The somewhat overdue address of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the nation and parliament, postponed for three weeks “because of the need to make adjustments” looks basically the same as last year’s address when it comes to its key message. However, although most of the conceptual parts of the speech and their essence remained unchanged, the new address highlights slightly different points and demonstrates an overall milder rhetoric.
The key differences include a shift in priorities in the foreign policy block and in the part of the address covering the democracy and human rights issues. Commenting on western countries and civil society in Belarus, the president declared his willingness to embark on dialogue and absence of animosity, and when talking about the EU ambassadors, the head of state made a demonstratively respectful gesture. Lukashenka spoke very cautiously about Russia, clearly indicating his wish to probe into the mutual relations to identify their new status after Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia.
“Your money on our terms”
Compared with last year’s address, the president shifted the focus in the economic block from modernization, economic competitiveness and technological innovation to privatization and raising investments. Last year’s “you-can’t-sell-what-belongs-to-people” rhetoric has disappeared, replaced with the statement that “any enterprise can be sold today” on condition that the privatization process be transparent and the investor adequately meet the acquisition terms.
Despite the fact that the president mentions only the simpler access to investment projects and transparency of investment terms as the key tools to attract investments, the address starts with what sounds as a directive “have an idea? then look for an investor!” meaning the unwillingness of the administration to leave the beaten path of the direct recruitment of investors. In this connection, there are concerns that the Law “On Investments”, which, as the address makes it clear, needs to be revised, will never be used in practice, sharing the fate with Directive No.4, which has never been used as the declared roadmap to encourage entrepreneurship.
The focus on investment and privatization is what makes this year’s address different from that delivered in 2011 when it comes to economic issues. Effective regulations, improvements of export competitiveness and buildup of the research and development platform of the economy that Lukashenka spoke in detail last year, were barely mentioned at all in this year’s speech, and what was said was very brief and vague, and came down to a short summary of last year’s address. The part of the address covering innovations and ways to increase the knowledge content of the economy, which was quite impressive last year, has shrunk and mostly repeated the 2011 conclusions.
Commenting on wage regulations, Lukashenka virtually made directors of enterprises personally responsible for increasing compensations: “wages must be earned”; moreover, pay rises must result from effective management at each specific enterprise and “controlled” increments in productivity. The president said only a few words about efforts to check prices and shore up the exchange rate of the ruble, making some stock conclusions – we must check and shore up.
The shift in focuses in the presidential annual address could mean that under the circumstances, the chief priority for the state is to replenish the budget from sources other than loans. The set of new priorities played down the significance of “leveling off” the social contract terms required to continue buying people’s loyalty.
“They love our country!” or commitment to dialogue
The human rights block in this year’s address demonstrates a much milder rhetoric and is inseparable from the comments concerning the forthcoming parliamentary elections and the diplomatic scandal that erupted in early spring. Slamming the “fifth column” and the “excessive democratization” policy ahead of the presidential elections of 2010 in his last year’s address, in 2012, Lukashenka declares his willingness to engage in dialogue with the West and representatives of domestic civil society, despite the discrepancies with Europe observed earlier this year.
Furthermore, this block included a scrupulously respectful gesture made at the EU ambassadors who left the country in spring as a result of a diplomatic scandal. According to the president, the ambassadors left against their will, while they regard Belarus as a calm and attractive country, in which “there is no less democracy than they have.”
On the parliamentary elections, the president said it was important to keep the procedure for calling and holding the elections without amending the existing legislation. Lukashenka once again (after the 2008 address) said he hoped that “some MPs of the current lower house would make it into the new parliament.” Therefore, despite assigning the new parliament the role of the “center of vigorous lawmaking” and declarations that Belarus may eventually change to the mixed-member voting system (“we might be ready for this one day”) after the elections, the parliament as an institutional structure will likely keep playing a secondary role in the political system, whereas the issues of transparency and fairness of the voting process will remain unresolved.
The address also reveals conceptual divergences as far as the freedom of associations is concerned. Although he previously declared his willingness to engage in dialogue with civil society and said unambiguously that the “state must provide maximum freedom”, the parliament is declared to be perhaps the only platform to discuss the social and political issues.
“In the Internet we are concerned about the same things as the West”
A part of the IT block in the president’s address replaced last year’s section dedicated to the role of the media in the state and society. Overall, the IT segment of the speech was shorter than usual and mostly focused on the use of the Internet in Belarus and the promotion of the Park of High Technologies.
It seemed that the Internet-related rhetoric of the president was somewhat affected by last year's silent protests – Lukashenka speaks about the role of the Internet in the organization of the Arab revolutions and maintains that this scenario is unfeasible in Belarus, while the Internet should be used for peaceful purposes, never to undermine the authority of the state.
The president paid special attention to the Park of High Technologies, providing quite clear, albeit brief instructions (whereas last year, the Park was mentioned very briefly) – to attract venture capital and promote new technologies, while the government will support the Park by a special decree.
Interior Ministry’s reform “next year”
In 2012, the president has focused on two issues – the work of the security agencies and the judicial service – when he commented on the segment, which was not mentioned separately at all last year, despite the blast in the Minsk metro on April 11, 2011.
According to the head of state, “punishments and persecution of undesirables” will no longer be tolerated in the work of the security agencies. This statement cannot be interpreted as a command to reverse the crackdown on the opposition, because in this context Lukashenka mentioned abuse of counter-corruption authorities and named the Investigative Committee to be the chief body that controls the work of security agencies.
The president specifically mentioned the plans to start reforming the security agencies, specifically the Interior Ministry, within 12 months.
On the judicial system, Lukashenka advised revising the practice of passing prison sentences on economic offenders and “overcoming the accusation bias” in economic crimes, as well as reducing the number of inspections of businesses.
Asked by an MP about the chances Belarus will introduce a moratorium on capital punishment, Lukashenka gave a very vague response, the way he treats any uncomfortable question. Society may be ready to impose a ban on capital punishment, but the matter should be decided by the president together with the population of the country. In other words, it is clear that nothing is clear.
Future without animosity, but with integration
The international relations block accounts for a significant part of the address; however, it has remained essentially the same as in 2011 and focuses mostly on the multi-vector nature of the Belarusian foreign policy pattern. The diplomatic scandal that erupted in early spring was only mentioned indirectly, in the phrase that Belarus’ attitude to the European Union is not hostile and that the geopolitical “seesaw” is not characteristic of the country; on the contrary, it is in Belarus’ interests to foster cooperation in all areas and directions. The foreign policy block was additionally mitigated by the respectful mention of the European ambassadors in the democracy section.
The “integration of integrations” initiative – a common economic space spanning from Lisbon to Vladivostok – merited a special mention in the president’s speech, and so did the “big coming” of China to Belarus interpreted as a conversion of “political advantages into those economic.” The president again emphasized efforts to further the integration within the existing Common Economic Area.
The president only made very brief, unemotional and adequate comments on Belarus’ relations with Russia. Such a format of the Russia-related part of the annual address could be attributed to the recent inauguration of newly elected President Vladimir Putin, as Lukashenka must be unsure about Putin’s first decisions and is unwilling to check the allowable limits of his behavior.
The structure of this year’s annual address of the head of state has changed very little from the speech he delivered in 2011. Some thematic sections remained essentially the same, whereas the general message of the address looked different only because the focus was shifted between the blocks. The main difference of this year’s address is the serious mitigations in the human rights segment and the cautiousness, or rather demonstrative politeness, in the foreign policy block.
It looks like the postponement of the address was caused by the need to introduce alterations to the part covering Belarus’ foreign policy. The president had to make up his mind on the outcomes of the crisis in the relations with Europe before delivering the speech, in which he was supposed to outline Belarus’ position (in our case, the willingness to pursue dialogue).
Another peculiar feature of this year’s address is that it was rather brief. Lukashenka did not make any comments on the media and almost neglected the traditionally uncomfortable issues – wage rise and anchoring inflation. Furthermore, Lukashenka did not mention entrepreneurs in the speech (some comments were made during the question and answer session) and reduced the blocks on economic modernization, effectiveness of state governance and innovations. This year’s address was obviously dominated by the foreign policy and democracy messages, which are critical now that Belarus is faced with the aftermath of its EU relationship crisis in early spring.