Ostrogorski Forum, Limits of Belarus-EU Relations, Nuclear Plant – Ostrogorski Centre Digest
Over the last few weeks analysts at the Ostrogorski Centre have focused on the Belarusian-Lithuanian dispute over the Astraviec nuclear power plant, the limits of Belarus-EU rapprochement, and why some regions in Belarus lag behind others.
Igar Gubarevich analyses Belarusian-Lithuanian tensions surrounding the nuclear power plant that Belarus is building near its border with Lithuania. Vilnius is worried about environmental and safety issues. However, Minsk sees economic and political motives behind Lithuania's claims. Although domestic policy considerations in Lithuania also play a role, the Lithuanian authorities are hardly willing to jeopardise the numerous benefits of a wide web of trade ties between the two countries.
Ryhor Astapenia explains why Viciebsk region lags behind other Belarusian regions in economic development. Currently, a quarter of enterprises are loss-making and some are even bankrupt. The region is experiencing depopulation, and property prices there have dropped further than elsewhere. Given the outflow of human capital and the lack of effort to improve public administration and the economic system, the region has no future but further degradation, the expert concludes.
Artyom Shraibman argues that the intensity of Belarus-EU cooperation seems to have reached its limits. The lack of progress in the human rights arena and Belarusians officials' dubious plans for electoral reform have harmed the relationship. Some visible progress – such as more inclusive composition of electoral commissions, transparent ballot counting or letting the opposition into parliament – might give the rapprochement with the West a second wind.
On 29 June in Drazdy Club the Ostrogorski Centre will hold the first Ostrogorski Forum – a conference on Belarusian foreign policy and security. The theme of this year's conference is 'Inertia, increased neutrality or foreign policy re-orientation? Foreign policy in Belarus at the present stage'.
The conference will feature five studies conducted in spring 2016 with grant support from the Mott Foundation and Pontis Foundation and implemented jointly with Ostrogorski Centre. The researchers will represent the Ostrogorski Centre, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, the "Political Sphere" institute, the Centre for European Studies and the Belarusian analytical workroom.
Speakers will discuss issues including Belarusian soft power in the region, Belarusian-Russian relations after the conflict in Ukraine, foreign policy of Belarus in the context of the CIS, the potential of Belarusian neutrality and the geopolitical orientation of Belarusians.
The conference is expected to become an annual event and promote the development of professional and respectful dialogue between experts with different political views (pro-government, opposition, pro-Russian, pro-Western, etc.), including government officials, journalists, academics, representatives of think tanks and state universities. See more details and programme of the conference here.
Seminar ‘Directions of development of higher and complementary education in Belarus’
On 30 June the Ostrogorski Centre in cooperation with the Institute of Business and Technology Management of Belarusian State University will hold a seminar on the development prospects of higher and complementary education in Belarus.
The seminar will present the results of three studies conducted by the Ostrogorski Centre, the Centre for European Studies and the the Institute of Business and Technology Management at BSU in spring 2016. The programme of the event is available here.
Address – Maskoŭskaja str. 5, room 213. The event is open to the public. Please register in the form to take part.
Comments in the media
Artyom Shraibman claimed on Radio Racyja that despite the lifting of EU sanctions, numerous visits of officials from Brussels to Minsk and vice versa, the relations of Belarus and the EU have reached a certain limit.
Ryhor Astapenia on Radio Racyja explains why Viciebsk region is experiencing the largest decline. Ryhor sees a sharp decline of revenues at Naftan, the core enterprise of the region, as one of the key factors of its economic problems. However, the expert points out that these problems are common to all regions of Belarus.
Artyom Shraibman speaks at ‘Belarus: Quo Vadis?’ discussion, organised by the Chatham House Russia and Eurasia Programme in London. Artyom discusses the Belarusian government's approach towards managing relations with the EU, US and Russia, and shares his views of the political scene in Belarus.
Igar Gubarevich discusses on Radio Racyja why Belarusian NPP is getting higher on the Lithuanian political agenda. Vilnius is concerned about environmental issues and safety, but Minsk sees economic and political motives behind these concerns.
Siarhei Bohdan comments for Radio Racyja on the increasing weight of Belarus in the international arena caused by growing tension in Eastern Europe. However, major geopolitical players are not interested in the neutrality of Belarus. The placement of new Russian troops on the border with Belarus does not mean preparation of another “Crimean scenario”, but a sign of Russia’s mistrust of the defence capacity of the Belarusian army.
Vadzim Smok on Belsat TV discusses the reasons for the economic crisis in Belarus, ongoing reform of social policies, and the potential implications of the authorities’ neglecting their social contract with the population.
Ryhor Astapenia on Polish Radio discusses the history of the Belarusian People's Assembly, and how the authorities use it to their advantage. According to Ryhor, at this year’s assembly Lukashenka will seek to obscure the economic difficulties with a discourse of independence and peace, and will as usual call upon the people to mobilise under his rule.
Artyom Shraibman explains to Polish Radio why Freedom of Press ratings published by Freedom House are unfair for Belarus. There are countries where the situation with media freedom remains much worse, yet they scored higher in the ranking. According to Artyom, engaging two local experts with varying viewpoints rather than the current one and clarifying methodology could improve the assessment.
In the Polish radio programme "Political mirror" Ostrogorsky Centre analyst Ryhor Astapenia discusses whether meeting with the Pope helped Aliaksandr Lukashenka break out of international isolation, what implications public spending cuts will have in Belarus and why the flagship enterprises of Belarusian machine building have topped the list of loss-making companies for several years in a row.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
- Alieś Sieržanovič, Iryna Juzvak, Andrej Kažamiakin. Analysis of the sphere of organisational development of civil society organisations. OEEC, 2016.
- Arevik Mkrtchan. Determining the common external tariff in a customs union: evidence from the Eurasian Customs Union. BEROC, 2015.
- Alieh Mazol. Exchange rates, imports of intermediate and capital goods and GDP growth in Belarus. BEROC, 2015.
- Andrej Skryba. Towards strategic cooperation between Belarus and Ukraine: benefits and challenges. BISS, 2016.
- Tacciana Vadalažskaja, Andrej Jahoraŭ, Aliona Zujkova, Voĺha Laškievič, Iryna Lašuk, Ihar Rasoĺka. Monitoring of the implementation by the Republic of Belarus of UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. CET, 2015.
Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by completing this form.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.
Independent Regional Newspapers in Belarus: Surviving despite the Odds
On 24 June, Belarusian authorities once again refused to include Intex Press, a regional newspaper, into the state distribution system. A few other Belarusian regional publications face the same problem, and almost all of them have reduced their circulation and earn less money than in 2015.
Although they flourished in the 1990s, independent regional publications have since suffered due to repression and the poor economic conditions of recent years. Nearly all of them currently lack funds, forcing talented journalists out of regional publications.
The West have done much to support the regional press, but could do more to train media managers and put pressure on the Belarusian government to include independent newspapers into public distribution network.
Regional publications in Belarus: why they still matter
The regional press flourished in Belarus in the '90s, as did other media. At that time, a politicised society ensured high circulation and a growing advertising market brought money. However, over time the authorities began to undermine the regional press.
Hanna Yahorava, Executive Director of the Association of Regional Press Publishers, told Belarus Digest that the greatest changes occurred in 2006-2009. At this time the government pushed a significant part of the regional media out of public distribution system, resulting in bankruptcy for many publications. Around 20 regional publications closed as a result of a dilemma: to write about politics, lose advertising money, and drop out of the state distribution system, or to stop writing on political topics completely.
Today the Association of Regional Press Publishers comprises 14 regional publications, all of which have survived the difficult times. These newspapers mainly operate in the west of the country and write to varying degrees about social problems.
Five of them lack access to the public distribution system, so people can neither subscribe to them in the traditional way nor purchase them at kiosks which sell the majority of Belarusian print media. This year, newspapers such as Intex Press or Borisovskije novosti were told that authorities would require more documents in order to consider returning these newspapers to the distribution system. Although the newspapers took this as a sign of possible policy change, the authorities once again declined their petition.
Several reasons explain why regional newspapers seem to be more resilient and often popular compared to their national counterparts. They remain much more relevant to readers, maintain a higher level of trust among the people and somehow manage to sell advertising places.
The newspaper Intex-press in Baranavichy is full of private advertising, despite the fact that authorities dropped it from the distribution system and continue to issue vague warnings.
In 2015 the Ministry of Information gave the newspaper a warning for use of "RB" instead of "the Republic of Belarus" on output data. According to Belarusian legislation, the authorities can close a newspaper after two warnings in a year.
At the same time, regional publications use tools that major independent media do not. For example, ok.ru remains the second most popular social network in Belarus, but many independent newspapers do not even have a public page there. Meanwhile, the small Rehijnalnaja hazeta has more than four thousand subscribers on ok.ru.
Current problems of the regional press
However, Lukashenka's regime is not solely to blame for the decline of regional publications. As in many other countries, newspapers are losing circulation because of the Internet and changes in the advertising market. The economic challenge to local publications in Belarus is even more difficult, as the advertising market shrank greatly during the crisis. In 2015, advertising revenues of regional publications were nearly halved.
Under such conditions, regional publications are constantly in need of money and lose talented journalists who go to work for the national media. According to data from the Association of Regional Press Publishers, salaries in regional publications are just one third of the average salary in the country. This means that such journalists earn about $200 a month.
Weak financial conditions mean that independent publications appear more expensive than state-run ones receiving state subsidies. At the same time, private newspapers often lack access to information. In 2015, an official refused to respond to a correspondent from Babruisk Courier, saying: "I just did not want to talk to your media".
Help the newspapers need
Western donors have already done much for regional publications. For political reasons, neither the donor nor the media can disclose the amount of financial and organisational support from donors. But many media experts in Belarus say that a large portion of the media remains afloat thanks to Western assistance.
Currently, donors are reducing the amount of aid they send, resulting in a need for a different approach. Instead of offering grants to fund publications, the West should help create conditions conducive to the development of regional publications.
First of all, the absence of regional publications in the state distribution system should become a highly-politicised issue, as was the case for the newspapers Nasha Niva and Narodnaja Volia. A combination of pressure and dialogue with the West in 2008-2010 forced the Belarusian government to return them to the system – the same should happen with the regional media.
If this basic requirement is not met, newspapers will be afraid to write about politics, as this leads to problems finding advertisers and the regional press being incapable of competing with state-run media as they are unable to sell everywhere.
A programme of regional media support should be developed together with stakeholders in the country. According to Hanna Yahorava, this is not necessarily the case today.
In addition to seminars for journalists, there is still a need for training programmes for media managers, teaching them not only to cope with developing a newspaper in very adverse conditions, but more importantly, to find ways to persuade advertisers to invest in the newspaper despite the many problems with authorities.