Lukashenka's State of the Nation Address: Top 5 Messages

On 22 April President Lukashenka delivered his annual address to the nation and parliament. The “phantom” of Ukraine stood behind almost every part of his speech. During his annual address, Lukashenka made some impressive, even revolutionary, statements.

He called on Belarusians to unite in the face of external threats and demanded the punishment of those who speculate on the rights of Russians in Belarus. He devoted most of his time to discussing corruption and suggested economic reforms as a means of taming corruption and improving the nation's economic performance.

In closing out his address, Lukashenka declared a rather tough position on the ongoing Eurasian integration project.

Uniting the Nation

Aliaksandr Lukashenka began his annual address in quite an alarming way. He called on the nation to unite in protecting its independence in the face of instability in Eastern Europe.

“I am addressing you in difficult times. The surrounding states have gone into motion: Ukraine is boiling, the Russian Federation is trying to elevate its overall historical status. State borders are being shifted in front of our eyes. […] We must defend our most precious value – the independence of Belarus”, said Lukashenka.

He added that Belarus remains calm and uninvolved in any external conflicts. However, “we have reasons to worry”. He did not specify those reasons but offered three components for preserving the country’s independence:

  1. the nation should stay united;
  2. it should learn lessons from its own and others’ mistakes;
  3. it should have a clear vision of a future that will unite the young and the old.

The proposal to affirm national unity sounded most unusual. Lukashenka, of course, never argued for a national split but his policies regularly exclude any kind of compromise with the opposition. This time, however, he emphasised the need for a dialogue that will help them to avoid radicalism and a societal rift.

With an obvious reference to the Ukrainian crisis, he added: “society has to demonstrate tolerance towards a diversity of opinions and intolerance to any revolutions. We are tolerant of any opposition as long as it is constructive”.

Russians’ Rights in Belarus and the Russian Language

Continuing to draw parallels with the situation in Ukraine, Lukashenka commented on “some speculations” about the violation of the rights of Russians in Belarus. He called it complete nonsense stating that Belarusians have the same blood as Russians, which, in his opinion, makes any discrimination impossible.

Lukashenka warned Russia against "privatising" the Russian language

The president also claimed that no other country in the world demonstrates such a caring attitude to the Russian language and the Russian culture at large as Belarus does. He even warned Russia against "privatising" the Russian language” as, in his view, “it is ours as well”.

In a slightly contrasting manner, he then stated that “we are neither pro-Russian, nor pro-Ukrainian, nor pro-Polish – we are Belarusian”. He added that Belarusians would live on their own territory and would decide for themselves what unions to enter.

Finally, Lukashenka demanded that law-enforcement agencies “immediately eradicate any speculation about violations of Russians’ rights in Belarus”.

Corruption

The issue of corruption occupied a central place in the address. The amount of time that Aliaksandr Lukashenka devoted to it suggests that he is learning his lessons from the Ukrainian crisis, which, in his words, happened because of the corrupt Yanukovych government.

Lukashenka several times emphasised that the levels of corruption in the two countries are incomparable and that the Belarusian authorities have very harsh anti-corruption policies. To demonstrate this, he spent about half an hour discussing recent stories of high-ranking bureaucrats being arrested on corruption charges.

After that, the president offered three very progressive recipes against corruption that independent experts had been discussing for many years.

First, he suggested that the functions of the state, including the law-enforcement bodies, be limited. Second, he stressed the need to live within one's means: the less subsidies and public financial assistance government-owned companies receive, the more it helps to fight corruption. Here Lukashenka even promised to depart from his long-standing policy of so-called state paternalism. Third, the president spoke of raising the status of civil service and, in particular, increasing salaries there so as to minimise the incentives for taking bribes.

New Belarusian Economy

The economic part of the address offered some rather revolutionary ideas.

Lukashenka stated that he viewed his choice of socio-economic model in the 1990s as neither a mistake nor a great success. In his opinion, the country did not have any other alternative at that time.

It sounded like an excuse for the fact that the Belarusian economic model is turning less competitive and lagging behind the economies of other East European countries that went through reforms in the 1990s and 2000s.

Then Lukashenka started talking about a new Belarusian economy: “It is high time we enhanced our economic policy, in a quiet and evolutionary way but without delays or hesitation”. He suggested three targets:

  • Development of the internal market: about 70% of the economy depends on foreign trade, which, according to Lukashenka, makes the country too vulnerable to external shocks.
  • Improvement of the system of governance: the state should not support inefficient companies.
  • Stimulation of competition: like a real free marketeer, Lukashenka concluded that competition works as the main engine of economic growth.

These points do not necessarily indicate that Aliaksandr Lukashenka has changed his old anti-market beliefs. Some clarifications that he provided even seem to imply quite the contrary: for example, the internal market idea most likely originated from a desire to curb imports. However, the very fact that during his address he extensively employed a free market rhetoric is itself of interest.

Eurasian Integration

Before the Q&A session President Lukashenka limited the issue of Eurasian integration to a few formal remarks. But when an MP asked him about the prospects for the Belarusian economy after the launch of the Eurasian Economic Union in January 2015 Lukashenka made quite a strong statement.

He said that he would sign the founding treaty only after the removal of all limitations and exemptions from the free trade regime was concluded: “if you want to sign the treaty on the economic union today and lift these limitations in 15 years, as Putin suggests, then we will sign the treaty in 15 years”.

He reminded Belarusians that Russia had promised to resolve these issues but then changed its position, which excludes any possibility of a real union emerging. In Lukashenka’s view, after the failures of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Union State of Belarus and Russia, the people want real progress. “If we want to totally embarrass ourselves then let’s not sign it”, he added.

This straight statement suggests that the summit of the Eurasian troika in Minsk on 29 April will see some really tough negotiations.

To sum it all up, Lukashenka tackled many issues in his annual address. They varied from serious and highly relevant to sometimes humorous. He even lectured the nation on recipes for a healthy diet. And judging by the discussion visible in social media, the president’s recommendation not to eat potatoes with meat (and eat potatoes with fish instead) resonated the most among the population.

Perhaps, this is due to the humorous and generally positive connotation of the recommendation. The rest of the speech appeared to be too alarming. 

Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director of the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk.

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