Belarusian authorities neglect public opinion on unpopular measures

April 22, 2016 19:45

The Belarusian government has reduced pension benefits to the population without a broad public campaign, which could have prepared favourable grounds for such measures. The state propaganda and manipulations with public opinion in order to introduce extremely unpopular social measures are likely to have been exhausted and may have had the opposite effect on falling ratings of public institutions. Meanwhile, the population appears to adapt promptly to curtailed state social protection.

In December 2015, the authorities announced a public campaign to discuss the raising of the retirement age. In the past, the Belarusian authorities repeatedly emphasised the inevitability of future reductions in the pension benefits offered by the state. They claimed, however, that society was not ready for such a move and that favourable public opinion on the issue needed to be created.

In mid-March 2016, the government proposed three options to change the pension system to President Lukashenka. And, in less than a month, without a broad public discussion the president opted for the ‘soft’ option and increased the retirement age to 58 years for women and to 63 for men. Independent experts called such a ‘reform’ the most indecisive and a half-measure. The ‘harsh’ approach envisaged an increase in the retirement age to 60 years for women and to 65 for men, and the ‘gender-based’ one to 60 and 63 respectively.

It is worth noting that earlier this year the government has already taken some measures to reduce the state’s pension benefits for the population. For instance, without any public debate or a public campaign, the president has increased the minimum length of service for retirement pension and abolished benefits for some groups of citizens, including vulnerable ones.

Analysts believe, that the president’s decision to increase the retirement age would have a short-term effect and that in a few years the state once again would face a shortage in the pension fund. Yet the authorities are not ready for a pension system reform and introduction of investment pension mechanisms.

Most likely, the president was very swift with his decision to reduce the state pension benefits due to the fact, that ratings of state institutions had fallen and because this idea was extremely unpopular among the population. Apparently, further discussions would have only reduced public institutions’ popularity and ratings without any positive effect on public opinion.

For instance, IISEPS’ March poll has marked a sharp decline in support for public institutions, including the president’s electoral rating - to 27.3%. That said, yet in December 2015, only 20.3% of Belarusians supported the rise of the retirement age, but only if pension size would increase.

Among the age groups, only pensioners welcomed or reacted neutrally to an increase in the retirement age, most likely, due to the fact that the authorities emphasised that they would be unable to preserve the pension size without raising the retirement age. The rest of the population was unhappy about reduced pension benefits and anticipated additional pressure on the labour market, which lacked jobs anyway. It is worth noting, that the authorities have reacted nervously to the IISEPS’ March polls.

Meanwhile, the authorities are attempting to shift the attention of the population from pension and well-being issues to public safety. The president repeatedly raised the issue of Belarus’ defence at various working meetings, "the main thing for me is the safety of our citizens, our society and the country’s defence capacity”.

Overall, the state is becoming less sensitive to public opinion due to the lack of funds to maintain even the minimum level of pension benefits.