Isolated Academia, Capital Punishment, and Lukashenka Speaks Up - Western Press Digest

Lukashenka speaking to Bloomberg

The Belarusian head of state continues to raise his profile in the West, most recently in an interview with a major western press outlet. In the interview Lukashenka snubs Putin and says that a repeat of the events in Ukraine are out of the question in Belarus.

Former partners Belaruskali and Uralkali are competing on the global potash market to secure business, and the Belarusian state-owned company appears to be willing to take financial losses to do so. In Minsk, the IMF says that Belarus needs to do much more if it wants financial support from the international financial institution.

Belarus' refusal to once more abolish capital punishment has surfaced again. While Minsk is being compared to the self-proclaimed separatist peoples republics in eastern Ukraine, an exiled Belarusian theatre troupe takes their play about the issue to the stage in the US. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.

International Relations and Politics

Lukashenka On the Rise? - In an interview with Bloomsberg Business, Aleksandr Lukashenka discusses the state of the Belarusian economy, what the United States' role in the conflict in Ukraine should be, and the domestic political scene. His recent rise in popularity in the international community has come as a result of his willingness to use Minsk as a forum for negotiation peace in eastern Ukraine. As one of Russia's closest allies, Lukashenka has seen the need to balance the interests of all his neighbours following the growing turmoil in the region.

Concerned with the economy, the Belarusian head of state bemoans the fact that his nation has not yet had enough time to put distance between itself and Russia, but is working on it. Both Lukashenka and some members of the opposition revealingly state that they are concerned that the upcoming presidential elections could be manipulated by Russia to create a conflict similar to that in Ukraine in Belarus. While joking that he was no longer Europe's last dictator, he cautioned that Russia would not take over the country.

Belarus Unlikely to Join Bologna Area - It is looking increasingly unlikely that Belarus will be granted admission into the European Higher Education Area, more commonly known as the Bologna zone. Times Higher Education writes that while the ministers have no apparent issue with admitting other life-long rulers, such as Kazakhstan, Belarus is not a candidate due to its lack of progress on meeting the standards of the European higher education zone that has a unified set of standards.

Citing a lack of academic freedom and the dismissal of instructors and students who have opposed the official line, it is unlikely that Belarus' isolated higher education community will see a breakthrough this year, though thawing ties with the EU may give higher education integration some more impetus.

Economy

Belarus-China Potash Deal Upsets Russia - Bloomberg reports that Belarusian state-owned company Belaruskali, one of the leading potash producers in the world, has inked an important deal with China. With this new deal, Belaruskali will sell potash to China for what many believe to be under market price. The move is significant, as it is the first contract between Belarus and China for potash.

While the exact length of the contract is unknown, former Russian potash partner Uralkali and analysts say that it will lead to a negative reaction from the market. It also fits a trend in which Belaruskali has been selling potash cheap in other countries, likely to secure a market share and muscle out competitors. India is now seeking to get a better deal as well.

Seeking IMF Deal, Better Monetary Policy Needed - If Belarus hopes to secure financial support from the IMF, it will need to show that it is serious about reforming its monetary policy according to its chief envoy to Minsk. The Belarusian rouble is struggling due to the overall economic climate in the region and the Central Bank has sought to shelter Belarusians from the impact by propping it up according to Reuters. In addition to switching over to a flexible currency exchange rate, Minsk needs to introduce a number of other structural reforms as well before the IMF will consider lending it money.

Currency Union Between Customs Union Members - In a recent meeting between the heads of state of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the time was right to consider creating a single currency for the three original Eurasian Economic Union members. The International Business Times reports that, despite the Russian rouble losing half its value over the past year, Putin feels that it would be better for everyone as it would help them negotiate with external markets and deal with common economic threats. No comment was offered by the heads of state of Kazakhstan or Belarus.

Civil Rights

Capital Punishment Back in the Spotlight - Euractiv reports that like the separatist peoples republics in eastern Ukraine, Belarus is among the only other European entities that supports capital punishment. If Belarus is serious about thawing relations with the EU, it would need to rid itself of the practise of executing individuals accused of crimes, a stance that is shared by all 47 members of the Council of Europe, including Russia.

Banned Belarusian Theatre Troupe in NYC - In their latest upcoming theatrical performance, the Belarus Free Theatre will perform 'Trash Cuisine', a play that addresses capital punishment through utilising 'a documentary style and food metaphors'. According to the New York Times' blog, the play was well received in both Edinbough and London, though its New York City performance will be the first time it is performed in English. Many of the troupe's players have lived in exile in London since leaving Belarus, a status that has made it difficult for them to perform in the United States.

Minsk Clamps Down on Internet Freedom - In an apparent move to cut down on the illicit drug trade in Belarus, the authorities are demanding that all Internet service providers will need to keep records on users' complete browsing history. Global voices reports that the new law, which is set to take effect next year, are viewed by human rights groups and experts as a means to indiscriminately monitor Belarusian Internet users' activity.

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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