Forecast for 2017: System updates will continue without drastic changes in the economic, domestic and foreign policy

January 03, 2017 12:11

In 2017, the Belarusian authorities are likely to attempt to preserve the existing economic model, which is based on state ownership, by reducing social protection for the population. Quite possible, under the pressure of external creditors, the authorities may update approaches to the  state property management.

The government is likely to pursue the policy of gradual waver of social protection to the population and to search for additional sources to replenish the state budget in people’s pockets by increasing housing and utility tariffs, business taxes, fines and other fees. In the case of a referendum to extend the term of office for the President and the Parliamentarians, the authorities may decide to make a financial injection to the state budget and key electoral groups.

As local elections draw closer, a debate among the society and power elite stirs up about enhancing the role of political parties and cosmetic amendments to the electoral law. The ongoing debate is likely to encourage all political forces with regional structures to participate in the local elections. The previously established cooperation between different opposition groups is likely to continue, but the opposition is unlikely to unite before the local elections.

The boycott and street protest strategies are likely to remain unpopular among the opposition and are likely to be promoted by the political structures in the emigration and those lacking human resources for campaigning in Belarus.

The authorities are likely to hold back on harsh persecution of the opposition and to focus on financial pressure targeting the most active opposition representatives in order to weaken the protest movement. The population is likely to demonstrate political apathy and is unlikely to come up with spontaneous protests due to the deterioration of well-being. The Belarusian authorities are likely to leave the public space ajar for the opposition to communicate with the population.

The struggle between nomenclature groups for dwindling state resources is likely to boost corruption prosecution by the security forces, which may strengthen the role of the latter and make the president more cautious of the staffing issues.

Belarus is likely to become more vulnerable vis-a-vis external pressure.

Moscow is likely to become more aggressive in pursuing its agenda. Again, Russia may raise the issue of her military presence in Belarus and taking control over some Belarusian defence enterprises; she may demand greater loyalty demonstration to the Kremlin (including large-scale bilateral military exercises, other than ‘West-2017’).

Most likely, the Belarusian authorities will continue to pursue an independent security policy. They are unlikely to allow a Russian military base in Belarus, or to give away control over domestic defence industry enterprises to Russia in 2017. The National Missile Programme is likely to become a priority and the authorities will ensure full funding for it.

In H2 2017, Belarus is likely to demonstrate new missile systems, elaborated with the Chinese support. The ‘Belintersat’ satellite communications system is likely to develop further and some projects aiming at deep modernisation of the combat air force are likely to be launched. Staff number of servicemen and border officers may increase up to 10%.

Major regional actors are likely to preserve current level of interest in Belarus in 2017.

The situation in Eastern Europe is unlikely to deteriorate. Russia nourishes hopes to conclude an analogue of Yalta with the new US administration. So, she is unlikely to take any steps which could aggravate the situation in the region and cause a negative reaction of the EU and the United States until the possibility of a Russo-American agreement on the division of spheres of influence is clarified. In fact, it may take the whole of 2017.

Amid anticipated higher oil prices in 2017, the resolution of the oil and gas dispute between Belarus and Russia could create favourable environment for the Belarusian food and textile industries, increase the demand for agricultural engineering and wood processing products. The chemical industry is likely to preserve neutral dynamics, while the situation in oil processing will largely depend on the final decision on the oil supplies to Belarusian refineries.

Construction, as a non-priority sector, is likely to continue to shrink. Fold reduction in soft loans for housing construction as compared with the previous years, and the lack of own funds by those eligible for better housing conditions would create poor conditions for the construction development in 2017. The industrial sector lacks or has insufficient funds for the fixed assets modernisations to increase investment significantly.

The retail trade will directly depend on the household incomes dynamics, that is, it is unlikely to grow significantly in 2017. The authorities are unlikely to switch on the printing press to ensure wage growth, therefore a slight wage growth will be offset by growth in consumer spending on utility services.

Oil prices will play a crucial role in Belarusian exports dynamics in foreign trade. In the case of oil price above USD 50 per barrel, trade conflicts between Belarus and Russia are likely to fade, and demand for Belarusian export goods on the Russian market may increase in quantitative and monetary terms (food, machinery and equipment, household appliances). If oil price slumps below USD 40 per barrel, a new wave of trade conflicts and mutual restrictions on the supply of goods is very likely.

One of the key events in 2017 will be the talks with the IMF over a new loan programme. Reaching an agreement could have a positive impact on the overall situation with the servicing of the external debt, lead to reforms in the state property management and could prevent further recession in the economy. The lack of agreement would be perceived by international lenders as Belarus’ unwillingness to reform the economy and as an attempt to rely on the aid from Russia and further cutbacks in social protection for the population.

Overall, in 2017, the Belarusian economy may grow within the forecast of socio-economic development for 2017, i.e. GDP growth at 1.7%, and the Belarusian rouble would be stable if the oil price was above USD 50 per barrel and a loan agreement with the IMF was concluded. Otherwise, the Belarusian economy downturn could continue and reach 2% of GDP. Wages in 2017 in dollar terms are likely to compare with those in 2016, but recipients of salaries are likely to reduce in number by 75 000 - 100 000 people.

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Death penalty discussion in Belarus: yet not ready for either abolition or moratorium
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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.