The main point of this demonstration of power was the demonstration itself, which became clear on the evening of March 25, when about 80 percent of the detainees were released without charge. The same thing happened during Sunday’s protests, in which 20 to 30 people were arrested (of about 150–200 people in total). By this point, brute force was no longer being used.

In December 2010, when large protests were roughly dispersed, almost all of the 700 detainees were given 24 hours in prison, compared with a third of detainees this time around: most of them were let off with a fine. It was mainly young people who spent a day in prison, apparently as some sort of preventive vaccine, along with the activists and politicians who had been arrested as a preemptive measure.

The clear move away from excessive force shows that Belarusian leaders understand that the thaw of 2015–2017 has been useful, and that burning their bridges with the West is undesirable.

On the other hand, the suspicion of most Belarusian political experts has been confirmed: if Lukashenko sees a threat to the stability of his system from the protests, all other considerations, including geopolitical maneuvers, will be backgrounded. There’s no question that if the protests don’t stop, the repressions will continue. However, this time around, the foreign policy implications can’t be ignored.

The West’s reaction was measured when politicians were arrested in Belarus. Brussels and several members of the EU announced that they were worried and called on Minsk to return to the path of democratization. Freedom Day was, unsurprisingly, set as the test.

It would surely seem that Belarus failed this test. Yet again, the country appeared in the world’s headlines as Europe’s last dictatorship. But judging by the West’s reaction, Minsk didn’t cross a red line. 

The OSCE, PACE, and the EU condemned the crackdown and called on Belarus to release the detainees. Berlin, London, and Prague stated that the police response was excessive, and Warsaw hinted that it would change its stance toward Minsk if repressions continued. Only Vilnius issued a concrete warning: if new political prisoners appeared, sanctions would be reinstated.

The West’s muted collective response has several explanations. Firstly, sanctions against Minsk are traditionally linked to the number of political prisoners in Belarus: people put away on felony charges for political reasons. Arrests and 24-hour prison spells, regardless of scale, sully the atmosphere, but fly below the sanctions radar.

Secondly, Brussels noticed that the Belarusian siloviki showed at least some restraint, which indicates that not all is lost. Western diplomats don’t want to throw away years of progress in relations with Minsk because of something that could be written off as a brief spark of rage.

Finally, after Maidan, Crimea, Donbas, the refugee crisis, and the rise of populism with its Brexits and Trumps, European elites have lowered their expectations of their small neighbors. The top students are no longer those actively embracing democracy but those who don’t create headaches.

In this context, a well-guarded Belarusian border and lack of new Russian bases near Warsaw are, for now, compensation for negative headlines about Lukashenko in European media.

Does this mean that, for Belarus, the red line has shifted? In truth, nobody knows. These lines are often drawn at the moment of their crossing, and it’s uncertain whether Minsk will tip the scales. The only thing that’s clear is that to prompt a new period of isolation, Lukashenko will have to upset the West more persistently than before.

  • Artyom Shraibman