Society and authorities increasingly disagree over reforms in Belarus

April 22, 2016 19:14

Amid Belarusian socio-economic model arriving at the end of its resources, Belarusian society is increasingly willing to undertake urgent reforms in some priority areas. However, despite the low protest potential and low resistance to reforms from the population, the Belarusian authorities are unlikely to revise the existing socio-economic model in the short and medium term. As far as they are concerned, the existing model still works – it enables the authorities to ensure that the population is loyal and socio-political situation in the country is stable. 

The EurAsEc Anti-Crisis Fund, with which Belarus is negotiating a new loan, has encouraged the Belarusian authorities to raise housing and transport tariffs without any delay. 

For several years, independent sociologists have been registering the demand from Belarusian society to reform social and economic policies. President Lukashenka also noted that such demand existed, but in early 2015 he said: “I will not give up on it [the existing socio-economic model] until the end of my presidency”. 

Recent sociological poll by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies has registered the growing demand for reforms among almost all population groups. The demand for changes is the highest among housewives and unemployed – it could be a consequence of the controversial "decree on social dependents (parasites)”, which, however, would only affect the population in 2016. It is worth noting that each year the state is inventing new ways to raise funds from the population, thereby increasing the number of those dissatisfied with its actions. 

In addition, people have expressed unwillingness to tolerate deterioration of their financial situation. However, a significant part of citizens does not see the need for structural economic reforms and favours the revival of the existing economic model, which should be ‘cleared’ of the negative impact of the economic crisis. 

The authorities also do not see the need for fundamental changes in the economic policy. For example, during a business meeting at the Presidential Academy of Management, Chairman of the Council of the Republic and former Prime Minister Myasnikovich spoke in favour of further modernisation at industrial and agricultural enterprises: “If we do not invest in modernisation of our industry, agricultural enterprises, soon they will be producing products, which no one on the market will buy”. Meanwhile, many experts have repeatedly emphasized the failure of the state’s economic modernization policy, which has been undertaken recently. In addition, President Lukashenka stopped talking about modernization too. 

The authorities also plan to preserve current social policy in the coming years. For example, in housing, one of the priority sectors for reforms, the government’s approach has not changed since early 2011. For example, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Kalinin, while answering questions from MPs regarding the draft decree on non-cash housing subsidies for people with low incomes, said: "Approaches to increasing utilities’ costs have been defined – USD 5 per year plus indexation depending on growth in revenues. We shall work this way in 2016-2017 too”

Surprisingly, the demand for reforms from Belarusian society has little effect on protest activity of citizens. According to independent sociologists, only 3.2% is ready to participate in demonstrations in the case of reduced benefits and social protection. 

The Belarusian authorities do not feel encouraged to reform the existing socio-economic model built by President Lukashenka. The authorities fear that reforms would significantly increase the risk of destabilization of existing socio-political system, and, most importantly, would reduce nomenclature benefits. The short-term goal for the Belarusian authorities is to maintain the current level of social protection for the population until the end of the 2015 presidential campaign. 

The Belarusian authorities will delay socio-economic reforms and will only apply ad hoc measures in order to preserve the loyalty of the population.

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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.