Analysis: When Bread Is Dearer Than Freedom In Belarus
By Jan Maksymiuk
In the West, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is often portrayed as a deeply unpopular dictator. The truth is a little more complex than that. According to a January poll by the Vilnius-based Gallup/Baltic Surveys, Lukashenka enjoys support of some 55 percent of Belarusians, thus being practically able to win the 19 March presidential election in a free and fair vote. So why do so many people in Belarus support Lukashenka, apparently of their own free will?
One of the possible answers lies in the country's economy, which has officially enjoyed robust growth in the past four years. For many Belarusians Lukashenka's economic policies appear to outweigh his heavy hand in subduing political dissent and impinging on human rights and personal freedoms in the country.
Democracy, Yes; Hullabaloo, No
Speaking to workers of the Minsk Automotive Plant in 1998, Lukashenka gave a memorable definition of the democracy he claimed he was building in Belarus.
"We don't need democracy with hullabaloo," he said. "We do need the type of democracy where people work and get paid, even if not much, but enough to buy bread, milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, and sometimes a piece of meat in order to feed their children and so on." After a short pause, Lukashenka added: "Well, as regards meat, let's not eat too much of it in summer."
In Lukashenka's 12 years in power, he has remained largely true to his words. He has all but eliminated the possibility of any uncontrolled "hullabaloo" from the opposition on the streets. And he has ensured that the overwhelming majority of Belarusians have jobs and get paid regularly, "even if not much."
According to official data, registered unemployment in Belarus stands currently at 1.5 percent. By contrast, in neighboring Poland, the jobless amount to around 20 percent of the population. The average monthly wage in Belarus in 2005 was $205, up from $150 in 2004; the average monthly pension in 2005 was $98, up from $63 the previous year. The country's gross domestic product (GDP) doubled in U.S. dollar terms between 2002 and 2005, growing respectively by 4.7 percent, 6.8 percent, 11 percent, and 9.2 percent year-on-year in the past four years.
However, it makes little sense comparing the above-mentioned figures with their equivalents in other countries, since the cost of living in Belarus is much lower. But it is instructive to look at how Belarusians themselves feel about their economic wellbeing.
A poll conducted in Belarus by two Slovak nongovernmental organizations in January found that 24 percent of Belarusians assessed their economic situation as "very good" or "good," 59 percent deemed it "fair," and just 13 percent declared it to be "bad" or "very bad." According to 70 percent of respondents, the economic situation in Belarus has not changed in the last month, 13 percent said it has improved, while 7 percent said it has worsened.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that the same poll found that there was a prevailing feeling of political stability among Belarusians. According to 65 percent of respondents, the political situation in Belarus was "calm," while 12 percent found it even "positive." On the other hand, for 15 percent of respondents the political situation was "tense" and for 1 percent "critical."
No less revealing were the findings of the Slovak pollsters regarding the preferred values and goals that Belarusians attribute to the ideal president. According to 97 percent of respondents, the president should put primary emphasis on decent living standards (81 percent fully and 16 percent partly subscribed to this view); 91 percent said the president should predominantly be concerned with the preservation of state sovereignty (60 percent fully and 31 percent partly); and 86 percent deemed the president should primarily develop democracy (51 percent fully and 36 percent partly).
Assessing the chance of mass protests against a potential fraudulent presidential election on 19 March, 17 percent of respondents said they were possible, while 70 percent were of the opposite opinion.
Quite a few independent Belarusian economic experts predict that the current political stability in the country, which was coupled in recent years with palpable economic growth, is unsustainable in the longer term. They basically argue that Belarus's economy has already exhausted its government-backed potential for growth and without deep restructuring and foreign investments may soon enter a phase of stagnation or even decline, thus triggering wider public discontent.
Lukashenka himself seems to be aware of the possibility of such an unpleasant scenario looming. "We have already squeezed practically everything out of what we have inherited from the Soviet era and what we have built in recent years," he said in a television interview in January. "Practically all of our production sector is working at 100 percent capacity, apart from some small- and medium-sized enterprises."
Another serious problem that Belarus will have to inevitably deal with in the future is the country's dependence on -- or as some put it, "addiction to" -- cheap Russian oil and gas supplies, which can be seen as indirect subsidies by the Kremlin to Lukashenka's "socially oriented" economy and are estimated at $3 billion-$4 billion annually.
The Russian energy-related subsidies have helped Lukashenka not only keep his economy afloat but also expand its existing production capacities. At the same time, however, they have done little to adapt Belarus's command economy to the conditions of genuine competition. When Belarus eventually moves to embrace some market-economy methods and give entrepreneurs more economic freedom, many Belarusians may find that their country's economic stability in the Lukashenka era was hardly a real asset.
Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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