The United Nation of Belarus?
Belarusians resemble Ukrainians in many respects, but they do not exhibit any kind of the politically relevant dualism between western and eastern regions, which greatly contributed to the recent Ukrainian events. The urge to find the same patterns in different countries with different histories often results in confusing outcomes.
Professor Aleh Manayeu, director of Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Research corroborated this view with the results of March public opinion survey conducted by his institute. Presenting them last month in Minsk he commented that the population of Western and Eastern Belarus do not differ in their political views.
Western Belarus Is Geographical Notion
"There are some differences, yet not of a Ukrainian magnitude. The values' cleavage runs along the line of “supporters” and “opponents” of the government,” said Manayeu.
“To simplify, we can say that the residents of large cities are more dynamic, more pro-European, more pro- democracy and market economy than residents of small towns”. Manayeu emphasised the point that small town dwellers in Belarus do not differ substantially in their political views throughout the country.
Today, Belarus includes six provinces which have essentially a shared historical fate and very close anthropological traits. Only the Paliessie region in the south (now divided between Belarus and Ukraine, as well as inside Belarus between Brest and Homiel provinces) had some more peculiarities due to its isolation in the marshes.
The religious split between Orthodox and Catholic believers led to some confrontations in the past but not in modern times. It became muzzled after Belarusians switched en masse between these denominations as well as Protestantism and the Uniate Church.
Exploitation of Orthodox and Catholic churches by Russia and Poland increased the religious scepticism of Belarusians Read more
Exploitation of Orthodox and Catholic churches by Russia and Poland, respectively, increased the religious scepticism of Belarusians. According to two Gallup surveys from 2009 and 2011, Belarus was among the top-10 of most irreligious of nations in the world.
So what historical background and political significance does “Western Belarus” possess? In Ukraine, centuries of separate political, socioeconomic and cultural development resulted in the emergence of “Western Ukraine”.
In every election since 1991 it voted absolutely contrary to the population of Eastern Ukraine. Belarusian differences between the more Catholic West and more Orthodox East have never led to the emergence of any firm borders between them. Actually, “Eastern” and “Western” Belarus emerged only as a consequence of their separate existence of the two halves of the country between 1921 and 1939.
Back then, between the World Wars, the eastern half found itself in the Soviet Union. There the Bolshevik government created the Belarusian proto-state. In Soviet Belarus, modernisation accompanied wide-scale political repression while the development of modern Belarusian culture was carried out along side Communist indoctrination.
The western regions lived under an increasingly authoritarian and chauvinist Polish administration. It launched a policy of colonisation, closed most Belarusian organisations and neglected Western Belarus in terms of its socioeconomic and cultural development.
These unfavourable conditions effectively blocked the formation of a distinct Belarusian identity, alternative Belarusian culture and any democratic politics in the Polish-ruled regions. Furthermore, it drove almost every relatively important Western Belarusian institutions and activist to left-wing movements supported by communist Minsk and Moscow.
Levelling the Ground
After the reunification of Belarus in 1939, and especially after the Second World War the Soviet authorities worked on extinguishing regional differences. They removed many – although by far not all – Polish residents from the western regions.
Then came the aggressive modernisation of the West and construction of modern industrial facilities there. The Soviet Belarusian authorities completely changed the territorial administrative regions, mixing them as much as possible between provinces from both eastern and western districts.
Culturally, the communists suppressed both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. After decades of atheistic Soviet rule, Belarusians today display no strong religious feelings and are much more likely to fight each other over nearly any other issue besides but religion.
In recent two decades some intellectuals tried to revive the Western Belarusian myth as a more 'Belarusian' alternative to Soviet Belarusian heritage. Yet the Western Belarusian myth collapses before such simple facts as the Polish census of 1931 which registered Belarusians as a minority in Western Belarusian lands or statistics of Belarusian schools in Western Belarus whose numbers in late 1930s sat at zero.
More Belarusian Eastern Regions
Indeed, the 2009 public opinion survey conducted together by Sociological Laboratory Novak and Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies demonstrated that the most “Belarusian” was eastern Mahiloū province.
The main tenet of Belarusian identity remains one's attitude toward the Belarusian language. A majority of the Mahiloū region population expressed their desire to use Belarusian and claimed to have a good command of the language.
The province is undoubtedly Eastern Belarusian, Orthodox and borders Russia. Many reasons might explain this situation yet one stands out.
The Mahiloū region belonged to the core of Soviet Belarus since its beginnings. It means that the Bolshevik government conducted here the most profound policies of Belarusisation and it lasted longer than in other regions.
It is likely that linguists could find more people in the West speaking Belarusian and their language would sound less influenced by Russian.
Yet population in the Western regions have more vague and mixed identity and understanding of who they are and which language they speak. Quite often, even today one can hear in the West the notions of ruski [literally 'Ruthenian' sometimes misinterpreted as 'Russian'] for Orthodox and polski [literally 'Polish'] for Catholic.
As a counter argument allegedly proving the Belarusian nationalist credentials of the west, some analysts refer to the results of 1994 presidential election as the nationalist democrat candidate Zianon Pazniak achieved the best results in “Western Belarus.” Indeed, the 1994 race remains the only presidential election recognised as free and fair by all major political forces. Still, we shall not take those results at face value.
Pazniak got more than a quarter of all the votes (nowhere near half) in only nine districts out of 118. Some of these districts were rather small and they made up a tiny part of the 1921-39 “Western Belarus.” It could be just plain conservatism of voters which provided Pazniak with this level of support rather than nationalism.
Belarus demonstrates no tendency towards splitting or quarrelling along regional lines Read more
All in all, Belarus demonstrates no tendency towards splitting or quarrelling along regional lines. Of course, Belarusian language-linked culture remains neglected, yet the language situation does not differ significantly between regions.
Nobody is eradicating Belarusian, though every political force politicises it. The opposition often pretends to be the only defender of the Belarusian language. It undermines those who detach the language issue from politics.
The authorities prefer to do nothing to promote the language out of fear of unintentionally strengthening the opposition. As a result, the language disappears – throughout Belarus.
The good news is that Belarus may face many catastrophes but definitely not a split scenario akin to that of Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. Not only because the Belarusian government – unlike the former Ukrainian one – indeed controls the country, but because the nation effectively demonstrates that it is united.
Far too many analysts in recent months followed the temptation to use Ukrainian allusions to predict Belarusian future. That is a dubious approach, Belarus has its own problems, opportunities and specifics which require cautious handling of analogies with neighbouring nations.
Belarusian Economic Reforms: An Irresolvable Paradox
Aliaksandr Lukashenka returned from Moscow with victorious news ahead of V-Day. He convinced his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to issue a new $1.5-2b loan and to agree on a stage-by-stage reduction of oil export duties in the emerging Eurasian Economic Union. This may bring Belarus nearly $1.5b in 2015 alone.
These agreements, if implemented, will temporarily alleviate the country’s ongoing economic problems, but will not resolve them. Belarus is not generating the double-digit growth rates demonstrated before the 2011 currency crisis. Only an ambitious programme of reforms may provide a foundation for sustainable growth in Belarus, though such reforms contradict interests of the current leadership.
Soviet-Style Model: Lack of Efficiency
Aliaksandr Lukashenka long believed that the Soviet model was generally efficient, with some relatively small drawbacks. Therefore, when he came to power, he reversed market reforms in Belarus and introduced a Soviet-like model.
This economic model has been based on the state controlled property and enterprise, strong employment guarantees and an extremely high level of government intervention. Close ties with Russia have served as the main pillar of the model as Russia provided Belarus with subsidised energy resources and cheap loans.
Belarus has remained at a level of economic transition akin to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan Read more
As a result, Belarus has remained at a level of economic transition akin to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – the two other outliers among the 29 countries in the transition indicators report published annually by the EBRD. The state still owns more than 70% of all enterprises. Many of them are inefficient and lack the capital necessary for their operations and modernisation.
They rely on state support to survive and greatly increase its fiscal liabilities by up to 4-5% of GDP per year. A lot of state-owned factories do not also have an appropriate level of energy efficiency, thus putting their success at risk should there be a rise in Russian energy prices.
Long Live Socialism?
Additionally, wage-levelling leads to lost opportunities in the labour force as it sidelines human potential and ends up creating an environment of low morale and incentives for self-improvement and professional development. A low-educated loader in Minsk earns only $100-150 less than a chief economist in a major bank with 20 years of experience. As a result, the most productive specialists and promising young people migrate to Russia or Western Europe/the US.
Wage increases ahead of productivity result in inflation, and this, combined with low cost efficiency of companies, leads to very high prices even for basic products. Today prices for most household appliances, clothes and food are the same or even higher in Minsk than in London or New York, though average wages remain 7-10 times lower. Today one can buy a pizza or get a haircut on Fleet Street in London cheaper than in a distant district of Minsk.
Lukashenka’s approval rating, however, remains high. Read more
Lukashenka’s approval rating, however, remains high. More than 45% of the population said they trusted the president, and 40.2% thought the country was developing in a right direction in March 2014, according to IISEPS. Moreover, 39.9% still consider socialism superior to capitalism (38.3%) and view it as the best model for Belarus.
This data accentuates the importance of academic exchange and education programmes for Belarusians such as Erasmus, OESS and ESSYB. More internship opportunities in Western countries, increased tourism, visa liberalisation and closer ties with the EU would also be helpful to increase pro-democratic moods in Belarus.
Worsening Situation Sobers Market Economy Critics
Whatever people believe in, the Belarusian leadership cannot ignore the noticeable signs of economic stagnation. GDP growth reached only 0.9% in 2013. The government did not meet Lukashenka’s 8.5% growth target and is also likely to miss the 3.3% growth target this year.
Belarus is a small open economy that exports goods and services to the tune of 82% of its GDP (2012). Its economic and industrial output growth depends largely on the competitiveness of the country’s exports which have been falling since 2012. An associated current account deficit has reached an alarming level of nearly 10% of GDP in 2013, putting pressure on decreasing international reserves and exchange rates. The split within the Belaruskali-Uralkali cartel further reduced the country’s exports and potash revenues.
The Crimean crisis only aggravates the external position of Belarus, because both the Ukrainian and Russian economies are contracting, both of whom are at the top of the list of Belarus' main trading partners. Besides, Russian involvement in the Ukrainian conflict frightened the Belarusian leadership who saw how harsh Vladimir Putin can be when pursuing his interests. They understand better now that Russian support comes at the price of independence.
Although Lukashenka initially tried to sell his position in the Ukrainian crisis to the West, Western countries ignored him and his rhetoric has become more pro-Russian. After the inglorious collapse of the Belarusian engagement policy with the EU in 2008-2010, Western countries do not consider Lukashenka a credible partner. In this situation, a person who will be able to negotiate economic assistance with the West as effectively as Lukashenka does with Russia may become a strong challenger to the incumbent.
Ambitious Reforms Instead of Cosmetic Changes
The government attempts to resolve the existing economic issues by temporary measures such as raising utility costs or asking Russia for inexpensive loans. Such measures do not address the inherent drawbacks of the existing model, including its low level of self-initiative, incentives and FDI.
The most crucial issue, however, is the lack of commitment to carry out reforms. The upcoming presidential election in 2015 represents a major challenge to the strict macroeconomic policies that the government has long stated their commitment to.
If Belarus wants to avoid a recurrence of this boom-bust cycle, its leadership should develop and adopt an ambitious programme of large-scale market reforms to boost labour productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship.
The emphasis should be on the development of a knowledge-based economy and accumulation of human capital, taking into consideration financial constraints and a poor natural resources endowment. A successful Belarusian IT sector with steadily rising yearly exports (from $110m in 2009 to $331m in 2012) provides an example for other sectors of the economy, because it exploits competitive advantages and does not depend on Russia.
Irresolvable Paradox for Current Leadership
Nevertheless, a completely new economic vision based on Western models challenges the very nature of the Belarusian model. Highly qualified and well-paid professionals have values and preferences significantly different from those of state-dependent factory workers.
The government will need to implement political reforms to hear the voice of these specialists and keep them in the country, but herein lies the problem of commitment. The current leadership is not willing to abandon its dominant position in government and business. The economic problems of Belarus are in fact highly political.
The EBRD clearly demonstrates with its recent statistics that Belarusian transition indicators stopped improving after the rise of Soviet-minded elite in the mid-1990s. Effective realisation of market reforms presupposes a cohort of new well-educated leaders who will be trusted by the EU and the US.