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Could COVID-19 mean a new social contract for Belarus?

President Alexander Lukashenka faces his toughest challenge yet. But Belarusians won't forget that in this crisis, civil society has proved more resourceful than the state.

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Hanna Liubakova
30 May 2020
Minsk during the COVID-19 pandemic|Photo (c): Hanna Liubakova
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Фото предоставлено автором.

Over the seven days of his arrest, Pavel Paleichyk got fresh air only once. On May 9, he and his cellmate were released to work. "We had to dig up weeds from the asphalt with a shovel. But at least we were out and about for half an hour," says Paleichyk, a few days after his release.

Paleichyk is an ambulance driver from Lida, a city in western Belarus. At the end of April he turned up to a citizens' meeting with Syarhei Tsikhanouski, the prominent blogger and activist from the city of Gomel. Paleichyk spoke on camera about the challenges the country's doctors now face. "What's happening is terrifying!" he exclaimed, describing the long shifts, the shortage of ambulances and drivers, and the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

But this was an "unauthorised event." Paleichyk was detained and arrested. The ambulance driver assumed he would be fined or reprimanded. Until he heard the verdict, Paleichyk couldn't have imagined that he would end up in an isolation cell. Nevertheless, he does not regret his actions – he wanted to let people know "what's really going on."

Pavel was not the only person detained around Victory Day, when the country commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany. According to the Vesna human rights centre, around 120 people were detained in Belarus that day, summoned to police stations or charged with administrative offences.

Those detained had participated in protests or, as they called them, "meetings" with the blogger Tsikhanouski. These had been held in several Belarusian cities. Tsikhanouski has gained popularity thanks to his "Country for Life" YouTube channel, where he interviews ordinary citizens about their concerns. They complain about poor salaries, bad roads, and decrepit collective farms. They say that Alexander Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, is not their president.

On May 29, Tsikhanouski was arrested on charges of violence against the police. Protests in his support have broken out across the country.

Terms and conditions apply

Public discontent with poverty and mismanagement has been on the rise in Belarus. Today, it is compounded by dissatisfaction with the government's lack of proactive measures to combat COVID-19. The country has made headlines across Europe for its lacklustre approach to containing the virus; there has been no restriction on mass events such as the Belarusian football league and Victory Day parade. Lukashenka has dismissed concern about the pandemic as a "psychosis" and recommended working in the fields as the best cure.

These cynical remarks from the president have played an important role in souring the public mood. Belarus recorded its first official COVID-19 fatality when the virus claimed the life of Viktor Dashkevich on March 31. Lukashenka described the celebrated actor as a "poor bastard" who "couldn't hold out." Commenting on the death of a patient in the Vitebsk region, Lukashenka claimed that he had spoken with the regional governor, according to whom the man had apparently died due to being overweight. "And how can anybody live when they weigh 135 kilograms?" exclaimed Lukashenka, quoting the governor.

"There is a disconnect between the public's expectations and the authorities' assurances," begins Vadim Mojeiko, an analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS).

"Before, Belarus was run under the maxim that security guaranteed the absence of war and rampant crime. But in conditions of a pandemic, it turns out that there is another dimension to security – security for health and for survival. And the coronavirus demonstrates that this aspect has been wrung out of the agreement between rulers and ruled," says Mojeiko.

74 percent of Belarusians support bans on all mass events

A case study from late April by research firms BEROC and SATIO indicates that most Belarusians oppose their government's approach to COVID-19. Some 74 percent of Belarusians support bans on all mass events and 71 percent would like to see better information about the spread of the pandemic. Even though there are great fears that the Belarusian healthcare system will not cope with a surge in infections, Belarusians are even more afraid of declining salaries.

In early May Natalya, who works in retail in Minsk, received an email detailing the new terms of her employment contract. She was asked to either accept a 50 percent cut to her salary or face dismissal. Natalya asked that her surname not be published, but openDemocracy has seen documents confirming her story and the salary change proposed by her employer.

Hers is not the only case.

Another study, published by Belsat in April, reveals that Belarusians' economic well-being has recently plummeted, setting a record low for the past 20 years.

It appears that Lukashenka shares these fears. "Yeah, they'll come for me with pitchforks," said the president on April 26 when discussing quarantine measures, remarking that a lockdown would only hurt the economy even more.

This hits at the heart of the Belarusian social contract: the government ensures that citizens' basic needs are provided for in exchange for their renunciation of political and civil liberties.

One slice at a time

In a crisis situation, it will clearly be more difficult for the country's leadership to fulfil its side of this social contract. On the other hand, says Artyom Shraibman, a political commentator and founder of the Sense Analytics consulting agency, the Belarusian state has been reducing its contributions for years. It has increased the age of retirement, denied various groups access to benefits, and raised prices of utility bills and petrol. Nevertheless, says Shraibman, "the Belarusian authorities have learned to cut off benefits one small piece at a time, so as not to shock people."

But Belarusians have noticed.

Back in 2011, motorists blocked one of the major streets in Minsk to protest against a significant increase in petrol prices. The price of fuel in Belarus had risen practically every week for several months, albeit only by a kopek at a time. That way, hoped the authorities, it would be less keenly felt.

Lukashenka won't opt for a complete dismantling of the social state

It's worth remembering the turbulent spring of 2017, when the adoption of Decree No. 3 on the prevention of social dependency, or "parasitism", prompted a wave of protests. This unrest rocked the country far beyond the capital. Few would have thought that more than a thousand people would have attended impromptu protest rallies in regional towns such as Babruysk and Orsha. Fewer still would have expected a positive protest agenda and a streamlined public discussion. Protesters chanted without ceremony: "No to Decree No. 3! Lukashenka, leave!"

The protests compelled Lukashenka to cancel the infamous decree on "parasitism." But it was eventually replaced by another one which obliged the country's long-term unemployed to pay housing and communal bills at the full rate. It worked. Fines and arrests of protesters during the spring had a chilling effect; citizens mounted no large-scale public resistance to the new decree.

Even in a crisis, believes Shraibman, Lukashenka will do everything in his power to ensure that at least some social benefits survive – even if it requires taking out foreign loans or sacrificing another state-owned company.

"Lukashenka won't opt for a complete dismantling of the social state, because then he wouldn't even be able to explain why anybody needs his system," says the political analyst.

Lukashenka versus the pitchforks

The events of 2017 demonstrated that, alongside urban protests, another form of dissent is on the rise in Belarus – at the grassroots level. Tsikhanouski, for example, draws a very diverse audience which knows precisely what he is against. This audience is poor and thirsts for change. It is tired of the authorities in general and Lukashenka personally. This discontent has been brewing for years.

The presidential election which will be held in Belarus later this year could also galvanise this protest mood into action. People have high hopes from the vote – hopes for change and an improvement to their lot. It is also highly likely that the authorities will approach the elections in the same spirit as their response to Paleichyk and his friends in early May: they will increase repression and tighten the screws. This, at least, is the prediction of Katsiaryna Shmatsina, a Rethink.CEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

"The regime has enough influence and management experience to cope with these protests. We've seen before that Lukashenka has enough tools at his disposal to control this discontent," says Shmatsina.

ByCovid19 volunteers have delivered tens of thousands of surgical masks and several tonnes of antiseptic | Photo: ByCovid19 / Facebook | Фото: Facebook.

At the same time, there are few grounds to hope that life will become better and happier. The IMF predicts that in 2020, the COVID-19 crisis will cause the Belarusian economy to contract by six percent; the World Bank expects four percent. This could be compounded by longer-term decline in economic activity and the current fall in oil prices. Exporting products to Belarus's traditional economic partners, which are under quarantine, is more difficult. Add to this the lost revenue and the problems it will cause in repaying external debt and loans. The question is not whether Belarus faces a bad situation, but how bad it will get.

It is by no means inevitable that discontent with the economy will focus on Lukashenka. If the world's most powerful economies have flailed around in pantomime incompetence and are only now taking stock of the damage, then what can be expected from Belarus? After all, in the midst of a pandemic the country did not even close its borders nor cease production. There will always be somebody else to blame.

Front line volunteers

While Lukashenka took his own path, part of Belarusian society went in the opposite direction. Although state media spread stories urging people not to panic, many Belarusians have started to wear surgical masks in public and are avoiding travel.

Ilya Vaistratsenka is a Minsk resident who was hospitalised with COVID-19. "It was very odd to read that the official statistics claim a national daily coronavirus death rate of four people, whereas three victims were removed from a department on a single floor of a single hospital in just one day," wrote Vaistratsenka in his diary on May 3. Vaistratsenka confirmed to openDemocracy that he had witnessed the bodies being removed from the hospital where he was being treated, but stressed that he did not want to contest the accuracy of statistics from the Ministry of Health.

Belarus's doctors have spoken out about overcrowded hospitals and a lack of PPE. For this candour some of them face a day's detention, dismissal, or a summons to the prosecutor's office. Patients' relatives have started to write letters to the media.

Kirill Voloshin, the entrepreneur, financier, and co-founder of news website Tut.by suggested on May 14 that doctors write appeals to the prosecutor's office, promising to bear any legal expenses himself. Eventually it was not the Ministry of Health which came to the rescue of Belarus's unprepared healthcare system, but the ByCovid19 volunteer movement.

Eventually it was not the Ministry of Health which came to the rescue of Belarus's unprepared healthcare system, but the ByCovid19 volunteer movement.

The ByCovid19 campaign was launched on March 26. Over the first 45 days of its existence, volunteers raised US$250,000 through crowdfunding to purchase medical equipment and PPE for Belarusian hospitals. With this money, volunteers were able to acquire hundreds of pulse oximeters, non-contact thermometers, and oxygen concentrators. They have provided tens of thousands of surgical masks and several tonnes of antiseptic cleaning solution.

The civic activist and ByCovid19 campaign coordinator Andrej Stryzhak says that Belarusians have new ways to offer charity, thanks to convenient crowdfunding systems and simplified online payments. First and foremost, he says, the openness and accountability of the movement's volunteers inspire people's trust.

"People can see results and read reports on how the campaign is conducted, so they have confidence that civic activists can operate with such resources and be effective," says Stryzhak. The activist promises to publish detailed documentation about the fundraising effort and sums spent, just as he did in 2017.

The volunteers of ByCovid19 are a motley bunch. It's hard to imagine many of them having worked together before. They are people from IT, advertising, business, management, sports, and other fields. There's even a stand-up comedian among them. Today, their headquarters can be found in the Ў Gallery of Contemporary Art in downtown Minsk, which has offered its premises as a storage space. This is where medication and PPE is sorted, before delivery to hospitals in vehicles provided by a carsharing company. After each of these trips, volunteers share updates on social media.

Doctors are able to leave a request for assistance on the initiative's website. The ByCovid19 volunteers say that they have received such requests from almost every healthcare facility in Belarus.

Pandemic effects

ByCovid19 collaborates with Belarus's Ministry of Health and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, says Stryzhak, these relationships are still "reaching out." He believes that this volunteer initiative "shines a spotlight on the problems and highlights the need for change." Firstly, he continues, the country's bureaucratic system of management could not adapt to the crisis promptly enough; it was unable to streamline the process of public procurement for equipment which hospitals urgently needed. This is linked to the "irremovable" nature of decision makers in Belarus, a facet of the system which led to public officials being unable to cope with new demands.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the model of direct collaboration between business and the state. In its place, it has shown the strength of cooperation between non-profit organisations and the manufacturing sector. This is one of the key lessons of recent months for Belarusian civil society.

For example, back in mid-March Imena, a charity media platform founded in 2016, published one of the first fundraising appeals aimed at businesses. Their fundraising campaign went on to join forces with ByCovid19 and successfully helped medical workers across Belarus.

Over the first 45 days of their campaign, ByCovid19 volunteers crowdfunded US$250,000 to purchased badly needed medical supplies. | Photo: ByCovid19 / Facebook | Фото: Facebook.

There are other ways to help out besides financial donations. In recent months, some have delivered hygiene products and washing machines to hospitals, so that medical staff do not have to wear their work clothes off site. Dozens of restaurants prepare hot meals for doctors and volunteers. When the head of the Minsk ambulance service forbade his employees to drive their work vehicles to McDonald's to collect free lunches, the fast food chain promised to arrange deliveries itself.

ByCovid19 now has a roster of coordinators for each area, and hundreds of volunteers across the regions. This is another effect of the pandemic. Katerina Siniuk, the founder of Imena, believes that Belarusians have taken a huge step towards building a stronger civil society over the past few months: they have become effective, proactive, and demonstrated that they can take problems into their own hands. She believes that, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more Belarusians will be inspired to get involved in charitable work and join the third sector.

"When people are effective, the state is forced to listen to them. It simply has no other choice," says Siniuk.

Translated from Russian by Maxim Edwards

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