BELARUS: SHAPING THE SPACE FOR CHANGE
BISS II Annual International Conference
November 11-12, 2008, Kyiv, Ukraine
This report features the contributions and discussions of the 2008 BISS conference of BISS in Kyiv in 2008. In fact, taken together they represent a remarkable revealing of current situation in Belarus with many of its essential known “knowns”, known “unknowns”, and due intellectual respect for unknown “unknowns”.
The first conference organized by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies in September 2007 challenged the Belarusian expert community and international experts and politicians working on Belarus with one provocative question: do we need to wait until the end of the current system to have reform and transformation underway in the country. The whole idea that Lukashenka’s regime can reform itself provoked much controversy and was overall met with a sharply critical reaction. One year afterwards, this new, provocative vision of Belarus, the one of authoritarian transformation that may eventually pave the way for a more profound political change, has all but become a truism.
Indeed, the beginning of economic reform, the reconfiguration of the national elite, and the tectonic shifts in the country’s foreign relations all proved that Belarus was on the move. The fundamental changes in the international context provoked by the Georgia-Russia armed conflict in August 2008 and the worldwide financial crisis
framed a situation in which changes in Belarus, while still forced and accepted by the regime as a matter of last resort, may well be irreversible. And while the direction of change in Belarus is by now more or less clear, its final destination remains a mystery.
• Can a new sustainable economic system be born, and whether a new market economy would harmonize itself with the undemocratic rule?
• For how long can this equilibrium linger on?
The second annual conference of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, carried out in Kiev, Ukraine, on 11-12 November 2008, was organized as a forum to reflect on the nature and the direction of the ongoing economic, political, and social changes in Belarus – and to go far beyond that. The participants, among whom there were leading Belarusian and international experts, politicians, diplomats, civil society activists, and the press, were challenged by the organizers with a rovocative and controversial idea: is it possible, on the basis of what had happened in the course of the past two years, that Belarus would not only begin reforming but would engage in a genuine geopolitical turnaround that would eventually pave the way for Europeanization of the country? If so, what can and should be done to promote this change?
While the idea of ‘European’ Belarus under Lukashenka was too far-fetched to many participants, the hosts of the BISS 2008 conference were right to state that most facts and trends touched by the BISS conference in September 2007 have come true. Prognosing in hard time of (global financial) crisis has always been ungrateful task. Therefore, it is likely, and in some cases even most likely, that the reality of 2009 may well “overtake” the conference’s anticipation articulated in this report Overall, the conference have reached reasonably broad consensus that the space for changes – both domestically and international - has been opened. Now, true question of a day is: “How to fill a gap”. Paradoxically, the space for innate and outer changes in Belarusian society and context is there despite the impression from outside of a politically ossified entity.
Obvious, in terms of incumbent leadership in Belarus, the question is not whether president Lukashenka is willing to effect changes to the status quo; rather he is to embark on certain transformational shifts in the face at objective geopolitical and social-economic realities brought by the changing contexts of the Belarus-Russia political and economic relations, the Caucasus conflict, and particular the worldwide financial crisis and its upcoming consequences.
Conference participants noted that the economic and social model that came to the existence in the 1990s began to erode. This reflects in the transformation of the social base of the regime, the changing nature of its implicit social contract with the society, and the changing composition of the power elite. While this is not automatically bringing forth a democratic chance, a new window of opportunity for unleashing evolutionary transformative processes, extending the space for economic and social freedom, and modernizing the Belarusian economy and society, is in the making.