Hugo Chavez: the Musical, Tax Hike Protest, Opposition Leader Beaten - Western Press Digest

Lukashenka and Putin Playing Ice Hockey

The western press covered a number of Belarus-related issues over the past month, though the economy remained their primary focus.

The long-rumoured potential sale of state-owned assets to Russian investors appears to be moving forward. This news is closely tied to Russia providing Belarus with a new $2bn loan, a deal which was commemorated in Sochi with an All-Star Hockey game.

Motorists took to the streets of Minsk to protest a new tax to be imposed on automobile owners. Leading opposition figure Anatol Lyabedzska was reportedly beaten and abducted by unknown individuals before being delivered to the police for gathering signatures for a petition against the tax.

Reverence for Hugo Chavez in Belarus’ capital remains, despite the former Venezuelan President’s passing last year. With a park being named after him and a musical in his honour planned to take place this summer in Minsk, 2014 looks as if it will a year in which Lukashenka will be able to show gratitude to his old friend.

All this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.

Minsk Flooded with Motorists, Protesting New Taxes on Automobiles – In a rare mass protest, the first in over 2 years, Belarusian citizens came to the Minsk’s centre to protest a new proposed tax on automobiles. Bloomberg notes that the Belarusian government is in dire straits seeking to generate revenues in order to bolster the faltering economy. Despite having secured a new loan from Russia, the IMF has officially stated that no discussions are planned with Belarus.

With Lukashenka’s attempts to raise foreign direct investment and attract more loans from sources other than Russia yielding few results, the government is becoming increasingly desperate and citizens are beginning to feel the results. The tax itself, according to official estimates, is expected to generate only $168.5m.

In response to the proposed tax, Belarusians organised a protest to jam up traffic on Nezavisimosti Avenue, one of the city’s main roads which goes by Lukashenka’s official residence. Protestors outside of the Belarusian ruler’s residence, who cheered on the motorists, were eventually dispersed.

Opposition Leader Intimidated and Beaten, Headed to Trial – Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reports that the Chairman of the United Civic Party, Anatol Lyabedzka, was beaten and then taken to the police by 7 unknown men. Before arriving at the police station his assailants drove him by the Kurpaty Stalin-era mass grave and the city crematorium.

Lyabedzska states that he faces a trial on January 14, after being charged by police for gathering signatures against new taxes on automobiles. According to the opposition leader he was formally charged with breaking a law on sanctioned public gatherings. If convicted, Lyabedszka’s punishment will be minimal and include a fine and/or a few days in jail.

New Stetl Tourist Route to Open in Belarus, Poland, Ukraine – The Associated Press covered a new, the primarily EU-funded project that would create a real-life tour of towns that were formerly bastions of Eastern European Jewish culture and life. The tour will include 20 towns that straddle the border with the EU, including sights in Belarus, Ukraine and Poland.

Since many of the largely Jewish towns were destroyed in the late 1930s and 1940s, 3D models will be assembled to help visitors visualise Jewish life. According to the coverage, these models will re-create the “gems of architecture” that were once found in the regions wooden synagogues. Other items, including multilingual guidebooks and guides will already be available in 2015.

Hugo Chavez Musical Planned by Belarusian Musical Theatre – RFERL reports that while Hugo Chavez, who passed away in 2013, may no longer be around, his spirit will endure in Belarus. The Belarusian Musical Theatre, in collaboration with Venezuelan composer Gerardo Estrada Martinez and other Venezuelan artists, will create a musical in Spanish entitled, “In Memory of Hugo Chavez.”

According to RFERL despite Chavez’ passing, the two countries have continued to work closely together, with Belarus helping Venezuela to develop its oil and gas fields. After a resolution by the Minsk City Council in early January, a park in Minsk has been re-named after the former Venezuelan president.

Friendly All-Star Ice Hockey Game and a New $2bn from Russia – Russia has decided to provide Belarus with an additional $2bn loan, due to the current global economic situation. Lukashenka and Putin signed the agreement in late December, with Belarus already having received $440m in early January. They celebrated the new agreement with a All-Star friendly hockey match in Sochi, site of the future winter Olympics.

The Financial Times mentions that the terms for the loans are perhaps not as friendly as they might seem. It is likely that Russia expects Belarus to sell off some of its state-owned companies. Lukashenka has maintained that the situation with the troubled Belarusian economy is in large part due to the potash scandal which erupted in 2013 with Uralkali. Russia’s top diplomat in Belarus, Ambassador Alexander Surikov, stated that the loan is part of helping Belarus to better prepare for integration into the Eurasian Economic Union.

Belarus Preparing to Sell State-owned Assets to Russia – In October 2013, the Belarusian State Property Committee a list of state-owned assets that the government would allow foreign investors to buy shares in. Russia has long demanded the sale of certain state-assets, or at least controlling shares in lucrative state-owned companies, as conditions for any further loans. While this tactic failed in the past, it appears that Belarus can no longer withstand Russia’s demands.

The Financial Times reports that up for grabs are the Mozyr oil refinery and a military-grade vehicle manufacturer, MZKT, among other assets. While Rosneft and Gazpromneft already control a 42.58 stake in Mozyr, the remaining 42.76 stake up for sale would give the Russian state corporations complete control over the lucrative Belarusian refinery. Belarus has also be looking to offload its 51 per cent stake in Belarusian mobile phone network MTS, but their asking price ($863m) has not attracted any buyers yet.

Devin Ackles

Devin Ackes is a project coordinator of the Ostrogorski Centre. He is an alumnus of Michigan State University and Columbia University.

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