Forecast for 2017: System updates will continue without drastic changes in the economic, domestic and foreign policy
In 2017, the Belarusian authorities are likely to attempt to preserve the existing economic model, which is based on state ownership, by reducing social protection for the population. Quite possible, under the pressure of external creditors, the authorities may update approaches to the state property management.
The government is likely to pursue the policy of gradual waver of social protection to the population and to search for additional sources to replenish the state budget in people’s pockets by increasing housing and utility tariffs, business taxes, fines and other fees. In the case of a referendum to extend the term of office for the President and the Parliamentarians, the authorities may decide to make a financial injection to the state budget and key electoral groups.
As local elections draw closer, a debate among the society and power elite stirs up about enhancing the role of political parties and cosmetic amendments to the electoral law. The ongoing debate is likely to encourage all political forces with regional structures to participate in the local elections. The previously established cooperation between different opposition groups is likely to continue, but the opposition is unlikely to unite before the local elections.
The boycott and street protest strategies are likely to remain unpopular among the opposition and are likely to be promoted by the political structures in the emigration and those lacking human resources for campaigning in Belarus.
The authorities are likely to hold back on harsh persecution of the opposition and to focus on financial pressure targeting the most active opposition representatives in order to weaken the protest movement. The population is likely to demonstrate political apathy and is unlikely to come up with spontaneous protests due to the deterioration of well-being. The Belarusian authorities are likely to leave the public space ajar for the opposition to communicate with the population.
The struggle between nomenclature groups for dwindling state resources is likely to boost corruption prosecution by the security forces, which may strengthen the role of the latter and make the president more cautious of the staffing issues.
Belarus is likely to become more vulnerable vis-a-vis external pressure.
Moscow is likely to become more aggressive in pursuing its agenda. Again, Russia may raise the issue of her military presence in Belarus and taking control over some Belarusian defence enterprises; she may demand greater loyalty demonstration to the Kremlin (including large-scale bilateral military exercises, other than ‘West-2017’).
Most likely, the Belarusian authorities will continue to pursue an independent security policy. They are unlikely to allow a Russian military base in Belarus, or to give away control over domestic defence industry enterprises to Russia in 2017. The National Missile Programme is likely to become a priority and the authorities will ensure full funding for it.
In H2 2017, Belarus is likely to demonstrate new missile systems, elaborated with the Chinese support. The ‘Belintersat’ satellite communications system is likely to develop further and some projects aiming at deep modernisation of the combat air force are likely to be launched. Staff number of servicemen and border officers may increase up to 10%.
Major regional actors are likely to preserve current level of interest in Belarus in 2017.
The situation in Eastern Europe is unlikely to deteriorate. Russia nourishes hopes to conclude an analogue of Yalta with the new US administration. So, she is unlikely to take any steps which could aggravate the situation in the region and cause a negative reaction of the EU and the United States until the possibility of a Russo-American agreement on the division of spheres of influence is clarified. In fact, it may take the whole of 2017.
Amid anticipated higher oil prices in 2017, the resolution of the oil and gas dispute between Belarus and Russia could create favourable environment for the Belarusian food and textile industries, increase the demand for agricultural engineering and wood processing products. The chemical industry is likely to preserve neutral dynamics, while the situation in oil processing will largely depend on the final decision on the oil supplies to Belarusian refineries.
Construction, as a non-priority sector, is likely to continue to shrink. Fold reduction in soft loans for housing construction as compared with the previous years, and the lack of own funds by those eligible for better housing conditions would create poor conditions for the construction development in 2017. The industrial sector lacks or has insufficient funds for the fixed assets modernisations to increase investment significantly.
The retail trade will directly depend on the household incomes dynamics, that is, it is unlikely to grow significantly in 2017. The authorities are unlikely to switch on the printing press to ensure wage growth, therefore a slight wage growth will be offset by growth in consumer spending on utility services.
Oil prices will play a crucial role in Belarusian exports dynamics in foreign trade. In the case of oil price above USD 50 per barrel, trade conflicts between Belarus and Russia are likely to fade, and demand for Belarusian export goods on the Russian market may increase in quantitative and monetary terms (food, machinery and equipment, household appliances). If oil price slumps below USD 40 per barrel, a new wave of trade conflicts and mutual restrictions on the supply of goods is very likely.
One of the key events in 2017 will be the talks with the IMF over a new loan programme. Reaching an agreement could have a positive impact on the overall situation with the servicing of the external debt, lead to reforms in the state property management and could prevent further recession in the economy. The lack of agreement would be perceived by international lenders as Belarus’ unwillingness to reform the economy and as an attempt to rely on the aid from Russia and further cutbacks in social protection for the population.
Overall, in 2017, the Belarusian economy may grow within the forecast of socio-economic development for 2017, i.e. GDP growth at 1.7%, and the Belarusian rouble would be stable if the oil price was above USD 50 per barrel and a loan agreement with the IMF was concluded. Otherwise, the Belarusian economy downturn could continue and reach 2% of GDP. Wages in 2017 in dollar terms are likely to compare with those in 2016, but recipients of salaries are likely to reduce in number by 75 000 - 100 000 people.
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.