Society and authorities increasingly disagree over reforms in Belarus
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.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.