Over the last few months, Belorussian mass media have been full with news about growing displeasure among local businessmen. And even though neglected by state media, this problem is being discussed by almost everybody as it covers almost everybody.
On Feb 1, as many as 2,000-3,000 businessmen from 40 towns gathered in Minsk to express their displeasure with the government’s policy. It was an unprecedented event for Belarus. Few opposition rallies have so far gathered as many people. It was all but an ordinary forum: attended by a number of foreign diplomats (German Ambassador Peter Dettmar and representatives of the Russian and US embassies), it considered not only economic but also political problems, like the call on the IMF not to lend Belarus money until the government resigns. And even though the forum made no categorical statements for fear of harsh response from the ruling regime, it was the first time in Belarus that somebody besides the traditional opposition expressed displeasure with the government’s work.
The key problem is that on Jan 1 2016 Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko issued a decree on regulation of business activities and sale of goods by private entrepreneurs. The decree says that private entrepreneurs have the right to sell light industry products imported from the Customs Union member-states only if they have accompanying papers and Customs Union certificates. But since there are no such requirements in Russia, Russian suppliers issue no such papers or provide fakes. As a result, Belorussian importers face fines or see their imports seized.
According to Belorussian businessmen, this decree will kill them and so it must be revoked. Most of them have gone on a strike and are protesting all over the country. The coordinator of the protests, the Perspektiva movement, is even planning to organize a mass demonstration in Minsk on Feb 15 in hope to draw the president’s attention. The leader of the movement Anatoly Shumchenko believes that only the president can solve this problem: “We just want to be able to work. We have no other goals. Only the one who ratified the decree can revoke it. We, the businessmen, are urging him to correct his error. Now it is for him to decide.” But this attitude looks a bit absurd.
Lukashenko made his position clear in Jan by saying that “sweet years are over for our businessmen and now they will have to work under equal conditions.” And he does not seem to have changed his view. When he last met with businessmen, he promised them to ratify the decree a bit later but he warned that it was the last delay. The ongoing protests will hardly force Lukashenko to change his mind, especially as they are not a threat to him.
In reality, not so many businessmen are displeased with the decree. Just 50,000 businessmen trade in imported goods in Belarus and many of them have already obtained the necessary certificates. The other entrepreneurs are mostly women who are still using the ways they used in the 1990s. Besides, most Belorussians scorn people trading at marketplaces. This is why their protests are not receiving wide public support.
On the other hand, their call on Lukashenko, whose attitude towards hucksters is known, looks quite strange. The only explanation is that some people involved in the protests are pursuing some goals. For example, the leader of the United Civil Party Anatoly Lebedko, who failed during the last presidential race, was among the first to join the protesters. He said that it was time for such protests as there were lots of unresolved problems.
But there is one more explanation here – all this may be a well-organized state-controlled show. This all is very much like the events developing in the Russian Empire in the early 20th century. Just like a century ago, the key idea is that “the czar is good” and that the only ones to blame for the problems arising in the country are negligent officials. This policy allows the government not only to control the situations but also to reproduce itself. Today this is a serious problem in Belarus as nobody is ready to take responsibility for a crisis-ridden country for no reason.
No surprise that the Belorussian authorities are bringing back into public offices those once sentenced for bribery and abuse of office. Over the last few months, they have set free three former bribe takers and have even appointed them to manage agricultural and industrial companies. So, now too they may be watching the protesters to find some loyal ones among them. So, no surprise that Shumchenko is already going to join Lukashenko’s Entrepreneurship Development Council.
So, we can say that the ongoing protests are artificial even though some experts expect them to grow into a new political campaign Ploshcha-2016 or 2017. Most of the Belorussians are not showing any interest in the protests, so, it will hardly grow into something serious. Similar protest waves rose when the authorities imposed duties on imported cars or raised fuel prices. But all of them ebbed to great disappointment of protesters.