Belarusian Domestic Politics in 2013: Cautious Authorities and Divided Opposition
Belarus did not have a major political campaign – an election or referendum – in 2013. Therefore, the political actors focused on preparations for the upcoming elections in 2014 and 2015. The authorities introduced a number of amendments to the Election Code and the opposition dealt with the issues of electing a single candidate and developing a winning strategy.
Also, Belarusian domestic politics last year became remarkable for the political implications of the state modernization program, cautious attempts to reform the public administration system and societal struggle against unpopular government initiatives.
The Politics of Modernization
In 2013, Belarus lived under the slogan of modernization. The word came to every house and almost every state-run enterprise through prolific media propaganda and immense government funding. During his annual address to the nation, President Lukashenka explained what stood behind the modernization rhetoric: after Russia’s WTO accession Belarusian producers faced harsher competition on the domestic and international markets. Modernization should, therefore, improve their competitiveness.
Lukashenka also spelt out the political modus operandi of the proclaimed modernization: he would personally preside over the process and hold all controlling strings in his hands. He even hinted that the modernization would target the overblown social state by gradually departing from state paternalism.
Further developments of the year demonstrated that much of the modernization effort turned into real institutional waste, which, among other things, raised questions about the political prospects of the campaign. Especially, in the face of the 2015 presidential election.
Reform That Does Not Reform
Another grand project of the Belarusian authorities took place in the realm of public administration. After long internal discussions, on 12 April 2013 the president signed Decree No.168 that aimed to optimise the state apparatus by cutting a quarter of the bureaucrats.
The official justification went that the reductions would allow the government to raise salaries for the remaining officials, thus, motivating them to work more efficiently. Besides, the authorities aimed to stop the drain of civil servants into private sector (in Belarus and Russia) by improving their work conditions.
Importantly, Decree No. 168 was publicised under the name of a public administration reform. However, it failed to go beyond mere reductions and failed to actually reform the existing system of public administration. In particular, it failed to tackle its most fundamental problems: excessive and overlapping functions, non-transparent decision-making and untamable corruption. Also, the decree ignored another emerging weakness of the Belarusian “power vertical” – slow generation change and growing gerontocracy.
At the end of the year the problems of ineffective public administration and officials drain became so obvious that Alexander Lukashenka even had to resort to quite extraordinary measures in an attempt to breathe in new life into his governance model.
Strange Government Initiatives and Societal Resistance
The worsening state of the economy in 2013 pushed the authorities to design new tools to top up the budget. At times, they exhibited uncanny creativity.
One idea came from Lukashenka himself. He suggested introducing a new tax – an exit fee. According the idea, those Belarusians who wanted to go abroad and do the shopping there had to pay a $100 fee when crossing the border, because “you can buy stuff in Belarus”.
Another striking idea originated in the ministries of finance and labour and social protection – a tax on the unemployed. The intention was to collect about $280 from each Belarusian citizen employed in the shadow economy or working abroad.
The media and civil society quickly demonstrated massive disapproval of the two initiatives. For instance, dissatisfied citizens launched an Internet petition against the exit fee that received almost 27,000 signatures.
Like the Stop Gasoline campaign in 2011, these became the brightest examples of civic action in the Belarusian authoritarian realities in 2013. As a result, the government had to back away from their plans. Lukashenka even publicly repudiated the idea of an exit fee and mocked the government’s activities to put it into practice.
Yet, another unpopular innovation – an automobile tax that makes all car-owners pay $15-100 a year – was passed by the parliament at the end of December 2013. A series of protests followed but failed to grow into something big. With all probability, President Lukashenka will sign it into a law already in 2014.
Eternally Internally Divided Opposition
The Belarusian opposition spent another year in intensive discussions about ways to unite and to find more popular support. The year of 2013 saw the formation of two opposition coalitions – the People’s Referendum and the For Free and Fair Elections for a Better Life “Talaka”.
Unlike in previous years, the two opposition blocks united on the grounds of different strategies on how to change the incumbent regime rather than on ideological affinity. While the People’s Referendum declared that it would focus on the bread and butter issues to raise its electoral ratings, “Talaka” decided that the only way to transforming the political system was through free and fair elections.
In 2013, the opposition again devoted much of their time to debating ways to unite and elect a single presidential candidate for the 2015 elections. The differences of approaches also went along the dividing lines of the two alliances. The People’s Referendum prefers to hold a congress to elect a single candidate and Talaka argues in favour of primaries.
Remarkably, even on this background opposition leaders in general remained more engaged in the international arena rather than at tome. And their political communication with the domestic electorate looked unsatisfactory.
Authorities Prepare for Future Elections
And the authorities used the last year, which had no electoral campaign, to prepare for future battles – in particular, the 2014 local elections and the 2015 presidential race. Based on the lessons of the 2012 parliamentary elections, they introduced new amendments to the Election Code.
The amendments prohibit campaigning for a boycott, establish a new level of election committees and change the way candidates can fund their campaigns. Another novelty specifically affects parliamentary elections: they will now run according to the first-past-the-post model when a simple majority wins the election.
The opposition and independent observers quickly concluded that the amendments would make it even easier for the authorities to falsify the upcoming elections.
Protectionism or Cross Border Business: a Belarusian Dilemma
At the end of the year the Office of Statistics of Poland published information on the money spent in Poland by nationals from neighbouring countries.
According to their report, from the period of July to September 2013 Belarusians spent $250m in Poland. Surprisingly, this figure per capita appeared larger than that of either Ukrainians or Russians.
Due to the lower prices and better quality of goods, Belarusians from border regions, and even some from remote parts of Belarus, prefer to shop in Poland.
This trend has damaged Belarus' own manufacturers and pumps foreign currency out of the country. This could be the main reason why the Belarusian government is delaying the signing of any agreements that would ease local border traffic control with Poland and Lithuania. Allowing a million and a half Belarusians to enter a 50 km area of the EU without a visa could deal a hard blow to the country.
The government, however, does not turn down EU funding for cross border cooperation programmes that are implemented by the EU. In recent years these programmes have made considerable progress in helping Belarus' border regions to break out of their isolation.
Protectionism vs Cross Border Business
The local border traffic regime, which the EU has suggested to Belarus, will give citizens who live in a 50-kilometre radius on both sides of the border to have the possibility to move in this area without a visa.
Belarus has already implemented such an agreement with Latvia, which has a comparatively small border with Belarus, though still refuses to do so with Poland and Lithuania. Lithuania has already gone through all the necessary procedures for the implementation of easing local border traffic controls with Belarus a few years ago, as did Poland.
The growth of cross border traffic will increase the inflow of cheaper and higher quality EU goods into Belarus, which will hurt local manufacturers Read more
The authorities do not publicly explain their reasons for delaying the signing of these agreements, but they seem to be mostly tied to economics: the growth of cross border traffic will increase the inflow of cheaper and higher quality EU goods into Belarus, which will hurt local manufacturers. It will also lead to even more foreign currency being drained from Belarusian currency reserves, a serious problem for Belarus that it has been facing over the past couple of years.
While such fears are warranted, Belarus also loses a great deal from its closed borders and inability to use the EU neighbourhood in order to benefit its own development. The tourism industry, the largest beneficiary of near-border destinations, is very weak and the number of tourists from neighbouring countries remains very low in Belarus.
Belarus-Lithuania-Latvia: Promoting Cross Border Tourism
Despite the obstacles that arise due to very tight Belarusian border control, the EU continues to try to establish contact with their neighbouring Belarusian regions to promote their social-economic development and people-to-people contact.
In 2007-2013, Belarus participated in the Poland-Ukraine-Belarus and Belarus-Lithuania-Latvia border crossing programmes, which embraced the whole western territory and even some parts of eastern Belarus. Around 90 trilateral and bilateral projects were implemented in total, with a budget of more than €220m.
In the Latvia-Lithuania-Belarus programme, the Bella Dzvina project was recognised as being the most successful. Its name comes from words Belarus, Latvia and Dzvina, the river that runs through both Belarus and Latvia.
The project included the Vitebsk region of Belarus and Latgale region of Latvia, and since 2012, the Utena region of Lithuania. It aimed to develop the cross border tourist infrastructure and spread information about the tourist potential of the regions.
Deputy director of the EU-financed "Interaction" fund Maryna Barysava said in an interview to Eurobulletin that at the start of the project in 2007 it was very difficult to cooperate with the local Belarusian authorities. Project managers had to explain to them the importance of cross border cooperation as well as the peculiarities of EU funding and project management. Soon, however, they realised that such projects could really benefit the region's development.
For instance, the Bella Dzvina project financed the creation of a solid tourist infrastructure in Polack, more specifically a tourist information centre, road signs and the names of important objects in English, which remains a big problem for tourists in Belarus.
Considering the success of the project, both sides have decided to continue it and since 2012, Bella Dzvina-2 has been carrying out further work in supporting the further development of the project's next phase. To that end, in July 2013 the project held tourist festivals in all three regions, showing the project's viability and importance.
In Belarus, it was Braslaŭ that hosted the sports and music festival “Viva Braslaŭ!” in the summer of 2013. The festival included a yacht regatta on Dryviaty lake, beach volleyball, football and kayaking competitions. The musical part of the festival consisted of a competition of young singers, a rock concert and a open dance floor.
The local authorities did not expect so many people to participate and finally had to let them in without tickets. While local governmental officials were ready for critics to speak out against the event, they were pleasantly surprised to have received only positive feedback about the festivities.
Poland-Belarus-Ukraine: The Largest EU Programme
The programme for Poland-Belarus-Ukraine is the largest among the EU cross-border cooperation programmes with a budget of €186m for 2007-2013. The programme has three priority areas of cooperation: increasing the competitiveness of the border region (entrepreneurship, tourism and better access to the region), improving the quality of life (environmental protection and secure borders), networking and people-to-people cooperation. The programme embraces four out of six regions of Belarus, which border Poland and Ukraine.
Apart from developing tourism, which remains a very popular project theme in the programme, it has implemented projects in other spheres. In 2012-2013, the Hrodna Clinical Hospital had some of its facilities renovated and received new equipment, the Brest region psycho-neurological hospital received funds for creating new departments for the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction.
Water management and purification facilities were built in the towns of Kamianiec and Vysokaje in the Brest region. The most costly projects were aimed at the reconstruction of border crossing points, such as at Piaščatka in the Kamianiec district.
These programmes clearly benefit the local communities of Belarus, but on a national level some obstacles to cross border cooperation remain in addition to a strict visa regime.
“Belarus looks like a blank spot on the map of cooperation, mainly because of the bureaucratised procedure for the approval of projects by the central government,” says a representative of the Belarusian Sports and Tourism Association Siarhei Kaliada.
Foreign aid represents an issue which is subject to intense focus on the part of the authorities, which have not yet put aside Soviet schemes of working with their western partners.
On the other hand, many people in the government realise that cooperation should continue despite the two side's political differences for the benefit of local communities. As Dzmitry Jermaliuk, Head of Department of the EU at Foreign Ministry of Belarus, said in an interview to Radio Racja, “The cross border cooperation programme is not a site where we discuss the politics of Minsk and Brussels. Here, we cooperate on concrete issues.”
Although it remains unclear when the local border traffic with Lithuania and Poland will start, the EU cross border cooperation projects already benefit Belarusians. Quitely, authorities learn that Europe can be a helpful partner in resolving local problems of Belarus.