Lukashenka: End of an era?
It is ironic that the political spring in Belarus ended just as the actual season sets in.
The break from repressions that the country had enjoyed since summer 2015 is now over. In a wry twist, it ended with mass arrests on Freedom Day on 25 March, but people are desperate enough to keep demanding changes anyway.
As Europe celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding treaty in Rome on Saturday, Belarusians gathered in Minsk and several regional cities to mark 99 years since the creation of the Belarusian People's Republic.
At first glance, there was nothing unusual about that day - not the crowds with the historic white-red-white flags, not the zealous, omnipresent police, nor the abrupt end to the demonstrations.
The run-up to 25 March also rehearsed an old routine not used since 2015. More than 300 people were detained or arrested around the country on administrative charges.
To further instigate fear, criminal cases were opened against 26 civic activists on claims that they had planned provocations on 25 March, with weapons and grenades allegedly found in their apartments.
On the day, there was limited public transport in the city centre and slow internet.
Journalists and human rights defenders were prevented from doing their work.
Riot police massively outnumbered protestors and passers-by, with police trucks and water cannons lined up on the streets of Minsk city centre.
All of this has become normal during the soon-to-be 23 years of president Aleksander Lukashenka’s rule.
But despite the deja vu, there were differences.
By Belarusian standards, the police was almost gentle.
It blocked access to the announced meeting square, but when the crowd, chanting “Love live Belarus!”, gathered at a different place, they merely split them up into smaller crowds.
They detained those within reach, even if they were just observers, as well as old and young, some of whom were handled roughly.
But of the more than 400 people who were arrested, many were released within a few hours with no charges brought.
The run-up to 25 March also had differences.
Protests already erupted across Belarus in mid-February as a response to the so-called tax on unemployment.
A new presidential decree on preventing social dependency in Belarus foresaw an equivalent of €240 to be paid yearly by the jobless in return for access to public health care and education.
Some 470,000 people (10 percent of the working population) were expected to pay the tax, but merely 50,000 did so.
This social parasite law stirred society at large and provoked demonstrations that were bigger than any recent political development had seen.
These were different in their outreach, demographics, and intensity.
Angry Belarusians, which is an oxymoron to anyone who knows the national mindset, came together in hundreds or even thousands in little towns across the country to raise their voice against the tax and against poverty more broadly speaking.
Elderly people, the traditional backbone of Lukashenka's support, demanded reforms and respect.
The regime has continuously failed to recognise the necessity of structural reforms or the depth of its current economic crisis. Belarus faces its first serious recession since the mid-1990s.
In summer 2016, the devaluation of the currency saw the Belarusian rouble lose four zeroes, but inflation persisted.
As incomes fell, wages were cut, and the middle class became poor. The so-called social contract that guaranteed an economic minimum and stability in return for loyalty to the system has become void.
Lukashenka was ill-prepared for the rise in public discontent. He froze the social parasite law for one year and threatened the organisers of the pre-25 March protests with consequences.
But the genie was out of the bottle and the demonstrations continued.
At the same time, Russia, once Lukashenka’s closest ally and economic partner, has turned into his biggest threat.
The Russian economy, which is under EU and US sanctions and suffering from low oil prices, no longer enables the Kremlin to subsidise its neighbour.
Russia wants more in return for its loans.
Currently, Minsk is contesting a debt of some €550 million for gas, refusing to pay the unfair price. It has also frozen the repayment of a €275 million tranche of a loan from the Eurasian Union.
Moscow is not overtly meddling in Belarusian social affairs. As Sunday’s demonstrations across Russia showed, the Kremlin has it own work to do.
But if Russia wins this game of chicken, it might end up owning Belarus’ biggest state enterprises and the Russian military bases on Belarusian soil.
The new illiberal turn in Belarus is designed to intimidate the public.
But Minsk has as yet abstained from extreme violence and serious prison terms because it is trying to impress the West.
The European Union has lifted most of the sanctions against the Belarusian regime and doubled aid, but Minsk needs a lot more. It is also angling for an International Monetary Fund loan.
The EU and US condemnations of Saturday’s arrests showed that while the West does not want to see Belarus sold to Russia, it will not rush to save Lukashenka either.
What is obvious, but needs to be said, is that the nature of the regime has not changed one iota despite its pro-EU gestures.
Belarus is a police state in which ordinary people are becoming poorer.
Solidarity rallies and protests continued across the country on Sunday, 26 March, echoing the popular discontent in Russia with its ruling elite.
Belarusian intellectuals view this economic, political, and social deadlock as the beginning of the end of the Lukashenka era.
It might be a long, painful, and whimpering end, but that is how it feels.
Maryna Rakhlei works for the German Marshall Fund of the US, a transatlantic think tank, in Berlin