President Lukashenka redoubles attention to ensuring loyalty of state apparatus
The president has demonstrated his commitment to the existing political and socio-economic model to the nomenclature and the people. Meanwhile, he softened the rhetoric in relation to his opponents, included some liberal elements in his speech about economic development and avoided criticism of the EU, US and Russian policies vis-a-vis Belarus. As Lukashenka has limited funds to ensure the loyalty of the population, he is attempting to focus on ensuring the loyalty of the state apparatus, but he is unlikely to establish a system of guarantees for them.
Last week, Minsk hosted the fifth Belarusian People’s Assembly, which was attended by 2500 delegates from the Government and other branches of power, heads of enterprises, workers, and representatives of science and culture.
The forum took place three months before the parliamentary elections, while previous four were held before important political events: the presidential elections and a referendum. Lukashenka’s address at the Assembly was broadcast in Minsk subway and on large outdoor screens in the capital.
Amid economic recession, the President focused on the national defence, began his speech with security issues, and presented the Belarusian multiple launch rocket system Polonaise. Interestingly, the Assembly was held a day before the outbreak of war between the USSR and Germany - the fundamental element in the Belarusian state ideology.
Unlike before, participants avoided harsh rhetoric against the opposition. Amid popular discontent of the population with the socio-economic policies, the authorities are attempting to pre-empt polarisation and politicisation of society. None of the speakers mentioned ‘colour revolutions’, the confrontation with Western capitals, and attempts to change the power from the outside. The president merely mentioned that he had full control over the political situation in the country: "If someone nourishes hopes to shake our political stability, [he/she] should leave aside such attempts”.
President Lukashenka praised the power vertical for the established election practices and noted with regard to the upcoming parliamentary campaign that "the people will choose the most worthy". In addition, the president reiterated ten characteristics of a "worthy" candidate, who may count on the state’s administrative resources.
President Lukashenka emphasized his interest in co-operation with the European Union and the United States. Some analysts have noted some liberal elements in the president’s speech about the economy. Perhaps this was because the IMF mission has arrived to Minsk on the same day the All-Belarusian Assembly was held. Minsk counts on a new loan from the IMF, which in turn requires that the Belarusian authorities demonstrate a serious commitment to structural and market reforms.
Despite the rising tensions with the Kremlin over energy issues, President Lukashenka refrained from criticising his eastern neighbour. In addition, he spoke quite a lot about Belarus’ cooperation with China.
Unlike before, the president did not commit to anything in particular regarding peoples’ welfare. At previous assemblies, the president set targets for average wage growth of the population: up to USD 250 in 2005, USD 500 in 2010 and USD 1000 in 2015. In all likelihood, the Belarusian leadership is not certain that the economic growth recovers. That said, the president expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the existing economic model:"The economic inferiority to the advanced countries we have inherited, unfortunately, persists. Moreover, there are risks it may deteriorate”.
President Lukashenka announced the second in the last five years ‘optimisation’ of the state apparatus and pledged to halve the number of public officials. The ‘optimisation’ is likely to be due to the need to raise wages in public sector at the cost of lay-offs. In addition, the president drew parallels between the Communist Party role in the Soviet Union and Belarus’ government officials in Belarus: "We must understand one thing: today, we do not have the Communist Party, which once was largely responsible for educating, ideological education of our society. Everything falls on us - on the vertical of power”. That said, the president indirectly said a firm ‘no’ to nomenclature’s hopes to transform Belaya Rus quango into a political party of power, by referring to the lack of demand for the parties in the Belarusian political system.
The Belarusian government is aiming to preserve the situation in anticipation for a more favourable external environment. Amid limited funds to ensure the loyalty of the population, the president is attempting to focus on ensuring the loyalty of the state apparatus, while keeping it under his thumb and resisting minimal guarantees for public officials.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.