Minsk is no longer willing to conflict with the West
On April 5, following a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Alexander Lukashenko held a meeting on foreign policy and made several important statements.
During the meeting, President Lukashenko made a number of serious allegations, which could be regarded as a significant concession against the background of the hard-line of the conflict between Minsk and Brussels. Firstly, Lukashenko promised to consider pardon petitions from prisoners Bondarenko and Sannikov in the near future. Secondly, he said that the parliamentary campaign should be held in compliance with the OSCE commitments.
The last but not the least, Lukashenko has de facto acknowledged that Russia had played a key role in determining the frameworks of the Belarusian-European conflict. Lukashenko said that the conflict between Belarus and the EU had a negative impact on Russo-Belarusian relations and concluded, that “we should not overload our close partners with problems in relations with Western Europe”. It is likely that this issue was discussed during a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin, who managed to influence the position of Lukashenko.
The seriousness of the intentions of Minsk to restore relations with the EU is supported by the involvement in the President’s statement of two senior officials - the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Martynov and Head of the Presidential Administration Vladimir Makey, – who are fundamentally in favor of normalizing relations with the West. Both officials were the main coordinators of the Belarusian-European dialogue in 2008-2010.
One should anticipate that the process of normalizing of relations will be furnished by Minsk with a number of conditions in order to mark time and allow the authorities to “save face”. In particular, Mr. Makey has already indicated that the political prisoners could be released – not immediately, but within a month. At the same time, the process of normalization is complicated by the Belarusian law enforcement agencies, which have gained significant influence after the elections in 2010 and are not interested in de-escalation of the conflict with the EU.
Aforementioned statements by President Lukashenko and his counterparts imply that senior management has recognized the dangers of the unilateral foreign policy for Belarus and wants to re-enlist the support of the West - as a necessary alibi and a lever in trade conflicts with Russia. Most likely, the decisive argument, which influenced Lukashenko’s position, was the escalation of the conflict between Russian and Belarusian airlines within the Common Economic Space.
Failure of Minsk to comply with its commitments on rules of equal economic relations within the CES (conflict of air carriers), as well as long-term persistence in non-compliance with EU requirements (release of political prisoners) indicate that the Belarusian authorities’ main tactics is maneuvering between the two major political and economic players, EU and Russia, which allows them to comply with only some requirements of either. However, after the CES accession, the space for such maneuver has narrowed and it will be extremely difficult for Minsk to return to a more successful foreign policy of 2009-2010.
The Belarusian authorities are attempting to strengthen some elements of the ‘Soviet’ education to ensure the ideological loyalty of new generations to the state. Most likely, one of the major tasks of the educational reform is to prevent growing discontent with the existing education system among the population. The educational reform aims to strengthen centralisation and adjust the system to the needs of the public sector.
In Belarus, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection and the Ministry of Economy would determine the university enrolment figures.
The Belarusian authorities do not seem to have a long-term vision of the educational reform. The education system changes depending on who leads the Education Ministry and has access to President Lukashenka. For instance, former head of pro-government communist party and Education Minister Igor Karpenko reintroduced some "Soviet" elements to the school and strengthened ideological components along with the de-politicisation of the curricula. Current generation of students and youth have not spoken against the authorities, unlike previous generations raised during the Gorbachev thaw and socio-political transformations of the 1990s.
In addition, the Belarusian authorities are attempting to adopt measures aiming to prevent discontent among the population with the Belarusian education system. The authorities are mobilizing those nostalgic for the USSR and propose to return to 5-marks grading system, school uniforms and reduced curriculum. The Belarusian leadership also aims to blur the growing social stratification in society and to relax social tension due to the growing income gap between the richest and poorest.
Should the authorities adopt plans to reduce university enrolment, they would re-certify universities in order to close some of them and would reduce competition from private educational institutions. The Belarusian leadership is attempting to adjust the education system to the needs of the real economy, to reduce pressure on the labour market and to cut government spending on higher education for specialists low in demand by replacing them with graduates of secondary vocational schools requiring less time to train.