Europe's most repressive state is re awakening.
“Basta!” the placards read. “We are not slaves.” These are the most popular slogans brandished at the street protests that have been rippling through Belarus.
The trigger for the demonstrations was a presidential decree imposing a tax on people who declare fewer than 183 days of work a year. The underlying cause is general despondency about life in Europe’s most repressive state.
The protests, which have seen thousands take to the streets and more than 100 people detained in a government crackdown, could come to a head on 25 March, when thousands are set to gather in the centre of Minsk on Freedom Day.
The backdrop is this: an economic “miracle” that vanished; a “president”, Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for almost 23 years; and an EU that has bigger problems closer to home.
Lukashenko urgently needs money to prop up the economy and has tried to get it from the west by strengthening his liberal rhetoric and pretending to ease repression at home. This policy has borne some fruit: in February last year the EU lifted sanctions imposed on the regime after a crackdown against protesters in 2010.
Before that crackdown, Europe had not wanted to see the obvious: Lukashenko was losing a presidential election and would resort to force to stop people rejecting the regime.
Things have since changed. The Arab spring has demonstrated that people do not tolerate tyrannies, even if they are supported by the west. Ukraine demonstrated that people do not tolerate corruption and cheating, even if they are supported by Russian money.
This year Belarus is reawakening. It again looks like there is opportunity for real change. The burden of the dictatorship has become unbearable and people do not see any future with Lukashenko in power. That is why they are resorting to the only means they have – street protests.
Belarusians want change and want it to come about peacefully, starting with free elections under international supervision.
As in 2010, the west is turning a blind eye to the situation. But things have since changed, specifically Russia’s aggressive policies in the region.
Belarusians are protesting peacefully so far, and they want to keep it that way. They will never buy the argument developed by the regime, and echoed by parts of the western media, that their protests benefit the Kremlin and that Russia might use the situation to move in. They want to get rid of their slavery not for Russia or the west but for themselves and their children.
The protests are likely to grow in number and intensity as the economy slides into an even deeper hole, so deep that credit from the Kremlin or the International Monetary Fund won’t save it.
And any financial support given to the government from the west is likely to be diverted to pay for “Zapad-2017” – a joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise, which is designed to make citizens feel more secure.
Belarusians do not want these exercises, they do not want Russian troops on their territory and they do not want more tension in the region.
The best way the west can support Belarus is to understand the root of the problems that citizens are protesting about and try to fix them. They should start, for example, by supporting new free elections in the country.
It is better to view Belarus as an independent country, not a hostage of Lukashenko or the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
It is also better to stop preparing for what the Kremlin will do if the situation in Belarus unravels, but instead prepare the ground for such developments based on international law, which means that any aggression, or attempt at occupation, would be punished immediately.
Andrei Sannikov, The Guardian
Andrei Sannikov is an exiled opposition politician who ran for president in 2010