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Belarus is Сhanging Rapidly and Needs the West

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine, coupled with Russia's economic decline, has facilitated the separation of Belarusian national identity from all things Russian. The government has made an effort to differentiate Belarus's interests from those of the Kremlin and to wean the country off Russia's military and economic support.

Some new members of the political elite have even demonstrated a willingness to collaborate with civil society representatives and to reform the Belarusian economy. Liberals in the government are increasingly open to dialogue with independent economists.

And yet, old habits die hard. The authorities continue to falsify elections and to expel democratic activists from universities. And while the private sector's share of national GDP in 2015 may have exceeded the government's share for the first time, the state continues to dominate the Belarusian economy.

What has changed

Financial Diet: Reforming State Finances of Belarus, a book written by a group of twenty Belarusian and foreign economists, is coming out this month. The book's editor Kiryl Rudy is an economic adviser to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, and one of the younger representatives of the Belarusian political elite. He was a Fulbright Scholar in the United States, and worked as a lecturer and an economic counsel​lor at the Belarusian Embassy in China.

In the past, Rudy has not shied away from supporting Western-funded pro-reform events such as the Kastrychnicki Ekanamichny Forum. He also invited several independent think-tank analysts to become co-authors of the new book.

This change in style appears to be rubbing off. In December and January, Pavel Danejka, one of the most influential pro-reform economists in Belarus, was interviewed by the state-owned paper Belarus Segodnia (Belarus Today). Such readiness to collaborate suggests that the pro-reform bureaucrats may need independent economists to say what they cannot express themselves.

Belarusian economy shrank by 4 per cent last year, this decline occurred mainly in the public sector

Rudy's appointment in 2013 reflects the slow rejuvenation of the Belarusian political elite, who increasingly advocate reforming the Belarusian economy. New appointees include Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Mikalai Snapkou, First Deputy Prime Minister Vasil Maciusheuski, Ambassador of Belarus to France Pavel Latushka, and others.

The changes in the ranks of Lukashenka's bureaucracy have been conducive to some changes in the country's economic policy. For the first time on Lukashenka's watch, Belarus's central bank, the National Bank, has acted prudently to stabilise the country's macreconomic fundamentals.

Although the Belarusian economy shrank by 4 per cent last year, this decline occurred mainly in the public sector. Independent experts and government officials say that in 2015 the GDP share of the private sector may have exceeded the government's share for the first time.

Dissociating from Moscow

In the last two years, Belarusian national identity has experienced a revival of sorts. In 2015, "Mova nanova” Belarusian language courses were held in ten cities; Belarus's top basketball team Cmoki (Dragons) took down the Russian-language version of its website; and oil company A-100 started to use the Belarusian language when communicating with its clients. Even the official policy towards the Belarusian language has changed, as the authorities adopt policies to foster rather than hinder its development.

Belarusian national identity has strengthened not only culturally, but also politically and militarily.

From Sanctions To Summits: Belarus After the Ukraine Crisis Belarus is returning to the international spotlight, but for once, not just as the “last dictatorship in Europe”. The two summits that Minsk hosted in the past year on the conflict in east Ukraine indicate a tentative shift in Belarus’s political alignment.

The Belarusian authorities have sought to dissociate themselves from Russia's actions in the international arena. The Belarusian regime, for all intents and purposes, seeks a conciliatory role in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Minsk has also refused to support Moscow's expansion in the Middle East. President Lukashenka even stated that Belarus would like to mediate the conflict between Moscow and Ankara following the downing of a Russian jet fighter by Turkey.

Some changes have also taken place in the military sphere. Belarus has urged the Kremlin to abandon plans to establish a military base in the country. At the same time, Minsk has sought to reduce its military dependence on Russia, narrowing the scope of cooperation in areas ranging from military training to arms manufacturing.

What remains the same

Despite some positive changes, many things remain the same in Belarus. Foremost, the authorities presided over a fraudulent presidential election in 2015, in keeping with elections past. The Belarusian opposition remains fragmented and has very little influence on Belarusian society, which itself is politically passive.

On 20 January, a local student activist, Hleb Vajkul, was expelled from the Belarusian State University for organising a recent student protest.

In general, it seems that the political elite has lost touch with the everyday needs of Belarusians. When the country experienced a massive snowfall in early January, the government proved woefully unprepared, and locals were forced to devise their own snow removal plans.

Rather than apologise for inadequate public services, the authorities decided to launch a public relations campaign for a "citizen's initiative". The executive committee of Minsk, the capital, sent the city's inhabitants a crude text message urging them to assist in clearing the snow. The state newspaper Belarus Segodnya published a page 1 headline titled Authorities Organise Society Against the Elements. Many ordinary Belarusians view such behaviour by the authorities as cheap posturing.

Opportunity to influence

Changes in Belarus have been precipitated by the onset of the Ukrainian conflict and exacerbated by Russia's economic decline. As people begin to lose faith in Russia's ability to become an economic power, it also becomes more difficult for Belarus to ignore the West and vice versa.

The current situation offers an opportunity for cooperation with the West on a variety of issues, such as stabilizing Ukraine, controlling the flow of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, containing Russia, and perhaps even the democratisation of Belarusian politics and society.

The recent changes may only mark the beginning of a longer process. The coming years represent a crucial juncture during which the Kremlin's influence, in particular as a provider of capital to stabilise the Belarusian economy, is likely to wane further. The question is: will the government in Minsk undertake more ambitious steps to reform the country? If so, how?

There is now a need for a greater presence of the West in Belarus. The European Union and the United States can become not only advocates of potential reforms, but also spur the changes that are already taking place in the country.

Particularly now, it seems important not to reduce Western support for Belarusian civil society. In the near future, strong NGOs may have a window of opportunity to broaden their agenda, even if some of these activities run counter to the preferences of the Lukashenka regime.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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