2011: Year Under The Sign Of Crackdown
The year of 2011 was in many respects a unique year for Belarus. Unlike a regular year, it started not on 1 January but rather on 19 December of the previous year. On that day the presidential election took place and in the evening a huge crowd of protesters gathered in the center of Minsk. The police violently dispersed the crowd. Hundreds of the protesters were arrested, including 7 presidential candidates. Numerous hopes for a more democratic future crashed instantly. As a result, all the major events and trends of 2011 in Belarus were in this or another way affected by the crackdown and its repercussions.
Reduced Space For Geopolitical Maneuvering
The most evident repercussions of 19 December reflected in foreign policy. After two years of a thaw in the relations with the European Union the 2011 signified a partial isolation of Belarus by the EU. Targeted sanctions against certain individuals and economic entities were introduced and expanded throughout the year. But it was only a partial isolation – Belarus remained in the Eastern Partnership and some official and informal political communication continued. Moreover, mutual trade (in particular, Belarusian exports) demonstrated an impressive growth. According to the Belarusian Statistics Agency, the export of Belarusian goods to the EU in January-October 2011 grew by 121,7% (compare: the exports to Russia grew by 41,2%).
However, even the partial isolation from the EU lead to a significant reduction of the space for geopolitical maneuvering. The Belarusian authorities became more exposed to pressure from Russia. Dependence on Russian credits, investments and subsidies grew considerably. As a result, Belarus had to fully implement its integration commitments given to the Kremlin, which in many respects endangered the country’s interests. For example, a recently leaked government document shows that the authorities did not even have enough time to analyze the future implications of Russia’s accession to the WTO for the Belarusian economy before they had to sign the documents on the Single Economic Space. They were simply rushed into it by Moscow.
‘Belarusian Economic Model’ Hopes Lost
The economic crisis that hit the country in 2011 was not directly caused by the crackdown on 19 December. It was an inevitable outcome of multiple macroeconomic imbalances that the government had ignored for several years. However, 19 December made a less painful transformation of the model impossible. It deprived Belarus of potential western investments which could have softened the currency shocks and facilitated some degree of economic modernization. Western investments would have also counterbalanced Russian investments and, thus, safeguarded the interests of the Belarusian elites and society at large.
But after the government resorted to repressive actions against its political opponents several international financial institutions (including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and European Investment Bank) decided to suspend their programs in Belarus. This was interpreted by potential western investors as an additional sign that the country was not safe to work in. As a result, instead of USD 6.5 billion of foreign direct investments (FDIs) planned for 2011 Belarus received less than USD 800 million of FDIs in its real economy (the Beltransgaz deal can hardly be considered an FDI).
The ‘Power Vertical’ Myth Unveiled
Before 19 December 2010 and the economic crisis of 2011 the Belarusian ‘power vertical’ was widely seen as super efficient. The majority of experts argued that the political model was capable of producing any governance result wanted by the president. Therefore, they would say, there should be no problem with, for example, carrying out market and political reforms once a decision is made by Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Now it looks like this theory was wrong.
The financial turbulence of 2011 clearly showed that the ‘power vertical’ in Belarus ceases to be efficient as soon as it faces untypical challenges. Under unaccustomed circumstances it fails to perform even relatively easy tasks. Like, for instance, privatization. In order to help the troubled state finances the government worked out a privatization plan for 2011. But the ‘power vertical’ only managed to sell 13% of the planned assets.
While the reasons for this failure are multiple, one is particularly interesting. According to the Chairman of the State Property Committee Georgi Kuznetsov, the privatization was sabotaged by local bureaucrats and managers of state enterprises. In other words, like on 19 December 2010, some parts of the ‘power vertical’ undermined the government’s policy and worked against the government’s interests. And, as the emergence of cracks in the government demonstrated, the more difficult challenges get the less potent the Belarusian ‘power vertical’ becomes.
On the background of the repercussions of 19 December and the crisis of 2011 it is not surprising that numerous surveys revealed a very alarming trend. Thousands of people left the country in search of better work and life standards. Even more sadly, according to several polls, between 60 and 80 per cent of the youth are eager to emigrate once they have a chance. And today it is really difficult to find even a most radical babushka-supporter of Alyaksandr Lukashenka who will not be happy for her grandchildren to leave Belarus for a better place.
Thus, Belarusian society is unanimous in its pessimism about the future of the country and opportunities that one can have in it. This is, perhaps, the most telling result of the outgoing year and the best characteristic of the accomplishments of the incumbent regime.
Unfortunately, it looks like the legacy of 19 December will continue to stay with us and will become lingering. It means that there might be many more unpleasant developments waiting for the people of Belarus. And we can only hope that the New Year will introduce a bit more of optimism in the lives of the Belarusians.
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk
Elections Where Everybody Lost & Recent Polls – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
In December most Belarusian commentators focused on significant events of the 2011 and forecasts for the year 2012 – their outlook was rather pessimistic. The Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies published results of its recent polls which show that over 80% of Belarusians think that the economy of the country is in crisis, and over 55% believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction. However, the number of those who consider themselves in opposition to the current government is slightly more than 20%.
Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies: December 2011 National Poll. Alexander Lukashenka’s electoral rating in comparison with September 2011 (20.4%) slightly increased to 24.9%, and so did the level of public trust in the president –up from 24.5% in September to 31.2% in December. However, if people knew of an alternative candidate who could compete with Lukashenka for elections, 44.6% of people would vote for such a candidate, while of 21.7% would cast their ballot for Lukashenka.
81.5% of Belarusians believe that the country’s economy is in crisis (compared with 87.6% in September), and 45% of respondents believe the situation will get worse (compared with 52.7% in September). 55.7% of Belarusians think the country is moving in the wrong direction (compared with 68.5% in September) and there has been a 2% increase among those who believe their situation has improved since September.
At the same time, 70% of respondents prefer reforms to maintaining the status quo in the country, while 57.7% would like to see radical changes in Belarus’ domestic and foreign policy in the next five years. IISEPS concludes that these “cautious” changes are due to “negative adaptation” of Belarusians and financial aid from Russia. Yet, the number of people who consider themselves as opponents to the current government dropped from 28.3% in September to 22.6% in December 2011.
What will Happen to Belarusian Civil Society in 2012? – Head of "EuroBelarus" Vlad Velichko believes that 2012 will be difficult for civil society, given the negative trends of the last year combined with the upcoming parliamentary elections. Velichko identifies two major achievements in 2011: "First of all, this is an impressive cooperation and solidarity of organizations and citizens after the events of December 2010 …Second, it is …the ability of the National Platform to give regular assessments of the main socio-political events in the country and in the world … It is customary that such a role should be performed by politicians, but it seems that in today's environment it is the mission of civil society."
The Third Sector Looks to the New Year without Optimism – Representatives of the Belarusian democratic NGOs – Oleg Gulak, Valentin Stefanovich, Sergey Mackievich – believe that the situation in the coming year in the third sector in Belarus is unlikely to improve.
Political Results of 2011. Nothing Good? – Online newspaper Naviny.by asked the Belarusian politicians which events of 2011 they consider to be the most important. The majority of respondents named the establishment of the Common Economic Space, as well as Belarus' signature of an agreement in the Customs Union and CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization).
Economic Policy in 2011: Choosing between the Bad and the Worse – Solidarity with Belarus Information Office in Warsaw sums up “the economic” results of the year. The Office’s experts consider 2011 to have been the worst year in the last decade, in particular compared with 2010, the “golden year” for the country’s population. The day of reckoning for the economic mistakes did not keep Belarus waiting: the currency crisis hit the country two months after the presidential elections and gradually translated into an economic and management crisis by summer. Nine months after the elections, real incomes of the population were cut in half.
Economic Results of 2011: Scandals, Victims, Incidents – The national bank is recognized as the worst governmental body, the victim of the year is the ruble depositors, and the scandal of the year is the foreign exchange shortage. These are the results of the economic development of Belarus in 2011, according to experts of the Mises Research Center and Analytical Center “Strategy,” Yaroslav Romanchuk and Leonid Zaiko.
Media 2011: Terrorists in Second Place after the President – TUT.BY sums up 2011 in terms of the most popular media topics. In particular, the top topic is the Belarusian ruble (5 million pages in BYnet). The most popular person, with a large margin, is Lukashenka (2 million pages). Event of the Year is a blast in Minsk subway, as well as Konovalov and Kovalev being sentenced to death (335 thousand pages). TUT.BY expert notes that there are very few media personalities in Belarus, one reason being that a rise in popularity in Belarus ends badly because it creates a treat for the existing status quo.
2011. The Excited Events – TUT.BY publishes its version of the most significant events of the year in Belarus. The web-portal notes that 2011 brought little that was positive in the life of the country: the explosion in Minsk subway, the economic crisis, new forms of protests, the trials of the ex-presidential candidates, Eurasian integration, etc.
Elections where Everybody Lost – The anniversary of the presidential elections in Belarus was marked by a round table titled "Square One Year after Ploscha: Political Assessment of Participants" in Minsk. The discussion was conducted by representatives of six democratic parties and movements – BPF, UCP, “Fair World”, Belarusian Christian Democracy, the "For Freedom" movement and the "Tell the Truth" campaign. One of the conclusions of the debate was articulated by leader of the " For Freedom" movement, Alexander Milinkevich: "I am ashamed that there were 9 strategies on the Ploscha. And I am ashamed that we could not." Belsat video
Alexey Pikulik. STRATEGIES. December 19, 2010: Dependence Square – Alexey Pikulik, BISS academic director, examines the balance of forces in Belarus over the last year and states that "the ball is still on the side of Lukashenka." Pikulik envisages two ways to change the status quo: an external shock, which can be caused by a sudden democratization in Russia, or inner work on the channels of influence on the Belarusian authorities. Yet, the number of people who think of themselves as opponents of the current government is slightly more than 20%.
Noncircular Anniversary – Vadim Gigin, an official ideologist and editor of "Belaruskaya Dumka", returns to the Ploscha events of 2010. Gigin accuses Western capitals over the mass riots: "The EU and the US because of their stupid harsh reaction on their failure of his own provocations gained … accelerating the integration of Belarus and Russia." The author concludes that "the Belarusian authorities won in a stunning victory on the political front," but at the same time he calls on the authorities to tackle the economy.
At least 3% of the economically active population leave Belarus – The outflow of undocumented migrant workers from Belarus is more than 30 times the registered labor migration rate, Alexander Luchenok and Irina Kolesnikova believe. Their study, "Impact of migration on the socio-economic indicators: the experience of Belarus," is supported by the Belarusian Fund of Public Policy (BPPF). The study not only describes the risks entailed by the growth of labor migration from Belarus, but also gives recommendations for solving problems.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.