Does Belarus Have High Social Capital? Understanding the Legatum Prosperity Index
Belarus ranks 53rd out of 142 countries in prosperity, ahead of Russia and EU member states Greece and Romania. The rankings stem from the Legatum Institute, a private think tank based in London. According to the ranking Belarus scores highest in social capital and lowest in governance.
It is striking for any post-communist state to perform well on measures of prosperity and social capital — let alone Belarus, the country sometimes referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship.
Analysis of this index suggests that personal ties rather than heterogeneous networks permeate Belarusian society. If accurate, this variety of social capital might hamper Belarus’s political and socioeconomic development.
Measuring Prosperity around the Globe
The Legatum Institute defines prosperity as a combination of wealth and wellbeing. It assesses the prosperity of 142 countries based on eight sub-indices, including economy, entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, education, personal freedom, health, safety and security, and social capital.
In a feat of ambition, the index uses no fewer than eighty-nine variables. At times, however, quantity exceeds quality, making it difficult to interpret the data and draw comparisons between states.
To some extent, the Legatum ranking correlates with other measures of wealth and development. Western democracies rank highest, with Norway the most prosperous of all. Sub-Saharan states, on the other hand, perform poorly and cluster toward the bottom of the rankings.
Somewhat surprisingly Russia receives the worst prosperity ranking of any European country, based on low scores for governance, personal freedom, and safety and security.
The real curiosity, however, is how the index judges average performers like Belarus. Belarus’s overall prosperity score places it between Mongolia and China. All other post-Soviet states remain far behind.
Nonetheless, the eight sub-indices used to compose the overall index paint a more complex picture of Belarus. On education, Belarus sits between highly developed democratic states such as Austria and Japan, even though it lacks academic freedom and has abstained from all international assessment programmes.
Belarus performs best on the social capital sub-index, where it ranks 21st among 142 countries. On this dimension, Belarus comes right after Belgium, a wealthy democratic state in Western Europe. How can this be, given Belarus's authoritarian record?
One explanation is that Legatum relied on the Gallup World Poll. The sub-indices compare countries based on public opinion, as measured by Gallup in telephone surveys. The same question can be interpreted differently across cultures, and citizens of authoritarian states may lie when asked to critique their government.
Does Belarus Have High Social Capital?
If accurate, a high ranking for social capital is welcome news for Belarus. Social capital – generally defined as the norms and networks that facilitate collective action – can facilitate beneficial outcomes ranging from democratisation to public goods provision to economic growth. A diverse stock of social ties can encourage political participation, decrease corruption, and improve overall governance – the very indicator Belarus performed so poorly on.
Importantly, these positive effects of social connectivity apply only to the so-called "bridging" social capital, based on the diffuse ties between heterogeneous groups of people. They do not apply to "bonding" social capital, or the strong ties between friends, families, and people who are alike. Overreliance on such homogeneous networks can lead to nepotism, unfair distribution of resources, and corruption.
The predominant scholarly opinion has been that Belarus is low on bridging social capital – due to both its socialist past and the authoritarian present.
In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party dominated the public sphere, and participation in all civic activities was mandated and controlled by the state. In present-day Belarus, the lack of independent media and freedom of association continues to hamper the development of heterogeneous social ties.
Under these conditions, only tight networks within families and between close friends can prosper. This seems to be the state of social capital in Belarus today.
Bridging versus Bonding Social Capital
The high levels of social capital observed by the Legatum Institute resulted from a combination of unconventional measurements and a failure to distinguish between family ties and heterogeneous networks.
The index combines Gallup World poll responses on seven unrelated questions, which ask respondents whether they (1) donate money to charity, (2) help strangers, (3) volunteer, (4) trust others, (5) attend a place of worship, (6) live in a marriage, and (7) rely on their family and friends in times of need. While the first four questions more or less speak to the prevalence of bridging social capital, the reliance on friends and family measures bonding ties, while marriage and religion fail to relate to social capital altogether.
Belarus ranks well in the Legatum subindex to a large extent because 91.8% of respondents said they could rely on family and friends for help. In other words, bonding social capital is alive and well in the country. While family and friends certainly improve quality of life, an overreliance on such ties in Belarus is also indicative of low reliance on society at large and the inefficiency of state institutions.
At the same time, Belarus scores below the world average on questions that measure bridging social capital. In particular, only 15% of respondents mentioned donating money to charity; only one-third has helped a stranger or volunteered in the past month; and only one-third believes that people can be trusted. In short, bonding networks dominate while bridging networks are underdeveloped.
Belarus's social capital score is also boosted by the fact that 55.6% of Belarusian respondents are married.
While strong families could possibly produce more civic-minded and altruistic citizens, Belarus also has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, which the Legatum ranking omits. Moreover, marriage rates may have more to do with social mores than with social capital.
Dysfunctional Social Capital in Belarus?
What the social capital questions used in the sub-index suggest is that personal ties and self-interest predominate in Belarus. As reciprocity and trust do not extend beyond one’s immediate family and social circle, people cannot work together to solve common problems. Strong family ties can be an asset, but only when combined with involvement in the broader community. Otherwise, they become a liability.
Most of the post-Soviet space abounds in this dysfunctional variety of social capital. Personal connections played a key role in compensating for institutional deficiencies and securing favours in the Soviet Union. This socialist legacy has persisted to this day.
Belarus has in fact retained many features of state socialism: a lack of clear rules, ineffective bureaucracy, corruption, and an arbitrary legal system. The result is excessive reliance on family and friends to game the system.
Though there are few things in Belarus today that money cannot buy, the exchange of personal favours between relatives and friends remains prevalent. A personal connection at the passport office, for example, can get documents processed sooner. A friend working at the hospital can help bypass the official waiting list for a medical procedure. Being related to a public prosecutor can mean lighter sentencing.
In sum, Belarus’s high rates of social capital are deceiving. Bonding ties remain strong and further weaken bridging ties. The potential consequences for Belarus’s political and socioeconomic development are pernicious: nepotism, corruption, and social anomie.
Less Overt Support for Ukraine, Lukashenka Takes Pity on Putin – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Gunnar Wiegand, the top EU official for the CIS region, visited Minsk last week to continue active dialogue on modernisation. His unexpected avoidance of Belarus' titular opposition raised concerns in their ranks about a possible shift in policy in Brussels. Belarus continues its policy of manoeuvring between Russia and the West.
Senior diplomats from Belarus and Russia met in Minsk a day prior to Wiegand's visit to coordinate their respective foreign policies. Moscow has managed to secure Minsk's support in the ongoing and potential future geopolitical battles in exchange for some consular assistance.
Belarus also refrained lately from making bold statements in support of Ukraine's territorial integrity, focusing instead on peace and a rhetoric of holding negotiations.
Discussing Modernisation, Working on Normalisation
Belarus and EU member states are working patiently on finding a formula to normalise their bilateral relations. This month, Minsk and Brussels placed emphasis on developing their contacts in the institutional set-up of the dialogue on modernisation and the multilateral format of the Eastern Partnership.
On 18 and 19 November, Gunnar Wiegand, Director for Russia, Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, Regional Cooperation and OSCE at the European External Action Service, visited Minsk. The former chief EU negotiator of the association agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Armenia and Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna led the fourth EU-Belarus Interim Phase meeting on modernisation issues.
This visit focused on education, social reforms and regional development and included Gunnar Wiegand's meetings with civil society experts and analysts. The EU official also met with relatives of political prisoners. He brought up the issue of jailed political opponents in his talks with Alena Kupchyna and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.
Gunnar Wiegand's visit got a lot of attention in Belarusian independent mass media as some opposition leaders expressed their disappointment with the fact that the EU official failed to meet with them. In fact, nobody even told them about his visit in advance.
This decision to refrain from holding the traditional meetings with the titular opposition may be a signal to the Belarusian authorities. The EU is ready to strengthen cooperation with the government and civil society in non-political areas; the release of political prisoners remains, nevertheless, a condition sine qua non for normalisation of relations; the EU may be willing to de-emphasise its support to political opposition in Belarus in order to facilitate this process.
Eastern Partnership: Seeking Financing and Lobbying for Russia
The Eastern Partnership remains another convenient forum for normalising relations with the EU. While insisting on a major reformation of this initiative, Belarus is participating in all of its working meetings.
On 5 November, Belarusian border guards and customs officials attended the EaP Integrated Border Management working group meeting in Brussels. The Belarusian and Ukrainian governments used this opportunity to solicit the EU for financial assistance for demarcation of their joint border.
The next day, mid-level diplomats from the Eastern Partnership's participating countries and several EU member states met in Vilnius to discuss the further evolution of the EaP in preparation for the 2015 Riga summit. Dzianis Sidarenka, a Belarusian foreign ministry official, promoted the idea of using the EaP as a site for harmonising European and Eurasian integration processes.
Belarus and Russia: Coordinating Diplomacy to Serve Russia's Interests
Minsk and Moscow use every opportunity to lobby for its idea of "the integration of integrations". The Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei raised this issue while speaking to the press after a traditional joint session of senior officials from the Belarusian and Russian foreign ministries held in Minsk on 18 November. He called this idea "viable and a thing of the future" and dreamed of a "common economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok".
Vladimir Makei also advocated "Russia's involvement in the [EaP] initiative, especially through its participation in the implementation of mutually beneficial regional projects". This project was unrealistic even well before the Ukrainian crisis. Now, in view of the current developments, one can only wonder why the Belarusian MFA insists on pushing this rather utopian idea.
The agenda of the joint session mostly reflected Russia's geopolitical and ideological interests. Participants discussed how to strengthen "work with compatriots in third countries", whom Russian minister Sergei Lavrov bluntly classified as the "Russian World" in his opening statement at the meeting.
Senior diplomats from the two countries agreed on carrying out coordinated activities to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II. Sergei Lavrov primarily sees this as a celebration of the fight against neo-Nazism in "neighbouring countries – Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine".
Russia has also actively sought Belarus' support in countering alleged security challenges and threats emanating from NATO and the European Union on the borders of the so-called "Union State", an oft forgotten institution which consists of Belarus and Russia.
The participants paid much less attention to issues which are at the centre of Belarusian foreign services attention these days, i.e. promoting Belarusian exports, opening new markets and attracting investment.
If Minsk agrees to be Moscow's pawn in its geopolitical game in Eastern Europe, it could seriously undermine Belarus' existing ties with its neighbours and nascent prospects of normalising relations with the EU.
Less Overt Support for Ukraine
During Sergei Lavrov's stay in Minsk, Belarus and Russia extensively discussed the situation in Ukraine. These talks unfolded as serious doubts emerged on the future of the Minsk peace process.
Despite the fact that Belarus gained a lot in terms of international recognition and notoriety for its role in facilitating the negotiations, the Belarusian foreign ministry did not insist on a particular format of the peace talks or setting Minsk as their exclusive venue.
Recently, the Belarusian authorities refrained from making public statements, which would support the Ukrainian authorities or criticise Russia's actions. Dzmitry Mironchyk, the MFA's spokesman, avoided a journalist's question whether Belarus would recognise the results of the "elections" held in the territories controlled by separatists. Only three weeks earlier, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka unambiguously denied any possibility of recognising encroachments on the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Vladimir Makei made a general statement of concern on 18 November saying, "At the present moment, in Ukraine the logic of war is trumping the logic of peace… when it comes to the death of not one but many people, you have to sit down and negotiate, be it with God or the devil".
The same day, during his meeting with Sergei Lavrov, Alexander Lukashenka sounded rather condescending when he took pity on Vladimir Putin because of the latter's "heavy schedule, especially in the east". He could not deny himself the pleasure of showing his self-satisfaction with his Russian colleague's recent embarrassing visit to Brisbane over Russia's actions in Ukraine.