Will Lukashenka Survive his Worst Term in Office?
On 11 October 2015 it was officially revealed that Alexander Lukashenka had won his fifth presidential election. Five months post-election it appears obvious that it is set to be his most difficult term in office yet.
Despite a very vague election manifesto, the Belarusian state leader has already managed to break some of his promises. For instance, the platform promised that the government would not introduce any new taxes over the next five years, but the authorities have reneged on this and already passed several laws introducing new taxes.
What makes this situation even worse is that Lukashenka seems to lack any real plan on how to resolve the crisis, a strategic weakness which may lead to the greatest fall yet in his electoral support.
Lukashenka’s election manifesto: promises already broken in several areas
Unlike the manifesto for the 2010 election, Lukashenka’s team wrote a rather vague programme for the 2015 election. It lacked the outlining of specific goals and focuses on unclear notions of peace and independence. It can be predicted that many promises will be violated, although it is too early to be certain which. Nonetheless, in the five months since the elections, at least some of the promises have already clearly been broken.
For instance, the program clearly imposes a ban on the introduction of new taxes and an increase in existing taxation rates over the next five years. But, to name but a few, the government has already introduced a tax on bank deposits, a tax on parcels from abroad and also increased taxes for motorists.
Such steps have been taken not only by the central government, but also by local authorities. For instance, in February the Executive Committee of Salihorsk introduced a tax on dog owners. Depending on the size of the dog, owners will now be forced to pay between $5 and $15 per month.
The programme also mentions a commitment to the "uncompromising fight against corruption". However, the Belarusian authorities have, in reality, reneged on this fight and are instead working in opposition to this promise. Lukashenka has pardoned at least six officials who were sentenced for corruption and instead appointed them as managers of unprofitable state-owned enterprises.
Further renouncing of promises is sure to follow if the current actions of the government are anything to go by. For example, the programme says that Belarus will reduce its public debt, but in the near future the state is set to receive a new loan from Russia abd plans to continue negotiations for another loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in April.
What will the situation in Belarus look like by 2020?
In 2015, the economic recession in Belarus intensified, according to the Belarusian Statistics Committee by as much as 3.9 per cent. The IMF predicts that the decline in 2016 will amount to another 2.2 per cent. In addition, World Bank economists have also forecasted that "the Belarusian economy is likely to stagnate" in the next two years.
Aleś Alachnovič, Vice President of think-tank CASE Belarus, told Belarus Digest that a conservative prediction is that the authorities will implement some limited reforms and by 2020, Belarusian GDP will increase slightly (by approximately 5 per cent) compared to 2015.
Because of this limited growth, the state will then be unable to support all state enterprises and fulfil its social-welfare promises due to forced cuts. For 2016, however, the government has already decreased the budget for housing and communal services by 20 per cent and at least discussed the implementation of other measures, such as increasing the retirement age or reducing maternity leave.
Unlike Lukashenka, many top officials support the implementation of more complementary reforms. In the words of political commentator Yury Drakakhrust, "the throne legs want changes".
A few high-level Belarusian officials, such as Deputy Prime Minister Vasil Maciusheuski or Lukashenka's economic advisor Kiryl Rudy, have more connections to the West as they have previously studied or had work experience in Western states. Many of these officials have a liberal stance on economic issues, remain more open to the advancement of civil society and are sympathetic to assertions of national identity.
Prior to the 2010s, Lukashenka's bureaucracy imitated his way of thinking and supported him unquestioningly – in 2004 one official even reportedly told the Belarusian state leader that “he is a little higher than God”.
Now, however, many officials see the world in a very different light to Lukashenka. For instance, while Lukashenka keeps asserting that Belarusian economic problems are a direct consequence of the global economic crisis, on 20 February his advisor Rudy admitted to state media that "there is no crisis in the world economy."
And the more worrying state policy gets, the greater the tensions between the Belarusian state leader and the establishment will be.
The lack of a survival plan
It was easy for Lukashenka to introduce his authoritarian regime policies while there was a growing economy, a like-minded establishment and support from many Belarusians. But now he lacks ideas on how to fix the current situation – more and more people think that Belarus is moving in the wrong direction. Every discussion on the economy that the Belarusian state leader has held has been devoted to condemning the government's actions without proposing anything new to save the struggling economy.
If the current trends continue, Lukashenka’s policy will cost him by prompting what is predicted to be the lowest presidential approval rating ever in 2020. In 2011, when the Belarusian financial crisis occurred, distrust in Lukashenka passed the 60 per cent mark, according to results from the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), a well-regarded Belarusian opinion polling organisation. The situation looks set to worsen if the economy does not recover.
Lukashenka will certainly still be able to rig elections, but the problem is that now he will be forced to commit electoral fraud more brazenly. Once Lukashenka loses his popularity, the opposition and the state’s actions in response will become more unpredictable. Moreover, foreign countries, especially Russia, may be tempted to use Lukashenka's unpopularity as leverage.
In October 2015, the Central Election Commission announced that Lukashenka had won the presidential election with 83.5 per cent but, according to IISEPS, the actual percentage was only 50.8 per cent. If his true rating is only about 30 per cent, insisting that he won the election with over 80 per cent could be quite dangerous.
Thus far, Lukashenka's position seems strong, but the next five years appear set to be a real challenge. The Belarusian strongman may survive, but the many challenges facing him and the country this term seem guaranteed to cause more trouble than ever before.
8 Ideas for 8 March: Women’s Day
If you live outside the realm of the former Soviet Union, chances are you never celebrate 8 March, International Women's Day.
However, for Belarusian men this holiday brings an eternal conundrum of how to celebrate the women in their lives – colleagues, mothers, sisters, wives, daughters etc.
In Soviet times it became a very popular holiday for glorifying the deeds of Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and other conscientious, working women. Since then the emphasis has somewhat shifted, and consequently the femininity and beauty of Belarusian women has come more into focus.
Together with the usual flowers and confectionery, there exist at least eight other things that would make any Belarusian woman happy this 8 March. Below is a sample list of ideas:
1. Close the gender pay gap
According to Belstat statistics, 85.3 per cent of women above the age of 15 in Belarus are economically active, or simply put – work. Therefore, they could all benefit from state policies geared at closing the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap in Belarus remains large: the average woman makes 25 per cent less than the average man.
Women tend to work in service-oriented spheres like education and healthcare, which also happen to have the lowest remuneration rates in Belarus. There are also fewer women among high-ranking managers, decision-makers and business owners, and there is overt discrimination of women in the labour market. As a solution some European companies choose to report their gender pay gap and together with gender equality experts seek ways to close it.
2. Introduce domestic violence legislation
Every third grave crime – and the Ministry of Interior defines only murder or assault and battery as grave crimes – takes place in a family setting in Belarus. This means that Belarusian women face fatal danger from their intimate partners. Older people – both men and women – may also face attacks from their children, who in some instances beat them up to take their meagre pensions away.
And yet Belarusian legislation has no separate law on domestic violence. Considerable progress came in 2014, when amendments to the current Criminal Code defined for the first time the notion of domestic violence, victim, and abuser, and introduced innovative measures including restraining orders. These measures are welcome but insufficient. Domestic abuse continues to go on unpunished.
3. Introduce sexual harassment legislation
Article 170 of the Criminal Code of Belarus stipulates that coercing anyone into having a sexual relationship or other sexually-motivated action against their will using blackmail, overt threats or professional power dynamics is punishable by up to three years in prison. This neither defines sexual harassment nor makes it possible for women to prove anything in the courts. This is why, according to Ministry of Interior data, the year 2015 saw zero cases investigated or prosecuted under this Article.
4. Ensure obligatory paid parental leave for fathers
Traditionally women hear a lot of nice words about their parenting skills on this day. Indeed, women continue to be the primary caregivers in the Belarusian economy for both children and the elderly. According to the Ministry of Labour, men take only 1 per cent of the total time taken off by parents to take care of a newborn. While praise is in order, women’s professional development often stalls following childbirth.
Many employers consequently view women as unreliable workers because they tend to take time off when children fall ill. This translates into lower wages and fewer growth opportunities for female workers. And this in turn feeds into the aforementioned gender pay gap. More equally distributed childcare responsibilities will eventually feed into fewer gender stereotypes for both parents. Furthermore, men will surely better appreciate women’s domestic labour if they themselves spend at least a couple of weeks taking care of children full time.
5. Promote non-traditional gender roles for men and women
Gender roles remain rigid and unforgiving, punishing those people who choose or happen to step outside of them. As a consequence, very few do so in Belarus. Men continue to be mostly breadwinners, while women take care of the house and children.
Even if both parents work outside the household, women tend to do a lot more household chores than men. According to the preliminary results of the UN and Belstat Time Use Survey, in Belarus women every weekday spend more than twice as much time on household chores – 15 per cent of their overall time versus 6 per cent for men, and consequently have only 28 minutes of free time, whereas men have 40 minutes daily.
6. Encourage women to go into STEM education and 'male' professions
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Traditionally men dominate these spheres. Girls tend to choose humanitarian disciplines, which consequently lead them into lower paying jobs. Women also tend to go into ‘service-oriented’ professions: Belstat data suggests that 83 per cent of teachers and 85 per cent of doctors in Belarus are female.
The opposite is true of computer science: boys outnumber girls five to one at maths and IT science schools. And as Belarus has found its place in the international IT markets, programming has become a high-paying occupation. Countries all over the world seek to attract girls and women into STEM professions by setting up mentor programmes, with women leading other women by example and guidance.
7. Encourage women to take on leadership positions
Belarus ranks well on women’s representations in parliament. Today women occupy 30.1 per cent of parliamentary seats. Yet, many would argue that parliament has no real authority and merely rubber-stamps the executive decision of the government.
In the positions of power that really matter women tend to be few. Men hold 22 ministerial positions out of 24 in Belarus. Two female ministers yet again head service-oriented ministries: Mariana Shchotkina is the Minister of Labour and Social Protection, while Liliya Ananich heads the Ministry of Information. There are no women regional governors. Women tend to occupy low and mid level management, but few reach the top management positions either in education or industry.
8. Support women's organisations advocating for real change
Over the past 15 years the number of women’s NGOs has fluctuated between 17 and 38, and has currently stabilised at 30. This accounts for 1.1 per cent of all civil society organisations active in Belarus. Such a low number may testify to two things: low self-awareness among women about their issues, or the lack of financial resources available for women’s causes, or maybe both.
Instead of conclusion
None of these things can in reality be gifted to women, but rather women will continue to work on them for themselves. However, men very much need to be part of this process. This list serves as a suggestion and by no means should be regarded as complete.
And yes, happy 8th of March, International Women's Day to you and yours!