Orthodox Church is Losing Belarus
Belarus is turning away from the Orthodox Church. That is what statistics presented last week by Lieanid Huliaka, the Commissioner for Religions and Nationalities suggests. Belarusian protestants are the most active churchgoers, while Orthodox Christians are the least active. Only state support allows the Orthodox Church to keep up the appearance that it dominates religious life in Belarus.
According to the official statistics 59 percent of Belarusian citizens are Orthodox Christians, while just 12 percent are considered Catholics. But while only 18 percent of Orthodox believers attend mass regularly – every second Catholic does. Indeed, during Christmas 2011, only 254,000 Orthodox Christians attended mass, just 14,000 more than the total number of Catholics who attended. And despite state repression and restrictions, the Protestant communities remain vigorous and numerous in Belarus.
Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants
A closer look at churches and their communities also casts doubt on the future of Orthodox Christianity in Belarus. There are 1,567 Orthodox Christian communities registered in the country with 1,348 churches, says Huliaka. That does significantly outnumber the 479 communities and 465 churches of the Catholics. But Protestants have 1,025 communities. The leading Protestant denominations – Pentecostals and Baptists – together account for 798 communities.
The independent strength of the Protestant communities is truly impressive. While Orthodox and Catholic parishes have support from state authorities, the Protestant communities have to fend for themselves – and even face persecution. In 2006, one Protestant community resorted to mass hunger strikes to defend their church against state confiscation. Young Protestants have been prosecuted for refusal to serve in the army – consciousness objectors demanded to enter social service instead of bearing arms.
The state has gone so far as to break up small gatherings of Protestants reading Gospel and singing religious songs. In November 2009, a protestant in Mahilyou province was fined for holding a Thanksgiving Day celebration at his home. The following summer, officials broke up a gathering in a small village in Brest region. In both cases, the organisers had to pay fines for holding unauthorised religious services.
The Russian Church in Belarus
Today the Orthodox Church, also knows as the Russian Orthodox Church, has massive state support. But the numbers of Orthodox Church members are inflated by the state. To qualify as Orthodox, it is enough to declare one's Orthodox denomination on surveys.
In 2008, President Lukashenka stated: 'The Belarusian state considers the Orthodox Church to be the main ideological force of the nation… We never separated ourselves from the church because the state and the church are committed to the same goals.'
Nevertheless, the Orthodox Orthodox failed to become a truly national church in Belarus revival in the country. Orthodox institutions in Belarus are a part of the Russian Orthodox Church directed from Moscow. Over time, cooperation with the Belarusian state has brought many material benefits, but has also tarnished the Church's image. In the 1990s, for instance government allowed the Church to earn money through tobacco and alcohol trade. Current attempts to introduce Orthodox religious education into state schools could further undermine its positions.
Lukashenka knows how to use Orthodox institutions to satisfy his own ends. As the scholar Valiancin Akudovich has stated: "The Russian Orthodox Church is Moscow's 'fifth column' in Belarus. … [Lukashenka] is constantly balancing his relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. If it displays too much initiative and independence, he 'disciplines' it, and when necessary, he earns political capital on it – both inside the country and in foreign relations.”
Indeed, at times the state has lashed out against the Church. In 2007, the deputy head of the presidential administration Anatol Rubinau stated: “Strengthening the influence of the religion means at the same time weakening the influence of the state and state ideology.”
Silent Success of the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church in Belarus has been cautious in recent decades. It is aware that Moscow is sensitive about Catholic activities in areas that the Russian Orthodox Church considers its own. And yet, the Catholic Church has quietly expanded its influence, establishing parishes in some eastern regions of Belarus that had never witnessed a Catholic presence.
An important ingredient of the Catholic Church's success was renouncing the old policy of sending Polish priests to propagate and maintain Catholicism in Belarus. Many in the Polish elite used Catholicism to assimilate Belarusians to Polish culture. Even now some Belarusians call Catholicism 'Polish religion.' However, today most of services in Belarusian Catholic Church are conducted in the Belarusian language. The Orthodox Church uses predominantly Russian.
Lukashenka has been eager to work with the Catholic Church and even met with the Pope in Vatican in 2009. Last November, he expressed gratitude for the 'support which the Catholic Church gives us, in particular in the international arena' and added that 'we expect more of the Catholic Church and of the Pope personally to defend our interests, particularly in the West.'
These developments reinforce the fact that the Belarusian regime has no serious religious preferences. As Catholic scholar Piotra Rudlouski has noted: 'A state established in the atheistic Soviet past is organically alien to the Church, and vice versa. Therefore, using the church can be only conditional and unsustainable.'
A Nation Without Religion
But in reality neither the Orthodox, nor the Catholic church exert any considerable impact on people's views. Belarusians generally are not religious. According to a 2009 Gallup survey, Belarus was one of the least religious nations in the world, with only 27 percent of respondents saying that religion played an important part in their everyday life. “I am Orthodox atheist,” summarised once credo of many the Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenka.
History made many Belarusians sceptical of organised religion. First of all, the country has always been far from global and regional religious centres. It is unclear whether Eastern or Western Christianity came first to Belarus in the 10th century, but Belarus suffered from their confrontation. However, the clash of faiths did not split Belarusians along religious lines – rather, it made them extremely flexible in their beliefs. Even great Belarusian statesmen switched faiths in their lifetime as they found suitable; Duke Vitaut, for example, reconverted between Paganism, Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism.
Religion in Belarus is less important than even in neighbouring Russia or the Ukraine. While Ukrainians fill stadiums to hear sermons and clash with each other over religion, Belarusians show almost no interest. Adherence to the Orthodox Church is mostly declarative and could disappear once all denominations obtain equal treatment.
Belarusians hardly allot any room for religion in politics either. Politicians have to be cautious about referring to religion. Only general adherence to Christianity is accepted – excessive talk of God are viewed with deep suspicion. Paval Sieviaryniec, the former leader of the Christian Democrats, once preached his religious ideas to some old ladies while serving his sentence in Eastern Belarus. They answered: 'Yes, we know there is God. But we do not believe in Him.'
Belarus Hopes to Increase its Sovereign Credit Rating
On 21 February 2012 Belarusian finance minister Andrei Kharkovec announced Belarus' plan to restore its positions in international ratings which suffered following the recent economic crisis. The state news agency Belta also announced that the main Chinese rating agency Dagong will give Belarus a sovereign credit rating in the near future. Authorities hope to use it in order to attract Asian investments into the Belarusian economy.
European states and companies are reluctant to invest huge sums of money into the Belarusian economy which is still on the brink of economic collapse with its B- credit rating, one that is very close to the rating of Greece. Only consistent market reforms, renewal of cooperation with the IMF and large-scale privatisation of the state property may improve the situation.
Belarus Rating Before and After the Crisis
Since 2001 Belarus has been actively trying to obtain a sovereign credit rating from a recognised international organisation. It received its first rating only in 2007 from Standard & Poor’s. The agency announced Belarus’ long- and short-term rating on liabilities in foreign currency (B+/B) and local currency (BB/B) with a stable economic outlook for the country. Moody’s, another international agency, assessed Belarus credibility at the level of B1 in August 2007 and confirmed S&P’s “stable” forecast for the Belarusian economy.
However, Belarus lost its stable positions in international ratings after the beginning of the severe economic crisis in April-May 2011. For example, Standard & Poor’s reduced rating of Belarusian obligations in foreign and local currency from B/B to B-/C with a negative outlook. They explained this step by the increase of Belarus’ dependence on foreign borrowing and moved it into a group of countries with the highest economic risks such as Greece and Vietnam. Over 2011, Moody’s lowered its rating of Belarus from B1 to B3 and made a negative outlook for the economy.
Nowadays international agencies assess Belarusian obligations as highly speculative and regard the Belarusian economy as almost in default. Today the gap in economic development and stability is even more evident between Belarus and its neighbours. Just compare: Estonia’s rating is higher than Belarusian one by 12 points (AA-), Lithuania, Kazakhstan and Russia have BBB rating (seven points higher) while Latvia and Azerbaijan secured BB+ rating (five points higher). It means that Belarus has the lowest sovereign rating of all post-Soviet countries that ever received it.
Why Sovereign Rating Is So Important?
The sovereign credit rating evaluates the country's ability to fulfil its financial obligations to foreign investors and creditors. In order to give the country a sovereign rating, international agencies usually assess the GDP growth, GDP per capita, consumer price index, the level of gross external debt, state budget deficit, the level of foreign exchange reserves, the capital account and political situation in the state.
The rating directly influences an interest rate of external loans for the state, national banks and companies. This especially concerns the so-called 'eurobonds'. Countries generally use eurobonds as long-term liabilities in order to cover present-day expenses or refinance their external debt.
In July 2010, Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas, The Royal Bank of Scotland and Russian Sberbank issued their first Belarusian eurobonds for $600m with an 8.75% yield. Next month the Belarusian Ministry of Finance asked to issue additional obligations of $400m. On 26 January 2011 Belarus decided to issue another $800m in eurobonds with an 8.95% yield.
However, eurobonds became not as beneficial for Belarusian authorities after the crisis as they used to be. According to Bloomberg, on 3 October 2011 the yield of eurobonds issued in 2010 has increased to 20.28%. What is more important, articles of association from foreign companies in some cases restrict investments in capital issues of countries with a credit rating that stands at less than B+.
Belarus Becomes Less Attractive to Foreign Investors
At the same time, Belarus has decreased in many other international ratings. The International Finance Corporation and World Bank published the new Doing Business ranking that illustrates freedom and easiness of entrepreneurship in different countries of the world. They ranked Belarus 69 out of 183 states in 2011 whereas it was at the 58th place in 2009.
Moreover, Belarus has the poorest rule of law in Eastern Europe and South Caucasus, according to the World Bank’s aggregate statistics from 1996 to 2010. It is also the worst on 'regulatory quality' which means ability of government to formulate policies that promote private sector development. Belarus is also becoming more corrupted while it was the least corrupt state in the post-Soviet space in 2000. All these tendencies show the ineffectiveness of the current Belarusian authorities on their path to a modern market economy.
Western countries do not want to invest in the Soviet conservation area and Belarusian economy does need modernization. The Ministry of Economics estimated the level of worn-out productive capacities at 86.7% in 2006 and it managed to reduce this parameter to 61.4% in 2011 only due to massive state investments. The level of foreign direct investments in Belarus is still lowest in the region and the Belarusian government needs to improve the image of the Belarusian economy in order to deal with this issue.
Eurobonds as Security Cushion
The reason why Belarusian authorities became concerned with standings of the country in international ratings lies in their wish to refinance the public external debt of $13.4bn with the help of new eurobonds. The existing debt may soon overstep the absolute level that is stipulated in the 2012 budget and then it will be hardly possible for Belarus to pay off the IMF loan in 2012-2014.
Despite sceptical forecasts by some observers about the future of the Belarusian economy, the hopes of an increase in international standings are not illusory. The conclusion of extremely beneficial oil and gas agreements with Moscow last year, large-scale privatisation plans and tangible growth of foreign exchange reserves at the end of 2011 may have a soothing effect on international rating agencies. However, Belarus should not hope for a stable high position in their ratings before the renewal of close cooperation with the IMF and implementation of true market reforms.