Driven not by the traditional opposition but grassroots anger, antigovernment protests are sweeping across Belarus, even as fears of a crackdown -- or worse, a Russian intervention -- loom large.
MINSK -- Early on March 10, Vital Rymasheuski had a spring in his step.
Strongman President Alyaksandr Lukashenka had announced a rare concession the previous night in an effort to thwart a snowballing protest movement: He would suspend for a year the "social parasite" tax on unemployed Belarusians that had sparked rare street protests all around the country.
"It shows Lukashenka is weak," Rymasheuski said as he accelerated his Toyota RAV4 through a changing light on Independence Street and past the ominous, yellow neoclassical building in the capital that houses Belarus's security service, the KGB.
Rymasheuski, head of the opposition Christian Democrats, was excited about a protest he would join that evening in Maladzechna, a town of about 100,000 people an hour's drive northwest of Minsk. The protesters appeared to be gaining momentum, the notoriously harsh KGB hadn't stepped in to quash their demonstrations, and Lukashenka appeared to be wavering over a response. Should he let the rallies continue and chance what he would later characterize as "the Ukrainian scenario" -- in a reference to the protests that ousted a president in Kyiv four years ago -- or crack down and risk a Russian military intervention a la eastern Ukraine under the guise of protecting Moscow's strategic interests?
In Maladzechna, Rymasheuski got an answer. After marching with 1,000 other demonstrators, Rymasheuski was chased down by the KGB and detained along with two other opposition politicians. A local court quickly sentenced them to 15 days' administrative detention.
There were more detentions at a protest in Minsk five days later that was attended by around 3,000 people.
In all, more than 300 people have been taken into custody, jailed, or fined for protest actions since March 10, and Lukashenka has hinted that security forces will soon forcefully employ their usual tactic of cracking heads.
"We don't shut anyone's mouth, but one step to the left or to the right away from the law will be stopped in the most severe way possible," Lukashenka said at a meeting with security officials on March 23. "We're not scaring anyone, and we won't. But we'll be very tough in ensuring the country's laws and constitution are observed."
This is the time, throughout Lukashenka's 22-year tenure of scant tolerance for public dissent, when protests might start to fizzle out. Instead, they are continuing, with the next real test coming in the form of a rally in Minsk on March 25.
Indeed, something extraordinary is happening in Belarus, a country of almost 10 million people that has largely remained frozen in its Soviet past. Driven not by Belarus's traditional political opposition but by popular anger, Belarusians have flocked to squares around the country by the thousands and, under threat of detention, demanded not only the abolition of the joblessness tax on "social parasites" but also a solution to a deepening socioeconomic crisis and -- for good measure -- Lukashenka's resignation.
"It's time for Belarusians to get off their knees," Tatsyana Skolokina, a retiree in Maladzechna who said her meager pension is subsidized by family members' wages, which have been slashed due to recession, told RFE/RL.
She came to the protest with Inna Hanetskaya, a trained nurse who lost her job four months ago and worries that at some point down the road she will get a letter in the mail demanding she pay the "parasite" tax. The two have never been politically active before, Hanetskaya said, but "we are tired of fear."
"We have nothing left to lose," she said, adding that the KGB "can't jail all of us."
Such bold statements and movements are virtually unheard of since Lukashenka came to power in 1994. But frustrated by the joblessness tax and a two-year recession that many of them blame on the president, Belarusians have grown tired of waning living standards.
Politicization Of Society
"Feel this. It is the feeling of hopelessness," Uladzimer Lazarev, a local historian who joined hundreds more protesters on Victory Square in Babruysk on March 12, told RFE/RL.
Babruysk, home to machine-building and metal-working industries as well as Belarus's largest timber mill, was crowded with laborers who had lost their jobs or seen their wages cut -- or hadn't been paid in months. "We are waking up!" and "Down with Lukashenka!" they chanted.
"Belarusians are modest people who have been more than happy to live modestly for 25 years," Lazarev said. "But today their modest salaries aren't enough for them even to enjoy the modest things in life: bread, potatoes, salo" -- a salt-cured pork fat -- "and 100 grams of vodka. Our wages aren't enough to support even this anymore."
WATCH: Thousands Join Rallies Against 'Parasite Tax' In Belarus (March 15)
Back in Minsk, Ivan, a historian who asked that only his first name be used because he is employed by a state university, told RFE/RL that it is rare to see such public dissent in Belarus. But today, he said, as he strolled through Independence Square, the site of protests in December 2010 that erupted after a flawed vote to reelect Lukashenka but were met with truncheons and mass arrests, "we are seeing the politicization of Belarusian society."
Since then, Belarus's political opposition has trodden lightly when it comes to political actions, fearful of a similarly brutal crackdown. Mikalay Statkevich, a presidential challenger who was imprisoned for nearly five years after the 2010 election, told RFE/RL that when he was released, "I found the opposition demoralized and unready to lead protests."
He is an organizer of the March 25 protest. But older and weakened from his time behind bars, he appears to be taking a more cautious approach. So far, that appears to be paying off.
As Rymasheuski, who was also a losing candidate in the 2010 poll, explained it, the opposition leadership is taking cues from the streets this time, and not the other way around.
"[The protests] have emerged organically and sporadically, and by people who have never been a part of the opposition," he said.
A Broken Contract
That seems to be because, after years of tolerating Lukashenka's authoritarian tendencies in exchange for stability, Belarusians "feel that Lukashenka has broken the social contract with them," Ivan said.
In a nutshell, that contract was the promise of economic stability and security in exchange for their staying out of politics. But mired in a recession that saw Belarus's economy shrink and employment decline last year, Ivan and political analysts said, Lukashenka can no longer uphold his end of the deal.
One of the biggest factors in the disintegration of the social contract has been Minsk's deteriorating relationship with Moscow, Yaraslau Romanchuk, a Belarusian libertarian economist and critic of Lukashenka who heads the Minsk-based Scientific Research Mizes Center, told RFE/RL.
Russia has for years subsidized up to around one-fifth of Belarus's economy, mainly by providing it with cheap oil and gas. But that model has started to crumble, as Russia struggles to dig itself out of a recession caused in part by low oil prices and Western sanctions over Moscow's military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. Meanwhile, Lukashenka has courted improved relations with the West, including through a visa-free regime that currently allows tourists from 80 different countries, including EU members and the United States, to visit Belarus without a visa for up to five days.
Yury Tsarik, head of the Russia studies program at the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, cited state statistics in arguing that Russia's flagging economy has rippled through Belarus in the form of 7 to 8 percent annual declines in GDP since 2014.
"Since late 2014, we haven't seen any positive trends in the economy, and certainly these negative trends hurt poorer people more than richer people," he said.
Then came the "social parasite" tax on jobless Belarusians in mid-February. It amounts to around $245, a hefty sum in a country with an average monthly wage of around $380.
"People feel like they are being sucked into a black hole," said Lazarev, the historian in Babruysk.
The size and speed at which the protests spread appear to have emboldened Belarusians. But that doesn't necessarily mean the country is primed for a Ukraine-style mass public uprising, as some observers have suggested.
'Evolution, Not Revolution'
Romanchuk warned against drawing direct comparisons between what is happening in Belarus and the unrest in Ukraine that ousted a Moscow-friendly president in 2014.
The Ukraine uprising began with protests over then-President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to spurn an Association Agreement with the European Union in November 2013 that would have set the country on a westward path. It transformed into the popular antigovernment movement known as Euromaidan after security forces attacked peaceful demonstrators. The uprising culminated in February 2014, after more than 100 people had been killed and Yanukovych fled to Russia. Russia, which said it saw the West's hand in Euromaidan, moved quickly and covertly to invade eastern Ukraine and annex Crimea to secure what it saw as its sphere of influence and contribute to what many say is a new Cold War.
But the Belarusian demonstrations are unlike Ukraine protests, Romanchuk explained, because Belarusians aren't looking to join the European Union.
"They want to return to a situation where the government provides everything for them," he said. "If they were to get their $500 [salaries] back, most of them would tolerate Lukashenka for the rest of their lives."
Ivan, the historian, said people want "evolution in Belarus, not revolution."
"Belarusians are conservative and are wary of any revolution attempts," Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who researches Eastern Europe, told RFE/RL in Minsk. "A majority would see it as an attempt to destroy the [independent] state."
Fears Of Russian Intervention Loom
Belarusians' caution, plus a growing fear among many people, including officials, that a genuine uprising against the government could provide a pretext for Russia to intervene militarily under the guise of protecting its strategic interests, might also work against the protests swelling further. Moscow has long hoped to build a military base in Babruysk, potentially cementing the country as a Russian satellite and buffer to NATO -- something Lukashenka has firmly resisted.
Minsk is already rife with rumors that Russia is meddling in the protests. "There are signs that the Russians are influencing both the protesters and the authorities," Tsarik said. Fueling concerns are joint Belarusian-Russian military exercises planned for September, when thousands of Russian troops will deploy across Belarus.
Belarus's powerful state-run television has been more than happy to push the specter of Russian intervention on prime-time news programs in an apparent effort to quell the protests in the name of independence.
But neither those nor the KGB's brutal tactics have succeeded in foiling protests.
That has Tsarik concerned that the situation could turn violent.
"There will be a scenario similar to that of December 2010, but on a more significant scale of fighting and destruction," he predicted. "The implementation of this scenario may lead to the beginning of a full-fledged internal conflict in the country."