Senior Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Late March saw a heavy-handed government response and mass arrests at a series of protest rallies in Belarus. Keir Giles takes a closer look at what has been going on.
Police block the road during a demonstration in Minsk. Photo by Mikalai Anishchanka/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.Police block the road during a demonstration in Minsk. Photo by Getty Images.

What happened?

25 March is the anniversary of a short-lived independent Belarusian state in 1918, and traditionally a day for rallies organized by opposition groups. This year it also followed a series of smaller protests about a controversial new law penalizing so-called ‘social parasites’ who do not work a certain number of days each year. Demonstrations were permitted in a number of provincial towns, but not in the capital.

The response by the authorities was firm, but not dramatic by local standards. Just over 700 people were arrested, with most released the same day either without charges or awaiting trial. The following day, more arrests were made at rallies in support of those detained the day before. Some demonstrators – and apparently a number of bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time – have been given heavy fines or short prison sentences. A British photojournalist among the detainees reported physical abuse by police.

But this response may have been enough to deprive Russia of any immediate excuses for interfering, by demonstrating that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his security forces have the situation well in hand.

How is Russia involved?

Belarus has been attempting to build ties with the West and reduce its reliance on Russia. For Moscow, this has uncomfortable echoes of the situation in Ukraine in early 2014, when the threat of ‘losing’ Ukraine to the West triggered a Russian military intervention. With relations between the two countries deteriorating, Russia has taken a number of unfriendly steps including rebuilding border controls with Belarus (foreigners from a number of countries including the UK are now banned from crossing the border by road at all). And particularly relevant for last week's protests, recently Russian state media have been warning of a possible ‘colour revolution’, or regime change, through popular unrest in Belarus.

What was at stake?

After Ukraine, the possibility of another colour revolution close to home is widely seen as a likely trigger for another Russian military intervention.

The Russian-Belarusian Zapad military exercise takes place every four years, and past scenarios have closely resembled practice for conflict with NATO, including on the territory of Belarus and including using ‘colour revolutions’ as the trigger for conflict. This year, parts of Russia's 1st Guards Tank Army will move into Belarus at an early stage of the drill, and other major Russian units to the Belarusian border. But specific aspects of this year's preparations have alarmed analysts in Belarus, who think the military movements could lay the groundwork for Russia taking action against Belarus itself.

What may have caused additional concern during last week's demonstrations is that portions of Russia's 98th Airborne Assault Division were at the time already arriving in eastern Belarus for a separate joint exercise.

Perhaps as a result, Belarus is trying to make Zapad 2017 as open and transparent as possible, including by inviting observers from NATO. This transparency, on top of other improved direct contacts between Belarus and Western nations, NATO and the EU, will be particularly unwelcome to Russia.

How has the West responded?

Both the EU and NATO are constrained in how far they can respond to Belarusian overtures. The EU tends to view Belarus through the prism of human rights violations, and the latest images of detained protesters will not have helped Minsk's cause. Meanwhile in NATO, Turkey continues to block work with "partner nations" including Belarus - conveniently for Russia.

Bilateral relations are also complicated. Cross-border talks with Lithuania, which had been developing well, have been derailed by controversy over Belarus developing a nuclear power plant on the Lithuanian border only 50 kilometres from the capital, Vilnius. But relations with other NATO nations are moving ahead rapidly. Defence attaches from the US and UK have been accredited after a long absence, and a framework agreement on defence cooperation with the UK is planned for signature in the near future to match one already signed with the US. This too risks triggering a firm Russian reaction.

What happens next?

President Lukashenka's position is not easy. Maintaining a degree of freedom of movement for his country by attempting to reduce dependence on Russia and build ties with the West runs the constant risk of a damaging Russian reaction. A heavy-handed response to March's demonstrations may have bought more time by heading off Russian accusations of dangerous instability, but at the likely cost of a backlash from the EU setting back Belarus's outreach efforts. In any case, Belarus will still sooner or later be faced with a decisive choice between East and West; and the EU and NATO in particular need to be fully prepared for that moment.

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