Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 223

The economic crisis currently engulfing Belarus also threatens to demolish President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s political standing. Lukashenka’s claim to have maintained economic stability through state-socialist methods has long been the central political prop of his rule. That thesis is now collapsing along with the economy. Inflation, shortages of basic food staples, wage arrears and collapse of industrial production are taking on alarming proportions. They look set to grow even worse during the winter ahead.

The president, the ministers and regional officials fanned out to factories and collective farms on December 1 in an attempt to appease the populace. In an agitated speech to the workforce of the Minsk Tractor Plant, the country’s largest industrial enterprise, Lukashenka acknowledged the gravity of the situation and asked the workers to “refrain from protesting in the streets.” Mixing supplication with defiance, the president admitted to worrying that “my voters, the tranquil Belarusan people, might join the political adventurists” of the opposition. He attempted to turn the workers against the West–which “spurns” Belarusan export products–and argued that the situation necessitates ever-closer cooperation with Russia.

Lukashenka and his officials offered a hefty package of “compensatory” and “support” measures to the trade unions and to enterprise managements. The “extraordinary measures” include: (1) salary increments of up to 100 percent for November (retroactively) and for December; (2) a “new wage concept” to be introduced on January 1 which would “significantly increasing incomes;” (3) debt writeoffs and tax exemptions for certain categories of industrial enterprises; (4) deficit financing of collective farms; and (5) state-policed price controls on the food markets. Not totally oblivious to the inflationary effects of these measures, Lukashenka promised that [annual] “inflation will be piecemeal and painless” in the range of 30 percent.

Branch trade union leaders responded by calling off the countrywide “protests against pauperization” which were to have been held today (Itar-Tass and other Russian agencies, NTV, December 1 and 2; background in the Monitor, November 25).

This Belarusan version of “anticrisis measures” can at best buy time for the regime while setting the stage for greater social pain, and increasing the costs of any recovery down the road. Lukashenka’s top priority at the moment is to avoid the formation of an alliance of the political opposition and the labor unions. He fears the opposition less than he does the industrial workers, and will continue repressing the former while trying to buy off the latter through illusory concessions.