The new year will see the Belarusian political system and Belarusian society in a state of routine developments and predictability. Belarus cannot expect a social rebel, a revolution, the growing strength of the opposition, the unexpected collapse of the political system, or democratisation after a flash of genius for the leadership. There will be no geopolitical U-turns, improving relations with the West, or a pro-EU shift. Society and the state will stay in a political and economic drift and the general civilisation stagnation, which indicates the slow death of the state machine body.
Government: ruling rather than managing
There are no social or political factors in Belarus today to shatter the established state model or to provoke a major change of the system. Economic instability or the Russian factor are the only two aspects that can revitalise Belarus. However, experience shows that economic challenges force the population into an even deeper depression, as the authorities resort to command-and-control methods of decision-making. The Belarusian establishment reacts to any challenge mechanically rather than thoughtfully, sticking to the concept “we do not want to, but we have to”. Today’s situation will make the country path dependent for the long run. The paradox of this situation is that the ruling elite wants to rule rather than lead, govern or manage. Under the geopolitical patronage of the Eastern neighbour, the permanent economic crisis can hardly lead to any positive change, because people see it as normality. What we should mean by a positive change is a process towards weakening authoritarian control and the democratization of politics.
With the dawning of 2014 there is no reason to expect a positive change. The political regime is at the stage when the ruling elite is preoccupied with attempts to keep its own sustainability, i.e. conditions for continued ruling. Any attempts to introduce pivotal changes in the system would result in a major destabilization. Not only is the ruling elite afraid of initiating any political reforms; it has neither the funds nor staff to implement a deep social and political transformation, including modernization, on which the government could rely in making statements in 2014. This is why one cannot assume that Belarus is on the verge of a major political shift from ruling towards leading and thoughtful management. Change in the nearest future will be spontaneous and unmanageable, with the leadership focused on reacting to external challenges rather than preventing them. Inability to function in a reality of change and a fear of a democratic transformation rule out even a façade of democratization, games with the opposition or any dialogue with it. Seeing the opposition as a bogey rather than a partner, the regime will make every effort to destroy it.
The political uprising in Ukraine at the end of 2013 is likely to confirm the Belarusian government in its strategy and the need to follow it in the future. Staying under the same pressure, the opposition will not see any difference next year. It will undergo a continued deactivation and neutralisation outside the political field, even in the background of formal political routines. Amendments of the electoral law, harshening sanctions for open political activities and non-stop repressions against activists in 2013 confirm the regime’s ambition to terminate the opposition politically. The agenda is to preserve some formal legal bodies labelled “the opposition parties”, with a clear condition to refrain from any real political activities. This process will probably extend, given the local elections in 2014 and preparations for presidential elections in 2015.
The abovementioned factors will prevent the authorities from any bold steps towards liberalisation. Even despite a chance for improving relations with the EU by “democratising” local elections, Lukashenka will not dare to, because of the experience in 2010 and the fresh example of Ukraine. The unwillingness to release political prisoners is a clear confirmation of the elite’s intentions. Unless forced, Lukashenka will not do it in 2014 either, because the regime has to control the system in the run-up to the presidential polls. The opposition could see the unconditional release of all political prisoners as a weakness and become inspired. For sure, the government will create a democratic “smokescreen” and involve the opposition in the electoral process as a ‘legitimising service’ with a result well known in advance.
Opposition: escaping the consolidation
For the opposition, the year 2014 will be marked by never-ending attempts and aspirations to create joint and individual strategies for local and presidential elections. However, they will not result in a consolidation or a single candidate. The democratic community seems to have finalized and institutionalized its divisions, with two clear blocks – the People’s Referendum and Talaka – most likely going to compete rather than agree, since they have almost no common ground.
Just as the ruling regime lacks reasons to move towards reforms, the opposition has no reasons for consolidation. Despite some conventionalities, the history of the democratic community is the history of escaping its own consolidation. Two blocks in the opposition do not mean the end of fragmentation. The opposition’s ability in general, just like the leadership of Talaka and the People’s Referendum in particular, have dubious skills for creating an attractive strategy to change people’s political preferences. The opposition is likely to focus on preparations for the presidential elections. The year 2014 will see a range of statements from opposition politicians on their readiness to run in the 2015 campaign.
In total, there will be at least five opposition candidates, none of them strong enough to change the situation and compete with Lukashenka. The lack of certainty is present in opinion polls as well, with 81 per cent of Belarusians seeing no one who could be an alternative candidate, according to IISEPS.
Under the regime’s persistent pressure, one can hardly expect the opposition to be super active and successful. Logically, the opposition members will focus on a process of participation in polls, rather than a real fight for a position in office.
Society: captive of patience
Adhering to its deep political apathy, the Belarusian public will continue “heroically” suffering, exposed to economic difficulties and absurd new ideas of government. The potential for patience is not exhausted. Though they see negative economic and social trends and feel bad about them, 51 per cent of the population finds the situation “still possible to tolerate”.
Locally, there are outburst of dissatisfaction and tensions from time to time, caused by decision-making in construction towards urban densification, deteriorating labour conditions or reduced wages. However, protests are not likely to become massive in 2014. Society is atomised and avoids open conflicts with the state. Moreover, the upcoming local and presidential elections will force the leadership to increase salaries, creating an illusion of stability and confidence for part of society. The mental adaptability of the population, the
weakness of the opposition and the environment of permanent pressure are the components of the proof-strength of the Belarusian regime.
Foreign policy: harboured in the bay?
Contrary to the domestic politics, the foreign agenda will remain dynamic, because of growing pressure from Moscow rather than Lukashenka’s will or activities. What the Belarusian President would prefer in international relations is full stagnation. However, the stage of quiet dabbling between two coasts is over for Belarus. The country is facing major geopolitical choices, though the general geopolitical direction is already clear. In my opinion, the economic and political dependence on Russia is so obvious and unsafe that Lukashenka would not be able to switch his own foreign policy priorities without vast problems for his power. A need for new loans and low energy prices in the run-up to elections will force Lukashenka towards further concessions, on both the privatisation of companies and the Eurasian Economic Union. Developments in Ukraine will provoke more aggression from Moscow in relations with “partners”.
Completely destroyed ties with the EU make the geopolitical situation of Belarus worse. The government is not in a rush to improve them. The agenda of Belarus towards the West in 2014 will mostly repeat the activities of the previous year. In its turn, the EU will continue its “dialogue for the modernisation” strategy, even with some further concessions possible. But it will have no influence either on the domestic situation, or on the foreign policy priorities of Belarus.
(Pavel Usov, published in Bell, 12, 2013)