Saturday

25th Mar 2017

Opinion

Belarus: A nation with no politics

  • The post-election crackdown in 2010 sent most of the real opposition into exile (Photo: EPA)

Last week, Belarus held parliamentary elections - an event which usually carries a substantial weight with a state's future. But here it doesn’t matters. Elections to the House of Representatives have no real significance vis-a-vis Belarus' political direction.

Five parties managed to win seats in parliament including one mandate for an opposition United Civil Party - an incident that has not occurred in the past 12 years.

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Other groupings in the new political composition are either openly pro-government or considered a constructive opposition, which gets along with the regime. Nearly 90 percent of the elected deputies however have run as independent candidates - an oxymoron that in Belarus customarily means supporting the stronger and remaining low-profile.

The parliament itself acts only as a rubber stamp machine, which has an inexhaustible supply of ink. In the 2012-2016 term of office only three out of over 400 passed laws were initiated by its members. The rest were put forward by president Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is the one and only power in the country since 1994.

Mentality equals stability

Lukashenko likes to think of himself as a gendarme of stability. He skillfuly convinces people that it is him that provides peace.

This buzz marketing resonates well with the politically passive Belarusian society. Everyone toes the line in fear of being detained, prosecuted, and sentenced. Not always in that order. The stability narrative was particularly effective after the Ukrainian-Russian war broke out in 2014.

Over the years, Lukashenko was able to create a parallel structure of power, which performs efficiently without parliament's interference. For more than two decades he has been Belarus' political oracle.

His decisions are neither contested nor deeply analysed by the army of officials. One can only believe in them.

Lukashenko determines not only the issues of strategic importance like an unshakable partnership with Russia. Similarly to every dictator he also solves more mundane problems.

In the past - at the request of his son Nikolai, who wished to ski - snow was brought to the president's residence in Lyaskovichi from throughout the country.

Under the illusion

According to polls, there is constant support for democracy in Belarus, at the level of 20 percent. It however does not translate into political representation.

After the 2010 presidential election the opposition was severely weakened. Today many of those who demonstrated six years ago live abroad. Lukashenko would not allow for another controlled liberalisation, which can result in domestic protests and international outcry. He keeps his cards close to chest.

Due to economic perturbations and geopolitical situation in the region, Belarus' room for manoeuvre has lately become limited, however.

The country's GDP dropped by 3.9 percent last year. In the first six months of 2016 it declined another 2.5 percent. The national financial reserves are dangerously low. And approximately half of the society feels that their economic well-being is threatened.

For these reasons, Lukashenko started to flirt with the West again. In exchange for releasing political prisoners in 2015, the European Union has partly lifted sanctions imposed on Belarus after the 2010 events.

Change not welcome

Lukashenko, for his part, is only mimicking change when in fact all he aims at is preserving status quo. Moscow is helping a great deal in this regard. It provides an unconditional access to easy money, but also sets a ‘good’ example regarding electoral standards and parliamentary practices.

Elections to the Russian Duma, which took place on 18 September, also saw a stunning victory of the government party, United Russia party.

As in Belarus, the new Russian parliament comprises only those loyal to the system. Limited fundamental freedoms, denied political rights, and fully controlled media - these are the key components of the political landscapes in both countries.

President Lukashenko will not be a Belarusian version of Russia's Gorbachev. He will not propose perestroika.

Systemic changes are sacrificed at the altar of a day-to-day survival. Belarusian elites are not interested in any painful and costly corrective actions. Problems are not solved but brushed under the carpet.

This state of inertia cannot last forever. Unproductive government enterprises will eventually have to be closed or privatised. The authorities will have to stop subsidising housing and communal services. And the economy, which is dependent on revenues from exporting oil products, will have to be reformed.

The question is when will the system be finally discredited?

In Belarus the public acquiesces in the pretence that multiparty politics exists. Everyone seems to close their eyes to the truth - without a meaningful debate inside Belarus people outside will not change their opinion about the country.

Michal Romanowski is an analyst with the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Belarus elections: invisible, but not trivial

The surprise elevation of two opposition candidates to parliament is designed to win friends in the West, but if the EU and US reciprocate, they'll be playing into Lukashenko's hands.

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