Economy: The lingering recession
Amid fewer benefits from economic cooperation with Russia, the main trend in 2016 was a large-scale revision of the financial support to different economic sectors due to insufficient budget revenues.
Due to the decline in social transfers (the share of state subsidies for housing and utility services reduced from 51.5% to 40% by late 2016), reduced soft loans for housing construction and slow wage growth, the population in 2016 started spending their currency savings.
The population became a major currency donor by selling USD 1.8 billion on a net basis.
Thanks to this, two tranches from the EEU and sales of currency bonds, the National Bank and the Finance Ministry made due internal and public debt payments in full.
By reducing administrative lending, Belarus stabilised the national currency, however, in the absence of cheap corporate loans, the volume of overdue debs on corporate loans increased dramatically - the share of problem assets in banks’ balance sheets increased from 6.8% to 14.9%, creating the preconditions for a crisis in the banking system. In order to address the problem with debts in agriculture, the government established the Asset Management Agency, aimed to clear the banks' balance sheets from bad loans of agricultural organisations. Consistently insolvent enterprises will be closed through the court.
Amid deteriorating price situation on foreign markets for Belarusian goods, the oil and gas dispute between Belarus and Russia had an additional negative impact on the economy. Russia unilaterally cut the monthly supply of oil from 2 million tons to 1.03 million tons, which resulted in reduced oil processing, industrial slowdown and decreased wholesale trade by 10%.
The economic result of the year was the abandonment of quantitative performance indicators, the decision on the financial restructuring of agriculture, and the shift of financial consequences of the economic crisis onto the population by reducing social payments and benefits.
In 2017, the government’s main task would be to hold a financial audit at public enterprises with subsequent layoffs, to adopt measures preventing the banking crisis and to search for new and additional sources of financing to service the public debt. Amid further cuts in financial aid from Russia, some social and economic reforms could be held in Belarus.
Yet the Belarusian authorities have not taken any action to prevent massive protests against the decree on ‘social parasites’. On February 26th, 2017, multiple protests against the decree were held in three Belarusian regions in Vitebsk, Baranovichi, Brest and Bobruisk (more than 4 000 people participated in total). Very likely, the authorities, on the one hand, anticipate that the decree will be abolished, and other hand, do not want to take responsibility for decisions either on the decree or on the protests.
It should be noted, that the mass street protests on February 17th, 19th, and 26th, were held in the absence of the president in the country. There are reasons to believe that the authorities did not expect such a massive action. The state propaganda responded tangentially, insisting that protests were unjustified, because ‘the state did not require a lot’, despite the fact, that the protesters primarily complained about the lack of jobs in the country. In addition, the protesters pointed to the unfairness of the requirement to pay the tax for being unemployed as the state could not provide job and money making opportunities, while people were humiliated by the need to prove to the state they were unable to pay the tax.
In the past ten days, there were several protests against the decree, which were characterised by the following: the protesters easily picked up anti-Lukashenka slogans; they eagerly shared their outrage with journalists; many protesters said it was their first time when they took to the streets; protesters were ‘common people’, i.e. not political activists; there were fewer white-red-white flags during these protests than during conventional oppositional actions; politicians, who organised protests (eg on February 26th, by the centre-right coalition and the independent trade union) did not attempt to take the lead, especially in the regions. All this gives a picture of truly popular protests.
While refraining from interfering with the meetings and protest marches, the militia on February 26th attempted to put pressure on the protest organisers in the regions by handing out reports on administrative violations after the events. Other than that, it appears that the local and central authorities are unable to respond to the massive protests against the Decree No 3, including crowded street speeches, numerous signatories of petitions (over 80 000), multiple collective and personal appeals to the authorities, and mass meetings.
That said, the authorities are unable to enforce the Decree No 3 as they do not have sufficient resources to trial some 400 000 people for non-compliance. In addition, the authorities do not have sufficient institutional capacity to exempt all those not liable for the tax from the mailing lists of the Tax authorities. The Belarusian Bar Association will provide free legal consultations on March 1st, 2017 for those wishing be exempt from the tax imposed by the Decree No 3, however, this would only slightly east the tension in society.
In addition, despite concerns expressed by some experts and the leader of the protest in Minsk on February 17th Mikola Statkevich, there were only scarce reports in the Russian media about the protests in Belarus.