Editorial Foreword

Valeria Kostyugova, Anatoly Pankovsky

Belarusian Yearbook 2014 presents a comprehensive analysis of the key developments in the main sectors of the state and society. Since 2003, the Belarusian Yearbook has evolved as a crucial annual initiative of the Belarusian expert community to compile, conceptualize and present a chronicle of Belarus’s contemporary history.

Last year, the compilers of the Yearbook wrote: “the country spent virtually the entire year waiting for something to happen or some external force to give an impetus to further development or change the status quo.” In 2014, the country received such an external impetus – Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which followed the ‘Maidan,’ and military operations in the east of Ukraine. That external shock may not have been strong enough to shake the Belarusian model; however, it produced a considerable impact on many processes in the country, which had been developing mechanically due to some previous momentum.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine affected Belarus’s foreign policy, as the country tried playing a new role in regional and – on a broader scale – European security policy. It succeeded to some extent. As a result, the Belarusian authorities gradually resuscitated the old pattern of balancing between Russia and the West. Minsk assumed a peacekeeping function and provided Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union with a venue for negotiations.

While maintaining its relationship with Russia as its ally, Belarus started building constructive relations with the new Ukrainian authorities. Contacts between Belarus and the European Union were invigorated, while the agenda for the country’s engagement with the EU mostly focused on ‘pragmatic’ objectives, which the Belarusian authorities had emphasized since 2011.

The events in Ukraine reshaped public opinion resulting in an increase in social optimism and trust in the authorities against the backdrop of unchanged or decreasing living standards.

Drawing on these trends, the president and the government made respective domestic policy moves: the mechanism to pass on the growing costs of the failing economic policy to households was used at its full capacity, whereas the government with its declarations of the ‘need for reforms’ de facto lost its leverage to manage the economy and was replaced by a new team at the end of the year.

Because the Belarusian economy is to a great extent ‘pegged’ to Russia, the slower economic growth in the latter and depreciation of the Russian ruble had a predictable impact on Belarus – export supplies dropped, GDP growth slowed, and the national currency lost its value. The launch of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) can hardly make up for the heavy losses of the country, which might be slipping into a ‘poverty trap.’

There are no visible preconditions for overcoming or at least mitigating some of the effects of the regional political and economic crisis. Experts are making forecasts that as long as tensions in the relationship between Russia and the West remain, Belarus will seek to expand its dialogue with the European Union; however, the prospects of such dialogue remain vague, given the upcoming presidential election (with a fully predictable outcome).

Experts remain skeptical about the capacity of economic reforms, which are expected to start after the presidential election, i. e. in 2016. The political administration has opted for a development strategy built on a package of measures relying on financial support from Russia, envisaging further tightening of control in various sectors of public life, as well as regular rotation of officials and schemes to make households ‘share’ their incomes to make up for the lost profits of the industrial giants. Because ‘manual control’ of the Belarusian economy has been revived, experts expect further reductions in the economic competitiveness of the country compared with the economies of its EEU partners.

Contributing to Belarusian Yearbook 2014 were independent analysts and experts, as well as specialists representing various think tanks, including the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), the Research Center of the Institute for Privatization and Management, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC), the Institute of International Relations (Warsaw, Poland), the Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE), eBelarus Research Center, the Belarus Security Blog analytical project, the Agency for Social and Political Expert Appraisal, and the website of the expert community of Belarus Nashe Mnenie (‘Our opinion’).