THE QUEST FOR “STABILITY” IN BELARUS
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 121
On June 19, Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski summarized the economic results for the first five months of 2007, maintaining that the country had attained “macroeconomic stability.” GDP rose by 9% compared with the same period last year, with notable increases in output in both industry and agriculture (www.belta.by, June 14). Real wages (taking into account inflation and other factors) reportedly rose by 17.1% in the first quarter of this year, well above the anticipated rise of 7.5-8.5%. Whereas agricultural wages are the lowest in the country, those working in ferrous metallurgy receive the highest salaries, more than two times the national average at BR1.3 million ($610) (www.tut.by, June 19).
The quest for stability has been a platform for the government in recent times. Official propaganda has reinforced the viewpoint that Belarusians under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka have been sheltered from many of the problems that have beset neighboring states, in particular political instability, rapidly increasing costs for goods, civil strife, and an uncertain future. As noted by Aleksey Zolotnitsky, stability is perceived as a positive category by the bulk of the population (Belorusskie novosti, June 19).
Several recent sociological surveys serve to reinforce this same impression. The most recent survey of the National Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Research (NISEPI) notes that 65% of respondents believe that the current stability will be maintained in the future. Their faith is based on the president, who has been in power for 13 years and in May had an approval rating of 56.9%. Of those surveyed, 57.8% believe that he is following the correct political course (Belorusskie novosti, June 19).
By themselves, however, such figures hardly provide an accurate reflection of the outlook of Belarusian residents. The NISEPI survey also pointed out that despite their faith in the president, 50% do not believe that there will be any forthcoming reduction in the level of corruption, 53.3% do not expect any drop in the level of bureaucracy, 62.4% fear that housing rents will continue to rise, and 62.8% think that the conflict with Russia will soon be revived. Thus alongside a personal confidence in the president exists a strong underlying current that the state lacks the facility to deal adequately with the main problems facing Belarus today.
The public seems to hope that emerging problems will be dealt with by dubious ready-made solutions. Thus over 50% think that the energy problems will eventually be overcome: 65.1% favor the start of construction on a nuclear power station, and 41.6% look positively on Belarus producing oil in Venezuela, as opposed to a negative appraisal by 31.5% of respondents. It need hardly be said that such “solutions” can only be partial and long term, if indeed they are solutions at all. The president has been pressing the case for a united economic and energy space within the Eurasian Economic Community (Narodnaya hazeta, June 20), presumably as a new effort to circumvent reliance on Russian oil and gas at world prices. Meanwhile Belarus posted a deficit in trade in energy goods of $504.1 million (it posed a surplus over the same period last year). The population continues to decline, including by 4.3% in 2006 to 9.714 million (www.president.gov.by/press10686.html). The government has failed manifestly to stem this long-term trend.
Facing such problems and given the relatively cool relations with Russia of late, official rhetoric over the past year has emphasized an individual path for Belarus, despite some inconsistencies in public statements. Yet Belarusian society seems as divided as any in the post-Soviet space in terms of how people perceive the future. A survey conducted in April-May 2007 in six countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) by a number of agencies, including Eurasian Monitor and with the participation of the NOVAK Belarusian laboratory provided revealing results for Belarus. First of all, only 10% of Belarusian citizens wish to see a restored Soviet Union, which was the plank on which Lukashenka first won the presidency in the summer of 2004. This was the lowest of all countries surveyed, and well behind Kyrgyzstan (23%), Russia (17%), and even Ukraine (12%) (Belorusskie novosti, June 19).
Some 23% of those surveyed in Belarus would like to live in a united Europe (compared to 22% in Ukraine and 13% in Russia), and between 9% and 12% favor living in the CIS (the precise figure is not indicated). However, 25% of respondents in Belarus declared their approval of living in a compact union with Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, an almost identical number to those favoring a European direction. In addition, 21% supported the view that Belarus should go its own way without any form of union. The survey did not address the concept of a union state with Russia. It does indicate, however, that the public is very divided on the correct path for the future.
In short there is little correlation between official images of a booming economy and the continuing positive assessment of Lukashenka personally and the critical problems that beset the country. The official quest for stability appears to rest on factors that were in place in the past — close relations with Russia, subsidized prices for imported energy goods, low rents for housing, low inflation, and negligible levels of corruption and bureaucracy — but no longer exist. Lukashenka remains a popular figure, but the public is skeptical of his regime’s ability to overcome its current dilemmas and increasingly divided over whether the solution lies in a new partnership or in isolation.