Belarus is ready to escalate the conflict with the West

April 22, 2016 18:13

Belarus’ Western foreign policy remains tough; the authorities do not consider concessions feasible and even ready to escalate the conflict. Thereby President Lukashenko increases his political importance, and tests the Belarusian elite’s loyalty.

On June 27th the Belarusian Parliament adopted Draft Law “On amnesty”. Early release of prisoners, who are internationally recognized as prisoners of conscience, is not envisaged.

Failure to include the Belarusian prisoners who are recognized as political prisoners into the amnesty lists was anticipated, regardless of the numerous media speculations about the possible release of prisoners of conscience on the eve of the Independence Day (July 3rd). It is likely that the Belarusian authorities have used information about the likely release of defendants in the December 19th, 2012 case to test the EU reaction.

The main reason for delaying the prisoners of conscience’s pardon is the foreign policy context. On the one hand, the relations between Belarus and the EU and the U.S. remain in the mode of mutual accusations. On the other hand, the current level of minimally acceptable interaction (after the EU ambassadors returned to Minsk) has been mutually satisfying both parties: off and on they exchanged rigid rhetoric and, until recently, did not resort to action.

However, in the end of June Minsk attempted to escalate the conflict. Belarusian authorities are well aware that after the arrest of journalist Poczobut and searches in the office of the unregistered Union of Poles, they should expect stiff EU response.

In the worst case scenario, visa and economic sanctions could be tightened and the European External Action Service of the European Union has warned against it.

From the foreign policy point of view, these actions of Belarus seem irrational: “frozen” Western policy increases Belarus’ political dependence from Russia and narrows the space for maneuver. However, these actions of Belarusian authorities could be interpreted in the following way: they deliberately exacerbate the conflict with the West in order to make loyalty tests for the business elite and get rid of unwanted companions.

We have previously used this interpretation to explain President Lukashenko’s steadfastness vis-à-vis the release of political prisoners – even under the threat of the EU sanctions against Belarusian businessmen. Contrary to the conventional logic, the threat of EU sanctions, personified in President Lukashenko, increases his value as a guarantor of the Belarusian business elite’s safety.

In turn, Lukashenko has made every effort to exclude any possibility for businessmen to hold own negotiations about his fate behind his back and thereby increased their dependence on his actions. In psychology this phenomenon is called the “Stockholm syndrome”.

President Lukashenko benefits from keeping businessmen close to him in a mobilization mode and thereby testing their loyalty. Belarusian company Beltechexport, which recently fell under the EU sanctions, was sold to a Russian businessman and its former owner Mr. Peftiev went out of business after long and unsuccessful attempts to challenge the sanctions in court, as well as via EU lobbying organizations. It is highly probable that the withdrawal of Peftiev from business also implies his exclusion from the Belarusian elite’s circle.

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Amid budgetary cuts on social protection, the Belarusian public sector is experiencing a management crisis and a balance shift in the state resource redistribution system. The authorities are forced to revise their most unpopular decisions during the implementation due to the pressure from affected social groups. The state is unlikely to oppose to some civil society and opposition organisations in strengthening their role in society in order to retain touch with the population and to be able to respond to the most harsh criticism of state initiatives.

The Architecture and Construction Ministry has acknowledged that the decree No 585 on assistance to large and young families in building and buying housing was prematurely rescinded.

The authorities are often forced to revise their decisions on curtailing social assistance to different social groups during their implementation, without preliminary impact assessment and feedback from the population, so as they lead to the growth in social tension. Due to the centralised decision making, languishing state resources and the lack of public debate as a balancing instrument in issues related to social protection, the state administration is losing control of the population.

Perhaps, the compensatory mechanisms of the state apparatus lack the time to adjust to dwindling state resources for supporting the existing social model, even in a reduced form. The authorities have completely or partially paralysed operations of independent public institutions and representative bodies, through which they could monitor public moods and receive feedback from the population, such as local councils, the parliament, political parties and NGOs. Last year, under the pressure of the authorities, the last independent institute for measuring public sentiment, IISEPS, suspended operations.

President Lukashenka’s self-removal from the decision-making on current socio-economic issues, also could have affected the state apparatus’ operations. The president has always been very sensitive about adopting unpopular decisions which could lower his popular support, hence demanded a careful preliminary assessment of such decisions. However, recently, especially after the introduction of the tax on social dependants, the president has mainly focused on the foreign policy agenda.

Hence, a lacuna has formed in the state decision-making after the president reduced participation in the current socio-economic policy formation, which leads to an increase in manifestations of dysfunction in the public administration.