Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

Jarabik: Revisiting Belarus: The Reality beyond the Rhetoric

Belarus is undergoing a transition, that affects lives of ordinary citizens and even though the political environment is closed, the country is open to foreign investments, argues Balazs Jarabik in his article published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The author warns the EU to be more careful not to further isolate Belarus in the context of upcoming 2015 elections, as the influence of Russia in the country grows.

The author reviews long history of authoritarianism in Belarus, starting with democratic elections in 1994 that saw Lukashenko come to power, to this day. Despite international criticism that has been going on for almost two decades, the political situation in the country remains tense: there are political prisinors and government criticism can lead to criminal prosecution. However, Jarabik argues, that number of arrests have declined in the recent future.

Despite the fact that the state controls 70% of the economy, economic development is visible. Author points to the statistics about foreign investments: in the first nine months of 2014, foreign investment in the real sector of the economy rose by 7 percent over the same period in 2013 to $11.7 billion of which 69 percent was foreign direct investment. Most importantly, Jarabik writes, the state has realised that it can no longer sustain such massive social welfare system and gives the private sector more opportunities. Now most of the population, 57% works in the private sector.

Jarabik underlines the fact that despite recent economic gain, some structural problems, most importantly, reliance on Russian subsidies and preferential treatment remain. 10-15% of GDP rely on these subsidies and bend whatever political goals or future aspirations Belarus might have. The author is also sceptical of change in this direction, according to him, silaviki – military and security services, are in charge of the policies and while they keep benefiting from relationship with Russia, they do not wish to move away from the country. At the same time civic activism and civil society remain weak, due to fears of government crackdown.

Jarabic claims that economic pragmatism is a foundation of the most policies Minsk undertakes: “Signs suggest Belarus may be slowly and partly opening up to the West. Minsk has intensified dialogue with the EU on visa liberalization, released its most prominent political prisoner Ales Bialiatski, openly expressed dissatisfaction with the Eurasian Economic Union agreement, and taken a careful position regarding the Ukraine crisis. Both Belarus and the United States have lowered visa costs for citizens of the other state, and senior U.S. officials have made high-level visits to Minsk.”

However the author writes that Belarus does not find it necessary to cut of ties with Russia and move faster towards the EU. Isolation has become a strategy for survival of the country and is deeply rooted in the culture, reasons Jarabik. Recent events in Ukraine has convinced Minsk that it cannot fully rely on the EU in times of trouble.

The author notes that the EU policies of support of opposition has further consolidated the regime and warns Europe on possible tensions during 2015 elections. While the EU supports the opposition and the polarisation grows before elections, there is a threat that this can be used by Russia to overthrow Lukashenko´s regime. The country has been closely watching the balancing act of Belarus between Russia and the EU, and Kremlin is worried that Belarus can start moving towards the EU more actively. In this context, the author recommends the EU to avoid strengthening of polarisation in Belarus and offer more pragmatic options to the country.

Read the full article here

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