08/04/2020, 17.14
RUSSIA
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From Minsk to Khabarovsk, people protest against dictatorships

by Vladimir Rozanskij

The slogans "Russia, wake up!" and, in Belarus, "We are tired!", are signs that the neo-Soviet phase in Russian and Belarusian politics is running out of steam. In Minsk, 60,000 people protested in favour of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya against Lukashenko’s 26 years in power. In Russia, support for Putin has dropped to 23 per cent. Still, the age of "eternal leaders” might be at an end, censorship and arrests continue.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Protests, which began in Russia’s Far East in July, have spread across the country, reaching neighbouring Belarus, where elections are scheduled for next Monday.

Belarusian President Aleksander “Batka” (godfather) Lukashenko is expected to be re-elected for the seventh time, but after 26 years, his hold on power is being seriously challenged, and this despite the exclusion of many opponents.

In a show of support for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the woman who has dared to face down the godfather (picture 1), some 60,000 people filled a square in Minsk.

Support for Putin also seems to be draining fast. According to the Levada Center, a leading Russian sociological research organisation, the president’s approval rating is now 23 per cent, down from 80 per cent during the Crimea takeover in 2014. In a major attempt at crackdown on media, the President’s Office issued an advisory not to publish such data.

In Khabarovsk, where large crowds of protesters have gathered every day for a month (pictures 2a and 4), Alexey Romanov, a YouTuber with 300,000 subscribers, was arrested for covering the protests. In Moscow, a ban has been imposed on the lone picketers who stand or walk alone with protest signs. Yulia Galyamina, a Moscow municipal councillor, now faces up to five years in prison for violating such a regulation. The well-known political analyst and journalist Fedor Krasheninnikov was also arrested in Yekaterinburg on charges of insulting the authorities.

Khabarovsk’s former governor, the charismatic Sergei Furgal, has been under arrest for a month on serious accusations. However, his popularity is growing steadily every day, and is now considered one of Russia’s top 10 political leaders. Some believe that if he is released, he could follow the path undertaken Boris Yeltsin who opposed Gorbachev in the early 1990-1991.

In all likelihood, this is why the authorities have not yet used force to suppress the protests, except for a few arrests. From Khabarovsk, but also in nearby Komsomol-on the Amur and Vladivostok, the protest could spread. The protests are over the poor state of the economy, but also a desire for a more open political and social life.

Slogans like "Russia, wake up!" and, in Belarus, "We are tired!" are signs that the neo-Soviet phase in Russian and Belarusian politics is running out of steam. Until recently, the two regimes had close political ties, even though Lukashenko has tried to show greater independence from Moscow, arresting even some “little green men”, i.e. members of Russia’s unofficial forces involved in military action in Ukraine, and often deployed in Belarus.

Broadly speaking, "eternal leaders" appear to be no longer very popular, and Putin's highly centralised control – following constitutional changes – is having the opposite effect to what desired.

Lukashenko's case is not much different. When he came to power in 1994, he said that the only dictatorship would be the "dictatorship of the law". The following year, he won a referendum to rewrite the constitution giving the president full powers over parliament and law enforcement agencies. Subsequently, he used other referendums to further boost the presidential position, but now he seems to have run out of popular support.

In the past two years, Belarus has cracked down and arrested numerous journalists, placing the country in 153rd position (out of 180) in terms of freedom of the press. Only in the last month, before the elections, 25 members of the opposition media ended up in detention, including some presidential candidates.

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