10 most-read stories on Belarus Digest published in 2018
In 2018 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 2018.
On 26 December, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka signed a new decree on a 10-days visa-free entry regime for foreigners. It expands upon last year’s decree on a 5-day visa-free entrance to the Augustow zone in the Hrodna region. The changes are in tandem with a February 2017 decree, which grants tourists a Belarus-wide, five-day visa provided they fly into Minsk airport.
The new visa-free rules are valid from 2018 and allow citizens of 77 countries to spend 10 days without a visa in the Hrodna and Brest regions. No changes have been made for those who enter without a visa into Minsk airport, and as such can still only spend five days in Belarus, but are able to travel anywhere in the country.
The current visa-free regime appears to be a logical continuation of the process of visa liberalisation, which has been taking place within the country. However, the territorial and administrative restrictions on visa-free travel to Belarus still create inconveniences for tourists. Concerns of the KGB and the Internal Affairs Ministry create additional obstacles for the implementation for simpler and longer visa-free regimes.
On 26 February, Thai police arrested Belarusian model Nastya Rybka (Anastasiya Vashukevich) and her Belarus-born “sex coach” Alex Lesley (Alexander Kirillov) on charges of arranging “sex-training” courses in Thailand without work permits.
Prior to this, Rybka and Lesley sparked a major sex-scandal in Russia involving oligarch Oleg Deripaska and the Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko. Rybka subsequently claimed to be in possession of secret recordings proving Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and requested US asylum.
While Russians have paid between $600 to $1500 for Lesley’s seduction classes in Moscow, Belarusians eagerly splash similar amounts of money on “sex training” courses and consultations with parapsychologists.
Belarusian astrologers, bioenergy consultants, and “sex coaches” vigorously advertise themselves on the internet. The general decline in levels of education, as well as the demographic gender imbalance, have created a perfect breeding ground for the appearance of numerous occult practitioners and self-proclaimed “sex experts” in Belarus.
In a speech to the Belarusian parliament, Alexander Lukashenka expressed dissatisfaction with Belarusian airlines. The president questioned the absence of low-cost flights in Belarus and Belarusians’ extensive use of Vilnius, Warsaw and Kiev airports. This issue – discussed by Belarusians for several years – has been problematised by Lukashenka for the first time.
Companies such as Ryanair and Wizzair find it unprofitable to fly to Minsk airport, and so Belarusians choose to travel to airports in neighbouring countries.
According to the administration of Belavia, the Belarusian national carrier, it would be detrimental for their business to welcome cheap flights to the country. As a result, Belarusians choose between Lithuanian, Ukrainian or Polish airports – or seek out rare Belavia online sales.
On 25th January 2018, top Belarusian media outlet TUT.BY compiled a portrait of the average Belarusian citizen. The media outlet used a combination of recent data from the National Statistical Committee of Belarus, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations. Apparently, the average Belarusian citizen is a 42-and-a-half-year old woman with higher education. She speaks Russian, votes for Lukashenka, and consumes 64 kg of potatoes per year.
At the same time, the recent statistical data on the Belarusian population raises a number of concerns. Belarus comprises an ageing nation with astonishing gender imbalances. While Belarusian women face difficulties in finding a marriage partner, Belarusian men fervently consume alcohol.
The diet of Belarusian citizens still lacks fruit and vegetables, and their salary ranks among the least competitive in the region. Permanent stress eventually take its toll in the form of heart disease.
Only 13% of pupils in Belarus study in the Belarusian language. The authorities, therefore, aroused great public interest with a recent promise to establish Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens in each district in Minsk.
At present, the near impossibility of receiving pre-school education in the Belarusian language concerns some parents. Others cling on to even the slightest possibility of ensuring their children’s education in the Belarusian language. Yet others wonder why the question arises at all – thinking that it would be better to teach students English or Chinese.
The rapid disappearance of the Belarusian language from the education sector (from 19% in the 2010/2011 academic year to 13% in 2017/2018) paradoxically coincided with the increasing popularity of various kinds of Belarusian cultural initiatives and projects.
On 20 March 2018, Metropolitan Pavel (also known as Georgy Ponomarev) – the Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslaŭje, and Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus – stated his wish to organize the visit of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Minsk. He scheduled the visit to follow on the heels of Pope Francis’s visit to Vilnius.
Some see this as the latest in a series of efforts by Russia to provoke religious conflict in Belarus. Russia’s actions earlier this year can be seen in the same light.
Speaking in Brussels on 1 June, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei warned that a proposed US military base in Poland would trigger a response in the region. Moreover, if tensions grow, as a result, the Belarusian government could soon play host to a Russian military base.
On the same day, while visiting border guards in the south of the country, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka sounded a different note. He would prefer Ukraine to join NATO than see it taken over by nationalism and turn into “a bandit state” where a war of “everyone against everyone” rages.
The Belarusian government has held this ambiguous position for decades. As NATO enlarged towards Belarusian borders, Minsk constantly adjusted its rhetoric and engaged in cautious yet increasing cooperation with the alliance. The “NATO ghost”, however, remained a major theme in Belarus’s relations with Russia.
8. Skyrocketing economic growth and weak regional development – a digest of the Belarusian economy by Aleh Mazol from Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)
On 16 March 2018, the official statistical body of Belarus Belstat has announced that GDP growth in the first two months of the year has accelerated.
Meantime, the weak regional development cast doubt on the sustainability of Belarusian economic growth in the future. Decreasing population number, lack of investment, and depressed business climate accompanied by low average wages play here a crucial role.
Finally, on 20 March 2018, the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka has announced plans for the establishment of a new ministry – The Ministry of Digital Economy. The digital transformation of the economy needs authorized governance.
9. Opinion: Cannabis Reform in Belarus? by Michael Dorman
On 17 February 2018, a group of young Belarusians holding a banner reading ‘Legalize Belarus’ gathered on Independence Avenue in the heart of Minsk. The group was campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana in Belarus, a proposition that, at least for now, seems unlikely to attract support from the public or government officials.
The perception of cannabis use in Belarus has been largely shaped by Soviet-era misinformation and anti-cannabis propaganda disseminated by the Lukashenka government. Adding to the stigma of cannabis use is the fact that Belarus has some of the harshest drug laws in Europe and its penal code makes no distinction between the categories of drugs.
On 6-8 April, Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe will visit Belarus. Wei’s combined visit to Russia and Belarus, his first foreign trip since taking up the post, demonstrates recognition that Minsk gives the highest priority to its partnership with Beijing.
The Belarusian authorities have chosen orientation towards Beijing as a fundamental dogma in foreign policy. Belarus pursues this policy despite contradictory effects of the alliance with China. The Belarusian government hopes that it will get a better place in the sun in a future world shaped by China. For the time being it tries to reap some smaller benefits from Beijing to restructure its industry, find new loans and rearm.
Zoo-defenders congress, social parasites database – Civil Society Digest
Persecution of journalists increases in Belarus. The head of an independent trade union leaves his post amid pressure. Criminal prosecution continues against the chief editor of TUT.BY.
Belarusians raise money for the reconstruction of the 14th-century Kreva castle. Picketing the scandalous restaurant in Kurapaty continues already 6th months. Minsk hosts the first large congress of zoo-defenders.
Registration of online media starts in Belarus. Belarusians trust state-run media the most. Belarus marks 8888 days with Lukashenka.
Harassment of journalists breaks records in Belarus – nearly 100 fines so far this year. Reporters Without Borders calls on the Belarusian government’s international partners to react to the surge in its persecution of journalists, with nearly 100 fines imposed already this year on reporters working for exile media, namely Belsat TV – an all-time record.
Head of the independent trade union Fedynich leaves his post. The decision was dictated by a court order. Recall that on November 9, the Minsk City Court upheld the sentence to Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, leaders of the independent trade union REP – four years of restraint of liberty without imprisonment and the prohibition to hold managerial positions for a period of 5 years.
BelTA case: Criminal prosecution terminated against all journalists, except TUT.BY editor-in-chief. In total, 15 journalists were accused of unauthorized access to data of the state-owned BelTA news agency. For 14 of them, criminal charges were replaced with administrative liability. Maryna Zolatava, TUT.BY editor-in-chief is still accused of criminal offences and face a fine or five years of imprisonment.
500,000 Belarusians in social parasites database. The database of the ‘freeloaders’ or those who are not employed in Belarusian economy was launched on December 1. According to the president’s decree On Employment, unemployed Belarusians will have to pay a full price for the state-subsidized utilities and communal services starting from February 2019.
In two days, Belarusians raised money for a hundred tons of stones for the reconstruction of Krevo Castle. Activist Hleb Labadzenka announced collecting stones through social networks. The raised money allows delivering to the castle 10-20 tons of stones daily. Krevo Castle is an architectural monument that was destroyed during WWI and lay in ruins a hundred of eight hundred years of its existence.
16 Days Campaign of Activism against Gender-Based Violence held in Belarus. The campaign was initiated by UNFPA Belarus together with the government and civil society organizations under the theme #HearMeToo. It lasted from November 25 to December 10. The campaign showed the study on the prevalence of violence against women in Belarus. On December 4, the results of the monitoring of Belarusian media on gender inequality and discrimination were presented.
Picketing the restaurant in Kurapaty continues six months. The restaurant was built near the memorial to the victims of Stalin’s repressions. Activists plan to continue to picket the restaurant until it gets closed. They believe that because of their protest, the restaurant is losing visitors, as well as the issue of perpetuating the memory of Stalinist repression receives a wide public response.
First large congress of Belarusian zoo-defenders held in Minsk, on December 1. The congress gathered several dozen activists from all over the country and took place in stormy discussions. The participants agreed that it is necessary to introduce international standards into national legislation; in particular, Belarus should adhere to the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals.
National law about organic agriculture adopted in Belarus. A number of CSOs, including the Center for Environmental Solutions, Agro-Eco-Culture, and EcoHome, have been working for over 5 years on the law together with state and private organizations. The CSOs note that the law is a good sign, that Belarus becoming a country, which starts to move towards the “green” economy.
The first mobile application to identify birds is released by APB BirdLife Belarus. The application requests a description of a bird (the place and the season of observation, size, colour, etc.) and provides several images based on the inputted characteristics. The program contains 325 bird species that can be found in Belarus. The bird guide app is available for free in the Play Market.
Registration of online media starts in Belarus. From December 1, the changes to the Media Law come into force. In particular, the Ministry of Information will register resources that want to receive a media status. The law also introduces a rule on the mandatory identification of authors of online comments. The law applies both to Belarusian and foreign media that work in Belarus.
Poll: Belarusians trust Belarusian state-run media the most. According to the national poll conducted by the Belarusian Analytical Workshop (BAW) at the request of ThinkTanks.by, the largest number of respondents – 29.4% – trusts to the Belarusian state media; 24% – to Russian media; and 10.7% – to Belarusian independent media. Western media have a trust of 8.2% of respondents. The survey was held in June-July 2018.
KEF poll: 85.6% of Belarusians ready to fight for their country in time of war. This is data of the survey about the values of the Belarusians conducted within the framework of KEF in May-June 2018. Thus, 86.1% of respondents call the Belarusian language ‘an important part of the culture, and it should be preserved’; 85.8% say that they are proud of Belarus.
8888 days with Lukashenka. On November 19, the mythical concurrence of numbers, an infinity date, occurred in Belarus’ history, namely: 8888 days had passed since the inauguration of Alexander Lukashenka as the president. During this period, GDP grew from $17.79 billion up to $54.44 billion; average life expectancy increased by 4.4 years, while population decreased by 736,000 people.
Belarusian chapel in London named World’s Best Religion Building at the World Architecture Festival (WAF) in Amsterdam. This is like an Oscar for architecture. The small wooden chapel’s design draws inspiration from the wooden churches in Belarus. It operates an energy-saving heating system and has a special walkway for wheelchair users.
Belarusian opened a hostel at the foot of a nuclear power plant. 18 km from Astravets town. The hostel is in demand among workers who are building the first Belarusian nuclear power plant. The hostel manager is confident that the place is safe, because “the degree of protection against radiation is very strong”.
Foreigners in Belarus will be able to register online starting January 2019. The procedure will be free of charge. The Ministry of Internal Affairs also plans to extend the stay of foreign citizens without registration from 5 to 10 days.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.