Belarus After Elections: Three Years of Stability?
On 23 October the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Anglo-Belarusian Society in London organised an event titled ‘Belarus After Elections: Three Years of Stability?’
The main speakers were Katia Glad from Chatham House and Yauheni Preiherman of the Liberal Club in Minsk who is also a regular contributor to Belarus Digest. Andrew Wilson, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, moderated the discussion.
The participants focused primarily on the post-election situation of Belarus. They also considered possible scenarios for future developments in the country and the role of the Belarusian opposition. Other topics covered were the current trends in politics and the economy as well as the possible role of the pro-government organisation Belaya Rus which officially won a majority in the recent elections.
‘Stable Instability’ of the Regime?
The participants noted that the opposition is not united and that there is a lack of a strong protest mood, and discussed recent trends in the economy. Other factors were alluded to, such as the high level of repression in Belarus, Moscow’s financial support, as well as the West’s unsuccessful policies which help official Minsk to remain in good shape. It is largely due to these factors that the Belarusian regime appears to many as a solid system with confident authorities.
Thus, the possibility for any major changes within the regime remains rather low, unless a shift within the elites takes place or there is some impulsive action from Moscow. One such scenario could be a sudden drop in oil prices which would make Moscow unable to continue supporting the Belarusian regime. Clearly, Russia remains the most important supporter of Minsk. While it is a member of the Customs Union of Belarus, something which helps to preserve the stability of the Belarusian regime, it is well known that this is an organization that also receives significant financial support from and is directed by Moscow.
On the other hand, Belarusian society is clearly suffering from fatigue. People remained indifferent to the recent parliamentary elections because of widespread knowledge of the Parliament’s puppet role, but also unfairness when it comes to counting of the vote. But as both domestic and international political actors started to put more pressure on Minsk, the regime’s stability can be endangered. Some participants believed that the boycott campaign of the September elections proved that the electorate at large is unhappy about the Belarusian regime.
Economy against the Regime
The recent negative trends in the economy also play against Minsk and put its stability at risk. Russia’s entry into the WTO brought about some negative consequences for Belarus and will make Minsk seek further financial support from Moscow. The consequences include a high level of competitiveness from other countries’ goods and services which can inevitably become a threat to Belarusian companies.
Nonetheless, significant destabilisation of Minsk-Moscow relations seems highly unlikely. Moreover, due to Lukashenka’s aversion to any changes in the system he has built, the scenario of serious modernization also appears unlikely.
The Opposition: a Single Candidate or a Better Strategy?
The participants agreed on the opposition’s weakness and inability to achieve its political goals. One of the speakers suggested that only a strong leader and well-organised structure could help the opposition to effectively communicate with Belarusian society. However, so far the opposition presents rather short-term thinking strategy and thus it cannot achieve its political goals.
A scenario of a single candidate is also difficult to implement because the regime is consolidated and will try to fragment the opposition. Others thought that because the elections are neither free nor transparent, the opposition’s single candidate would not change the final result anyway.
Despite serious internal difficulties within the opposition, the recommendation for it was to work on preparation of the Belarusian people for one credible candidate in the future. The work at grassroots level should also play a significant role.
Moreover, one of the speakers argued that if the opposition won't change its behaviour and work with common people and elites, then it will not be relevant to the transformation process in Belarus. At the same time, the opposition and civil society should focus more on closer co-operation with the EU and reach a wider audience in Belarus.
E-voting for a Single Candidate in Belarus?
The idea of e-voting to select a single opposition candidate in Belarus failed to spark much optimism among the participants at the event. Firstly, that would require significant financial resources to establish such a voting system, which makes it impossible to work over the next couple of years. Moreover, the regime’s repression and control of the electoral process technically disables the possibility for application of e-voting in the near-term future.
The Russian opposition still operates in a much more liberal environment compared to Belarus. They were even able to have voting for their opposition leadership not only on the Internet, but also in a number of places offline. That would be difficult to imagine in Belarus.
The Need for Change
One of the arguments raised was related to the social contract in Belarus. In reality it means guaranteed stability in exchange for society’s passivity.
Because of the economic crisis, the domestic and unprecedented international pressure imposed on Lukashenka, protest moods may yet still grow in Belarus. In addition to traditional pressure, the ruling elites and the Belarusian electorate at large also demonstrate a demand for reforms of the system.
Since all the political actors stress the necessity of macroeconomic changes, these changes would mean a transformation of the system. The current regime remains very reluctant to make any changes. Time will show for how it will be able to oppose changes.
The discussants analysed the phenomenon of Belaya Rus, a pro-government association which officially won the recent Parliamentary elections with 57% of all seats. According to some participants, transformation of Belaya Rus into a new political party could mean the end of the old politics because elites will be able to consolidate and better articulate their agenda.
Others were sceptical and thought that Belaya Rus was just window dressing and will be not more important in the current parliament. Whatever role Belaya Rus will have, it is unlikely to contribute to the end of “stable instability” in Belarus.
The Youngest Pensioners in the World
In some areas, Belarus is very much like the rest of Europe. Its population is rapidly ageing.
But unlike its western neighbours, Belarusians benefit from one of the lowest retirement ages in the world – 55 years old for women and 60 for men. To put it into context – in Poland the Parliament recently approved the increased the retirement age to 67 for most Poles. Today pensioners in Belarus make almost a third of the population.
Still young Belarusians know little about pensioners’ lives and troubles. For them, ageing people fall into two very different categories: their own grandparents and the rest. The first bunch have wise eyes, soft hands, and the tastiest pies. The second is queuing in state hospitals, selling apples near the metro, and grumbling in public transport.
Belarusian employees know that 29% of their salaries goes to support the current pensioners, but nevertheless pensions have remained remarkably low. A very unfavourable ratio between workers and pensioners (100 to 57) partially explain this. And in the future the share of pensioners will grow even further. This demographic time bomb may seriously undermine the social security system of Belarus. Now the government has proposed a new solution to the problem.
Will the Pensions’ Novelty Work?
By 2020, there will be 67 pensioners for every 100 working people. Each two workers will have to support three pensioners. The socialistic pay-as-you-go pension scheme used in the country has turned into an unbearable load for the nation.
Still Belarusian authorities do not want to consider fundamental changes in the current pension scheme. Instead, the government has chosen to motivate elderly people to work longer without giving them pensions.
After the pensions’ novelty has come into force, people reaching retirement age and willing to work further have to make an important choice. They may decide not to get state pensions while they work and thus increase their future pensions. Alternatively, they can get their pensions while working after retirement age, but their future pensions will not rise.
The right choice requires a careful calculation. If people work for five years after reaching the retirement age without getting pension during these years their future pension will increase by 50%. But during these five years they do not get any state pension. The lost pensions will come back to people only in ten years after they finally retire. Considering Belarusians life expectancy, that may be too late.
Another reason for low popularity of the new rules is very high inflation rate in Belarus. In 2011, inflation in Belarus was over 100% – the highest in the world. The promise of more Belarusian roubles in the future may turn out to be rather empty.
Shall Belarus Raise the Retirement Age?
Raising the retirement age seems like the simplest solution. Now it is one of the lowest in the world: 55 years for women and 60 years for men. But Lukashenka has declared that ageing people have asked him not to raise the retirement age and therefore he will not do so.
However, just recently, a Deputy Minister of Labour declared that everybody understands the need for an increase in the age of retirement. He explained that the current threshold has existed since 1956 when pensioners had lived through war, collectivisation and the difficult post-war years. Now, according to his words, the situation has changed and people can retire later.
Although the life of contemporary Belarusians may be easier than decades ago, their life expectancy has fallen. According to Antonius Broek, UNDP Resident Representative in Belarus, in 2010 average life expectancy was shorter compared to 1970 only in 9 of 169 countries monitored by UNDP. Belarus is one of them. Broek noted that while in 1970 Belarusians’ life expectancy made 71 year, in 2010 it was only 69.6 years.
Referring to deteriorating of life expectancy since 1970, some more Belarusian statistics attract attention. The total consumption of alcohol in Belarus from 1970 to 2011 increased almost twice: up to 11.39 litres per person. The link looks obvious, and why so many people seem to ignore it is hard to explain.
Moving the retirement age up would be very unfair to Belarusian males. Now, their average life expectancy makes only 64.7 years(76.5 for women - which shows one of the largest gaps in the world). Read more
The figures make Belarusians think once again whether it is really worth prolonging the retirement age now. Moving the retirement age up would be very unfair to Belarusian men. As it now stands, their average life expectancy is only 64.7 years of age (compared to 76.5 for women – which is one of the largest gaps in the world). Pensioners’ folklore has already expressed its opinion on this matter: “From machine to coffin”. Proud of its social orientation, Belarus will probably use rise of pensions’ age only as a last resort.
Pensioner As a Job in Itself
The early retirement age does not mean, however, that Belarusian pensioners enjoy an easy living on their pensions.
In January – August 2012 pensioners were getting on average only about $155 per month. For this money you can afford a average winter coat or one pair of good shoes in Belarus. How all these people manage to make ends meet remains a mystery. But it is a real miracle, that with this small amount of money that they have, pensioners still continue to give money to their children and grandchildren.
About 25% of Belarusian pensioners continue to work afterwards even without the new incentives. Many pensioners move to dachas and villages, where they grow harvest for themselves, all their relatives and even for sale. In Minsk, single elderly ladies earn by leasing a rooms in their flats, which usually benefits them even better than pensions.
In January – August 2012 pensioners were getting on average only about $155 per month. Read more
“Pensions would be enough if it was not necessary to help the youth” – this is what you will often hear from pensioners around Belarus. Pensioners give money to their children even if the children are living well. That represents an eternal source of parental happiness in Belarus. Hardly any economic troubles or progress will change this.
And, for sure, the main preoccupation of Belarusian pensioners is their grandchildren. By the time a Belarusian woman retires her grandchildren are often between 3-13 years old. This turns to be the best time for mothers to return to active work and grandmothers start to take on their own part in the rearing of the child. As a rule, children welcome such changes. They get the tasty dishes, an inexhaustible source of interesting stories and an everlasting atmosphere of love.
With a very strong link between generations in Belarus, it is hardly possible that the youth will ever demand a rise in the retirement age or any other measure deteriorating the position of pensioners.
Instead of thinking only about putting more pressure on those who work the government should also seriously consider considerable increases in productivity rates, longer life expectancy and a serious reform of the pension system. The latter seems to represent the easiest task. However, only when all these three elements will effectively come into play will Belarus be proud about its care of the ageing people.