[lg policy] Belarus: Prospects for the New Year

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 7 16:10:29 UTC 2010

Belarus: Prospects for the New Year

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 3January 6, 2010
03:32 PM  urasia Daily Monitor,  By: David Marples

On December 30, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a
press conference with some 250 Belarusian journalists in the National
Library of Belarus. He was asked approximately 40 questions, which
focused on the financial crisis, language policy, trade and social
projects, the new Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan, dialogues
with the West and Russia, and proposed new restrictions on internet

Lukashenka justified his economic measures as necessities. The January
1, 2009 currency devaluation, he stated, had permitted the
accumulation of $5 billion in gold and foreign currency reserves
today. Allocation of budget funds to health care and education will
rise by 7 percent in 2010 and for social needs by 14 percent. The
average salary must rise to $500 this year (an increase of 13
percent), “a holy number.” However, the issue of reform required
popular backing. Thus, whereas the president expressed his readiness
to sell all state property in the first six months of the year, only
10 percent of the population would support such a move (SB-Belarus’
Segodnya, December 31).

The president maintained that the language question has been resolved,
as citizens are free to speak either Belarusian or Russian, and there
should be no dictates concerning language usage. However, the use of
Belarusian is growing and each year an increasing number of students
pass their examinations in their native language. Also, 2009 indicated
the wisdom of official policy to create “a window to Europe,” which
has become Belarus’ chief trading partner. Yet, despite the lifting of
sanctions, Europe (the European Union) is “playing games” and wishes
to use the next presidential election as a means “to hook and hold
me.” Similarly, union with Russia and a one-dimensional foreign policy
that requires Russian friendship and support will also not work.
Finally, Lukashenka stated that he would not ban the internet, but
would enforce controls so that no individual would be permitted to
“spread dirty things” or break the law (a draft law is under
discussion) (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, December 31).

The next day in his annual New Year’s Eve message, Lukashenka
re-emphasized his “contract” with the Belarusian people (“Belarus is
our common home”) and said that it would be necessary to work for the
common goal of overcoming the financial crisis in 2010, a year in
which the GDP is anticipated to rise by 11-13 percent (Belorusskoe
Telegrafnoe Agentstvo, December 31). Earlier, on the opposition
website Charter 97, Andrei Sannikou, welcomed the “last year of
dictatorship” and dismissed the Lukashenka regime –he claims the
president has only 15 percent popular support– as incapable of
overcoming current problems. He noted that the West has provided loans
to Belarus to prevent an economic collapse in a course of action
directed against Russia, but one that ignores violations of human
rights, abductions of opposition figures, and preparation of a
blockade on the internet (www.charter97.org, December 30).

In reality, the Belarusian authorities are in a deep financial hole.
None of the economic goals can be met without foreign loans from the
IMF ($3.6 billion) and Russia ($2 billion most recently with $1.5
billion disbursed to date). In early December, when Lukashenka and
Medvedev met in Moscow, the Russian president declared that Russia
would continue to support the Belarusian economy. Implicit in the
discussions was an agreement that oil and gas prices for Belarus would
remain on the same level as in 2009 (RIA Novosti, December 10)
–negotiations on oil deliveries and duties are currently taking place
at the governmental level.

On the other hand, Western projects in Belarus have attained a level
not seen since the early 1990’s. On December 22, Belarus received a
$200 million development loan from the World Bank with the goal of
offsetting the financial crisis and deepening structural reforms. It
anticipates a rise in annual financial support this year from $100
million to $250 Million (RIA Novosti, December 23). The EU doubled the
budget of its neighborhood policy, which originated in 2004, from 5
million Euros annually to 10 million Euros ($14.3 million) in Belarus
in 2009, with programs in higher education, reducing illegal
migration, halting the dissemination of drugs, and improving border
posts (Vecherniy Brest, October 23).

The Eastern Partnership has solidified these ties following the
revival of contacts between Belarus and EU over the past year, but
many Western political leaders remain critical of the lack of change
in Minsk. This year, however, sees the start of a series of election
campaigns. They begin in April 2010 with elections to local councils.
According to Mikola Lazavik, Secretary of the Central Elections
Commission, they will be conducted openly with less input from local
administrations, a sharp reduction of advance voting, and freer
conditions for campaigning (Belorusskoe Telegrafnoe Agenstvo, January

The presidential election campaign will begin before the end of the
year. The EU has rarely been in a stronger position to pressure for
real change in Belarus. To date, there is little indication of any
relief to the harsh administration as the draft law on the internet
attests. Also, Lukashenka intends to maintain stability and remain in
office through support from Russia, yet without committing to any
deeper political ties to the larger neighbor –a policy fraught with
problems. The New Year may not see an end to “dictatorship,” but it
does offer some golden opportunities for change in Belarus.


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