Political situation: the state loses ground, Lukashenko stands firm
Key trends in Belarus’ politics in 2013 were:
- state apparatus became less manageable;
- shortages in human resource shortages at top and medium management levels in the government;
- social benefits cut and quest started to replenish the state budget at people’s cost;
- dependence on Russia increased;
- attempts made to resume high-level dialogue with Brussels and Washington.
Key challenges for the current government in the medium term are:
- keeping president Lukashenko’s approval rating stable ahead of the presidential campaign;
- managing growing discontent among people caused by cuts in social benefits and unpopular measures to replenish the state budget at people’s cost;
- addressing lower management efficiency in the economy;
- growing dependence on Russia within the Eurasian integration project.
President Lukashenko has no money to buy the loyalty of voters with social benefits or pay rises. To stay in power, he would have to reinforce his strong-arm policy.
Welfare state: reduced social obligations
President Lukashenko remains the most influential politician in Belarus (IISEPS (http://www.iiseps.org/). By the year-end, he managed to regain his approval rating, reaching the pre-crisis level (42.6%). In 2014, the major challenge for the ruling group will be to keep Lukashenko’s approval rating stable before the presidential campaign kicks off in 2015. It is worth noting that the state’s resources have dwindled, making it difficult to ensure a high standard of social benefits and continuous pay rises, i.e. key factors on which the president’s approval rating rests.
The president has regained his approval rating at the cost of pay rises unsecured by economic growth, anchoring a downward trend in the state apparatus’ manageability and efficiency. For instance, mass-scale industrial modernization has failed: the government’s monitoring of 711 large enterprises showed that in 2013 circa 20% of enterprises completely failed to modernize and 37% failed the deadlines. Often the president’s orders were not carried out or were revoked due to a lack of resources. Warehouse stocks continued to pile up throughout 2013.
The head of state attempted to remedy the situation with reshuffling staff, threatening sanctions or prosecuting managers. These attempts failed, mainly due to human resource shortages in the government’s top and medium level management which limited the president’s ability to mobilize public officials. In addition, human resource shortages did not allow the president to change the Myasnikovich-led Government. It is possible that he will dismiss the government just before the presidential campaign starts, thereby shaking off recent socio-economic policy failures.
Belarus’ growing dependence on Russia is particularly visible in the military sphere. The authorities are no longer able to ensure defence security. Official Minsk had no choice but to agree to a stronger Russian military presence in Belarus. In 2013, duty Air Force fighters of Russia’s Armed Forces Western Military District were deployed in Baranovichi. A Russian air base will be set up in Lida (Grodno region, Western Belarus) in 2015.
The ruling group is not willing to reform the existing socio-economic model and seeks to preserve it, albeit in a slightly downsized version. In late 2013, budget revenues decreased, despite the cuts in social benefits and rises in tax and non-tax fees for the population. As of mid-2013, wages in the public sector stopped increasing and prices for goods and services, subsidized from the state budget, went up. Workers at large enterprises have been requested to take unpaid leave and their working hours have been reduced. In 2014, these trends will intensify.
Political elites: interests at odds
In 2014, President Lukashenko will have to address two main issues: the state’s manageability and human resource shortages. It seems that he has no option other than to formally broaden the nomenclature’s powers in decision-making.
In late 2013, president Lukashenko held a national meeting of functionaries, reminiscent of the Soviet-era Communist Party Plenum. He believed that such meetings could improve efficiency within public administration. However, this collective management body is at odds with the existing personalized system of power.
The president has no plans to change the existing institutional design in Belarus. Further development of the ‘Belaya Rus’ quango, comprised of influential Belarusian nomenclature members, has been suspended.
In 2014, the president will attempt to balance out various law-enforcement agencies. Lukashenko has already reduced the roles of the Security Council and the State Secretary within the Belarusian power hierarchy and enhanced that of the national security assistant - Viktor Lukashenko – by strengthening his informal leadership.
Inside the Belarusian opposition, centripetal tendencies crystallized, resulting in cooperation among the largest opposition groups within the framework of two coalitions: ‘The People’s Referendum’ and ‘Talaka’. In 2014, attempts to nominate a single candidate for the 2015 presidential election will lead to stronger confrontation between the coalitions.
International policy: growing dependence on Russia
Belarus’ foreign policy in 2013 was pre-determined by agreements signed within the Eurasian integration project. Belarus has become more vulnerable vis-a-vis Russia. For instance, throughout 2013 Russian oil deliveries to Belarus were signed off with delays every three months. In addition, in Q4 2013 Russia cut its oil supplies to Belarus during the ‘potash conflict’ between Belarus’ authorities and Uralkali leadership. While president Lukashenko received some information bonuses, he lost leverage to pressure the Kremlin. In addition, the ‘potash conflict’ has entailed considerable economic losses for Belarus.
In 2014, Russo-Belarusian relations will follow similar patterns. The Kremlin is interested in stability in Belarus and will continue issuing subsidies and preferences to Belarus, but it will do so in minimal portions and with delays so as not to leave Belarus room for manoeuvre. Cooperation in key areas, i.e. in oil and finances, will be fine-tuned every three months. However, Russia’s assistance will not be enough to maintain the president’s approval rating up to the 2015 presidential elections. Belarus may therefore consider privatizing one or two large enterprises in 2014. This act will be presented as a concession to the Kremlin’s pressure.
Belarus continued to seek ways to balance her dependence on Russia. With no major break-through in Asia, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry attempted to create conditions in 2013 to resolve the political conflict with the West. The Belarusian authorities are interested in improving bilateral relations with Brussels and Washington, albeit on their own terms. In 2014, the Belarusian government is prepared to relax its grip on the domestic political environment during the local elections, hence creating favourable conditions for rebooting political relations with the West.
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.