Belarus Authorities Combat Economic Crises on the Ideological Front
The Belarus authorities seem to be combating the economic crises on two fronts. On the economic policy front, they promise modernization and reforms. On the ideological front, they initiated closing down two leading independent newspapers and instructed state media not to focus too much on the economic problems. The authorities can easily succeed in liquidating independent newspapers, however hiding the most serious economic crises in Belarus since 1990-s will be much more difficult.
The state daily Zviazda reported on a seminar organized by authorities for editors of state-controlled media on 29 April 2011. State officials were instructing editors how they should do their work. Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Tozik spoke about the need to modernize Belarus economy and encourage more independent decision-making of directors of state enterprises. He also promised that despite economic problems there will be no cuts in spending on social projects.
Aleh Praliaskouski, the main state ideologist, referred to media which in his opinion incorrectly covered the 11 April terrorist attack. According to him, fear and panic in Belarus is exactly what the terrorists want. In connection with it he also quoted Lukashenka, who said that Belarus was under external pressure because of its independent internal and external policies.
The opposition weekly Nasha Niva picked up Mr Tozik’s admiration of reforms which need to be led by the “strong” government. The newspaper, which may be closed down soon, noted that the strength of authorities should not be measured by how the authorities oppress the opposition. Instead, it should be measured by how successful it is in fighting corruption, collecting taxes and promoting economic development. Nasha Niva also discussed the effect of the authorities’ request to the state media not to focus on rising prices and other economic problems because this could even further deteriorate the situation.
Indeed, it will be difficult to hide economic problems and this is exactly what people in Belarus want to know more about. Most opposition web sites such as Belaruspartizan.org describe how people are struggling with the inadequate supply of imported goods and rising prices. The lack of foreign currency hinders the retailers’ ability to import goods. Goods produced in Belarus are often of inadequate quality and cannot replace all imports. According to sellers, even with increased prices the stocks of imported goods are depleting and there is nothing to replace them.
The state-run media is generally silent about the ongoing trials of former presidential candidates and other opposition activists. Independent media, however, cover those trials in great detail. Belarus’ internet users actively discuss recently released photos which suggest that after the violent crackdown against the opposition meeting on 19 December 2010, Belarus security services planted shovels, ice-axes and other items at the demonstration site to show that the protests were not peaceful. However, the courts do not seem to be interested in considering evidence exonerating the opposition. That makes many bloggers skeptical about the Belarusian authorities’ investigation of the 11 April bombing in Minsk. Their concern is that if authorities so easily and willingly manipulate evidence to punish their political opponents, why one should expect from them a fair and transparent investigation of the 11 April blast.
Swedish Foreign Minister: Lukashenka Decided to Fall Down
Last week at a conference at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt made a remarkable statement. He said that Lukashenka was near his end and Moscow was not going to save the Belarusian leader. His statements on Belarus were unequivocal.
Discussing with the EU initiative of Eastern Partnership, Carl Bildt said:
It is essential that we should hold on to the principle “more for more” and “less for less” in the Eastern Partnership, I mean, when someone goes for reforms, he should have more support and opportunities, and vice versa. Speaking about “less for less”, we have an obvious example – Belarus. A person who takes decisions in Minsk chose another direction, he decided to go down, even fall down. This naturally reflected in our ability to help Belarus with reforms and to integrate it into the European community. This is a European country which has an authoritarian regime – and this cannot be combined. I think this will change – and our proposal lies on the table in Minsk. At the same time we clearly state that political prisoners and political harassment which we see at the moment are unacceptable for us.
Mr Bildt assured that the EU was not going to forget Belarus because of North African developments:
What happens in the South in a sense dominates in the sphere of European foreign policy – and it will be so for a while. Yet does it mean that our partners from the East will loose their priority status? I do not think so. Vice versa. It seems, that the European politicians will realize – how we pursue the Neighborhood policy will have a key role in our security.
According to him, the European nations will now consider applying economic sanctions against the regime in Minsk:
Targeted economic sanctions — yes. However, the main problem which Belarus is facing is a very, very big economic chaos. It wouldn’t be so bad if Belarus had investors, foreign partners, if it had been a reliable country for credits and could get money with a reasonable interest rate.
I have not to explain why the latter shall be forgotten, since who is willing to invest in Lukashenka? No one! Belarusian leadership hopes that Moscow will now rescue them. But it seems to me that Moscow is not going to do it. Probably in more distant future as well. Because no one, I would emphasize, no one wants to put his money into a ‘black hole’ which is Belarus. Neither from West, nor from the East. Soon Lukashenka will have no options – he will have to turn for help to international institutions. The US cannot help Belarus because of documents adopted there. Only the Europe will remain. And we will establish very strict conditions and will carefully watch to the government’s behavior. Belarus is in a very, very desperate economic situation. In addition, I am sure that adopting general economic sanctions first of all would affect ordinary people.
While answering further questions, Mr Bildt sounded, however, not so certain:
Some things are absolutely clear: until now everybody was mortal. And I do not believe that Lukashenka will be the first one to live eternally. Therefore, of course, the time will come when Belarus will be post-Lukashenka. I am not ready to say whether it happens tomorrow or in ten years. Yet I do know one thing, we shall be ready for that in order to help in the transit period with economic and political system reforms, and shifting to another system of values.
This statement of Swedish minister is a logical move in the context of last developments in Belarus-European relations. Belarusian government have chosen confrontational line towards the EU after December elections in Belarus, accusing some European countries of meddling in Belarusian internal affairs. On 1 April, Belarusian Foreign Ministry declared that the Eastern Partnership was loosing its attraction for the country.
The last turning point came when Lukashenka received no invitation to the summit on Chernobyl in the Ukraine attended by some high-level EU representatives. Enraged, he publicly abused the EU and Ukrainian leaderships. Until then Ukraine made its best to retain Belarus in the Eastern Partnership, for among the Ukrainian political establishment prevailed the opinion that the Partnership will have much less sense for Ukraine if Belarus goes out. After Lukashenka’s derogative remarks, the Ukraine had no reasons to save the Belarusian government anymore.
Then, on 29 April, the Polish Foreign Ministry declared that the Belarusian delegation would not take part in the Warsaw summit of the Eastern Partnership in late September. One of the pillars of Lukashenka’s strength – a policy of equilibrium between East and West – seems to be crumbling.