Top 10 Most Read Articles on Belarus Digest in 2015
In 2015 Belarus Digest published over 300 articles. Today we analysed statistics and selected the most read articles published this year.
They cover a range of issues - from tourism, the role of Belarus in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria to presidential elections and visa-free travel.
Most of the popular articles in 2015 dealt with foreign policy and security issues.
Belarus remains a blank spot on the map for many foreigners. A mere 137,000 tourists visited the country in 2013—twenty-one times fewer than the number who visited Estonia.
Onerous visa requirements, combined with an underdeveloped service industry, undermine the country’s efforts to attract foreign visitors.
The world’s largest travel guide company, Lonely Planet, warns travellers that “visas are needed by almost everybody” and that “homophobia is rife.” VirtualTourist criticises the lack of customer service, the paranoia of locals, and the country’s “lunatic” president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Belarus may have plenty of attractions, but many things have to change before the country can attract crowds of European tourists.
The past few weeks have seen an unusual increase of anti-Belarusian activity in pro-government Russian media and blogs. The Kremlin has not yet used its strongest media tools. However, the manner of the attack is in some respects similar to the information warfare which preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea.
In the face of the unfolding economic crisis in Russia and Belarus and the Belarusian presidential elections scheduled for 2015, this could signal a new shift in the relations between Russia and the regime of Alexander Lukashenka.
On Tuesday, a provocative article appeared in the pro-Kremlin Russian daily, Vzglyad. It demanded that Belarus hold a referendum on becoming a part of Russia or else face Ukraine's fate. The article referred to Alyaksandr Lukashenka's recent interview with Bloomberg, in which he once more cautiously expressed his sympathy for Kyiv and criticised the annexation of Crimea.
Moscow knows these are not just words. Minsk has avoided using the strategic means at its disposal - like its control of the Ukrainian oil products market - to destabilise the neighbouring country. Instead, it has enhanced economic cooperation with Kyiv and even sold military equipment to Ukraine.
On 9 - 12 October, Belarus Digest provided live online coverage of the presidential elections in Belarus and international and domestic reactions to it. Below, we feature a collection of stories from international and Belarusian media, videos, pictures, and comments from experts, which we have posted online during these days.
At the end of January, Belarus temporally mobilised nearly 15,000 reservists - a large number for the nearly 50,000-strong national army. A major Russian news portal Gazeta.ru linked this move to the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict. At the same time, the Belarusian army began conducting military exercises.The Belarusian parliament also introduced several amendments to existing legislation - allegedly with the view of preventing "hybrid wars," like the one currently going on in Ukraine's eastern regions.
These actions have generated rumours about the intentions of the Belarusian government which has to date sought to preserve its neutrality in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Belarus's neutral stance has provoked criticism from Kyiv and Moscow alike and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.
Minsk consistently avoids supporting Moscow in Ukraine and Syria. To put it mildly. After all, on 7 December, Ukrainian Internal Minister Avakov inaugurated the new Ukrainian armoured vehicle Varta designed in cooperation with "Belarusian engineers".
It became just one more of a series of examples of Belarus-Ukrainian defence cooperation. Later on, the Belarusian Defence Ministry denied claims that it supported Russia's position in the latter's dispute with Turkey.
Belarus risks estranging its Russian ally, but not because it wants to earn extra money in Ukraine or from conservative Arab regimes. Minsk strives to improve relations with Russia's opponents because the Kremlin has shown itself willing to make radical foreign policy moves.
The EUobserver reported last week that Belarus might start talks over a visa-free regime with the EU, citing senior officials from the Latvian EU presidency. Many Belarusians reacted to this statement with expressions of surprise, satisfaction and hope, but mostly incredulity. Indeed, a few days later, Maira Mora, the head of the EU Delegation to Belarus effectively ruled out the possibility of a short-term solution for abolishing the visa regime between Belarus and the EU.
In fact, in technical terms, Belarus is better prepared for visa-free travel with the EU than many other countries. However, no major breakthrough will come about until Minsk and Brussels find common language on the issues of human rights and democratic governance.
The year 2015 will herald a new presidential election in Belarus, certainly by the fall, and perhaps as early as March. It will be the fifth presidential election since the introduction of a national Constitution in 1994, and will mark Alexander Lukashenka’s 21st year in power.
Traditionally, elections are times when there are opportunities for the opposition to attract public attention, to use short spans on national TV and radio, and to make appearances at public venues. On paper at least for several reasons opposition leaders appear to have greater opportunities for support than in the past. They can be listed as follows, and not necessarily in order of significance.
The summer holidays proved to be productive for the relations of Belarus with both "old" and "new" Europe. Foreign minister Vladimir Makei ended a continued pause in high-level contacts with Belarus' southern neighbour by an unconventional five-day long visit to Ukraine in mid-August. There, he took the risk of enraging Russia by meeting its mortal foe Mikheil Saakashvili in Odessa.
The EU Council significantly reduced its sanctions list against Belarus on 31 July and a US congressional delegation came to Minsk two days later. In exchange, Minsk agreed to discuss human rights with its Western partners, seemingly ending a long tradition of denial of any major problems in this sphere.
Will Minsk's diplomacy manage to continue befriending Russia's foes without alienating its main sponsor until right after the October presidential election?
On 1 September the Central Elections Committee of Belarus announced that four presidential candidates had submitted enough signatures to run in elections scheduled for 11 October this year.
Although few question the outcome of this elections and the official victory of the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenka, the elections take place in a very different geopolitical context.
In the 2010 presidential elections, the authorities saw the Belarusian opposition as the main threat and crushed protests, putting several presidential candidates in jail. After the recent events in Ukraine the authorities seem to view Russia as a more serious threat although they would not publicly admit it.