Visa Liberalisation, Saving the Economy and Readying Defenses – Western Press Digest

Public Belarusian Language Class (Photo: movananova.by)

Relations between Russia and Belarus appear to have taken a turn for the worse as the new year begins. As Belarus's economy stumbles, Minsk tries to shore up the Belarusian ruble while simultaneously blaming Moscow for some of its economic troubles.

More striking than the economic issues is a new law that would see any activity similar to what happened in Crimea or Eastern Ukraine as an act of war against Belarus. The vague language of the law looks more like a warning to Belarus's military ally Russia than to NATO forces.

Belarusian identity and language is finally gaining state support after a nearly 20 year drought. Sceptics say it is just lip service from the Lukashenka regime, while civil society says a real shift is already underway. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.

International Relations

Belarusian-Russian Ties at All Time Low - At his annual news conference on 29 January, Belarusian Head of State Aleksandr Lukashenka said that if things between Russia and Belarus did not improve in the near future, there could be repercussions. After a year of troubled economic ties and cooled political proximity, Lukashenka threatened to pull Belarus out of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. As the Foreign Policy report explains, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the strained trade relations between the two customs union partners have strained ties considerably.

In spite of its rhetoric, Minsk is hardly likely to make any radical moves that would sever ties – at least not in the near future. With the Belarusian ruble plummeting and over 40% of its exports going to Russia, Lukashenka fears rocking the boat to the point of tipping it over. With the upcoming presidential election in November, Lukashenka has his own survival as the leader of the nation weighing heavy on his thoughts. A economic crash could jeopardise not only his political future, but that of the country as well.

A Call to War? - RFE/RL reports on recent legislation coming out of Minsk that would categorise a number of activities, most which are not typically associated with traditional warfare, a declaration of war against Belarus. The new law stipulates that if any armed force, be they foreign, local or sponsored by a foreign entity, appear on Belarusian lands, it would be considered an act of war. RFE/RL draws parallels between the kind of forces that appeared in Crimea and later in Eastern Ukraine that were either regular Russian armed forces or what is believed to be mercenary units mainly sponsored by Russia. The law came into effect 1 February.

Visa liberalisation to EU Coming Soon? - With 20 years of virtually no progress on the visa front, EU Observer reports that Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics says there are indications that EU-Belarus relations may be on the verge of a breakthrough year. While the EU's traditional concerns about human rights, democracy and civil society still stand, visa liberalisation is gaining ground in talks between officials in Brussels and Minsk. One of the key issues facing visa liberalisation is what to do with diplomatic passport holders, which would require a change in official agreements between the two parties.

Strengthening Ties with Georgia - On 2 February, the Belarusian Minister of Agriculture announced that the government was going to seek closer economic cooperation with Georgia. The visit would be led by none other than Lukashenka himself, who plans to visit in April. RFE/RL notes that the visit follows a wave of criticism from Minsk over the way Russia is conducting itself in the Eurasian Economic Union. Ties between Georgia and Russia remain in poor shape following the 2008 war which led to Georgia losing parts of its territory.

Economy

Belarusian Ruble Dives Among Looming Crisis - The Financial Times reports on Minsk's struggles to keep its national currency afloat while the nation's economy is under increasing pressure. The national currency has lost half of its value against the dollar in January alone. With only $5bn remaining of its foreign currency reserves, the Central Bank has had to undertake several measures in order to ensure the country does not default with $4bn in debts due to be serviced in the coming year. A policy of controlling the national currency's depreciation was dropped at the turn of the year precisely to protect these remaining reserves.

The situation was exasperated by Lukashenka himself who publicly stated that the nation might try to restructure its debts, which led to a drop in the value of the government's bonds. He later took this back by saying he simply mis-spoke, meaning to say that Belarus might look to refinance, not restructure, its debts.

Central Bank Shake-up - Following the recent replacement of the head of the Central Bank, the bank has set a new refinancing rate in order to stabilise the volatile economic situation in the country. The new head of the bank, Paviel Kalavur, who headed the bank for 17 years from 1993 till 2010, returns to the regulator after spending the past few years as CEO of a Russian development bank's head office in Belarus. According to Bloomberg, it is hoped that in combination with the reduction in capital controls over the national currency, these higher interest rates will help stifle the Belarusian ruble's depreciation.

Culture and Identity

Belarusian Language Seeing a Resurgence - The Belarusian language has been suppressed by the authorities in Minsk since Lukashenka took office in the mid-1990s, but all of that is appearing to change as even the Head of State is beginning to push for its increased usage in all spheres of life. The Guardian notes that whereas in the past Lukashenka dismissed the Belarusian language wholesale in favour of Russian, the government is slowly trying to raise the language's status in the country.

It is a move that is gaining resonance with the public, at least in Minsk. One expert comments that the public language classes with some 200 students are not in and of themselves particularly useful. Yet, they signal a shift in identity among Belarusians - a point which the founder of one language courses agrees with. Sceptics say that the state's push for the revival of the Belarusian language is little more than a move to preserve the regime by fending off Russian-language's dominance in all spheres of life.

Devin Ackes is a project coordinator of the Ostrogorski Centre. He is an alumnus of Michigan State University and Columbia University.

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