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January 1 – January 7, 2024
The ruling elite

2023: changes in the political field; 2024: “sterile” elections

The situation has not changed
2023: changes in the political field; 2024: “sterile” elections
Фота: postawy.by

There’s a gradual setting up of rules and institutions to transition from the personalist regime. We’re witnessing a new era — one of collective autocracy with the rise of new centers of power. Belarusian authorities came close to resolving the political turmoil, almost restoring confidence in state institutions back to mid-2020 levels. This was achieved through a crackdown on opponents and aligning ideologies with Russian propaganda. At the same time, they put the squeeze on consumers of independent media (which got wiped out in-country in 2022) and fostered loyalty among those benefiting from state redistribution — think state employees, public sector workers, and pensioners.

In 2023, the political landscape saw a total makeover, culminating in a fresh party system. The ruling class legitimized only four systemic parties (taking a page from the Russian “managed democracy”), mirroring the ideological spectrum of “left/right.” But make no mistake, populist post-Soviet narratives are still holding sway.

The “party of power,” despite facing 15 years of sabotage and criticism from Lukashenka, underwent a rebrand to “Belaya Rus’” within the nomenclature. However, their representatives are keeping mum about political aspirations, waiting for the personalist regime to transform. The Ministry of Justice axed the rest of the loyalist and opposition political parties (12 out of 15) in a move to optimize the political space for this fresh configuration of collective authoritarianism.

The ruling class laid down the legal groundwork for the regime’s existence in a depoliticized society. Supporters of the regime are sympathizers; meanwhile, Lukashenka’s opponents opting out contributes to this new order. Changes in the electoral code got rid of the turnout threshold for House of Representatives elections and threw in extra hurdles for independent candidates and observers.

The regime tightened its grip on critics by restricting their political, economic, and diplomatic rights. New legislative norms stripped emigrants of their voting rights, and authorities introduced biased practices against relocators in public services tied to public relations.

Throughout the year, the ruling class took back control of the information space, coinciding with a rise in trust ratings for state institutions.

In the ideological realm, the weight of “Russian world” ideologues increased, with narratives aligning closely with Kremlin propaganda. The shift towards a pro-Russian ideology stemmed from a shortage of personnel in Lukashenka’s media hierarchy post-election. Let’s rewind — a substantial number of state media employees walked out. Their spots got filled by infamous propagandists and individuals from the post-Soviet space with Soviet and Russian-friendly views. This also led to a void in media production due to the disruption and relocation of independent media.

Regime enforcers persisted in wiping out regional independent media, remnants of the previous overhaul in the Belarusian media landscape. Crackdowns on consumers of independent media content enabled the ruling class to shrink the audience of independent publications further. Propagandists and security forces asserted control over remaining opinion leaders — bloggers across various domains (cultural, sports, local history, children’s, etc.) — limiting their reach to the Belarusian audience.

The regime reverted to a populist strategy, channeling benefits away from the less loyal groups (private business, IT sector) and directing them towards state employees — public sector workers, pensioners, large families, and other beneficiaries. This move strengthened the allegiance of Lukashenka’s supporters and expanded the social groups loyal to the regime. By the close of 2023, independent polls registered a rebound in trust for state institutions and a dip in support for the opposition compared to figures from independent sociologists until 2020.

The authoritarian response yielded the most gains for the regime’s enforcers. Security forces bulked up their influence at all levels, claiming a larger share in budgetary allocations. Graduates from law enforcement agencies increasingly secured managerial positions in civil departments.

The well-being of the population and consumption levels were partly propped up by loans, which, on the flip side, spurred economic development. In the backdrop of sanctions, an import substitution policy, and a pivot towards the Russian market, there was an uptick in budgetary injections into the state sector. Concurrently, industrialists solidified their sway over state institutions in divvying up these funds.

Political purges and dismissals within state organizations have triggered a redistribution of funds, resulting in boosted salaries for the remaining employees. Labor emigration has eased tensions in the job market, leading to a shortage of personnel in certain sectors and recording minimal unemployment levels. For Lukashenka, unemployment holds significant importance as an indicator of government efficiency, especially as he recalls the manifestations of the labor movement during the late USSR, which, in his view, contributed to the loss of power by the Soviet leadership.

Concurrently, the state has revisited social contracts, reducing its obligations to the population. The regime consistently tinkered with pension guarantees, extending the minimum insurance period and introducing a new calculation model for employees. Despite these measures, the pension fund deficit remains unresolved.

Predictions:

  •       Expect more anti-corruption purges as a result of the struggle among various nomenclature groups for influence and prominence before upcoming transformational processes. Additionally, there will likely be an increase in forceful measures to depoliticize opponents of the regime and to promote absenteeism among supporters of change.
  •       Foresee more expropriations of the middle class and a redistribution of benefits from the private sector in favor of state employees. Large-scale budget infusions into the public sector, part of import substitution, are expected to persist.
  •       Anticipate “sterile” elections for the parliament and local councils by the authorities, with an increased representation of systemic political parties in the regime’s representative bodies. This is likely due to the strengthening of Lukashenka’s populist rhetoric preceding the presidential elections and to maintain control over other vertical branches (representative, judicial, executive).
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Once a week, in coordination with a group of prominent Belarusian analysts, we provide analytical commentaries on the most topical and relevant issues, including the behind-the-scenes processes occurring in Belarus. These commentaries are available in Belarusian, Russian, and English.
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