Yauheni Preiherman

Опубликовано на сайте Beyond the EU

There have not been any breakthroughs in the political landscape of Belarus in the preceding year. There were no major political events like elections or referendum, which means that 2013a priori drew less attention from the side of observers.  However, a number of remarkable political trends in 2013 did affect the Belarusian political reality for the year to come.

Electoral Rating Improves As Salaries Grow

The year of 2012 witnessed an unprecedented phenomenon in Belarusian politics. There had always been a strong correlation between salaries’ dynamics and the president’s electoral rating: when salaries grew the rating also went up, and vice versa. But in 2012, the relation did not work for the first time.

Thus, salaries increased by 21,5% in real terms nationwide. But Lukashenka’s electoral rating, according to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), remained at the same level of about 30% throughout the whole year.

Some analysts assumed that this resulted from the financial turmoil of 2011 and the fact that the majority (more than 60% in September 2011) of Belarusians blamed the crisis personally on Lukashenka and did not believe in his ability to improve the situation in a long-term perspective. Therefore, a major political intrigue of the year 2013 was whether the trend would continue.

Now that the year is over, one can answer ‘no’ to this question and conclude that the authorities managed to buy electoral support until the last quarter of 2013. In the finished year, income and salaries rose significantly faster than labour productivity. In January-October 2013, real income increased by 17.2% and real salaries – by 18.7%, whereas labour productivity grew by only 2.3%. At the same time, according to the IISEPS’ latest poll, the incumbent’s electoral rating reached 42.6% in October.

This pattern is still far from what the authoritarian regime wants to see, and the legacy of the latest financial crisis clearly endures. However, the main law of Belarusian politics – an obvious correlation between salaries’ dynamics and the president’s electoral rating – has reestablished itself.

Break of the Political and Business Cycle

At the same time, another trend continued to develop in 2013, which hardly makes Belarus’ government happy.

Like in many other countries, the logic of Belarusian politics is normally heavily influenced by the so-called “political and business cycles”. In other words, the closer the country gets to another presidential campaign, the more generous its economic policies become: salaries and pensions grow and various state programs receive better funding. This helps the incumbent’s reelection. After another presidential race, socio-economic indicators usually go down while the government prepares grounds for new breakthroughs before the next election.

According to this logic, the year of 2013 lay in-between the 2010 and 2015 presidential campaigns and had to be quite modest in terms of socio-economic performance. It had to stabilise the state’s finances in order to make more socially-oriented policies possible in the next two years.

But what we actually observed was completely different. For the second consecutive year and in the very middle of the current cycle, some macroeconomic indicators behaved as if Belarus already were in a pre-election stage. Suffice to say that in 2013 (at least, in January-October) real income growth exceeded labour productivity growth by more than seven times.

More importantly, the economic outlook for the time remaining before the 2015 presidential election does not guarantee similar socio-economic dynamics. With high probability, the government will need to go for unpopular measures like devaluation of the ruble and salaries’ freeze, which will again undermine its electoral support. The recently declared Russian loan of $2 bln cannot improve the situation significantly.

Thus, the outgoing year proves the break of the political and business cycle in Belarus. This poses serious political challenges for the incumbent regime.

Signs of a Governance Crisis?

The cycle-related challenges seemed aggravated by a completely new trend – emerging signs of a governance crisis in the country. It might be a bit early to use such a strong term about Belarus, but certain signs clearly manifested themselves in 2013.

Firstly, it became obvious at the end of the year that the majority of economic targets would again not be met. As Lukashenka emphasized during his meeting with the government on the 29th of November, 7 out of the 9 most important economic targets (like GDP growth, inflation, FDIs, exports and foreign trade balance) would fail. Similar stories happened in the previous years. But the scale is growing.

Inability to deliver on target economic goals is becoming endemic within the existing governance system. The president demands and even threatens officials with criminal responsibility, but the situation is getting only worse.

Secondly, amid preparations of the public administration reform early this year, Lukashenka once stated that he had commissioned an analysis of how many of his day-to-day decrees and orders were actually executed by the central and local governments. He did not provide details, but said that the analysis revealed quite poor statistics.

In November, the president observed the challenges in practice, during his visit to the wood-processing factory “Borisovdrev”. Exactly one year before, he came to the same factory and found egregious problems with its modernization. He then issued detailed orders to the management of the factory and government’s functionaries on how to improve the situation and set a one-year deadline. When the deadline expired, Lukashenka came to the factory again. And to his surprise, he found out that little of his orders had been implemented – quite unusual for a consolidated authoritarian regime.

Finally, the media in 2013 were full with reports by the Committee of State Control, the leading economic intelligence agency in the country, about massive irregularities with the project of industrial modernization that Lukashenka made his top political priority.

Thus, the signs of a governance crisis are confined with the economic sector for the time being. But if the trend continues, it might ultimately lead to a real political problem.

Prospects for 2014

The three named political trends of 2013 look far-reaching. The fact that income growth restored the positive dynamics of Lukashenka’s electoral rating in January-October 2013 stresses the need for continued purchase of people’s support. The break of the political and business cycle, as well as poor economic outlook significantly complicate this task. Especially, given that the upcoming World Ice Hockey Championship in Minsk will require vast resources. Another issue to consider is that the emerging governance crisis has every chance of growing bigger in 2014. The central question here is whether President Lukashenka manages to find a way to reform the governance system in order to make it more effective, but preserve his grip on power at the same time.