Freedom House: Belarus Shows Minor Improvements in Transition
This month Freedom House published Nations in Transitions report on Belarus authored by the Editor-in-Chief of Belarus Digest Yaraslau Kryvoi.
According to methodology, country experts prepare reports while Freedom House has a final say on the ratings. Most of Belarus' ratings remained the same except for Civil Society and Election Process which have slightly improved.
The Electoral Process rating improved because of a reduction in political violence and persecution of opposition figures, and the relative openness of criticism of the government in the October presidential election. The Civil Society rating improved due to the release of civic activists from prison and an increase in political space for advocacy campaigns and fund-raising during the year.
July 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of Belarus’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. After a brief period of democratic transition in the early 1990s, the country gradually developed into a consolidated authoritarian regime under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
In October 2015, Lukashenka secured a fifth term in an election that observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) did not recognise as free and fair. However, unlike the December 2010 presidential election, the 2015 voting was not followed by violence or imprisonment of major opposition figures.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine had an important psychological impact on Belarusian authorities. The government is increasingly concerned by Russian actions in Ukraine and is trying to distance itself from its eastern neighbour.
Belarus is also suffering from the effects of Russia’s economic downturn. In an attempt to improve relations with the West and offset the influence of an increasingly assertive Russia, the Belarusian administration released all political prisoners in August 2015.
The release of prisoners and decreased state persecution of the political opposition contributed to a modest improvement in the country’s political environment. However, the executive remained firmly in control of all branches of power, with very little public oversight of its activities.
From Sanctions To Summits: Belarus After the Ukraine Crisis Belarus is returning to the international spotlight, but for once, not just as the “last dictatorship in Europe”. The two summits that Minsk hosted in the past year on the conflict in east Ukraine indicate a tentative shift in Belarus’s political alignment. Read more
The conflict in Ukraine persuaded both the authorities and a significant part of the population that political changes could undermine stability in the country, and this was used as a justification to stifle dissent and to preserve the existing political regime.
In October 2015, following the prisoner release and peaceful election, the European Union (EU) suspended restrictive measures against hundreds of Belarusian officials and other individuals seen as linked to human rights violations. Similarly, the United States temporarily lifted sanctions against several major Belarusian companies.
After hosting important negotiations on the resolution of the Ukraine crisis, which culminated in a February 2015 summit attended by the leaders of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine, Belarus had worked to intensify its contacts with Western Europe and the United States. It had also softened its anti-Western rhetoric, attempting to pursue a more balanced foreign policy and cautious economic reforms.
After the presidential election, most international observers praised the nonviolent treatment of political opponents, minor improvements in the election legislation, and opportunities for the opposition to campaign. However, nothing changed at the fundamental level.
The authorities continued to abuse their monopoly on television during the campaign period; used administrative resources to increase the turnout of voters, particularly by coercing people to participate in early voting; and failed to conduct a transparent vote count, among other election irregularities.
The situation for civil society improved slightly in 2015, with more opportunities for advocacy campaigns, local fund-raising, and attempts by high-level officials to engage with civil society groups, especially on economic reforms.
The release of all political prisoners in August also helped to open space for civil society activities. Separately, Belarusian authorities joined the Bologna Process on European standards for higher education, and began to encourage participation in pan-European research projects and networks, such as Horizon 2020.
However, civil society organisations still face significant challenges, including obstacles to registration as legal entities and the threat of criminal sanctions for operating without registration. Although new domestic fund-raising mechanisms are gaining popularity, the government maintains restrictions on funding for civil society organisations, particularly from foreign sources.
The authorities continued to suppress independent broadcast and print media in 2015, marginalising the voices of those who disagree with the regime. Although state television has started to invite prominent opposition figures to prime-time talk shows more frequently, this has not changed the nature of public debate in Belarus.
Foreign media outlets struggle to obtain official accreditation in the country. Internet-based media generally remain available to most users, but the government continued its policy of restricting access to some opposition websites at state-controlled institutions.
The authorities took a number of steps to address corruption in 2015, including adoption of a new anticorruption law, after a public consultation, and the implementation of a national program to combat crime and corruption.
According to various enterprise surveys, Belarus is often regarded as one of the least corrupt countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, but implementation of anticorruption measures remains selective in practice and lacks transparency.
Outlook for the future
The authoritarian nature of the political regime in Belarus will not change in 2016. The executive branch, with President Lukashenka at the top, will avoid implementation of significant reforms, though economic modernization is likely to continue without much fanfare.
That would be in part a result of the gradual replacement of Soviet-minded conservatives with a new generation of officials, but also a response to major problems in Russia, the country’s main financial supporter.
Economic and political pressures from an increasingly assertive Kremlin will lead to more attempts by Belarus to improve its relations with the West. The authorities can be expected to continue treating the political opposition and media without unnecessary brutality, while denying them the freedom necessary to change the political status quo.
The Long Road to Liberalization: Digest of Belarus Economy
On 29 March 2016 Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov proclaimed the government's intention to speed up the long-awaited process of joining the WTO.
Moreover, after renegotiating different scenarios for pension reform in Belarus, the authorities have agreed to an increase in the retirement age for men and women.
Meanwhile, оn 21 April 2016 President Alexander Lukashenka announced that it would be a tough year for the economy, all the while encouraging the government to accelerate its attempts to develop the economy.
WTO: Reforming the Negotiations
On 29 March 2016 Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov announced that in the near future Belarus jointly with the WTO team would formulate final proposals and terms for the accession to the organisation. In September 2015 Belarus agreed to a WTO roadmap that includes negotiations with 40 countries.
Belarus has been trying to join the WTO since 1993. However, it is only now after almost a quarter of a century that the authorities have finally made the tough decision to speed up this process. The Belarusian government has taken such an "extraordinary" forward looking decision under pressure from the significantly negative internal and external macroeconomic shocks.
A prolonged economic recession, the skyrocketing negative trade balance with China, increased disagreements with Russia, the country's main trade partner, and the successful accession to the WTO of the other four members of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) trade bloc prompted the Belarusian side to take the decision.
Moreover, Belarus has already met a substantial number of the WTO obligations by virtue of the participation of other EEU states in the trade organisation, including reduced customs tariffs and financial support for state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
At the same time, some trading partners are increasing import tariffs for Belarus, while others are still avoiding signing bilateral trade agreements with Belarus (for example, China). Therefore, in order to challenge tariff barriers and trade restrictions, accession to the WTO is becoming an irreversible process and one of the main challenges for the state.
Pension Reform: a Gradualist Approach
On 11 April 2016, in an effort to preserve the existing ratio of workers and pensioners, Lukashenka signed a new decree that increases the retirement age for the working population in Belarus. From 1 January 2017 the threshold for retirement will gradually increase by six months each year until it reaches 63 years for men and 58 years for women.
The demographic problem is the main reason for this reform. In Belarus there are ten people of working age for every four pensioners; by 2035, this number will increase to six. As a result, according to the Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Security Valery Kovalkov, from 2020 this trend will lead to an additional substantial burden on the budget. Thus, in order to solve this problem the government is encouraging economic entities to hire elderly candidates.
However, experts express doubts about the interests of employers in accomplishing such a task. According to Svetlana Korosteleva, director of consulting company Kvadrat, in Belarus there exists an unspoken age limit for new workers – approximately 45-50 years for both sexes. In most cases employers "fear" that older applicants will not be up to date with industrial trends, will have poor computer skills and perform tasks slowly.
Moreover, business owners that grew up in the 90s seem particularly "vulnerable" to age discrimination as they tend not to hire new specialists over 35 years. But such a "modern" practice of Belarus’s businessmen strongly violates national labour legislation, which prohibits weeding out candidates by age, gender, eye colour and other traits.
Economic Growth: Escaping from Dreams
According to an analysis by Standard & Poor’s (S&P) carried out on 10 April 2016, the additional economic problems that Belarus is experiencing are due to the low predictability and efficiency of its institutional system, the very weak external economic position of the country and a lack of flexibility of its monetary policy. S&P experts also believe that Belarus will continue to experience an economic downturn (see figure 1).
Later, on 14 April 2016, the IMF in turn revised its forecast on the Belarusian economy. IMF experts think that Belarus's GDP growth in 2016 will decrease by 2.7 per cent, which significantly differs from their October 2015 estimates that predicted a contraction of 2.2 per cent.
However, the Belarusian authorities still forecast positive economic growth for this year. But in the past five years the government has accomplished none of the most important socio-economic indicators it identified. For example, official forecasts assume five-year economic growth equal to 62-68 per cent, but real figures foresee results more than ten times lower.
This has happened mostly due to the prescriptive, declarative nature of such indicators. In most cases local authorities consider such orders as non-binding obligations that do not correspond with economic reality.
In order to break up such a vicious circle, on 5 April 2016 Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov announced substantial efficiency improvements in resource use by enterprises. From now on, a return on every rouble of investment constitutes one of the main goals of the new government’s economic program for 2016-2020.
Additionally, the government has banned the popular practice of local authorities establishing prescribed economic indicators for state and private enterprises, which presupposed accelerated growth rates in previous years.
Thus, after two decades of "easy" solutions to big problems, Belarus seems to be reversing its economic course in the direction of a more liberalised economy, at least in the labour market, trade policy and management of SOEs. But further, inevitable decisions are still waiting for the right moment.
Aleh Mazol, Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)
This article is a part of a joint project between Belarus Digest and Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)