A mass rally against a tax on unemployment is scheduled to take place March 15 in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, amid signs that authorities are losing patience for such public expressions of discontent.
Dozens of activists, journalists and politicians associated with the protest movement have been taken into custody in recent days, with some sentenced to administrative detention. The civil society organization Nash Dom (Our House) said the clampdown has been especially harsh on what it described as “socially active women,” as well as female journalists.
The upheaval is a response to a presidential decree, titled “On Prevention of Social Dependency.” Although on the books for over a year, authorities only recently tried to enforce the statute.
Authorities earlier announced that they would suspend the implementation of the decree until 2018, but that announcement has not appeared to slowed the protest movement’s momentum.
Rights groups, along with US and European Union officials, have expressed concern over the government crackdown.
During the initial weeks of protests, authorities were slow to take action against participants, apparently not wanting to disrupt improving relations between Minsk and the EU.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s recent dalliance with EU leaders occurred against a background of strained relations with his chief ally, Russia. Observers say this tension was connected to the Euromaidan Revolution in Kyiv, and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and its meddling in eastern Ukraine.
As part of his bridge building efforts with the EU, Lukashenko relaxed visa requirements for EU citizens wanting to visit Belarus. Russia reacted by imposing border restrictions between Belarus and Russia. Russia is thought to fear that, as with Ukraine in 2014, Belarus was becoming too friendly with the EU.
The Belarusian crackdown on prominent protest personalities is widely seen as a move to take the wind out of the sails of the Minsk protest scheduled for March 15, and to hamper possible unsanctioned rallies that are believed to be planned for Belarus’ traditional Day of Freedom on March 25.
Nicholas Nugent is a freelance writer who covers Eurasia.