Belarusian Politicians Do Not Care About the Economy
The Centre for Analytical Initiatives of the Liberal Club in Minsk has recently presented the second edition of its research project – Index of Economic Adequacy of Belarus.
The researchers found that the vast majority of Belarusian politicians (both pro-government and opposition) do not have any articulated views on the economy. Even though only last year the country suffered a serious crisis politicians find many other topics to devote their time and energy to but not the economy.
This strange state of things in Belarusian politics, probably, results from two major factors: the authoritarian realities and the generous subsidies that come in from Russia. They both keep the economy as a second-rate priority for pro-governmental as well as oppositional politicians. The poor level of economic education in Belarusian schools and universities also plays a role.
Politicians Non-Economicus in Belarus
The presidential campaign in the US was centered on the economy. The budget cliff is looming large and the Americans want their new president to avert it. The public discourse in the EU also focuses on shaky markets and the sovereign debt crises in its member states. Even the Chinese are getting serious about the need for economic reforms.
Thus, the whole world is worried about the prospects for its economic development. And only Belarus can be sure that no economic troubles will ever hit it. At least, this is the impression you get when listening to Belarusian politicians. That goes for both teams: pro-government and the opposition.
For the second year the Centre for Analytical Initiatives of the Liberal Club, a think tank in Minsk, carried out a special research project that aims to study the ideas behind the economic platforms of all political actors in the country. The project has a provocative title – Index of Economic Adequacy of Belarus – and covers the government, all the registered and unregistered political parties and also civil movements that have clear political ambitions.
Now for the second time, the researchers come to a shocking conclusion: there is, in fact, not much to analyse. The majority of the Belarusian political actors simply have no economic programs at all.
Out of the 25 different political entities in the country only four (!) have at least some economic program that tries to give answers to the present-day challenges in the Belarusian economy. These entities include the government, the United Civil Party, the For Freedom Movement and the BPF Party.
Of course, their programmes raise many questions. But anyway, there is something to debate.
All the rest, perhaps, think that they do not need economic platforms as such. They prefer to focus on other issues in their daily work. For example, opposition parties and organisations prioritise such topics as political prisoners, democracy, human rights, foreign sanctions or Russian imperialism.
No doubt, all these topics are extremely important. And some of them, like the issue of the political prisoners, have to be top priorities for everyone in Belarus.
However, it is strange when organisations that claim to be struggling for the right to govern the country have no outlined vision of what its economy should look like. It is twice as strange given the worrying state of the economy in Belarus. Especially, after last year’s financial crisis, when the inflation rate exceeded 100% and the three-fold devaluation of the Belarusian rouble literally robbed the population.
No surprise that after the economic calamities of 2011 the Belarusians became particularly concerned about the level of their wellbeing. According to various public opinion surveys, nearly two-thirds of the population think that the country’s economy needs reforms. From a public relations standpoint, not talking at all about economic issues in this situation looks really inadequate for political actors.
It also looks inadequate from a different standpoint. What if the Belarusian history suddenly takes an unexpected turn and the opposition get a chance to form their own government. What kind of economic policies can we expect from such a government if, apart from a couple of organisations, it takes no interest in the economy as such?
Belarusian MPs Are Economically Ignorant
As part of this year’s research the Liberal Club devoted a separate chapter of the Index of Economic Adequacy to the parliamentary elections that took place on 23 September. The researchers studied the electoral platforms of the newly-elected 109 MPs.
The results turned out to be as shocking as for the political parties and for the civil movements. The absolute majority of the MP-elects did not mention economic issues in their programmes at all. They only kept expressing admiration of the government’s wise and humane economic policies.
And those MPs who did talk about economics in their programmes demonstrated a great deal of ignorance. A typical example of this would be schizophrenic promises to quickly raise salaries, provide numerous state subsidies and simultaneously keep inflation under control.
What Keeps Politicians Uninterested in Economics?
This weird unpopularity of economics among Belarusian politicians is difficult to explain. But according to the authors of the Index of Economic Adequacy, two factors play a central role.
First of all, the authoritarian political system in Belarus stifles real electoral competition. Elections have been turned by election commissions of all levels into the art of falsification. As a result, only those whom the incumbent authorities choose enter the government. Others do not stand a chance to get a position of public responsibility. Therefore, they are not stimulated to work on programs that they think they will never get an opportunity to put into practice.
Secondly, the Belarusian economy enjoys a phenomenal level of financial support from Russia. According to the World Bank, between 2001-2010 Belarus annually saved about 13% of the GDP thanks to the discounted prices on energy resources from its Eastern neighbour.
This huge amount of subsidies helped to keep the economy afloat without much reform. The political leadership as well as their opponents in the opposition did not have any urgent need to think about the economy. And it looks like they hope that Russian generosity will end forever.
Most disturbingly, there are not very many people in the general public who can convince politicians of the opposite. Economics is taught at a low level with an outdated curriculum in Belarusian schools and universities. The majority of the people do not have even a slightest idea how real economics works.
Belarusian Political Prisoners Get Special Treatment
In addition to sending their political opponents to prisons for years, Belarusian authorities make sure they get "special treatment" there. Today 12 political prisoners are serving sentences. Most of them remain incarcerated in disciplinary cells or stricter regimes. Last year Mikalaj Autukhovich even had to cut his wrists to make the prison administration stop provocations against him.
Information that comes from prisons clearly shows that the prison administrations constantly create problems for the “prisoners of conscience”. The authorities try to make political prisoners write personal pleas for pardon in Alexander Lukashenka’s name.
Release of political prisoners remains a dilemma for the Belarusian and international community. Lukashenka is open about his readiness to release them after certain concessions or financial aid from the West.
Who are Belarus's Political Prisoners?
At present, Belarusian human rights centre Vyasna considers 12 people to be political prisoners in Belarus. Among them there are five anarchists, who are not broadly recognised as political prisoners. However, the human rights defenders think that “actions of these persons contain traits of an offence, but their qualification is unfair and the imposed penalty is excessive”.
At the same time, there are no real offences in other political cases which have been in fact made up. Therefore, we can say that there are seven+five political prisoners in Belarus at the moment:
Mikalaj Statkevich was a presidential candidate in the 2010 election. The Partyzanski district court of Minsk decided that Mikalaj Statkevich organised mass riots on 19 December 2010 and put him in prison for six years. Later, the court decided to send him to serve his sentence in a closed prison.
Mikalai Autukhovich is an entrepreneur. The Supreme Court sentenced Autukhovich to five years and two months of imprisonment for illegal storage of gun cartridges. Later, the court changed the confinement conditions to stricter ones. Autukhovich’s case stands out as obvious proof of the authorities’ abilities to use any minor excuse.
Pavel Seviarynets is leader of the Belarusian Christian Democrats. The Zavodzki district court of Minsk resolved that Seviarynets organised and prepared actions which severely violated public order. The court sentence was three years of restricted freedom. Pavel Seviarynets remains the only political prisoner who is serving punishment not in prison.
Zmitser Dashkevich is Chairman of the Youth Front. The Maskouski district court of Minsk sentenced him to two years of imprisonment allegedly for “malicious hooliganism”. The case is absurd as the authorities accused him and Eduard Lobau of beating two men who even never appeared in court. They gave evidence from the neighbouring room. Later, the court added eight months to the term of imprisonment for Dashkevich for “disobedience to the demands of the correctional colony’s administration” and transferred him to a closed prison.
Eduard Lobau is a Youth Front activist. According to the court’s resolution, he conducted "especially malicious hooliganism", unlike Dashkevich, and got four years of imprisonment.
Ales Bialiatski, is chairman of the human rights centre Vyasna. The court sentenced him to four and a half years of imprisonment property confiscation. The trial took place because of official information provided by Poland and Lithuania. The documents confirmed that Ales Bialiatski received money for human rights activities from the West.
Vasil Parfiankou was sentenced to punishment in the form of six months of arrest for "breaking the conditions of the preventive control”. Prior to this, Vasil had been sentenced for events in the square and was subsequently pardoned by presidential decree.
Anarchists Mikalai Dziadok, Ihar Alinevich, Aliaksandr Frantskevich, Yauhen Vaskovich and Artsiom Prakapienka were sentenced in 2011 and got three-eight years of imprisonment. Some consider them political prisoners, others not.
The Case of Dashkevich
The Youth Front leader Zmitser Dashkevich remains the most persecuted politician in Belarus. He had been charged and sentenced four times to date.
Belarus Digest discussed with Dashkevich’s fiancee Nasta Palazhanka what life behind the bars is like. Nasta has not had a single meeting with Zmitser in prison and they still cannot get married. For almost two years, the prison authorities have claimed that they cannot find Dashkevich’s passport. Dashkevich needs a passport to register his marriage.
All Palazhanka knows she gets from Dashkevich’s letters or from his lawyer. She says that cold overcrowded cells define the present-day prison reality. Dashkevich used to do many push-ups in order to get warm before going to sleep. This raised his body temperature and he managed to get some sleep this way. He had to do several sets of exercise during the night.
While Norwegian terrorist Andrers Breivik in Norway complains that his coffee is not served hot enough and he could not use his notebook, Belarusian prisoners are not allowed even to use spoons. They have to stir tea in a mug with a toothbrush case or a toothpaste tube.
Zmitser Dashkevich describes these and other details of his prison life in his open letter to the General Public Prosecutor and summarises that any Belarusian prison tends to “humiliate and morally destroy a person, to force a human being forget that he is a human being”. Zmitser has already paid for that letter.
The Youth Front leader disappeared after the court trial which resolved to send Zmitser to a closed prison until the end of his term. The Belarusian authorities provided no information on Dashkevich’s whereabouts to either his relatives, his fiancé Nasta or his lawyer.
Nor did the authorities post Zmitser’s letters during this time. The prison administration not only reads Zmitser’s letters, but also commits small tricks such as crossing out a white-red-white flag painted on the envelope.
People from both Belarus and abroad keep sending many letters of support, but it remains unclear whether all of them reach the addressee. For instance, right after the December 2010 crackdown of the opposition the authorities totally isolated political prisoners from the outside world and did not pass letters to them.
Another new feature is that prison authorities prohibit other arrestees from talking to the political prisoners. The political prisoners exist in isolation even though there are people around them. Therefore, Palazhanka says, it is very important to send letters of support. They remain almost the only opportunity for contact with the outside world for the political prisoners.
Lukashenka’s Interests and Political Prisoners
Why do the authorities keep political prisoners locked up? Lukashenka has two geopolitical goals. First, to intimidate opponents inside the country. Second, to preserve the geopolitical equilibrium. He cannot fulfil these two aims at the same time and hesitates with regard to his priorities.
The persistence of the authorities in forcing the political prisoners to write pleas for pardon clearly shows that Lukashenka is willing to get rid of the prisoners of conscience. Political prisoners remain the only obstacle for his geopolitical flexibility. On the other side, Lukashenka does not want to release political prisoners without certain conditions as it may be considered his weakness.
The economic problems remain the only opportunity for the political prisoners’ release. In a situation where the Belarusian economy is devastated, the authorities are seeking understanding with the West, even through Vatican. The European Union does not trust Lukashenka anymore. Besides, negotiations behind the scenes are the only way out.