Sanctions, Solidarity and the Crises of the Command Economy – Digest of Belarusian Analytics
In the first month of 2012 Belarusian experts actively discuss the effectiveness of the European sanctions, the changing nature of political activities in Belarus and reflect on the most important economic events of 2011.
Where do the European Sanctions Lead? Dzianis Melyantsou of the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies (BISS) questions the effectiveness of EU sanctions towards Belarus. He points that over the last 15 years of sanctions the situation has not improved but continued to deteriorate. Melyantsou suggests to expand cooperation with Belarus in all areas and increase Western investments. He thinks that Europe should increase collaboration and communication on various levels of society and particularly with reform-oriented officials and young people in the framework of the Bologna process. He calls to enable Belarusians to travel without visas to the European Union to show that Europe actually cares about them and not hiding behind the wall of visas and sanctions.
The future of the EU-Belarus relations – Olga Stuzhinskaya, the director of the Office for a Democratic Belarus (Brussels) spoke on the prospective of the EU-Belarus relations to euobserver.com. Stuzhinskaya noted that one can observe the disappearance of the remaining ‘European islands’ in Belarus. The EU is not on the agenda of the Belarusian government. Instead, there are new agreements signed with Russia leading to more political and economic integration of the two countries.
Belarus’ Foreign Policy Index #5 – BISS presents a new issue of Belarus’ Foreign Policy Index, which covers November and December 2011 as well as summarize of 2011 year. The last two months of 2010 were marked by the Eurasian integration, which has more tied Belarus to Russia. The European direction for the year evolved from a deep conflict last winter via an attempt to normalize at the end of summer to the "freezing" of relations at the level of rhetorical conflict in autumn 2011. The most stable relationship was fixed with developing countries, China and Ukraine.
Warsaw was not able to jump above the head – political analyst Dmitry Kukhlej, summing up the presidency of Poland in the EU, says that the official Warsaw failed to resolve the "Belarusian question" largely because of the return of generous Russia's subsidies and the financial crisis in the Eurozone. During the Danish presidency in the next six months EU attention to its Eastern neighbors, particularly to Belarus, will decrease, as the EU mostly deals with a decision of pan-European economic issues.
… And will continue to press one by one – Gomel activist Pyotr Kuznetsov reflects on the failure of solidarity attempts of Mogilev bricklayers and believes that in such circumstances, the opposition should work day after day to build communities: "It is necessary to communicate with people, motivate them, to gain credibility and respect among them". The author believes that now such work is carried out only by a couple of national politicized NGOs, as well as dozens of youth initiatives in social networks; political parties and leaders are not seen in this work.
Revolution of friends and followers – journalist Arkady Nesterenko, summing up the year, says that in Belarus the political activity passes or has already moved to the networking initiatives (e.g., Revolution through the social network and STOP-Benzin). The author believes that the political agenda for the coming year should be formed based on the features of the new active audience: "If there is a revolution in Belarus, it will be a revolution of friends and followers, those who will just decide to go offline out of inner emigration."
Six of the facts on Ales Byalyatski case. – In response to the official propaganda campaign against human rights activist Alee Byalyatski human rights Center Viasna publishes facts about him ignored or distorted by state media. The official propaganda is trying to portray Byalyatski as a wealthy grant-seeking misusing Western funds. Defenders point out that Byalyatski's well is not greater than that of average Belarusians. Viasna emphasizes that unlike the official propaganda tales, the facts presented on their web site are confirmed by official documents, which are in the criminal case and were articulated in the trial.
IPM Research Center predicts GDP drop in the first quarter of 2012 – Research Center of the Institute of Privatization and Management released a short-term forecast for Belarusian economy. According to the analysis, GDP is expected to drop in the first quarter of 2012 by 1.9-2.4%. The analysis also suggests upcoming stabilization and improvement of situation related to access to financial resources and for companies working in the real sector of the economy.
Belarus In the maze of economic identity. Belarusian economists Leonid Zaika and Yaroslav Romanchuk presented a new book "Belarus 20/20. In the maze of economic identity." They argue that 2011 became the threshold year which clearly demonstrated the failure of Belarusian planned economy. According to the authors, the sale of Beltransgaz, creation of the Single Economic Space with Russia, ruining of the Belarusian car market and beginning of the Belarusian nuclear plant station were the most significant events in 2011. Coincidentally, the title of the book is exactly the same as the title of a new campaign under preparation to explain Belarusians what kind of reforms the country realistically can opt for.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.
Belarusian Workers Leave the Official Trade Unions
Since the beginning of the new year the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus has unexpectedly appeared in the media on two occasions. Unlike in Western countries in present-day Belarus you do not hear much about trade unions. The Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus, also dubbed the ‘official’ trade union, has about 4 million members and thousands of regional, local and organization-based unions, but its role in public life is close to non-existant.
The first time the official trade union hit the headlines was on 3 January when more than 200 workers of the Republican Unitary Industrial Enterprise ‘Granit’ (located in Brest Oblast) decided to leave the ‘official’ trade union and to organize an independent alternative. Then on 9 January the Federation of Trade Unions unexpectedly joined (though, in a very cautious way) the critics of the government’s decision to triple the Base Rate. The Base Rate is an important rate to which certain other rates and payments are tied (for example, fines, fees and rates for property rent).
Both events demonstrate that the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus is a relic of the past that brings added value neither to its members nor to the government. It does not act beyond innocent declarations. Therefore, rather than wasting huge resources to no effect it would be more reasonable to simply disband the ‘official’ trade union.
The Story of Subjugation
The Federation of Trade Unions is one of the notorious institutions that Belarus inherited from the Soviet Union. In the first half of the 1990s Belarusian trade unions began to resemble those of Western countries. Set on a background of massive worker protests throughout the country a number of new vibrant unions were established (for example, the Confederation of Labor of Belarus, Free Trade Union and Independent Trade Union). The unions headed the protests against miserable salaries and falling living standards.
But after the victory of Aliaksandr Lukashenka in the 1994 presidential election the overall authoritarian wave gradually swept the strong and independent trade unions away. That was not an easy task for the newly elected president and his team. In 1995 a presidential decree suspended the work of the Free Trade Union. But under the pressure of international organizations and foreign states the government had to register the Free Trade Union again. Later, in order to paralyze independent workers’ unions the authorities started to ‘smoke out’ plant-based unions one by one.
As a result, already at the beginning of the 2000s the membership of the independent Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (about 20 thousand) was disproportionately low in comparison with the membership of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (more than 4 million). But it was not yet a victory for the government.
In 2001 the head of the Federation Uladzimir Hancharyk became the single opposition candidate to challenge Lukashenka in the presidential campaign. And only in 2002 the authorities managed to replace Hancharyk with their man Leanid Kozik and, thus, established total control over the Federation of Trade Unions. According to the Federation’s website, the number of its members today amounts to more than 90% of the working population in the country.
As regards the independent trade unions, their role was totally marginalized at the beginning of the 2000s. Members were forced to leave them and join the Federation of Trade Unions. The membership of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, the only association of 'unofficial' trade unions, dropped to a couple thousand. Today the Congress unites four organizations:
- Belarusian Independent Trade Union,
- Belarusian Free Trade Union,
- Free Metal Workers' Union,
- Belarusian Trade Union of Workers of Radio and Electronics Industry.
These unions are represented at about 30 plants and enterprises across the country.
Goals, Tasks And Possessions Of The 'Official' Federation
The main goals of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus, as stipulated in its official documents, are the following:
- coordination of the activities of trade unions aimed at the protection of labor, social and economic rights of the members and affiliated organizations;
- promotion of solidarity and unity within the trade union movement of Belarus;
- improvement and development of the social partnership system.
In order to reach its goals the Federation developed a rich program of activities. They include the initiation and development of various legal acts, participation in republican and regional employment programs, projects related to the treatment of workers and members of their families, and other social programs.
The ‘official’ trade union has significant real estate assets across the country that used to belong to its Soviet predecessor. It includes sports clubs and all sorts of sporting facilities, summer camps for children, resorts, hotels and other objects. Some of the property has been commercialized. And, as a result, a great deal of the Federation’s efforts is spent on property management rather than activities to fulfill its primary mission. i.e. to protect workers.
Last year marked by a severe financial crisis exposed the real place that the ‘official’ trade union occupies in Belarus. It turned out to be completely impotent to defend its members or even speak on their behalf as the crisis was unfolding and employees’ living standards plummeting. Interestingly, unlike the majority of trade unions in the world, on a couple of occasions (like on the 9 January) the Federation issued statements in support of businesses and employers. But it was done so cautiously and timidly that it cannot be given credit for an insightful pro-market stance.
This is, of course, no surprise. The leadership of the Federation is basically appointed by the government through a system of numerous levers and controls. And he who pays the piper calls the tune. Therefore, the leadership of the Federation is more concerned about the interests of the state than of its members. The ordinary members of the Federation can see this. And, as the case of the ‘Granit’ enterprise showed, they no longer seek help from the ‘official’ trade union. Instead, they look for independent alternatives.
Thus, in 2011 and at the beginning of 2012 the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus clearly demonstrated its inability to fulfill its statuary mission. Being silenced by the state, it does not serve the interests of its members. Moreover, it does not help the government to alleviate social tension because people no longer trust the 'official' unions. Therefore, it would be more reasonable for the authorities to stop wasting resources to support the ‘official’ trade unions and simply disband them.
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk