According to a rating of administrative units compiled by the Economic Research Institute of the Belarusian Ministry of the Economy, only 7 of Belarus’s 128
subnational territorial entities had an above-average level of development in 2021 compared to the rest of the country. This figure is staggering: to frame it in a different way, 94% of administrative units are developing at a below-average level for the country. The Ranking of Belarusian Cities
compiled by the Center for New Ideas reveals a similar picture. Only 8 out of 40 cities received above-average results.
So what is ailing the Belarusian regions? Why, despite tremendous efforts, generous resources, government programs, and strict management, are the regions failing to develop as they should? The answer is simple: our regions lag far behind those of nearby countries when it comes to reforming public administration and regional development.
Belarus’s regional development policy is still based on directive planning and redistribution of resources from the most to the least successful. The central node of this policy is the government, which distributes subsidies and investments to administrative units and certain sectors of the economy, attempting to maintain a uniform level of development and social services.
Perhaps such a policy made sense in the 1990s, but it has gradually become less effective. Most countries in the post-Soviet camp reached this conclusion in the early 2000s, leading them to implement comprehensive reforms. Their essence was simple: decentralize and improve the quality of local governance; develop the regions, with special consideration for their individual characteristics and potential for economic growth; invest in infrastructure; and create an ecosystem of services for business projects and local communities geared towards development.
Belarus continues to postpone such reforms, exacerbating existing problems and further jeopardizing its regions’ potential. Rapid development of neighboring countries, growing competition for human resources, and global-level investment all threaten to bury the prospects of many Belarusian towns and regions. For this reason, it is crucial to quickly implement reforms, prioritizing those that can best leverage local resources and protect the regions from further decay.
Reforms should focus on the following problems:
- The lack of a unified, long-term vision and antiquated approaches to regional development. Current policy prioritizes maintaining the existing quality of life over development. Priorities are not clearly defined, and they are aimed mostly at either large cities or primarily agricultural regions.
- Weak local government and limited participation of civil society in decision-making and policy implementation at the local level. This creates extremely unfavorable conditions for leveraging local potential in development processes.
- The uncompetitiveness and lack of investment appeal of most regions, compounded with inadequate transportation connections. This has led to a concentration of investment and human capital in the Minsk agglomeration.
- Outdated territorial boundaries. Divisions have not changed significantly since the urbanization and industrialization period of the second half of the 20th century. Several attempts to reform Belarus’s administrative boundaries have been unsuccessful due to a lack of political will.