Belaya Rus: Lukashenka’s “Ruling Party”?
Head of the Belarusian Central Electoral Commission Lydziia Yarmoshina on 20 April instructed activists of the Belaya Rus public association on the novelties of the upcoming parliamentary campaign.
When asked why she picked this particular organisation for a briefing, Yarmoshina recalled that most local officials are members of Belaya Rus, so it gathers the actual managers of the electoral process.
Indeed, Belaya Rus, established in 2007, now unites the majority of Belarusian officials, some famous sportsmen, artists and even the management of state companies and banks. Not being formally a party allows this organisation to act under the legal framework of civil society, while at the same time exploiting the full capacity of the state's administrative resources.
A future political transformation may imply different scenarios for Belaya Rus. It could either become a core element of a controlled power transition or sink into history after President Alexander Lukashenka leaves his post.
Why not make a formal ruling party?
Belaya Rus was established in late 2007 in preparation for the 2008 parliamentary elections. Officials throughout the country "suddenly" decided to unite local associations of Belaya Rus, subsequently transforming them into a nation-wide movement. Minister of education, Lukashenka’s university mate Alexander Radzkou, chaired the association. The absolute support of the president remains Belaya Rus’ sole ideological tenet.
The association currently has more than 160,000 members. This exceeds even the overall number of civil servants in the country. Top- and mid-level managers of state companies and banks were also asked to join.
At the time some said Lukashenka was creating a ruling party to safeguard the transition of power to his older son Viktar, or to another successor. The Belarusian ruler denied having any connection to the Belaya Rus' establishment.
Lukashenka opposes the idea of a ruling party primarily because the current personality-based system fully satisfies him Read more
Since then, the leaders of Belaya Rus have regularly announced that they are ready to become a party. Lukashenka has neither firmly opposed the idea nor supported it. He has just made evasive comments like: “Well, if they are ready — let them be party, I am not against it. On the contrary, I will support it because they are patriots. But I wouldn't advise them to hurry”, as he said in 2012.
Lukashenka opposes the idea of a ruling party primarily because the current personality-based system fully satisfies him. Inserting a ruling party into an authoritarian regime (like in Russia or Kazakhstan) requires establishment of sparring-partner parties to make the system look competitive. Lukashenka is not a fan of such sophisticated political games.
He also exploits the image of the people’s president. Lukashenka strives to be the “political Robin Hood”, protecting the weakest from the occasional abuses of officials. Such a leader does not need intermediates between him and the people.
Finally, Lukashenka made his own political career by opposing the defectiveness of the Communist Party nomenclature during perestroika. When the economy stagnates, the ruling party and its bureaucracy canalises people’s anger onto itself. The seemingly unshakeable 20 million strong Communist Party crumbled like a house of cards then.
Useful tool for the elections
Formally, Belaya Rus is an NGO. Having most national and local officials as members, it possesses huge administrative resources and helps the government in its ideological activities. For instance, it can mobilise participants for rallies, cultural and sport events, state holidays or parades.
One of the most recent examples was the series of folk concerts titled To Love Belarus that took place in all regions of the country, co-organised by Belaya Rus and state TV. The concerts finished the day before the presidential election of 2015 and had an obvious pro-Lukashenka branding.
Obviously, an employee of a state-owned factory or a teacher can hardly refuse the “recommendation” from his or her boss to attend such an event.
Like the Federation of Labour-unions of Belarus (FPB), the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) and unions of women or veterans, Belaya Rus is a classic "government organised NGO" (GONGO). All of these mobilise people for state-organised events.
However, the major function of Belaya Rus is election campaigning. First of all, it can provide thousands of “volunteers” to collect signatures for Lukashenka or pro-governmental MP candidates. The usual tactic is to use administrative resources to collect ten to 15 times more signatures than the law requires. This is a way of showing how overwhelming public support remains.
Then, Belaya Rus, again as an NGO, is entitled to receive donations. Naturally, big state-owned companies cannot refuse to donate money to this association when they are “kindly asked” to. Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers criticised this practice in their 2015 elections report, claiming it to be an indirect way of financing Lukashenka's campaign from state funds.
Thirdly, Belarusian electoral law requires at least 30 per cent of precinct electoral commissions to represent NGOs or political parties. To avoid including opposition parties and activists through this quota, local authorities rely on pro-governmental parties and associations. Belaya Rus remains beyond any competition.
Can it become something bigger?
In the current political system, Belaya Rus fulfils its functions relatively well by just being a public association.
However, growing economic problems are likely to challenge the political construction of the regime. At the same time, Lukashenka is becoming older. In the mid-term perspective, Belarus is approaching some form of political transformation.
The role of Belaya Rus in any upcoming power transition to a large degree will depend on the pace and the economic context of this process.
If things get chaotic and Lukashenka is either overthrown by protests or betrayed by subordinates, Belaya Rus is unlikely to find any significant place in the next political configuration. When you have no ideology, besides supporting one leader, you often sink into history with him.
Exactly this happened to the Party of Regions in Ukraine after President Victor Yanukovich was overthrown in 2014 and to the Union of Citizens of Georgia after the forced resignation of President Eduard Shevarnadze in 2003.
However, if the transformation in Belarus goes more smoothly, Belaya Rus may have a place in it. For example, an ageing Lukashenka could use it to legitimise his successor within the state apparatus and in the eyes of people.
In any case, Belaya Rus seem to have more promising political perspectives in comparison to other GONGOs. Unlike BRSM or official trade-unions, this association has broader membership criteria, includes many high-ranking officials, exploits the full potential of state administrative resources and positions itself as a force with political objectives.
Ostro.by, Nations in Transit 2016, Turkey, Karabakh – Ostrogorski Centre Digest
In April analysts of the Ostrogorski Centre focused on Belarus’ continuing attempts to establish relations with a variety of external actors while further formalising its relations with Russia.
By signing the agreement on the Single Air Defence System with Russia, Belarus is not deepening military integration but rather formalising the opaque military structures that have existed since Soviet times.
Minsk is seeking to normalise relations with its western neighbour, Poland, although the two sides still disagree on more issues than they agree on.
The authorities claim that they will take under strict control both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian fighters in the Donbass conflict on their return home, but so far they have repressed only those supporting Ukraine. This could lead to the strengthening of pro-Russian groups in Belarus.
Freedom House published its report on the political transition in Belarus, prepared by Director of the Ostrogorski Centre Yarik Kryvoi. According to the Nations in Transit 2016 methodology, the reports are written by country experts and country ratings are determined by Freedom House. The report noted several improvements but no major changes in the political climate of Belarus.
Siarhei Bohdan analysed the agreement on the establishment of a Single Air Defence System between Belarus and Russia. Since the core elements of the system have already been in place for years, the agreement is not a step forward in integration but rather the transformation of the last remnants of messy post-Soviet military structures into a clear bilateral intergovernmental mechanism.
Minsk and Moscow are moving further away from the baseline of Belarusian-Russian relations established in the 1990s, a situation in which the Belarusian and Russian militaries were effectively one body, like the Soviet army.
Ryhor Astapenia highlighted the recent visit of the Polish foreign minister to Minsk and warming of Belarus-Poland relations. Despite the friendly atmosphere, the visit showed that the two countries still disagree on many issues and significant changes are unlikely to happen in these areas. However, both countries want to agree to disagree and are taking steps towards better relations.
Vadzim Smok discussed recent amendments to the law on extremism and mercenaries, and the trials of pro-Ukraine Donbass fighters. The analyst concludes that the Belarusian government seems to be taking a rather unbalanced approach, repressing only supporters of the Ukrainian side. By doing so Minsk risks creating a strong pro-Russian force inside the country, capable of overthrowing an increasingly independent President Alexander Lukashenka at the Kremlin’s order.
Conference ‘Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century’
On 23-24 March the Ostrogorski Centre organised the Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century conference and the Annual London Lecture on Belarusian Studies in cooperation with University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. It served as a multidisciplinary forum of Belarusian studies, a rare networking opportunity for researchers of Belarus in the West.
The conference brought together around 20 speakers from the United Kingdom, Germany, United States, Canada, Poland and France. The conference panels focused on Belarusian history, politics, foreign policy and political science. Selected papers will appear in the new issue of the The Journal of Belarusian Studies.
Launch of ostro.by
The Ostrogorski Centre launched its new analytical project – Ostro.by. The website focuses on the issues of foreign policy, security and society in Belarus. It publishes translations of Belarus Digest articles into the Belarusian language, as well as articles specially prepared for Ostro.by and blogs written by the Centre’s analysts.
The authors seek to show the complex issues of Belarusian politics in a simple and understandable form. At the same time, the articles follow high standards of analysis, and provide a balanced and evidence-based view of the political reality. Ostro.by welcomes reprints of its materials with reference to the original source (for online media – active hyperlink).
Comments in the media
Siarhei Bohdan explained to the TUT.by media portal the reasons why Alexander Lukashenka took part in the Istanbul summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Minsk continues to consolidate its ties with the block of conservative Middle Eastern regimes associated with the West. By doing this Belarus is seeking to establish contacts with new economic partners.
Yaraslau Kryvoi explained to TUT.by why Belarus improved its democracy score in Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2015 report for the first time in six years. The interview with Kryvoi was the main news of the day.
Website of Belarus-related research thinktanks.by published an interview with the Minsk coordinator of the Ostrogorski Center Vadzim Smok about the new project of the Centre – ostro.by. According to Smok, ostro.by can contribute to improving the quality of the Belarusian media by offering a quality analysis in the form accessible to a wide audience.
Ryhor Astapenia commented on Polish radio about the position of Belarus in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the result of 20 years of Belarus-Russia integration, the future of economic relations with the European Union, as well as trends in the field of Belarusian NGOs.
Siarhei Bohdan in an interview with TUT.by also commented on the position of Minsk in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of Azerbaijan and Armenia. According to his analysis, Minsk is sticking to neutrality and does not want to get involved in any conflicts in the framework of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. At the same time Belarus is leaning towards Azerbaijan, which has more weight in bilateral relations.
Ryhor Astapenia talked on Polish Radio about the growing role of Minsk and decline of the regions in Belarus. According to the expert, the authorities should develop regional economies with tax, investment and institutional instruments and see it as a policy priority.
In an interview with Polish Radio, Yarik Kryvoi commented on the new EBRD strategy in Belarus. The bank will boost investments in Belarus, but only on the condition that the government demonstrates real economic reform rather than its imitation.
Ryhor Astapenia summed up the 20th anniversary of Belarus-Russia union at Belsat TV. According to him, Belarus has failed to use the opportunity that two decades of integration offered, as Belarus has not invest money from Russian subsidies in the development of the economy and high technologies.
Ryhor Astapenia took part in the panel discussion titled “Belarus: from last dictatorship to World of Tanks”. Astapenia noted that Belarus is undergoing gradual change in many spheres despite the remaining authoritarian regime, and seeing particular potential in development of the IT sector. The discussion was held at the European College in Warsaw.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
- Aliena Arciomenka, Tacciana Vadalažskaja, Andrej Jahoraŭ, Aksana Šeliest. Potential for solidarity in the Belarusian society. CET and BISS, 2015.
- Maryja Akulava. Gender and the innovativeness of the enterprise: the case of transition countries. BEROC, 2015.
- Aliaksej Pikulik, Aliena Arciomenka. Shadow economy of Belarus in a regional perspective. BISS, 2015.
- Maryja Akulava. Macroeconomic performance, individual characteristics and preference for democracy. BEROC, 2014.
- Maksim Karliuk, Dzmitry Jaraševič. Reduction of administrative burden on Belarus tax system through the standard cost model. BIPART, 2013.
Any partner organisation of BelarusPolicy.com can submit its research for inclusion onto the database by completing this form.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.