Tania Chyzhova, editor and author of the Belarusian marxist journal of left critique Prasvet (prasvet.com) and resource of wide-left orientation Left.by. Studied philosophy in the Belarusian State University, then was an academic researcher in social philosophy and political science (marxism, theories of social agency, protest actions in Belarus). Mattia Gallo talked to Tania about the regime type in Belarus following the economic crisis of 2008 and the Ukrainian power shift.
From most parts Belarus is defined as “the last dictatorship in Europe.” Do you think it is a right definition? What is the current situation of freedom of expression in Belarus today?
Belarusian authorities keep the opposition out of the parliament and local government structures, they have full control over TV and the most of print media. It is very hard to register an organization in Belarus, to obtain a permit to a demonstration/picket and so on. On the other hand, the authorities are not so popular and influential on the Internet like opposition media, and they cannot do anything with it. One can express an opinion on the Internet in a rather free manner, even in a very radical way, I would say. I cannot recollect any case when someone here was arrested for a post in social networks, like it had happened in Ukraine and Russia.
In Belarus we have some active legal opposition parties (liberal and nationalist mainly) and legal protest demonstrations take place here too. Sometimes political prisoners appear, but then they are released after international powers brought pressure to bear upon Belarusian government.
It can be described like dictatorship, but “soft” and actually – non-ideological (the only ideology is just a loyalty to the regime), which still has a significant electoral support. Violations in favor of authorities are registered during every elections (presidential, parliament, local), but even if they weren’t, it didn’t mean that the opposition would be able to win at least in several electoral districts. After the Ukrainian events the rating of the opposition went down but the rating of the authorities grew (even by the surveys of near-opposition sociological services).
Now in Belarus an electoral parliament campaign takes place. It is not likely that the opposition will win, but they can take part in it by gathering signatures and holding agitation.
Such kind of dictatorship we have.
In a first phase Belarus seemed to have a different political history from the other countries of Eastern Europe: after the fall of the Berlin Wall in fact, the neoliberalism agenda had not been applied- that would have produced even greater social disruption, insecurity and unemployment . In the recent years of international economic crisis, have neo-liberal policies been pursued?
Lukashenko never promised to build socialism, but he promised to carry out market reforms in a light mode: slowly and gradually, by keeping social protection under government control, with preservation of the public sector in economy. For a long time this promises were kept. From the middle of 90-ties privatization was almost stopped in the large-scale industry. Belarusian private property began to burgeon in retail, in light and food industry, in building.
Public support and an open way to the Russian markets helped enliven the Belarusian industry but the processes of de-industrialization impacted on Belarus too. The manufacturing sector becomes narrower, the trade and services sector grew. The most part of new workplaces nowadays is created by retailing- and this is a low-wage job like in Europe or elsewhere.
The crisis of 2008 struck Belarusian economy (however its repercussions we felt only in 2010) as well as contemporary crisis in Russia (caused by oil price downturn and sanctions) – the country which bought almost half of Belarusian goods now became much poorer. Firms discharged workers, wages have fallen a lot – now its average (even not a median!) value is 320 EUR as in 2010 when it was 500.
Against this backdrop, talks commenced about the necessity of severe structural reforms of neoliberal type, austerity measures have grown – we can hear them now also from officials and so-called “independent experts” (liberal journalists, analysts, intellectuals and politics). Raising the retirement age was proclaimed recently. They proposed to eliminate state subsidies for housing and communal services and practically freeze wages growth in the nearest 5 years. Earlier public (state) enterprises received directly instructions from authorities about wages growing so the other players in the labour market had to raise their salaries too. Now it was decided to give up this practice. Also a partially privatization of the bank segment is planned. But it seems that the privatization of big industry is not fit the nearest agenda.
Which social sectors were most affected by the weight of the Belarusian system of government? What are the major social difficulties? What are the social sectors that could be protagonists of a change?
We do not have any heavy political actors who represent an alternative to capitalism, and the regime still plays in the field of a moderate social populism. We have national-liberal opposition (neoliberals in economics and nationalists in politics), which has financial and political support from USA and EU and can survive and even accumulate and increase their power in such environment. Due to this any protest in the nearest perspective would be probably organized or used by the opposition like this. Actually we cannot speak about any serious protest for a while – the results of the Ukrainian power shift have brought down the protest moods in some measure.