The following political landscape piece is a part of Eurasia Daily Monitor’s special quarterly series of strategic assessments of developments across Eurasia. These pieces examine recent important developments and trends in the region, particularly since this past summer, and anticipate where those trend lines may lead over the coming months.
Developments in Belarus since early summer can be categorized under five major themes: economic decline, parliamentary elections, uneasy relations with Russia; rapprochement with the West; and domestic “liberalization.” The fifth trend clearly accompanies Belarus’s warming relations with the West, and is seemingly dependent upon it. Multiple “lines of force” connect all five of these themes. One of those lines is the dominance of a top-down political culture. It sets a backdrop—i.e., a lasting pattern of public life—while the country’s lingering economic decline continues to take center stage.
Indeed, unlike all other post-Soviet countries, Belarus enjoyed uninterrupted economic growth from 1996 to 2014—growth that continued right through Russia’s financial meltdown (1998), as well as during the international (2008–2009) and domestic (2011) financial crises. That perpetuated the notion of an economic miracle and suggested that numerous predictions of imminent economic collapse in Belarus were politicized and therefore flawed. While no collapse has materialized to this day and Belarus is still reasonably well-managed and orderly, economic growth has stalled in recent years. The reasons for this had to do with the Belarusian economy’s dependency on favorable price differentials (e.g., on crude oil purchased from Russia versus refined oil sold to the West), high potash prices, and on the purchasing power of the Russian market with respect to industrial products from Belarus (like trucks, tractors, etc.). When these conditions ended or were altered, Belarus’s economic growth was halted as well. One remaining growth pole, Belarus’s high-tech sector, cannot outweigh these negatives. Belarus’s agriculture cannot either. The value of Belarus’s exports has declined from about 80 to merely 45 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The issue of critical importance is the fate of large state-owned enterprises, whose products are no longer in demand. These factories have switched to four working days per week and gradually laid off some workers; but many thousands are still employed there. Some experts argue that Belarus’s government missed its chance to profitably sell these enterprises to private owners who would have restructured them to fit market needs. Today, this solution is problematic (Gazeta.ru, October 10). While Belarus continues to improve its private business environment—as reflected by its 37th place in the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking—large foreign investors are not in a hurry to overrun the country.
The impasse regarding economic growth seems to have affected several developments. First, Belarus is trying its best to convince Russia to live up to its economic integration commitments so that commodities like oil and gas are identically priced within the entire Eurasian Economic Union (of which Russia and Belarus are both founding members). Russia does not seem to be in a hurry to oblige. On October 28, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev met in Minsk to try to settle the latest lingering argument over the price of natural gas; but the results of this meeting are unknown. Some Belarusian observers suggest that a satisfying gas price may come as part of a package deal. This deal might include a demand that Belarus reroute its export transit (like that of potash) from Latvian and Lithuanian seaports to the Baltic ports of Russia’s Leningrad Oblast. Alternatively (or in addition), Belarus may be compelled to sell its Wheel Tractor Plant, which produces vehicles for transporting nuclear ballistic missiles, to a Russian buyer (Naviny.by, October 28).
Second, Minsk is redoubling its efforts to find new destinations, in Asia and Africa, for Belarusian industrial exports.
Third, many observers claim that the current economic stalemate has prompted Belarus to pay closer attention to its ties with the West. Both the European Union and the United States have traditionally linked their attitude toward Belarus to the domestic situation regarding human rights and democracy. And in recent months, Belarusian authorities have changed their practices in those areas as well. Since 2014, there have been no arrests for rallies held without official permission, just fines. Not that these rallies have had numerous participants. Just days ago, the blogger Eduard Palchys, who was accused of fueling inter-ethnic hatred in his blog entries about Russia and spent nine months behind bars, was released after a court proceeding. Notably, the prosecutor demanded 3.5 years in prison, whereas the judge conditionally sentenced Palchys to one year and nine months—a heretofore unusual outcome in the Belarusian court system (Tut.by, October 28).
Earlier, about 450 registered candidates competed for 110 seats in the House of Representatives (lower chamber of parliament). Two opposition-minded candidates obtained those seats. “I have said on numerous occasions that we conduct electoral campaigns not for Washington and Brussels or for the Kremlin but for ourselves, in strict compliance with our electoral law,” Lukashenka declared, in July 2014, when the economy was still growing (Naviny.by, July 14, 2014). He set a different tone after the 2016 election: “Yes we wanted to ingratiate ourselves with everybody in the entire world. Is this not a natural desire?” (President.gov, October 7).
The opposition members elected in 2016 include a member of the United Civic Party, which is staunchly opposed to Lukashenka’s policies, as well as the deputy chairperson of the Belarusian Language Society. To say that Belarusian, one of two official languages of Belarus, is underrepresented in the public domain and in interpersonal communication alike would be an understatement. And this situation is inextricably though implicitly connected with the delicate issue of Belarusian identity, which apparently has a long way to go. A sense of being different from Russia and Russians is by no means pervasive in Belarus. In Minsk, there are numerous homes where Russian TV channels are watched either primarily or even exclusively. Like in Russia, in Belarus the authorities are not just predominant but the only possible purveyors of change. As such, constructive change in Belarus presumably can only occur and proceed in a top-down fashion. Contrary to some clichés of Western thinking, it is unlikely that this top-down way can be blamed on the current national leaders. On the contrary, the leaders themselves were overwhelmingly supported by the population; the so-called yedinonachaliye (one-man-management), which ultimately emerged, stems from the public belief in how things should be done. Indeed, the Belarusian opposition reproduces the same top-down and highly personalized style of decision-making within its political parties. Their unpopularity is in part related to their constant fight for visibility outside Belarus and in part to public aversion to political pluralism. In Belarus, it was short-lived (1991–1994) and did not leave good memories.
Considering the cultural embeddedness of such sociopolitical patterns, it makes sense for Western foreign policymakers to deepen and broaden their contacts with Belarus. No political change can occur without a change in cultural norms. And the latter is only possible gradually, as a result of contagious diffusion (a term first introduced by Torsten Hagerstrand)—that is, innovations have to be mediated by contacts at all levels. During the introductory session of the Minsk Dialogue, an international conference held in Minsk on October 27, Andrea Wiktorin, the head of the EU delegation to Belarus, once again invoked the issue of human rights and capital punishment in Belarus as obstacles to Europe’s embrace of this country. Wiktorin was mildly but noticeably rebuked by her fellow countryman, Wolfgang Sender, the Belarus office director from the German non-governmental organization Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung. Sender noted that relations between Belarus and Europe should be allowed to rise without preconditions. Sender is on target: beating a dead horse as the chief mode of thinking about Belarus ought to be left behind.