Spending on social benefits is cut, but law enforcement budget increases
The government has continued to cut social benefit in an effort to preserve the existing socio-economic model, albeit somewhat curtailed. Simultaneously, expenditure on law enforcement has been scaled up, suggesting that the 2015 election campaign might follow a harsh scenario.
The House of Representatives approved. a bill introducing a fee for using private vehicles. Recently the government has come up with a bizarre assortment of initiatives to replenish the state budget, but most of them have not been implemented. The authorities used these initiatives to draw people’s attention away from real measures, which pick into people’s pockets and reduce social benefits.
For example, earlier in 2013, Prime Minister Myasnikovich proposed to tax the unemployed, and President Alexander Lukashenko proposed a $100 ‘exit’ fee. These initiatives were disavowed following reactions in society. An independent sociological poll by the Andrei Vardomatski Belarusian Analytical Workroom suggested that about 75% of Belarusians had heard about the $100 ‘exit’ fee initiative, of which 55% were against it. It is worth noting that such bizarre initiatives often have not been voiced by Lukashenko, but by other public officials. Lukashenko wants to avoid a negative impact on his approval rating before the elections.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities followed through with certain unusual initiatives. Some tax alterations and amendments which affect various social groups were introduced without any public debate.
For example, the government will introduce a fee for using private vehicles. As of 2014, a recycling fee for imported foreign cars and import tax for corporations will be introduced; rental-housing tax will be increased by 12.7%. In addition, the Belarusian authorities will raise tariffs on goods and services subsidized from the state budget.
The government will also reduce social benefits. The 2014 draft budget envisages budget cuts for culture and education. Simultaneously, the draft budget envisages more spending on law enforcement, suggesting that the authorities are concerned about a potential rise of social tensions ahead of the presidential campaign.
It is worth noting that the 2014 socio-economic development plan envisages lay-offs for 70,000 workers. Recently, Minsk Tractor Plant and Minsk Automobile Plant management curtailed production and considerably cut workers’ wages. This trend can be traced to the regions: Mogilevkhimvolokno, one of the largest regional enterprises, plans to lay off 30% of its employees.
Evidently, Lukashenko has limited opportunities to buy people’s loyalty with pay rises and social benefits, so he is counting on law enforcement to ensure social stability. In short, the authorities plan to preserve the existing socio-economic model at the cost of some population groups.
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.