What Worries Lukashenka
The Belarusian president has always used press conferences in order to keep in touch with his electorate and demonstrate that he is in good political shape and keeps everything under control. Depending on what happens in the country at the time of a press conference he also comments on issues that worry the population most.
Interestingly, during the latest press conference he rather focused on the issues that in the first place worry him. And the most noticeable one was the issue of the presidential powers.
In the authoritarian political system of Belarus Lukashenka’s powers have no checks and balances. And he never doubted to remind about this. However, it begins to look like the majority of the population is turning unsatisfied with the president and his absolute powers.
In spite of a surge in income in real terms (by 20.4% in January-November 2012) the incumbent’s electoral rating remains modest. According to the IISEPS, it stayed at around 30% throughout last year. For Lukashenka this is unacceptably low.
Moreover, the IISEPS survey in December revealed another fact that surely worries the regime. Over 50% of the respondents said that they did not see anything positive in Lukashenka’s excessive powers. Additionally, most of the respondents blame the president for the current economic difficulties.
the sociologists then go for various methodological tricks in order to please the leader.
It is difficult to say whether Lukashenka himself believes these numbers. According to credible sources, his sociologists in the Presidential Administration get more or less the same numbers from their surveys. But the sociologists then go for various methodological tricks in order to please the leader. As a result, the incumbent receives distorted data.
However, judging by Lukashenka’s behaviour, he does feel that his popular support has significantly shrunk. His increased public activities and resonating decisions clearly point to that. It looks like he is trying to restore his previous level of electoral popularity by featuring more in the news and making tough statements. No doubt, the press conference was part of the strategy.
The Core Message
At the same time Lukashenka obviously does not want to compromise his unrestrained hold on power. Even though the Belarusians are growing tired of the political “one man show” and are increasingly dissatisfied with the model of personalistic dictatorship, Lukashenka offers his own original recipe.
In a number of statements during the press conference on 15 January he implied that his powers would grow further. In the situation of multiple socio-economic challenges Lukashenka thinks that only his total control of everything can save the country. He did not go deep into explaining why and simply ended by saying “this is how things will be for now”.
A perfect illustration of the president’s core message at the press conference came in his quote about the independence of the National Bank:
The National Bank exists independently but the president can at any moment request a report from it, make an inquiry into a situation and demand that some other measures be taken in the interest of the state and the people.
In other words, Lukashenka can even envision some formal liberalization. But only on condition that it does not limit his personal powers.
No Money for Social Policies
Another important detail of the press conference was about state paternalism.
Lukashenka has always taken particular pride in all sorts of social benefits and subsidies in the Belarusian “socially-oriented market economy”: in healthcare, housing, education, public transport, etc. According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, in the mid-2000s up to two thirds of the Belarusian citizens qualified for some benefits.
However, in recent years under the financial pressures the authorities have been trimming the social package of the population. In 2007 the Law “On state social benefits, the rights and guarantees of separate categories of people” took away some of the benefits mainly from students, pensioners, handicapped and Chernobyl victims.
For example, this law deprived students and labour veterans of the right for discounted access to public transport. The state stopped covering medical and communications expenses for a large group of people. Even the military and police had their social packages cut.
Lukashenka made an obvious hint that state paternalism would continue to shrink
During the press conference Lukashenka made an obvious hint that state paternalism would continue to shrink. This time he even sounded almost like a libertarian: “we bend and will continue to bend parasites”, “a bulb gives equal amount of light to everyone”, “pay as much as your electricity meter shows and using the same tariff for everyone” or “everyone has to think how to earn his living”.
Lukashenka said that in 2012 the government had spent “BLR 11 or 17 trillion” ($1.25 or 2 billion) to provide all sorts of subsidies. He underlined that it was a huge sum and that the state would gradually depart from this kind of paternalism.
Modernization: Lukashenka Style
The points that Lukashenka made during the press conference suggest that he realises the socio-political and economic threats to his rule. And he chooses to counteract them by further expanding his presidential powers and preparing the Belarusians for a decline of the social state.
As he also spoke extensively about the need to modernise the economy, we can assume what this modernization will look like.
Exactly like before, the government (not private investors) will choose certain enterprises and offer them state subsidies, credits and tax benefits. As the financial perspective for the next years does not look too promising the money for modernization will be taken from other sectors, including the social sector.
And Lukashenka will preside over this modernization holding all controlling strings in his hands and interfering with different enterprises depending on his mood and intrigues in his closest surrounding.