Annual address of Lukashenka: no changes until elections
April 29th, President Lukashenka spoke to the Belarusian Parliament and the people. His main messages included – no changes in social and domestic policies until the elections, alliance with Russia, and the delay in economic reforms until the post-election period. According to Lukashenka, Belarusian voters are willing to sacrifice their well-being in exchange for Belarus’ non-involvement in the regional crisis.
1. Lukashenka’s key message: amid swiftly changing world, Belarus remains an island of peace, tranquillity and order. This means, there would be no fundamental changes in Belarus’ domestic, foreign, economic and other policies. The president has repeatedly voiced this thesis before, however, now he has attached additional weight to it. “Well, who could have imagined that bombs would explode in our neighbouring Ukraine? That we would stand on the brink of a major war in Europe and that the degree of tension between the superpowers would reach the Cold War levels?” the president asked rhetorically. Those who drafted Lukashenka’s speech in 2015 assumed, that Belarusian citizens would agree to have lower incomes in exchange for stability and security. Lukashenka has not really made any pre-election statements; however, his key message during the upcoming elections is likely to be that thanks to him Belarus remains an island of tranquillity in the ocean of critical instability.
2. Foreign policy. At this stage, the key task for Belarus’ foreign policy is to prevent Russia’s interference in her domestic affairs and in particular, during the presidential campaign. “We have everything under control”, - the president sent a clear message to Russia and her leaders, with whom Belarus was in the “inseparable strategic alliance”. In addition, Lukashenka attempted to convince the Kremlin that Belarus would refrain from ‘swaying’ to the West, would not carry out a “wild nationalistic policy” and would stay in the wake of Russia’s policy. Nevertheless, he underscored the importance of Belarus’ independence and sovereignty. The president did not really elaborate on dialogue with the West, perhaps, in order to give some integrity to his highly controversial foreign policy message.
3. Domestic politics. In Lukashenko’s viewpoint, the Belarusian political system, what he called ‘a direct democracy’, has proven successful. This means, the system would remain unchanged. He also suggested that government representatives should not abandon talks with the opposition, including its extremist members. “We absolutely do not need a confrontation within the country, so you should talk to everybody”, the president said. This message was a likely follow-up on several meetings between MPs and the “People’s Referendum” representatives, which took place last year. In the past, Lukashenka had suggested a ‘dialogue’ with the position only after the election victory, and had never followed up on this.
4. Socio-economic policy. There would be no reforms in the pre-election period. Lukashenka said that the state budget remained socially oriented in 2015 (“which is an important factor for ensuring harmony in society and the stability in the state”). The president also made some proposals and recommendations to the government in order to address the key issues during the crisis, such as developing small and medium-sized businesses, reducing tax burden on businesses, improving management of state assets, improving legal culture in economy, and improving Belarus’ investment image. None of these was new and had already been mentioned in his previous addresses.
5. Lukashenka focused on target audiences, which match Russian ones. Perhaps, due to the fact, that the government believes it has full control over the domestic situation, which does not require additional efforts to ensure the loyalty of voters, and that the most unstable factor is Russia, the speechwriters have slightly adjusted the final recipients of the presidential address. With his speech, the president mainly addressed the non-demanding marginal, who is oriented toward the ‘Russian world’ as a super idea for "traditional values", is experiencing strong social envy and is satisfied not only by the growth of own well-being, but rather when well-being is lost by others. In other words, recipients of the presidential speech have been brought in line with the average Russian voter as described by opinion polls in Russia. Yet it is difficult to judge how successful this adjustment will be.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.