ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO used to be called the last dictator in Europe. He is still a dictator, but now he has company. Even so, the president of Belarus stands out for his clever use of survival authoritarianism, easing repression one day, applying it the next, cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin one day and the European Union the next.
In recent weeks, this tactical balancing act, which has helped Mr. Lukashenko remain in power for more than two decades, has seemed again precarious. As in neighboring Russia, people in Belarus appear to be fed up with decline and stagnation, which is even more marked in a nation that never reformed itself out of Soviet socialism. A spate of recent small protests turned larger on the weekend of March 25-26 and the president and his security services responded with hundreds of arrests, the most serious crackdown in seven years. The arrests threaten to tarnish Mr. Lukashenko’s recent warming with the European Union and also give the shivers to Mr. Putin, who props up Belarus with economic favors but hates it when more than two people hold up a placard in a public space.
In February, the authorities announced they would begin to enforce a 2015 decree that places a fine of $250 a year on those people who work fewer than 183 days a year. This is a throwback to an old Soviet complaint about slackers and wreckers. The rules were drawn so that freelancers, housewives, artists and others who did not formally register as unemployed were subject to the tax or stiff penalties as “social parasites.” In the capital, Minsk, the first big protest broke out Feb. 17 and brought out 2,000 to 3,000 people. Over the weeks that followed, more demonstrations were held across the country, with people chanting, “I am not a social parasite.” It was notable that the protests spread beyond Minsk to provincial cities, which had not been the case in earlier protests. The demonstrations were peaceful and largely not disrupted by police. On March 9, the president announced that the decree would be suspended until 2018 and protesters could voice objections, while the “instigators” of the demonstrations would be “picked out like raisins from a bun.” Mr. Lukashenko controls the security services, which carried out a string of arrests in March of opposition politicians, activists, bloggers and journalists. Then last weekend came large protests in Minsk and a severe police response, arresting hundreds in the city square.
The repression is in keeping with Mr. Lukashenko’s long record of intolerance of democracy and dissent. Last year, the E.U. lifted sanctions on Belarus, citing its improved human rights record, but no one should be fooled that Mr. Lukashenko will ever become a democrat. As long as he rules, Belarus will be locked in a kind of dead zone. The recent spark of protest may be a sign that society is tired of this prison and won’t be silenced.
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