The president's engagement in state affairs to continue to reduce
In recent years, the president’s public media appearances have demonstrated his reduced personal engagement in the state policy. Being unable to question the basic principles of Belarus’ political and economic system, the president is increasingly focusing on secondary and third-rate issues. His increasing self-elimination from the state policy is a challenge for the country's top leadership, which prompts confusion and inaction in some and initiative and arbitrariness in others.
Last week, President Lukashenka addressed the Belarusian people and the National Assembly.
In his address to the parliament and the people, Lukashenka has confirmed the reluctance to reform the existing socio-economic model, showed discontent with the western reaction to a mild, in his view, termination of the protest movement in the country, but reiterated the desire to continue to normalise relations with the EU and the US. The president also said he was ready to toughen repressions against his opponents, in response to the growth in open discontent with the existing social and economic policy.
In addition, the president conventionally talked about the pay rise (up to USD 500) through administrative means, ensuring full employment in order to curtail the protest movement, and enforcing the decree on social dependants as a frozen tool to reduce salary expectations and demands for growth in welfare.
Judging by the president’s anti-liberal rhetoric during the address, the Belarusian authorities have lost hope in obtaining the IMF loan in the coming year. Apparently, the authorities aspire for support from Russia to resume (albeit somewhat curtailed), as well as rely on own resources. Belarusian-Russian relations occupied an insignificant part of the president’s speech, which could imply that the effects from the Eurasian integration for the population had been exhausted and the overall benefits of which continued to reduce.
It is also possible that the fact that Belarus has marked a possible end of recession - 0.3% growth in Q1 2017 - has reinforced the authorities’ assurance of economic recovery without the need for reform. President Lukashenka has reiterated the unwillingness to carry out structural reforms and privatization and emphasised the importance of the state control over the economy with a large share of the public sector. However, it seems that the Belarusian leadership would support a cautious step up in the role of the private sector, for example for the IT, which does not put the political stability at risk.
Meanwhile, none of the issues voiced by the president appeared important, since all of them had contradictory reservations. During his speech, the president has shifted the focus from the state policy to secondary and third-rate issues. Moreover, the latter were the cornerstones of his address - some enterprises, towns, prices on some goods, etc. The president seemed particularly interested and focused on affairs of his son Kolya: the school regime, curricula, etc.
The president's low engagement in the public policy and his focus on details has broadened the opportunities for other officials and influence groups in the decision-making. However, since the president has retained unchallenged arbitrage powers, only those who are able to take risks would be able to use such opportunities.
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.