The Belarusian Opposition: Recovering from 2010, Preparing for 2015
Everyone knows that the Belarusian opposition has had little chance of being elected since the late 1990s. Repression against the opposition continues to turn up more frequently in the news than their own actions, particularly given the Western public's palate for news from the "last dictatorship of Europe". So what, then, is the opposition actually doing?
At present, Belarusian civil society is still recovering after the wave of repression it faced following the 2010 presidential elections, all while preparing for the 2015 presidential elections. There are some signs of life, however. The Belarusian intelligentsia recently announced its intention to hold a congress for Independence before the end of the year. The opposition may hold its own convention shortly thereafter.
Across the country, the ‘People’s Referendum’ coalition is holding public hearings and meetings with the members of parliament, and their representatives handed to the Belarusian Parliament 50 thousand signatures they collected. Representatives from ‘Talaka’, another opposition alliance, are opening centres to involve common people in the political process.
What Is the Opposition Up To?
The ‘People’s referendum’ coalition is an amalgamation of several civil society and political organisations has remain fairly active. The coalition mainly focuses on speaking to voters about bread-and-butter issues, collects signatures for various initiatives and holds public meetings to discuss pressing issues. In August-September, the political bloc held public meetings on how to improve Belarusian education and healthcare in eight cities.
On 2 October, the coalition's politicians handed over to Belarusian parliament a petition with 50 thousand signatures in support of their proposed reforms. Moreover, their political leaders now and again secure meetings with members of the House of Representatives.
The ‘Talaka’ coalition has a different breed of politics. It emphasises political problems over social issues and regularly opens coordinating centres that seek to involve common people in the political process. Recently the alliance opened three of these centres with the support of several prominent figures, including an appearance by the former head of the National Bank Stanislaŭ Bahdankievič, a book presentations by Pavel Seviaryniec and Anatoĺ Liabiedźka. The word ‘centre’, however, should be taken with a grain of salt as they are being run in the opposition parties’ offices that existed prior to their opening.
Other political players are already preparing for the 2015 presidential elections. Valiery Fraloŭ, a retired General and a deputy chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), will run for the presidency independently. On 28 August, a number of NGOs supported his candidacy to participate in the presidential elections, though on the very same day his own party's congress refused to acknowledge their nomination, perhaps a symptom of the internal politics of the Belarusian opposition's greater malaise.
In terms of media presence, the Belarusian opposition continues to primarily be active on independent outlets. By far the most popular Belarusian web-site, TUT.by, often writes about pro-democratic forces and many political figures and activists have blogs on Naviny.by, another famous Belarusian web-site. However, journalists privately say that articles from the opposition attract few readers, as they typically just criticise Lukashenka's regime, while not offering any positive proposals of their own.
The Belarusian opposition's low level of activity and visibility has made them less interesting for international partners or the media. Typically, following the elections, pro-democratic forces will see surge in international visitors or making their own trips abroad. The opposition, of course, has had a high profile in the past. Aliaksandr Milinkievich even received the Sakharov Prize back in 2006. Yet nowadays few Western politicians remain interested in Belarus. Moreover, decision-makers, who understand the region, are concentrating on Ukraine right now.
In early December, the Belarusian intelligentsia intends to hold a congress for independence. They believe that the accession of Belarus to the Eurasian Economic Union threatens the independence of the country.
Several prominent intellectuals are among the organisers and Elena Anisim, deputy head of the Belarusian Language Society, is the congress' coordinator. According to some rumours floating about, she may even receive the congress' nomination to participate in the presidential election. Anisim has already gave several interviews in which she declared her readiness to run.
The traditional (i.e. political) opposition is preparing to its own congress as well. The Belarusian Popular Front, Belarusian Christian Democrats, the United Civil Party, the Belarusian United Left Party Fair World, the Movement for Freedom, the Tell the Truth campaign and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) are organising a convention together. At the moment it looks like it will place at the beginning of next year.
Currently, the opposition is in the process of nominating its delegates to the congress — this procedure actually will determine the results of the congress. Currently the parties are discussing several options: nominations from the regional conventions, primaries or via a collection of signatures. Organisers will also guarantee several places for VIPs to be chosen from among leading intellectuals.
Not everyone is in agreement on the congress. Parties from the 'Talaka' coalition remain in the minority, but can still block the process and foil their plans. Privately politicians say that ‘People’s referendum’ can hold a congress on its own if 'Talaka' continue to procrastinate with its nominations.
What are the Chances for Success?
The ‘People’s referendum’ coalition remains the most active segment of the opposition. Although they work directly with people, collecting a mere 50,000 signatures in the span of a year is not all that impressive. After events in Ukraine, Belarusians have shown a distaste for revolution and politicians should pay more attention to public gatherings and meetings with representatives of the regime as it shows that the opposition wants dialogue, not revolution.
The nomination of a single opposition candidate remains problematic. The ideological differences in the Belarusian opposition have little intrinsic value and is rather a war of personalities, not politics. Therefore, the congress may result not in a union, but in the opposition becoming even further divided.
The congress of intellectuals, although a significant event, remains minor in terms of its potential impact. The organisers have always been close to the opposition, as well as participated in the previous congresses of Belarus's democratic forces.
For a future campaign, honing the skills of party activists remains vital, as local politicians are still not very professional. There is no point in blaming pro-democracy activists though, as it is difficult to become a politician in a country which has no real politics. The real problem is that the opposition is full of old faces. Even various Western-funded seminars attract basically the same crowd.
Therefore, this latest awakening of the Belarusian opposition would appear to be minor and belated, but the good news is that the opposition still exists.
Outlook for Inflation Improves, Reserves and Income Grow – Belarus Economy Digest
Price increases for regulated goods and services, as well as the abolition of price regulations on meat had a stimulating effect on inflation in Belarus.
In the first half of 2014 a gradual reduction of Belarus' foreign currency reserves occurred as a result of significant foreign debt service payments. But over the summer this year external and internal borrowing and foreign currency purchasing by the National Bank had a positive influence on the volume of foreign currency reserves.
Although the growth of real wages in the first half of 2014 slowed down, it remains in the green. Increases in real income helped to reduce the number of households with incomes below the national poverty line.
Exceeding Planned Growth
In accordance with the updated official forecast, price growth on consumer goods and services at the end of this year will hit 117.3 per cent. Originally, the inflation of consumer goods was anticipated to be 111 per cent, but this mark has already been surpassed over January-July 2014.
Mainly food products and services saw the most rapid price hikes. For example, prices for meat and poultry over an 8 month stretch rose by more than 32 per cent, while kindergarten schooling saw a 93 per cent increase.
On the one hand, as long as inflation continues to rise, the prices for regulated goods and services will also climb.
On the other hand, this has had a stimulatory effect on prices following an official decision to abolish price ceilings in this instance as it allows for meat to be sold on the open market without restrictions.
Due to higher costs, especially in regulated prices, the inflation rate for the poorest segments of the population grew at a faster pace than that for its wealthiest citizens. In the second half of this year the main drivers of prices continues to be forecasts of further devaluation, including the Belarusian ruble's rate of devaluation, as well as an increase in prices for goods whose prices are regulated by the state.
Taking into account these current trends, the expected inflation rate for 2014 will exceed the level seen in 2013. For example, consumer prices increased by 16.5 per cent by the end of 2013. According to a preliminary forecast for the end of 2015, analysts expect the growth in prices to slowdown, levelling out at 12.5 per cent.
Foreign currency reserve showing good signs
On 1 September, 2014 the foreign exchange reserves of Belarus were $ 6.3m. This volume covers about 1.9 months worth of imports (with a minimum appropriate level being 3 months). The negative impact on the nation's foreign currency reserves over the period assessed was mainly due to Belarus servicing its foreign debt.
In 2014 alone the state's payments on foreign obligations will exceed $3bn. At the same time, despite an increase in payments on its external public debt, Belarus has managed to increase the volume of its foreign exchange reserves in recent months. It achieved this through external and internal borrowing and purchasing foreign currency on its domestic market.
A $2bn loan from VTB Bank bolstered current reserves. Loans from International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Chinese government, and export credits from the Russian Federation for the construction of a nuclear power station, and other factors, also contributed to Belarus' maintenance of its reserves.
Additionally, the excess foreign currency supply, which sat above domestic market demand for both the population and economic entities, had a stimulating effect on the size of the available foreign exchange reserves in July and August.
The Ministry of Finance periodically sells government bonds denominated in a foreign currency to businesses and individuals. This tool allows it to attract foreign currency to transfer into its own foreign exchange reserves without increasing its foreign debt. This also leads, however, to an increase in domestic public debt.
In August, foreign exchange reserves increased by $78m, which is largely due in part to purchases of currency on the domestic market by the National Bank, but is also due to the placement of foreign currency bonds. According to official forecasts, foreign exchange reserves for Belarus will increase by $0.2-0.5bn by year end.
Belarus saw its wages continue to climb in both nominal and real terms in January-July 2014. The average salary in July amounted to BYR 6.5m (US$629). At the same time we can see a gap in the average wages when looking at regional dynamics. While the Vitebsk region's average nominal salary was BYR 5.7 m (US$557), in Minsk this figure was BYR 8.3m (US$809).
The differences noted above are natural enough, as traditionally metropolitan areas costs of living are much higher than in small towns and rural areas. As was previously true, the highest salaries in Belarus remains in economic zones that contain airports or companies from the petrochemical, financial or IT sector.
According to a sample survey of households in the first half of 2014, the number of low-income families in Belarus has decreased. In the period studied, the share of households with disposable incomes below the subsistence minimum was 3.5 per cent over all, while in the first half of 2013 it was 4.2 per cent. This gradual income growth helped to support higher growth levels for retail turnover.
In accordance with the official forecast, income growth in real terms will grow 3 per cent throughout 2014. In order to increase the efficiency of the economy, the increased labour productivity needs to be similar to that of the growth in real wages.
Anastasiya Luzgina, Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Centre
This article is a part of a joint project between Belarus Digest and the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Centre (BEROC)