Selling air: What undermines the Lukashenka regime in Belarus
What undermines the Lukashenka regime
When something extremely unusual happens, Belarusians say, "Something has died in the woods". In the evening on September 11, something very big must have passed away in the Białowieża Forest. According to election results, two members of the opposition made it into the lower house of parliament – the House of Representatives. One is deputy head of the Belarusian Language Society, Alena Anisim, the other is Hanna Kanapatska, a representative of one of the leading anti-government political forces,the United Civic Party.
TEN YEARS WITHOUT THE RIGHT TO VOTE
There has been no opposition in the parliament of the “blue-eyed republic”[a nickname given thanks to its large number of lakes and rivers] since 2004, 12 years ago. The last more or less oppositional People's Representatives were elected in 2000, their term of office ending four years later.
And it ended with a bang: three MPs announced a hunger strike in protest against Alyaksandr Lukashenka's intention to hold a referendum on his right to run for the presidency as many times as he wanted (until 2004, presidential powers were limited to two terms). Their actions did not bring any results and Batka ("Father", a nickname for Lukashenka – Ed.) still held his referendum, but the way that the deputies left parliament was a nice gesture. Since then, no members of opposition have been allowed into the House of Representatives. Until now.
However, no one doubts that these new dissidents were not elected, but appointed. Elections to the Belarusian Parliament have not been recognised as free, fair, transparent and in accordance with OSCE standards since 1996, when Lukashenka dissolved the 13thconvocation of the Supreme Soviet and instead created a bicameral structure for the legislative branch. This parliamentary campaign is unlikely to have been an exception.
Everyone is accustomed to the fact that Western observers from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe's similar structure first note "progress" after any elections in any country, and then proceed to criticism. The head of the OSCE Short-Term Observation Mission, Kent Härstedt, did not hide his disappointment at a post-election press conference. During the presidential vote in 2015, the OSCE released a list of recommendations for Belarusian authorities regarding what should be improved in the electoral process. None of them were fully implemented. The heads of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions agreed with Härstedt and reeled off a long list of Belarusian electoral flaws: from the opaque method in which electoral commissions were formed to the way votes were counted, which was kept secret even from commissioners. So why did Lukashenka let two opposition MPs into parliament?
It is all quite simple. As renowned Belarusian writer Viktar Martsinovich wrote on his Facebook page, "The economic situation is such that there is not enough money for a complete absence of the opposition in parliament."
THE FRIDGE IS STRONGER THAN THE TV
Over the past two years, Belarusians have fully experienced the economic crisis provoked by Russia's slump and cheap oil. It is no secret that the local "economic miracle" was reliant on processing cheap Russian "black gold" and endless financial subsidies and investments from Moscow. Even prior to the presidential elections in 2015, many remembered that Lukashenka had promised monthly wages equivalent to US $1,000 by this date. In fact, the average was barely $500 – the level promised for 2010.
Today, a monthly salary equivalent to US $500 is considered extremely high. The majority earn US $200.
An experienced Ukrainian reader will say "Ha! Our whole country lives on two hundred a month!" Indeed, this is nothing new for Ukrainians. But their prices cannot be compared to Belarusian ones: the latter are twice as high. A simple example: last week, I bought a bottle of Shustov cognac in Chernihiv for $4 (84 hryvnias). In Minsk, the local version of the same product costs more than $7.
Entrepreneurs from Chernihiv that produce souvenirs previously found success trading at the Slavic Bazaar festival in Vitebsk. Even last year they brought two to three thousand dollars each home from there. This year, they sold US $300 worth of goods, barely compensating their travel costs. They complained about the decline in Belarusians' purchasing power and were astonished by the prices. "How do you live here?" they asked locals in astonishment.
The record decline in Belarusians' living standards is also explained by the fact that almost all of the country's industry is tailored to supplying Russia. It is our main trading partner. Russia accounts for more Belarusian exports than the entire European Union. However, oil prices have crippled the Russian customers of Belarusian products. Last year, trade turnover between Belarus and Russia decreased by a third! Meaning that Russians are simply not buying what their immediate western neigh-
THE DECLINE IN BELARUSIANS' LIVING STANDARDS IS EXPLAINED, AMONG OTHER THINGS, BY THE FACT THAT ALMOST ALL OF THE COUNTRY'S INDUSTRY IS TAILORED TO SUPPLYING RUSSIA