Teddy Bear Publicity and Burgeoning IT Business - Western Press Digest
Thanks to teddy bears, Belarus has the honour of making it into the infamous British tabloid press this month. The UK’s ubiquitous Daily Mail provides sensationalist coverage of the teddy bear episode and fall-out, and includes a thorough description of the Belarusian police state and detailed portrait of Europe’s last dictator.
The article describes Belarus as “a sort of of Cold War theme park”, revealing Lukashenka’s plans for his younger son’s takeover and rubber-stamp parliament. Celebrating the teddy bear stunt, the article concludes: “If you cannot beat Europe's last dictator at the ballot box, you can at least dent his ego”.
Closer to the action, NBC provide extensive coverage of the motivations and reflections of Studio Total, the Swedish PR agency who carried out the teddy bear drop. Chief Executive Per Cromwell tells NBC that the point of the action was to highlight “the absurdity of life under Lukashenko”.
The Swedes report having received google-translated threats and instructions from the Belarusian KGB to report to Minsk to assist in investigating the incident. While Cromwell acknowledges that the stunt cannot achieve long-term change, he lauds it as a means of creating momentum for the opposition.
The Washington Post concurs, and considers the teddy bear drop to have been a “resounding success”. The Post celebrates the stunt for exposing Lukashenka’s fallibility, as his arrest of a journalism student and expulsion of Swedish diplomats exposes him as unstable and disproportionate, and can only provoke mocking. The Post notes that “the smallest gesture has become a lesson in the insecurity of the powerful”.
Time-up for “tacit condemnation” approach
Writing in the New Statesman, Jack Barton of the Free Belarus Now campaign suggests that the British government will soon be forced to take a stronger stance on Belarus. Barton suggests that the combination of the publicity gained from the teddy bear stunt, the subsequent diplomatic fractures, and the likely falsification of the forthcoming elections are going to make it impossible for the UK to retain its current approach. For a long time it has been one of only “tacit condemnation” of the regime and leaving it to the EU to deal with.
Jack Barton llaments the fact that the only response from the UK government to the teddy bear incident was a tweet from the Foreign Minister congratulating Sweden for furthering the human rights cause in Belarus. While Barton admits that this may be “wishful thinking” on the part of a human rights activist, he nonetheless suggest that it seems “inevitable that we could soon see our government take some small but genuine stand in support of democracy and human rights, whether they want to or not”.
Bad news for the EU, good news for Lithuania?
Euractiv website discusses the implications of Lukashenka’s dismissal of his Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov on 20 August, who has been replaced by Vladimir Makey. The piece considers the timing of this move particularly significant. Makey is known for prioritising national security over any engagement with the West.
His appointment may signify a consolidation of the hardening of relations between Minsk and Brussels which has followed the teddy bear drop and expulsion of Swedish diplomats. However, one possible winner from Makey’s new role is Lithuania, the article argues. Makey is known to have good relations with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, whom he visited in January.
Plight of Political Prisoners Exposed
The New York Times provides a platform for Andrej Dynko (editor of Nasha Niva) in a special piece on Belarus’s political prisoners and arduous prison system. He describes in detail the tortuous conditions which political prisoners must endure and which the regime enforces as an exercise of control.
Dynko warns that the release of political prisoners is not a sign of change. As long as Moscow continues to offer financial subsidisation of the regime, such gestures are irrelevant. Dynko suggests that, much like the dissolution of the Soviet Union was needed for its republics to gain freedom, any change in modern Belarus will demand the dissolution of the “Putin model”.
Elsewhere, Julian Assange’s prospective extradition to Ecuador has exposed the plight of Belarusian Aliaksandr Barankov in numerous Western media outlets. Barankov was granted asylum by Ecuador three years ago after he allegedly exposed a petroleum-smuggling corruption scandal among the presidential administration.
Radio Free Europe reports that there are now indications that Lukashenka is pressing for his extradition to Minsk, with Barankov awaiting certain torture or death on return to Belarus. The Guardian, Washington Post and even Daily Mail have all reported the Associated Press coverage of the case.
And Beyond Politics...
Bloomberg Business Weekly have run a lengthy piece on exciting new Belarus-based app Viber, “one of the hottest apps in the world”, and Belarus’s emerging attractiveness as a place to do business. “Despite Belarus’s reputation as a phantom country self-exiled in the heart of Europe”, it notes, thanks to the free-economic zone established in Belarus in 2008 it has been able to establish itself as a “high-tech hothouse.”
The article speaks enthusiastically about Belarus’s burgeoning IT sector, and highlights in particular the “hungry, skilled, affordable” programmers and engineers that the country offers. The Belarus Hi-Tech Park in Minsk means the industry looks likely to grow further. Whilst alluding to the possible dangers of doing business in an unpredictable and not very private-sector friendly environment, the article strongly suggests that the benefits outweigh the risks.