Playing East And West, Cooperation with Pakistan and Thailand, First Belarusian Billionaire – Western Press Digest

Wargaming CEO Viktar Kisly. Source: Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic via Getty Images.

Western media focuses on the EU decision to abolish most sanctions and extend others, and accuses Belarus of playing “both sides” for advantage.

In other news: Belarusian missile site modernisation near NATO border, Lithuanian sentenced for spying for Belarus, lack of progress on human rights in Belarus, the success story of the Belarusian World of Tanks billionaire.

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

International relations

EU's controversial decision to end sanctions - The Guardian comments on the unanimous decision to end asset freezes and travel bans against 170 individuals including President Lukashenka and 3 defence companies due to “improving EU-Belarus relations.” As Rankin explains, EU ministers remain “concerned” after a recent OSCE report suggested Belarus had to improve “on democratic standards.” EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini is quoted as saying: “When we see significant, even if limited steps, in what we feel is the right direction, we feel it is right to encourage them.”

Belarus playing "both sides" - Stratfor report suggests that, despite being “one of Russia's closest allies, Belarus is increasingly warming up to the West” with “considerable growth in Belarus' diplomatic and economic ties with the Continent and the United States” occurring recently.

The report claims Belarus is central in “standoff between Russia and the West”, citing membership of the EEU and security and military ties with Russia via the Collective Security Treaty Organisation as examples of the former and “low-level” economic ties with EU countries, talks on visa facilitation as well as its role as mediator post-Ukraine’s Euromaidan as examples of the latter.

Stratfor adds that Belarus has decided to buy Russian fighter jets instead of allowing the opening of a base in Belarus, though Russia remains Belarus' biggest economic partner.

Economy and business

Increased bilateral trade with Pakistan - Pakistan and Belarus agreed to enhance bilateral trade and cooperation in various sectors including agriculture, energy and health at the second session of the Pakistan-Belarus Joint Ministerial Commission.

Highlights included both sides agreeing to establish a Joint Trade Committee to identify potential products for exchange and collaborate on the training of Pakistani doctors and para-medical staff in Belarus.

PKKH also reveals that Belarus gave its full support to Pakistan’s request for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EEU and agreed to simplify visa procedures for Pakistani businessmen.

Facebook acquires Belarusian software start-up - The Los Angeles Times confirms that Facebook Inc. has acquired Masquerade Technologies Inc., a young Belarusian start-up whose popular “Snapchat-like silly selfie-altering tool” has acquired 15m users in just 3 months after it was created during a 48-hour hackathon in November and raised $1m in seed funding from European investors. In addition, Masquerade's three co-founders, Eugene Nevgen, Sergey Gonchar and Eugene Zatepyakin, are expected to join Facebook's London office.

Dave reveals that Minsk, Belarus-based Masquerade has confirmed that the company “was excited to bring its virtual effects software to Facebook's 1.6b users” at a time when video customisation tools appear to be in high demand.

Belarusian 'World of Tanks' billionaire - Alexander Sazonov, writing for Bloomberg Business, unravels the success story of videogame creator Viktar Kisly, Wargaming Pcl CEO.

Sazonov explains that Wargaming Pcl has 150m global users, is valued at $1.5b and has given Kislyi a net worth of $1b, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

"The combination of creative brilliance and business acumen is what drives Wargaming’s success,” SuperData Research CEO Joost van Dreunen is quoted as saying.

Security and defence

Belarus strengthens defence links with Thailand - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly reports that Thailand has strengthened defence links with Belarus to “diversify its defence suppliers.”

This followed, Grevatt suggests, Thailand's Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s visits to Minsk from 23rd-27th February, confirms the The National News Bureau of Thailand.

Lithuanian sentenced for spying for Belarus - ABC News comments on the sentencing of former Baltic military paramedic Andrey Osurkov “to three years in jail for spying for neighboring Belarus” by “passing information about Lithuania's military” for 5 years.

The article elaborates that prosecutors claimed “the information collected was likely intended for Moscow.”

Belarus modernises S-200 Polatsk surface-to-air missile site - Bellingcat reports that Belarus has partially converted the site at Polatsk near NATO borders to support the advanced S-300 system, as revealed by DigitalGlobe satellite imagery.

Biggers suggests this is significant due to the location approximately 80km from the Latvian border, NATO’s current strengthening of “contingency planning” for the Baltics and talks of a Belarus-Russia Joint Regional Air Defence System.

Civil society and culture

Minsk "Europe's worst city to live in" - Newsweek reveals that analytics firm Mercer, in its annual league table comparing quality of life indexes worldwide, has classified Minsk as “Europe’s worst city to live in”, the other lowest ranking cities being Kiev in 176th place and Tirana in 179th place.

Sharkov claims the factors taken into account to determine the ranking were “personal safety and health issues.”

Opposition activist Bialiatski claims Lukashenka "fooling EU" - Georgi Gotev, writing for EurActiv, interviews Belarusian opposition activist Alieś Bialiacki, head of Viasna Human Rights Centre.

Bialiacki claims the lifting of sanctions in spite of the unchanged position of “human rights organisations” encourages feeling of “permissiveness” ahead of September parliamentary elections.

His “fear”, he claims, is “that pragmatism, economic and geopolitical considerations” could take priority, such as via proposed EU changes to the Eastern Partnership (EaP).

Belarus releases Tajik opposition activist - RFE/RL comments on the release of Tajik opposition activist Shabnam Hudoidodova by the Belarusian state “after being held for more than eight months”, according to Vyasna (Spring) Human Rights Centre.

The article explains that she has been granted refugee status following EU officials’ urging not to extradite Hudoidodova to Tajikistan.

Belarusian authorities had detained Hudoidodova in June 2015 after Tajikistan filed an international warrant for her arrest.

Marta Kochetkova

Marta is an intern at the Ostrogorski Centre

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