All fuss during election campaign in Belarus will be around social issues

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April 22, 2016 19:09

In 2015, the Belarusian authorities lack resources to maintain social protection at acceptable level and relieve social tension with wage growth. The opposition is attempting to use people’s discontent with the declining level of well-being to promote their visions of socio-economic reforms. However, the authorities are not willing to hold systemic reforms and will attempt relieving tension in society by buying the loyalty of individual ‘protest’ social groups, introducing cosmetic changes in the state policy, and seizing the initiative from the opponents via extensive media resources. 

Effects of Maidan and events in Ukraine are gradually losing their influence on people’s moods in Belarus and they are becoming more discontent with the authorities’ social policy. In 2014, citizens’ protest activity increased compared with 2013. Only seven of 52 public events with political overtones were held with the authorities’ consent. In addition, social conflicts have grown in some pro-active social groups, which publicly defend their interests.

It is worth noting that the authorities’ response to political public protests has not changed. Their participants faced heavy fines and days in jail. Penalties have been used even for a single photo of activists with a political message made in a public place and posted on the Internet.

However, where it concerned social conflicts, the authorities had been prompted to start negotiations with protesters, and often met their requirements. For example, in March 2015, following a series of protest actions by individual entrepreneurs, the president ordered to postpone the implementation of the ban on non-certified light industry products. After protests by health care workers in 2014, doctors’ salaries were raised first in Minsk, and then across the country.

The state reacts individually to each case of social conflict without considering systemic reforms. However, as time goes by, administrative measures used by the authorities have fewer effects. Amid languishing resources to preserve the existing socio-economic model, the government’s capacities of control over the situation have diminished.

Meanwhile, the opposition is attempting to take the advantage of the people’s growing discontent with the level of social protection and has proposed transformations in the social sphere. For example, the “People’s Referendum” campaign initiators held an awareness raising campaign and organised a petition with social demands. In addition, in 2014 – early 2015, other political forces, such as Belarusian Christian Democracy, the United Civic Party and civil society organisations pushed for social issues to be included in the political agenda.

Two questions proposed by the “People’s Referendum” organisers for the plebiscite concerns free healthcare and education. The authorities, however, deny that any problems exist in healthcare and education by referring to high positions in the international rankings. Simultaneously, the state is using media in order to step up people’s responsibility in social spheres, in particular, where it is no longer able to maintain acceptable level of protection.

The opposition proposes to improve socio-economic development in the regions by enabling direct elections of city, district and regional heads, who are currently appointed by the president. In response to this initiative by the opposition, the authorities have prepared a directive envisaging measures to develop entrepreneurship and stimulate business initiative. However, the new directive is a copy-paste of the directive from five years ago, which has not led to radical changes in the regions. Namely, the document reads, “… of 118 country’s districts 115 were subsidised, in 53 districts the amount of subsidies exceeded 50% of their budget revenues. This situation demonstrates weakness of the regional policy”.

During the 2015 presidential elections, the opposition is likely to focus on social issues and on the state’s reduced role in ensuring social protection. Meanwhile, the authorities are likely to meet demands of the most active social groups in order to relieve tension in society.

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The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.

Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.

Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.

In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.

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