Social protection is shrinking in Belarus, but social rhetoric remains
The government is planning to solve the budget deficit problem by cutting social guarantees, raising additional revenues from some population groups, and redistributing funds from the most profitable and successful economic sectors. Meanwhile, the authorities are not planning to revise the motto that Belarus offers effective social protection.
Last week, President Lukashenka once again reiterated his commitment to ensuring high employment levels, and put forward a rigid demand to prevent mass layoffs: "People who want to work must not be thrown out on the street. Criminal liability may be established for this”.
However, the state efforts to preserve the employment levels have negative impact on labour productivity and, consequently, lead to lower wages. The average wage in the country has been reducing for the second consecutive month and fell by 3.1% since early 2015. Simultaneously, employment in the economy has been declining since 2008, and lay-offs are consistently higher than recruitments.
In addition, President Lukashenka ordered the government to find ways to increase people’s wages in the next five years and clarified that it should not be done by turning on the printing press, but through productivity growth: "I am not saying how. All of you have to provide people with work and hold them responsible for productivity”.
The Belarusian authorities continue to probe public opinion regarding unpopular initiatives aiming to reduce social protection. Just before the presidential elections, high-level officials talked about raising the retirement age. However, due to extremely negative feedback, the president decided to postpone consideration of this issue until the post-election period.
Immediately after the election, the president and other senior officials initiated discussions about raising the retirement age: "I talked about this back in the pre-election period, that the retirement age should be raised. We need to raise it, but people do not want this. This is why we have small pension in our country. Today our pension fund is what it is”.
It should be noted that in recent years the state has already taken a number of measures to reduce the burden on the pension fund both by reducing the guarantees to the population, and by encouraging later retirement. However, despite the increasing imbalances, the state does not consider substantial reforms of the pension system, as well as other social spheres.
For example, according to the BISS research, the population regards healthcare as a priority area for reforms. In addition, society is ready for serious reforms in the healthcare and transition from budget funded to insurance healthcare. Meanwhile, at a meeting with Director of the WHO Regional Office Zsuzsa Jakab the president was only positive about the Belarusian healthcare system and virtually assured that he would not reform the medical field: "We have done a lot in the healthcare in those difficult times after the collapse of the Soviet Union".
In addition, the government intends to increase the share of payment for some utility services up to 100% by 2018. Simultaneously, Belarusian officials often refer to low utility services tariffs (compared with other European countries) as one of the main arguments in favour of the Belarusian development model.
The Belarusian authorities continue to search additional budget revenues. After the election, they have stepped up tax inspections and fines for individual entrepreneurs. This has led to some tension in the business environment, for example, to protests in Vitebsk.
As the state resources dwindle, the authorities will continue to cut social guarantees and milk some social groups. The state will go as far with cutting social benefits as society allows it. But, all these cuts will have no impact on the rhetoric of senior 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.