Editorial Foreword

Valeria Kostyugova, Anatoly Pankovsky

Belarusian Yearbook 2017 presents a comprehensive analysis of the key developments in the main sectors of the state and society in 2016. Further immersion into recession, parliamentary election, normalization of the relationship with the West amid growing confrontation with Russia – these are the main processes that determined last year’s political agenda. The overall situation developed within the basic trends outlined by our experts in the previous Yearbook, and, therefore, within the limits of their forecasts.

No fundamental changes were observed in the country’s internal politics. Despite the deepening of the socioeconomic crisis and associated demand of the liberal wing of the ruling class for limited market reforms, the government’s activity was characterized by the negation of the need for institutional transformation. In socioeconomic policy, conservative trends prevailed with the explicit imperative for binding people to their jobs in the inefficient public sector.

The lack of proposals and actions to overcome the crisis and reform the economy were feverishly made up for by various control and expropriating measures (see, for example, Decree No. 3 “On the prevention of social parasitism”), which built on ideologically-motivated instructions by the head of state and his administration.

Limited changes could be observed during the parliamentary elections of 2016: political parties enjoyed record representation since 1995. For the first time since 2000, representatives of the party opposition and civil society received seats in the parliament. The number of representatives of the power vertical decreased. Furthermore, the traditional cyclicality in the attitude of the authorities to the opposition was broken: previously, in the wake of the presidential elections, the authorities built up repressive practices against their opponents and consistently weakened them as a new election cycle started. In 2016, this trend was not observed; moreover, representatives of the broadly understood opposition were granted access to the state media.

However, these changes, aimed to advertize the growth in political pluralism, can hardly be referred to as the commencement of political reforms, because they were inconsistent and were traditionally offset by a fair number of countermeasures and restraints (including the ultimate figures for the representation of parties in the parliament, which is not sufficient to engage in collective activities).

Progress in Belarus’s foreign policy can only be observed with respect to the relationship with the European Union, which has been in the normalization phase since 2014. In 2016, most of the sanctions against Belarusian citizens and companies were lifted, contacts at the top level were renewed, and financial assistance of the European Union expanded, along with the agenda for dialogue. The parliamentary elections did not cause a cold spell in the relationship, and even created preconditions for pursuing inter-parliamentary dialogue.

Amid the improvement of the Belarusian-European relationship, Belarus’s engagement with developing nations was stagnating, whereas its relations with its key partner – the Russian Federation – moved into a crisis phase and were revised in many essential areas (military, oil and gas, trade, culture, and political interaction).

Negative trends that became visible in 2014–2015 grew stronger in the national economy. The recession (which persisted) and deterioration of the financial position of companies were further aggravated by the reduction in Russian crude oil deliveries by more than 20% due to political and economic discrepancies between Minsk and Moscow (it became an important reason behind the drop in Belarus’s GDP). Experts also point to the conspicuous reduction in social standards, worsening of the status of households, and growth of social tensions.

These trends, along with some others, have been reflected in public opinion. Economic health remained unstable, the stance on the authorities became more critical, and the wish for change seemed more explicit.

Because there will be no automatic exit from the recession, in 2017, experts forecast that it will continue and, possibly, grow even deeper. The existing economic conditions are serious preconditions for implementing institutional reforms; however, forecasts are very cautious about these reforms, since the government’s medium-term planning still rests on its faith in the improvement of the regional economic situation and taking out new loans.

The need for coordinating possible economic transformation and traditionally conservative social policy, as well as the need for reducing social tensions, which became obvious in the spring of 2017, will cause one of the critical collisions of the year. In its foreign policy, Belarus will seek to keep its independence (primarily in its relations with Russia); however, the possibility of the resumption of repression against opponents of the regime, alongside the insufficient dividends that Minsk derives from the normalization of its relations with the West set certain limitations in his area.

Since 2003, the Belarusian Yearbook project has evolved as a joint act of the Belarusian expert community to compile, conceptualize, and deliver a chronicle of Belarus’s contemporary history.

Contributing to Belarusian Yearbook 2017 were independent analysts and experts, as well as specialists representing various think tanks, including the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), the Belarusian Institute for Public Administration Reform and Transformation (BIPART), 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), Warsaw Research Center Eurasian States in Transition (EAST), 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’).