Political situation: people’s expectations of the state’s social protection lowered while demand for systemic transformations increased
Main trends in domestic politics in 2015:
- Low protest activity of the population amid a relatively high support for the president
- Reduced capacity for election mobilisation for both, the authorities and the opposition due to the fact that, the presidential elections were not regarded as a realistic opportunity to change the political situation in the country
- The opposition abandoned plans to change the Belarusian leadership during the 2015 presidential campaign
- Departure from the concept of ‘Maidan’ as a way to trigger changes in the political regime on the election day
- The influence of traditional opposition parties on protest electorate reduced and the ‘conventional’ opposition opted out from the presidential campaign
Belarusian society, including state nomenclature on a large part, realised that the Belarusian socio-economic model had exhausted its resource and required transformation. Meanwhile, President Lukashenka still believed that staffing policy and management optimisation could boost the model’s efficiency.
In 2015, the election year, the president set the following task before the anti-crisis "government of bankers" headed by Kobyakov – to keep the socio-economic situation under control and preserve stability on the financial and monetary market. The Cabinet and the National Bank have actually coped quite well.
Regardless of the public demand for change in Belarus’ social and economic policy, due to the economic slump, a significant part of the population did not support structural economic reforms and opted for the revival of the existing ‘Belarusian development model’.
Neither President Lukashenka, nor the government provided a holistic vision of the country’s development for the next five years, both before and after the election campaign. In addition, the president approved the new government only six weeks after the inauguration, which was due to the absence of a final decision about the path for development in the next five years and the need to raise external funding.
Before the election campaign, the president exploited the image of a strong leader who was in control of the situation in the country and was the only guarantor of political stability. That said, Lukashenka borrowed a motto for his election campaign from the opposition – ‘For the future of independent Belarus’. In addition, during the election campaign, he avoided populist rhetoric and election pledges.
Lukashenka dodged of direct participation in the campaigning as he lacked suitable plans for the population to drive the Belarusian model from a systemic crisis. After re-election, Lukashenka had disavowed all liberal rhetoric included in his election programme. For instance, in his inaugural speech, the president confirmed loyalty to the existing socio-economic model and its further conservation; he reiterated commitment to integration with Russia and normalization of relations with the EU; and emphasised a balanced approach to the events in Ukraine and preservation of the political course.
In the absence of a real opportunity to influence the change of power in the country, opposition structures demonstrated a low potential for political consolidation and unwillingness to act together. The authorities, in turn, refrained from large-scale repression against the opposition both during and after the campaign.
The long-running conflict in Ukraine and a mounting economic crisis had a major impact on the course of the presidential campaign. In addition, the elections recorded a gain in public apathy, which only increased with yet another electoral campaign. All participants in the campaign: the authorities, the opposition and the electorate, more than ever, regarded the presidential elections as a formal ritual undertaking with predetermined results.
In 2015, mobilisation capacity of traditional opposition parties reduced regardless of the economic crisis and fall in the living standards. That said, ‘conventional’ opposition did not even take part in the elections. In addition, negotiations by seven leading political forces over nomination of a ‘single oppositional candidate’ failed. Most political parties adhered to a variety of boycotting / neglecting tactics in the electoral campaign.
Traditional parties failed to collect the required number of signatures for the nomination of their candidates, indicating a deep crisis in their vision on the country’s development and the idea of regime change through mass protests. In turn, the only opposition candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich managed to harness the potential of the "People’s Referendum" campaign effectively and collected a protest vote. Amid the long-running crisis in Ukraine, Tatsiana Karatkevich’s proposal of a "peaceful change" was likely to gain adherers not only among the traditional opposition electorate, but also among new electoral groups. While official voting results for presidential candidate Karatkevich were quite modest – 4.4%, Gallup poll recorded a higher level of support for the only opposition candidate – 19%.
The elections resulted in a small rally, which was held without repressions and did not lead to mass emigration of opposition activists. On the election day, only about 200 protesters marched on towards the Independence Square following the same route as protesters in 2010.
Throughout the year, the government consistently raised costs for the opposition activity in the streets, including repressions, fines, fees for municipal and police services, period for issuing permits, etc. As a result, they achieved a well-controlled and minimised street activity. For instance, traditional opposition rallies ("Chernobyl Way" and "Freedom Day"), as well as other post-election protest activity gathered a record low number of participants.
In addition, analysts noted a decrease in electoral mobilisation capacity of the authorities with every electoral cycle. For example, according to IISEPS analysts, support for President Lukashenka before the election day was higher than that recorded by Gallup poll results – 51%. At the same time, the Belarusian Central Electoral Commission reported higher support for the president – 83.5% and record-high numbers for early voting – 36%. However, data from December IISEPS poll correlated with the Gallup data: Lukashenka – 50.8%, Karatkevich – 22.3%.
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.