Belarus: Turbulent February

Arsen Sivitski, the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies (Minsk, Belarus)

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February turned out to be restless for Belarus. The necessity of long-overdue economic reforms and, as a consequence, the country’s dissatisfaction with its socio-economic situation has resulted in mass protests on the streets of the capital and in the regions. At the same time, the conflict with Russia has entered a new stage, further aggravating the situation in the country.

Domestic policy: Mass protests in the context of deteriorating socio-economic situation

On 17, 19 and 26 February mass protests against the so-called “Decree on social parasites” were held in Minsk, regional and district centers of Belarus. Amendments to the document in question were made in the first half of January 2017. According to this document, the citizens of Belarus paying taxes less than 183 days a year must pay a special fee. About 2,500 people took part in the demonstration in the capital on February 17. A member of the opposition, Mikolai Statkevich, appeared to be the main organizer, leader and political beneficiary of the Minsk protest. Uladzimir Nyaklyayew, Anatoly Lebedko, Eugene Afnagel were among its leaders too. Ordinary citizens also took part in the protest as well as the organized forces, in particular — the anarchists. However, the campaign was peaceful and was  generally within the law.

The organizers of the protest clearly took into account the general mood in the Belarusian society and took all necessary measures not to be accused of acting in the interests of the Russian Federation. In particular, Mikalai Statkevich repeatedly stressed the peaceful nature of the protest and the inadmissibility of violence due to the fact that such a development could create an excuse for Russian intervention.

The organizers of the protest took all necessary measures not to be accused of acting in the interests of the Russian Federation

Demonstrations in the regions on 19 and 26 February were somewhat more emotional and aggressive, but were managed without violence as well. Protesters in the capital and regional centers expressed the necessity to abolish Decree №3 and announced the next round of protests on March 25. In addition, in Minsk protest leaders also demanded to stop economic reforms and growing utility rates as well as to provide higher wages. In the regions as well as in the capital social and economic demands went side by side with political ones, first of all, the resignation of the President Alexander Lukashenko.

In recent months, the opposition has worked consistently to enhance the resonance and to use negative socio-economic dynamics including the effects of Decree №3 for political pressure. In the context of activity of all opposition forces, the greatest efforts in this direction have been made by those who eventually ended up as protest leaders — the United Civic Party, and, in a less confrontational manner, the campaign “Tell the Truth.” The situation had completely taken shape a few weeks before the protest in Minsk. The leaflets calling to take part in it had been used massively; special videos and other attributes of a well-organized and financed campaign had appeared as well. This transition in the opposition’s mobilization work from its normal mode to a forced one could have been the basis for a strong contrast between the calm and careless comments of Alexander Lukashenko on February 3 and the rather alarming picture that the authorities saw in the second half of February.

Economy: Long-overdue, yet necessary reforms

In economic policy, the period under review was marked by another aggravation of discussions on the ways of further economic development. In the context of the reforms spinning up, supporters of the emissive approach tried (probably for the last time) to influence the course of events. Written by the former head of the National Bank of Belarus Petr Prokopovich, a letter to the President on this issue became the basis for the next meeting. However, this meeting did not bring any changes to the plans of the authorities. Emission measures were deemed too dangerous and unacceptable, and the way to lower interest rates for the real sector was designated only as an evolutionary one. Officially, all key decisions on the further development of the economy (and, consequently, the final approval of the reform program, which removes an obstacle when obtaining International Monetary Fund loan) will be formally adopted as early as March 2017 following the meeting with the president.

Meanwhile, already in the period under review a large number of liberal measures aimed at improving the business climate was announced. Thus, the Ministry of Emergency Situations has announced a complete termination of inspections for small and medium sized enterprises. Ministry of Antimonopoly Regulation and Trade and Republican Confederation of Entrepreneurship have prepared a draft decree, which should greatly facilitate conditions of business dealing in trade, public catering and consumer services in small towns and rural areas.

At the meeting on February 14 , President Lukashenko announced that he intended to personally approve a minimum set of standards for business entities in order to avoid the later enlargement of this list. Earlier, despite the criticism of the mechanism itself, the President ordered to promptly resolve the problematic issues surrounding the property transfer of unitary enterprises to trust management. State Committee on Standardization proposed revising its approach  to planned inspections in terms of compliance with technical regulations in order to make it less burdensome for businesses. Finally, as it has been announced, in 2017 the National Centre of Legislation and Legal Research and state agencies should develop 33 draft laws and 4 bill concepts , including such important ones as the refusal to impose sentences of imprisonment for economic crimes.

Accelerated adoption of broad liberal measures is determined, primarily, by the difficult situation in the economy and the fact that these measures are long overdue (but nevertheless remain necessary). During January 2017 Belarus’ GDP decreased  by 0.5%.

Foreign policy: The Belarusian-Russian conflict enters a new phase

Since the end of December, 2016, the growth of contradictions in the Belarusian-Russian relations across the whole range of areas of cooperation (oil and gas sphere, military-political sphere, migration sphere, food trade) has steadily shifted from the level of institutional interaction to the level of exchanging political statements. The apogee of this trend has led to numerous critical statements by President Lukashenko on the Belarusian-Russian relations, made during his meeting with journalists and experts in the framework of the “Big Dialogue”  on February 3, 2017. Criticizing excessively alarmist statements about Russia’s intentions to occupy Belarus as well as stating that there will be no war in Belarus, he said in the same context that Belarusians will “defend their country and independence”.

Predictably, the meeting between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin on February 9 in the framework of the State Council of the Union State was canceled. Lukashenko announced his reluctance to hold a meeting on February 3 during the “Great Dialogue” and justified it by the fact that the meeting should take place when “solutions” to key controversial issues are found.

The extensive criticism of the actions and positions of Moscow created the necessary (negative toward President Lukashenko) resonance in Russian information space, and a variety of convenient reasons to inflict information attacks on the Belarusian side. In particular, Russia’s very “elegant” step was the suspension of working ties  between the Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance (Rosselkhoznadzor) and the Belarusian Ministry of Agriculture and Food because of Lukashenko threatening to begin criminal prosecution of Sergei Dankvert, the head of Rosselkhoznadzor. Against this background, the Rosselkhoznadzor restrictive practice to the Belarusian producers continued to expand rapidly. The financial costs of the conflict increased dramatically and Belarus cannot afford it.

In oil and gas sector, hardly any dynamics could be observed during the research period. The negotiations at the governmental level were ineffective and the Russian side quickly disavowed another announcement of the agreement protocol. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak stated that the full repayment of the debt for gas for 2016 and early 2017, which is $600 million, is the main precondition for compromise agreements with Belarus.

From 15 to 26 February Lukashenko paid a private visit to Sochi. Apparently, the Belarusian president hoped to hold informal talks with Vladimir Putin on the accumulated problems in the Belarusian-Russian relations. However, according to the press secretary of the Russian president, Putin was not scheduled to meet with Lukashenko despite the fact that he was in Sochi on February 17. The Russian leader’s disregard of his Belarusian counterpart may indicate the transition of the conflict to a new phase of confrontation.