What does the year 2019 have in store for Belarusians?

Main trends

On January 17, 2019, the Press Club and the website of the expert community of Belarus “Our Opinion” held this year’s first meeting of the Expert-Analytical Club focusing on the topic “What does the year 2019 have in store for Belarusians?”

Attending the discussion were representatives of the expert community, journalists, diplomats, representatives of government bodies. Speakers included Kateryna Bornukova, Lead Researcher at the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC), Arsen Sivitski, Director of the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, Vladimir Kovalkin, Cost of Government Project Manager for BIPART, Vadim Mozheiko, analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS). The discussion was facilitated by Valeria Kostyugova, editor of the website of the expert network “Our Opinion”.

The participants were asked to provide their answers to the following questions: 1. What were the main development trends for the state and society in 2018? 2. What are the main challenges to the sustainable development of Belarus in 2019? 3. What new processes can occur in 2019?

It was noted that the principal trend in Belarus’s economy is the conclusion of the recovery growth of GDP. Since 2011, recovery growth has been weak. Despite the improvements logged in 2017–2018 (2.5% and 3.2%, respectively), the cyclical growth component has come to an end. Poland, a neighboring country, was used as a comparison, with economic expansion of 5%. The growth of the private sector in Belarus was also noted – it already accounts for almost half of the country’s labor market.

High-profile corruption scandals and the meeting of the presidents of Belarus and Russia were referred to as the landmarks of 2018 that determine the internal policy of Belarus.

The corruption cases are indicative of an increase in tension between groups within the Belarusian authorities that are trying to redistribute power. Previously, law-enforcement bodies mostly targeted personal corruption crimes and partially joint schemes, whereas last year, systemic corruption was in the picture. Systemic corruption, along with the curtailment of the state’s social commitment and the decree on social parasites, contributes to growing social tension.

Another source of internal tension is the relationship with Russia. According to some estimates, the position of the Belarusian president in the conflict with Russia proved to be weak, as he relied mostly on emotions and failed to utilize the potential of rational argumentation based on the obligations that Russia assumed when establishing the customs and economic unions. The behavior of the head of state in the conflict with Russia, alongside his other speeches, presumably causes the Belarusian elites to understand that the top official of the state does not possess all the information about the current socioeconomic situation and the situation in the media space. The government seeks to put in place sluggish structural reforms, while the president goes on with the legacy socialist rhetoric, locked within his own information field.

There is another opinion that in addition to the relationship with Russia and manifestations of systemic corruption, two more events of 2018 determine the internal policy trends: the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) and the BelTA case.

Firstly, the format of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the BPR was not confrontational; rather, it looked like a search for a compromise. Certain organizational progress was also noted. The trend that the event made clear is the evolution of soft Belarusianization. Increasing number of questions arise regarding the national identity. However, the drive towards soft Belarusianization is growing weaker. Another trend is the formation of a solid business framework around Belarusianization.

Secondly, the “BelTA case” became evidence of the continued pressure on the media community. Furthermore, an augmentation of the Belarusian state media content can be observed due to certain steps taken by the authorities. Moreover, the control over the media scene is increasing in various dimensions. For example, the control of public discussions in forums and retaliatory measures. The impact of Russia in the media space is also increasing in the form of a multitude of fakes concerning Belarus in the Russian media. This pressure will further increase during the presidential election in Belarus. Therefore, the control of national content by the Belarusian authorities is becoming stronger.

In foreign policy, the main challenge faced by Belarus is the same – the relationship with Russia. Russia is trying to minimize its dependence on Belarus in transit and military-technical cooperation. It was added that the terms of Belarus’s cooperation with Russia in the oil and gas sector largely depend on Belarus’s share in Russia’s transit. As soon as Russia has alternatives to Belarusian transit, the conditions for Minsk will worsen accordingly. At the same time, Moscow is building up pressure to undermine Belarus’s sovereignty and independence and prevent it from breaking away from Russia in the medium term.

In 2019, this pressure will continue to grow in all areas (economic, political, and military). The participants agreed that tensions in relations with Russia would push Minsk towards further diversification of its foreign and economic policy. However, there are certain barriers. Firstly, there are structural constraints, namely the lack of an institutional framework for relationships with the EU, the United States and China. Secondly, Minsk has largely exhausted its peacekeeping potential in the region. No breakthrough should be expected in the new year. Anyway, Belarus will try to secure the political support of the EU, the U.S., and China.

Such a foreign policy challenge can be transformed into an internal policy challenge. This trend will destabilize the sociopolitical and socioeconomic situation in the country. An example was provided of how external pressure can destabilize the internal situation. In 2017, Russia cut oil supplies by 25%. In February-March 2017, protests were staged due to the decree on social parasitism and overall decreasing living standards.

As for the institutional block, experts expect more active efforts for Belarus to accede to the WTO. There are also ambitions to conclude a framework agreement with the EU. Minsk expects the removal of part of political sanctions by the United States. The sanctions are expected to be revised by the U.S. Congress. If some of the sanctions should be removed, Belarus and the United States will be given a chance to exchange ambassadors, but other than that the relationship will hardly develop any further in the foreseeable future.

When it comes to the upcoming election campaign in Belarus, the audience agreed that the campaign started with stepped up confrontation with Russia in order to ensure its mobilization character. A mobilization-style election campaign will make it possible to make almost no increases in wages and social transfers, as well as limit the appetites of elites by building up anti-corruption pressure. However, society may not endure mobilization, especially against the backdrop of the irresponsible crusade of the local authorities that seek to get the most out of the updated decree on social parasites.

According to one opinion, the tension between the population and the authorities amid confrontation with Russia can lead to the effects of the year 2010 – information pressure, inability of the authorities to effectively manage risks, protests, their dispersal, retaliation, and rollback in all directions.

Part of the audience disagreed that the 2010 scenario might repeat, since society is constantly changing. This can be seen in changes in the media space. New media are playing a critical role today. Although the problem of the impact of Russian television remains, the youth of Belarus are more influenced by Russian content on the Internet. The Russian authorities have learned to work with new media, while those Belarusian still have a very long way to go.

According to another opinion, the presidential election in Belarus can be scheduled for October or November 2019. The year 2019 will notably be marked by two more campaigns in the region: the presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine. Today, Russia is mostly focused on those campaigns, especially that parliamentary. There are hopes that Russia will address the Belarusian issue in a less rigid manner.

Another remark on Belarusian trends was shared. Since Belarusian society is split, the celebration of BPR-100 is a positive trend, as it ensured a more intensive dialogue between the two portions of society.

The audience agreed that notable new processes include local reforms and attempts of economic diversification. In order to reduce dependence on Russia, more than one or two years will be required. Nevertheless, certain changes are possible as early as in 2019. In general, the complication of relations with Russia can be viewed as Belarus’s stronger desire of independence.

According to most opinions, long-term trends for Belarus are for the most part positive.

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