Closer EU Ties, Austerity Reforms, and A Cop Calendar - Western Press Digest

Belarusian Female Traffic Police Officer

Belarus tries to improve its economy and sends signals to the West that it is ready to carry out reforms to attract investment and secure loans. Besides reforms, Minsk has been pushing state-owned potash producer Belaruskali to win more of the marketshare, even if it means losing money.

The EU views relations with Belarus pragmatically, making no guarantees. Despite the air of mistrust, Lukashenka has won the confidence of some policymakers in the EU that he is ready for reforms if the West is willing to support Belarus restore its image internationally with strategic issues.

A local police force in western Belarus has decided to put out a controversial calendar for the public. The calendar in question features pictures of real female members of the police force, a move that has led to a mixed public response. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.

International Relations

EU-Belarus Rapprochement Gaining Ground - Following Minsk's constructive role as a host and mediator in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the EU is seriously weighing how to improve ties with Lukashenka. The Wall Street Journal reports that these warming relations are still only in their initial stages, but there are serious discussions going on in Brussels about how to improve ties while not ignoring Minsk's past record.

Two issues under consideration, according to Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, are easing visa restrictions for Belarusian citizens and supporting Belarus as it makes its bid to gain entrance to the WTO. Rinkēvičs also said that improving ties between the EU and Belarus should not be seen as trying to pull Minsk into the EU's orbit of influence.

Diplomatic Barbs Exchanged with Kyrgyzstan - Following the murder of a prominent Kyrgyz mob boss in Minsk, ties between the two former Soviet republics are under strain. In their coverage of the diplomatic sparring match, RFE/RL reports that the conflict came about after a witness to the killing of Almambet Anapiyaev in Minsk said that members of ex-president of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiev's were involved. Belarusian authorities stated that an official investigation needed to be carried out and that the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' made it impossible for it to hand over anyone to the Kyrgyzstani authorities until guilt was established.

Kurmanbek Bakiev and his brother Janysh (then head of the state's bodyguard service) fled Kyrgyzstan in 2010 following the massacre of dozens of civilians who protested the then president's administration for its corruption. Bakiev contacted Lukashenka to ask that his family be given refuge in Belarus, after which the Belarusian head of state provided sanctuary for Bakiev and his entire family. Kyrgyzstan has demanded that Belarus return Bakiev, who was sentenced to life in prison in absentia for his alleged crimes.

Economy

Winning Over Confidence With Reforms - A recent article by Euromoney says that the authorities in Minsk are doing their best to convince western policymakers and investors alike that they are embarking a series of reforms to improve the domestic economy's standing. Some of these reforms including freezing public sector wages at their current levels, slashing government support for state-owned enterprises and halting state sponsored projects that are not 80% or more complete. Like other countries in the region, Belarus' economy is struggling in the face of the economic downturn due to the conflict in Ukraine.

According to Euromoney, the mantra in Minsk is that Belarus will make good on all of its debts this year, even if that means making cuts elsewhere. Still, most experts following the developments in Belarus are wary that any substantial change is underway – especially with the upcoming presidential election this fall. Major reforms, like the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, are still not on the table. Despite the sense that Minsk may not be serious about carrying out serious reforms, there is much optimism that rapprochement between Belarus and the EU is gaining traction and may open the door to stronger ties between the two parties.

Belarus Pushing Potash Exports - Bloomberg reports that Belarusian potash producer Belaruskali is working overtime to get a larger share of the lucrative global market. Following the messy split with its Russian partner Uralkali, the Belarusian potash exporter has struggled to gain better control over the market and mantain its relevance. It has done this by selling to countries like Brazil and China for a discounted rate and is suspected of flooding the latter's market to the point that it is not interested in buying more due to its large surplus. As currencies decline in value across the globe, potash producers are seeing export costs drop as well - a development that is driving more competition.

Civil Society

Man Detained for Writing on Fence - Based on an RFE/RL report, the BBC reports that a resident of Brest in eastern Belarus has been detained for keeping a public 'fence blog'. Mikhail Lukashevich has been writing on a city fence since the 1990s, but began regularly posting only around 10 years ago. His comments are typically confined to discussing current political issues and are critical of the authorities, according to the report. Lukashevich is under investigation by the authorities for 'defaming Lukashenka' and says that he may have to undergo psychiatric evaluation. The article notes that during the Soviet era he spent time in a psychiatric hospital in the past.

Miscellaneous

Not Your Average Calendar - Female traffic police have made quite a stir in Belarus lately, but it is not their professional accolades that are drawing the public's attention writes the Daily Mail. The Mail's photo exposé, based on a report from Vocativ.com, has created some controversy, with some citizens calling it a 'desperate' move by the government, while others appear to be rather fond of the idea. While not entirely uncommon in the West, this is the first documented calendar of its kind in Belarus.

Unique Underground Medical Treatment - An unconventional treatment for patients with lung ailments has taken foot in Belarus, reports the Daily Mail. According to the UK publication, children and adults alike are treated for issues like bronchial asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by breathing in the unique mineral-rich air found in an abandoned salt mine found some 1,400 ft below the surface. Treatment lasts for 19 days and is often repeated over a period of 2.5 years. Less one fret, patients sent to the underground facility treat it more as a period of leisure than treatment, as the treatment centre is full of things for them to do, including sport and games.

Devin Ackles

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