Lukashenkos election platform: do not freak out during crisis
During his time-consuming press conference, President Lukashenko sought to portray himself as a strong leader who controlled the political situation and was the sole guarantor of the political stability in the country. The president underscored the permanence of his position on the key issues - supporting the existing socioeconomic model, pursuing the Eurasian integration, normalizing relations with the European Union, adhering to the balanced position towards Ukraine, and preserving both, the political regime and the harsh environment for the political opposition.
On January 29th, President Lukashenko held a press conference for Belarusian and international media. The press conference set a new record – it lasted seven hours. The state-run media noted that the event was framed as an „open dialogue with the media‟. However, Lukashenko’s speech did not contain any new ideas, which could signal changes in Belarus’ socio-economic and political regime. The president believes, he can only retain his power if the current socioeconomic model is preserved. Such a model enables him to react to crippling recession with administrative measures. Since a while ago, independent social scientists have been noting the demand for changes in the Belarusian society and the Belarusian authorities are well aware of this. Nevertheless, president Lukashenko assured there were no plans to change the socioeconomic model despite society’s wishes: “I will not change it as long as I am the president. We have found this path, and we have to follow it and not freak out, especially during a crisis”.
Simultaneously, the authorities continue to review their social contract with the population, albeit not willing to carry out structural economic reforms. The president has once again reiterated that one should not wait for a pay rise. He also spoke against so-called ‘social parasites’: “Everyone should work for the state‟s benefit”. The authorities do not offer any improvements to the people’s well-being however suggest leaning on a strong leader amid security threats in the region. While speaking at the press conference, Lukashenko touched upon the events in Ukraine numerous times and underscored that such events would be impossible in Belarus under his rule. The president also spoke about the Eurasian integration, which seemed less attractive amid recession in Russia and Russo-Belarusian ‘trade wars’. Lukashenko underscored, “Belarus might leave the Eurasian Economic Union should the agreements are not adhered to”. However, it is hard to believe that the Belarusian authorities are seriously thinking about quitting the Union. Most likely, this phrase was designed to strengthen Belarus’ positions in case of another spiral of tension with the Kremlin.
President Lukashenko assured that he wanted to normalise the relations with the West. However, official Minsk was not ready to take even symbolic steps and to fulfill the only requirement by the West – to release remaining political prisoners. The president is unlikely to change his attitude towards his political opponents and is not willing to enter a dialogue with society. For example, during the 2009 thaw in Belarus-EU relations, and Advisory Council was set up under the Presidential Administration auspices. The Council included economists, media chief editors, heads of business associations, and some opposition members. Recently, the president spoke against any advisory boards: “We will not create any boards, especially political boards”.
All in all, the authorities aim at preserving the existing political and socioeconomic model and will respond to crisis manifestations with ad hoc administrative measures.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.