There have never been such queues of people waiting to give their signatures to support Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s opponents during any previous Belarusian elections. Belarus has no independent electoral polling, and anyone who does it without state permission faces a fine. However, the drop in Lukashenka’s ratings is plain to see. Popular Internet portals are saying that only 6% of users intend to vote for him. Why have Belarusians stopped trusting Lukashenka?
Twenty-six years in power. People have got fed up of seeing the same old face on TV, but the reasons behind their frustration are more serious. This is the first time that so many people on low incomes have been ready for change. Analysts say that Lukashenka’s authority was formerly unshakable, since he’d signed an unwritten “social contract” with the nation. What were the terms of this contract?
Lukashenka guaranteed Belarusians a bearable existence in exchange for political passivity. People agreed to have low but stable pensions, low but stable salaries at state-owned enterprises, and low-quality but free medical care.
Cheap Russian oil and the hearty appetite of the Russian market have allowed this contract to be upheld for a long time. Yet in recent years it has become increasingly difficult for the authorities to keep their promises.
Sociologists are worried that Belarusians’ economic well-being is now the lowest it has been in the last 20 years. The crisis in Russia, the top consumer of Belarusian goods, has recently caused an almost 4% drop in the Belarusian GDP. The Kremlin’s tax manoeuvring, along with falling oil and gas prices, have negated the advantages Belarus used to enjoy. Due to the worldwide quarantine, the Belarusian economy now faces another slump, the World Bank predicts.
According to official data, the average Belarusian earns $510 a month – $80 less than in pre-crisis 2014. A $500 salary became the ceiling for an economic model the Belarusian state has been unable to sustain for 10 years already.
Compared to 2013, Belarus is producing a third less tractors, only half as many trucks, and three times less machine tools. The reasons for this are deeper than just reduced demand from the neighbours. For a quarter of a century, the Belarusian authorities have failed to bring Soviet-era factories up to world standards or move into any new markets.
Slowly but surely, state enterprises are dying. In 2010, the public sector was producing three-quarters of the Belarusian GDP, while today it is less than half. The employment rate is also falling, especially in the regions.
The Mahiliou-based Strommashina plant, the KIM factory in Vitsebsk, and the “Carpets of Brest” company are just a few of the large state enterprises that have gone under in the last five years.
Last year, 117 public-sector enterprises closed, with 48,000 jobs lost – roughly equivalent to the entire workforce in average Belarusian cities like Mazyr, Orsha and Pinsk.
The authorities attempted large-scale modernisation in order to revive state factories. Over the last 10 years, they invested $4 billion in woodworking alone. But buying Italian machine tools for a factory run according to Soviet planned-economy principles won’t turn it into an Italian furniture factory. The modernisation was a failure. The national debt has doubled over the decade.
Minsk’s funds to outlay on the large public sector are dwindling, so the authorities have decided to cut back on social spending.
In 2016, the government began raising the retirement age. By 2022, Belarusian men will retire at 63 and women at 58, three years later than the pre-reform era. Utility payments have been rising. In Minsk, a family of four now pays around $50 for the winter months. Three years ago, it was one quarter less than that.
But, above all, many Belarusians, especially in the regions, have never had salaries of $500. Those who refuse to work for small salaries often work abroad temporarily. The government has estimated the number of “unemployed” to be 500,000 people nationwide, or one-in-nine able-bodied Belarusians.
Lukashenka’s attempt to bring in a $200 tax on people’s “right not to work in their homeland” was only met with a public outcry.
Spontaneous protests erupted all over the country in spring 2017.
The Belarusian leader dealt a second blow to his citizens’ feelings during the COVID-19 pandemic. The authorities refused to impose a quarantine in order to cushion economic losses. Lukashenka dismissed the pandemic as a “psychosis”.
“We don’t need a panic. We just need to work. Especially now, out in the countryside. It’s nice to watch folks working on tractors on TV. Nobody talks about viruses. Tractors will cure everybody there. The fields will cure everyone,” he said
According to the ministry of health, there were 16 times fewer deaths from coronavirus in Belarus than in Sweden, which has the same population. Belarusians don’t believe the official figures. In April, 75% of citizens favoured increased restrictions to fight the epidemic.
A poor working man from a village, who’s also rather proud of his situation: this is a portrait of an average Belarusian as painted in the words of Lukashenka. Most of his fellow citizens were like that a quarter of a century ago, when Lukashenka was 40. Today, the old Belarusian leader’s tales make more sense to pensioners, who are a minority in the country.
The Belarusian leader, who has 17 residences and appears in public surrounded by models, looks less and less like a guardian of the common people. State TV has also lost much of its impact. Half of Belarus now gets its news from the Internet.
The Belarusian authorities increasingly lack the money to pay out low but regular salaries to keep the Soviet-style factories running. The crisis has hit people in the regions hardest. The authorities are slashing social spending, yet offer people no alternatives, so more and more Belarusians are disillusioned with their country’s “irreplaceable” leader.
Lukashenka’s declining support doesn’t mean that Belarus is preparing for a revolution. He controls the 60-plus percent of Belarusians working in the public sector. However, it will be much harder for Lukashenka to run a country with economic issues and silent protests.
The explainer is part of Belsat TV news show That Way (Vot Tak). The episode was aired on 17.06.2020
Alyaksandr Papko, belsat.eu