Anarchists, the avangarde of social protests in Belarus

On 15 March, Belarusian authorities detained dozens of citizens protesting against the social parasite decree. Anarchists were one of the most noticeable movements at the protests in Brest and Minsk, causing an immediate reaction from the police.

Anarchists in Belarus, who have a long history, tend to participate only in particular political events. Their creativity and integration distinguished them from other groups during the last two weeks of protests.

The regime has put considerable effort into diminishing the influence of any uncontrollable and integrated group of dissidents, including anarchists. Independence Day on 25 March will show whether the anarchist movement in Belarus is ready for social and political protest or whether it will continue to operate mostly underground.

The anarchist movement in Belarus

Belarusian anarchism has a long history, dating back to 1905-1907 when anarchist movements appeared in Smarhon, Kouna, Hrodna, and Minsk. In Soviet times, anarchists focused their efforts resisting the upper class. In 1992, Belarusian anarchists formed a ‘Federation of Belarusian Anarchists'. However, it soon disappeared because of problems with coordination. In 1999 anarchists published their first newspaper, Navinki, but it was shut down by the government four years later.

In the 2000s anarchist activism became restricted due to continued confrontation with the government. In 2003, anarchists created a group called Revolutionary Movement which, however, failed to unite Belarusian anarchists under one umbrella organisation. Repression against anarchists has created additional obstacles to their activity. Political prisoners such as anarchists Ihar Alinevich, Mikalai Dziadok, and Aliaksandr Franskievich spent five years in prison for torching a vehicle at the Russian Embassy yard and throwing smoke grenades into the Ministry of Defence building.

There exist several main groups of anarchists, such as Pramien and Revolutionary action, but most of them are local and somewhat notorious. Their activities remain hidden and highly conspiratorial, and their membership is quite marginal. The anarchist movement over the last few years became more visible due to participation in particular events, such as Charnobylski Shliah (Charnobyl movement) or small-scale protests. In 2015, anarchists in Minsk protested against police and KGB brutality after a rock-concert at a club called Pirates.

Belarusian anarchists criticise not only the government but also the opposition for their desire for power and money. At the same time, they sometimes tend to support democratic ideas of the opposition by participating in social protests. During the 'anti-parasite decree' protests, anarchists were noted for their integration and social-oriented messages, such as 'The government is robbing the people, or 'Officials are the main social parasite'.

In an interview with Kyky.org, anarchist Dzmitry Palienka stated: 'People actively support our slogans because they were social and thematic…People have less and less trust, both to the authorities and to the opposition leaders. This, obviously, makes us happy'.

Uniting the protests

Anarchist became one of the most active groups fighting against the ‘social parasites’ decree. The march of angry Belarusians demanded the abolishment of the decree, which obliges unemployed citizens to pay an annual tax of €220. During recent protests, anarchists appeared right at the front of crowds and encouraged the demonstrators to maintain a spirit of protest.

Brest has become a hot-spot for 'anti-decree' protests. The demonstration on 5 March gathered between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Anarchists occupied leading positions in the protests’ columns. Although during the marches the authorities did not employ force, violent actions started soon after.

Authorities blocked web-pages, such as revbel.org or groups on VK.com, a popular social media platform. Dozens of anarchists reported being beaten, detained or sentenced to short-term imprisonment after the demonstrations on 15 March.

This was the first time in a long period that so many Belarusian anarchists participated in social protests. Authorities aim to decrease public protest by putting a stop to a main source of protest messages – anarchists. At the same time, oppositional forces might be using anarchists to increase their support and heighten the chances of regime change.

Anarchists as scapegoats for the state?

Belarusian anarchists have draw the public's attention only in special cases related to anti-governmental protests or due to particular small-scale actions, such as the graffiti protest. However, in February and March during the 'social parasites' protests they appeared to be organised and attracted the attention of both citizens and the police.

The regime attempts to discredit anarchists and sees them as a threat. On 6 March, Belarusian national TV broadcasted a programme comparing the symbols and ideas of anarchism to those present during the protests in the former Yugoslavia and Ukrainian Maidan, which ‘led to the war’. Today, in order to maintain an atmosphere of fear, authorities are repressing more than just the opposition, unlike previous protests. The state is detaining anarchists who appear strong, united, and leading.

In the words of anarchist Stas Pachobut to Radyjo Svaboda 'secret services have developed a system which is able to restrict political movements. And it does not work with the anarchist movement. Therefore, it was impossible to stop anarchists during the social marches against the 'social parasites' decree'.

Although the social parasites tax was postponed, authorities might be preparing the political arena before Independence Day and large anti-decree protests, which are to be held on 25 March. On 11 March, the authorities sentenced oppositional leaders Anatoĺ Liabiedźka, Juryj Hubarevič, Vital Rymašeŭski , and Volha Kavalkova to 15 days of detention. The day after, police detained politician Paviel Seviaryniec and five independent journalists.

Anarchists have demonstrated that they are well-organised and, at the same time, not controlled by governmental structures since they have no legal status and rarely act in public. The regime draws an analogy between anarchists and the football fans in Ukraine who strongly resisted the government during Maidan. Recent harsh punishments of six football fans, who were sentenced to 4-12 years on 10th March, is evidence of this attitude.

Demonstrations on 25 March will become a test for the anarchist movement and show whether they are able to become a strong protesting power. Otherwise, anarchist activity could go underground until the next occasion triggers them to make an appearance on the political arena.




Minsk alludes to ‘shared values’ with Europe as Brussels downplays repression – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Security services have so far detained over 150 protesters following mass rallies in Belarus. Many were arrested or fined, and some were beaten.

However, the authorities' return to mass repression of the opposition has provoked a muted reaction from Western democracies. The government’s actions have so far failed to disrupt the intensive dialogue between Minsk and European capitals.

High-level diplomats from Germany and Belgium visited Minsk when the repression was already in full swing. Belgium’s deputy prime minister de facto condoned the administrative arrests, while the German diplomat warned Belarus against ‘backsliding in terms of democracy’.

Meanwhile, Belarus continues to pursue closer relations with Western-oriented post-Soviet states – disregarding Moscow’s evident displeasure at Minsk's geopolitical choices. The Georgian President visited Minsk seeking to secure Belarus’s continued support for Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Russia is not a major factor in Belarus-Georgia relations

On 1-2 March, Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili paid an official visit to Belarus. His trip to Minsk bolsters the dynamic bilateral relations set in motion by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s visit to Tbilisi in April 2015.

The Georgian leader thanked his host profusely for Belarus’s unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty: despite its alliance with Russia, Belarus has refused to recognise the independence of two Georgian breakaway territories cum Russian satellites.

After Tbilisi severed its diplomatic and economic ties with Moscow, Belarus became an important hub for legal and illegal transit of Georgian people and goods to Russia. In return, current and former Georgian leaders have frequently supported Lukashenka when meeting with influential Western politicians.

The Belarusian state-sponsored media generally turn a blind eye to Margvelashvili’s harsh statements regarding Russia. Instead, they tend to emphasise the brisk pace of Belarus-Georgia economic ties.

Indeed, last year bilateral trade grew by 63.4%, reaching $73.2m. However, these figures seem less spectacular in a broader context. The goal of $200m set by Lukashenka and Margvelashvili in 2015 may prove unattainable.

Belarus is seeking to participate in the construction of major winter sports facilities in Georgia and supply non-military goods to the Georgian army. Georgia is interested in Belarus’s know-how in the agricultural and IT spheres. In return, Margvelashvili has stated his readiness to share Georgia’s experience in implementing economic reforms – an offer the Belarusian authorities are less than eager to take him up on.

Both Belarus and Georgia are comfortable with each other's geopolitical orientation. Margvelashvili described the aspirations of the two countries with regards to different blocs as ‘an advantage which should further strengthen [our] relations’.

On the same day, Belarus’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei proposed ‘not to invent some imaginary dangers for [Belarus’s] economy or the economies of other EEU member states, but rather to take a realistic view of the situation’. This attitude stands in stark contrast to Russia’s nervous position on the issue.

Germany, Belarus’s key partner in Europe

In recent weeks, Belarus and Germany have maintained remarkably active diplomatic contacts. This exchange culminated in a visit to Minsk from Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe at the German Federal Foreign Office on 13-14 March.

Earlier, on 22-24 February, Belarus’s deputy foreign minister Oleg Kravchenko travelled to Berlin to hold political consultations with his German counterpart, to speak at a business conference, and to meet several German officials. In late February – early March, Kravchenko’s boss Vladimir Makei received Johann David Wadeful, deputy chairman of the German-Belarusian parliamentary group in the Bundestag, and Bärbel Kofler, commissioner of the Federal Government for human rights policy and humanitarian aid.

Michael Roth became the highest-ranked German diplomat and politician to come to Minsk on a bilateral visit after former foreign minister Guido Westerwelle’s trip in November 2010. Roth came to Minsk to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the two countries’ diplomatic relations accompanied by Oliver Kaczmarek, chairman of the German-Belarusian parliamentary group in the Bundestag

After his meeting with Roth, Vladimir Makei called Germany Belarus’s key partner in Europe and spoke about positive momentum in their bilateral relations. Roth assured the Belarusian authorities of Germany’s support to Belarus’s accession to the WTO. Other than this, the parties were reticent about their negotiations or future plans.

At a conference dedicated to the jubilee of diplomatic relations, with Roth in attendance, deputy minister Kravchenko made a surprising statement: ‘[Belarus’s] relations with Europe must be built on shared values, not only on economic pragmatism’. This notion of ‘shared values’ is a novelty in official Belarusian discourse.

The return of the Belarusian government to large-scale repression against oppositional leaders and protesters casts doubt on the sincerity of such declarations. Michael Roth stressed Germany’s preoccupation with the ongoing events and called for the ‘immediate release of all detained’. ‘We do not want to return to the days of sanctions, but both the EU and Germany have an absolutely clear expectation that … Belarus should not be backsliding in terms of democracy and human rights’, the German diplomat said.

Belgium downplays the importance of administrative arrests in Belarus

The mass arrests in Belarus failed to dissuade Belgium’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister from visiting Minsk. On 15 March, Didier Reynders met with his counterpart Vladimir Makei and was received by Alexander Lukashenka.

The Belarusian leader used the opportunity presented by the Belgian minister's visit to send a couple of new messages to Vladimir Putin. First, he failed to name Russia among the global centres of power (his list included China, the United States, and the EU). What's more, Lukashenka called himself a ‘supporter of the EU’ and its unity and emphasised Belarus’s critical attitude towards ‘[Europe’s] Brexits and nationalistic movements’, which Russia happens to support, openly or covertly.

Reynders rejoiced at the Belarusian authorities’ apparent willingness ‘to move forward on the path of closer work with civil society’. When asked about the potentially disruptive effect of the mass arrests in Belarus on the country’s relations with the EU, the foreign minister insisted on making ‘a very clear difference between administrative arrests during demonstrations like we have seen in many European countries, and real prosecution for criminal facts.’

On the same night, the Belarusian authorities demonstrated their understanding of the implications of Reynders’ message when they detained dozens of protesters (some of them with brutal force) after a peaceful and authorised rally in Minsk.

The West’s failure to audibly condemn the Belarusian authorities for their return to repressive practises has shown that the EU and the United States continue to prioritise Minsk’s timid westward reorientation over its attitude towards human rights and rule of law.




Social parasites’ protests, high-tech park – digest of Belarus analytics

Aliena Arciomienka, BISS, analyses the impact of the crisis on the potential of street protest in Belarus. Thomas De Waal, Carnegie Europe, suggests Lukashenka’s balancing act is made easier by the confusion coming from the White House as to what constitutes current U.S. foreign policy.

High basic civic knowledge, low trust in influencing government – Pact presents key results of the Civic Literacy Test survey in Belarus. Aliaksandr Klaskoŭski reflects on a meeting between Lukashenka and chief editor of Narodnaja Volia independent newspaper.

The new papers added to Belaruspolicy.com database include a study of the Belarusian High Technology Park, joint stock companies, and the 8th issue of the Macroeconomic Review of Belarus.

This and more in the new edition of digest of Belarus analytics.

Social protests in Belarus

New Quality of Protest. Why Belarusians Began to Take Streets – Artiom Shraibman, for the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes about the protests against the “social parasite tax.” People were brought to the streets due to a mixture of two emotions – they feel that they have nothing to lose and nothing to fear. This is a new quality of protest for Belarus when the passive majority is sympathetic not to the president but the protesters.

What Do the Protests in Belarus Mean? – Yauheni Preiherman, for the Jamestown Foundation, analyzes a series of protests in Minsk and regional cities in recent weeks that made headlines both inside Belarus and abroad. The fact that they gathered the largest number of protesters in almost seven years sparked active discussions as to whether the protests can become a game-changer for Belarusian domestic politics and the country’s role in regional affairs.

Impact Of the Crisis On Protest Potential of UnemployedAliena Arciomienka, BISS, analyzing the recent protests against the decree №3, draws attention to the polls on the Belarusians' attitude to reforms. From 2014 to 2015, the number of unemployed Belarusian ready to participate in rallies raised from 4% to 23%. Such protest potential is growing not constrained by any fear of job loss or deterioration of labour conditions or the lack of support from the state.

Why Belarusian Business Supports Social Projects – Aliaksandr Skraboŭski, head of the National contest Social Weekend, explains who and why social projects. One of the answers is that Belarusian business wants to reflect the degree of their maturity, their owners, employees, and thank the environment for the opportunity to run the business. Soon such intangible assets will remain almost the only competitive advantage on the market.

Will Lukashenka follow Jaruzelski’s steps?Aliaksandr Klaskoŭski follows up on a recent meeting between Lukashenka and Iosif Siaredzič, chief editor of Narodnaja Volia independent newspaper. The author concludes that the crisis in Belarus is not as acute as it was in Poland in late 1980s to make Belarusian leadership hurry up with the national dialogue, while Belarusian opposition and civil society should get out of the political ghetto to make the roundtable meaningful.

Foreign Policy and Security

 

A Belarusian Balancing Act – Thomas De Waal, Carnegie Europe, notes that unprecedented series of street protests in several towns over the weekend of February 18–19, inspired by socioeconomic grievances, suggests that Alexander Lukashenka knows his regime needs to keep adapting if it is not to crumble. Lukashenka tries to keep his options open with the EU while not allowing Russia to take him for granted.

Situation In the Field of National Security and Defense of Belarus. January 2017 – According to Belarus Security Blog monthly monitoring, a new reality in the field of border security Belarus is the fact that starting from August 2016 Russia de facto withdrew from the regime of freedom of movement across the border with Belarus. The depth of the contradictions between the two countries makes real the prospect of a full-fledged return of border controls on the Belarusian-Russian border.

Civic Literacy Test in Belarus: High Basic Knowledge, Low Trust in Influencing Government – According to the Civic Literacy Test, the first national survey of the kind in Belarus, 75% of Belarusians have high knowledge of basic civil rights and responsibilities; at the same time, 99% believe they cannot influence state policies and decisions. The national survey was conducted by SATIO and commissioned by Pact in June 2016. The presentation will take place on March 15 in Minsk.

P.S. Zhadan. Catching poet-"terrorist"Maksim Žbankoŭ, Belarusian Journal, reflects on a case of the detention in Minsk, the deportation decision and its cancellation of the famous Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan. The analyst sees a clear message in that – the authorities have no logic, only emotions and instincts. One more conclusion is that a person in Belarus is totally unprotected before the authorities.

Business envoronment and economy

Work of the High Technology Park: a threefold increase in exports of IT services and what would happen if the park is closed The creation of the park led to a threefold increase in exports of IT services in Belarus during 2006-2013.

Work of the High Technology Park: a threefold increase in exports of IT services and what would happen if the park is closed. The results of statistical modeling that involves the method of synthetic monitoring for assessing the impact of High Technology Park on the growth of IT sector show that the creation of the park led to a threefold increase in exports of IT services in Belarus during 2006-2013. However, top managers of Belarusian companies are afraid of changes in the Park's legal environments and predict migration of IT companies in other countries, spread of semi-legal schemes of work and an overall reduction in the rates of IT sector development.

The anatomy of Belarusian joint stock companies. Little is known about how effective the Belarusian enterprises are, what share of the economy belongs to the state, how state-owned enterprises differ from private ones, how labour, capital and materials are distributed between the companies, and how emergence, evolution and exit of enterprises from the market impacts the economy. This work is an attempt to find answers to these questions by analysing the activities of the Belarusian joint stock companies.

8th issue of the Macroeconomic Review of Belarus (IV quarter 2016). Quarterly issues of the Macroeconomic Review of Belarus represent the unique panorama in over 100 graphs and tables of the key economic indicators covering all sectors of Belarusian economy: real sector, fiscal sector, monetary sector, and external sector. There are less words, more data. Macroeconomic Review can be helpful for a wide range of local and external stakeholders interested in Belarus economy in general: from academia and public authorities to representatives of international organisations.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




Tax on “social parasites” stirs up public angst in Belarus

On April 2, 2015, President Alexander Lukashenka signed Decree No. 3 “on preventing social dependency”, otherwise known as the “idleness decree” or the “social parasite tax.”

The new law requires nearly half a million jobless Belarusians who did not pay taxes for more than six months, to pay an annual fee of approximately $245 (as of January 1, 2017).

This fee is quite high, particularly for a jobless person, considering the average monthly salary in Belarus is roughly $380. Those listed as officially unemployed are exempt from the decree, as they must do work on behalf of the state to receive their benefits (such as street cleaning).

The presidential press service of Belarus describes the tax as targeting those who “do not live within their means and use all amenities such as free education and healthcare services.”

 This resistance appears genuinely broad based and domestic in nature. 

Over the past two months, as the tax has come due, resistance to the decree has grown from small critiques and online chatter, to public discussions organised by the democratic political opposition and the authorities, to public protests in Minsk and the regions. This resistance appears genuinely broad based and domestic in nature. As of the end of February, at least ten protests have occurred across the country with total participation estimated at nearly 9,000. Some of these protests have been organised by the democratic opposition, while others have been self-organised by citizens.

Frustration with the parasite tax has served to awaken public interest in political life. It also creates a rare opportunity for democratic parties and movements to connect with ordinary people on a large scale. Elements of the democratic opposition have long been opposed to the decree. Their efforts to connect with and organise citizens frustrated with Decree No. 3 demonstrates the opposition’s growing capacity to look beyond a protest only approach.

Instead, opposition parties and movements have sought opportunities to facilitate public conversations, demonstrate their responsiveness and relevance to citizens affected by the decree, and to engage authorities on behalf of the citizenry at public meetings.

The authorities have thus far pursued a public relations strategy to defend the decree and emphasise that the Presidential administration will implement it fairly. 

In the short term, it seems organised efforts to oppose the decree, public frustration, and opportunities to engage people in civic-political action will grow. The Belarusian authorities have taken note of the dissatisfaction. While unlikely to overtly abandon the decree in the face of opposition, they have begun efforts to mitigate negative perceptions through nuanced public engagement efforts of their own.

The authorities have thus far pursued a public relations strategy to defend the decree and emphasise that the Presidential administration will implement it fairly. This public relations defence on state media and at “citizen receptions” organised by the presidential administration has been coupled with targeted pressure against local activists, largely in the form of hefty fines for participating in unsanctioned rallies. The number of activists facing charges still remains low, but these kinds of stifling measures may grow if protests continue.

Opposition to decree No. 3 activates the public

President Lukashenka’s Decree No. 3 was criticised by democratic parties, human rights organisations, independent unions and the International Labor Organisation (ILO) immediately after it was signed in 2015. The decree and its critics were largely ignored by the broader public until recently.

Ultimately, over 470,000 people (approximately 10 percent of the working age population) were told they are subject to the parasite tax. 

Public interest in the decree began to increase in late 2016 and early 2017 as citizens began receiving notices that they were subject to the social parasite tax. Ultimately, over 470,000 people (approximately 10 percent of the working age population) were told they are subject to the parasite tax. As of February 2017, 54,000 people have paid the fee amounting to a total of 16.3 million rubles (approx. 8.69 million US dollars).

As the number of Belarusians receiving parasite tax notices increased and the payment deadline of February 20, 2017, approached, popular interest and outrage regarding the decree grew. Increasing dissatisfaction with the decree has also been fuelled by a sharp decline in Belarusian income over the past two years (-7.3 percent in 2016, -5.9 percent in 2015). As frustrations have grown, long time advocates against the decree found new audiences for their critiques and ordinary citizens took to social networks and video blogs to express their opposition to the idleness decree.

In the beginning of 2017, organised efforts to oppose Decree No. 3 took the form of petition drives, public or legal hearings, appeals to the government and street protests. Online action stimulating discussion has largely taken the form of memes and video blogs. For example, “Belsat” TV gained over 180,000 likes through its meme on Odnoklassniki against the Decree. The highest level of video blog attention was achieved by Maxim Filipovič, who accumulated over 3,000,000 views (mostly on Odnoklassniki) of his videos discussing the “idleness tax.”

Anti-decree petitions were the first form of organised opposition. In January and February 2017, activists from the Belarusian Radio and Electronics Workers’ Union (REP), United Civil Party (UCP), Belarusian Christian Democracy (BCD), and the For Freedom Movement (FFM) collected 75,000 signatures against the parasite tax. Over 25,000 of the signatures were collected via the online petition platform Zvarot.by.

Public hearings and discussions on the decree were organised in Minsk and a variety of Belarusian regions by FFM, REP, Belarus Social Democratic Party Hramada (BSDP-H), and Tell the Truth (TTT). During some of the hearings, legal assistance was offered to those subjected to the parasite tax. For example, during TTT hearings, activists helped affected citizens to file individual appeals to parliament and the President. Legal tutorials were also organised online by several organisations and individuals.

Significantly, the majority of those in attendance were not part of the opposition movements

In late January, several opposition organisations called for protests to advocate for repealing the idleness decree. The first protest, the “March of Angry Belarusians,” was organised in Minsk by REP and Mikalaj Statkievič’s Belarusian National Congress on 17 February. The unsanctioned rally attracted over 2,000 people, exceeding most expectations. Significantly, the majority of those in attendance were not part of the opposition movements, but ordinary citizens attracted to the event because of their personal antipathy to the idleness decree.

The divide between the event’s organisers and audience was evident by the audiences muted response to speeches and chants that veered away from the idleness decree and towards political and personal critiques of the president. The protest was covered by the Belarusian independent media, foreign media, and, surprisingly, Belarusian state media. Live broadcasts of Belarusian independent media gained approximately 1,000,000 views within a day of the rally.

Two days later, on 19 February, UCP, BCD and other political forces organised a series of protests against the decree in Homiel, Mahilioŭ, Viciebsk, Brest, and Hrodna. Over three thousand people are estimated to have participated in these regional events. A week later, on February 26, protests continued as four more rallies against the decree were organised in Viciebsk, Babrujsk, Baranavičy, and Brest.

It is noteworthy that protests in Viciebsk and Brest were mostly self-organised through social network groups (e.g. Typical Viciebsk or Parasites of Brest on Vkontakte). At the same time, Babrujsk and Baranavičy rallies were headed by BCD and UCP leaders correspondingly. Over three thousand people are estimated to have participated in 26 February protests.

Topics discussed at regional gatherings often morphed from idleness to broader socio-economic frustrations

Regional rallies have been notable because of their scale and scope. Public participation appears to be broader than traditional opposition circles, and the majority of participants will not be directly affected by the parasite tax themselves. Topics discussed at regional gatherings often morphed from idleness to broader socio-economic frustrations. For example, a 22 year old man who had just returned from working in Russia said he couldn’t find a job in Belarus and added that “Lukashenka has made us [Belarusians] regular guest workers.”

In Babrujsk, another young man demanded that a local road repair project should be supervised and accepted not by officials but city residents. Another young man blamed members of parliament for “not lobbying the interests of Baranavičy and its citizens to attract foreign investments to the city.” Public speeches at the events are as likely to include frustrated citizens as they are opposition activists.

In Viciebsk, for instance, one of the social media stars of the event was a 38 year old janitor of a local kindergarten nick-named the “Viciebsk Joan of Arc” by the independent media. This was her first time at a protest and in her remarks she said the people are tired of living as they do now and that the authorities enjoy luxurious life while people suffer injustice.

Regional rallies will continue between now and the end of March in Brest, Pinsk, Babrujsk, Mahilioŭ, Viciebsk, Hrodna, Orša, Maladechna, Homiel, and other regional cities. On 15 March, UCP, BCD, BSDP-H, the Green Party, Fair World, FFM and others are planning to hold a protest in Minsk, which will coincide with Constitution Day. Opposition organisations are also poised to continue promoting the abolishment of the idleness decree by organising public meetings and, legal consultations, as well as through an ongoing dialogue on social media.

Government responds to public discontent

The Belarusian government has positioned the decree as an effort to punish those who are hiding their money and failing to contribute to society. Given the wide array of people impacted by the decree and the deteriorating economic situation, these arguments have not been received well.

As public dissatisfaction over the idleness decree increased, the President made the unprecedented move of ordering senior members of the Presidential Administration to hold citizen receptions

In late 2016 and early 2017, when discontent was largely online, the Belarusian authorities rejected the idea of abolishing the decree, but did amend the list of those affected. For example, members of national sports teams, men completing alternative military service, and people living in difficult circumstances were excluded from the decree. The vague concept of difficult circumstances gives the government great flexibility when interpreting the law, thus allowing them to show and promote their clemency in individual cases.

As public dissatisfaction over the idleness decree increased, the President made the unprecedented move of ordering senior members of the Presidential Administration to hold citizen receptions. Such events have been held over the course of the past week and are likely to continue in the coming weeks. The public greeted these citizen receptions with interest.

Opposition political activists attended some of the receptions, and a number of them used to broadcast the meeting live, or their gave their impressions afterwards. The receptions were covered on state TV and utilised by the authorities to demonstrate the presidential administration’s closeness to the people, and their willingness to listen and solve problems. State media covered the February 17 protest against the decree.

The state TV coverage was critical of the protesters and presented Decree No. 3 as a positive law to prevent tax evasion and fight the shadow economy, rather than to hurt the poor or unemployed. The TV coverage emphasised the importance of paying taxes to fund infrastructure and social services. A similar narrative emerged from comments made the following week by Valer Kavalkoŭ, the Deputy Minister of the Department of Labour and Social Protection, who described social justice as “when all able citizens of working age pay taxes.”

He also stressed those with “difficult living situations” would be exempted from the tax. The Presidential Administration highlighted that the purpose of the decree is to incentivise citizens to secure legal employment. On February 28, Lukashenko weighed into the discussion deemphasising popular frustrations and attributing the protests to external (Russian) forces seeking to destroy Belarus:

“Some people are trying to shake this boat under the guise of ‘freeloading’ or something else. They are trying to prove that these are not our lands. Therefore, it is very important for us. ‘Freeloaders’ should know that they are used for someone else’s benefit, they are used to destroy what we have, to ruin the things that we have restored, to impede our development.”

The authorities are simultaneously defending the law, demonstrating flexibility in its implementation, and presenting the presidential administration as responsive to citizen concerns

The authorities’ citizen receptions, comments of government officials, and active state news coverage of events surrounding the idleness decree point to a three-pronged public relations strategy. The authorities are simultaneously defending the law, demonstrating flexibility in its implementation, and presenting the presidential administration as responsive to citizen concerns.

This public campaign also credits the president’s representatives with reining in overzealous local officials. For example, the coverage on “Belarus 1” highlighted situations in which fines were rescinded after the presiding official of the presidential administration determined the tax had been applied “unfairly” by local officials.

The governmental response to public protests has also included targeted pressure against activists. None of the previously scheduled rallies or upcoming events have been officially authorised. Some events were held without requesting permission and others were held despite official denial. The police did not disrupt events. Following the rallies, however, local police opened investigations on at least two opposition leaders from BCD and a number of democratic activists from Mahilioŭ, Viciebsk, Hrodna and Homiel.

What is most notable about the public receptions, official commentary, and TV coverage is that the authorities felt the need to actively engage with citizens and take an assertive media posture to defend themselves and the decree. The implementation of this decree seems to have hit a nerve in society that the authorities recognise and hope to calm.

If the presidential administration sees its “citizen receptions” as useful, perhaps such events will become a regular part of the authorities’ tension reduction tool box. This would create a new opportunity for citizens and social-political activists to engage and pressure the authorities to increase their responsiveness.

Between a rock and hard place. Potential paths forward

To cancel the decree in the face of public opposition could be interpreted as a sign of weakness and a victory for civil society and the political opposition

Given that the authorities, including Lukashenka, have stood behind the decree for the past two years it is unlikely that they will fully abandon it regardless of how unpopular it is. Whatever the original purpose behind the decree or its actual value, at this stage to cancel the decree in the face of public opposition could be interpreted as a sign of weakness and a victory for civil society and the political opposition.

In the short term, it is likely the authorities will continue to defend the decree as a means of fighting tax evasion, along with promoting the fairness of the appeals process for those who believe they are exempt. They may continue to use citizen receptions and other outreach to improve public perception of the law. This communications approach drives a public perception wedge between “bad” parasites who remain subject to the decree and the “good” victims subjected to this through the failure of the local authorities, but saved by the long arm of the president.

Outside of the public eye, the authorities are likely to continue to demand payment of fees, but may do so carefully and with an eye toward avoiding controversy or protest. It is worth noting that the authorities have limited capacity to punish or persuade over 400,000 people. Should this approach work, the protest mood in the general public may dissipate if the population begins to perceive the president as a fair arbiter of the situation.

Should public discontent grow, however, and manifest itself in increasing street activism, it is likely the authorities would further increase the risk of public participation by expanding their targeted repressive measures. Based on the government’s response to protests against the idleness decree thus far, and their approach to unauthorised gatherings over the past two years, the most likely form of pressure would be levying of fines on individuals participating in protests.

A fine of a few hundred dollars, often exceeding the average monthly salary in Belarus, can significantly reduce an individual’s interest in public participation, while also bypassing significant international media attention.

While a violent crackdown on protesters is always an option, it is unlikely the authorities would take this route, except as a last resort

If further escalation is required, past precedent suggests certain activists and their families will be targeted and threatened with loss of employment or other very personal and impactful consequences. While a violent crackdown on protesters is always an option, it is unlikely the authorities would take this route, except as a last resort in the face of a truly unanticipated level of protest. A violent crackdown would undermine the authorities’ efforts to engage with western nations, and it would isolate Belarus at a time of a major dispute with Russia.

The widespread disapproval of this decree is bridging a long-standing gap between broad public concerns and what is perceived to be the agenda of the organised opposition. Regardless the actions of the Belarusian authorities, opposition to the decree is unlikely to stop in the short term (at least not before the March 15 rally in Minsk, and potentially beyond). There will be continued efforts, including by established opposition forces and politically unaffiliated activists, to collect signatures, hold public hearings, and mobilise people for new organised protests in Minsk and in the regions.

Within the next six months a new batch of parasite notices are scheduled to be sent out and this whole process may start again

The challenge for the authorities is that the idleness decree is a long term issue. While the strategies described above may be help to weather the current wave of discontent, within the next six months a new batch of parasite notices are scheduled to be sent out and this whole process may start again. Abandoning the decree in the face of protest seems unlikely, but perhaps once things have settled down the long term approach could be to quietly cancel, or simply stop implementing the decree. This would save short term face and remove a potential long term public irritant.

Only time will reveal the government’s strategy related to the idleness decree or the long term implications of the movement against it. For the moment, we can say that the engagement and activism of society and opposition against the parasite tax shows political life yet lives in Belarus, and the president has taken notice.

Michael P Murphy – Resident Director, NDI Belarus Program




Can anger sustain the Belarusian protests?

On 17 February of this year, Minsk saw the largest civic protest since 2010, when demonstrators gathered in the capital to protest the results of the presidential election . However, this recent demonstration of ‘angry Belarusians’ was significantly different from most other Belarusian protests.

This time, rather than the conventional crackdown, the Belarusian government opted not to break up the protests. It is possible that the authorities permitted the demonstrations because they recognised their mistake in instituting the controversial 'social parasites' law and are looking for an elegant way to abolish it.

Conventional Belarusian protests

Most Belarusian protests have traditionally been against the government. However, demonstrations with socioeconomic aims tend to attract more people. The largest protest in the history of independent Belarus occurred in 1991, when more than 100,000 people gathered in Minsk to protest economic and social decline. Later, in 2006 and 2010, Belarusians protested against election results, although the demonstrators’ numbers never exceeded 50,000 people.

The most recent demonstrations, against the decree on ‘social parasitism’, took place on 17-19 February and attracted a total of around 5,000 people. The law requires unemployed citizens who spend at least 183 days a year in Belarus to pay a €220 tax.

Representatives of the opposition have participated in every protest and aim for maximal visibility and leadership during street demonstrations. During political protests, the opposition has formulated the main demands and guided demonstrations. During social protests, the opposition has tried to include their own demands in the general protest agenda.

The march of social parasites as a new generation of protestors

Immediately following its introduction, the ‘social parasite’ decree sparked heated debate among Belarusians. Beginning in social media, Belarusians expressed anger at this infringement of their rights. Citizens created numerous petitions and sent appeals to the Ministry of Tax. They also protested by refusing to pay. According to the latest data, only 54,000 of 470,000 people have actually paid the tax so far.

Aliaksandr Siamionaŭ, a resident of Homiel, became the first person to file a court claim stating that the decree violates his constitutional rights. However, the day before the hearing, Siamionaŭ received a job proposal and a notification that he was no longer obliged to pay the tax, and on 21 February the court closed the case. During the hearing, more than 200 people supported Siamionaŭ in front of the court.

The protests were a culmination of the fight against the decree. Despite initial prohibitions by local authorities, protests took place in the six largest Belarusian towns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The state-controlled media portrayed the protests as an attempt by the opposition to use this window of opportunity to increase their support. As Belarus Segodnya wrote, 'The state has no right to yield to the "protests" of noisy groups who came to demonstrations because of the calls of oppositional politicians, who see an opportunity to fish in troubled waters'.

Opposition leaders themselves have apparently failed to present themselves as a united body heading the protests. Some oppositional leaders, such as representatives of Movement for Freedom, Belarusian National Front, United Civic Party, were not even present at the demonstrations. They predicted that the demonstrations would be too modest for them to risk compromising their image. However, Niakliajeŭ and Statkievič took a chance and stepped up as strong leaders for the demonstrators.

While the majority of previous demonstrations had used only political slogans, such as simply 'Go away', the protests of 17-19 February had particular economic demands and were able to mobilise more social groups. For the first time in a while, large leaderless groups and citizens without any party affiliation joined the protests. National themes and calls for a regime change were secondary.

The protests also provoked debate about whether they could became a way for Russia to destabilise the country, send troops in, and 'protect' people who ask Russia to save Belarus, as happened in Ukraine. Nevertheless, many experts believe that such a scenario is highly unlikely. As Valieryj Karbalievič stated on Radyjo Svaboda: 'Given the current situation in Belarus…pro-European forces are stronger, better organised, and more politically mature than pro-Russian ones…It’s hard to imagine a pro-Russian Maidan here'.

Government strategy

Law enforcement has become an increasingly common way to deter potential protestors and crack down on demonstrations. In 2006, the police detained hundreds of protesters after demonstrations against the results of elections held on 19-25 March. Post-election protests in 2010 ended in almost 1,000 Belarusians being repressed. Police brutality and repression have become a predictable part of any protest in Belarus.

However, this time the authorities deemed the use of violence undesirable. If the authorities had behaved the way they normally do, they would have had to imprison not only members of the opposition but also those who trust the government. Predicting possible conflict with Russia, the authorities might also be seeking to increase the number of citizens who are loyal to the current regime. A crackdown on oppositional demonstrations would hardly surprise anyone, but suppression of social protests could cause more resentment.

In ignoring the protests, the authorities also seem to be seeking the best way to abolish the decree. Several days before the protests, the authorities realised that demonstrations could occur and attract large numbers of people. They organised special meetings for citizens with government representatives in order to 'clarify' the meaning of the decree in an attempt to avert protests. The authorities are most likely willing to abolish the decree but are afraid that this could be taken as a sign of weakness.

Making the protests work

On 17-19 February, Belarusians gathered to articulate their position against the government's decision in a massive demonstration. The political opposition received a chance to get closer to ordinary Belarusians by helping them stand up for their rights. The demonstration of 25 March should, for this reason, focus on the economic demands which are the people's primary concern.

If the authorities abolish the law, oppositional leaders will be perceived as successful defenders of civil rights and receive more support. If the law remains, the protest activities of Belarusians will only grow, along with support for the opposition. Thus, no matter the outcome, the Belarusian opposition will benefit from the ‘social parasite’ decree. The amount of angry Belarusians will grow; this could later create a more lasting atmosphere of protest, making demonstrations more powerful.

Demonstrations can achieve their objectives when a significant amount of people are ready to support both economic and political aims. The difficult economic circumstances preceding the protests jeopardise trust in the government among large swathes of the population. The social character of the protests also decreases the chances of a crackdown, and opens more space for citizens. For now, it looks as if Belarusians are becoming less afraid of protests. They just need a proper impetus to express the 'anger'.




Belarus pursues ‘social parasites’ at home and abroad

Since late 2016, Belarusian tax authorities have started sending out notifications to all unemployed Belarusians forcing them to reimburse the government for 'state expenditures.'

In other words, the Belarusian state automatically assumes that all people not reported as working are freeloaders, taking advantage of the social system without contributing to it.

For some Belarusians, the infamous tax became the straw that broke the camel's back, pushing them towards suicide. In January 2017, president Lukashenka modified the 'parasite law,' exempting the most vulnerable groups. Nevertheless, he left the notorious policy in place.

How the authorities see the tax

In 2015, Belarus became probably the only country in the world where the unemployed have to pay the government for not having a job

In 2015, Belarus became probably the only country in the world where the unemployed have to pay the government for not having a job, rather than counting on its support. Currently, the notorious 'social parasite' decree concerns all Belarusian citizens, permanent residents, and stateless people residing in Belarus. Anyone who works less than 183 calendar days in one year 'owes' the state around €220 per annum.

On 12 January 2017, the decree was slightly modified when the president approved new amendments. Meanwhile, the tax ministry set the final payment deadline for 20 February 2017.

The modified decree clarified the categories of citizens eligible for a tax waiver. These include athletes playing for national sports teams, alternative civilian servicemen, and unemployed people who are registered at job centres.

A significant difference from 2015 is that currently unemployed parents raising children from three to seven years old will be eligible for a tax waiver only if the child does not visit a daycare or pre-school facility. In the original decree, waivers were available to unemployed parents of children under seven regardless of whether or not they go to daycare.

More importantly, the new decree permits local authorities to waive the tax for individuals in 'dire circumstances.' However, authorities did not specify what constitutes 'dire circumstances' for an unemployed person.

How the tax really works

On 13 January 2017, a representative of the Belarusian tax ministry, Mikhail Rasolka, informed the media that the authorities have mailed out about 400,000 notifications to Belarusian citizens who are not participating in financing state expenditures. Out of this number, only 24,000 people have already paid the 'parasite' tax, thus contributing only €3.3 million to the budget instead of the anticipated €21.5 million.

The tax authorities were not able to comment on the number of people who managed to prove that they received these notifications by mistake, as apparently they do not have these statistics. So far, it seems that errors are abundant and the databases of various agencies are still not coordinated.

Notifications have also been sent to women on maternity leave, students, and even the deceased. 

For instance, the tax ministry waived the 'parasite' tax for Belarusians who spend less than 183 days in the country, regardless of whether they participated in the financing of the state expenditures or not. However, all Belarusians who currently reside abroad automatically received reminders to pay the new tax.

What happened is that despite having full access to the databases of the border crossing agencies, the authorities mailed out the notifications in bulk. Now, it is up to the citizens to prove their whereabouts to become eligible for the waiver.

Notifications have also been sent to women on maternity leave, students, and even the deceased. Many recipients reacted with indignation, noting that they were not obliged to provide jobs for bureaucrats or prove their status.

Harassment of the unemployed

According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, unemployment has been declining steadily, with 35,800 unemployed people, or 0.8 per cent of the working population as of December 2016. Yet official numbers do not reflect reality, as a majority of unemployed people do not register at job centres.

Currently, the perks of being officially registered as unemployed in Belarus are meagre. Financial aid ranges from €10 to €20 per month, provided the unemployed works several days a month at any job that the job centre offers them.

Moreover, the unemployed person must prove to the job centre that he or she is actively seeking employment. However, with the ongoing economic crisis, job-hunting is becoming increasingly difficult, especially in smaller towns.

According to human rights activist Viktar Sazonau from Hrodna, many people have started seeking legal help to deal with the 'parasite' tax. The overwhelming majority of them are unsuccessful job seekers. Some of them are destitute, not even able to cover the cost of their utilities.

In the most extreme cases, the tax has cost lives. After paying €173 of his 'parasite tax' in October 2016, 60-year old Ajvar Jaskevič from Asipovičy jumped from the fifth floor of his apartment building in December 2016. He quit his job one year before he was due to retire and could not find a new one. His suicide note read: 'I have never been a parasite, I have worked honestly my entire life.'

A chance for the opposition?

As the tax authorities try to squeeze money out of the most socially vulnerable citizens, popular discontent with the new tax is spreading. United Civil Party MP Hanna Kanapackaja has already declared that she would initiate a campaign against the 'parasite law' in the House of Representatives.

On 18 January 2017, activists from her party collected signatures against the notorious law. They demanded that the state 'fight unemployment instead of the unemployed.' Nine opposition parties have already announced a 'March of Non-Parasites' for 15 March 2017, and other protests are also planned for February, closer to the final payment deadline.

It is unclear how the state would react if the unemployed refuse to pay en masse by 20 February. Possible sanctions range from a fine to administrative arrest. However, the criteria for applying these punishments remain fuzzy.

If cases of non-payment are numerous, they would require considerable time and resources to deal with. At the end of the day, the costs of the parasite law implementation might outweigh the gains for the state, discrediting the current political regime, and encouraging the growth of popular discontent in society.




Collapsing Economy Weighs on the Authorities – Digest of Belarusian Economy

A labour strike at a major state-owned plant in June suggests that the current economic crisis will present serious political challenges to Belarus. Despite it being an election year, wages and pensions are not growing – a rare occurrence. Yet, it stagnating incomes are not the country's primary problem.

Many state-owned enterprises do not have enough money to even pay the low wages they have in place now. They have to cut back on their labour expenses. Even the government expects situation to worsen, and this may just be one of the factors behind moving the election one month ahead.

Economic Crisis and the Labour Market

Belarusian GDP continued its descend in May, dropping 3 per cent in January-May 2015 relative to the same period last year. Manufacturing experienced the most serious decline – 8.3 per cent. Many enterprises are experiencing serious issues with their liquidity. Most of manufacturing enterprises, especially those that are state-owned, export a large portion of their goods to Russia. As the Russian market continues to decline, exports for Belarusian companies have similarly fallen, despite the stimulating effects that typically accompany devaluation.

Declining production adds strain to the labour market. In the absence of any stimulation policies from either the government and the National Bank real wages continue to fall (-3.2 per cent in Jan-Apr 2015 relative to the same period last year). But the real crisis lies in paying wages to their bloated workforce, a task that is all but impossible for most enterprises.

the official unemployment figure is climbing mainly thanks to the so-called “social parasite” law 

Official employment figures dropped by 25 thousand people over the course of December 2014 to April 2015. The official number of individuals registered as unemployed also grew slightly, up to 1 per cent of the overall labour force. But this low figure says nothing of the true reality facing the labour market – it is abundantly clear that not every unemployed person will register, as the unemployment benefits are minuscule.

Currently the official unemployment figure is climbing mainly thanks to the “social parasite” law – obtaining the status of being unemployed frees one from the obligation to pay the “parasite tax”. Employment centres have even had to increase their working hours to accommodate everyone who wishes to register.

Many state enterprises are avoiding releasing their workers despite their inability to pay their wages. As a result of this policy, on the 1st of June 444 companies had wage arrears. A total of 75,900 people have not received their wages on time. Wage arrears and cutting back on the number of working hours and days of operation at the factories could provoke social unrest.

a factory in Slonim paid its employees wages not in roubles, but in sour cream

On 8 June the workers of Maladechna plant producing steelworks organised a strike because they had not received wages for two months. A couple of days after the strike the workers received their wages, but the plant still has a number of other debts to contend with, and its future prospects are dim.

Another instance of social arrest unfolded at a milk-processing factory in Slonim that paid wages not in roubles, but in sour cream. One of the most successful Belarusian enterprises, lingerie-producing Milavitsa had to cut its working days from 5 to 3 days a week with a corresponding cuts in wages.

The difficult situation facing the labour market may be one of the reasons that convinced Lukashenka that he should move to hold the presidential election a month earlier. The situation in the economy is getting worse and worse every day, and even one month could make a big difference. Still there is life after the elections, and the government has a difficult problem to solve – how to restructure the inefficient state-owned enterprises without causing widespread social unrest?

Motovelo, Prakapenia and Reforms

It is not clear precisely what to do with the state-owned enterprises, but the government bodies responsible for the economy understand quite well what the private sector needs. At the end of May, the Council of Ministers approved a draft of a new directive to support entrepreneurship. The directive excludes unnecessary intrusions by the government into market matters, separates the functions of the state as a regulator and as an owner, and proposes other steps to make competition fair for both state and private firms.

But at the same time the government continues to use the old methods of “regulating” economic problems. After the loud, and still unresolved, arrest of an IT entrepreneur and investor Viktar Prakapenia, the authorities have nationalised Motovelo, a plant producing bicycles and motorcycles, and have arrested its owners.

The privatisation of Motovelo was not done in a transparent manner, and the new owners, as it turns out, have violated the investment agreement, decreasing the number of employees it has substantially and did not bother to develop the capacities of the plant. While the nationalisation move may be legitimate, it certainly does not send a positive signal to any potential investors.

Exchange Rate Liberalisation

The National Bank, which has made several important steps towards macroeconomic stabilisation this year, has decided to further liberalise the exchange rate market. On the 1 June official exchange rates were formed through continuous order matching, a procedure that allows for direct trades between buyers and sellers matched by a price as explained in more detail below.

Before 1 June the Belarusian rouble was floating freely technically (the National Bank declared did not influence the exchange rate and only smoothed out the fluctuations).

While the trends seen here with the exchange rates reflects a balance of supply and demand, the National Bank has determined the size of permissible change. With the new mechanism the market will completely determine the exchange rate, although the National Bank still reserves the right to take part in market operations.

The introduction of this new mechanism coincided with the sharp depreciation of the Russian rouble. As Belarusian economy remains heavily dependent on Russia, after the switch to a floating currency regime, the Belarusian rouble fluctuated together with the Russian rouble. And as the Russian rouble depreciated almost 10 per cent over the week, the Belarusian currency followed.

In June the rouble once more hit a historical low, almost reaching 15,500 per US$1, which will have consequences for rouble deposits (they tend to go down as the rouble depreciates) and for the banking system as a whole.

Clearly, next year will pose many challenges to the Belarusian economy. But the government should not forget about long-run growth when trying to save the economy from its short-term malaise. At the end of the day inefficient state enterprises would have to shed some of its excessively large labour, and the government should soften the blow by offering employment programmes to the unemployed, not by printing money in order to provide loans to the plants and factories.

The aggressive attitude towards investors also is coming at an inopportune time. And while the National Bank, under the new leadership, takes important steps towards macroeconomic stabilisation, it is not up only to the National Bank to undertake reforms.

Kateryna Bornukova

This article is a part of a joint project between Belarus Digest and the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Centre (BEROC)




Subbotnik With Top Officials, Opposition And The Presidential Elections – Belarus State TV Digest

Did the Americans dismantle the Soviet Union? Did Belarusians benefit from the fall of the Soviet Union at all? These are some of the topics discussed by guests on the “Delo Principa” talk show on state-run ONT TV.

A recent subbotnik, a traditional voluntary (at least officially) clean-up day on Saturday, was a resounding success. State-owned TV focused its coverage voluntary work of officials in Hugo Chavez park. Around 3 million Belarusians participated in it and as a result over $4 million will find its way into the state budget. The head of state along with other officials, like millions of ordinary Belarusians, picked up and laboured away.

All of this and more in this edition of State TV digest.

Economy

Will the decree against “social parasites” stimulate people to work? According to “Panorama" on Channel 1, the new bill requiring people without official jobs to pay a levy, actually aims to protect of the rights of those Belarusians who actually pay their taxes.

Journalists portray those who avoid paying taxes as being typically well educated, with their own housing and a job, but who nonetheless receive their salaries in an “envelope”. The new law will help the state fight this long-standing practise.

According to Belarusian TV, other countries employ similar practises against tax evaders. For example, in the US such people can be fined or even end up in prison. Belarus, it was argued, appears "more democratic" on this front and will require tax evaders to pay lower fines. The decree has already started bringing in results as more Belarusians have expressed their interest in looking for a job.

Is the Belarusian economy open and attractive? Standard & Poor’s has confirmed a long-term credit rating of B- for Belarus, according to “Panorama”. According to the coverage, much of this has to do with the "rational economic policies of the Belarusian authorities". In addition, they have managed to "adapt the economy to complicated external circumstances". The programme went so far as to say that the positive rating proves the "transparency and openness" of the Belarusian economy.

Politics

Does the Belarusian opposition support Lukashenka? Journalists from “Glavnyj Efir” on Channel 1 covered the upcoming presidential elections, reporting that a number of the opposition-minded organisations in Belarus have already declared that would not participate in the elections. For example, the “For Freedom” movement of Aliaksandr Milinkievich will not nominate a candidate from among its ranks. Another organisation “Nash Dom” led by Volha Karach will also not be participating. “Today’s alternative to Lukashenka is war, unemployment and collapse”, journalists cited a letter published by the “Nash Dom” leadership.

Belarusian president can take up a shovel ... in addition to the fact that he can play hockey, drive a car, or a motorcycle

Lukashenka: No Room for Populism. “Glavny Efir” on Channel 1 covered the subbotnik, a traditional voluntary community work and clean up day that falls on Saturdays. This year it attracted rather diverse crowd, according to the coverage, ranging from a “school child to the president”. Alexander Lukashenka was working on the construction of a new children hospital in Minsk. But he also found time for a press conference.

“Everyone knows that the Belarusian president can take up a shovel, or any other instrument for construction in his hands, in addition to the fact that he can play hockey, drive a car, or a motorcycle”, stated one journalist, flattering the head of state. Lukashenka explained he "does nothing just for show, but rather tends to do things which he does in real life".

Subbotnik: All (officials) hands on board! Other senior officials also took part in some volunteering. Andrej Kabiakau, Prime Minister, planted pine trees. Aliaksandr Kosiniec, the head of the Presidential Administration, helped out with building a new school in Minsk. Mikhail Miasnikovych, chairman of the Council of Republic, also helped out with a construction project. Uladzimir Andrejchanka with other MPs tended Hugo Chavez Park in Minsk. As a result of the subbotnik nearly 61 bln BYR (over $4m) will be saved. The authorities will spend the money on equipment for Belarusian hospitals, festivities for the the Great Patriotic War celebration and modernising sanatoriums in Belarus.

Perestroika and Belarus

On his talk show “Delo Pryncypa” on ONT TV, Vadzim Hihin discussed the results of perestroika in the Soviet Union for Belarusians. Among the guest speakers were Valentin Holubieu (former opposition MP from 1990-1995), Valentina Leonienka (Secretary of the Communist Party and MP), Aliaksandr Shpakouski (the head of the information centre "Aktualnaja Kancepcyja"). Participants discussed the reasons behind the fall of the Soviet Union, but also its consequences for Belarusians.

Charhyniec forcefully argued that the Americans stood behind the collapse of the Soviet Union

Did the Soviet Union have to be reformed? “The Soviet system was rotten” according to Valery Karbalevych, a political scientist. Mikalaj Charhyniec, the head of the Association of Writers of Belarus, strongly disagreed with Karbalevych and pointed out that the Soviet Union was a worldwide leader in education, but also its citizens were highly motivated to work. Juriy Zisser, the founder of the popular Belarus news portal tut.by, noted that the Union bankrupted itself politically and economically.

Did the Americans dismantle the Soviet Union? Mikalaj Charhyniec forcefully argued that the Americans stood behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the talk show it turned out that 65% of people gathered in a studio supported Aliaksandr Shpakouski who stated that there was an operation by American special service aimed at the destruction of the Soviet Union.

Any benefits from the fall of the Soviet Union for Belarusians? Valery Karbalevych, Aliaksandr Shpakouski, Valentin Holubieu agreed that the demise of the Soviet Union had fortunately led to the creation of a sovereign Belarus. Some of the guest speakers pointed out that with respect to culture and education Belarus had actually suffered as a result of the fall of the Soviet system.

At the end of the talk show Vadzim Hihin presented the results of a telephone vote: only 15% of people assessed perestroika positively, whereas 85% of voters negatively.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT TV. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.