Is Belarus Ready for Economic Reforms?
This is the main question of 2015 presidential election – such a conclusion was made by the participants of “The Future of Belarus” conference held on October 16th in Warsaw.
The conference was organized by Belarus in Focus Information Office and the Polish Institute of International Affairs with the support of the Polish daily Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. The panel speakers were Yury Drakakhrust –Radio Liberty’s Belarusian editorial office’s political commentator, Valery Karbalevich – a political scientist and Strategy analytical centre’s expert, Ales Aliachnovic – an economist and a vice-president of CASE Belarus analytical centre, Anna Maria Dyner – the analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, Andrei Vardamatski – sociologist and a director of Belarusian Analytical Workroom, Dzianis Melyantsou – senior analyst at the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, and Witold Jurasz – the ex-Charge d’Affairs of Poland in Belarus.
The conference started with panel speakers’ evaluation of the situation within the country after the presidential election. Despite the as-usual high result of the incumbent president, the experts pointed to some changes.
“The election was overshadowed by the events in Ukraine. The continuation of Maidan and annexation of Crimea scared many Belarusians”, Yury Drakakhrust said. Talking about the opposition he pointed out that both of its wings – radical and more moderate - lost. However, despite the internal differences within the opposition Drakakhrust does not exclude the possibility of common preparation of both wings of the opposition to the parliamentary election next year. “EU’s decision to freeze sanctions against Belarusian authorities creates a different context for the new opposition which will be able to orient towards Brussels, Washington D.C., and Warsaw”, Drakakhrust said.
Panelists intensely discussed the ability of Belarusian authorities to hold economic reforms. The supporters of such possibility also debated the model of reforms – whether it will be Asian Tigers-like reforms or Kazakh/Azerbaijani model.
“The conditions to receive a loan from IMF are realistic – it is enough to show desire to conduct reforms. Since Belarus’ GDP cannot grow the country is ready to conduct moderate reforms in its financial sector”, Ales Aliachnovic said. He believes that the experience of Singapore, South Korea or Taiwan can be used in Belarusian case: “Liberal reforms do not necessarily influence the political or economic stability as private sector in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea or, say, Russia can be controlled”.
“I am pessimist – structural reforms are impossible in Belarus. Reforms’ threats outweigh threats from keeping status quo, so we can only expect some decorative changes”, Valery Karbalevich said. According to the expectations of Strategy analytical centre Lukashenka is scared of repeating Russian or Ukrainian reform scenarios. “They led to the appearance of oligarchs, which started to create conglomerates and TV stations which in their turn became a competition for authoritarian leaders. Lukashenka’s target audience are outsiders, because in case he switches his attention to the middle class the latter may not support him”, Karbalevich added.
“The Ukrainian crisis changed relations between Belarus and Russia, Lukashenka started to reconsider his policies. The army’s loyalty worries him; it is russified, among other things”, Polish Institute of International Affairs’ expert Anna Maria Dyner said. As to the possible Russian airbase in Babrujsk, Dyner said that the international community wondered on who really decides such matters – Russia or Belarus? “This is especially important in relations with NATO as Baltic countries are worried about the possible usage of Belarus and Kaliningrad region as military corridors; some already view Belarus as a Russian military district. At the same time Russia will do whatever it takes to keep its influence in Belarus”, Dyner summarized.
Sociologist Andrei Vardamatski talked about the usage of media by Russia to influence Belarus. He presented a comparative analysis of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. According to this analysis, Belarusians display a negative attitude towards the United States, and support Putin’s annexation of Crimea. “This is the result of Belarusians’ trusting Russian media”, Vardamatski underlined.
Belarusian Institute’s of Strategic Studies senior analyst Dzianis Melyantsou presented a comparative analysis of Belarusians’ attitude towards country’s foreign policy. “2015 saw the weakening of EU’s popularity. Belarusians also prefer to live in free Belarus rather than unite with Russia or CIS countries”, he said. Melyantsou also pointed out main features of Belarus’ foreign policy: its perception as ‘stability donor’, depolitization of its relations with EU, priority of the relations with the US, and a bigger attention from Mogherini’s cabinet to EU’s foreign policy. “EU’s model of governance changed, it is now more oriented towards interests rather than values. For the first time EU has an agenda in relation to Belarus which can be fulfilled in the next 2 or years. This agenda consists of talks on visa regime, dialogue on certain spheres of economy, integrated border control, partnership mobility, and Bologna process”, Melyantsou said. A new economic cooperation is also possible, Melyantsou added.
Ex-Charge d’Affairs of Poland in Belarus Witold Jurasz presented his scenario of Belarus’ foreign policy development towards Russia, EU, and Poland. “I support dialogue, it is not important who is in power – this is the goal of international relations. If Poland has ambitions to make Belarus pro-Western, the only way for this can be democracy. However, the accent should be moved from democracy to human rights”, he said.
According to the ex-diplomat Poland needs to analyze a common scenario for Belarus and Ukraine which will allow dividing resources more efficiently and reaching its goals. One of Jurasz’s scenarios is a so-called “European concert of nations” which would be bad for Poland which may not be able to manage its own security. Such a scenario will also lead to zones of influences in Eastern Europe. “As to possible EU accession – there is no will for it in EU – neither in Berlin, nor in Paris”, Jurasz underlined.
The number of questions on both parts of the conferences reflected a lively interest to Belarus’ future. Experts, politicians, students, journalists, and diplomats were interested not only in the probability of changes in the country, but also in real offers of the West to Belarus. The discussion ended with the question of Yury Drkakhrust: is there a human rights agenda which president Lukashenka will take seriously? The panelists came to a conclusion that since both EU’s and US’ policies are reactive and lack strategy, Lukashenka will think of westerners as hypocritical losers.
Panelists also concluded that one of the examples of a successful solution to this problem would be a substitution of human rights agenda (which is abstract for Lukashenka) to an understandable offer to free political prisoners.