Economy Finally Troubling Belarusians More Than Ukraine
Belarusians are really beginning to worry about their domestic state of economic affairs more than Ukraine as of late.
This is the main result of a December 2014 poll from the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) published in early January.
The number of people favouring a pro-European orientation for the country and supporting Ukraine in its conflict with Russia has increased after almost a year of falling. The same was the case with the approval rating of Alexander Lukashenka: it fell after nine months of growing.
The tough economic situation in Belarus that followed the economic crisis in Russia partially explains these developments. A relative calm in fighting in Ukraine also contributed to this shift in public opinion.
However, the public's dissatisfaction, leading up to the 2015-presidential campaign, will hardly shake the foundations of the political regime. And yet, Alexander Lukashenka's nerves in the wake of the elections and his potential clumsy measures to manually fix the economy may destabilise the situation even further.
Belarusians Turn to West Again
The first set of the December IISEPS poll results, indicating this important shift in Belarusian public opinion, included views on foreign policy and the Ukrainian crisis.
Following the annexation of Crimea, the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine and a new wave of pro-Kremlin propaganda, between 55% to 70% of Belarusians (depending on the question) have supported the official Russian stance on the Ukrainian crisis.
Moreover, in March, July and September 2014 IISEPS polls showed a serious decline in pro-European sentiments among Belarusians. Society was disappointed by the West's policy towards Ukraine as they saw it from how Russian media portrayed it. Two thirds claimed their attitude to the European Union worsened during 2014.
December was the first month in a year when the popularity of the "pro-Russian replies" such as the justness of Crimea's annexation, support for Russian-backed separatists, a desire to unite with Russia, and a refusal to join the EU if it were proposed all went down by 3-6% on average.
Accordingly, support for Ukrainian territorial integrity, viewing the Crimean events as an illegal annexation, a preference for European integration over a union with Russia – went up by the same 3-6% margin. Belarusians holding these views still constitute a minority, but now it is a growing one.
Several factors explain this new trend. First of all, Belarusians have recovered from the psycho-informational shock after a war burst out in their neighbourhood. People have become more rational in analysing the events in Ukraine. The truce in Eastern Ukraine and, hence, the less aggressive TV coverage of the conflict also contributed to this "cooling off" in society.
The economic crisis in Russia, especially when it started to spread to the Belarusian economy, has also made some Belarusians reconsider their geopolitical views. It is one thing to support Russia's swift and "cordial" takeover of Crimea, and another thing altogether to pay the price for aggression committed by your neighbour.
Refrigerator Beats the TV-set
After Vladimir's Putin soaring approval rate started to go down in Russia from 87% some joked that, at long last, the refrigerator has started to win the battle against the TV-set in Russian minds. In other words, Russians have begun to value their well-being and shrinking incomes more than abstract geopolitical achievements promoted by TV propaganda. The December IISEPS poll revealed the same trend in Belarus in relation to Lukashenka's rating.
On the graph above are Lukashenka's first climbs in popularity from around 20% as the country recovered from the devastating financial crisis of 2011. It rises to 42.7% in September of 2013. Then the GDP and salaries stop growing and his support level starts to decline once more, but then suddenly – a sharp climb upwards back to 45% unfolds, despite the fact that incomes have not increased.
Sociologists from IISEPS explained this anomaly as a result of the Ukrainian factor. Namely, Belarusians compared their own lives with those of Ukrainians and started to value stability and peace more than economic prosperity and, naturally, supported the head of state who has managed to protect them from these and other unpleasantries.
However, seeing as Ukraine has fallen out of many people daily concerns, their concern for their own economic well-being has taken over. In other words, Lukashenka has exhausted his ability to gain popularity from the Ukrainian conflict.
It is important to note that IISEPS carried out its poll in the beginning of December – before panic on the Belarusian currency market and nearly a 40% devaluation of the Belarusian currency took place. This means that by now, the middle of January 2015, Lukashenka's ratings have almost certainly dropped even lower.
Generally, the ups and downs of popular support of a leader have been commonplace in Belarus. But today, roughly ten months before the next presidential election is set to take place, a decline in popularity is only beginning. Considering the state of Belarus' and its main donor's (Russia) economy, some experts, including Radio Free Europe analyst Valer Karbalevich, believe political stability in the country is clearly under threat
A country arrives at election year in a state of socio-economic turbulence. Intrigue returns to the presidential election. Welcome instability!
Prospects for Political Turbulence
However, the foreseeable public disappointment in the economy has few chances of leading to a serious political or protest movement.
First of all, to challenge the authoritarian regime one needs a viable political alternative to it. The Belarusian opposition that is showing for the 2015 elections probably in the worst shape it has ever been. According to IISEPS data, the public's trust towards all oppositional parties combined remains stable, but low – 16%. The most popular opposition leaders enjoy only 2-3.5% electoral support.
The political unification talks among seven of the most viable opposition organisations failed in November 2014. Figures who are considering making a run at the presidency in 2015 (Anatol Liabedzka, Uladzimir Niakliaeu and others) have found themselves in a very difficult conceptual gridlock. Having no resources to obtain free and fair elections they have to count on street protests as a last resort. But Belarusian society has taken a strong anti-revolution vaccine as a result of the Ukrainian revolution and how it was reflected in both Russian and Belarusian state-controlled media.
The economic crisis that Belarus has been undergoing since December 2014 has become an additional obstacle for Lukashenka's opponents, though it might sound illogical at first glance.
With limited possibilities of getting substantial Russian economic support, the Belarusian authorities are expected to bet not on political carrots (raising salaries in an election year) as is their custom, but on sticks – more repression and preventive actions to deter possible protests.
The atmosphere of the 2015 presidential elections will most likely differ from that of 2010, when nine alternative candidates could freely campaign, meet with the voters and debate in a live show on state TV.
In December, Belarus' parliament swiftly adopted amendments to the laws on media that complicate the work of online media. A recent wave of blocking independent web sites was another sign of this tightening-the-screws trend.
Still, it appears to be too early to bury all intrigue. Psychologically, coming to the elections without traditional big bag of bailout cash, is an issue of much concern for Alexander Lukashenka. Faced these new conditions, he may resort to some radical economic measures to bring everything back under control. This may well have its own unpredictable political ramifications.
Belarus-EU Visa-Free Travel: An Unrealistic Prospect?
The EUobserver reported last week that Belarus might start talks over a visa-free regime with the EU, citing senior officials from the Latvian EU presidency.
Many Belarusians reacted to this statement with expressions of surprise, satisfaction and hope, but mostly incredulity. Indeed, a few days later, Maira Mora, the head of the EU Delegation to Belarus effectively ruled out the possibility of a short-term solution for abolishing the visa regime between Belarus and the EU.
In fact, in technical terms, Belarus is better prepared for visa-free travel with the EU than many other countries. However, no major breakthrough will come about until Minsk and Brussels find common language on the issues of human rights and democratic governance.
Is the Belarusian Government Afraid of Free Travel?
Public opinion goes (and some experts share this view) that the Belarusian government has no inherent interest in facilitating free travel between Belarus and other countries. People-to-people exchange and cross-border trade might undermine the current regime ideologically and economically.
In reality, the foreign ministry is routinely working on the liberalisation or abolition of visa regimes with over a dozen countries.
Over the past months, Belarusians gained the right to visit Turkey, Mongolia and Ecuador without visas. Visa-free travel to Israel and Brazil is simply waiting for the associated ratification procedures by all parties involved to be completed.
The government realises that the facilitation of foreign travel to Belarus is crucial for the development of trade and investment cooperation with the outside world. The visa hassle also undermines tourism, which could become an important source of hard-currency revenues for the country.
Is It a Hassle for a European to Get Visa to Belarus?
Despite popular belief, European citizens encounter a miniscule number of formalities when trying to secure a Belarusian visa.
Over recent years, the government has consistently eased the documentary requirements for visa seekers from most European countries. The only documents they need to submit now is their passport, a photograph, a filled-out application and medical insurance. An invitation letter is no longer required in most cases.
The visa process takes five working days. The delay can be expedited to 48 hours for an extra fee. Unlike the Schengen or a US visa, the traveller can get a Belarusian visa in the Minsk International Airport, the only international flight gateway into the country.
Despite popular belief, European citizens encounter a miniscule number of formalities when trying to get a Belarusian visa Read more
The new visa rules, which entered into force in January 2015, simplified the process of getting a multiple-entry visa for European citizens. Consular officers now ask for fewer documents and can issue visas for up to three years to business travellers and humanitarian workers. Athletes and students will face fewer formalities as well.
On the other side of this is a multi-year Schengen visa, an exceptionally rare item.
For a considerable period of time, citizens from more prosperous Baltic States and Poland have paid much less for a single-entry visa to Belarus (€25) than Belarusians have to pay for a similar Schengen visa (€60).
This January, Belarus dramatically reduced its visa fees for US and UK citizens. They went down to a uniform price of €60 for a single-entry visa, down from the $160 for US and £75 for UK citizens. With this move, the authorities are seeking to stimulate these governments to adopt similar measures.
Belarus made all of these visa liberalisation measures unilaterally as gestures of goodwill. Ironically, Westerners rarely have hardly taken notice, much less shown appreciation for these changes. They tend to discuss Belarus' visa policy in terms of their ability to travel visa-free to most other countries, all while forgetting the very restrictive and often humiliating visa procedures that their own governments maintain for Belarusians.
Will Europe Facilitate Travel for Belarusians?
During the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013, Belarus' Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei announced the launch of negotiations between Minsk and Brussels of a visa facilitation agreement.
Few people know that Belarus already agreed on visa talks back in 2008 Read more
If the parties reach the agreement, the entire visa process will be made easier for the Belarusians. The visa fees will be reduced to €35 from €60, more people will be exempt from these fees (children, atheletes, journalists, students, scientists), all paperwork for applying will be streamlined and more multiple-entry visas will be issued.
The mass media in Belarus and abroad have claimed that the Belarusian authorities have at long last abandoned their long-standing opposition to such talks. Few people know, however, that Minsk officially communicated its willingness to engage in the visa facilitation process back in 2008.
It took Brussels two years to get a mandate to hold negotiations. Around the same time the Belarusian regime cracked down on the opposition in the aftermath of the December 2010 presidential election. The EU understandably froze all of its cooperation projects with Belarus as a result.
Talks finally began in 2014, and two rounds of negotiations have taken place to date. On 12-13 June in Minsk, the Belarusian delegation submitted several amendments to the standard EU draft.
Both Minsk and Brussels are reluctant to disclose much in the way of information about the ongoing talks. A few days before the second round of talks, which took place in Brussels on 24-25 November, MFA spokesperson Dzmitry Mironchyk said
Our proposals seek to ensure that citizens have an exhaustive list of documents they must provide to the embassy… They should not be ping-ponged to bring certificates, additional documents and so on.
The most serious stumbling block on the way to the prompt conclusion of the talks is Belarus' insistence that the agreement provide for visa-free travel for diplomatic passport holders.
Belarus already has a visa-free travel arrangement for diplomats with Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. Their demands are nothing out of the ordinary on this matter. The EU visa facilitation agreements with Azerbaijan and Armenia provides for visa-free travel for diplomats. However, the European delegation has no mandate to negotiate such an arrangement with Belarus.
Ironically, if the parties work out a parity agreement on visas, it would entail a worsening of the visa regime for European citizens, as Belarus is several steps ahead of the EU in its visa facilitation.
Both parties would like to have the agreement ready to sign at the Riga summit of the Eastern European Partnership in May 2015. The next round of talks, which should take place in Minsk in February this year, may shed more light on whether this goal is attainable or not.
Visa-Free Travel to Europe: A Pie in the Sky?
On 12 January, the EUobserver cited Latvia's Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics as saying that there were prospects for starting talks on a visa-free regime between Belarus and the EU. At the same time, a Latvian foreign ministry official immediately stated that they would be conditional and based on the release of the remaining political prisoners.
Talks on the abolition of visas are a logical next step after visa facilitation Read more
Serious doubts remain about the feasibility of a visa liberalisation agreement in the short- or even medium-term. In fact, on 14 January, Maira Mora, the Head of the EU Delegation to Belarus, described the visa-free regime as a "beacon", a next step, which should be discussed only after the current talks are completed.
Technically, visa liberalisation talks would be a logical next step after a visa facilitation arrangement. However, time will tell whether or not the parties are able to take this first step without stumbling.
Maira Mora denied that the EU had made changes to the European Commission's mandate conditional on the release of political prisoners. Regardless, in order to start talks on the visa-free movement of people, Belarus and the EU would need a brand-new relationship based on common values and mutual trust. Realistically, for the near future both parties will content themselves with the simplification of the visa regime.