Protests in Belarus: opposition versus LukashenkaA series of street protests broke out in late February 2017 in Belarus. Alexander Lukashenka, the “last dictator of Europe” who had not allowed opposition in his country for years, now faces mass rallies that may shatter his presidency. Roman Yakovlevsky, a journalist and political expert from Belarus, provides insight about the situation.


Interviewer: Shahana Bilalova 


Bilalova: In comparison with previous years, President Lukashenka has softened his position towards the opposition. A number of political prisoners were released from prisons in 2015. Also, some opposition figures managed to get into parliament last year. What do you think about the reasons for this change in the president's policy?

Yaroslavsky: Political prisoners who appeared after the events of December 19, 2010, when people dissatisfied with the results of the presidential elections protested in the center of Minsk, were indeed released from prisons. This was one of the main conditions for starting the normalization of EU's relations with Belarus. However, they were not rehabilitated, which deprives them of the right to participate in any election. Also, the admission of two women to parliament cannot be considered the representation of opposition in the parliament. It is true that one of them is a member of the oppositional United Civic Party. But they are in no way able to influence any decisions of the parliament, which itself in the current system of power is unable to create any serious influence in a country where everything is decided by the president. And he considered he could afford such decorative changes in his policy.


Taking into account all factors, do you think these are the beginning of certain political liberalization in Belarus, or is it about President Lukashenka's attempt to improve relations with Western countries?

There is no kind of liberalization in Belarus. It is unnatural for the ruling regime, which retains all repressive security structures in its former form that stays away from civilian as well as parliamentary control. Lukashenka's attempts to improve his image in the West by reducing the degree of political repression are caused by the difficult situation in the Belarusian economy due to the investment needs. Moreover, it should be specially mentioned that the relationship between Putin and Lukashenka worsened sharply due to the loss of mutual trust. Such a situation elevated hopes in the West to distance Lukashenka from Russia. Nevertheless, these events are only illusions that could bring the West another disappointment, or even some dangerous surprises.


Public response to the recent law ‘On parasites’ became unprecedentedly tough; some voices that demanded Lukashenka`s resignation were also heard. Will Lukashenka compromise due to these reactions or sternly respond to public discontent by justifying the image of the “last dictator of Europe”? 

People who know Lukashenka reckon that he simply does not compromise since he considers compromises as a demonstration of weakness. Moreover, he is not the last dictator in Europe, as there is also Putin.


Many people believe that the current circumstances carry serious potential for destabilizing the political situation in the country. Is there any risk, in your opinion, for the situation to get out of control and repeat the scenario of Maidan? How does the current president keep the situation under command?

Apparently, the current protests have mostly been surprising for the authorities. According to some versions, someone deliberately misinformed Lukashenka about the ongoing situation in the country. But the development of the situation with bloody accompaniment as in Ukrainian case is impossible in Belarus. However, after the Crimean blitzkrieg and the conflict in the east of Ukraine, the manageability of destabilization by Moscow and to a lesser extent by the West is discussed more and more in Belarus. In different strata of society. But one thing is obvious: there is a growth of protest attitude against the president himself.


Recently, relationship between the Russian and Belarusian authorities are, probably, at their lowest point. Is the scenario, in which Moscow, tired of President Lukashenka's insisting in political independence, will openly support opposition forces?

In terms of the status, oppositional parties do not enjoy real power. But the oppositional moods are not new to the nomenclature. So here Moscow can find an interesting scenario for Belarus without Lukashenka with the level of political independence of Belarus which is acceptable to Kremlin and which no one in the West will really protect from the Russian imperialists.