Editorial Foreword

Valeria Kostyugova, Anatoly Pankovsky

Belarusian Yearbook 2016 presents a comprehensive analysis of the key developments and current status of the main sectors of the state and society in 2015. Three processes determined the political agenda last year — the presidential election, normalization of Belarus’s relationship with the West, and the economic recession.

According to observers, the 2015 presidential campaign was not fundamentally different from previous campaigns to elect the head of state due to vote rigging and fraud. However, the conflict-free environment of the election and the release of political prisoners contributed to the normalization of Belarus’s relationships with the European Union and the United States.

Official Minsk’s most significant progress last year was in its foreign policy. Belarus’s neutral position on the conflicts involving Russia, its closest ally, which the country has maintained since 2013, grew even stronger in 2015. Minsk became a negotiating platform that welcomed a high-level diplomatic group of four countries (Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine) in a bid to resolve the crisis in the east of Ukraine.

The Eastern Partnership summit in Riga was relatively successful for Minsk as well. The agenda for Belarus’s relations with the EU deepened and expanded, and Russia had to put up with Minsk’s growing autonomy in foreign policy and build relations with Belarus based on Minsk’s new status. Furthermore, Minsk seeks to strengthen its position internationally by promoting contacts with Asia, especially in the security sector, where collaboration with that region proved to be quite successful.

However, foreign policy progress did not help the authorities effectively address the main challenge — the degradation of the socioeconomic system. The lack of political will to introduce reforms alongside the wait-and-see attitude that replaces a strategic plan to develop the national economy aggravated the recession. The manufacturing sector, labor market, trade, and social sector were the most affected segments. New sectors that are little associated with the state — IT, telecoms, pharmaceuticals, etc. — succeeded the most.

The authorities chose to tackle the economic decline by tightening controls, demanding more money from business and citizens, and going back on their obligations. There were no other significant changes in Belarus’s internal policy last year. At the level of public opinion, those developments — in the context of the economic crisis — affected the social optimism indicators.

Most of the authors of the Yearbook have little optimism about the future, seeing no prerequisites for overcoming the crisis in 2016. According to the forecasts provided by the book, the authorities still expect a positive change in the situation and believe their control and extortion measures have enough capacity. Therefore, the group of reformers, who made their first timid moves in the government in 2015, will hardly step up their activities in 2016. Structural reforms will be very unlikely, and the authorities will only try to mitigate imbalances, for example by selling some state assets and cutting directed lending.

Experts doubt that political institutions other than the president — the government, parliament, and courts — will increase their political weight. Therefore, their forecasts regarding the upcoming elections to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly remain skeptical — they are expected to be completely controlled by the state, while the lower house will be formed by nominees of the ruling class.

The third sector will hardly show any serious progress, as social pessimism and the invariably rigid framework for the operation of the private sector mean civil and political activity will not intensify in 2016. In Belarus’s social policy, controls will remain amid further reductions of state obligations.

Positive forecasts only pertain to foreign policy: in 2016, Minsk’s independence as an international player will likely strengthen; however, in the foreseeable future, this process will not have sufficient capacity for political institutions inside the country to be emancipated.

Since 2003, the Belarusian Yearbook project has evolved as a crucial annual initiative of the Belarusian expert community to compile, conceptualize, and deliver a chronicle of Belarus’s contemporary history.

Contributing to Belarusian Yearbook 2016 were independent analysts and experts, as well as specialists representing various think tanks, including the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), the Research Center of the Institute for Privatization and Management, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC), the Institute of International Relations (Warsaw, Poland), the Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE), eBelarus Research Center, the Belarus Security Blog analytical project, the Agency for Social and Political Expert Appraisal, and the website of the expert community of Belarus Nashe Mnenie (‘Our Opinion’).