20 October 2015
"The Future of Belarus" at the Polish Institute of International Affairs - Report
Report on the conference "The Future of Belarus" at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) held in Warsaw on 16 October, days after the nation's presidential election and a week after writer Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
Conference proceedings were introduced by Anna Zielińska-Rakowicz, acting director of PISM, and Julia Sluckaya, who directs the Belarus in Focus Information Office. The latter organization is five years in to their mission as a key source for news, analysis and commentary about Belarus in languages including English (belarusinfocus.info). Other multilingual Internet portals include charter97.org and the Ostrogski Centre's Belarus Digest – with writers including conference participant Aleś Alachnovič (articles by Alachnovič's colleagues Ryhor Astapenia and Siarhai Bohdan have been picked up in recent weeks by the Guardian's website). These important sources of information regarding contemporary Belarus have become only more so with media attention towards political realities there, and since Alexievich became the Nobel laureate for 2015.
Two panels comprised a morning session on the internal and post-election situation in Belarus, and an afternoon panel on Belarus and the international environment. The conference room was full at the PISM offices in central Warsaw. Among the panelists was Valery Karbalevich of the "Strategy" Analytical Center, whose political biography of Aleksander Lukashenko has just been published in an edited version in Polish.
Opening comments set forth the conference's main aims: summarizing presidential elections in Belarus on 11 October which brought Lukashenko back into office amidst a markedly different opposition atmosphere from unrest and arrests after elections in 2010, and a look to the future of the nation. Four key points under consideration would be weakness of the political opposition, the economic situation as circumstances for Belarus's eastern neighbor and major trading partner Russia have contributed the halt in its economic growth and a new recession, as well as regional instability focused on eastern Ukraine, and negotiations with the EU and the International Monetary Fund. EU sanctions are expected to be eased after the elections, and special emphasis was placed on Poland as a neighbor with strong historical ties – the two countries share minority populations, of Poles in western Belarus and of Belarusians in Poland.
This latter point would be taken up in a challenging way during the afternoon session, by panelist Witold Jurasz, chairman of the Center for Strategic Analysis. Jurasz would assert the viability of Polish relations with Belarus moving forward "because of the lack for Poland of skeletons in the closet of history." While Jurasz wasn't hesitant in asking if anyone present saw Belarus in the EU in a decade's time – "I don't," he announced – it was a compelling statement of intent, with Poland's Eastern Partnership initiatives and its presence and experience in furthering interests to partners more distant from realities in both Belarus and Ukraine. Others quickly reacted with cautions about predictions – the panel moderator, Piotr Kościński of PISM, would recall the view of opposition figures when Lukashenko first came to power in 1994, that he'd be gone "in a half year's time," then finished the conference with the truism that "as the Ukrainian situation shows, we simply can't predict things further than two, three or maybe four months along."
The morning panel productively analyzed disarray in the opposition and the state of the Belaursian economy – which merge in the fact that security is now the primary political issue, provoked since Maidan and the fighting in eastern Ukraine, with Belarus coping with an influx of refugees. Moderator Michał Potocki of Dziennik Gazeta Prawna spoke of interesting changes within the opposition, mentioning the moderate candidate, Tatsiana Korotkevich, and "more radical or principled ones" in an election won by Lukashenko with some 83 percent of the vote from an 87 percent turnout.
Radio Svaboda journalist Yuri Drakohrust asserted that "the main change was that she was able to get to a large part of Belarusian society that had been impossible to reach before." Then added that Lukashenko supporters were calm about efforts to boycott the elections: "they knew everything would be fine under the shadow of the Ukrainian situation." In terms of the opposition reacting to the foregone conclusion of the presidential race, Drakohrust advocated for "possible joint preparation" for parliamentary elections. This issue has persisted since Lukashenko's rise in 1994, elected as an outsider against better-known candidates, with Prime Minister Kebich and Popular Front founder Zianon Pazniak unable to reconcile differences. And with the newly independent nation faced with a parliament that had been seated before the transition toward democracy (new parliamentary elections were then held in 1995). With boycotts in 2012 resulting in the opposition taking no seats in parliament races, western observers might recognize an analgous condundrum: should voters choose a non-system candidate such as Bernie Sanders in the U.S. or Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K., their preferred leader would be without allies in government.
Potocki declared economics to be one more very important factor in recent elections, though his statement seemed belied by numerous other positions on the security issue. Panelist Aleś Alachnovič of CASE-Belarus described key changes on the eve of elections, with Lukashenko changing his economy minister, the first deputy economy minister, the first deputy prime minister and the head of the national bank. The new first deputy PM is former head of BPS-Sberbank, the largest Russian bank in Belarus, a PhD in economics who studied at the London School of Business, while the new head of the national bank is former head of the second largest private bank in Belarus. "Lukashenko's chosen two guys from the private sector," Alachnovič said," a sign that things may happen. And they've happened." He listed limited interventions in currency markets, tightening of monetary policy with the result of lower inflation, and the start of new communications policy with economic experts including a monthly meeting between ministers and a club of creditors, representatives of the hundred largest enterprises in Belarus. "In Poland," Alachnovič stated, "this is normal policy. In Belarus, it's new."
The fact that the government did not raise salaries during the election cycle was "quite unbelievable," he said. Rather than stimulating the economy, choices were made to pay down foreign debt by some $3 billion, helping to stabilize macro-economic policy in 2015. The Belarusian economic model "can no longer produce high or any growth. Before, it was expanding up to 9 percent annually, faster than the Chinese economy." Key to this had been the country's position as one of the world's biggest net exporters of energy, with access to cheap Russian oil it refines then sells abroad.
In response to Potocki's observation that minor economic changes were also made in the late 1990s, Valery Karbalevich agreed definitively that the main question remains that of political change, a much harder issue than economic liberalization. "Many experts ask themselves what changes are possible," Karbalevich noted. "I think we can't talk about any political change at all – inside Belarus, the system is stable. We saw this in how elections worked. And the west doesn't insist on these changes, for the geopolitical situation around Belarus." A question from the audience would be raised, about possible co-opting of the opposition by hiring on more liberal players. "That the economic system doesn't work is obvious," Karbalevich added, "but it's effective for keeping power. The largest part of society is based on this economic machine." He noted meeting people who say it's Lukashenko who pays their salaries, their pensions. "It's absolutely impossible to destroy such a system," he concluded. "And it mobilizes voters. Gorbachev tried reform and lost power; Lukashenko doesn't want the same." He termed problems of reform to be "much bigger than progress from the status quo. I think only decorative change is possible. Social change in Belarus is not possible."
The moderator turned the topic to disputed plans for a Russian airbase for SU-27 fighters near Bobruisk, between Minsk and the southeastern city of Homel. "Lukashenko says nothing's decided, Russia says everything's decided," Potocki said, then touched a certain harsh funny bone in the conference by asking about the truth. In her presentation, Anna Maria Dyner, the PISM Eastern Europe Programme coordinator who publishes regularly on Belarus in the institute's bulletin and elsewhere, suggested that "as usual, the truth's probably somewhere in the middle." Dyner promptly set out a variety of complicating factors for the near future, along with contentious Russian airbase plans. "Ukraine changes a lot, both internally and in relation to Russia," she stated. The two nations already share an air-missile defense system, but Dyner's reflections then hit surface level, considering questions of loyalty and the military while citing such allegiance conflicts in Crimea and Donbass over the past year. "Some officers proved loyal to Russia – and it's more or less the same situation in Belarus. If officers weren't sent to military academies in Russia, but in Belarus... All commands are given in Russian, and once service is finished in Belarus, any man can then serve in the Russian army, which pays much more."
For Russia, Belarus is strategically very important: NATO isn't 250 kilometers from Moscow, but 1,700 kilometers. When the airbase topic arose about three years ago, she noted, those discussions had concerned two military airfields in western Belarus, then changes in Poland with NATO rockets had major impact. If or when the base is built, Dyner felt this "may change Belarus's mediator status between Russia and Ukraine: it becomes, 'You guys now have their base.'" She also mentioned possible changes in NATO relations, which are "nowadays quite good," as well as with the Baltic nations, should Russia chose to form a bridge between Belarus and the Kaliningrad Oblast between Lithuania and Poland. "The Black Sea fleet and Ukraine shows this could be a starting point," Dyner concluded. "That's why I'm very pessimistic."
The panel concluded with an audience question: Did anyone believed there was a possibility of change within the existing system? Drakohrust said "former friends can become opponents, form opponents can become friends – that's politics, as in Belarus, as in Poland." He felt the main question was that of a deal between other opposition leaders and Mikalai Statkevich, the last of the former presidential contenders to be released from prison, in surprise pardons on 21 August. (The pardons, weeks before elections, were widely viewed as currying favor with the IMF, and broadly praised in western media.) "If there could be a joint group, there could be something new, something possible. If not, things will be the same." Karbalevich concurred, mentioning a possible "change of configuration within clans," then added that such prospects might've "made sense before the elections, but are now kind of useless."
In response to a question about the economic model developing toward the Chinese model, without oligarchs, Alachnovič offered the view that the regime hasn't chosen a model. "Like the Chinese, they will introduce small changes, then wait. Lukashenko is no radical – there'll be no huge package of changes as Poland introduced with Mr. Balcerowicz." Accepting the point that Belarusians have higher living standards today than their Ukrainian neighbors, he pointed out that 25 years ago, Belarus and Poland had comparable living standards – with salaries now a quarter of what they are in Poland. "In Belarus, it works as propoganda to compare the situation with losers," yet he insists harder comparisons must be made to winners. Belarus is experiencing its first recession since 1996 – but that's just through 2015's three quarters, and with IMF forecasts of more recession into 2016. If things come back soon to even slow growth, he said, there'll be no prospect of economic changes affecting social change.
The afternoon panel considered similar factors, construing similarly non-optimistic evaluations. Andrei Vardomatski, director of the Belarusian Analytical Workroom, before taking up his group's analysis of Russian media and its reception in Belarus and other nations, highlighted two new aspects of the Lukashenko regime and the electorate. Vardomatski termed these the change from economic concerns to security concerns (the "we're more secure than Ukraine" positions), then of the regime's support benefitting from "the reduction of the quality of the population – I'm sorry to say it, but emigration." He then spoke of Russian media operating with a new formula: rather than serving to "clean brains with information," it displays itself as "an engine of moving large masses of people not as a media source but as a point of recruitment of soldiers for a hot war, not another Cold War."
His group's surveys were displayed in projected graphs, with percentiles consistently gradated from Ukraine to Belarus to Russia (one "big issue is no change over the past year" in Russian support for the annexation of Crimea). Even in the face of economic hardships, there's political will in Russia to spend on media. His Ukrainian colleagues say a dollar on a Kalashnikov has much less impact than a dollar on media and TV: "I don't ask you for whom you voted, I ask you which channel you regularly watch." (What audiences see, Vardomatski stated, is the face of the owner of that channel.) An audience that can not create their own point of view faces a TV industry effective at delivering one. Vardomatski cited a Latvian joke, that they don't believe Russian media information – but how professionally it's done!
More graphics were utilized by Dzianis Melyantsou of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), displaying changes since 2010 of Belarusians' preferences for union. Once toward the east, it then shifted toward the west but now indicates "a very clear leaning towards isolationism," brought about by difficulties with Russia concerning trade, and "vicious cycles with the EU." Melyantsou noted concurrent tendencies in government, "in not suppressing Belarusian language and cultural traditions, and even nationalism." He also noted the importance of "official Minsk's improved relations with the U.S., and a level of trust that's now much higher with Washington than with Brussels." In his view, official Minsk "sees improved U.S. relations automatically improving EU relations." Melyantsou cited Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy's visit in Minsk earlier in 2015, with steps towards establishing a "full-fledged" U.S. embassy there, in its compound overshadowed by the massive recent luxury apartment complex along the Svislach River. He then cited transport across Belarus of U.S. munitions bound for Afghanistan, and the purchases of weapons from Belarus to arm Syrian rebels. He termed these points "quite positive, interesting trends," along with a human-rights dialogue relaunched this year with the EU, and a written though unpublished road map toward normalization.
Moderator Piotr Kościński thanked Melyantsou for his optimistic interpretation. Then gave the floor to Witold Jurasz. Jurasz quickly established the point of Belarus not being as heavily subsidized by Russia as in the past – but announced the prospect of the EU taking this economic aid over as "bleak." He then said "it's not gestures that matter to Moscow, it's the point of no return, and the point of no return for Moscow is democracy." Long-term discussions of democracy may seem acceptable, but in the mid and short terms, "as it's said, it ain't going to happen." In brief, Belarusian authorities won't talk about giving up power, but may prove willing to talk about human rights. Jurasz recalled working on sanctions against Belarus until his agency "lost interest after a month because media attention had shifted." In terms of scenarios for European architecture, his stated view that "Belarus can play a much bigger role that Ukraine" was certainly a strong moment in conference proceedings. He then made evident no simple solutions, referencing classical realpolitik of big nations deciding at conferences – yet "then you have a million people at the Maidan and all this planning goes to hell."
Mr. Melyantsou weighed in about promises the EU had offered of microfinancial aid before the 2010 elections that "were not given because – well, you know what," alluding to street protests and sweeping arrests that then kept the presidential candidate Statkevich in prison until the 22nd of August of this year. Now the IMF is promising aid without political conditions. In response to one audience comment, a rhetorical question was issued to the conference: Has the EU gotten any brighter than it used to be? "My answer is no. Lukashenko will get the money and wait."
As the panel concluded with questions and "The Future of Belarus" conference drew to its close, Jurasz offered a thumnail sketch of foreign policy: "write on one side of the paper what you want from them; on the other side, what they probably want from you." Then provided his curt critique of Poland's predictable approach: "we don't do that other side well." Then Kościński recalled an interview two weeks before the 2010 elections with Lukashenko and Polish journalist colleagues. "I asked about issues of health and age, and the nation being left completely reliant on one person. Suggesting the need for other political parties. He said 'Yes, you're right – but I can not found those parties, and our opposition is very weak. But it will happen one day.'"
From the audience, Drakohrust, the radio journalist, stood and delivered heated words that generated laughter in the room that he then joined, grimly. "Lukashenko will avoid democracy and human-rights issues, both. He's a dictator, as the U.S. and the EU need to know – he knows. When they ask questions about democracy, he considers them liars and idiots. When he has the opportunity to pardon prisoners or expand parliament by five members – yes, that's possible. Much broader issues will remain a problem." Melyantsou added that he views these topics "as just wishes on the part of the EU and the U.S. What do they mean, 'We want more democracy in Belarus'? Sanctions were drawn up against high-rankng Belarusian officials, but there were dead guys on their lists. Then EU officials say 'No, we don't trade prisoners' – then trade them in secret. That's why Lukashenko views them as idiots."
For one further glimpse of issues at stake, or certainly of the personalities, Jurasz recalled one policy discussion that "started off about democracy and wound up about the sexual orientation of one European minister. That's what you can get when you want to talk about democracy."
To come: a review of the political biography of Aleksander Lukashenko, by Valery Karbalevich.