10 most-read stories on Belarus Digest published in 2017
In 2017 Belarus Digest readers particularly interested in our articles on Belarus visa issues, security as well as the relations of Belarus and Russia.
Belarus Digest team wishes its readers a healthy, productive and happy new year!
Here we compiled our top 10 most read stories published in 2017.
Starting 12 February, citizens of 80 states, including 39 European countries, will be able to enter Belarus visa-free through the Minsk National Airport. But unlike Kazakhstan, which allows foreigners to stay in the country for up to 30 days, Belarus introduced a much more tricky visa-free regime.
Foreign travellers should be prepared for strict penalties should they fail to understand or abide by the rules. The current practice of registering people with Belarusian visas staying for longer than five days sometimes creates an impression that Belarusian migration authorities view tourists as cash cows.
The recent visit of Alexander Lukashenka to Sochi on 15 – 26 February 2017, which did not include an audience with Vladimir Putin, casts the relationship between Minsk and the Kremlin in an ever more ambiguous light.
Tensions between Belarus and Russia have been mounting over the past months, as the Kremlin puts more and more pressure on Minsk. The nature of this pressure is perfectly encapsulated by the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine of hybrid warfare. According to the doctrine, Belarus and Russia have entered the ‘pre-crisis’ stage of the conflict.
On 23 – 26 January 2017 a Baltic security wargaming simulation took place in Warsaw. Two defence and security think tanks, the Potomac Foundation and the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, hosted the event.
The wargaming initiative focused on the scenario of a Russia-NATO conflict and analysed the nature of the Russian military threat to the Baltic States and Poland. As a result, Belarus was found to be a key contributor to regional security and stability by containing Russia’s aggressive strategy. The author of this piece also took part in the simulation.
On 16 August, at a conference on transportation in Northwest Russia, Russian president Vladimir Putin demanded that Belarus stop exporting its oil products through Latvian and Lithuanian ports. Instead, Moscow wants Belarus to reroute through Russia’s Baltic ports. This way, Putin intends to put even more pressure on the Baltic states.
The next day, the Belarusian state-affiliated news agency BelTA published an interview with the acting director general of Belarusian Oil Company, Siarhei Hryb. The article made clear that Minsk wishes to continue its cooperation with the Baltic states.
It seems that Russia and Belarus are heading towards another oil dispute just months after ending the previous one. Minsk refuses to blindly follow the Kremlin’s policy of strangling the Baltic states, if only for pragmatic reasons. To survive as a sovereign state, Belarus needs good relations with all its neighbours, not just Russia.
On 20 January, Alexander Lukashenka described the reactions of Russian officials to the introduction of the new five-day visa-free regime in Belarus as ‘groans and wails.’
Recently, the rhetoric surrounding Russian-Belarusian relations has become so sharp that some journalists and analysts believe the Kremlin plans to overthrow Aliaksandr Lukashenka or occupy Belarus.
However, off and on conflict remains a fixture of Belarusian-Russian relations. Despite the belligerent grumbling, Lukashenka mostly upholds the Kremlin’s interests, promoting cooperation between the two countries.
During a meeting with defence minister Andrei Raukou on 20 March, president Alexander Lukashenka demanded ‘absolute transparency’ at the forthcoming West-2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercise. The Belarusian government is working to counter the negative repercussions of such a massive show of military force in the region.
These repercussions have certainly been felt. On 9 February, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė stated that during the West-2017 exercises ‘aggressive forces are concentrating in very large numbers, this is a demonstrative preparation for a war with the West.’
Moscow would apparently like to increase the fog of uncertainty surrounding its military moves. The Russian military previously published the numbers of railway wagons needed for troop movement. In the absence of proper explanations, this created a threatening impression. Yet it is now clear that the exercises on Belarusian territory will be smaller than in 2009.
On 16 February, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, announced that the Kremlin does not plan to introduce a visa regime with Belarus. His statement comes in a context of increasingly harsh measures on behalf of Moscow towards Belarus over the past half year, beginning when Russia decided to partially reinstate its border with Belarus, which had been abolished in 1995.
The Kremlin is also working to undermine economic ties between Belarus and its other neighbours, paying special attention to the energy and transportation sectors. Results have been tangible: Belarus has already decided to stop importing Ukrainian electricity. Moscow is also doing whatever it can to convince Minsk to use Russian ports rather than ones in the Baltic countries.
Russia accuses the West and its allies in the region of undermining links between Eastern European countries. However, its own policies pursue exactly the same aim. Minsk must fight hard to resist these efforts by the Kremlin.
In October-December 2016, almost 2,000 tourists took advantage of new visa-free regulations to visit Hrodna Region. In response to the increasing amount of foreign tourists, Hrodna Region has started working on two important initiatives: visa-free railway voyages and launching low-cost flights to Hrodna airport.
However, making railway services and the Hrodna airport accessible visa-free will not attract many more tourists if more tourist services are not first developed. Extension of the visa-free territory to the whole of Belarus and investment in the development of services would significantly improve the popularity of Belarus for tourists.
On 15 March, Belarusian authorities detained dozens of citizens protesting against the social parasite decree. Anarchists were one of the most noticeable movements at the protests in Brest and Minsk, causing an immediate reaction from the police.
Anarchists in Belarus, who have a long history, tend to participate only in particular political events. Their creativity and integration distinguished them from other groups during the last two weeks of protests.
The regime has put considerable effort into diminishing the influence of any uncontrollable and integrated group of dissidents, including anarchists. Independence Day on 25 March will show whether the anarchist movement in Belarus is ready for social and political protest or whether it will continue to operate mostly underground.
In an interview published on 23 February, Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou announced the forthcoming purchases of state-of-the-art Russian weaponry.
He specifically mentioned the Su-30SM fighter aircraft and 120mm Nona-M1 heavy mortars. Earlier, on 4 February, armament director of the Belarusian armed forces Major General Ihar Latsyankou said that Minsk would purchase these systems this year.
In other words, despite its dependence on Moscow, Minsk has prevailed in its dispute with the Kremlin over defence issues. Moscow initially did not wish to provide Minsk with weapons, intending instead to replace Belarusian with Russian troops. However, it has conceded one position after another. Minsk has thus emerged victorious in this spat.
Top 10 of Belarus civil society in 2017 according to Pact
Traditionally Pact highlights some of the most prominent developments in and affecting Belarus civil society.
Issue of the Year: “Social Parasite” Tax
In 2015, Lukashenko signed a decree imposing a “social parasite tax” on Belarusians without legitimate employment. The entrance of the decree into force resulted in the mass civic reaction in the form of peaceful public protest in February-March 2017. Thousands of people protested the new law, which resulted in mass detentions (described below) but also in the suspension of the decree until 2019.
Campaign of the Year: BY_Help
Having started in March 2017, the BY_help campaign (Yulia Darashkevich, Lyaksei Lyavonchyk and Andrey Stryzhak) raised $55,000 from private and corporate sources inside and outside of Belarus to financially help Belarusians and their families who suffered as a result of the March public protests, the White Legion case and other.
Trend of the Year: Spirit of a Dialogue
Top government officials are becoming ordinary participants at civil society events few examples of which are Minsk Dialogue conferences, Kastrycnicki Economic Forum, Global Entrepreneurship Week. Discussion of Belarus’ Universal Periodic Review to the UN Human Rights Committee, Civil Society Parallel Forum on the foot of the 26 annual sessions of the OSCE PA in Minsk, and expert consultations on the national human rights plan are indicative of the dialogue spirit. Wishful thinking or reality?
Localization of the Year: Congress of Belarusian Studies
Having convened in Kaunas and Warsaw for the last seven years, the organizers of the International Congress of Belarusian Studies – Political Sphere – announce (tentatively) that the 8th congregation will take place in Minsk, Belarus. Preliminary dates are September 27-29, 2018. Main academic partner of the Congress is the National Academy of Science of Belarus. Pack your bags for Minsk!
Save of the Year: Kurapaty – Kotovka – Osmolovka
2017 was marked by a number of victories by civic activists to protect landmark site in Minsk. Two-week defence of Kurapaty mass executions site has led to investor’s abandonment of construction works. A public park in the Kotovka district of Minsk was saved by local community activists Tiananmane square’s Tank Man-style. Local residents of Osmolovka historical area of Minsk succeeded in the freezing of city’s demolition plans for the area.
Consistency of the Year: Social Weekend
Social Weekend celebrated its 10th consecutive open national competition for social projects to get local funding from both individual philanthropists and corporations. The competition is held consistently since 2013, since which time Social Weekend raised over $150,000 to support over 150 projects from among more than 1,400 applicants.
Media Lifeline to Civil Society of the Year: 34Mag
34mag.net youth online magazine lead public communication to aid grassroots activism in 2017: simple-language articles helped local leaders break down public communication, guided them through how to organize a public event or an educational intervention, and showcased successful student initiatives in Belarus. Read up!
Civic Transport of the Year: Bicycle for Everyone!
Cycling activists were among most organized and visible civic actors in 2017, while the number of bicycles in Minsk is approaching the number of cars. Viva Rovar! Carnival gathered together over 15,000 bicycle enthusiasts, while the II International Cycling Festival and PraRovar Forum raised the cycling agenda to the public spotlight further. Belarusian regions were also active: more than 700 cyclists joined the Susedzi 2017 bike marathon in Grodno and Brest held its Vezdevelom international bike festival. Get on a bike when in Belarus, even if it is made of wood!
Scare of the Year: Zapad-2017
Circumstances and media brought anxiety to Belarus ahead of the joint Russian-Belarus military exercise called Zapad-2017. Civil society played an important role in providing civic monitoring, alternative view points and analysis of possible scenarios. Despite the scare, Belarus wasn’t occupied.
And Now for Something Completely Different of the Year
The government of Belarus was the main – yet controversial – newsmaker of the year. Having opened up its borders and having cancelled visas for nationals of over 80 countries, GoB used force to disperse mass peaceful protests in the country detaining over 900 people. Authorities eventually closed the notorious White Legion case, although the trial of three Regnum authors continues. Minsk hosted the 26th session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly while suspending reforms-related talks with the IMF. Lukashenko legalized cryptocurrencies and approved a decree to arguably further ease doing business in Belarus, while the social parasite tax legislation is still on the table.
Pact Belarus Team