Thawing Relations with the West, Market Traders Protest New Imports Rules – Western Press Digest

Market stalls closed in Brest. Photo: TUT.BY

Western media focuses on the lifting of sanctions on Belarus by the West, Belarus’s rejection of plans for a Russian air base and heralds the thawing of relations with the West.

Observers seem to agree that the temporary sanctions suspension for Belarus is due to “strategic concerns” overcoming “humanitarian ones”

In other news: Belarusian journalist convicted for the “illegal dissemination of media products" and market traders protest controversial new imports rules.

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

International Relations

Belarus is struggling to normalise relations with the West with weak resistance against Russian dependency, despite economic and political gridlock - Valiery Kavaleŭski, writing for Forbes, suggests that now, in Lukashenka’s fifth consecutive term, “Belarus is trying to normalise relations with the West without angering Russia” and points to three events in particular which demonstrate this stance taken by the government.

First, the “foreign policy impasse” which means that Belarus’s foreign policy dependence on Russia has “left Lukashenka standing alone in an environment that demands reliable partners and alliances”. Second, resistance against a planned Russian airbase in Belarus. Finally, “a threat to Belarus’s sovereignty” and the current economic gridlock as “it remains unclear what pillars Lukashenka plans to employ to sustain the Belarusian economy.”

He concludes by saying, however, that the aforementioned factors enable “the West to help the country turn toward more democratic and sensible governance, structural economic reforms, and more respect for human rights and freedoms.”

The "new chilliness" in relations between Moscow and Minsk which is causing a "relative thaw" between "Belarus and the West" - Brian Whitmore, writing for Radio Free Liberty/Radio Liberty, comments on the similarities between how “Kazan and Minsk have been defying the Kremlin with stunning regularity -- and getting away with it.” Whitmore points at Lukashenka’s refusal to recognise Crimea as part of Russia and his “neutral stance” on the conflict in the Donbas and Moscow's conflict with Turkey as evidence of this.

Jury Drakachrust of RFE/RL's Belarus Service commented on Putin’s talk of the "closeness" of Minsk's and Moscow's positions on Ukraine and Syria by saying that, "in the language of diplomacy, phrases like 'the closeness of our positions' is common for countries Russia is friendly with, but not for its closest allies." However, Whitmore stresses, this does not mean that Belarus, “which receives significant subsidies from Moscow”, is “going to burn its bridges with Russia” entirely.

Western sanctions on Belarus lifted due to "strategic concerns" - Edward Wrong, writing for Global Risk Insights, claims that the temporary sanctions suspension for Belarus is due to “strategic concerns” overcoming “humanitarian ones” in spite of the OSCE’s concerns over the October presidential election.

The article claims that the easing of sanctions is due to Belarus being crucial to current NATO-Russia tensions over the “Suwalki Gap” as it “is the only thing separating Belarus from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea” and Belarus’s recent apparent rejection of the proposed Russian air base in southern Belarus.

Economy

Shops shut down by market traders in protest against controversial new protectionism rules - The BBC reports on the shutting down of shops by market traders in Belarus in response to new rules stipulating that ”traders who want to sell the imported goods - which mainly come from Russia - must present proof of origin” under threat of fines.

The article claims that the trade ministry acknowledged that at “least 68% of outlets” were shut down due to this attempt “to help the struggling state sector” despite market trader complaints that local goods are of poor quality and prices charged by state-run wholesalers too high.

Civil Society

Conviction and fining of Belarusian journalist for "illegal" reporting - The Huffington Post reports on the fining of Belarusian journalist Larysa Ščhyrakova “for freelancing for an exiled television channel under a new restrictive media law.” She was found guilty of the "illegal dissemination of media products" by a Belarusian court and was fined $250.

The court said Ščhyrakova​ "illegally interviewed" residents of a Belarusian village for Belsat, a channel that broadcasts from Poland and which has been denied media accreditation in Belarus for nine years.

The article also mentions that in 2015, 28 journalists in Belarus were “hit with hefty fines” for similar crimes.

Chernobyl child victims spend Christmas and New Year with their "Irish families" - Elaine Edwards, writing for The Irish Times reports on the arrival of 31 young children with special needs from their Irish-run orphanage in the remote village of Viasnova, 175km from Chernobyl, to spend Christmas and New Year 2015 with their “Irish families”, part of an annual programme where Belarusian children come to Ireland for rest and recuperation holidays.

The orphanage was discovered by Irish volunteers from the Adi Roche Chernobyl Children International charity in the early 1990s and, since then, “€2.5 million of funding from Irish donations had been put into the orphanage, transforming it into a “world class” childcare centre,” according to the charity’s voluntary chief executive Ms Roche.

Belarus Free Theatre's stand "against censorship and dictatorship" in London part of major theatre news highlights of 2015 - Nick Adwe, in his international 2015 “year in review” for The Stage, refers to the work of the Belarus Free Theatre as taking a “stand against censorship and dictatorship” at their base in London at the Young Vic and chooses it as one of the theatre highlights of 2015.

The article quotes co-artistic director Natalia Kaliada as she explains that, “what we are banned from performing in Belarus is Sarah Kane, Harold Pinter, even Shakespeare, from talking about our personal lives and stories.”

Culture

Unveiling of a Polish photojournalist's project focusing on the victims of Chernobyl in Belarus - The BBC reports on the Invisible People of Belarus project of Polish photojournalist Jadwiga Brontē.

The article quotes Ms Brontē as saying she hopes to change the way Belarusians see their “disabled children of Chernobyl” through the series after Belarus suffered “about 70% of the nuclear fallout.”

Marta Kochetkova

Marta is an intern at the Ostrogorski Centre

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