Updated at 18:18,16-07-2018

Expert: For authoritarian modernization it is necessary to loosen screws at least in economy

By Alyaksandr Klaskowski, BelaPAN

Why does the EU need to continue a "dialogue on the modernization" if the Belarusian authorities have rejected it? Will Lukashenka succeed in carrying out authoritarian modernization on his own after the Asian "tigers" pattern? And will Moscow let Belarus build close ties with the EU?

Kamil Klysinski, of the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies, reflects on these and other issues in an interview with The Viewer.

V: The EU has announced a new phase of the Dialogue on Modernization (DoM) with Belarus despite the fact that the Belarusian authorities are clearly reluctant to join it in the proposed format. The Belarusian leader labelled his opponents and NGOs the fifth column. Officials see them as enemies, thinking it is beneath their dignity to sit down with them at the same table. So, does the new phase make any sense or is it simply an attempt to demonstrate that Brussels somehow engages with Belarus?

KK: Unfortunately, the European hand hangs up in the air. And here, on the one hand, Europe should not give up its positions, and on the other, it is necessary to take into account the specifics of the situation in Belarus.

One option I see - but this is only my personal opinion - to separate meetings with the authorities and the meetings with the opposition and civil society. You cannot expect the Belarusian authorities to mature overnight to communicate with these groups. The process of dialogue should be organized in two areas on two levels. Moreover, both levels are equally important. It is necessary to gradually teach the Belarusian authorities that the opposition sometimes can have power.

V: Well, if say it the government will surely keep away... The Belarusian leadership just shakes and goes crazy at the thought that it will eventually be unseated.

KK: I do not mean the organizers should scare Minsk, but the program must have clear priorities: The EU engages in a dialogue with all groups of Belarusian society without discrimination and without outcasts.

V: But then the question is what is Belarusian society? Most are apathetic, the third sector is experiencing problems with consolidation, while in the political opposition everyone pulls the blanket over himself. Some in the camp refuse to sit at the same table, so strong is their mutual dislike. What if actors of the dialogue are in disarray? Clearly, the authoritarian regime deliberately undermines these groups, does not allow them to coalesce, but without a capable civil society the dialogue does not make much sense. Is it a vicious circle?

KK: These problems cannot solved overnight. My personal opinion is that it does not make any sense to support, including financially, organizations and people who are not in a position to negotiate. I am not a supporter of artificial associations, for example, of all the opposition forces. But it is necessary to encourage compliance with the culture of dialogue and cooperation. If some parties see they cannot count on broad support in Europe because of their cantankerous behavior, then perhaps they will make some conclusions.

V: Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Surikov said at a recent news conference in Minsk that Moscow was in favor of improved relations between Belarus and the EU. But I remember that Moscow reacted rather nervously when Belarus joined in the Eastern Partnership during a thaw in relations with the West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented on the move with a poorly hidden jealous undertones. How sincere, in your opinion, Surikov was? How strong is the Russian factor in relations between Belarus and the EU? Does not it look like Russia will never let Belarus build close ties with the EU?

KK: Surikov was kind of sincere, but as a diplomat he held something back. The Kremlin feels that Belarus has nowhere to go, the prospect of a true dialogue between Minsk and the EU is so unrealistic that there is no reason to be nervous. I do not see much chance that all Belarusian political prisoners will be released before the end of the year.

Furthermore, we do not see on the part of the authorities any willingness to change their policy towards opponents or fully participate in the DoM. It will be interesting to see how Minsk reacts to the likely change in the format of this initiative.

V: At the beginning of the year, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered a different DoM format in its informal letter.

KK: The format it offered would be too a big concession to the Belarusian authorities. In fact, it would lock civil society and the opposition out of the DoM.

V: Let's go back to the role of Russia. Now we see the Kremlin actively trying to keep Ukraine from signing an association agreement with the EU. Can it be extrapolated to the likely prospect of Belarus?

KK: Ukraine has not joined the Customs Union, it has not gone too far in its agreements with Moscow, Kiev has more room for manoeuvre. It has absolutely different options.

V: Lukashenka’s idée fixe is modernization. Observers ridicule him, saying he understands it in a primitive way like painting the walls and supplying new equipment. Well, the Asian "tigers" also started with authoritarian modernization and later formed a middle class that demanded more rights for themselves, and so on. Maybe, Lukashenka will succeed 80 percent with authoritarian modernization given his strong will, discipline and the nomenklatura’s fear?

KK: For the authoritarian modernization to succeed it is necessary to loosen screws at least on the economy. Even China modified management methods at enterprises, management quality has improved. Belarusian state-owned enterprises have poor managers because Lukashenka restricts their independence. How does he react to record inventories? He orders the sale of equipment at discounted prices to farms and assigns ministers responsible for goods promotion to certain markets.

This type of manual management may be well perceived by some TV viewers, but it does not work quite well in the economy in the modern world.

The kind of modernization imposed by Lukashenka is dangerous, investment imports are rising, but the style of management and economic policies have not changed, costs are increasing and the impact is not visible.

V: But there is Russia! Although it puts pressure on the Belarusian partner, in the end it always offers a helping hand for fear of a chaos with unpredictable consequences in Belarus. On the other hand, Russian aid conserves the situation. Do you think there is really no chance of Belarus shifting its focus to the European vector of development?

KK: Lukashenka is most likely to gradually sell key enterprises to Russia to keep the inefficient, energy-intensive economy afloat. This will limit his country’s sovereignty.

Some modernization may be carried out in management under the influence of Russia. For example, Gazprom Transgaz Belarus, former Beltransgaz sold to Moscow, has introduced Russian management practices that are better adjusted to global economic challenges than Belarusian ones. Although the practices are not as good as the European Union and the West can offer.

In the political sphere, Moscow will support the authoritarian regime, which, with certain reservations, it finds acceptable.

V: So, in your opinion, the prospect of Belarus plunging deeper into Russia's sphere of influence is fatal under Lukashenka?

KK: All the West can to is to launch as many projects as possible involving civil society, support the opposition to increase the share of pro-EU people. It is necessary to to be in contact with the authorities but it would be naive to hope to re-educate them.

V: Or maybe the EU is just reluctant to engage in a strong geopolitical game to bring Belarus closer to its camp?

KK: This is not so. Perhaps, this mood prevailed in 2008 after the Georgian war. Today, the EU will not pull the Belarusian authorities by the ears to save them from Moscow’s embrace at any cost. But even the European Dialogue on Modernization offers broader opportunities to civil society. And events can sometimes develop unexpectedly.