The expert conference “Transforming Belarus: ways ahead”, jointly organised by the Research Centre “Carnegie Europe”, “Office for a Democratic Belarus” and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), took place on the 7th of November, 2011 in Brussels. The event was part of the ongoing debates series “Listening to citizens in the countries of the Eastern Partnership”.
The expert forum on Belarus had two panels. Experts in the first panel conducted an analysis of the strategies of the major geopolitical players in the region - the EU and Russia - towards Belarus. The second panel was devoted to the economic situation in the context of a systemic crisis and renewed subsidies from Russia, as well as major trends in public opinion.
The panellists agreed that in the current situation the most effective EU policy would be the intensification of non-political cooperation (rather than an extension of targeted sanctions), which includes, for instance, working with civil society, the elimination of visa barriers and technical assistance in carrying out reforms that will mitigate the impact of the crisis for the population. At the same time, a robust and comprehensive communication strategy by the EU towards Belarus will be necessary to increase public awareness and ensure the benefits of the ‘European choice’ are effectively articulated.
In his welcoming words Jan Techau, the director of Carnegie Europe, stressed the importance of organising such debates especially taking into account the latest political developments going on in the countries of Eastern Europe and Russia.
Olga Stuzhinskaya, the Director of the Office for a Democratic Belarus gave a brief insight into EU-Belarus relations mentioning that due to a long-term absence of contact between the parties, a strong connection had failed to develop. The Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Belarus has never been ratified, Belarus is not fully enjoying the benefits of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and is only partially participating in the Eastern Partnership initiative. Attempts to draw a Joint Interim Plan have been suspended after the presidential election of 19 December 2010 and a heavy crack-down on peaceful demonstrations and repression against the opposition and civil society.
Having informed the audience of the latest developments in the country and the new changes introduced into Belarusian legislation which would further narrow the opportunities for reform-oriented groups to operate, Ms. Stuzhinskaya spoke about the latest surveys showing the following results.
While 20 % of the population in Belarus support the policies of the president and the government, another 20 % support the opposition, 60 % of the country's citizens are left unrepresented by anyone. Stuzhinskaya believes that these are the people the European Union should develop more connections with. “The EU should be talking more to the universities, to the business community, to other groups within society, and this is how it can support reforms in the country,” Stuzhinskaya said.
She also encouraged the EU to take some unilateral steps regarding visa liberalisation for Belarusian citizens and give them more opportunities to travel despite the fact that the authorities do not have the political will to start negotiations on visa facilitation.
EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle said addressing the event, that in Belarus, the people should determine their future and not the authorities.
Setting out his positive vision of Belarus, “based not on empty words, but on concrete EU support and assistance,” the Commissioner underlined that the EU’s ‘multi-dimensional’ approach to Belarus had two strands, namely “a tough line towards the current repressive regime” complemented by the policy of engagement “with all those in Belarus who support reform and modernisation.”
He reiterated that further bilateral engagement with the Belarusian authorities would not be possible until significant progress was made to establish basic rights and freedoms.
Füle stressed that the EU would maintain technical dialogue and cooperation with the authorities, though only in areas where withdrawing support would impact on the Belarusian people, rather than the regime.
The Commissioner also insisted that Belarus should continue to participate in the multilateral part of the Eastern Partnership, where it can gain substantial understanding in areas such as civil society development, culture, and youth exchanges.
Füle also spoke of the need to reach out to all Belarusian citizens, with both civil society and the political opposition playing a crucial role “if we are to achieve our aims.”
The Commissioner’s full speech can be found at this link
Pavel Daneyko, Director of the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC), emphasised in his speech that Belarus is the only state among the EaP countries which has not expressed its desire to join the EU, and on top of that has special military and economic relations with Russia. Therefore, according to Daneyko, the EU should develop an individual approach vis-à-vis Belarus. The expert drew attention to the fact that a serious economic crisis is forcing Belarus to abandon the previously used economic model, which was based on subsidies from the East and West, and where state-owned enterprises performed the social function of fostering employment. He believes that the reforms, which were previously carried out in the private sector, should be transferred to the state sector as well, which will eventually lead to a change in the role of the state: instead of being simply an owner of property, the state will develop into an 'organiser' of the economy and will foster and not eliminate competitiveness.
Pavel Daneyko also spoke about a new programme for an overall strategic vision of the economic future of Belarus, which is being developed by Belarusian experts, business leaders, government officials and members of civil society initiatives. According to Pavel Daneyko, solutions to be taken now will determine the country's development for decades, and the expert community should not stand aloof from this process.
The senior expert with BISS Dzianis Melyantsou in his speech noted that while the EU is occupied with solving internal problems, Russia is focusing its efforts on the integration of the ex-soviet republics according to its own templates. He believes that if the EU adopts a policy of sanctions, it will miss the final opportunity to influence the authorities in Minsk. In this situation the only thing left for the EU is to concentrate its efforts on promoting long-term changes in society. Such changes should result in the transformation of the political regime in the country. Mr Melyantsou also noted that the policy of engagement as opposed to the policy of sanctions cannot be considered a failure because it has never been implemented in full, and a modest attempt to apply it to Belarus was frozen after 19 December 2010.
The expert from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Arkady Moshes, believes that the policy strategies of the EU and Russia towards Belarus are completely asymmetric, since the EU is considering the formulation of this policy as an opportunity, and Russia perceives it as a duty. The main content of the new foreign policy of Russia is a Eurasian Union project, which views Belarus as a model for the future integration of Ukraine and other countries. Accordingly, the main goal is the subordination of Belarus, either through gaining direct control over the country’s economy, or through the indirect control of its leader. Mr Moshes believes that since Belarus is a contested territory in the region, all players must recognize their targets in the geopolitical game openly, as Russia does. In his view, the weakness of the EU’s foreign policy towards Belarus is the absence of such recognition. In a situation where the prospect of EU membership is closed to Belarus, coupled with diminished chances for visa liberalisation over the coming 10-15 years, he strongly recommended that the European Union send a clear message or, to be precise, give greater hope to those Belarusians who wish to be Europeans. According to Mr. Moshes, providing support for some smaller-scale project is not enough. More resources should be allocated for the support of prosperity promotion projects rather than democracy promotion.
During the second panel discussion a junior research fellow of the Belarusian Economic Research and Education Center (BEROC) Dmitry Kruk stressed the systemic nature of the crisis hitting Belarus. The existing economic model can no longer provide incomes comparable to those of neighboring countries. New agreements with Russia will only postpone the necessity to address economic problems and conduct structural reforms. The money Belarus has received and will continue receiving from Russia will be enough for a maximum period of eighteen months given favourable external conditions. Therefore, an acute phase of the crisis can be reproduced again and again, causing new geopolitical "turns".
The Director of the IPM Research Center Alexander Chubrik expressed the opinion that whatever scenario of the economic situation is applied in Belarus, the most vulnerable groups of the population will suffer the brunt of the crisis. Belarus is already experiencing a significant (two times) increase in absolute poverty rates and other negative consequences of the crisis such as mass labour migration to Russia and Ukraine. The latter will further contribute to a potential Pensions’ Fund deficit which, according to some independent broadcasts, Belarus will start feeling in the upcoming years.
In addition, the crisis has also revealed the weaknesses of the existing system of social protection in addressing the above-mentioned challenges. “The pension system, health protection and education systems of Belarus are also in great need of structural reform,” Mr. Chubrik added.
In his speech, the Academic Director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, Aliaksei Pikulik focused on the socio-economic aspects of the regime. Having briefly outlined the history of the Belarusian economy’s dependence on external rents, Mr Pikulik focused on the issue of possible policy changes regarding the economic crisis. The main argument was that the economic crisis can be temporarily overcome by new Russian subsidies that were made available in November. In addition, in a situation where a strategy of "exit" (labour migration to Russia) is obviously available, and the cost of an open protest is extremely high, one can hardly expect that the crisis poses a particular threat to survival of the regime. However, Mr. Pikulik said that Russia has stabilised the economy of Belarus only over a short term perspective, and Belarus will require a real change.
In addition, the director of the sociological laboratory NOVAK, Andrei Vardamatski, presented data showing that for almost 18 years of sociological observations in Belarus, the number of people who admitted the deterioration of their own well-being outnumbered those who spoke of a "not bad" situation in the country's economy or an “unchanging level of welfare”. However it seems that the worst period of the crisis has already passed. In September, a number of those who observed a decrease in their incomes gradually began to decline.
Meanwhile, the poor economic situation did not lead to any significant increase in the number of those who said they were ready for participation in open protests (13.7 % in August 2011 compared to 5.2 % in December 2010). Interestingly enough, the same level of dissent prevailed in Ukraine ahead of the "Orange Revolution", but given the specific conditions for conducting public protest in the country, "verbal" protests in Belarus rarely develop into street based opposition.
Speaking on the geo-political orientation of Belarusians, Mr. Vardamatski pointed out that the number of those in favour of integration with Russia for the sake of solving economic problems has increased. However when directly asked: “Do you want to become a part of the Russian Federation in order to secure economic welfare” no more than 5 % said “yes”. The number of respondents who previously said they were in favour of approximation with the European Union has decreased. At the same time they did not change their integration priorities with the Eastern vector, which means Belarusians still remain open in terms of geo-political orientation.
The organisers of the event are pleased to note a large number (around 100) of participants of the conference, including representatives of European Institutions, members of the diplomatic mission to the EU, representatives of international organisations, NGOs, researchers and journalists, and express their sincere gratitude to PACT/USAID for their kind support.
Introduction. Olga Stuzhinskaya
Introduction. Jan Techau
Introduction. Aliaksei Pikulik
Introduction. Stefan Fule
Introduction. Questions and answers
Introduction. Pavel Daneyko
Belarus between the Eurasian Union and the European Union. Dzianis Melyantsou
Belarus between the Eurasian Union and the European Union. Arkady Moshes
Belarus between the Eurasian Union and the European Union. Alex Nice
Belarus between the Eurasian Union and the European Union. Questions and answers
Social and political effects of the economic crisis. Dzmitry Kruk
Social and political effects of the economic crisis. Aleksei Pikulik
Social and political effects of the economic crisis. Alexander Chubrik
Social and political effects of the economic crisis. Andrei Vardamatski
Social and political effects of the economic crisis. Questions and answers
Concluding and remarks. Olga Stuzhinskaya