Frozen Western policy and narrowed space for political maneuver
2011 started for Belarus on 20 December 2010 with a sharp deterioration of relations with international political institutions and individual Western countries. On that day the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission did not recognize the Presidential election campaign as complying with the OSCE democratic standards.
The OSCE paid for its decision with the non-extension of the mandate of the OSCE Office in Minsk on 31 December 2010 –the Belarusian authorities said they preferred to work directly with the OSCE Secretariat in Vienna.
Belarus’s bilateral relations with other countries also entered into a “cool-down” phase.
Following the elections and the subsequent campaign of arrests, searches and interrogations of the presidential candidates, opposition activists and ordinary citizens, relations with the USA and the EU and Warsaw in particular deteriorated radically. The EU Ambassadors defiantly ignored the inauguration of Lukashenko; the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted resolutions denouncing the Belarusian authorities, the EU Council lifted the moratorium on the visa ban and extended the “black list” of the Belarusian officials banned from the EU and introduced economic sanctions against businesses close to Lukashenko for the first time in summer 2011. In turn, Russia’s President and Foreign Minister expressed negative attitude towards the harsh use of force at the finale of the election campaign in Belarus, thereby placing its longtime ally in a difficult position, regardless of the fact that the CIS election observation mission previously recognized the Belarusian elections as meeting the democratic standards.
As a result of the collapse of all the international contacts Belarus has build up through the years, President Lukashenko found himself in complete international isolation (for the first time during his presidency). He made his first international visit only on 27 April to Turkmenistan.
The political conflict between Foreign Ministries of Belarus and Poland deserves particular attention. A number of statements made by the Belarusian Foreign service during 2011 suggest that Belarus is blocking the possible resolution of the conflict between the countries intentionally, which is so far manifested by the non-renewal of the lease contract of the building of the Polish Embassy in Minsk as of 1 January 2012. In turn, the Polish Foreign Ministry has also set a very intractable condition for Minsk (the transfer of power by President Lukashenko to another person). The bone of contention between Belarus and Poland is this particular condition, rather than the Polish demand to release all political prisoners, therefore the conflict is unlikely to be resolved before the end of the Polish presidency in the EU.
The Belarusian President completes his first year of the 4th presidential term with a frozen Western foreign policy sector, which increases his dependence on the integration policy of the Kremlin. That is why Belarus signs and ratifies all agreements concluded within the framework of the Common Economic Space and the Eurasian Economic Union without any delay. The narrowed space for political maneuvering makes Belarusian foreign policy unsophisticated and more predictable which, in turn, results in simplification of domestic policies and reformatting of the elites close to the President.
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.