Call for Papers: The Third Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies

The Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century Conference Committee, the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum invite proposals from established academics and doctoral researchers for individual papers and panel discussions on contemporary Belarusian studies. The conference is a multidisciplinary forum for Belarusian studies in the West.

All proposals will be considered on any subject matter pertaining to Belarus. This year, however, proposals relating to human rights, social media, education, the history of the Belarusian People’s Republic, Belarusian history and culture and sociology are particularly encouraged. A selection of peer-reviewed papers will be published in the Journal of Belarusian Studies in 2018.

As in previous years, in addition to the conference, which will be held 23–24 March 2018 at University College London, several other Belarus-related events will take place in London. The 2018 conference will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic, the first modern attempt of Belarusian statehood, as well as the 10th anniversary of Belarus Digest.

To submit a paper or panel proposal, please complete an online registration form at http://tinyurl.com/belauk2018 by 15 December 2017. Successful candidates will be notified by 5 January 2018. The working language of the conference is English.

There is a £10GPB registration fee associated with the conference to cover related expenses. You may pay the fee at the door or pay online (see the registration form for details). If you are unable to pay the registration fee, the organisers can a waiver. Please email belauk2018@gmail.com to ask for a fee waiver.

The organisers can provide non-UK based applicants with invitation letters for visas.

For any questions, please contact either Stephen Hall or Peter Braga at belauk2018@gmail.com.

Conference co-chairs: Professor Andrew Wilson and Professor Yarik Kryvoi

Please use this hastag #belstudies

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On whose side is Belarus in the Syrian civil war?

On 7 September, the Israeli air force attacked the Syrian military’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre. According to the Times of Israel, Belarusians may have been among those working at the Centre.

Meanwhile, a Bulgarian hacker group recently published documents showing that Silk Way, an Azerbaijani airline that transports arms for Syrian opposition groups, directed some of its flights via Minsk. Concurrently, Russian and Polish media circulated reports of alleged arms deals between Minsk and sponsors of Syrian opposition groups for several millions euros.

Belarus thus is accused of supplying all sides in the Syrian civil war. But available evidence proves that Minsk is an indirect participant. Its involvement in the Syrian conflict as supplier of weapons is limited to working with intermediaries acting on behalf of Western countries and their allies.

Belarus has no missile technology for Damascus

On 15 September, the Times of Israel published an article about alleged defence cooperation between the Belarusian and Syrian governments. It quoted Ronen Solomon, an Israeli freelance intelligence analyst, saying there were Belarusians working at the Syrian military’s Scientific Studies and Research Center helping Damascus to improve its ballistic missiles.

However, the Syrian opposition website Zaman al-Wasl reported it was Russians, Iranians and North Koreans, who had worked at the bombed facility. Solomon told Times of Israel “that given the nature of the site and Russia’s interests in the region, it’s unlikely that Moscow would send experts to such a facility,” hence they should have been Belarusians.

He also insisted that “Belarus … is particularly skilled in improving existing missiles with better guidance systems … Belarusian companies … tout also their preparedness to sell technologies coveted by Hezbollah, like anti-aircraft systems, drones and shore-to-ship missiles.“

Belarus, however, has little to offer to Damascus in terms of missile technologies. and that little technology it itself acquired in the most recent years. Minsk inherited a great deal of military technologies from the Soviet Union, but has next to nothing to build missiles. In the early 2010s, it even had to ask the Chinese, and maybe also recruited some Ukrainians, to help assemble multiplelaunch rocket systems. These types of systems are the most basic for a country intending to master missile technologies. Although this year Belarusian defence companies demonstrated something similar to short-range cruise or ballistic missile at a defence industry exhibition in Minsk, these are not the types of technologies that interest either Syria or its Iranian allies.

Moreover, even if Belarus had something to offer the Syrian government, that would be a doubtful deal for Belarus. Minsk knows these sorts of deals would hardly bring money from an embattled leader such as Assad. It would also undermine Belarusian relations with Assad’s opponents, particularly rich, Arab, conservative regimes.

A litany accusations

Bashar Assad in Belarus in 2010. Image: CTV.by

In 2012, The Atlantic, a respectable US media outlet, reported that Minsk might be trying to help Syria build fibre-optic gyroscopes for surface-to-surface missiles. No proof has ever been publicly presented.

Nonetheless, since 2012, the US Treasury has maintained sanctions on the Belarusian defence firm Belvneshpromservice (BVPS). The sanctions have been imposed for violating the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, which forbids supplying these states with any materials and equipment related to weapons of mass destruction or cruise or ballistic missiles.

It is not clear what triggered the imposition of US sanctions. Back in 2012, the media reported that the sanctions had been imposed for Minsk providing Syria with “fuses for general purpose aerial bombs.” But, in fact, it could have been for a deal with any of the three black-listed countries. Indeed, during that period Minsk is documented to have supplied radars to Iran.

Arms for Syrian opposition: How much did Minsk know?

Meanwhile, on 30 August, the Russian website EADaily published a lengthy piece on alleged Belarusian-supplied arms to the radical Syrian opposition. According to Russian journalists, “Deliveries were implemented through a chain of intermediaries, but Minsk cannot claim ignorance about the final recipients.

The EADaily article was not the first report about Belarusian arms reaching Syrian opposition via the Balkans. As early as September 2015, American media outlet Buzzfeed revealed that a US contractor via a Bulgarian intermediary had bought 700 missiles for “Konkurs” anti-tank systems from Belarus. Moreover, the Buzzfeed article alleged that American instructors sent to teach Syrian opposition fighters how to use the systems had passed through Belarus en route to Syria.

Syrian civil war. Image: RT.com

This may just be the tip of the iceberg. In an official report, the Bulgarian Economics Ministry catalogued €37.8m in arms imports from Belarus to Bulgaria for 2015. In 2016, Belarusian arms imports rose to €84.2m.

Most of these deliveries were sent via Romania. This ensured the arms were subject to customs declaration. Therefore, according to official Romanian Foreign Ministry reports, Belarusian military exports to Bulgaria via Romania in 2015 not only included smoothbore arms with a calibre of more than 20mm, but also various arms with a calibre more than 12.7mm, and ammunition, missiles, artillery shells, and bombs. In 2016, the Romanian Foreign Ministry tracked imports of missile systems, artillery shells with a calibre of more than 122mm, RPG grenades, missiles, an armoured vehicle, and aircraft-cannon shells.

These shipments stand out, because before 2015 Belarus scarcely exported arms to Bulgaria. For instance, according to the Bulgarian Economics Ministry, in 2013 Bulgaria imported missiles, artillery shells and military electronic equipment from Belarus worth €411,000.

Arms from Belarus ensures alibis for sponsors of Syrian opposition

Of course, these accusatory reports are shtum about the final destination of the Belarusian arms. Bulgaria has no need for these weapons. Russian EADaily, furthermore, noticed that the exports from Belarus to Bulgaria coincide with the value of official Bulgarian exports of similar arms in similar quantities to the US and Saudi Arabia. It is most likely that the Belarusian arms went to the Syrian opposition.

Oddly enough, Bulgaria itself manufactures almost all the types of equipment and ammunition that it bought from Minsk. Such deals, however, make perfect sense, because Minsk still has these items left over from Soviet times. Such arms, if sent to Syria, would not attract much attention in a country that for many decades had bought Soviet arms.

Delivery of Belarus humanitarian aid to Syria in summer 2017. Image: BelTA.

Nonetheless, the situation is even more complicated. The arms might have gone from Bulgaria to various destinations outside Syria, as well. Hackers from the group Anonymous Bulgaria have recently published stolen documents from Azerbaijani airline company Silk Way. The documents appear to show the company has been transporting arms for the Syrian opposition. The documents also indicate Silk Way had flights originating from Minsk, but not heading for the Middle East. On 14 February, the company reportedly transported ammunition from Minsk via Bulgaria to Afghanistan.

In sum, Western and Russian media regularly speculate on Belarus’s alleged ties to various parties in the Syrian civil war. The secretive and relatively unknown Belarusian regime naturally attracts such accusations. In particular, this sort of speculation provides explanations for otherwise murky cases, like that of the Syrian missile centre.

In addition, accusations for alleged Belarusian assistance to either the Syrian government or to the opposition can be used as a political tool against Minsk.

If the allegations are proven, unscrupulous deals in such a conflict amount to a gross violation of international security regulations.The responses by more influential states or a global power like the US or Russia to such a violation would likely be much harsher than their reactions to human rights violations committed by Minsk.




The Belarusian berry industry – Belarus photo digest

Year by year, Belarus increases its exports of two of the most popular and valued kinds of its berries—garden blueberries and cranberries. More than 100 private farms and a number of state farms in Belarus are involved with blueberry cultivation. 70 percent of Belarus’s blueberry fields lie in the Brest region.

The history of cranberry cultivation in Belarus has an adventurous plot. When US farmers started to grow garden varieties of wild berries, the Soviet Union followed suit. The Belarusian territory of Paliessie was chosen as the ideal place to farm and cultivate them. After Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, the United States imposed an embargo on grains and any seedlings, which included berries. In response, Soviet authorities decided to steal the embargoed items. Berry seedlings were smuggled to Belarus via Canada. Belarusian scientist Michail Kudzinaŭ famously brought them by the pocket-full from Canada.

Today, Belarus’s planting area and the production volume of berries grow every year. The export of berries brings foreign currency to the state budget. Key export markets for both cranberries and blueberries include the EU and Russia. However, Poland has recently begun to rival Belarusian berry vendors within the EU market. Belarus, thanks to cheaper labour, remains number one. Unfortunately, the state offers no support to the berry producers of Belarus.

A berry orchard in Alšany, Stolin district in Belarus’s Brest region. The company Alšany, which shares the same name as the village, cultivates these blueberries. The Alšany company is a world leader in growing blueberries.

More than half Stolin’s inhabitants are practising Pentecostals. Unusually for Belarus, the population of Alšany village is constantly growing and new houses appear in the village every year.

Working private plots as well as labouring for large farms in Alšany remains the main source of income for most of the population there. In 2016, the Alšany company farm produced 40 tonnes of blueberries. A kilogram of blueberries fetches $9 USD at retail market prices. Wholesale prices for blueberries are slightly lower.

Product quality requirements are tightened every year. Manufacturers must refine techniques and improve technologies. They cover the berries with a special green netting to protect them from birds. In dry summers, the berries can become acidic and shrink in size, which reduces their sale value. To prevent this, farmers build extensive irrigation systems.

The Alšany company’s director argues he doesn’t really need to seek too many foreign buyers. Most berries sell out very quickly in Belarus and Russia.

Blueberries are popular among cosmetic and pharmaceutical manufacturers. In addition, they have uses for diabetics and children’s health. Some studies show they help to prevent cancer and improve eyesight.

Berry pickers often come in family groups. Although the job is no easy, it is well paid. The farm pays 35 US cents a kilogram. A skilled berry-picker can gather up to 40-50 kg per day.

For more than 30 years, Belarus has been growing a variety cranberry first cultivated in America. The state-run Paliessie Cranberries company remains an uncontested pioneer and leader in the industry.

 

The climate of the territory of Paliessie and its marshy soil are ideal for growing cranberries.

This past year, the company harvested more than 650 tonnes of cranberries. The berries are collected in two ways.

Wet or mechanised harvesting is the least harmful method to gather berries.

The garden cranberry varieties used for farming are harder and larger compared to wild species. Industrial harvesting tractors do not damage these garden varieties.

Seasonal workers also do dry collection with their hands. They pick the most solid and good-looking berries, which will be exported abroad.

The cranberries sent to Belarusian and Russian markets are used mainly for the production of jams and vitamins.

In the UK, where cranberry sauce is often an important part of any Christmas dinner, imports of Belarusians cranberries have increased recent years. In total, The state-run Paliessie Cranberries company exports more than 80 percent of its harvested berries.

 

About the photographer: Siarhei Leskiec is a freelance photographer whose work focuses on everyday life, folk traditions, and rituals in the Belarusian countryside. Originally from the Maladzeczna Region, he received a degree in history from Belarusian State Pedagogical University.




Redrawing the geopolitical map: Belarus and its neighbours connect the Black and Baltic seas

Belarus and Poland are advancing a project to connect the Black and Baltic Seas via the E40 waterway. The 2,000 km-long waterway will run through rivers and canals in Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland and provide better access to seaports for landlocked Belarus.

Having already conducted a feasibility study, the participating countries are now considering ways to finance the project before making their final decision.

However, in July, several environmental organisations and public associations launched a campaign against the E40 waterway. About two dozen organisations from Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine signed a petition to halt the project.

If anything can ensure the sovereignty of Belarus and its neighbours, it is such projects which modify the political geography of the region. Unfortunately, many experts and politicians in the region do not seem to understand this matter.

Is the project really as large as it seems?

Linking up the Black and Baltic Seas, the proposed E40 route also connects many of the region’s major cities: Brest and Pinsk in Belarus, Gdańsk and Warsaw in Poland, and Kyiv and Kherson in Ukraine. The designers of the E40 project emphasise that their intention is to restore a previously existing waterway to move both people and cargo. In most parts of the waterway, ships are navigating even today.

The Polish leg of the project will require the most work, while Belarus has only to partially streamline the Prypiats’ River, construct seven locks, and build several other hydro-technical facilities.

Map of the proposed E40 waterway. Image: e40restoration.eu

The Polish Maritime Institute in Gdańsk carried out a feasibility study on the project with EU support. According to the institute, construction of facilities on the Prypiats’, i.e., the Belarusian part of the undertaking, would cost $150m. In comparison, about 12bn euros is to be spent on construction of the Polish part of the route.

Criticism from activists

On 19 July, certain environmentalists and economists expressed their concerns over Е40 during a press conference in Minsk. Ales’ Herasimenka, the press secretary of the Business Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers, criticised the project for the high investment risks it carries and the negative consequences for the Belarusian economy.

According to him, internal waterways are generally less efficient than automotive and rail transport in terms of rapidness, necessity of reloading cargo, and seasonal limitations. Therefore, according to Herasimenka: ‘We believe that government and institutional investors should come to terms with the decline of the role of inland water transport. … Waterways were relevant at the beginning of civilisation.’

However, such cursory dismissal of inland water transport is misjudged. In other European countries, this form of infrastructure shows no obvious signs of decline. Between 1990 and 2015, despite some ups and downs, the cargo volume of German inland water transport remained more or less static, at slightly more than 220m tons.

Likewise, some types of cargo, especially liquid bulk and dry bulk cargo, can be profitably transported through inland waterways, despite the limitations on speed. Several major firms in southern Belarus could take advantage of the waterway to transport large volumes of cargo. The Mikashevichy-based firm Hranit has been using the Prypiats to transport its granite for many years. Likewise, the Mazyr oil refinery or the Salihorskbased potash company Belaruskali could transport their products using water transport.

Tourism cannot replace trade

Image: Nasha Niva

Environmentalists insist that the project could have grave consequences for the local bird population, including several vulnerable species. Moreover, they claim it could potentially destroy the unique wetlands ecosystem.

However, the project does not envision any direct destruction of the wetlands. Moreover, nature in the area is not pristine anyway. In the 20th century, most swamps were drained in southern Belarus, and intensive economic activity altered the region significantly.

What’s more, the local environment is transforming because of global climate change. The water level in southern Belarusian rivers has been low for several years. Last year, because of the low water level in the Prypiats’, navigation on the river stopped much earlier than usual: by the beginning of autumn. On the other hand, because of rising temperatures and earlier springs, last year the company Belarusian Riverine Steamships started navigation on the Prypiats’ a month earlier than normal, in March.

One critic of the project, a representative of the Polish organisation Ratujmy Rzeki, Przemyslaw Nawrocki, urges Belarus to develop tourism along the Prypiats’. However, despite the beautiful landscapes along the river, the tourism industry is unlikely to be able to compete with the income brought by the E40. Belarus is simply too poor to leave the region undeveloped to satisfy environmental activists.

The waterway as a political game-changer

The E40 project also has political significance. ‘Death of Palissie [the name of the region in the Pripyats River Basin] or an alliance against Russia?’ exclaimed the US-financed and administered Radio Liberty, writing about the project on 24 July.

Meanwhile, the Belarusian government is negotiating a waterway which would help it use Polish and Ukrainian ports at the time when the Kremlin is urging Minsk to reroute its cargo away from Latvian and Lithuanian ports towards Russian Baltic ports. Minsk is not only resisting Moscow’s plans in this area, it even wants to make more intensive use of ports in countries Moscow considers unfriendly.

Map of the Baltic ports used by Belarus. Image: Tut.by

However, this concerns more than just Russia. Minsk is increasingly interested in the Polish port of Gdańsk and various Ukrainian ports because of very probable problems with using the Lithuanian port of Klaipėda

The Lithuanian government has become unfriendly towards Minsk in recent years because of Belarus’s decision to build a nuclear power plant near the Lithuanian border. Moreover, on 14 July, the Klaipėda City council voted to expand the city at the expense of its port – a priority destination for maritime export of Belarusian products. Belarus had invested in the Klaipėda port and there was long-standing bilateral cooperation on using the port for Belarusian foreign trade. This decision of local authorities dissmisses the plans of the port administration to construct a new deep-water port for ocean-going ships a dream for Belarusian exporters.

In sum, projects like E40 alter the geopolitics of the region, opening it up and providing it with further and better connections to the sea. Belarus cannot change its location, but it can develop its infrastructure in a way which mitigates its disadvantage as a landlocked country. Minsk can diversify its exports and reduce its dependence on Russia; it can also better integrate with its neighbours and the EU.

The environmental and economic arguments against the project are unconvincing, at least as far as Belarus is concerned. To survive, Belarus must reach the sea; the E40 is one way to do this.




Belarus and Ukraine cooperate in the face of Russian pressure

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka travelled to Kyiv on an official visit on 20-21 July. Both Belarus and Ukraine, for different reasons, are seeking to reinvigorate direct dialogue between their leaders, which they resumed three months ago in the Chernobyl zone.

The ‘age-old friendship’ (in Lukashenka’s terms) between Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko may appear paradoxical: the former is authoritarian and pro-Russian while the latter is democratically minded and pro-European.

Ukraine is resisting Russian aggression while Belarus remains Moscow’s closest military and political ally. It seems that simplistic political clichés do not capture the two nations’ complex relationship.

A means to boost trade

Lukashenka attended Poroshenko’s inauguration in June 2014 and returned again to Kyiv in December of the same year on a brief working visit. However, a lengthy hiatus of highest-level encounters followed. An attempt to arrange a meeting between the two leaders before the end of 2016 fell through, probably because of the Ukrainian elites’ displeasure at the Belarusian move against the Ukrainian resolution at the United Nations.

The two presidents finally met on 26 April 2017, at the site of the Chernobyl NPP in Ukraine, and continued their talks at the village of Liaskavichy in Belarus. Lukashenka’s top priority was to boost business ties; Poroshenko’s greatest need was assurance of Belarus’s continued neutrality regarding Ukraine’s conflict with Russia.

Despite a twofold drop in bilateral trade turnover in recent years, Ukraine remains Belarus’s second-largest trading partner, and Belarus is Ukraine’s fourth-largest. What’s more, the growth in trade resumed in 2016 (+10.5%, up to $3.8m) and accelerated in January-May 2017 (+26.7%).

Managers of about 90 Belarusian and over 380 Ukrainian companies attended a Belarusian-Ukrainian business forum held on the sidelines of Lukashenka’s recent visit. They signed contracts amounting to $68m to supply petrochemical products, fertilisers, trucks, harvesters, tyres, lifts, and other goods to Ukraine.

The two leaders agreed to intensify Belarusian-Ukrainian inter-regional ties – in particular by holding annual inter-regional forums. The first such event will soon take place in the Belarusian city of Homiel. The Belarusian government wants to adapt its trade relations with Ukraine to the latter’s decentralisation policies. The Ukrainian regions now have more power and money: thus, direct contacts may prove to be more efficient.

Venturing into foreign markets together

Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union will pose new challenges to bilateral trade with Belarus as Kyiv starts reorienting towards the European market. At the same time, this situation offers new opportunities for Minsk to promote its products in Europe through their higher localisation in Ukraine. The latter is also interested in exporting more to Belarus and its EAEU partners, especially in the context of reciprocal sanction regimes with Russia.

In Kyiv, the Belarusian leader spoke about ‘thousands of goods’ that Belarus and Ukraine could jointly produce and sell. ‘We want to work together in the Distant Arc, in other countries… We will create high-tech goods and we will sell them together in foreign markets’, Lukashenka stated.

His Ukrainian host was slightly more specific. ‘It is important that there is now a mutual interest in the creation of new joint ventures. By this I mean aircraft engineering, transport, and agricultural machine building’, Poroshenko said.

According to Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka, Belarus now has seven knockdown assembly plants in Ukraine, and Ukraine has six such enterprises in Belarus. Belarus’s strategy is to combine Belarusian preferential loans with Ukrainian subsidies to farmers and to increase localisation of goods in order to boost sales in Ukraine and third countries.

Energy projects: Moscow will not be happy

Importantly, Lukashenka and Poroshenko discussed cooperation in the energy sector, calling it an extremely promising avenue. Ukraine wants to supply more electrical energy to Belarus. However, they still disagree over the exact terms of the contract.

Poroshenko also announced that the two leaders ‘agreed to consider the possibility of expanding supplies of energy resources [to Belarus], especially crude oil, using the unique transit potential of Ukraine’.

Thus, on 23 May in Minsk, Gomeltransneft Druzhba (Belarus) and Ukrtransnafta (Ukraine) signed an agreement on the use of the oil pipeline Mazyr-Brody. The pipeline would allow the transport of Azerbaijani and Iranian oil from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to Belarusian refineries.

Currently, about 60% of Ukraine’s total import of petrol and 40% of its diesel fuel comes from Belarus. They are both made from refined Russian oil. Ukraine hopes to get an even better deal and increase the purchase volume by supplying crude oil for refining.

For Belarus, securing alternative oil sources would mean mitigating its energy dependence on Russia. However, this would require strong political will and significant investments; such a scheme may not be economically viable given the advantageous oil prices Moscow still offers Minsk.

Lukashenka’s assurances according to Poroshenko

In Kyiv, Alexander Lukashenka carefully avoided making any statement which could be interpreted as him taking sides in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. He spoke about Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians as a ‘civilisational core in this part of the European continent’.

The Belarusian leader stressed repeatedly that he would go no further in his peace-making efforts than Putin and Poroshenko asked. He also announced an increase in humanitarian assistance to the Donbass region.

In the presence of Lukashenka, Poroshenko told the press about his counterpart’s assurances that ‘the territory of Belarus, friendly to Ukraine, will never be used for aggressive actions against Ukraine, and the Ukrainian-Belarusian border will never become a border of war’.

The Ukrainian government and Ukrainian society remain extremely worried that Russia could use the upcoming military exercise West-2017, involving the Russian and Belarusian armies, to launch an offensive against Ukraine. The exercise will be held in Belarus on 14-20 September.

Poroshenko had already spoken of Lukashenka’s assurances in similar terms at their April meeting. However, the promises of the Belarusian leader apparently failed to convince certain factions in the Ukrainian government. Following Lukashenka’s visit, Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak refused to rule out the possibility of ‘provocations from Russia under a false pretext’ in the context of West-2017.

The meeting in Kyiv demonstrated that Lukashenka and Poroshenko have developed a close personal rapport. The two countries’ governments share an interest in stronger economic ties; they also have a fairly good understanding of how to build them. Belarus will never willingly endanger Ukraine’s security. Ukraine understands that it cannot realistically expect more than Belarus’s neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Despite the fact that they belong to opposing geopolitical alliances, Belarus and Ukraine still need each other to withstand Russia’s pressure. Their close bilateral cooperation will be instrumental in making both countries stronger.




Minsk process promoted, engaging the diaspora, export growth – Belarus state press digest

The Belarusian state press promotes the new Helsinki process initiated on Minsk’s initiative and reports on the numerous foreign policy achievements of the country.

The government attempts to engage the Belarusian Diaspora worldwide to realise its goals. Belarusian exports demonstrate growth after a long recession. This and more in the new edition of the Belarus State Press Digest.

Foreign policy

Lukashenka demands that Belarus’s presence worldwide increases.The current stage in the development of the Belarusian state requires building up foreign policy and economy in a more broad and systematic way. It is time for Belarus to speak out loud in the international arena and actively promote and protect its national interests’. The Belarusian leader gave this comment as part of a speech to the diplomatic corps and all bodies of power at a meeting on foreign policy priorities, reports Belarus Segodnia.

Lukashenka went on to claim that it is fundamentally important to develop cooperation with the East and West, without making a choice between them. The country needs to establish contacts everywhere, so that others know and understand it. The potential for normalising dialogue with the West should be realised more actively. In the European region and in the world, Belarus’s new role as a ‘security donor’ is becoming increasingly evident, as the country’s partners are showing interest in the Minsk initiative on launching a new Helsinki process.

Belarus eager to boost economic cooperation with Ukraine. During an official visit from the Belarusian president to Ukraine, Alexander Lukashenka and Pyotr Poroshenko agreed to focus on a return to an annual trade turnover of $8bn. Belarus and Ukraine also agreed to work on industrial cooperation and joint projects to modernise road and transport infrastructure, introduce innovative technologies, develop production cooperation, and increase cooperation between regions, reports Belarus Segodnia.

Poroshenko called the development of close relations with Belarus a highly important priority, while Lukashenka proposed to work together on humanitarian aid to Donbass, stating that in his peacemaking attempts he does not have personal ambitions and does only what Putin and Poroshenko ask of him.

Minsk hosts the VII Congress of the World Association of Belarusians. The congress gathered 300 delegates from more than 20 countries, including Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makiej, writes Zviazda. According to Makiej, the authorities are sincerely interested in a greater role for the diaspora in the social, economic, spiritual and cultural development of Belarus, preserving and strengthening the independence of the Belarusian state.

The Ministry and the Belarusian diaspora need to identify promising areas for cooperation. A start could be organising cultural events which promote the country’s image, and returning cultural artefacts to Belarus, Makiej said. Today, between 3 and 4 million Belarusians live abroad, according to various estimates.

Belarus manages to block two critical resolutions at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Narodnaja Hazieta published a comment by political expert Aliaksandr Špakoŭski on the results of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly session in Minsk, which Belarus hosted for the first time in its history. In addition, Belarus managed to effectively block two resolutions critical of the political regime in Belarus.

The first, proposed by Lithuania, concerned the construction of the Astraviec nuclear plant. The second document, ‘Situation in Eastern Europe’, was initiated by a Swedish deputy. This great success was possible thanks to both diplomatic talent and parliamentary professionalism, as well as the result of the rapprochement of Belarus and the EU.

Importantly, as Špakoŭski notes, it is not Belarus which is changing its political institutions or policies, it is the EU changing its attitude towards Belarus. The West, waging a political struggle with Russia, continues to view Belarus as a potential arena for this confrontation, but its tactics have changed. If earlier Western countries directly attacked Belarus, now they are performing a kind of diplomatic sounding, which suits Belarus more than an open confrontation.

Economy

Belarus sees increase in exports. This is the result of a number of international successes and activities that have helped make Belarus known in the world, writes Respublika. In January – May of 2017, exports of goods and services increased by 20.6%, or $2bn when compared with the same period of 2016. At the same time, imports over the same period have increased by only 15.7%.

A certain breakthrough also occurred in trade with North America, which was long frozen. Both exports and imports are growing, although figures still remain relatively small. Meanwhile, in the first five months of the year, exports of goods amounted to $80m, or 2.5 times higher than last year. However, the Belarusian services, and especially IT residents of the High Technologies Park, have been more successful: exports in services could reach $500m by the end of 2017.

The Belarusian nuclear power plant is to be launched in the summer of 2020. The General Director of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom, Alexei Likhachev, assured Alexander Lukashenka of this during their meeting. Lukashenka emphasised that the construction of the NPP is important from an economic, political, and moral point of view.

According to him, the decision to build a nuclear power plant after the Chernobyl disaster was not easy, as phobias remained strong, but the government has managed to convince the population of its safety. The authorities are monitoring the construction very thoroughly and the president personally receives updates on the details of construction.

Belarus plans to improve legislation in the field of public procurement. Hrodzienskaja Praŭda quoted an official of the Department of Financial Investigation of the State Control Committee, Viačaslaŭ Andruchaŭ. He announced these plans ahead of the international TAIEX seminar, organised by his agency jointly with the European Commission.

The most common corruption cases in public procurement concern the illegal restriction of individuals’ access to participation in the procurement procedure in order to create conditions for concluding a contract with a pre-selected organisation, as well as conscious understatement of the price by the bidder and subsequent increase thereof by concluding supplementary agreements to the contract.

The state press digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. 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.




Belarus’s international presence, official ideology, Eurobonds, and Geely cars – Belarus state press digest

Belarus hopes to expand its international presence when it presides over the Central European Initiative and hosts the summer session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly this summer.

In an Independence Day speech on 3 July, Lukashenka alluded to prominent cultural figures and mediaeval Belarusian polities as important elements of Belarusian statehood. This marks a shift from the usual Soviet-inspired nation-building discourse.

The government is issuing Eurobonds for $1bn and plans to launch assembling production of Chinese Geely cars in the second half of 2017.

This and more in the new edition of Belarus state press digest.

Foreign policy activity

The Central European Initiative meets in Minsk, as Belarus holds the organisation’s presidency this year, according to the Minsk Times. At present, the organisation comprises 18 countries and aims to prevent further dividing lines from growing in Europe. In Minsk, the CEI Foreign Ministers discussed how to adapt the organisation to the new cross-boundary challenges in the region. According to Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makiej: ‘There is no room for selective dialogue, where those ‘not European enough’ are ignored or set aside. There can be no “one-size-fits-all” political integration and there can be no universal recipe for instant democracy’.

The most sensible European politicians understand this. For example, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto noted that: ‘We advocate a fair approach from the EU towards Belarus and support the removal of sanctions, simplification of the visa regime between Belarus and the EU, and the promotion of Belarus in negotiations regarding membership to the WTO’.

The summer session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly opens in Minsk on 5 July. Belarus Segodnia interviewed Permanent Representative of Belarus to the OSCE Aliena Kupčyna. This session was the first OSCE event of its size in Belarus. According to the article, the choice of Belarus as a venue for the annual session is very appropriate, given the current crisis of European security. Belarus is increasingly perceived as an island of stability: it has no military or protracted conflicts on its territory and makes a significant contribution to the fight against organised crime, illegal migration, and human trafficking.

However, dividing lines in the region continue to grow, despite OSCE declarations. In order to prevent them, countries in the region must first of all scale down confrontation and work to increase mutual trust in the military sphere. Secondly, they should overcome the growing economic fragmentation in the OSCE area and develop economic interconnectedness. Thirdly, the OSCE should help participant states to fulfil their obligations to the organisation, albeit without coercion.

National ideology

Nationalising rhetoric and IT development enter official ideology. Belarus Segodnia published a transcript of Alexander Lukashenka’s Independence Day speech on 3 July. Although such speeches usually feature overly militaristic rhetoric, this time the Belarusian leader alluded to prominent cultural figures in Belarusian history. The authorities seem to be incorporating more and more nationalising elements in official ideology.

Lukashenka mentioned ‘those luminaries and ascetics who created Belarusian statehood, including Euphrosyne of Polatsk, Kiryla Turaŭski, Francysk Skaryna, and Symon Budny’. He called the Principality of Polack ‘our historic cradle’, and stated that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania provided a powerful impetus to military and urban development. Lukashenka also mentioned that both Belarus and Russia have no future if they fail to develop their respective IT sectors.

Economy

Tourism fails to grow despite the new visa-free regime. The number of foreigners who have taken advantage of the possibility to enter Belarus visa-free for five days has reached 20,000 as of this summer, writes Belarus Segodnia. Tourist companies prepared interesting programmes in anticipation of an influx of tourists, but no such surge occurred.

Experts note that the introduction of the five-day visa-free regime for citizens of 80 countries remains largely unknown abroad. Most tourists seem to come on business and limit themselves to hotel conference rooms or nightlife rather than visiting local travel agencies.

Assembly production of Chinese Geely cars to be launched soon. A Respublika correspondent visited the Geely plant to obtain details regarding the launch of car production. However, the management refused to disclose the details of their business plan or its expected profitability. Representatives of the plant would not even specify the precise dates of the plant’s official opening, saying only that it would be in the second half of 2017.

Currently, all car components for test production come from China, but after the official launch suppliers will be primarily Belarusian and Russian. The management of the plant confirmed that there are already pre-orders for the new cars, albeit so far mostly from Russia. The minimum price of a car will be around $12,000 and maximum $26,000-$27,000, depending on the model. Currently, 90% of the company’s employees come from Belarus; the rest are Chinese specialists training Belarusians.

Belarus and Russia demonstrate their innovations at the Fourth Forum of Regions in Moscow. The forum, which was held on 29-30 June, was named ‘Vectors of Integration Development of the Regions of Russia and Belarus in the Sphere of High Technologies, Innovation and the Information Society’, according to Belarus Segodnia. The forum took place at the same time as the Supreme State Council of the Union State; both Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin took part. The Forum of Regions is designed to facilitate the expansion of contacts and to function as a discussion platform.

The exhibition not only displays various achievements, it also shows the real fruits of the economic integration of the two countries. They are laying the foundation for the development of the modern smart economy of Belarus and Russia. It is impossible to be competitive on the global market alone, so the countries need to use their high intellectual potential jointly.

Belarus issues Eurobonds for $1bn. The Finance Ministry has announced details regarding the beginning of a Eurobonds roadshow in the USA and Europe, writes the Minsk Times. Depending on market conditions, Belarus plans to place two issues of Eurobonds for 5 and 10 years. The organisers are the Development Bank of Belarus, Citi, and Raiffeisen Bank International AG.

The roadshow format envisages presentational shares and meetings with potential investors and leading analysts. The event is being organised by the top management of the companies involved, prior to the placement of the bonds. Concrete terms for new issues of Belarusian Eurobonds and the volume concerned have not been announced. However, experts expect that it may amount to $1bn.

The state press digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. 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.




Greenmap, Urban Picnic, UN human rights report, LGBTQ Support Centre – Belarus civil society digest

Greenmap Belarus wins a UN competition. 3rd Urban Picnic in Mahilioŭ gathers over 6,000 citizens. A new initiative makes Minsk as green as possible.

EESC organises 10th annual United Students of Belarus Rally. BEROC opens enrolment to the 7th Student School in Economics.

KGB drops criminal charges in the preparation for mass riots case against Young Front activists. UN Special Rapporteur presents a new report on Belarus.

The Samahod visa-free summer festival takes place in Minsk on 24-25 June. LGBTQ community centre is established in Minsk.

This and more in the new edition of the Belarus civil society digest.

Green and urban activism

Greenmap Belarus won the UN competition. The joint project of the environmental CSOs and the Ministry of Natural Resources took the first place in the competition for the UN Awards in the field of building the Information Society WSIS Prize 2017. The Greenmap Belarus project, an interactive map of environmentally friendly places and initiatives, was developed by the Environmental Solutions Centre.

Demolishing of Asmaloŭka brought for public discussion. The administration of the Central district of Minsk announced the public discussion of the Asmaloŭka area where two neighbourhoods with two-story buildings plan to be completely demolished. Civic activists have been fighting for the preservation of the area for several years; they consider it an important cultural, historical and ecological object of Minsk.

Make Minsk green again. A new initiative is attempting to make the central part of Minsk as green as possible and create a related public request on that. Instead young seedlings, the initiative suggests planting adult trees that are more adapted to urban conditions. The first goal of the campaign is to plant trees near the Minsk railway station.

Community development

Impact assessment of the Leadership program. Office for European Expertise and Communications (OEEC) has released a report on the social effects that the educational programme Leadership in Local Communities implemented by OEEC and Pact has produced on the ground. According to the report, 49 trained community leaders managed to mobilise 4,600 locals in solving over 90 local issues.

3rd Big Urban Picnic in Mahilioŭ. On 27 May, the Centre for City Initiatives gathered more than 6,000 people on the banks of the Dniepr. The Picnic included a rich programme of contests, master classes, and presentations, accessible to all citizens of Mahilioŭ. The festival has become the third in a row, which is held by the forces of city CSOs.

City show new episodes present a new challenge for the participants to organise a budget-zero public event in the style of Vulica Brasil to master their organisational and creative skills. The activists also tell to the jury about their community projects that will be implemented on the ground. The winner of the show will go on a study tour to Brazil.

Youth

10th annual United Students of Belarus Rally. Eastern Europe Studies Centre (EESC) invites Belarusian youth studying in Belarus and abroad to apply for the rally, which will be held on 3-5 July in Vilnius, Lithuania. This year the USB Rally will be devoted to fostering connections between Belarus and Belarusian Diaspora around the world.

RADA invites Belarusian youth NGOs to take part in a Volunteer Festival on 11 August. The goal is the creation of a positive image of volunteering among young people, increasing the information content and visibility of youth CSOs, initiatives, and cultural and educational areas among young people.

Non-formal education

BEROC announces the enrolment to the 7th Student School in Economics. The School will be held in Minsk in September-October 2017. Working language of the school is English. The curriculum includes intensive lectures and group discussions. Specialisation in economics is not a must for the prospective candidates. The application form should be submitted before 14 July.

Educational programme on women’s social entrepreneurship. The first in Belarus, a 15-month programme to train women from Minsk and Brest who want to create social-oriented enterprises, or have already started their own businesses. The programme is implemented by a consortium of CSOs, including ODB Brussels, Brest Fund for Regional Development etc.

Repressions against civil society

The UN Special Rapporteur urges continued scrutiny as Belarus enters new cycle of repression. On 14 June, presenting his new report to the Human Rights Council, Miklós Haraszti described the severe crackdown on peaceful protesters in February-March of 2017 as revealing the nature of oppression of human rights in Belarus. In response, official Minsk urged the HRC to abolish the mandate on the Special Rapporteur in Belarus.

KGB terminated the criminal proceedings on ‘preparation for mass riots’. The Belarusian KGB has stopped criminal cases for ‘the preparation for mass riots’ (article 293-3 of the Criminal Code) started against six members of the Young Front. At the same, 14 people detained in March in connection with ‘the patriots’ case’ are still in jail. They are suspected of ‘creating an illegal armed unit’ (article 287 of the Criminal Code).

Analytical review of detention conditions and treatment of persons convicted of involvement in peaceful protests in March 2017. Human Right Centre Viasna‘s review concludes that the peaceful demonstrators sentenced to administrative detention in Minsk were held in conditions that are contrary to the state’s obligations enshrined in the Constitution and international treaties.

Other

Samahod, the annual visa free summer festival will take place in Minsk on 24-25 June and attract nearly 1,500 participants. Samahod /Self-Propelled supports the abolition of visa usage between the EU and Belarus. The festival will include lectures, performances, roundtable discussions, film screenings, children’s zones, and many more activities.

LGBTQ Community Support Centre was established in Minsk. The Centre supports LGBTQ people and their relatives and provides legal and psychological assistance and cultural and educational activities. The centre seeks to overcome discrimination and promote the idea of equality, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

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.




Is Belarus just ‘Greater Russia’? Neighbouring states dismiss Belarusian sovereignty

Despite all of Minsk’s efforts to present itself as a neutral country, some of its neighbours doubt not only its neutrality but even its sovereignty and commitment to peace. On 5 June, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė described Belarus as a threat to the region; meanwhile, her foreign minister repeatedly alludes to the ‘remnants of Belarusian sovereignty.’

Speaking on 19 June at the Ostrogorski Forum, Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus Ihor Kizima criticised Minsk for refusing to allow foreign observers to monitor a Belarus-Russian-Serbian military exercise in Belarus near the Ukrainian border earlier this month. Kyiv put its army on higher alert because of the exercise.

Belarus’s neighbours are voicing their concern with Minsk’s foreign policy. On 2 June, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makey admitted that it is difficult for Belarus to balance between different sides in the current confrontation involving Russia given ‘how far all sides have gone in militant rhetoric and mutual accusations.’

Belarus as part of ‘Greater Russia’

Lithuania has been the source of the harshest criticism of Minsk in recent years. In an interview to LRT Radijo on 5 June, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė described the main ‘challenge and threat’ to the Baltic states and Poland as:

the presence of Russia and Belarus to our east. Certainly… the militarization we see in Kaliningrad, the use of Belarusian territory for various experimental and aggressive games directed against the West. Including the upcoming military exercise [West-2017].

These controversial statement caused protests in the Belarusian foreign ministry. Vilnius, however, refused to apologise or modify its remarks. Foreign minister Linkevičius only reiterated the words of the president.

Earlier, speaking to the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe on 31 May, Linkevičius voiced his concern over the West-2017 exercise by pointing out: ‘Belarus is completely integrated with Russia. 4,000 train wagons will bring a huge amount of weapons and military equipment to Belarus.’ Moreover, Linkevičius pointed to the length of Lithuania’s borders with Russia and Belarus and stated: ‘that would be almost one thousand kilometres of frontier with ‘greater Russia’ and huge amounts of weapons for this exercise.’ The Lithuanian minister insisted that Russian troops would probably remain in Belarus.

Linkevičius believes that the Belarusian government should realise the dangers of the drills ‘if it wants to preserve a fragment of its sovereignty.’ Earlier this year, Linkevičius had already spoken with Deutsche Welle about ‘Belarusian sovereignty, what remains of it’, causing a harsh reaction from the Belarusian foreign ministry. Nonetheless, he is once again dismissing Belarus’s ability to act autonomously.

This dismissive stance towards Belarusian independence seems to be widespread among the Lithuanian political establishment. On 24 May, former Lithuanian defence minister Rasa Juknevičienė commented on the forthcoming military exercise to Belarusian internet portal TUT.by: ‘I have only one question about this. How much sovereignty does Lukashenka have, how much sovereignty has he kept for himself?’

She added:

I want to say that many experts, not only in Lithuania, believe that Belarus is not a sovereign military force. Personally, I have more hope than representatives of other states who have forgotten that Belarus is sovereign and consider it a part of Russia.

Meanwhile, Vilnius also dismisses the Astravets nuclear power plant project as ‘not Belarusian’. Belarus is building the plant near the Lithuanian border with the participation of the Russian corporation Rosatom. Regarding Astraviets, Lithuanian foreign minister Linkevičius stated on 31 May: ‘We cannot allow them [the Belarusian authorities] to do whatever they wish. It’s not even them, since it is a Russian project, Russian money and technologies.’

On 16 June, an interview was published with Lithuanian environment minister Kęstutis Navickas, who effectively repeated the words of Linkevičius. The Lithuanian officials call the Astraviets NPP ‘a geopolitical weapon’ and the Lithuanian parliament adopted a law earlier this month calling on the Belarusian government to stop the construction of the Astraviets NPP.

Leaving the door open for Minsk

It remains unclear whether Belarus’s other neighbours are equally dismissive of Belarusian neutrality, peacefulness, and sovereignty. However, there are some signs that their approach is milder. Hannes Hanso, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Estonian parliament and former defence minister of Estonia (2015– 2016), visited Minsk recently to discuss the West-2017 exercise.

As he commented to TUT.by: ‘Belarus is effectively our neighbour. I think I can say for sure that none of the Baltic countries feels that a threat comes from Belarus.’ He welcomed Belarus’s willingness to invite NATO observers and doubted the truthfulness of the rumours that Russian troops would stay in Belarus after the exercise.

Likewise, on 31 May, Andis Kudors, executive director of major Latvian think-tank Centre for East European Policy Studies and a member of the Foreign Policy Council of Latvia’s Foreign Ministry, presented a book on Belarusian foreign policy and stated:

The Belarusian authorities have limited opportunities to manoeuvre. It is important for Western countries to be cautious. When Lukashenko is bargaining for energy prices with Moscow, he is looking towards Europe. On one hand, we must keep the doors open, while on the other hand we must not be naive, so as not to become an argument in the game of Minsk and Moscow. I think that now it is not only bargaining.

The first visit of a Belarusian defence minister to a NATO member state

Minsk is taking measures in the military sphere to make its position credible and remain on the sidelines of the spat between Russia and its opponents. In an article in the Belarusian military daily Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta on 12 May, the head of the international military cooperation department of the Belarusian Defence ministry, Major General Aleh Voinau, along with his deputy Colonel Valery Ravenka, emphasised the development of cooperation with neighbouring countries and only marginally mentioned the deployment of NATO troops there.

They listed some specific steps which the Belarusian military officials took last year to gain the trust of its neighbours and NATO. Among them were four mutual verification visits conducted by Belarusian and Ukrainian military officials on each other’s territories.

Regarding Lithuania, they mentioned a visit of the former head of staff of the Lithuanian armed forces, Vilmantas Tamošaitis, to Minsk. He met with the head of Belarusian General Staff, Aleh Belakoneu, resulting in ‘a not easy, but open exchange of opinions on the development of the military-political situation.’

Interactions with Latvia proved more successful, according to Voinau and Ravenka. Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou even visited Latvia, which was the first official visit by a Belarusian defence minister to a NATO member state. In addition, the Belarusian military developed contacts with a key NATO country, the US: on 8 August 2016, the Belarusian defence ministry finally accredited a US defence attaché after a prolonged interruption.

In the current charged atmosphere of confrontation in the region, Minsk does whatever it can to be friends with everybody. As a result, nobody is happy. Belarusian efforts to remain neutral on a number of issues already caused an uproar in the right-wing segment of the Russian political establishment. Evgenii Satanovski, a political commentator close to the Kremlin, named Belarus as a member of an ‘alliance of back-stabbing nations.’

Minsk’s efforts have failed to please at least some of its non-Russian neighbours, too, which would like to see Belarus distance itself more clearly from Moscow. The Belarusian government, however, can hardly pursue a policy other than a very cautious and incremental build-up of neutrality if it wants to survive as an independent state.




Live: Ostrogorski Forum 2017. Belarus in the new environment: challenges to foreign policy, security, and identity after 2014

On 19 June 2017 the Ostrogorski Centre is holding a conference on the challenges to the Belarusian political and economic model in the new international environment, possible ways to prevent further deterioration and find solutions to major problems. The issue will be considered in the three aspects: foreign policy, security and identity.

The conference promotes the development of professional and respectful dialogue between experts with different political views. Each panel includes experts from both pro-government and independent community with journalists of leading Belarusian mass media as moderators.

The conference offers live broadcast. Videos from the conference will be spread among the stakeholders, including state bodies, media, and civil society organisations.

Agenda of the 2017 Ostrogorski Forum:

Panel 1. Normalisation of relations between Belarus and the West after 2010: problems and results

Speakers:

Valier Karbalievič, Analytical centre 'Strategy'

Andrej Liachovič, Centre for Political Analysis

Siarhiej Kizima, Academy of Public Administration under the President of Belarus

Panel 2. National security and defence policy of Belarus in the conditions of economic crisis and rising international tension: achievements and failures

Speakers:

Aliaksandr Špakoŭski, "Cytadel" project

Dzianis Mieljancoŭ, Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (tbc)

Aliaksandr Hielahajeŭ, independent military analyst

Panel 3. The official policy of identity after 2014: was there a ‘soft Belarusianisation'?

Speakers:

Vadzim Mažejka, Liberal Club

Andrej Dyńko, Naša Niva newspaper

Piotra Piatroŭski, Nomos Centre

#Ostrogorski Forum




Belarus extracts its own oil – Belarus photo digest

Many in Belarus took the recent discovery of new oil fields in the country as a joke: president Alexander Lukashenka had demanded earlier that the government start searching for its own black gold. According to experts, however, these deposits were already known.

It was only the complexity of extraction that had prevented the mining of these deposits before. However, officials now claim that Belarusian oil costs five times less than Russian oil, and extraction will be profitable even with world oil prices at $20 per barrel.

Belarus extracts around 1.6m tonnes of oil on its territory annually. This is a tiny amount compared to world oil production leaders. Russia, for example, produces roughly the same amount daily. The capacities of Belarusian refineries, meanwhile, require an additional 24m tonnes per year, which the country traditionally buys from Russia.

Processing Russian oil and the export of oil products has guaranteed economic stability for Lukashenka for almost two decades. Oil production exports make up around one third of Belarus’s exports, which makes the country vulnerable to global market fluctuations.

However, the Putin era brought regular oil and gas tensions, which forced Belarus to seek alternative supplies. Belarus even resorted to importing oil from Azerbaijan and Venezuela in 2010-2011 and 2016, as well as re-examining its own reserves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the photographer: Siarhei Leskiec is a freelance photographer whose work focuses on everyday life, folk traditions, and rituals in the Belarusian countryside. Originally from Maladzeczna Region, he received a history degree from the Belarusian State Pedagogical University.




Belarus and Moldova: cooperation despite opposing geopolitical orientations

On 6-7 May, Moldova’s Prime Minister Pavel Filip held a supercharged working visit to Belarus, meeting with the country’s top officials, kicking off several events, and discussing a wide range of issues, from trade to culture.

Despite serious recent setbacks in bilateral trade, Moldova remains an important economic partner for Belarus in the post-Soviet space. Unlike Russia, Belarus has no problem with Moldova's geopolitical orientation towards Europe, instead trying to use this factor to its advantage.

Will the recent election of the pro-Russian politician Igor Dodon to the Moldovan presidency affect the two countries’ economic cooperation?

Welcoming another advocate for Belarus in Europe

Pavel Filip received a warm welcome from President Alexander Lukashenka in Minsk. The Belarusian leader thanked ‘brotherly Moldova’ for explaining to ‘some zealous politicians in Europe what Belarus is and what our policy is’. Lukashenka promised to keep Belarus’s market open to products from Moldova, provided they adhere to high-quality standards.

Belarusian and Moldovan officials discussed trade and economic cooperation in detail during the 18th meeting of the joint intergovernmental commission. Filip also attended the BELAGRO agricultural trade show in Minsk. Twenty-two companies from Moldova promoted their wine, fruit, and vegetables at a 100-sq.m. stand dedicated to Moldova and sponsored by the Belarusian government.

The Moldovan Prime Minister also held a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart Andrei Kabiakou; they emphasised cooperation in the spheres of building and road construction, agriculture, and industrial assembly. The two officials also kicked off the Days of Moldovan Culture in Belarus.

Belarus does not object to Moldova’s European choice

Despite their relatively strong economic ties and shared history in the Soviet Union, there have been relatively few high-level contacts between the two countries’ executive authorities since their independence. Alexander Lukashenka visited Chisinau in August 1995 and received his Moldovan counterpart Petru Lucinschi in Minsk in June 2000.

Later, after two visits to Minsk by former Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev in August 2001 and October 2005, there was a nine-year hiatus in high-level interaction, not counting irregular meetings on the sidelines of CIS summits. Finally, Lukashenka returned to Chisinau in September 2014 followed by Andrei Kabiakou in October 2016. Nicolae Timofti, the then Moldovan President, paid an official visit to Belarus in July 2015.

Interestingly, this reinvigoration of high-level contacts between Belarus and Moldova is happening against a backdrop of worsening relations between Chisinau and Moscow. In 2013-2014, Russia, unhappy with Moldova’s decision to enter into an association agreement with the European Union, introduced a ban on imports of Moldovan wine, fruit, and fruit and vegetable preserves.

In 2014 in Chisinau, Lukashenka reassured the Moldovan public that the signing and ratification of the association agreement would not affect the latter's relations with Belarus: ‘Don't dramatise… We need to create new forms and look for new ways of cooperating’.

Indeed, Belarus opened its market to Moldovan food products. Thus, in 2014, the imports of apples from Moldova to Belarus increased more than eleven-fold compared to 2013: from 5,600 to 63,900 tonnes. A large part of these Moldovan apples surely found their way to the forbidden Russian market. Total imports from Moldova to Belarus subsequently grew dramatically: from $91.8m to $149.6m.

‘During a gruelling time for us, Belarus has extended a helping hand in a very open, sincere, and friendly manner, for example, a few years ago, when we had some problems with some markets in CIS countries. We will not forget it’, Pavel Filip said about that period at his recent meeting with Lukashenka.

Will the golden age in trade return?

The golden age for trade between Belarus and Moldova lasted several years during the early 2010s and reached its peak in 2014. Last year, the turnover returned to its 2007 level. In 2016, Belarusian exports to Moldova reached their lowest point in the last decade.

The turnover continued to fall in the first quarter of 2017, contracting by 35% to the same period of the previous year. However, Belarusian officials are encouraged by increasing exports (up by 52%).

Belarus exports several dozen product groups to Moldova: petroleum and chemical products, tractors, motor vehicles, ceramic tiles, and glass fibre dominate exports. Imports are essentially limited to fruit and vegetables (fresh and preserved), wine, and spirits.

Petroleum products amounted to over half of Belarusian exports to Moldova in the peak years of 2013-2014. However, the abrupt drop in supply in 2015 upset bilateral trade. Nevertheless, it is fair to note that the sales decrease affected most product groups including tractors, the second-largest export group in trade with Moldova.

Currently, eighty-seven companies operate in Moldova with the participation of Belarusian capital, including flagship projects of knockdown assembly plants of Belarusian trolleybuses and tractors. Now, the Belarusian government is hoping to launch a knockdown assembly plant of Belarusian MAZ buses in Chisinau in late 2017.

Will Lukashenka’s fan in Moldova help to increase bilateral trade?

Igor Dodon, the recently elected Moldovan president who sympathises with Russia, has an affection for Lukashenka. He called the latter ‘an example for [Moldova] … in preserv[ing] all the best things from the USSR’. ‘The economy works like a clock, and there is a rigid vertical of power [in Belarus]’, Dodon said in an interview to Deutsche Welle.

Belarus supported Dodon’s application for observer status at the Eurasian Economic Union, which was approved by the member states in April 2017. The head of Moldova’s executive branch, Pavel Filip, seems to harbour no grudge against the Belarusian government for having supported this initiative, which he called ‘a symbolic gesture’ with no legal consequences.

Lukashenka and Dodon met in Bishek, Kyrgyzstan on 14 April, on the sidelines of the Eurasian Economic Council. According to Dodon, Lukashenka advised him to hold a referendum on introducing a presidential republic in Moldova to give the country's leader more power, according to the examples of Russia and Belarus.

Dodon also announced in April that he would soon come to Belarus on Lukashenka’s invitation. The visit is tentatively scheduled for 13-14 July.

Dodon’s activities as the new President of Moldova have apparently failed to affect Belarusian-Moldovan relations in any way, be it positive or negative. Dodon has little real power in the parliamentary republic, and Belarus prefers to work with those in charge.

Even if he succeeds in bringing Moldova back to the ‘Russian world’, it would hardly help to strengthen Belarus’s economic position in Moldova. Thus, despite its apparent fondness for rhetoric about integration and Soviet nostalgia, Belarus remains quite pragmatic in its economic dealings.




Belarusian schools: modernisation or stagnation?

On 12 May, Alexander Lukašenka suddenly announced that starting in September, school children would start class at 9:00 am rather than 8:00. This reform would give children an extra hour of sleep. However, many maintain that the change would be just another formality, without actually improving the condition of school education.

Meanwhile, the increasing ideologisation of schools, the lack of funding, and low wages for teachers remain much more serious obstacles to Belarusian education.

The legacy of the Soviet Union is still obvious in Belarusian schools, and this factor hinders the development of general education. Instead of changing pupils' schedules, the authorities should focus on developing study programmes, guaranteeing more freedom for teachers, and opening schools up for civil society activism.

Preserving the Soviet Model

Belarusian schools still preserve many features of the Soviet education model. Textbooks on history focus on Belarus's Soviet past, devoting an inordinate amount of attention to the Great Patriotic War. Old-fashioned schoolbooks in other subjects need to be completely overhauled, as do testing and monitoring, believes Tamara Matskevich, Deputy Chairwoman of the Francišak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society.

What's more, the workload of pupils at Belarusians schools remains very high: This contrasts to many systems in other European countries.

Teacher status and salary is another post-communist remnant of the Belarusian school system. Since 2010, the wages of school teachers have declined from $341 per month in 2010 to $258 in 2017, reports Belstat, the Belarusian government's statistical agency. This number is much lower that in neighbouring Russia, where the average salary is $526 (Rosstat). What's more, the average salary of teachers in Belarus is still far from the $500 routinely promised by Lukašenka.

Another tradition the Belarusian school system has inherited from the USSR is the tradition of giving ‘gifts’ to teachers. As a member of a parents’ association of a Minsk school reported to Naviny.by:

We collect money for classroom needs twice a year for about 50 rubles (around $26 – BD) per year. I can name some of the expenses that we paid for: these are gifts for teachers for the holidays, matinees for children, and symbolic gifts for children's birthdays. Last year, we bought blinds.

As in Soviet times, when Russian was the main language of education, the status of the Belarusian language remains unequal. In the 2016-2017 academic year, only 13.3% of all pupils studied in Belarusian-medium programmes, compared to 86.6% who studied in Russian, according to a recent report by Belstat. Additionally, in some regions Polish schools regularly encounter obstacles created by the authorities.

This Soviet heritage, however, also has some advantages: nine years of schooling are universally obligatory. The literacy rate of adults in Belarus is 100% according to UNESCO.

Ideologisation of School Education

Ideologisation remains another problematic feature of Belarusian general education. To this day, pupils are required to join the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM): this is the successor of Soviet communist organisations such as the Young Pioneers or Komsomol . Members of BRSM receive academic and social benefits, including discounts at discos, certain stores, and hairdressing salons, reports the official web page of the organisation.

In December 2016, a representative of the communist party and former ideologist of the Minsk executive committee, Ihar Karpienka, was appointed head of the Ministry of Education. Sviatlana Matskevich, a pedagogy Ph.D., remarked to Belsat that this new leadership for the Ministry bodes ill for Belarusian education. However, according to Matskevich, the only silver lining might be that this could lead to such a complete stagnation of school education that modernisation would be inevitable.

Teachers also serve as tools for falsifying elections: school and university teachers often act as members of the election committees which count votes. The OSCE, PACE, and many independent international observers have refused to recognise Belarusian elections, pointing to the closed procedure of vote counting at polling stations.

A new reform and Mikalai Lukašenka

In a comment on the new reforms regarding changing the time school starts, Lukašenka mentioned that his son had expressed dissatisfaction with the idea. The name of Mikalai Lukašenka often appears in the Belarusian media, as he follows his father to many official meetings, including international ones.

However, due to the frequent absences of Mikalai at lessons, the media often doubt whether the younger Lukašenka visits school at all. Many believe that the president is preparing Mikalai as his future successor. During his last 'official' visit, which occurred during school time, Chinese journalists took a photo of Mikalai Lukašenka allegedly drinking champagne at the International Forum in Beijing.

According to Alexander Lukašenka, Mikalai studies in a small school with only 500 pupils. Observing his son's studies, the Belarusian president has many times expressed the need to simplify the school curriculum for children and shorten studying hours. In April, Lukašenka told Parliament: 'When we complicate the studying process' and introduce 'complicated textbooks at school, we discourage children from getting knowledge. Children start to fear'.

Modernisation of School Education

Low wages discourage people from becoming teachers. However, as they have been unable to improve working conditions, the authorities are suggesting two reforms. Starting next year future teachers will no longer sit a state examination (Centralised Testing), which is obligatory for all other disciplines. Moreover, on 31 May, the Ministry of Education announced the cancellation of mandatory reexamination of teachers which used to take place every five years.

Belarusian schools have already experienced certain reforms. In 2002, the Ministry of Education replaced the 5-point assessment scale with a 10-point one. In 2004, Belarusian schools changed the term of studies from 11 to 12 years. Later, after only four years, Lukašenka rescinded this reform, causing inconveniences for schools and pupils.

However, all these reforms, including the recent change of start time, seem to be little more than formalities. In order to enact real change, the state must seriously commit to tackling several problematic aspects of the system.

Rather than mobilising pupils to become members of official youth organisations, authorities could open more space for non-governmental and non-political initiatives. Cooperation with NGOs would develop international exchanges and local initiatives in which schoolchildren have the possibility to be proactive.

Belarusian schools would benefit significantly from improving working conditions for teachers. Paying them more and providing them more autonomy would help to modernise the Soviet-style education system in Belarus.

As Liavon Barscheuski, an activist and former chairman of the BNF party, told the publication Belarus Partisan: 'the educational sphere – , first and foremost, consists of human beings' and no reform can be effective as long as teachers struggle with paperwork and receive low wages.




The avant-guarde of Belarusian hi-tech industry

Agreements concluded in May of this year between the Belarusian High Tech Park and Uber, along with the opening of an R&D centre for the Israeli company Gett, demonstrate the growing success of the Belarusian IT industry.

Dave Waiser, Gett’s CEO, compared Belarus to Israel in terms of its small domestic market for retail business, but big opportunities for IT export for worldwide use.

Over the past decade, Belarusian IT services have grown by almost 50, with export reaching $900m – a number which is growing at a rate of 20 per cent and currently constitutes 12 per cent of Belarusian export.

Out of the 1,000 IT companies in Belarus, only 24 belong to the state. The largest IT companies, which operate in Belarus’s most promising industry and do most of their business abroad, put continuous effort into ensuring the industry continues to grow.

While the authorities support the increasing contribution of the IT sector to Belarus’s declining economy, it is Belarusian IT companies themselves which play the largest role in boosting IT education, expanding the sector’s size and regional reach, and cautiously influencing changes in legislation.

High Tech Park – Belarus’s hub for IT

It’s been 12 years since High Tech Park opened in Minsk, after the president signed the decree ‘On High Tech Park’ in 2005. Before the park’s opening, Belarus’s IT export constituted $15.2 million.

In 2009, HTP had already reached $121.5m worth of export. In 2016 it reached $820.6 million, expanding its activities into the fields of nanoelectronics, mechatronics, data transmission, and other areas.

Currently, the park hosts 173 companies from 67 countries, producing 91% of its software for export and attracting $169m of foreign direct investment. Thanks to HTP, the export of Belarus’s IT services became the second most important contributing factor to the country’s current positive trade balance for foreign services.

A few days ago, HTP opened an educational centre in a regional department in the city of Hrodna. The department implements and supports regional ICT projects, cooperates with local universities, and promotes employment in the IT sector. HTP has also opened IT academies in several locations in order to teach programming to school children. In this way, the park can enhance IT education while motivating students to specialise in ICT, consequently increasing the number of potential IT specialists for the growing sector countrywide.

The number of foreign companies entering HTP is increasing thanks to tax benefits and a pool of inexpensive and highly qualified specialists; this creates a perfect environment for outsourcing.

Four Companies with Belarusian roots (EPAM Systems, IBA Group, Intetics, and Itransition) are ranked among the world’s largest outsourcing companies in 2016 Global Outsourcing 100. Another ranking, SoftwareMag, includes EPAM, IBA and eight more HTP residents among the top 500 IT service providers.

Top outsourcing companies

EPAM Systems is the largest Belarusian IT company, registered in the US with 25 branches around the world. Arkadz Dobkin, a Belarusian immigrant to the US, founded EPAM in 1993. Today, EPAM employs 22,000 people, including 8,000 in Belarus, where the company has branches in all regional centres. With revenue of over $1 billion and IPO at the New York Stock Exchange, EPAM is the fastest-growing IT company in Belarus and among the fastest in North America. Over the past six months alone, the Belarusian branch of EPAM increased its staff by more than a third.

EPAM invests millions of dollars into real estate for Belarusian programmers, finances university training programmes, and runs start-up initiatives. Moreover, the company is listed among the winners of the ‘Best Exporters of 2016’ for its leading position in Belarus’s IT services export.

However, EPAM’s overall revenue structure shows that North America takes the largest share (59.2 per cent), while CIS receives 14 times less (4.2 per cent), and this gap is widening. Hence, most of EPAM’s revenue falls outside Belarus, the country with the most employees.

IBA Group, the third largest IT exporter and second biggest supplier to Belarusian market, is another major Belarusian outsourcing company. IBA owes its creation to the US company IBM, which established a joint venture with the Minsk Research Institute of Computers in the early 1990s. Today IBA is headquartered in Prague, while the Minsk-based office remains the key to the company. IBA has developed several projects for the Belarusian market, including an e-tax system for the Ministry of Taxes and Duties, a ticket system for public transportation, and budgeting systems for banks.

In August 2016, the media claimed that Belarusian police had detained IBA’s top managers. While IBA CEO Siarhiej Liaŭciejeŭ denied this information, he confirmed certain claims by national law enforcement agencies. Nonetheless, IBA, EPAM, and other top IT companies, such as Itransition, ISsoft Solutions, and iTechArt, remain among the top Belarusian IT service providers to this day.

Conquering the world with tanks and augmented reality

While the Belarusian IT industry largely focuses on services, product development continues to be the most profitable sector. Wargaming, founded in Minsk in 1998, is a primary example. Last week, the world’s fifth most popular PC gaming company held its 2017 Grand Finals in Moscow, gathering 12 teams to compete for a $300,000 prize. Officially registered in Cyprus, Wargaming garners international recognition for its game World of Tanks, played by 110 million users. The game turned the company into an international corporation.

Wargaming’s CEO Viktar Kisly became the first gaming industry billionaire from the CIS included in the Bloomberg index, which valued Wargaming’s business at $1.5 billion. However, since World of Tanks, no other game has had similar success. Stagnation of the business could have influenced the decision of co-founder Ivan Michnievič to leave Wargaming in 2014. While the Minsk-based Game Stream Studio continues developing new projects, recent games such as World of Warplanes and World of Warships have failed to take off.

Other fresher examples of Belarus’s IT development is the company Banuba Development, registered in Hong-Kong with a development centre in Minsk. Backed by $5m of funding from the Gutseriev family’s Larnabel Ventures and Viktor Prokopenya’s VP Capital, the team of 45 Belarusian programmers are currently developing augmented-reality-enabled mobile apps. Already boasting 11 US patents, Banuba expects to present its first application this year.

Emerging trends

During Lukashenka’s visit to several IT companies, the president made clear that the state has given a green light to the development of the IT industry. Lukashenka praised the achievements of Belarusian IT companies, promising to expand state support for new projects.

The fact that Belarus already has EPAM and InterActiveCorp (IAC), which owns the HTP-registered mobile apps developer Apalon, shows that the right steps are being taken towards involving large corporations in Belarus’s IT sector. Nevertheless, further revenue growth requires a new legal system to support the IT product model and attract more public IT companies with traded shares on stock exchanges.

While Belarusian and Russia-oriented exports continue to shrink, the West-oriented IT industry is growing by leaps and bounds. The government supports Belarus’s high-tech achievements by asking for its 5 per cent share in GDP, while IT businessmen carefully push for reforms in economic legislation. As long as the interests of IT business and the government in making Belarusian economy more innovative coincide, HTP residents can expect production and revenue growth, as well as more IT corporations coming.

This article is a part of a series of publications on IT sector in Belarus supported by VP Capital.




Belarusian-Russian visa, oil industry failure, new national idea – Belarus state press digest

On 2 June, at a governmental meeting on oil industry problems, Alexander Lukashenka blamed managers and the government for lacking an adequate development strategy for the industry. The Belarusian oil industry showed negative results in 2016.

Belarus and Russia decided against the idea of a unified visa in favour of mutual visa recognition. Belarus should fear the informational war between Russia and the West, not a hypothetical occupation during the West 2017 military drills.

According to former foreign minister Piotr Kraŭčanka, the national idea of Belarus should include shared values and identity, historical memory, language, consensus on domestic and foreign policy, and a market economy.

This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.

Foreign policy and security

Deputy State Secretary of the Union State of Belarus and Russia Alexei Kubrin reveals single visa plans. The Ministries of Foreign Affairs decided to shift from a common document to mutual visa recognition. Thus, a person who receives a Belarusian visa will be able to travel to Russia with the same document. The first draft of the bilateral agreement has already been prepared, writes Soyuznoe Veche.

The sides decided to abandon the idea of a ‘Union's Schengen’ because a single visa works better only when many countries are involved. Belarus and Russia deciding to introduce a single visa would be a bureaucratic nightmare for migration and border services. Moscow and Minsk now recognise that they both provide migration security at the necessary level.

Russia will not occupy Belarus during West 2017 military drills. The head of the official Union of Journalists of Belarus Anatoĺ Liemiašonak criticises an article by Ukrainian military expert Alexei Arestovich's, in which he argues that by 2020, Russia will occupy Belarus and launch a second offensive on Ukraine. Russia and Belarus remain close allies, and military exercises such as West 2017, scheduled for September, take place regularly. Moreover, they always involve foreign observers, writes Respublica.

Belarusian leadership has repeatedly stressed that the Russian military contingent will not remain on the territory of Belarus after the drills are over. The author also points out that the EU itself can be considered occupied, as a large number of US bases and military contingents are located on its territory. Instead, Russia and Belarus need to prepare for informational warfare, as the presidential elections in Russia are approaching and Putin's enemies will do their best to end his political career. This will also threaten Belarus, the author argues.

Economy

Aliaksandr Lukashenka acknowledges the failure of the Belarusian oil industry in 2016. Last year saw a negative trend in foreign trade in oil products. The government has invested a large amount of money in oil refinery modernisation, but without any result. Undoubtedly, global affairs played an important role, as oil prices fell two and a half times. Nevertheless, managers working in the sector failed to determine a development strategy for the industry. The government also failed to develop a clear course of action, reports Zviazda.

This question concerns the independence of Belarus, Lukashenka asserted. The country must do everything to ensure its energy independence and security, but the contribution of oil refinement to the economy of Belarus, unfortunately, is declining. For example, the contribution of the two refineries is now equal to that of the national telecommunications company Beltelecom. 'Once again, I want to stress that we have failed many modernisation projects. I will not allow the President's decisions to be devaluated and neglected', the Belarusian leader said.

Belarusian industry cannot rely on foreign investments. Belarus Segodnia writes that in 2002-2016, Belarus received $76bn of foreign direct investment. More than half of it ($40bn) came from Russia, $16bn from the UK, $6bn from the US, and $4bn from Switzerland and Cyprus. However, much of the money that came through Cyprus was most likely Russian. Real western capital comes to Belarus very rarely. Even less of these funds reach the real sector of the economy, as they mostly invest in trade and services. Industry is modernised either by state funding or foreign loans.

The current plans for MAZ modernisation will hardly see any foreign financing either. Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamaška said that the government plans to invest about $500m in the development of the plant and is looking for sources of money. The article concludes that the proper work of national industry remains a purely domestic concern, and can be supported only by Belarusian taxpayers.

Social

Belarus needs a new national idea. Foreign Minister of Belarus from 1990 to 1994 dr. Piotr Kraŭčanka offered his vision for a national idea on the pages of Belarus Segodnia. According to him, the nation should be built on shared values and identity, market economy, historical memory, language, and consensus on domestic and foreign policy. He also brought up the possibility of introducing private land ownership.

Meanwhile, the revival of the Belarusian language remains crucially important for the formation of the nation. It should be equal to the Russian language in state policies not only formally, but in practise, he argues. Belarusians need to come to a national consensus regarding foreign policy and external economic orientation with the West and East. Kraŭčanka also suggested recognising and honouring national activists of the past, including those of the Belarusian People's Republic, whom the current Belarusian government neglects.

The government gradually eliminates unemployment. The level of registered unemployment today is 0.9%; a year ago the figure was 1.2%, reports Belarus Segodnia. The authorities achieved more than last year's goal of 50,000 new jobs, but this year's goal of 70,000 seems more challenging. However, the government may yet meet the targeted figure, as it created 15,742 jobs in the first quarter of 2017, while the plan required 15,000. The figures for each region vary, but the only region that failed to fulfil the plan was Minsk Region. Local officials explain that some new companies registered in the region have not yet managed to create production and employ staff. The other reason lies in the companies' migration to the capital.

The state press digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. 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.