Domestic Discontent Spreading in Russia and Belarus

Just three years after the Euromaidan uprising prompted Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych to flee Kiev for refuge in Moscow, Ukraine has finally begun to make tangible progress in its reform agenda. Yanukovych, who in his two-and-a-half years as president was infamous for stealing the country’s remaining wealth to line his pockets and those of his friends, was drummed from office in large part because of his administration’s rampant corruption.

So perhaps the citizens of Belarus and Russia have taken a cue from their neighbor’s success, though limited, in rooting out the corruption that makes the lives of so many ordinary citizens miserable.

In recent weeks, Belarusians and Russians have several times taken to the streets in cities both small and large to protest the government’s abuse of its citizens. Perhaps inspired by the Ukrainians who in 2014 confronted Yanukovych’s army of riot police, the Belarusian and Russian protestors marched unafraid of being beaten or arrested by the vast security force that surrounded them ominously.

In Belarus, dictator and president Aleksandr Lukashenka stirred the deep and long suppressed resentments of citizens when he announced a $250 “social parasite tax” on the unemployed (yes, the unemployed) two years ago—a huge burden in a country where the average annual income is around $4,500 and where the government has proved itself incapable of building a real economy (most of Belarus’ funds come from Russia).

But it was only in January that the Lukashenka government attempted to collect those taxes, sending out 470,000 collection notices. The result was a series of protest marches that began in mid-February and still continue although Lukashenka has delayed enforcement of the decree by one year.

The Russian protests were sparked by a recently released video created by Russian opposition politician and 2018 presidential candidate Alexei Navalny and his Fund for the Fight Against Corruption. The 45-minute film, profiles the lifestyle excesses of diminutive Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, and reveals his hidden and likely stolen wealth given the Kremlin’s mafia culture and Medvedev’s declared income of $132,144. The YouTube video has been seen nearly 15 million times—and counting.

Meanwhile, Russia’s serious economic downturn of recent years has negatively affected the conditions and prospects for ordinary citizens who seemed to have accepted hardship while Putin tried to make Russia great again. But Medvedev’s profligacy in such times is quite another matter and rather an insult.


Takin’ It To The Streets

The recent and ongoing protests in Russia and Belarus are relatively small compared to past demonstrations. Where around 40,000 Belarusians protested in Minsk in 2010 after Lukashenka was dubiously reelected, Saturday’s protest—the largest of the demonstrations to date—drew only several thousands.

But it is significant that in the period since the parasite tax was announced, protests have popped up not only in the capital city, but in smaller cities like Gomel, Vitebs’k, and Brest.

Likewise, about 8,000 people in Moscow and 10,000 in St. Petersburg marched in Russia, a far cry from the 100,000-plus citizens who took to the streets in 2011 and 2012. However, whereas the rallies of 2011-12 were largely confined to these two cities, the past weeks’ protests spanned 100 cities across Russia – protests which were livestreamed and reportedly watched by some 170,000 people at their peak.

In addition, the police crackdown has been far harsher in both countries than in 2010-12. In Moscow, over 1,000 people—or roughly an eighth of the protestors—were detained, including opposition leader Mr. Navalny. An additional 400 were taken in by police in other towns and cities across the country. The Belarusian human rights organization Viasna reports that during the month of March, over 900 people were arrested—some before they could even take part in marches—for their involvement in the anti-parasite demonstrations.

Meanwhile, Russian truckers continue to resist the government’s 2015 decision to impose the so-called Platon road tax—a tax on freight transport. The tax was recently raised again to nearly 2 rubles per kilometer driven. The truckers believe that the taxes they pay go to line the pockets of Kremlin cronies, not towards road improvement as claimed. Here again, the protests are spread across the country with 95 percent of truckers in Daghestan—a northern Caucasus republic far from Moscow—participating. Not surprisingly, the police and security organs have not been kind to the truckers either.


A Fatal Flaw?

Beneath the relatively calm and controlled exteriors in Belarus and Russia, it appears that citizens’ resentments are bubbling just under the surface. These two corrupt regimes have become detached and aloof from the concerns of ordinary people. Indeed, these governments’ abusive taxes, rampant corruption, and lavish lifestyles might be combining to introduce a period of uncertainly in both nations.

In Minsk, Lukashenka is stuck between a cranky public and a cash-strapped Russia that is increasingly unwilling or unable to loan him the sums he needs to stay afloat. The recent protests may have been sufficient to convince Putin of the need to stabilize the regime in Belarus by refinancing its national debt and discounting its gas purchases. However, these gifts will be insufficient to revive Belarus’s sluggish economy. Nor, will they provide any relief to Belarusians withering under the increasing demands of Lukashenka’s security state.

Russians have come to cynically accept, indeed expect, a certain degree of corruption; when asked about the workings of the Russian government, the writer and historian Nikolay Karamzin (1766-1826) simply replied "they steal." According to polling done by the Levada Center, two-thirds of Russians believe Putin is fully or largely responsible for the mass corruption in the “upper echelons of power.” As Putin stands for re-election to the presidency in 2018, these recent events and rising domestic discontent are likely to factor into his political calculus.

After meeting with Putin on April 3 in St. Petersburg, Lukashenka said that: "There are too few quiet, calm spots on the planet still left. So we agreed on joint measures to preserve the security of our states." Both men, it seems, are on alert. More protests are planned in both countries, and more violence against demonstrators seems certain. Whether Lukashenka and Putin, who have ruled for a combined 40 years, can yet again find a way out of their respective domestic predicaments remains to be seen, but the shadow of the now-exiled Viktor Yanukovych certainly looms large in their minds.

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