Belarusian police raid the office of the Viasna Human Rights Centre on March 25. Photo by Stéphane Doulé/Front Line Defenders

When Belarusians protested a controversial new government tax last month, the employees of Viasna, the country’s most prominent human rights watchdog, stood by nervously. They knew what was coming.

Protests in Belarus tend to follow a script: First, there is an electoral victory or decree by President Alexander Lukashenko. Then opposition groups gather. Then there is violence.

In 2010, when Lukashenko, a heavy-set former farm director, won a reported 79.69 percent of that year’s presidential election, 10,000 people marched through the capital city, Minsk, demanding his removal from office. Flags were held aloft and the crowd’s breath, blowing skywards in great plumes of steam, gave the impression they had set the frostbitten streets ablaze.

Around the protesters, KGB agents (Belarus is the only state to have kept the name of its former Soviet state security) stood pointing cameras into the crowd.Riot police gathered and staked their shields at the base of a giant statue of Lenin, posed preaching at a lectern to his former satrapy. Nearby, dark-green military vehicles parked up in a row. They were the “party buses” locals feared the most.

Riot police gathered and staked their shields at the base of a giant statue of Lenin, posed preaching at a lectern to his former satrapy. Nearby, dark-green military vehicles parked up in a row. They were the “party buses” locals feared the most.

In the attacks that followed, dozens were herded into them. Some have not been seen since.

In the attacks that followed, dozens were herded into them. Some have never been seen since.

Viasna’s office was ransacked six times. Its leader, Ales Bialiatski, was given a four-and-a-half-year prison term on a trumped-up tax charge. Others were held and intimidated.

Last month, however, something extraordinary happened. The protests weren’t met with violence. There were no handycam-holding KGB agents. The party vans remained on their lots.

No one was as surprised as the Viasna team. I visited their office in early March. It sits on a nondescript street a couple of metro stops from the city’s downtown, near a small row of stores and cheap restaurants. It is cramped, and probably costs little more than $400 a month to rent. I spoke to three of its lawyers in a small kitchen that doubles as the conference room.

First we discussed the thing that had brought thousands of Belarusians out of their homes. It is called the “law against social parasites,” and it levies a $250 fine on those who cannot prove they have worked 183 days of the year.

Those who cannot pay the fine—and since $250 is more than half the average monthly salary, that is most people—may be forced into $10-a-month government work, including sweeping the streets. Minsk is hailed as The World’s Cleanest Capital City. Ordinary Belarusians are being turned into state-sanctioned slaves.

That is not new. Previous edicts have targeted political adversaries, ethnic minorities and even drunks—in other words, people it is easy for Lukashenko and his lackeys to demonize.

But this law affects everyone. A reported unemployment rate of 0.9 percent is laughed at. Jobs are tough to find, and working as a freelancer involves labyrinthine bureaucracy. That is at least partly why so many have taken to the streets in protest. Some have even flashed slogans in front of TV cameras, something that previously all but guaranteed you a trip to the party bus.

Most people I spoke to agreed the tax would be rescinded, allowing Lukashenko to disavow its unpopularity and act the benevolent dictator—hence, too, the lack of jackboots.

But there is more at stake. Belarus is poor. Its economy is failing, and in desperation it has opened up to investment from abroad, especially China, and has even dropped traditionally tight border controls. Even some musicians, banned in years gone by, have been allowed to perform again.

“The social contract here is changing,” one of Viasna’s employees, a lawyer, told me. “Before, people would give up political rights to get a safe life. Now they can’t do that. We hope it will change things.”

But this means Lukashenko’s iron grip on power must slip—if only through the small concession not to beat his dissenting citizens senseless. And that will likely incur the wrath of Vladimir Putin, with whose Russia Belarus shares an almost nonexistent border and which supplies Lukashenko with vital subsidies.

Putin and Lukashenko, it is widely known, are not personal friends. Their relationship is, like the Kremlin’s umbilical cord to Minsk, a cheap utility: the autocrat and the dictator.

Lukashenko, having seen in Crimea what happens when the king isn’t paid his fealty, is being forced into a near-impossible situation. Does he open his country a little and risk an ouster—or invasion—or does he clamp down and risk popular mayhem?

March 25, Belarus’ Freedom Day, was supposed to be a litmus test for that decision. Thousands were due to take to the streets of Minsk and other cities. But the day before, it became clear Lukashenko’s mind was made up. The KGB rounded up hundreds and locked them away. The day of the protest, a wet, gray-skied Saturday, rows of riot cops marched inexorably in line, seizing men and women of all ages and throwing them in the party buses.

Neither were journalists and activists spared. The government blocked the internet countrywide. Viasna’s offices were raided. Fifty-seven human rights monitors were detained. By the next day, calls to Viasna employees’ cell phones were going straight to voicemail.

Some still made their voices heard—whether chanting slogans, or waving the flag of the Belarusian People’s Republic, a nation that existed after the end of the First World War for a year before being captured by Russian Bolsheviks.

Freedom Day celebrates that short-lived state, a grim irony on so many levels. Around 100 people came out on the streets the day after the clashes, in solidarity with those behind bars. They are hoping for a revolution. But many of them were arrested, too. Change is unlikely to come soon: Lukashenko’s opposition is fighting a well-equipped, ruthless enemy—one that cares little for human rights and even less for the concept of democracy.

That may change. People will continue to protest, their economy will falter and Lukashenko will still feel squeezed by his bigger, belligerent neighbor. Whether it translates to tolerance or terror is unknown. “Some people do believe in change,” a protester named Kiryl told me. “But personally I don’t. We don’t have leaders. We don’t have a plan. We don’t have adequate force to resist them.”

For now, Europe’s “Last Dictator” is living up to his name. Welcome to Belarus.

Editor’s note: We’re withholding the staff writer’s name so that this writer may someday be allowed to return to Belarus.