Poland Improves Links with Minsk at the Expence of the Opposition?
According to Polish MP Robert Winnicki, Poland should stop funding the Belsat TV channel and improve relations with Lukashenka. Although Winnicki remains a marginal figure in Polish politics, his statement is indicative of a new political climate in Poland.
Many Belarusian NGOs hoped that the new Polish Government, run by the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), would return to its policy of 2005-2007, when it last had control of the government.
At that time, Poland invested heavily in support for Belarusian democracy by creating the Kalinowski Scholarship programme for students experiencing political repression, and Belsat TV, the only independent channel broadcasting for Belarusians.
However, Poland has recently been reducing its level of support for pro-democracy groups and is trying to improve relations with the Belarusian authorities. Currently, the Polish Parliament has two separate groups on Belarus, one of which frequently lobbies to curry favour with Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
The changes in Polish policy cannot be explained only by attempts to improve relations with Belarusian authorities. The lack of chances for democratic changes as well as brutal repression reduces interest in Belarus among many donors, including Polish ones.
Polish support for Belarusian democracy
The change in policy towards Belarus after PiS's victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections took many by surprise.
Belarusian civil activists expected that the new conservative government would return to its previous policy of 2005-2007, when PiS ruled in Poland and played a crucial role in promoting Belarusian democracy. Poland supported Alexander Milinkevich during the 2006 presidential elections and continued to invest heavily in Belarusian democratic projects.
Belsat probably has the largest budget of any project directed at Belarus Read more
A few days after the dissolution of the mass protests of 2006 in Belarus, Poland announced the creation of the Kalinowski scholarship. The program granted Belarusian democratic activists an opportunity to study in Polish universities with monthly scholarships of about $400 – a considerable sum in Poland at the time. A total of 244 students took advantage of this opportunity in 2006, when the scholarship first came in to effect.
A year later, Poland launched the satellite television station Belsat, with probably the largest budget of any project directed at Belarus. In 2007, the channel received about $6m for launch.
The government of the liberal Civic Platform (PO), which began to rule in Poland in late 2007, continued supporting these projects but gradually decreased their size. On the other hand, the liberal Polish government also increased spending on support of democracy in Belarus in 2010-2011, in connexion with the presidential election and the wave of repression which followed.
According to some sources, Poland then became a mega-donor for the presidential campaign of democratic candidate Uladzimir Niakliajeu, making it perhaps the most well-funded political campaign in Belarus so far.
Poland changes its priorities
Despite expectations, PiS has not returned to its old policy and the budgets of projects aimed at democratising Belarus have started to decrease.
Polish authorities have discontinued the Kalinowski Scholarship programme, creating in its place a smaller programme to support researchers without a political focus. Belsat remains uncertain about its long-term funding. In June, Agnieszka Romaszewska, director of Belsat TV, said that she is worried about the financial stability of the channel "due to the "warming of relations” with Belarus as well as a lack of vision for the prospects of such projects as Belsat TV."
Less is known about political groups which previously received money from the Polish authorities. However, according to rumours, the Polish authorities have decreased support for the Belarusian House in Warsaw, which unites Belarusian émigré politicians holding oppositional views.
These changes are taking place as the Polish government tries to improve relations with the Belarusian government. In March, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski visited Belarus and met with Lukashenka. Later, a delegation of the Belarusian parliament came to Warsaw; this was a real achievement for the Belarusian authorities.
The Polish Parliament currently has two groups focused on relations with Belarus. One of them lobbies in support of more democracy projects, while the second supports more cooperation with Belarusian authorities.
A member of the latter group, nationalist MP Robert Winnicki, recently stated that Poland should stop funding Belsat TV and interfering in Belarusian politics. Although Winnicki is a marginal figure, up to this point such views were absent in the public space.
What is behind the policy change
The Polish authorities make no secret of their desire to improve relations with Lukashenka. Unlike other Eastern European countries, such as Ukraine, Lithuania and Russia, Poland has no painful historical disputes with Belarus and would like to restore trade. According to official Belarusian data, imports from Poland in 2015 decreased to $ 1.1bn compared to $ 1.5bn in 2014.
At the same time, Polish authorities value Lukashenka’s role in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. On 8 July, during the NATO summit, the Polish Foreign Minister said that "his country would like to be a mediator in rapprochement between Belarus and NATO."
Trade between Belarus and Poland is perhaps currently based on mutual concessions. Among the possible issues which can be worked on, the most realistic and interesting for the parties may be the Polish minority in Belarus, which remains repressed by Lukashenka’s regime.
However, an attempt to improve relations with Lukashenka is not the only explanation behind the change in policy. The lack of prospects for political change as well as a decrease in repression makes Belarus less interesting for many donors. For example, in the last year Belsat lost a quarter of its funding. The money was mainly coming from Western European countries, which redirected the funds to help refugees from the Middle East.
Thus, Poland remained the only donor to Belsat and is now re-assessing whether or not to fund such projects. The conservative government, even if it wanted to, remains unlikely to shut down a project as large as Belsat in which Poland has invested so heavily. But funding smaller and more politicised initiatives are less likely to be perceived as being in Poland's interests.
However, despite the lack of severe repression or significant progress, Poland should continue supporting Belsat and the Kalinowski programme, as they can change the climate of ideas inside Belarus. It remains difficult to assess the impact of these projects, but they have certainly done much to cultivate a Belarusian identity separate from Russia. And even Lukashenka's soft belarusization may not bear fruit if Belarusian civil society has not first strengthened its own national identity with the help of Poland.
Disgrace or Promotion? Kiryl Rudy Goes to China
In July 2016, president Alexander Lukashenka appointed two new ambassadors – to China and to Georgia.
A few days earlier, several sources had reported that the president’s aide on economic issues – Dr. Kiryl Rudy – was to become the Belarusian ambassador in Beijing.
This information became fodder for significant speculation concerning Belarus's economic policy in the future. Many experts considered Kiryl Rudy to be a supporter of semi-liberal (or any) economic reform in Belarus. Such expectations were generally based on Kiryl Rudy’s biography, as well as his bold statements and publications regarding the current economic situation in Belarus.
Rapid career growth
At the age of 23, Kiryl Rudy completed his Ph.D. in Economics, at the age of 26 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and spent four months interning in the USA, at the age of 33 he completed his post-doctoral research and at the age of 35 – in June 2013 – he became the president’s aide on economic issues.
Thanks to his earlier post as an economic counsellor at the Belarusian embassy in Beijing and as deputy General Director at Bel Huavyei Technologies (a China-Belarus joint company), Kiryl Rudy is well acquainted with the peculiarities of working in China. Moreover, some experts believe that he remains one of the main lobbyists for China’s interest in Belarus even after his appointment with the Presidential Administration. There are also rumours that he maintains business interests in China and in joint Chinese-Belarusian projects.
A new boost for relations with China?
During his appointment speech, Alexander Lukashenka criticised the work of previous ambassadors to China for their implementation of joint projects. Numerous researches have expressed significant doubts concerning the benefits of existing projects for the development of the Belarusian economy. The China-Belarus Industrial Park “Great Stone” is the most significant example.
In his comprehensive research, Stanislav Ivashkevich argues that Great Stone has failed to attract real manufacturing, build reliable infrastructure, or secure financing besides tied loans from China and subsidies from the Belarusian budget. Moreover, Great Stone risks becoming a competitor for the Belarusian logistics business. Kiryl Rudy has been very involved with this initiative among other examples of dubious cooperation with China.
officials do not perceive ambassadorships as particularly prestigious Read more
In the Belarusian public administration system, officials do not perceive ambassadorships as particularly prestigious compared with positions in the highest echelons of power, especially in the Presidential Administration. However, when it comes to appointments in major foreign partner countries, including China, the situation may be different.
For former ambassadors Anatoly Kharlap (2004-2006) and presumably Pavel Burya (2011-2016), this office signalled the end of their public administration career. However, for Vladymir Rusakevich (2000-2003) and Anatoly Tozik (2006-2010), ambassadorship in Beijing became a platform for further promotion: to the positions of Minister of Information and Deputy Prime-Minister respectively.
Kiryl Rudy belongs to the younger generation of Belarusian officials and still has ample opportunities to further his career. One can hardly call this appointment a form of disgrace or a sign of the president’s displeasure with Rudy’s statements or positions. Moreover, Alexander Lukashenka tends to react immediately to failures of his closest subordinates and would not have tolerated Rudy’s ‘liberal’ ideas for any amount of time without solid reasons.
Pseudo-liberalism and a throwback to the year 2011
Almost all experts believe that Rudy’s appointment in June 2013 was intended to demonstrate the president’s ability and willingness to reform the failed Belarusian model of development. Kiryl Rudy was an outspoken advocate of reducing budget allocations and achieving a more balanced monetary policy, supporting private property rights, and general liberalisation of the Belarusian economy.
the president rejects even the idea of significant reforms in Belarus Read more
However, his appointment means that he is unlikely to be able to implement these ideas. It is also difficult to ascertain to what extent they influenced Alexander Lukashenka. Moreover, some experts believe that despite any economic crisis, regardless of its gravity, the president rejects even the idea of significant reforms in Belarus.
The confrontation between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ in the Belarusian public administration predates Kiryl Rudy – occurring in 2011 during the first serious economic crisis after the ten ‘rich’ years. The ‘conflict’ started between then Deputy Prime-Minister Siarhey Rumas and the president’s aide on economic issues Siarhey Tkachou.
In spite of Lukashenka’s public support of the ‘conservative’ faction, he replaced Siarhey Tkachou with Piotr Prokopovich and eventually with Kiryl Rudy. However, Rumas did not fall from grace, becoming the Head of the Belarusian Development Bank.
It seems that this ‘confrontation’ was of a largely artificial character. The Presidential Administration initiated this ‘conflict’ in order to prepare the ground for a number of unpopular measures, most importantly a reduction in social transfers. It is possible that this is the only form of 'reform' that Alexander Lukashenka is willing to accept.
Appeal to the IMF
However, in 2013 new negotiations with the International Monetary Fund complicated the situation. Following its Stand-By program in 2009-2010, the IMF started Post-Program Monitoring Discussions. The Fund demanded structural reforms and actual deconstruction of the Belarusian economic model. The discussions became particularly strained in 2013, when Belarus failed to complete almost all of its obligations on reforming the economy.
It seems that Rudy’s appointment as a presidential aide was meant to demonstrate the authorities’, and in particular Lukashenka’s, personal willingness to conduct at least limited economic reforms according to the IMF’s recommendations. However, during the years 2015-2016 the authorities became strongly disappointed with the IMF and in its readiness to start a new program with Belarus.
parliamentary elections will be organised in the traditional way with no opposition representatives elected Read more
Besides vague economic perspectives, such disappointment also threatens the light liberalisation process in the country; it suggests that parliamentary elections will be organised in the traditional way with no opposition representatives elected.
China’s loans an alternative to reform?
However, the personality of Kiryl Rudy has little to do with this. He has ceased to be a source of hope for foreign agents promoting the idea of market reforms in Belarus. Meanwhile, in June 2016 China agreed to allocate a $1.4 bln loan to Belarus. In spite of the presumably very unfavourable conditions of this loan, it looks like a better option than endless and fruitless negotiations with the IMF.
At the moment, the skills and abilities of Kiryl Rudy seem more needed in China than in the Administration of the President. However, the very fact of this personnel rotation may be a signal of renewed de-liberalization of Belarusian policy.
This does not mean that Belarus will stop attempting to secure financial support from the West, including from the IMF, but changes in economic policy or in parliamentary election processes remain unlikely.
Aliaksandr is Dean of the Faculty of Extended Education at the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts, and expert of NGO "The Liberal Club".