Political situation in 2014: demand for “strong” state as consequence of crisis in Ukraine
Firm grip on stability amid regional crisis
Throughout the year, socio-political developments in Belarus were strongly influenced by events in Ukraine, from the Euromaidan and the overthrow of President Yanukovych, to the Russian invasion, the annexation of Crimea, and the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The fall of the Yanukovych’s regime in Ukraine has had a consolidating effect on the Belarusian nomenclature and boosted President Lukashenko’s role in ensuring the sustainability of the existing power structure.
In his classic manner, the president attempted to improve public sector efficiency through administrative means, staff reshuffles, stronger anti-corruption rhetoric and criminal liability threats to public officials, but to no avail. The government has not even considered the option of changing the public administration system, inter alia, introducing elements of political accountability for the implementation of state programmes. However, when external threats to Belarus’ economic security emerged from her closest ally, Russia, the state apparatus demonstrated its potential to mobilise.
The state has shunted responsibility for its own failures in socio-economic policy onto the population: as large enterprises whose profits are dependent on the Russian market are in poor financial health, the working week has been reduced, employees have been requested to take unpaid leave and their wages have been cut.
The authorities have managed to curb privatisation pressure from the Kremlin and keep state ownership in all assets previously promised to Russians. This was mainly thanks to the Kremlin’s limited capabilities due to its confrontation with Ukraine, and the West.
Belarus’ dependence on the Kremlin in the military sphere has continued to grow, regardless of her cautious attempts to reverse this trend and to strengthen the independence of the armed forces. Throughout the year, President Lukashenko has repeatedly tested the Belarusian army’s fighting capabilities, and has redistributed budgetary funds in favour of the most combat-ready units. Amid the growing threats of a “hybrid war”, including from the eastern neighbour, the president has revised approaches to the country’s defence by strengthening the air forces’ special operations mobile units.
Despite the appointment of the Russian stooge Metropolitan Pavel of Ryazan and Michailovskoye (Georgi Ponomarev) as Patriarchal Exarch of Belarus, the Belarusian Orthodox Church is inching away from the Russian Orthodox Church towards autonomy. In late 2014, following a number of personnel changes in the church leadership, the clergy meeting of the Minsk archdiocese decided to ask the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church to grant the Belarusian Orthodox Church the status of a self-governing church.
Held in May 2014, the World Ice Hockey Championships and the good performance of the Belarusian team had only a short-term propaganda effect on Belarusian society and in bringing the population together. Due to the Russian media’s dominant position in the Belarusian media space, the majority of the population shares the Kremlin’s perception of events in eastern Ukraine, thereby deepening the split within Belarusian society.
From time to time, the Kremlin strengthened information pressure on the Belarusian leadership in an attempt to alter the Belarusian authorities’ interpretations of the events in Ukraine. The Belarusian propaganda machine was not ready to neutralise the effects from the Russian media propaganda on the Belarusian people which is why the Belarusian Information Minister and the Head of the President’s Press Service have lost their jobs.
In late 2014, the authorities tightened control over the information space in Belarus and introduced new Internet regulations, inter alia, enabling socio-political websites to be blocked. These solutions have been designed not only to hamper the opposition; they may also be used to neutralise external media pressure during the presidential campaign, primarily from the Kremlin. Also, in an effort to neutralise Russian media propaganda, Belarus has allowed “The First International” Ukraine TV-channel to broadcast in Belarus.
Social policy: lowering public expectations by reducing state guarantees
The authorities have managed to preserve the existing socio-economic model, albeit in a somewhat downgraded version. In the face of a budget deficit, the state has gradually reduced the level of social guarantees in education, health, housing, culture and sports.
In order to bridge the funding gaps and social and economic policy failures, the authorities have invented additional mechanisms to reduce household incomes, for instance, increasing existing taxes and fees, or introducing new ones.
Workers at large state-owned enterprises in the regions and in the capital have experienced a drop in wages, some were requested to take unpaid leave or work fewer hours a week. However, amid the crisis in Ukraine, people’s expectations have lowered and such measures have not led to higher social tension or protest activity within the labour movement.
Russia is no longer capable of providing sufficient financial support to ensure economic growth in Belarus and higher living standards for Belarusians. The Kremlin’s assistance comes in small portions, merely enough to allow the Belarusian authorities to maintain a minimum level of social and economic stability in the country.
Amid the poor economic situation and scant support from Russia, the Belarusian government has started to talk about the need for economic reforms. High-level Belarusian public officials have made such statements at various international fora in front of influential persons from international financial institutions and investors. Nevertheless, the president has not yet publicly questioned the effectiveness of the existing model, and is not considering options for reforms, at least not in the year of presidential elections.
Political elites: nation-building in the face of external threats
The 2014 local elections were held according to the usual scenario: fully controlled by the authorities, with not a single opposition member elected to the local councils. The 2014 election campaign organisers demonstrated high executive discipline and loyalty to the incumbent president.
The authorities managed to keep the opposition’s activity within the defined frameworks and prevent social problems caused by lower state social guarantees to the population from being politicised. During the local campaign, the public officials consolidated and ensured high voter turnout amid low political activity. Such a high performance could be attributed to the president’s populist rhetoric before the campaign, which hinted at creating a “party of power” based on the “Belaya Rus” quango, but was never supported by real action.
Meanwhile, numerous significant staff reshuffles in the government and local authorities took place in 2014. Due to natural causes, very few officials serving since the soviet era still occupy top positions in the government. In addition, the balance of powers in the government has also changed – representatives of “new” economic sectors (the financial sector in particular) have seriously pushed back the “conventional” Belarusian senior managers – farmers and industrialists.
Throughout the year, the Belarusian opposition held consultations on holding the Congress of Democratic Forces at which a single candidate from the opposition would have been nominated. By the year-end, the negotiations had failed.
The Belarusian opposition’s concept of power change through peaceful protests after the presidential elections is in crisis, in particular after the bloodshed in Kyiv, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Most opposition structures focus on a “gradual transformation of the Belarusian regime” strategy, avoiding harsh confrontation with the authorities and they seek opportunities for cooperation with the authorities in order to strengthen the country’s sovereignty.
Foreign policy: Minsk’s increased regional importance
Signing the Eurasian Economic Union founding treaty has not saved the signatories – Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan - from conflicts, trade wars or public recriminations. Belarus managed to swap the EEU entry for short-term economic benefits. These, however, have devalued amid falling oil prices, growing economic stagnation in Russia, and Russia’s compensatory measures aimed at replenishing the federal budget.
Belarus seeks to maintain her “privileged” status in her relations with Russia and opposes the closure of the amorphous Russo-Belarusian integration project, aka the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
After weeks of confusion regarding Russia’s interference in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, official Minsk tried to capitalise on the Russo-Ukrainian conflict in international, bilateral, political, economic and military-technical spheres.
To start with, Minsk served as a regional negotiation platform between the parties to the conflict, later becoming a participant in the negotiations at the international level.
Thanks to its balanced peacekeeping attitude towards the conflict in Ukraine, the Belarusian government managed to unlock relations with the EU and the US, as well as to alleviate pressure from the Kremlin. Official Minsk has made numerous efforts to de-escalate the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
On the one hand, the Belarusian government has sided with the Kremlin over Ukraine’s non-aligned status, it has de facto recognised the annexation of Crimea, and allowed a stronger Russian military presence in Belarus at the peak of the Russo-Ukrainian confrontation. On the other hand, President Lukashenko has recognised the legitimacy of the new Kyiv authorities; supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine and rejects the idea of her federalisation.
Throughout the year, Belarus refused to compromise over conditions for normalising her relations with the EU. She has attempted to pursue its own agenda in relation to Brussels by cherry-picking areas for Belarusian-EU cooperation, while casting aside political conditions.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities are trying to diversify their foreign policy and foreign economic relations by developing multifaceted cooperation with the Arab East. Such a set-up, however, would not replace relations with Latin America as they were under President Hugo Chavez.
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.