Starting from March 6 the mood in the country has suddenly changed. The period of “soft liberalization” that we have witnessed from mid-2015, seems to be over.
During the last couple of years Belarusian government tried to improve relations with the West – political prisoners were released, people were no longer arrested by police or beaten by plain clothed thugs during rallies, journalists easily got visas, Belarusian language started to be used on state TV, foreign ministry has introduced visa-free travel for up to 5 days for 80 countries, and overall Belarus was no longer called “last dictatorship in Europe”. Russia has suddenly become a better suited candidate for this position.
And then it all happened in a matter of the last couple of days - opposition activist Siarhey Palcheuski was sentenced to administrative arrest, his colleague Zmitser Dashkevich was violently abducted by plainclothes and is expecting a jail sentence, Natalia Papkova, organizer of a protest rally in Brest, was put to a mental hospital just before the rally, other activists were detained before or after the protest.
What was really indicative, however, was a 26 minutes long “special report” on Belarus’ first national TV channel “A Phone Call to a Friend” that returned all the stereotypes of the “last dictatorship” cold war period – “opposition is corrupt and funded by the West”, “Maidan is bad and means chaos”, “protesting in Belarus will result in a war like it happened in Ukraine”, etc. A good example demonstrating the overall tone of the report: “Can Statkevich guarantee that some shell-shocked people will not bring along explosives to the protest rally that will blow up in the middle of the crowd?”
The report shows endless footage of blood and gore, violence and war from Ukraine, 26 minutes of which would set anybody’s panic switch to “overdrive”. BT stole footage from other media and manipulated facts by means of ruthless editing. The report was later broadcast on other Belarusian channels, which shows its significance for the authorities and proves it is not a piece of journalism, but was rather made to order.
Most people who watched it were shocked and sad. Most think it is preparing ground for repressions against opposition leaders and violent dismissal of the protest rallies, which have been recently growing in numbers with police quietly watching from aside. There are at least six rallies planned next week, and a big one in Minsk on March 25th, so we’ll see if the liberalization is really over.