New repressions in Belarus: The art of staying below western radars

On 14 October, a squad of masked riot policemen raided an antifascist concert in Minsk, detaining dozens of people, and reportedly beating some of them. This incident, among several others, demonstrated a relatively new trend in Belarusian domestic politics.

For several months now, the authorities have been steadily expanding the range of targeted and discrete repressions against media, civil society and political opposition groups. At the same time, they carefully calibrate the pressure, so that it does no harm to Belarus and the West improving relations. The government is also working on new legislation that can tighten their control over freedoms of speech and assembly.

Taken together, these practical and legal developments test the limits of EU patience. So far, the test results seem to satisfy Minsk.

Some types of repression remain a no-go

Between August 2015 and March 2017, Belarusian authorities notably softened their treatment of political opposition. Fines for protests replaced detentions and administrative arrests. These soft practices followed the release of political prisoners—Mikalai Statkevich, Yuri Rubtsou and four anarchists—and were meant to contribute to a positive atmosphere for dialog with the West.

These softer practicies were a self-imposed restriction, a political offering on Minsk’s behalf. Historically, the West has resorted to meaningful pressure only after politically motivated criminal trials, brutal crackdowns on street rallies, or election manipulations, but not after the occasional administrative persecution of protest leaders.

The Belarusian authorities’ reaction to the 2017 spring social protests only highlighted this rule. In the following months, power ministries, or siloviki, in fact tested the boundaries of what was allowed by the logic of Belarus-West engagement.

It appeared that the EU started to push on Minsk diplomatically when the arrests were large-scale and indiscriminate during the spring protests and when the media became filled with frightening pictures of street crackdowns on 25 March. Putting people into prison under dubious criminal charges (the White legion case, for example) also made the West voice its concern.

Minsk learnt its lesson. Firstly, the authorities released both those convicted under White Legion and independent trade union cases. However, none of the convicts’ charges were dropped. Secondly, the police refrained from demonstrations of power on the streets. To be fair, opposition has also failed to organise spring style protests in a way that would require a harsh crackdown.

To the degree they did not to impede diplomats’ work, the siloviki have returned to targeted repression and even intensified them in the recent months.

Gradual expansion of pressure

Administrative arrests (up to 15 days) have clearly come back to the arsenal of the authorities. However, the police almost never detain activists during or immediately after a given rally; the media must not get “tasty” pictures.

Riot police detain Pavel Seviarynets for a previous rally the moment he showed up at a new one, 31 March 2017. Photo: Vadzim Zamirouski, TUT.BY

The police implement court orders to arrest opponents at the time of their, the police’s, tactical convenience. It often happens on the eve of the next announced protest. Currently several activists, like Pavel Seviarynets and Maksim Viniarski, are serving arrests for past demonstrations. The timings of their arrests, though, were evidently picked to prevent them from attending an upcoming rally on 21 October. A protest leader such as Mikalai Statkevich always has an arrest or two “in stock,” so the police may come for him at anytime.

Since this past spring, the authorities have intensified their pressure on journalists from Belsat, an oppositional satellite TV-channel, broadcasting from and launched by Warsaw. Working without accreditation, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs refuses to grant them, Belsat reporters have been getting fines (between $200 to $600) since 2014 for the “illegal production of media material.” This year, however, there have been an outstanding number of fines.

2014 2015 2016 2017
Number of fines imposed on Belsat reporters 5 20 10 43
Total volume ($) 2500 7500 3000 16730

Source: Belarusian Association of Journalists.

This crackdown partly owes to the increased pragmatism of the current Polish right-wing government and its particular efforts for better relations with Minsk. The Polish Sejm was the first EU parliament to engage in official contacts with the Belarusian House of Representatives in 2016, even before an opposition party got a seat. According to some reports, Warsaw diplomats even privately proposed ending support to Belsat in return for a Polish cultural TV-channel gaining access to Belarusian cable networks. The Belarusian authorities seem to have concluded their pressure on Belsat would not damage relations. They appear to be right.

On a completely different front, the Justice Ministry launched re-attestations of lawyers. On 14 September, the ministry revoked the licence of Hanna Bakhtsina, a barrister who has defended numerous political activists. Decisions on several other lawyers are expected soon.

The police have also returned to a practice that seemed almost forgotten—raids on civil society group gatherings. On 26 September, secret services raided the apartments of several Belarusian anarchists and environmentalists. On 9 October, police disrupted a lecture by Russian anarchist writer Piotr Riabov in Hrodna. Riabov was arrested for six days for “swearing in public” and eventually deported from Belarus.

On 14 October, masked police officers raided the “Minsk Edge Day 2017” concert, detaining musicians and members of the audience, apparently for their affiliations with anti-fascist groups. Some of those detained reported beatings.

Looming legal experiments

Recently, the government put forward two new legislative initiatives that can potentially deteriorate the human rights situation in Belarus.

One of them, the draft law amending the public assembly regulations, was published at the beginning of October. The document will remove the need to seek permission for a rally in several assigned districts of every town and city. This alone seems like incremental liberalisation.

At the same time, the amendments will expand the power of local authorities to refuse applications for rallies from previously convicted individuals, meaning from almost every opposition leader. The draft also outlaws any public announcements of unauthorised protests. Russia’s authorities constantly use the same provision in their law to preventively arrest activists.

The second initiative is the brainchild of the new Information Minister, Aliaxander Karliukevich. On 7 October, he proposed to regulate social networks with additions to law on media. His promises to not infringe upon freedom of speech with these amendments encourage little optimism.

The future of Belarusian domestic politics to some degree depends on how the West will react to these legal novelties. Were they to pass through without a setback in relations or any preceding diplomatic pressure, Minsk will see law making as another safe polygon for future restrictions and experiments.

A new normal?

The correlation between the current phase of Minsk-West relations and the political climate within Belarus has always been one of conventional wisdom.

Times of good relations with the EU have traditionally meant less domestic repression. In its turn, a thaw that gave more space for oppositional activity in some cases would lead to more protests. The protests would subsequently cause a new crackdown and a new conflict with the West. The story would then repeat itself.

2017 may become a year that defies this cycle. Belarusian authorities have apparently found a way to combine both improving relations with Brussels while at the same time retaining targeted repression, which are finely tuned below Western radars.

The more Brussels’ pragmatism towards Minsk starts to look irreversible, the more Belarusian authorities gain confidence and clarity in how many things they can do without breaking the glass ceiling of EU patience.




Breakout from isolation? What to expect from Lukashenka’s visit to Brussels

On 9 October, Belarusian media reported that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka received an invitation to the Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit in Brussels. The development demonstrates a new high in the pragmatisation of EU policy towards Minsk. A formal end to the isolation of the Belarusian leadership has come despite the lack of human rights progress.

Lukashenka will most likely use the occasion to reinforce his new image as a donor of regional stability. However, this diplomatic breakthrough does not automatically imply tangible progress in relations with Brussels. The political thaw, so far, has failed to produce economic results or improve Belarusians’ attitude towards the EU. Such shifts require bold domestic reforms, and Minsk seems reluctant to undertake them.

EU pragmatism at its peak

Several different sources, including the EU delegation in Minsk, have now confirmed that Alexander Lukashenka personally received an invitation to come to Brussels for the EaP summit in late November. On 17 October, European Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn will visit Minsk, reportedly, to pass on the invitation personally to Lukashenka.

Johannes Hahn (left) in Minsk in 2015. Photo: www.ec.europa.eu

Due to a strained relationship with the EU, the Belarusian president has not represented his country at any of the four past EaP summits. Brussels issued the same invitation to all six EaP member countries, but unofficially asked Belarus to please send someone other than the Belarusian president.

The thaw in EU–Belarus relations, which started in 2015, has become, inter alia, a manifestation of Brussels’ new, more pragmatic foreign policy towards Minsk. An increasing importance of regional stability and security, Belarus’s neutral stance on Ukrainian crisis, and its peacemaking efforts have all had a strong effect on this EU policy shift.

Belarus still does not participate in EaP’s parliamentary dimension, Euronest, but the invitation for the president to visit Brussels overshadows this lingering drawback. This autumn, Belarus will formally and symbolically become a partner, the leadership of which EU recognises equally legitimate to those of other Eastern neighbours.

This represents quite a remarkable leap from “the last dictatorship of Europe” label, especially considering how limited the democratic progress in Belarus has been. Human rights groups, like Viasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, still report about political prisoners (currently they name three). In terms of freedoms of media and assembly, the situation has recently worsened with a new wave of pressure on the Belsat TV channel and arrests of opposition activists.

These developments, however, have caused no visible damage to the Minsk–Brussels rapprochement. Indeed, inviting Alexander Lukashenka to the EU capital is not simply one step further. With such a decision, Brussels clearly flags the victory of the “pragmatists’ camp” over “value-advocates” within the EU. There are simply no powerful actors, capitals or groups of interests left to root for a hard line towards Belarus.

Minsk will try to consolidate diplomatic gains

Belarus has not yet confirmed Lukashenka’s visit to Brussels, but it is already clear the pros outweigh the cons.

For the potential fruits the Brussels trip may bear, Lukashenka can put up with a dozen protesters near the EU Council building or occasional criticism from European colleagues. The overall positive atmosphere in Belarus-EU relations minimizes the potential magnitude of these “dangers.”

Lukashenko will unlikely be afraid of irritating Russia with his visit. The recently held joint military games Zapad-2017, despite Western criticism and worries, was a timely and appeasing pro-Russian gesture. These exercises made it easier for Lukashenka to defend his Brussels trip were Russia to raise issue.

On the pros side, the Belarusian president will get a serious reputational uplift from his visit to the EaP summit. For the first time in two decades, he gets a chance to come to the EU capital and take an equal seat at the table with key European leaders. Belarusian diplomats will do their best to arrange as many bilateral meetings as possible.

Lukashenka will likely present himself triumphant—a leader who managed to break out from Western isolation, sacrificing no power domestically and imposing his pragmatism upon relations with the EU.

Brussels will also act as a prestigious forum for Belarusian president to reiterate his Helsinki-2 initiative. The idea is to gather USA, EU, China and Russia to discuss a new world order, preferably—in Minsk. In addition, Lukashenka will not miss an opportunity to remind all in attendance of his role in facilitating negotiations on Ukraine.

The potential and ceiling of engagement

A limited and relatively superficial agenda remains the fundamental problem of the EU-Belarus thaw in relations. For now, progress after Brussels seems feasible in terms of visa facilitation talks and the launch of negotiations for a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which will create a legal basis for cooperation between Belarus and the EU.

The Belarusian Foreign Affairs Ministry has complained often lately about the lack of a modern legal basis for developing relations with the EU. Ironically, Lukashenka made his first, and so far only, visit to Brussels in 1995 to sign the first Framework Agreement. The EU suspended its ratification after the Belarusian referendum of 1996, which consolidated authoritarian rule in the country. Lukashenka’s new visit to Brussel seems the perfect occasion to kick off new talks on this issue.

Photo: Reuters

Visa facilitation will hardly be achieved by simply visiting Brussels. The talks have been stuck in bureaucracy for several years now. At the same time, a loud and joint reiteration of both Belarusian and EU political will to conclude talks on a new visa regime may speed up the process.

Apart from this, the Belarusian diplomatic breakthrough will remain purely diplomatic. Naturally, this can contribute to a steady improvement of the country’s image abroad, but this slow process will hardly lead to a tangible breakthrough in relations.

The origins of the ceiling to engagement go well beyond the usual stumbling block—Belarusian authoritarianism. For example, the dynamics of EU–Belarus trade follow oil prices and not political developments. Refined Russian oil constitutes up to 70 per cent of Belarusian exports to the EU and Minsk has done little to change this trade structure. The share of trade with EU in terms of Belarus’s overall trade balance is just 23 per cent (January–August 2017). The figure was above 26 per cent even in 2014, a year before Minsk and Brussels began to normalise their ties.

Foreign investments—two thirds of which come from Russia and offshore territories—have been shrinking since 2014. They also depend on the existing business climate within the country, rather than upon symbolic victories on the diplomatic front.

Even public opinion in Belarus has not responded to the thaw in relations. Among EaP nations, Belarusians are the least positively disposed citizens towards the EU—35 per cent (EU Neighbours survey, April 2016). Less than 15 per cent of Belarusians chose the EU over Russia as an integration option in a spring 2017 poll conducted by Belarusian Analytical Workshop, a Belarusian think tank registered in Warsaw. This figure has remained below 20 per cent since 2014, the year massive anti-Western propaganda efforts began in the Russian media. They still keep informational dominance in Belarus with no countermeasures from its government.

The limits of the Minsk-Brussels dialogue and its effectiveness depend on political and economic homework that Belarusian authorities remain reluctant to do. Diplomatic achievements pave a good road for a palpable progress in relations, but they cannot replace it.




Is the United Kingdom finally interested in Belarus?

The United Kingdom has virtually overlooked Belarus since the latter regained its independence over twenty five years ago. London largely remained a strong proponent of a hard-line approach towards Lukashenka’s regime. The UK has avoided talking to the authorities in Minsk. Only two years after the normalisation of relations between Belarus and the EU began, the first high-level British official has set foot in Minsk.

Sir Alan Duncan, a junior minister in the UK Government, came primarily to understand and encourage Belarus’s neutrality stance towards regional conflict. In addition, Duncan sought to formulate proposals for the UK’s post-Brexit policy towards Belarus. Will this visit give impetus to major changes in Belarus – UK relations?

Is the era of estrangement over?

Sir Alan Duncan, who serves as the Minister of State for Europe and the Americas at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, visited Minsk on 25-26 September. He met Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. The British diplomat also talked to opposition leaders, civil society activists and UK citizens.

Alan Duncan became the first UK Minister to visit Belarus in 25 years of the two countries’ diplomatic relations. A few high-level Belarusian officials, including the then Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir and Speaker of the Parliament Miechylau Hryb, visited London during the short-lived pre-Lukashenka era of Belarus’s independence.

Prime Minister Siarhiej Sidorski, who came to London in November 2008 to attend the Belarus Investment Forum, failed to hold meetings at the level appropriate for his status. The only political consultations at the deputy foreign minister level between Belarus and the UK took place four years ago in the British capital.

Niceties and clichés to please guests

Greeting the UK junior minister in his residence, Alexander Lukashenka voiced his regret over the UK leaving the European Union. The reason: Belarus will miss “a reliable partner and friend in the EU who would be able to tell the truth about Belarus.”

This is quite a startling assessment of the UK position. Over many years, London has promoted a hard-line approach towards Belarus. Reacting to the violent crackdown on opposition in Belarus in December 2010, the UK government lobbied hard for economic sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime. British media and public figures often expressed solidarity with Belarusian civil society and political opposition; Belarus Free Theatre and Andrei Sannikov are the best-known examples.

It seems Lukashenka merely remained faithful to his habit of saying nice things to foreign visitors, notwithstanding how close these things fitted reality. Keeping with tradition, the Belarusian president welcomed his honoured guest “to determine three to four substantial pilot economic projects” for joint implementation, promising “the most favourable and preferential conditions for [the UK-financed] business.”

The UK government remains unlikely to involve itself in the discussion of specific joint projects with Belarus, leaving this to private business entities. Also a preferential treatment is hardly a sustainable solution. British diplomats have advocated a more dynamic economy, less bureaucracy and more space for private business as the best way to lure British business to Belarus.

Top export destination dependent on a single product

Despite last year’s dramatic drop (by 63 per cent) in Belarusian exports to the UK, the latter remained the third-largest destination for Belarusian goods (the second-largest in 2015) and the top export market outside of the CIS. In terms of turnover, the UK remains Belarus’s sixth-largest trade partner.

Meanwhile, the downfall trend saw a no less dramatic reversal in 2017. In January-July, Belarusian exports to the United Kingdom more than doubled compared to the same period last year, attaining $1.38bn. Imports also increased by 66 per cent.

However, Belarusian exports to the UK rely heavily on a single product – oil and mineral tar products. Over the past few years, their share in Belarusian exports to the country varied between 95 and 98 per cent. The remainder of supplied goods has included fertilisers, steel bars, lead, women’s overcoats and lasers. Belarus imports from the UK mostly engines, machinery and spirits.

The United Kingdom also counts among the top-6 investors to Belarusian economy. As of 1 January 2015, British direct investments amounted to $279.2m, $144.9m of them being equity positions and $134.3m—debt instruments positions. However, a significant share of these investments may be related to settlement payments between BelOil—Belarus’s major exporter of oil products—and its British subsidiary, BNK (UK) Limited.

Regional defence and security in focus

In Minsk, Alan Duncan indeed mentioned trade and financial cooperation among the topics he discussed with President Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Makei, without going into details. The junior minister signed, on behalf of the United Kingdom, a double taxation agreement with Belarus.

Education and regional defence and security became the other two cooperation areas Alan Duncan referred to specifically. In fact, regional defence and security seems to be the main topic of interest for the United Kingdom at the current stage of its relationship with Belarus.

Ahead of his visit to Minsk, the British diplomat spoke about the “important role [Belarus has] to play in the region and more widely.” The UK appreciates Belarus’s contribution to reducing tensions in the region and helping to maintain the ceasefire between Ukraine and Russia. Alan Duncan came to Minsk to learn what leeway Belarus has in this area, taking into account its significant economic dependence on Russia.

Belarusians unwelcome to the UK?

Belarus and UK officials made no mention of visa issues during the visit. Belarusians can easily reach London and other UK cities via frequent Belavia flights from Minsk or numerous low-budget options from nearby foreign cities. However, the current visa procedure discourages many potential tourists and business visitors from Belarus from visiting the UK.

UK Visa Application Centre in Minsk. Photo: naviny.by

The United Kingdom changed its straightforward and quite quick visa procedure three years ago by including a commercial company in the visa application process. Now, the standard British visa is two to seven times costlier than its Schengen equivalents, which happen to give access not just to one, but to about forty countries.

A British visa also takes two to three times longer to obtain. At that, the exact treatment time remains unknown during the application process. The visa fee and the new application procedure dissuade many from applying; many visits have had to be cancelled because of the treatment delays.

Is a change in policy likely?

At his meeting with leaders of Belarusian opposition parties, the British minister stressed that the UK would like to receive a clear signal that Belarusian youth are choosing the democratic standards of Western countries, and that this choice is not imposed from outside.

The British elite seem to doubt the pro-European aspirations of Belarusian society. While prospects for democratic change in Belarus remain bleak, British diplomats may maintain a dialogue Lukashenka for the sake of “positive gradualism”—a term Alan Duncan coined in Minsk.

Answering a journalist’s question on the impact Brexit may have on British policy towards the countries in the region, Alan Duncan admitted that the new status would give the United Kingdom ‘more flexibility’ in its policy-making. However, he immediately reminded that the UK would “still be the part of the European family working together on areas of common interest.”

Belarus has long remained on the margins of the British foreign policy agenda. The UK’s post-Brexit needs and Belarus’s increased role in stabilising security in the region made the junior minister’s visit to Minsk finally possible. However, a major increase in bilateral cooperation or the UK’s substantial departure from today’s common EU policy towards Belarus remain unlikely under current circumstances.




Belarusian authorities increase pressure on anarchists

On 26 September, Belarusian secret services raided the apartments of several Belarusian anarchists and environmentalists.

This became yet another case of repression against Belarusian anarchists in recent months. State authorities have been on alert since the outbreak of protests in 2017 against decree № 3, a presidential decree which levies an unemployment tax on Belarusian residents who work fewer than 183 days per year. Anarchist groups took an active and sometimes leading role in the 2017 demonstrations.

The authorities appear uncertain how best to deal with the grassroots, Belarusian anarchist movement. Unlike other contemporary social factions, anarchists represent a close-knit, cohesive and relatively new movement in Belarus. By conducting searches and prosecuting anarchists for their role in protests, the authorities again demonstrate their resolve to suppress social and political activism.

Raiding the apartments of activists

On 26 September, representatives of the Belarusian KGB burst into the apartments of two activists—Marina Dubina, a representative for the Ecadom organisation, and journalist Marina Kastylyanchanka. In addition, well-known anarchist and former political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok reported on his Facebook page that security forces searched the flats of several other anarchists.

One activist said the search of her apartment lasted more than 10 hours. During the long search, the KGB seized computers, books, and money. Some of the activists claim they were assaulted. On 27 September, a special press-conference was organised by Belarusian anarchists groups to draw wider attention to the raids. Anarchists Ihar Truhanovich, Yauhen Dziatkouski, and Alena Nemik shared their experiences about the incidents.

Ihar Truhanovich said the security officers were violent and damaged his belongings. He claims they beat him and stole €500 from him. Other activists said security officers did not explain why they confiscated certain items, such as computers and telephones.

The human rights centre Spring believes search warrants were issued on grounds of hooliganism. In July, a group of anarchists set fire to a billboard in Ivatsevichi, a city in Belarusian region of Brest, that read “The Strength of Law in Its Implementation.”

However, it is doubtful the burning of the billboard is the cause of the raids. Two people, Ihar Makarevich and Kirill Aliakseeu, are already serving sentences for setting the billboard on fire. Another possible explanation is that the KGB raids may be an attempt to maintain an atmosphere of fear among activists.

A new wave of repression against Belarusian anarchists

Pressure on anarchists has became especially noticeable in recent months. Anarchists have become one of the most prominent groups during demonstrations against the “social parasites decree.”

Dozens of anarchists were arrested during the 2017 spring protests. In addition, two representatives of the movement, Ihar Makarevich and Kirill Aliakseeu, received prison terms for a demonstration in Ivatsevichy, the same city where the billboard praising tough law enforcement was set alight.

On 27 August, police detained 15 anarchists on their way to attend a lecture by Russian anarchist Alexey Sutuga in the city of Baranavichy, also in the Brest region. A district court accused two of the detainees and the Russian lecturer of extremism, informs newspaper Nasha Niva.

Anarchists at the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev. Source: revdia.org

On 23 September, anarchists in Kiev began their “Death to the Dictatorship” campaign. They hanged a hand-made effigy of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka on the fence of the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev. The activists pointed out that both local and international media were reluctant to cover their picket.

Later, the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev appealed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine complaining about the demonstration arranged by “20 aggressive young people.”

Authorities continue to pressure anarchists under vague pretexts. For example, on 21 September, anarchist Raman Halilau was accosted by police and fined for having insufficient identifying documents. Halilau said two police officers stopped him on the street and searched his pockets. They then demanded he come to the police station to verify his identity, despite the fact he had already given them his passport. During the 2017 spring protests, a court sentenced Halilau to 21 days detention for participating in demonstrations that took place in Brest city. Halilau claims police beat him while he served his detention.

So far, the reason why the raids took place on September 26 and why at the apartments of those particular activists remains unclear. Vyachaslau Kasinerau, a well known Belarusian anarchist accused of anti-regime graffiti, said in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: “It (the searches in the apartments of the activists – BD) is possible if we consider recent events. Authorities set a goal to infringe upon all anarchists, because it is one of the few movements that have not submitted.”

New targets for the Belarusian authorities?

Anarchists at the march against the decree. Source-svaboda.org

The peculiarity of the anarchist movement in Belarus lies in its organised nature and high degree of secrecy. Anarchists appeared at the forefront of the 2017 spring protests.

The rise of the anarchist movement effectively caught law enforcement agencies by surprise. In response, the authorities are now trying to crush the movement with searches, detentions, and interrogations.

Football fan activists in Belarus are under the same pressure. Belarusian authorities also see football fan activists as a potential threat. After the Euro Maidan protests in Ukraine, in which football fans played a significant role, Belarusian authorities have paid close attention to the participation of football supporters in domestic social movements.

For example, Ilya Valavik received a 10-year prison term for fighting on public transport. However, his wife believes the real reason for his long sentence was his involvement in Belarusian protest movements.

Belarusian social and popular movements continue to develop and intensify despite conditions created by the regime. The authorities, for their part, are testing new methods of repression and are ready to use violence. In the past, political opposition party activists were the authorities’ main targets. However, the list of victims has grown to include more closed and organised movements, such as anarchists, environmentalists, and football fans.




Trading favours with Georgia and Poland, boosting India trade – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

The summer holidays took their toll on the pace of development of Belarus’s foreign relations. Over the last two months, foreign minister Vladimir Makei held only three meetings with his counterparts (from Slovenia, Egypt and Georgia). President Alexander Lukashenka’s state visit to India was late summer’s only highest-level diplomatic event.

Some democratic governments are still willing to prop up the international legitimacy of the rubber-stamp Belarusian parliament. Polish MPs and Georgia’s senior official, for example, met with the handpicked ‘legislators’ to earn favours and concessions from the Belarusian authorities in return.

Restoring balance in relations with South Asia

On 12-13 September, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka paid a two-day state visit to India. This year, the two countries celebrated the 25th anniversary of their diplomatic ties.

Lukashenka has been visiting India at ten-year intervals, with previous trips in 1997 and 2007. Belarus-India relations have clearly stagnated over the last decade, as Minsk placed its bets on India’s geopolitical rivals, China and Pakistan. However, the time may have come to restore the disrupted balance.

In New Delhi, the Belarusian president held extensive talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and met with several other officials. Lukashenka and Modi reviewed the architecture of the India-Belarus partnership, seeking – according to Modi – ‘to evolve from a buyer-seller framework to deeper engagement, using the natural complementarity between the two countries’.

The head of India’s government emphasised the ‘abundant business and investment opportunities in pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, and heavy machinery and equipment’. The Belarusian President, in turn, promised ‘the most favourable conditions for the functioning of [Indian] business’ in Belarus. He also proposed building an Indian hi-tech industrial park in the country modelled after the Chinese Great Stone Park.

Despite being the world’s fastest-growing economy, India occupies a modest place among Belarus’s trading partners. In the 2010s, the bilateral trade turnover was generally bumpy. In January-July of this year, the trade figures showed neither negative nor positive dynamics compared to the same period of 2016.

In New Delhi, the two countries signed ten bilateral documents to expand cooperation in a range of areas such as oil and gas, vocational education, sports, agriculture, and science and technology.

Prime Minister Modi also revealed the two countries’ intention ‘to encourage joint development and manufacturing in the defence sector under the ‘Make in India’ programme’. The Belarusian side, meanwhile, remained more tight-lipped about this sphere of bilateral cooperation in its communications about the visit.

Fast-paced ties with Georgia

Georgia’s foreign minister Mikheil Janelidze paid his first official visit to Belarus on 4-5 September. The two countries’ divergent geopolitical orientation has not hindered the fast-paced development of their ties in the spheres of economy, culture, tourism, and foreign policy.

In January-July 2017, the bilateral trade turnover expanded by 28%, attaining $59m. However, the growth rate must increase dramatically if Belarus and Georgia still want to reach the goal of $200m per year which their leaders set in 2015.

The key economic cooperation project is now the assembly of Belarusian lifts in Tbilisi. Belarus is also willing to sell its agricultural machinery to Georgia.

‘Georgia, with its regional transit functions and infrastructural and energy projects, may become increasingly interesting to Belarus’, foreign minister Vladimir Makei told his Georgian counterpart. In turn, Georgia is taking a keen interest in Belarus’s experience of developing its IT industry.

Mikheil Janelidze and Mikhail Rusy. Photo: government.by

Political relations between the two countries are flourishing as well: Belarus and Georgia are increasingly coordinating their foreign policy positions. In Minsk, Makei and Janelidze signed a programme of cooperation between the Georgian and the Belarusian foreign ministries for 2018-2019.

‘We have virtually no questions on which we disagree… The Georgians are our brothers’, Lukashenka told the Georgian official. Seeking to please his guest, the Belarusian leader even expressed his appreciation of the fact that the first human beings outside Africa lived in prehistoric Georgia.

Tbilisi values Minsk’s support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In return, it does not hesitate to take a separate road than other European countries in regard to problems with democracy in Belarus. Georgia was the only European nation to refuse to support the recent UN HRC resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus.

In Minsk, the top Georgian diplomat met with the leaders of both chambers of the Belarusian rubber stamp parliament, accommodating the Belarusian authorities’ plans to bolster their international recognition. They discussed preparations of the visit of Irakli Kobakhidze, the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, to Belarus in November of this year.

Is recognising parliament part of a barter deal?

When it comes to recognition of Belarus’s puppet parliament, Poland remains the uncontested champion among European nations. On 29-31 August, Ryszard Terlecki, vice-speaker of the Polish Sejm, led a team of Polish MPs and government officials on his second visit to Belarus.

Tarlecki inaugurated high-level dialogue between European MPs and their Belarusian ‘colleagues’ in August 2016, thus de facto recognising them as peers, i.e. as a legitimate and viable parliament. Stanisław Karczewski, the Speaker of the Polish Senate, picked up the baton later in December.

In early 2017, Belarusian legislators paid a return visit to Warsaw. Only the brutal treatment of peaceful protestors by the Belarusian authorities in March dissuaded Terlecki from coming to Minsk in April to see his friends in the Belarusian parliament.

This time, Polish MPs held meetings in both chambers of the Belarusian legislature; they also called on Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Rusy and deputy foreign minister Oleg Kravchenko. Terlecki and his colleagues also met with activists from the Polish minority in Belarus and Belarusian opposition leaders.

Ryszard Terlecki (right) in the Belarusian parliament. Photo: house.gov.by

‘We are planning to do everything possible to make relations between our countries even stronger’, Ryszard Terlecki said during the visit. It can only be hoped that the Polish politician realises that his fellow MPs in Belarus have no say in this matter.

Polish MPs may be attempting to trade recognition of Belarus’s legislature by an EU country’s parliament for a few concessions from the Belarusian executive branch. Tarlecki happened to mention certain priority concerns during his visit.

Poland wants the Belarusian government to legitimise the unrecognised Union of Poles in Belarus, to facilitate education in the Polish language, to ease restrictions on Polish-born priests and to allow the broadcast of the TVP Polonia channel in Belarus. Polish MPs have also been lobbying for the interests of Polish business in the country.

The Belarusian government has maintained dialogue with Polish officials for a few years. However, except for the noticeable advancement in trade and investment, Poland’s new policy in its relations with Belarus has brought no visible solutions to the key areas of concern.

Similar patterns are observable in Belarus’s relations with other European partners.




Zapad on Belarus’s mind: 7th Belarus Reality Check Non-Paper

The European Union’s ‘critical engagement’ policy has contributed to attitude change by the Government of Belarus as well as procedural improvements. However, as the March 2017 crackdown on peaceful protesters suggests, there are no substantial political changes in Belarus.

Some positive steps taken by Belarus in the recent past – release of the remaining political prisoners and peaceful presidential elections, for example – have created an opportunity for EU-Belarus relations to further develop. Western insistence on democratic norms, practical incentives, focus on building trust and widening dialogue matter around human rights issue has led to the last detainees of the crackdown on peaceful protesters in March 2017 released before OSCE Parliamentary Assembly held in Minsk in July
2017. In the context of the Ukraine crisis, both Minsk and Brussels are fine with the gradual widening of contacts and dialogue.

Although Russia has been reducing the level of its subsidies, it maintains a strategic stake. Minsk has a degree of independence regarding the Ukraine crisis, while its structural dependence on Russia also serves as a deterrence. Moscow provided a much-needed bailout this year in form of a loan as well as energy agreements favourable to Belarus.

Status quo and conservative policy principles continue to have the upper hand in Belarus. Despite the March protest against the so-called social parasite tax, the opposition remains fragmented. It was unable to utilise the general dissatisfaction caused by several years of recession to increase its popular base.

Meanwhile the role of private sector has been constantly growing. Despite lack of structural reforms, Belarus managed to climb to 37th place in the Doing Business Survey. But the potential of the current recovery is limited. To meet its ambitious modernisation goals, Minsk will need external financing. This leads back to structural reforms.

Belarus assistance to regulate the Donbas conflict has been welcomed. Nevertheless, future dynamics of the relations with the West will mostly remain conditional around human rights issues. During Zapad 2017 Minsk will aim to meet two objectives simultaneously: to continue building trust with the West, while continuing to closely cooperate and appease Russia. Minsk thinks it has no other realistic geopolitical choice.

The EU and Belarus: less alien

Relations between the European Union and Belarus are driven by the “only possible policy” within the framework of domestic factors and region’s geopolitics. Brussels’ critical engagement has created opportunities for Minsk to change attitudes by raising sensitive issues hoping that it will lead to policy (legislation) change in human rights, political freedoms and rule of law in the longer run.

Belarus’s gradual opening towards the West is a careful balancing act; performed while keeping an eye on Minsk’s interest of strategic engagement with Russia. Minsk’s expectation is that the West would accept its current form of government, allowing Belarus greater room for (economic) maneuvering. In the context of Ukraine crisis, neither Minsk nor Brussels wants a U-turn.

Фото пресс-службы МИД Беларуси

Belarus foreign minister Uladzimir Makiej visiting Poland, 12 April 2017. Photo: Belarus MFA

The EU’s objective of the dialogue is building contacts and trust, particularly getting Belarus closer to ‘European identity’, i.e. values and standards. Out of the 29 points included in the 2015 EU document on how to improve relations with Belarus, around half have been fulfilled according to independent analysts. EU financial assistance remains modest compared to the region: EUR 29 million
was released in 2016, similarly in 2017. Total indicative amount of assistance for 2014-2017 is EUR 89 million.

The EU-Belarus relations were shaken by the protests against the so-called social parasite tax and the crackdown on peaceful protesters. Although the police intervention was brutal, all those detained were released, the last one before the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly held in Minsk in July 2017.

The EU’s red line towards Minsk – no political prisoners1 – has not been crossed. Compare to 2010 post elections crackdown, Minsk (through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) has kept a constant dialogue with the EU, including addressing human rights concerns. Direct European engagement with Belarusian law enforcement structures may have also played a role. At the very least, Belarusian officials’ willingness to listen to European human rights-related concerns was cited as a positive change by European diplomats.

Track Record of EU’s Critical Engagement:

  • Increased contacts level between Western institutions and the Government of Belarus.
  • Visa free regime by Belarus (up to five days).
  • Arms embargo and restrictions to some individuals extended by the EC.
  • Three rounds of EU – Belarus human rights dialogue.
  • Widening sectoral dialogue between European institutions and the Government of Belarus.  EU-Belarus Coordination Group set up.
  • Contacts with parliament established.
  • Negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission agreements continue. Education efforts for state officials.
  • Improved state-civil society relations, ‘Tell the Truth’ political movement registered.

The EU’s current policy towards Belarus is challenged by the domestic political opposition, what used to keep a certain ‘monopoly’ on contacts with Western institutions for a long time. Lithuania is trying to mobilise the EU to stop the Astraviec nuclear power plant built by Belarus with Russia’s Rosatom near the Lithuanian border, in a close proximity of the capital city of Vilnius. To mitigate the challenge, Minsk has showed some efforts, for example agreed to an EU stress test, yet to be completed according to EU
standards.

Belarus’ politics: soft dissatisfaction

The so-called ‘social parasite tax’, requiring unemployed citizens (around 470,000 citizens) to pay EUR 230 annual tax triggered protests across the country. Although the number of protesters was not high, up to 3,000 people demonstrated in Minsk on 17 February 2017. Despite Lukashenka suspending the law, protests continued to spread to various cities through March. Grassroots opposition activists were the core organisers in the regions. The protests also tapped into a general dissatisfaction with the economy, frustration about the decree as well as the government’s handling of the issue.

The events culminated on 25 March 2017 with the traditional ‘Freedom Day’ protest rally in Minsk, Brest, and Hrodna. The authorities, after the organisers refused to hold the rally at an authorised place, used riot police to disperse around 3,000 protesters detaining hundreds including pensioners standing by and journalists covering the rally. Regional rallies were sanctioned, and were held without complications. Analysts suggested that Lukashenka’s social contract has been shifting from social welfare towards
providing security.

Protests in February and March may have also been used by the government to show strength and determination (at home, vis-à-vis the West and Russia) to counter ‘hybrid’ threats and not allowing a Ukraine-type of conflict to arise. Criminal charges against the so-called White Legion, which were later dropped, at least suggested such a consideration from the law enforcement agencies.

One of the participants pointed out that looking from a historical perspective, the March demonstrations attracted several thousand people, in contrast to the 100,000 people who protested against economic and social decline in early 1990s. Election-related protests called by the opposition and civil society actors in 2006 and 2010 brought up to 30,000 to the streets.

Protests against 'social parasite tax' in spring 2017. Photo: gazeta.ru

Protests against ‘social parasite tax’ in spring 2017. Photo: gazeta.ru

The government is also capitalising on infightings among opposition leaders. Belarus’s opposition has never been a cohesive unit. Long ranging Western expectations about unified opposition fractions challenging the Lukashenka regime has created a certain ‘political show’. Opposition leaders are willing to play the unity card before elections to gain Western support, but the underlining differences between the parties and the competition among their leaders to become the main opposition challenger during elections always trumped over cooperation.

In addition, civil society organisations no longer have ‘regime change’ as a key purpose, and their relations with the opposition have note been much of a priority. Similarly, there are multiple interests and disputes within the government. These include reformers and law enforcement (or siloviki) tug of war, wherein the lines of interests are often blurred. The current conflict within the government is between the new generation of lawmakers and the ‘conservative  elements’. The president needs to demonstrate decisive actions: the crackdown on peaceful protesters was not dictated by an obvious risk, but he needed to show he was in charge.

Incentives for political reforms are still weaker than old (policy) stereotypes. Priority is to fill state coffers, and one of the ways to do so is by harassing large local businesses companies and businessmen. Reformers within the government are few and far between, dependence on Russia remains a limitation in considering reforms. Although Moscow is bailing Belarus out on a much lower scale, it is enough to keep its structural dependence.

Radical forms of protests from opposition, or the fabrication of those, also help maintain the status quo, siloviki’s influence and a conservative policy line. Reformers face a lack of legitimacy and lack of financing (both internal and external), which are main obstacles in their efforts. As the failed negotiations with the IMF suggested, reformers have to work hard to convince the conservative institutions, while in the end the president makes the final call about key steps.

Economy: slow motion

Belarus is out of recession but its growth is modest at 1.1% YOY. To compare, growth rate was averaging 9.9% per annum between 2004 and 2008, having fallen to -0.5% between 2012 and 2016. Such growth and convergence in the past were driven mostly by investment boom funded with direct and indirect state support. Growing external imbalances were financed via external borrowing, which led to debt accumulation and growing costs of its servicing: last year Belarusian government spent about 7% of GDP
for this purpose.

Key factors behind the current recovery are non-energy related exports increasing by 10%–20% YOY in real terms due to real depreciation of Belarusian ruble, Russia’s economic recovery, and gradual recovery of domestic consumption and investment. Export of potash is growing, and exports of oil refinery products are about to recover due to the resolution of the recent energy conflict between Belarus and Russia.

However, potential of the current recovery is limited as the Belarusian economic model that operated at the expense of Russian energy subsidies and debt accumulation has exhausted its possibilities. The government is very cautious in terms of reforming the current economic model. Minsk exited from the negotiations with the IMF, while announcing further modernisation of its key manufacturing
enterprises and an ambition to make Belarus an IT country.

Belarus Hi-Tech Park

Authorities succeeded in stabilising the exchange rate (National Bank) and achieving fiscal consolidation (Ministry of Finance). As a result, inflation and interest rates have gone down, and Belarus managed to close its external financial gap due to a new loan from Russia and a drawdown of deposits. Savings declined by almost $1bn in the last 18 months, standing at $6,8bn – the lowest since 2013.

The share of the private sector in the Belarusian economy increased considerably in the last ten years. The share of employment at enterprises with 100% state ownership fell from 51.2% in 2006 to 40.2% in 2016, but market capitalisation remains low. Total number of traded domestic companies in 2016 in Belarus was 194 with total capitalisation of $5.3bln or 11.2% of the country’s GDP. Out of this, 57% was generated by Belarusbank (the largest state-owned bank).

As domestic savings are historically smaller than investments, external funding is of key importance. However, the volume of FDI has been at $1.3-1.5bn per year (mainly in the form of reinvested earnings) without significant changes in recent years, while at least three times more would be needed for economic development.

The IMF can “easily” reach a common ground regarding economic reforms with the government, but it has been difficult to reach the final agreement with the president. Main IMF requirements are state enterprise re-structuring and increasing utility bills. The Eurasian Development Bank’s requirement of reforms in the state sector, including privatisation, is not applied consistently.

Regional security: mitigating risks

Belarus’s neighbors are getting anxious when their largest neighbor flexes its muscles. In reality though, military exercises – at least from 1981- have been about Moscow (previously the USSR) establishing ‘coercive credibility’ with the United States. In some analysts view this strategy is effective due to ‘help’ of the alarmist voices coming from neighbors and amplified by Western military institutions and media. A deeper look at the issues around Zapad-2017 military exercise does not match the concerns. The Suwalki gap is a hypothesis for a case of a full-scale war given that Russia has an enclave in Kaliningrad. An invitation for 80 international military observers is an attempt to ease the geopolitical tension in the region, a policy that Minsk has been pursuing since the Ukrainian crisis.

The high number of rail transport wagons, which has been the original cause of concern, has been explained as including all military transport between the two countries for the entire year of 2017. These numbers are not particularly high compared to 2009 or 2013 exercises. Russia is not bringing offensive (modern) equipment; what an invasion would require.

The total number of soldiers involved is difficult to estimate. The official figures submitted by Russia and Belarus total 12,700 troops, with 10,200 soldiers expected on Belarusian territory including 7,200 from Belarus and 3,000 Russian soldiers along with 680 pieces of equipment. NATO member states suspect that Russia manipulates troop numbers to avoid transparency under the OSCE`s Vienna document, according to which nations conducting exercises involving more than 13,000 troops must notify other countries in
advance and invite observers.

Western estimates are up to 100,000 soldiers. The difference may come from Western observers counting the National Guard and other paramilitary forces as well as forces that belong to Russia’s Western Military District (not participating directly, but being on alert). Either way, no evidence to support such high estimate has been made public.

Concerns have been voiced that in the past military exercise led to the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and of Ukraine in 2014. At the same time Kavkaz 2008, the exercise held just before the Russia-Georgia war, showed that any ‘surprise attack’ would come only after the exercise, utilising the West’s notoriously short attention span.

As the Polish OSW’s analysis suggested, Zapad-2017 is at ‘the core of the information war between Russia and NATO’. Some think Russia’s goal to show a ‘larger-than-life military power’ has been achieved, with some help from the West.

What increasingly matters for Belarus’ Western neighbours is that after the Ukrainian crisis, Minsk has not entertained the idea of joining NATO or the EU. Instead, the Government of Belarus pursued a policy of integration with Russia. Belarus is a not an integrated part of Russia’s military security, but Moscow’s objective is to make the two militaries as close as possible. For example, using Zapad-2017 Russia is likely to use aircraft deployments close to its neighbours’ airspace.

Russia does not need to occupy Belarus as long as Minsk honours, at least rhetorically, its obligations. Occupying Belarus would bring the Eurasian Union to an end, and would keep increased level of Western sanctions on Russia indefinitely.

Belarus has maintained a degree of independence from Russia regarding the Ukraine crisis. The recently updated military doctrine of Belarus includes hybrid warfare among military threats, while ‘the plural wording clearly indicates that Minsk is also concerned about Russia’s growing military might, and not only about NATO’.

Lukashenka has gained leverage by establishing himself as Russia’s most loyal partner, utilising it mainly in form of ‘forced’ subsidies. But the time of high level Russian subsidies is over. Minsk will try further building trust with the West, and continuing to work with and appease Russia, as its only ally.

The pdf version of this non-paper is available here.

The 7th Belarus Reality Check took place on 21 June 2017 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Organised by the Eastern Europe Studies Centre (EESC) with the support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, USAID through Pact and Forum Syd, and together with programmatic contributions from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the event gathered leading Belarusian and international experts and practitioners to discuss the latest political, economic and security developments in Belarus and to provide evidence-based analysis and balanced policy advice. This non-paper is the result of the meeting and further research. Since 2012, the Eastern Partnership Reality Check meetings were held under Lithuanian and Latvian EU presidencies. Other non-papers about Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine are available at EESC website.




Human rights in Belarus: can dialogue work?

This July, the European Union and Belarus held their 4th round of bilateral dialogue on human rights in Brussels. The parties focused on civil, political, and social rights in both Belarus and Europe.

Belarus hopes to put human rights issues on the back burner in its relationship with the West. At the same time, the country’s authorities understand that avoiding any discussion of this subject could hamper the modest rapprochement between the two parties.

Meanwhile, the West continues to put pressure on Belarus in international human rights bodies, in particular the UN Human Rights Council. In late June, the HRC extended international monitoring of the human rights situation in Belarus for another year.

Only time will tell which of the two policies – dialogue or critical monitoring – will prove more effective in instigating democratic change in Belarus.

Dubious results of human rights dialogue

Belarus and the European Union held their first round of human rights dialogue in June 2009 in Prague. They discussed a range of problems in a ‘constructive and open atmosphere’. As Belarus objected to the inclusion of civil society activists to the debate at that time, EU officials met with representatives of Belarusian NGOs prior to negotiations.

The regime’s harsh crackdown on the opposition in December 2010 put the human rights dialogue with Belarus on hold. Meetings according to the previous formate resumed only in July 2015, at the instigation of the Belarusian authorities, following the thaw in Belarus-Europe relations.

The recent round of dialogue in Brussels focused on freedom of expression, assembly, and association; electoral rights, the death penalty, prison reform, anti-discrimination policy, gender equality, and the fight against violence in the family.

Representatives of Belarusian NGOs were able to speak during part of the meeting. The civil society delegation included the leaders of a human rights centre, a journalist association, and several social initiatives.

Aleh Hulak, Chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. Photo: belhelcom.org

According to Aleh Hulak, the chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Belarusian officials made no promises and failed to elaborate on any plans for change. ‘They kept repeating: we’ve heard it, we’ll work on it, and we’ll answer this later. They did not challenge, did not refuse to talk, did not deny the problem’, Hulak said in an interview with the news portal TUT.BY.

Although dialogue may be a better alternative to confrontation, doubts remain about the efficacy of this method. So far, there have been no signs that the authorities intend to take any recommendations into account, in particular when it comes to civil and political rights.

Earlier in June, the EU and China held their 35th round of human rights dialogue. The dismal human rights record of the Chinese government may be a telling testimony to the value of this diplomatic tool.

Still a target for special mandates

Despite their engagement in human rights dialogue with Belarus, Western countries show no signs of going easy on Belarus when it comes to human rights procedures at the United Nations.

On 23 June, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus. Thirty-six European nations, as well as Canada, Japan, and the United States co-sponsored the document.

The HRC expressed its continued concern about the situation of human rights in Belarus, especially the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and expression. It also noted the ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders, NGOs, and the mass media in Belarus.

The Council urged the Belarusian government ‘to ensure the full independence and impartiality of the judiciary’ and ‘to implement without delay the comprehensive reform of the electoral legal framework’.

Attempting to prevent the adoption of the resolution, a Belarusian diplomat claimed in Geneva that ‘the human rights situation in Belarus [was] not radically different from most countries of the world’ and it did not threaten anyone in Belarus or abroad.

Belarus’s line of argument is that country-specific UN mechanisms are meaningless and useless and direct dialogue with interested countries should be preferred . This argument found support from such human rights ‘champions’ as Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as well as a few other developing countries.

Despite Belarus’s efforts, the Council adopted the resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus by a vote of 18 in favour (mostly Western countries but also nations such as Brazil, Ghana, Panama, and Paraguay), eight against, and 21 abstentions.

The resolution extended the country-specific mechanism for Belarus for another year; it has been in place since 2012. This autumn, Belarus will have to face another debate on the human rights situation in the country at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in New York and the subsequent adoption of another resolution.

The authorities’ sworn enemy visits Minsk

Miklós Haraszti, whose mandate as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus was extended by the HRC, came off victorious after the last session.

The Hungarian human rights advocate was appointed Special Rapporteur for Belarus in 2012. Ever since, the Belarusian government has refused to recognise this mandate and stubbornly ignored Haraszti’s attempts to set up communication.

The Belarusian authorities have claimed that Haraszti’s reports on the human rights situation in Belarus are ‘politically motivated and openly biased’.

In fact, the Special Rapporteur has become one of the staunchest critics of the Belarusian government’s human rights record. In February 2016, a week before the EU lifted its sanctions against Belarus, Haraszti made a point of stressing the absence of any change in ‘the dismal state of human rights’ in the country.

A persona non grata in Belarus, the Special Rapporteur had to meet human rights activists and representatives of civil society and the opposition outside the country. However, there were rumours about unofficial meetings between Haraszti and Belarusian diplomats in some European capitals.

To everyone’s surprise, Miklós Haraszti visited Minsk in early July. The Belarusian government allowed him to attend – as a ‘civilian’ –a human rights seminar, which was held as a side event of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly session in Minsk.

Miklós Haraszti in Minsk. Photo: spring96.org

Upon his return from Minsk, Haraszti singled out two key areas of concern regarding human rights in Belarus. The first is the systemic refusal of individual liberties – a permission-based regime of public life; the second is the cyclical recourse to mass repression.

Haraszti’s trip to Minsk two weeks after the HRC extended his mandate should not be perceived as a sign of change in Belarus’s position on the UN special procedure. The government remains determined to continue fighting international condemnation of its human rights practices rather than bring about noticeable improvements, which would make the special procedure obsolete.

Belarus still hopes to avoid or delay any meaningful change in its human rights policy by instead promoting itself as a regional ‘donor of security’ and a reliable economic partner. In the existing geopolitical situation, the West has to put up with these futile ‘dialogues’ and Minsk’s ‘two steps forward, one step back’ policy vis-a-vis human rights issues.

Nevertheless, full normalisation of relations between Belarus and the West remains impossible without significant progress in human rights and democracy in Belarus.




Why do the authorities persecute independent trade unions?

On 2 August, the Department of Financial Investigations detained the leaders of the Radio Electronic Industry Trade Union, filing a criminal case on tax evasion charges.

The few independent trade unions which have survived decades of restrictive policies in Belarus remain a strong oppositional force in the country.

As active participants in the mass protests against the social parasite law in Spring 2017, union leaders likely became targets of the authorities’ preventive action to deter future demonstrations. However, the police force asserts that all charges are of a purely economic nature to avoid criticism from western governments and international organisations.

A crackdown on independent trade unions

On 2 August, the Department of Financial Investigations arrested the head of the Radio Electronic Industry Trade Union (REP), Hienadź Fiadynič, and his deputy, head of Minsk the office Ihar Komlik, on tax evasion charges. The financial police also confiscated hard disks and paper documents from the organisation.

On the same day, searches took place at the offices of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union in Salihorsk, the heart of Belarusian potash industry. The apartments of activists linked with the movement were also searched, and the financial police have interrogated many trade union leaders. Fiadynič and other activists were released following the interrogation, but Komlik remains in custody.

The police claim that REP leaders opened bank accounts abroad, where they accumulated ‘hundreds of thousands dollars’ from foreign donors, even though they had no license from the National Bank of Belarus to open a foreign account. Allegedly, they were trying to obscure their financial deals and evade taxes at home. REP activists deny all accusations and claim that the account mentioned by the police was closed in 2011.

Фото взято с сайта: belnp.org

The office of REP after a police search. Photo: tut.by

Leaders of the Belarusian opposition gathered shortly after the events to discuss a possible response and called on Belarusians and the international community to support a campaign of solidarity with independent trade unions. In the resolution’s own words:

‘We call upon the representatives of the international community to immediately put the release of political prisoners and the complete cessation of political repressions in Belarus as a condition for dialogue with the Lukashenka regime’.

However, the head of the Department of Financial Investigations, Ihar Maršalaŭ, argues that ‘this case has no political background. We are doing our usual job of uncovering tax evaders’.

The history of free trade unions in Belarus

Under the Soviet system, trade union were the ‘social pillars’ of the state. Nevertheless, they had no real power and served as an instrument of the Communist party. After the dissolution of the USSR, numerous independent trade unions and associations emerged in Belarus. However, there was a split regarding support for the Lukashenka regime following his 1994 election. Only after 2001 did the authorities manage to wrest control of the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions (FPB) and purge it of oppositional elements. The authorities continue to persecute the most vocal unions.

As a result, the oppositional trade unions formed an alternative association: the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions. Over the past two decades, independent trade unions have faced constant pressure and struggle to meet bureaucratic requirements such as registration and legal address. Union members often face restrictions and punishments at their place of work. As a result, membership to independent trade unions has dropped to around 10,000, while the official FPB boasts 4 million members.

Despite formal membership numbers, FPB can hardly be regarded as a protector of workers’ interests. Governed by the political leadership of the country, it never challenges official policies. In contrast, independent trade unions actively struggle against violations of labour rights and criticise the government, for which they are hated by both enterprise bosses and the political leadership.

International actors frequently point to violations of labour rights in Belarus. For example, the persecution of independent trade unions has led to the exclusion of Belarus from the EU Generalised System of Preferences, resulting in hundreds of millions dollars of loss since 2006.

A strong organisational force with links to citizens

Following the arrest of the REP activists, human rights groups immediately recognised them as political prisoners. This differs from the White Legion case, when two dozen people were detained on charges of creating an illegal armed group. Activists were hesitant to step in because of the presence of weapons and other evidence. Valiancin Stefanovič, an activist for the human rights group Viasna, explains that this time, the state has clearly violated the right to free association, because trade unions cannot freely receive foreign aid in Belarus. For years, the authorities consciously complicated the process of receiving foreign aid for civil society, viewing it as support for political enemies and interference in the politics of a sovereign state.

Demonstration of independent trade unions in Minsk. Photo: spring96.org

Most commentators agree that it was REP’s active participation in the spring protests against the social parasite decree that has led to the organisation’s repression. The union gathered 45,000 signatures demanding the abolition of the decree and offered legal consultations to people who planned to contest their obligation to pay the tax.

REP also provides legal assistance for citizens on a daily basis and constitute one of the few real forces that actively works with the people. What’s more, many activists in the union participate in the Belarusian National Congress, headed by oppositional hardliner and former political prisoner Mikalaj Statkievič.  It seems that in the wake of the events of spring 2017, and fearing another wave of social unrest in the future, the authorities have decided to weaken potentially powerful actors.

Repressions without political prisoners?

Many noticed that the case of REP resembles the case of Alieś Bialiacki, who was arrested on the same charges in 2011 after the government of Lithuania handed over information on Viasna’s bank accounts to the Belarusian authorities. He spent three years in prison and was released in 2014 as part of the Belarus-EU rapprochement process. However, unlike seven years ago, it seems that this time around there will be no political prisoners.

The Belarusian authorities have drawn very clear lessons from their experience with the West. Imprisonment of political activists causes outrage, while criminal persecution without imprisonment earns a far more muted response. At the same time, it effectively decreases the power of the opposition.

The fact that those arrested during the White Legion case have all been released despite the fact that a criminal investigation continues confirms this assumption. The authorities are learning how to justify repressions with purely security (in White Legion case) or economic (in the case of trade unions) evidence, in order to avoid politicisation and criticism from western countries.




The Belarusian authorities learn to appreciate their country’s statehood

On 1 July, on the eve of Belarus’s official Independence day, Alexander Lukashenka highlighted the connection between Belarusians and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This was the first official statement to allude to the historical roots of a sovereign and independent Belarusian state.

Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the Belarusian authorities have started employing rhetoric which differs starkly from the usual official nationhood discourse. The Belarusian authorities continue balancing between the West and Russia while simultaneously trying to mitigate confrontation with the opposition within the country.

The official version of Belarusian nationhood

The process of national revival began to speed up after the Declaration of State Independence of Belarus on 27 July 1991. This process was initiated by nationalising elites in the second half of the 1980s. During this period, national symbols (such as the white-red-white flag and the Pahonia coat of arms) acquired official status. Information about the deep historical roots of Belarusian statehood also started to appear in history books.

However, everything changed when Lukashenka came to power in 1994. One year after his inauguration, he drafted a referendum which would lead to the formal recognition of Soviet-era state symbols and make Russian the second official language (de facto the only working language). Belarus was well on its way to political rapprochement with Russia.

History books were once again rewritten, but this time emphasis was placed on the roots of Belarusian independence in the early days of the USSR; the national ideology was to be based on Soviet values. What’s more, the collapse of the USSR was treated by both history books and Lukashenka himself as ‘the greatest catastrophe’, and its restoration in one form or another was to be seen as a restoration of historical justice.

According to official rhetoric, proponents of a national revival in Belarus were now portrayed as ‘nationalists’, who aimed to undermine Belarusian statehood and the Union State of Belarus and Russia for the sake of better relations with the West.

According to some political scientists, the rhetoric of Lukashenka in the late 1990s can be linked to his political ambitions to replace the faltering Yeltsin in the Kremlin and become leader of a kind of updated version of the Soviet Union.

Things began to change when Putin came to power in Russia. Lukashenka quickly realised that his former Kremlin ambitions were now impossible: he thus focused on strengthening his power in Belarus. At the same time, Minsk’s strong economic and political dependence on Moscow forced the Belarusian authorities to keep on with the pro-Russian rhetoric – including a Russia-friendly interpretation of Belarusian history.

Thus, dates such as 9 May – Soviet Victory Day in the Second World War, and 7 November, which commemorates the October Revolution of 1917 (and still remains a national holiday in Belarus) were seen as the most important historical events.

What changed after the Ukraine conflict?

The status quo only began changing starting with the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s rhetorical use of the ‘Restoration of the Russian World’ as an excuse to occupy Crimea and invade a large part of the Donbas frightened the Belarusian authorities. They suddenly realised that Moscow could very easily take political power in Belarus as well. Resistance from Belarusian society – Russified and disoriented in matters of national identity – would be minimal.

Following the invasion of Crimea, the authorities increasingly began to allude to Belarusian sovereignty, the importance of respecting the Belarusian language, and the nation’s historical roots. Thus, on the eve of the official Independence Day in 2014, a few months after the occupation of Crimea, Lukashenka, who usually uses only Russian language, gave a speech in Belarusian, referring to Belarusian independence from both Russia and the West.

According to Belta, in February 2017 Lukashenka stated that history books should discuss the true roots of the Belarusian nation, and not just the Soviet version.

Moreover, since the start of the Ukraine conflict, the level of conflict between Lukashenka and the Belarusian opposition has decreased. This is partially due to a change in Lukashenka’s rhetoric: he continually emphasises the sovereignty of the Belarusian state.

Russia’s aggression in the region has resulted in a kind of compromise between the opposition and the authorities. First of all, the opposition have recognised Lukashenka’s international influence and ceased to bring up issues which had once been fundamental. The authorities, in turn, are maintaining a policy of soft Belarusisation and revising their discourse on Belarusian sovereignty.

In September 2016, the Belarusian president noted that he always encouraged Belarusian officials to speak Belarusian, writes Nasha Niva. Later, during a May 2017 meeting with Minsk school children, Lukashenka emphasised that Belarusian schools would benefit from more use of the Belarusian language.

Thus, representatives of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) have started to appear in ‘vyshyvanka’ (shirts featuring the national ornament), which had previously been considered taboo in official circles. Besides the Vyshyvanka Festival, BRSM also organised a campaign to present small vyshyvankas to new-born children.

Certain clubs in Minsk have started hosting ‘traditional-style’ parties, at which ‘vyshyvanka’ plays an important role. At some informal meetings, even Lukashenka himself has donned the national pattern.

The apogee of this new policy of turning away from Russia was the arrest of several journalists working for Regnum, a Russian website which promotes the revival of the Russian Empire. They were suspected of inciting ethnic hatred – a charge which carries long prison terms.

Another sign of the authorities’ re-allignment was the presence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Uladzimir Makei, at the World Congress of Belarusians on July 15. The event is organised by the World Association of Belarusians, traditional opponents of the current regime.

Russian propagandists were quick to interpret these signals from Minsk as ‘the machinations of the West’ and local nationalists, who are plotting to organise a Belarusian ‘Maidan’. Incensed by the contacts between Lukashenka and Ukrainian President Poroshenko, Russian nationalists began  labelling Lukashenka a ‘traitor’ to the ‘Russian World’.

Rethinking statehood: imitation or real change in official rhetoric?

Belarusian authorities have apparently changed their position towards Belarusian nationhood. However, phenomena such as the Festival of Vyshyvanka, organised by the pro-governmental Youth Union BRSM, the shift of emphasis in history textbooks, and pro-Belarusian statements by officials could be just another attempt to hang on to power. The aim of these signals seems to be mitigating confrontation with the opposition in the context of possible annexation by Russia.

Belarus continues to be at the mercy of the Russian information space, which has significantly more influence on the world-view of Belarusians than the state propaganda machine.

In order to reduce the influence of Russian propaganda and the concept of the ‘Russian World’ on Belarusian society, the Belarusian authorities could take several measures. One would be to stop suppressing independent civil society and media. However, the authorities continue to treat their own citizens as the enemy, perceiving activists as a threat to their power. Therefore, Belarus continues to balance between loyalty to the Union with Russia and the idea of national independence.




Belarusians of the world: “In solidarity we trust”

On 15 – 16 July 2017, Minsk hosted the VII Congress of the Belarusians of the World, gathering over 300 participants. This year’s event was remarkably diverse, featuring Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei and even the former detainees in the White Legion case.

Belarusian Foreign Ministry started displaying interest to the diaspora Belarusians relatively recently. It still struggles to find effective tools to engage the diaspora, as the latter remains critical and distrustful towards the official political regime.

At the same time, young generation of Belarusian expats appears to be emerging as a new dynamic force, extensively using social networks to improve communication and organisation. In March 2017, diaspora activists from all over the world launched a solidarity campaign BY_Help in response to the state brutality during peaceful spring demonstrations.

One third of the nation residing abroad

The congress of the world’s Belarusians takes place every four years, concentrating on the current issues of relations between Belarus and its diaspora. The organiser, the World Association of Belarusians Baćkaŭščyna (Homeland), has been maintaining contacts to the Belarusian diaspora since 1990 and serves as a roof organisation for the Belarusians abroad.

According to Baćkaŭščyna’s most recent estimates, around 3.5 million Belarusians reside in 73 different countries. Obtaining more accurate numbers is not possible, as not every migrant chooses to inform Belarusian authorities of his or her decision to leave. Moreover, registration at Belarusian embassies and consulates abroad is voluntary and does not offer any perks for those who take the time to do so. This results in inaccurate official statistics, misrepresenting the actual numbers of Belarusians abroad.

For instance, according to Belstat, 1,046 persons emigrated to Canada during 2000 – 2010. However, available Canadian statistics for the same period indicate the higher number of about 5,700 persons, with an average of 500 Belarusians emigrating to Canada annually.

Many Belarusians who move abroad and obtain the citizenship from another state often choose the option of keeping their Belarusian passports if possible. However, they are motivated by the ease of travelling and visiting their relatives back in Belarus rather than by patriotic feelings.

According to the president of “Baćkaŭščyna” Alena Makoŭskaja, weak feelings of national identity along with a lack of sentiments towards the homeland lead to quick assimilation of Belarusians permanently residing abroad. For instance, the number of people identifying as Belarusians in Russia went down from 1.2 million to 0.5 million just over the recent two decades.

Recruiting diaspora as a partner: Makei vs Canadian Belarusians

In 2014, the Law On Belarusians Living Abroad came into effect, yet so far it failed to offer any incentives to Belarusians living abroad, similar to those introduced in Poland within the framework of Pole’s Card program.

Belarus recognises neither dual citizenship nor foreign education credentials, thus discouraging many Belarusian emigrants and Western-educated Belarusians to return and contribute to the economy at home.

Since 2016, the Belarusian state started another round of review of its relationship with diaspora, wishing to appropriate the latter’s potential to serve as a soft power tool in the foreign policy. Acknowledging diversity of opinions existing about current political regime, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei appealed in his speech at the Congress to unity of all Belarusians, pointing out external and internal challenges to the independence of the state.

Makei’s appearance was overshadowed by an unpleasant incident on the eve of the Congress. The archbishop of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the member of the Council of the World Association of Belarusians Sviataslau Lohin was denied entry to Belarus at the border crossing in Homel region. Apparently, the local border guards have not yet been informed of the new priorities in foreign policy, as the very next day a call from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry was enough to solve the issue, allowing the archbishop to continue his journey.

Not everyone at the Congress was convinced by the new conciliatory tone of the foreign minister. Valiancina Šaučenka, representing Belarusian Canadian Alliance, noted the continuous marginalisation of the Belarusian language and a lack of democratic reforms. Canadian Belarusians refused to maintain any contacts to the state institutions, declaring their support to civil society initiatives and those working towards democratic changes in Belarus.

BY_Help solidarity campaign

The potential of diaspora solidarity with the regime’s opponents came to the foreground during spring 2017, when the state cracked down against the peaceful demonstrations. BY_Help was born on 15 March, following the brutal detentions after the “March of Non-Parasites” and grew into full-scale solidarity campaign after the crackdown on 25 March.

BY_Help activists collected $ 55,000 in donations from Belarusians all over the world to support the arrested protesters and their families, provide legal assistance, and help in paying the fines imposed by the Belarusian courts for the detained as well as for independent journalists, who covered the protests and suffered from persecution.

Apart from its initial goals, BY_Help campaign also demonstrated that Belarusian diaspora is quickly outgrowing the outdated ways of communication and organisation. As Kryscina Šyjanok who administers the Facebook group for Belarusians in the Czech Republic, pointed out, the new generation of Belarusian expats prefers to stay in touch through social networks, which open up new ways to engage larger groups of Belarusians or people of Belarusian origins residing abroad.

Social networks help to create more inclusive environment for communication and organisation of activities, so that even those who did not show permanent interest to their former homeland, feel more confident to join and contribute. Finally, openness contributes to cultural exchange and dialogue, presenting Belarus to the world not as the notorious “last dictatorship” but through its people.

Beyond fostering informal contacts, the new generation of Belarusian diaspora uses its expertise to demystify Belarus. The Ostrogorski Centre is the first think-tank uniting professionals and academics of Belarusian origins, who were trained at Western universities. Its projects, including Belarus Digest, focus on promoting better understanding of Belarus. Starting from 2016, the Centre organises Ostrogorski Forum – an annual conference on foreign policy and security, aiming to bring together independent and pro-government analysts and experts.

However, Belarusian authorities still lack a comprehensive program outlining the long-term strategy of relationship with its diaspora. In order to establish an effective connection, the state should start taking diaspora Belarusians seriously and offer them more serious incentives than cooperation in cultural projects.




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 finally reaps tangible benefits from its neutrality policy

On 18-19 July, Belarus officially welcomed a delegation from the European parliament along with the Latvian foreign minister, who spoke up for Belarus’s policy of neutrality. These developments are signs that Belarus’s rapprochement with the EU and other Western structures continues.

The annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk on 5-7 July was a milestone in this process. Indeed, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka commented that just three years ago he could not imagine a session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk.

The Belarusian government is finally reaping the rewards of its pursuit of neutrality between Russia and its opponents. Although this position has caused consternation in the Russian political establishment, Minsk has so far succeeded in minimising the damage.

No more questions for Belarus?

In a recent interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei announced that his country is now in ‘a qualitatively different situation.’ In particular, he noted: ‘Our independence has been strengthened as a result of our efforts in developing relations … with our European and North American partners.’

Thus, it seems that Belarusian leadership perceives the recent OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk as a success.

The Belarusian authorities wish to build on this triumph: at the event’s opening meeting on 5 July, Lukashenka presented an ambitious idea for holding a major international conference aimed at achieving a détente between ‘Euroatlantic’ and ‘Eurasian’ countries – promoting trust, security, and peace, a so-called ‘Helsinki-2’.

Minsk also has several other achievements under its belt vis–à–vis relations with the EU and European structures. On 19 July, after meeting his Belarusian counterpart, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs announced that Riga no longer had any questions for Minsk concerning the forthcoming West-2017 military exercise.

Rinkēvičs noted that while Latvia is a NATO member and Belarus is participating in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Riga ‘is respecting the choice of [its] neighbours in the field of security.’ At a press conference, Rinkēvičs agreed that Belarus-EU relations in recent years have become more rational and constructive.

Andrejs Mamikins. Image: euroradio.fmOn 18 July in Minsk, for the first time in fourteen years, there was an official meeting between the deputies of the lower chamber of the Belarusian Parliament and members of the European Parliament (EP).

Andrejs Mamikins, an EP member who attended the meeting, described the discussions there as ‘fierce’ but ‘completely friendly and sincere’ on Facebook. The first time in recent years that an EP delegation came to Minsk was in June 2015, but this did not constitute an official meeting.

On the following day, the head of the EU delegation, Bogdan Zdrojewski, underlined that the meeting would not be considered official recognition for the Belarusian parliamentarians as ‘democratically elected’. Nevertheless, he believes it necessary to resume dialogue with Belarus. Moreover, the EP is studying possible ways to invite Belarusian parliamentarians to Euronest Parliamentary Assembly events.

Dzyanis Melyantsou, a senior analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, commented that ‘The Belarusian parliament is recognised by the EP. Security matters.’

Ambiguous statements about Russia

Meanwhile, Belarusian government officials made ambiguous statements regarding relations with Russia. On 12 July, Lukashenka characterised the recent meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Belarus and Russia as unprecedentedly open, sincere, and fruitful. With regard to the prospects of the Union State, he added: ‘To be honest, today there is no reason to be too optimistic. But after all […] the process has started.’

The statement is remarkably not only because of the president’s reservations regarding Belarus-Russia integration. Lukashenka was quoting a well-known Russian phrase coined by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘the process has started’ [protses poshol]. Since Gorbachev used it to comment on developments which later turned out to be out of his control, the phrase in this context has an ironic undertone.

Speaking on 1 July at an official meeting dedicated to Independence Day, Lukashenka also stated that ‘Not everything always goes smoothly in our relations with brotherly Russia.’ Moments later, he went as far as to compare Belarusian-Russian relations with Belarus’s relations with China, saying, ‘It’s just luck that we have established such friendly relations with this great empire … They are practically at the level of our relations with Russia.’

Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei made similar comments: in an interview with El Pais, he criticised the deployment of NATO troops in the region. However, he also mentioned how Minsk refused to host a Russian air base.

We are categorically against the deployment of a NATO contingent in the Baltic countries and Poland because this forces the other party to respond and contributes to an escalation… a new [Russian] foreign military base in Belarus does not make sense, because modern armaments allow Russia to react equally rapidly from its own territory.

‘A second Ukraine’

Minsk’s rapprochement with the EU and Ukraine and its ambiguous attitude towards Russia are causing a reaction in the pro-Kremlin Russian media. One article, entitled ‘The EU’s “Eastern Partnership” Threatens to Turn Belarus Into a “Second Ukraine,’” published on 9 July by Russia’s government-affiliated Sputnik media in English, is a case in point.

The author of this warning to Minsk was Vladimir Lepekhin, a former Russian politician turned political analyst. This is clearly more than his own personal opinion, as the text has been distributed by major Kremlin-affiliated media outlets worldwide. Before it was published by Sputnik in English, the article appeared in Russian on another Kremlin-affiliated website: the news agency RIA Novosti. This pedigree of the Lepekhin’s text made it another obvious black spot sent to Minsk.

Image: mzv.czLepekhin urged Minsk to struggle against ‘the forces of globalism, which can be characterised as modern-day fascism … For many years, Belarus had held out as being among the countries which were most resistant to these forces’ siren call.’

Among the projects pursued by these forces, according to the Russian commentator, is the EU Eastern Partnership programme. Lepekhin also voiced concern over Belarus’s participation in the programme: ‘The transformation of Minsk, following Kiev, into an instrument of anti-Russian forces – this is the real goal of the Eastern Partnership.’

Likewise, Moscow’s steps in the security field show that the Kremlin puts little trust in its Belarusian ally. In his interview for El Pais, Belarusian foreign minister Makei complained that Russia and pro-Russian Donbas entities had also rejected Minsk’s offer to deploy Belarusian forces to enforce control on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

In April, Russia also chose to promote an Armenian rather than a Belarusian as the new CSTO Secretary General, after it finally decided to replace Russian general Nikolay Bordyuzha. Bordyuzha had run this largely symbolic organisation, dominated by Russia, since its establishment 14 years ago.

Thus, because of the changed security situation in the region, Minsk has adjusted its external relations to place more of an emphasis on neutrality. For the same reason, it has succeeded in improving its relations with Western and regional countries. At the same time, the Belarusian government continued to assure the Kremlin of its Russia-friendly policies.

Combining these policies is a difficult task, as the regular outcries from Russia prove. Nevertheless, recent developments show that Minsk is already benefiting from this stance without encountering serious consequences. In other words, Belarus can continue to pursue neutrality.




Are Relations With Europe Back to Normal? – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

The Belarusian government’s crackdown on peaceful protests in early spring failed to markedly affect its contacts with the West.

In June-July, the intensity of Belarus’s diplomatic dialogue with Europe was probably at its highest point in the last several years. However, Western leaders are still in no hurry to negotiate directly with President Lukashenka.

The authorities took advantage of the high-level meetings of the CEI and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk to promote their vision of Belarus as a responsible international player and regional mediator. It remains to be seen whether this strategy will discourage the West from focusing on issues of democracy.

Exploiting international forums

Belarusian diplomats have been actively exploiting the country’s rotating presidency in certain multilateral organisations, as well as Minsk’s potential status as a venue for international events, to boost Belarus’s image abroad and revamp bilateral ties.

Belarus has been doing its best to get the most out of its presidency in the Central European Initiative in 2017. This attitude stands in a stark contrast to its earlier apathy towards the activities of this loosely structured discussion club.

On 8 June, Minsk hosted a high-level meeting entitled ‘Promoting Connectivity in the CEI Region: Bridging the Gap between Europe and Asia’. The CEI participant countries, along with China and EAEU member states, focused on transport and logistics in correlation with the Silk Road initiative.

On 22 June, senior diplomats from the CEI countries gathered in Minsk for their annual meeting. Only six countries out of eighteen were represented by their foreign ministers. The final communiqué dealt mostly with the European aspirations of certain Western Balkan states and some Eastern Partnership countries. Alexander Lukashenka, who did not miss the opportunity to meet with top foreign diplomats, underscored the importance of ‘integration of integrations’, his pet idea.

On 5-9 July, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly held its annual session in Minsk. The Belarusian authorities took this opportunity to interpret the choice of Minsk as a confirmation of Belarus’s status as a ‘pole of stability’ in the region. They also used it to promote Lukashenka’s idea of a ‘Helsinki-2 process’.

Belarusian diplomats managed to circumvent any reference to the human rights situation in Belarus in the final declaration of the session. However, four of six Belarusian MPs voted in favour of the Minsk Declaration, which also condemned Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. The Belarusian foreign ministry did not fail to present this staged voting as proof of pluralism in the Belarusian parliament.

Reaching out to the developing world

The Belarusian authorities are seeking to diminish the country’s economic dependence on Russia by boosting Belarus’s trade with the so called ‘Distant Arc’ countries.

On 6-7 June, Minsk hosted a new forum called ‘Belarus and Africa: New Frontiers’ with participation of over seventy delegates from about twenty African countries. So far, Africa remains the least cultivated market for Belarusian exporters and manufacturers.

Lukashenka, speaking as an observer at the Astana summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on 9 June, sought to persuade members of the organisation to strengthen the economic dimension of its activities, claiming that this would eventually help combat terrorism.

On 29 June, Lukashenka received his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang in Minsk. Belarus and Vietnam will seek to increase their turnover fourfold, from $121m in 2016 to half a billion in a few years’ time. Alongside more traditional Belarusian exports to developing countries, several innovative Belarusian high-tech companies are seeking to localise the assembly of their products in Vietnam.

On 26-28 June, Georges Rebelo Pinto Chicoti, the Angolan minister for external relations, visited Belarus. The two countries agreed to establish a joint trade commission and explore the viability of setting up knock-down assembly of Belarusian tractors in Angola.

In June and July, Belarus also held political and economic consultations on the deputy foreign minister level with Brazil, Cambodia, Cuba, India, Laos, and Vietnam.

Maintaining intensive dialogue with Europe

Alexander Lukashenka recently ordered his diplomats to ‘literally sink [their] teeth into the European market’. Indeed, economic issues prevailed on the agenda of the foreign ministry’s senior officials as they met with their EU counterparts.

On 13-14 June, foreign minister Vladimir Makei visited Madrid. Belarus and Spain agreed to establish a joint commission on economic and industrial cooperation. The commission will first meet this autumn in Minsk.

From Madrid, Belarus's top diplomat went to Prague on 15-16 June, where he held talks with his Czech counterpart Lubomír Zaorálek and met with Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

The turnover between the two countries has been steadily falling since 2014. Speaking to media after the first ever official visit of a Belarusian foreign minister to Czechia, Makei expressed his hope that their ‘theoretical agreement will turn into concrete projects’ in bilateral relations.

On 19 June, Makei attended the annual Eastern Partnership ministerial meeting in Luxembourg, where he met with several top European and EU-level diplomats. There, he derided Lithuania’s attempts to involve multilateral institutions in its bilateral problems with Belarus regarding the construction of the Astraviec NPP near their joint border.

On 21-22 June, the foreign ministers of Hungary and Slovakia, Peter Szijjarto and Miroslav Lajcak, visited Minsk. Both diplomats combined their visits with their participation in the annual meeting of the CEI foreign ministers.

Makei called Szijjarto and Lajcak his friends. Indeed, Budapest and Bratislava have maintained constant dialogue with Minsk ever since the normalisation of relations with the EU. Both countries have also been important economic partners for Belarus. However, although the Belarusian government has managed to reverse the short-lived decrease in its trade with Hungary, the turnover with Slovakia has remained in a steady free-fall since 2012 – down by 40%.

On 5 July, Lukashenka received Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, who visited Minsk as Chair of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Lukashenka and Kurz also discussed the bilateral agenda. Austria, which has important economic interests in Belarus, is often seen as one of the regime’s strongest advocates in Europe.

On 18-20 July, Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics paid a working visit to Belarus. The two countries have maintained an annual exchange of foreign minister visits since 2013; they seek to expand ties in all areas of cooperation. Recently, Minsk and Riga secured the right to host the Ice Hockey World Championship jointly in 2021.

In recent weeks, Belarus also held political and economic consultations on the deputy foreign minister level with Austria, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Minsk hosted business delegations from Germany and Switzerland. On 6 July, President Lukashenka received a delegation of the United States Congress.

Belarusian diplomats have managed to restore the dynamics and climate of the country’s ties with Europe to the level they enjoyed prior to the Belarusian authorities’ recent crackdown on dissent. However, the full normalisation of relations with the West will require more than simply restraining from persecuting the opposition or promoting Belarus as a ‘donor of security’. President Lukashenka’s legitimacy in European capitals should be the foundation of the next stage in relations.




Military parades in Belarus: displaying military might and annoying locals

Belarus's tradition of military parades

In Belarus, military parades usually take place twice a year: on 9 May, or Victory Day, when post-Soviet countries celebrate victory in the Great Patriotic War with Nazi Germany, and on 3 July, the official Independence Day.

Thousands of members of the armed forces gather to exhibit the country's military equipment. Tanks, soldiers, and the military orchestra have become prominent symbols of the parade. Top-level officials, including president Alexander Lukashenka, also participate in the parades.

Every year, the parades involve helicopters, planes, missile systems, demonstration of tanks and military vehicles, and marches accompanied by the military orchestra. Additionally, in 2011-2016, Belarus invited Russian paratroopers to join.

Military parades usually involve mobilising a spectators. Organisations such as BRSM and other pro-governmental associations forcefully ensure that their members attend. Many ordinary citizens also come to the parades to look at the military equipment and large fireworks displays.

The Independence Day parade, which is accompanied by patriotic songs and slogans, highlights Belarus's Soviet past. This emphasis on the Great Patriotic War, which started when Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, to a large degree overshadows Belarus's independence.

The precision and scope of the parades, which is achieved at a very high cost and involves numerous rehearsals, make the phenomenon look like a scene from a movie. This year, on 3 July, more than 6,000 soldiers, hundreds of units of military equipment, and thousands of spectators took part.

Logistical hassles aside, which involve diverting traffic, changing public transport schedules, and damaging roads with tank tracks, many Belarusians disagree with the very nature of the parades.

The link between the official Independence Day and the parade on 3 July itself remains dubious. On 3 July, Minsk was indeed liberated from the Nazis, but the rest of Belarus remained under occupation.

Earlier, Independence Day was celebrated on July 27, when Belarus became a sovereign state.

Tanks and toilets: the 2017 Independence Day parade

Even before the military parade took place, many Belarusians were heatedly discussing it. On 24 June, during a rehearsal, a large tank bumped into a lamppost and a tree. Nobody suffered from the incident, but it garnered much attention. Belarusians then started a petition to move the parade outside Minsk.

The parade is intended to demonstrate not only Belarus's military might, but also the successes of the Belarusian economic model. Therefore, along with tanks, guns, and other military equipment, the parade exhibited some of the country's non-military products. The event's organisers decided to showcase Belarusian furniture brands (Pinskdrev and Maladzechna Mebel), tractors, and even Belarusian toilets.

This decision was supposed to prove that Belarus is able to produce everything it needs – from toilets to military equipment. In turn, this was intended to encourage Belarusians to buy Belarusian products. However, the presence of the toilets caused wide-spread ridicule among Belarusians on the Internet.

Thus, in May, Lukashenka stated: ‘There is no need to be stingy with this [parade], especially because they are not so expensive. It should be a real parade, an impressive one. This is why it is being done. This is a demonstration, we show people that we are eating the bread of war for a reason’.

According to Lukashenka's demands, the parade was indeed massive and expensive. The Ministry of Defence, however, refused to divulge its expenditures. In contrast, Russia reported the costs of its parades, despite the closed nature of its military entities.

Although ascertaining the real cost Belarus's military parades remains difficult, analysts have attempted to estimate the budget of this demonstration of power. Thus, Naviny.by reports that Belarusians probably paid around $2.37m in taxes for transportation of equipment and soldiers, decorations, and fuel for tanks.

Speaking with TUT.by, Belarus's most popular news portal, analyst Andrei Alesin concluded that the parade in 2009 cost $50m. However, in 2009 the parade featured 4,000 soldiers – 2,000 less than in 2017. Moreover, in 2009 there were only about 200 units of military equipment, while in 2017 there were over 500. However, given the differences between these two figures and the lack of access to concrete figures about the parades, it remains impossible to estimate the parades' true cost.

Why conduct military parades?

Historically, the aim of military parades has been to demonstrate the country's ability to protect itself during war. After the Ukrainian conflict, which led to worries of a possible Russian intervention in Belarus, military parades possibly even reassured citizens.

What's more, many believe that showing off military equipment is proof that the country has the resources to resist aggression from any side. Thus, the parade creates an illusion of military capability.

The military parade of 3 July is also proof that the Belarusian government continues to demonstrate its support for Soviet traditions and symbols and sees them as a key element to nation building.

These parades also involve different forms of entertainment, such as fireworks, concerts, and competitions. As Leanid Spatakaj, an analyst at Belarus Security Blog, told Belsat: ‘People need not only bread but also a spectacle: if there was no demand there would be no offer’.

The Ministry of Defence is unlikely to announce the true cost of these parades in the near future. However, given the amount of military equipment, city decorations, and entertainment, this sum is nothing to sneeze at. Instead of conducting expensive military parades, Belarus could focus on updating equipment and repairing army facilities.