European Intercultural Festival, Superkot, European College of Liberal Arts – Belarus Civil Society Digest

European Intercultural Festival to be held on September 4-14 in Belarus. CES launches the European College of Liberal Arts.

4th Belarus Reality Check is to be held in Riga. CSO networks announce calls for small projects – National Youth Council RADA and Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs.

Belarusians are asked to invent and define a contemporary graphic symbol of unity of the Belarusians.

Festivals and Other Events

European Intercultural Festival 2014. On September 4-14, the European Intercultural Festival will take place in Minsk, Mahiliou, Hrodna and Brest. The main goal of friendly and creative team of CSOs in cooperation with diplomatic missions, media and other partners is to create for ten days the European atmosphere, as well as to provide sites for information and skills exchange in the field of culture and education.

The agenda is available here. The organizers are Office for a Democratic Belarus, Office for European Expertise and Communication, Fond of Ideas.

Eco-Cultural Festival in Minsk. The Minsk Gallery Ў, Ecodom NGO, Agro-Eco-Culture non-profit institution and Green Alliance invite to the annual Eco-Cultural Festival, which traditionally takes place in the Gallery Ў, on August 30. The program includes the closure of the exhibition Mutual Relationship, presentations, workshops, concerts, wine and organic products from the Belarusian farmers.

The 4th International Congress of Belarusian Studies presents a list of 15 thematic sections. The annual Congress will take place on 3-5 October 3-5, 2014, in Kaunas, Lithuania and aims to promote a deeper understanding of Belarus in academic and civil communities of the country, region and world. The organising committee has also announced a short list of the 2014 Congress Award for the best publication; the award ceremony will take place at the Congress.

4th Belarus Reality Check is to be organized on September 11, in Riga, Latvia. Western and Belarusian experts will discuss the latest developments in the Belarus' relations with U.S., EU and Russia as well as the upcoming presidential elections in Belarus. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia is joining EESC and Pact to the organization of the event.

Initiatives for People with Disabilities

Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is launching a new project on Improvement of the quality of work to protect the rights and legitimate interests of employees with disabilities. This project is implemented in cooperation with the independent trade union REP with the assistance of the branch of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Russia. Lawyers and representatives of trade union organizations will be trained to work on the field of protection the rights of employees with disabilities.

Eco-path for people with disabilities. A unique path of natural experiences for people with disabilities will appear soon in Grodno region. The path will be created by local initiative ‘Creating a barrier-free environmental education paths and places of recreation for families with children with disabilities’ within the USAID/UNDP project ‘Local entrepreneurship and economic development’. The initiative belongs to Sergei Vavilov who won one of 30 mini-grants. The Grodno authorities and CSOs also support the project.

Education

Study visit on freedom of associations. The Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs and Legal Transformation Center Lawtrend invite to participate in a visit to Vilnius and Budapest to study the modern standards of freedom of associations and legal conditions of non-profit organizations. The program is open to representatives of all sectors – private, public, and commercial. The visit will take place in October; application deadline is September 12.

Center of European Studies is launching a new education project in Minsk – European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus (ECLAB). The main goal of ECLAB is to provide the Belarusian youth with an alternative program of humanitarian education that will contribute to Belarus integration into the common European space. At the very beginning ECLAB will function as a project of non-formal education. However, their next goal is to accredit college programs with the help of partner universities in the countries of the European Union.

Campaigns and Civil Initiatives

Charity shop KaliLaska will reopen if collects $5,000 donations. KaliLaska/You are Welcome is the first charity offline shop in Belarus. It opened in April 2013 and worked for 13 months. During this time the shop collected second hand clothes, shoes, books and transferred them to the vulnerable groups – in total, 12 tons of things and help for 13 charity organizations. To reopen – pay rent, repair and equipment – shop announces collecting donations.

Shelter Superkot spent all the money on the treatment of animals and now to be closed. The first non-state Minsk shelter for animals Superkot states his distress due to lack of money. Superkot was opened in Minsk about 5 years ago and existed solely on donations. Each year the shelter "parked" to 1 thousand cats.

Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs announces a competition of Small Deeds 2014. The project call is open for CSOs, which are members of the Assembly of NGOs, and have ideas that can strengthen civil society in Belarus. Priority is given to activities aimed at identifying active and value-motivated people for their involvement in the civil activity, conducting local and national public awareness campaigns, etc. The project budget shouldn't exceed $1,500. Applications are accepted up to September 30.

Let's Make It Better 2014 campaign initiated by the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs continues to extend its influence across Belarus via local CSOs. Utulny krai/Comfortable region initiative assisted residents of Groznovo village to appeal to local authorities; Baranovichi branch of TBM organized the Festival dedicated to the city historical founder; Zvyaz/Union youth CSO conducted the first amateur tournament backgammon in Orsha; Mova ci Kava/Language or Coffee initiative launches a campaign To teach others to speak Belarusian, etc. The campaign’s press releases are available here.

Symbol of national unity to be identified. The Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs with information support Art Siadzibaand Radio Svaboda offers Belarusians to invent and define a contemporary graphic symbol of unity of the Belarusians in the manifestation of their independent position. The suggestions from artists, designers, and all the interested are accepted until August 31.

Ibikeminsk invites to put the finishing point of the project. On August 30, Ibikeminsk brand that promotes the image of Minsk as a bike-friendly city, invites to participate in the cycling cruise in the spirit of the Soviet Union. The trip will go on from the main entrance to the Minsk Gorky Park to Pobedy Park. Those who are without a bicycle, can also be a participant of a bright show, taking part in the dance and master classes in Lindy Hop.

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.




Will there Be a Single Opposition Candidate in 2015 Elections?

Last week Mikalai Statkievich, a former presidential candidate, stated from prison that the Belarusian opposition needs to choose a single candidate for the presidential election from a pool of people with serious politically-motivated convictions. His comments come ahead of Belarus's next presidential election in autumn 2015.

Statkevich has de facto suggested boycotting the elections and organising protests before the election day. Other politicians have heard about the prisoner’s proposal, but are not giving his words much consideration.

Already seven opposition figures have announced that they may participate in the upcoming election and are now working on the details a Congress that will choose a single candidate.

However, the opposition may return to Statkievich’s idea if they fail to work out a way to nominate delegates to the congress. Such a strategy from the opposition will help it exhibit its moral stance, but may further marginalise it.

A Proposal from Prison

On 19 August, Statkevich's web-site published the former presidential candidate's vision for the 2015 election season. The political prisoner insists on the need to select a single candidate to run for office. He says that an opposition leader should have serious political commitments and may even be someone who is currently in prison.

However, because the Belarusian Constitution prohibits candidates with a criminal record from participating in the presidential elections, the authorities will refuse to register a candidate with a prison record. According to Statkevich, if this will be the case, the opposition can simply just begin to protest and boycott the elections.

The former presidential candidate believes that the Belarusian opposition should firstly obtain a moral victory and then inflict political, international and moral damage to Lukashenka’s regime.

Other Candidates

Although some publicly supported Statkevich’s proposal, few actually share his views on the issue. The majority feel that Statkievich's own nomination should be considered only if the Belarusian opposition is unable to agree on the nomination of another single candidate.

Currently, several opposition leaders have already expressed their desire to challenge Lukashenka next year.

Uladzimir Niakliaeu announced his presidential ambitions back in 2013. Belarusians know the leader of the Tell the Truth campaign as a poet, pro-democracy activists respect him, but many opposition politicians think that he is too pro-Russian.​

 

Anatol Liabiedzka, leader of the United Civil Party, remains one of the old-timers of the Belarusian opposition. The congress of his party choose him as a potential presidential candidate on 31 May 2014. He seems to be the best opposition speaker, but he has been in politics ​throughout the life – something which may turn out to be his weak spot.

Valery Fralou, a retired General and deputy chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), has a solid resume, but lacks a team that would promote his candidacy. He announced that we would like to participate in the presidential elections in June 2014.

 

Several other people have also stated that they do not exclude the possibility of their participation in the presidential campaign.

Aliaksandr Milinkevich, leader of the Movement for Freedom and a single opposition candidate during the 2006 presidential election, has a impressive biography and ties to the West. He stated 18 August 2014 that if Congress of democratic forces will choose him as a single candidate, he will run. However, he also said that new people participating in the election would be the best path forward for the opposition.​

Aliaksandr Lahviniec​ is Milinkevich’s deputy and perhaps the younger generation Milinkevich is speaking about. Lahviniec has taught for a long time in Europe and the United States, and worked in the European Parliament. On 4 August he said that he may become a candidate, but his nomination should be based on a decision reached together between several political forces.

Volha ​ Karach, head of the Our House initiative, has become one of the most outstanding personalities in the Belarusian politics in recent years. She said to the Narodnaja Volia newspaper that she will run "if Belarusians will support her". Karach has tense relations with other members of the opposition, so she is unlikely to unite Belarusian pro-democracy forces.

Elena Anisim, deputy head of the Belarusian Language Society, has announced her presidential ambitions recently. She works for a state TV station and at the Academy of Sciences. She is an outsider in the Belarusian politics – something which may prove to be both her strongest and weakest point.​

 

Can Statkievich's Idea Work?

Statkievich’s strategy is rooted in a desire to change the rules of the game in Belarusian politics. For a long time, the opposition has been unable to win any meaningful elections, elections that were plagued by government orchestrated falsifications and fraud. One of its biggest challenges lies in getting its message out, since they do not have access to large media outlets to spread their message.

Representatives of civil society and the political opposition often say that they live in a ghetto. To get out of the ghetto, the political prisoner offers to appeal to society's moral conscience, but does not direct their efforts towards society's actual needs.

In pursuing Statkievich's proposal, the Belarusian oppositions risks becoming even more marginalised in society. If opposition candidates lose the ability to use state media for campaigning during the elections, pro-democracy forces will fail to reach most of Belarusians.

Counting on large scale protests may also be a recipe for disaster since most Belarusians, like a majority of opposition politicians, remain intimidated, and law enforcement agencies are more than ready to violently suppress any protests. Thus, rather than achieving a moral victory, the opposition may become more even less visible.

The Battle Over Procedures

It is no secret that by running a single candidate, groups have significantly improved chances of running a successful campaign. A single candidate can gain the support of all of the pro-democracy electorate and the West. Through them, all of the institutional and financial resources of the opposition can be used towards their campaign.

When Milinkevich ran as a single candidate in 2006 he became the most popular opposition politician in the country in just six months. In 2010, the opposition fielded eight candidates, and thus demonstrated to Belarusians that pro-democracy forces in the country cannot find common ground even among themselves.

Although the Belarusian opposition has started discussing the 2015 presidential election last year, their progress remains modest at best. So far, the main opposition figures have reached an agreement on the conduct of the Congress, but the mechanism for electing delegates to the Congress remains obscure.

The result of the vote will depend on the mechanism for nominating delegates, so the opposition will certainly spend a few months working out the details before anything is established.

It remains possible that the opposition will fail to resolve the issue at all. Therefore, many in the opposition say that it may be better for pro-democracy forces to devote their time to society, not to congresses. Then again, a union may naturally be formed as no political movement in Belarus is self-sufficient and will be forced to look for allies in order to thrive.

Right now it would be better for the Belarusian opposition to discuss their ideas in public. Privately, all politicians complain about each other missing deadlines, pushing poorly conceived proposals, or saying one thing in media while doing another in real life. If the talks were held in public, the public would be able to determine for themselves who fails to keep their word.

Otherwise, Belarus' pro-democracy forces should heed Statkievich’s suggestion. If the opposition is not ready to be politicians, then maybe the time to be dissidents has come.




Lukashenka – the Main Beneficiary of the Ukraine Talks in Minsk

On 26 August, Minsk was the centre of attention for the international community, attracting hundreds of international reporters. The Belarusian authorities hosted a meeting between the Eurasian "troika", the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and three EU commissioners.

The very fact that they are holding such a meeting in Minsk became a major foreign policy success for the Belarusian authorities. Lukashenka's regime has secured Minsk's role as a venue for discussing important regional issues.

The government found a way to participate in settling the Ukrainian crisis and broadening its lines of communication with the European Union.

Who Initiated the Talks: Minsk, Moscow or Kyiv?

Lukashenka first voiced the idea of holding multilateral talks, possibly involving the Ukrainian president, on 8 August.

During his meeting with Russian and Ukrainian Communist bosses Gennady Zyuganov and Petro Symonenko, he made public his plans to hold a series of meetings between "the presidents of Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine (if Ukraine agreed to them and there is no rejection) … to discuss fundamentally what is happening here."

During his bilateral meeting with Poroshenko on 26 August, Lukashenka said that the idea of meeting and discussing the implications of the association agreement had originally come from the Ukrainian president.

This may be partly true as Ukraine is indeed interested in overcoming Russian resistance to its economic integration with Europe. However, its hopes will never become reality until another major player finds it acceptable.

There are good reasons to believe that Vladimir Putin was the original instigator of this meeting in Minsk. In fact, just a day before, the Russian president called Lukashenka to discuss, among other things, the developments in the Ukrainian economy caused by the signing of the EU association agreement.

Vladimir Putin is merely using his Belarusian counterpart as an intermediary, to arrange his encounter with Petro Poroshenko under the guise of a trade-related meeting.

Deeply entrenched in an economic war with the West and facing a very real possibility of a military defeat in Eastern Ukraine, Putin may be coming to Minsk to seek a way to save face. Direct contact with Poroshenko, under the auspices of a multilateral event, may be a good start to finding an appropriate solution for Putin.

Better than Expected

Lukashenka has always emphatically denied his interest in becoming an intermediary in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The excuse provided by Moscow was ideal for Lukashenka. Instead of being a mediator in talks that have a low probability of leading to a positive outcome, he has become a party to larger negotiations, with Belarusian interests directly at stake.

It took almost two weeks of extensive negotiations to arrange the summit in Minsk. Ukraine conditioned its agreement to take part in these talks on representatives from the EU taking part in them. Lukashenka first mentioned the possibility of this third-party participation in his phone call with Vladimir Putin on 13 August after having discussed it with the Ukrainian president a day prior.

Poroshenko's demands were also much to Lukashenka's liking. Without it, he could not dream of hosting three high-ranking EU officials in Minsk at a time when sanctions against his regime were still in full force.

The EU and the US introduced financial and visa sanctions against a large number of Belarusian officials and companies after the regime cracked down on the opposition in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential election.

The last time an EU representative of this level visited Minsk was back in November 2010, when Štefan Füle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, came to the captial city before the presidential election took place. The format of the Minsk talks has far exceeded Lukashenka's original expectations.

Minsk as a Regional Hub of Diplomacy

Minsk has become a regular and habitual venue for regional Eastern European summits. Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev have already come to Minsk on several occasions as well as Petro Poroshenko's predecessors.

However, top level EU officials have never joined the leaders of these leading post-Soviet states in Minsk. Indeed, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Aston, Vice President of the European Commission and EU Energy Commissioner Günther Öttinger and EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht are the cream of the EU bureaucracy and their presence significantly raises the notoriety of the talks in Minsk.

This latest gathering may become an important step towards confirming Minsk as one among a handful of European cities which serve as a regular venue for international and regional talks. In the 1990s, Minsk became the capital of CIS and put itself forward for conducting the OSCE peace process for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Belarusian capital also hosts the Court of the Eurasian Economic Community.

On 31 July, Minsk hosted a meeting of a tripartite contact group on Ukraine which included representatives of OSCE, Russia, Ukraine and, informally, the Russian-sponsored Ukrainian rebels. The decision to hold them in Minsk can be seen as recognition of Belarus' non-partisan status in a conflict where it is extremely difficult to remain neutral.

Belarus as the Main Beneficiary of the Ukraine Talks in Minsk

By becoming a participant in a meeting dedicated to clarifying the implications of the association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine for the latter's trade with CIS countries, Belarus will be better positioned to protect its economic interests.

As of now, Minsk has a much better chance of influencing any of Russia's future potential retaliatory actions that would harm Belarus' trade with Ukraine. At the same time, it can discuss and address any genuine concerns it has arising from Ukraine's new status.

Belarus has also become one of the parities involved directly in the talks, a development which may eventually lead to the resolution of conflict between Ukraine and Russia. If the talks finally succeed, Minsk will be able to highlight its role in this process. Should they yield less favourable results, it will be difficult to present Lukashenka as a failed mediator.

Seizing the Moment to Improve Relations with Europe

The ultimate victory, in any case, is the result of Belarusian diplomacy, which has been successful in getting top EU commissioners to visit Minsk. Lukashenka was certainly delighted to hear the words of appreciation for his diplomatic initiative that came from EU's foreign minister Catherine Ashton at their meeting in Minsk.

Obviously, Ashton and her colleagues spent most of their time at the multilateral meeting. Still, the Belarusian president had the rare opportunity of having direct contact with senior EU officials. Alexander Lukashenka has definitely made use of his personal charisma to incite the European Union into thinking of softening its stance towards his regime.

Lukashenka's peace-making activity in the region is unlikely to serve as sufficient grounds for the EU to revise their current policy towards Belarus. Much still depends on the Belarusian authorities' willingness to take some steps that will be viewed as political concessions by the West (i.e. releasing all or most remaining political prisoners).

If the regime has the courage to take these initial steps, the EU may well reciprocate by abolishing or downgrading the current sanctions against it, taking into account the current regional context.

This window of opportunity before Lukashenka right now, at a time when both Russia and the West need good relations with Belarus, may not last long.

At this crucial juncture, Belarus has a chance to show the veracity of the old adage that wars are not necessarily won by those who participate in them.




Sanctions as New Opportunity, Less State Support for the Economy – Belarus Economy Digest

The National Bank continues to gradually reduce its refinancing rate. The latest reduction, which occurred in August 2014, may help make receiving financing for legal entities easier.

And yet, despite their best intentions, these steps contribute to the accumulation of macroeconomic imbalances in the country.

An analysis of the pros and cons have forced the Belarusian authorities to come up with an agreement that will normalise trade relations with Ukraine. The possibility of a real deterioration in their mutual trade relations has encouraged the officials in Minsk to push for the removal of all announced limitations imposed on Ukraine.

The introduction of food sanctions by Russia provides Belarus with a chance to accumulate foreign currency through bolstering its exports. Conversely, these developments come the risk of rising prices and food deficits on domestic market go up as well.

The existing imbalances in the economy force the authorities to reduce the amount of state support they provide and to change how it is doled out among its enterprises.

Changes in refinancing rate

In the middle of August the National Bank of Belarus (NBB) reduced its refinancing rate by 0.5 percentage points. Thus, beginning August 13, the rate will be set at 20.0%. Favourable tendencies in the monetary arena are the official reason behind the Bank's decision to reduce the rate. They have appeared in the form of a growing influx of ruble deposits from households alongside an excess currency supply in July.

A decrease in its refinancing rate will lead to a decline in the rates on ruble deposits and loans and will likely stimulate growth of demand for currency deposits. In general, these reduction measures raise concerns about growing inflation.

In January-June it was held at 19.8% and there are no reasons to expect a slowdown in the rates' growth in the near future. The potential for further inflation, combined with a decline in deposit rates and devaluation expectations, may affect the volatility of the national currency and decrease demand for it.

Decreased probability of a trade war with Ukraine

From the middle of August Belarus and Ukraine stopped using restrictive trade measures against one another. Ukraine agreed to stop collecting duties on Belarusian beer, tires, confectionary and dairy products imposed, duties that were imposed in the middle of July as a response to similar Belarusian actions. For its part, Belarus has decided to abolish restrictive instruments like licencing requirements for its Ukrainian partners.

The Ukraine-Belarus trade conflict developed after Belarus imposed licencing on beer, confectionary products, pasta and their operating supplies from outside the Customs Union and required a set minimum price level in exchange for the acquisition of a licence to be sold in Belarus.

Counter measures from the Ukrainian side forced Belarus to re-evaluate the pros and cons of a potential trade war, especially when considering the fact that Ukraine remains one its most important trading partners (one of the largest recipients of oil products exported from Belarus) and around 10% of Belarusian exports goes there.

New opportunities on the Russian market

At the beginning of August Russia imposed a ban on the importation of a range of foodstuffs from the EU and USA, which was a response to the sanctions previously introduced by the West against Russia. The restricted goods include beef, pork, poultry, fruits and vegetables, dairy and other products. This is one-year embargo opens up a number of new opportunities for Belarusian producers.

Russia introduced the sanction without negotiating with either Belarus or Kazakhstan despite the fact that they officially have equal rights as members in the Customs Union with Russia. Belarus and Kazakhstan refused to support the sanctions.

Despite Belarus' unwillingness to introduce the same sanctions in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko agreed to protect the Russian market from re-exports of western products and at the same time requested that domestic producers raise their export production volumes in order to improve Belarus' overall trade balance. However, there are certain risks associated with raising the level of food exports, including a food deficit and rising prices in Belarus.

On the other hand, by bringing the conflict to an end and returning to normalised trade relations with Ukraine, Belarus has new opportunities in terms of its increasing its volume of exports to Russia. Belarus also has a chance to accumulate additional volumes of raw agricultural products which previously went directly to Russia.

Under these new conditions Belarus could potentially reprocess them, as well as other European food products, and send them on to the Russian market afterwards. At the moment it is unclear whether Russia will actually attempt to block these supplies or, quite the opposite, will hold a favourable opinion of Belarus' new potential role.

Industry subsidies instead of individual support

The Belarusian authorities are preparing to introduce a new instrument to stimulate growth with the state's support. According to a resolution of the Council of Ministers, the new rules of the game call for a shift from individual support to industrial subsidies.

This essentially means that only strategically important state, sectoral and regional programmes will receive state support on a competitive basis. It also assumes that enterprises of all types of ownership will have equal rights and access to these financial resources.

Given the importance of the new policy for the country's economic growth, the potential for the efficient usage of the state's support and the rate of return will the main keys to securing financing.

These changes will also affect the agricultural sector. According to Alexander Lukashenka, infrastructure, improvements in land resource management and general melioration will be the main targets of the government programme. As for agricultural enterprises, again, only strategically important projects, especially those associated with exports, will receive these special privileges.

Thanks to this process of optimisation, the total reduction in number of programmes of state financing in 2014 will amount to BYR 3.7 billion in savings. The reform, if executed, will force state enterprises to change their usual way of doing business and think about ways to improve their performance and increase their efficiency.

Maryia Akulava, Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)

This article is a part of a joint project between Belarus Digest and Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)




Belarus’ Prisoner Dilemma

Earlier this month, Aliaksandr Lukashenka noted that, during his presidency, the Belarusian prison population has halved. He stressed that despite its dictatorship label, Belarus does not “throw everyone in prison.”

Statistics present a more complicated picture, however. During Lukashenka’s first term, in the mid-1990s, the incarceration rate dramatically increased, placing Belarus third worldwide in prisoners per capita.

Even though frequent amnesty laws are slowly decreasing its prison population, Belarus to this day has one of the highest shares of prisoners per capita in Europe.

Amnesty laws also provide no lasting solution to the country's high rates of recidivism. Because every second crime in Belarus is committed by a former prisoner, deeper changes to the penitentiary system are needed.

Improving conditions in prisons and reintegrating former prisoners into society are key to reducing the prison population in the coming years.

Why So Many Citizens Serve Prison Sentences

In 2002, Belarus placed third in the world in the number of prisoners per capita, after the United States and Russia. Currently it ranks 25th in the world and second in Europe.

In May 2013, the country had 31,270 prisoners, or about 325 prisoners per 100,000 people; in Western Europe, the median rate is just 98. And this is after having reduced its prison population by more than half since 1998, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. Clearly, Belarus still has a long way to go.

Why do so many Belarusians go to jail? After all, Belarus's crime rate is not any higher than in other post-Soviet states.

One reason may be the lack of due process. Being charged almost always results in being found guilty. Belarus's likelihood of acquittal (0.3% of all sentences) is even lower than in Russia (3%) and much lower than in Europe as a whole (6%).

Another reason may be the long-lasting consequences of the surge in incarceration rates during Lukashenka's first term as president. Belarus experienced a nearly 350% increase in the number of prisoners in the 1990s, by far the largest change in the post-Communist space. Many of those imprisoned then have not been released.

To be sure, Lukashenka's zealousness alone does not explain the early incarceration spike. Larger macro-economic forces, unleashed by the dissolution of the USSR, led to profound economic and social uncertainty.

Most post-Communist states responded to rising criminality by increasing pre-trial detention and imprisonment rates and by imposing harsher sentences.

In Belarus, however, the spike in imprisonment was the most dramatic. What is more, its effects have persisted to this day – due not only to the challenges of reducing the prison population, but also to the extremely high rates of recidivism.

Amnesty Laws: Honouring WWII by Emptying Prisons

Belarus's preferred approach to reducing incarceration rates has been passing amnesty laws. Nearly 10,000 prisoners were released or received shorter sentences under the most recent June 2014 amnesty.

This was the 13th amnesty in Belarus’s independent history, dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Belarus’ liberation from the German occupation. Previous amnesties were timed to the 65th, 60th , and 50th anniversaries of victory in WWII.

Belarusian amnesty laws generally cover prisoners who committed relatively minor crimes, have young children, as well as pregnant, underage, elderly or disabled prisoners. As a rule, amnesties do not extend to political prisoners. However, Ales Bialiacki, the vice-president of the human rights organisation Viasna and one of the best known political prisoners, was released under the 13th amnesty in June.

In Belarus, amnesty is used for political purposes. It signals that the government takes an uncompromising stand against corruption or drugs. This is why Lukashenka frequently repeats that no amnesty will ever cover offenders charged with corruption.

Amnesty also signals the state's willingness to forgive and empathise with its citizens. Indeed, Lukashenka has emphasised that amnesty laws serve the society and are always “free of politics.”

How to Reduce the Number of Belarusian Prisoners

The Belarusian authorities are currently drafting a law that seeks to reduce incarceration rates and change important aspects of the penal system.

The draft law will allow defendants to reduce prison terms by cooperating with the investigation before the onset of trial. The authorities hope that this measure will not only reduce the size of prison population, but also facilitate investigation.

The law also envisions replacing imprisonment with monetary compensation for some types of crimes and decriminalising some behaviours completely.

Even as Belarus sought to reduce the number of future prisoners, it has devoted little effort to improving lives of the current ones. This is important because so far Belarusian prisons have done more harm than good: repeat offenders commit about 50% of all crimes in Belarus.

Recidivists commit every third murder, two thirds of all robberies, more than half of all other forms of theft. Most of them break the law already in the very first year upon leaving prison. Furthermore, in the last seven years, recidivism has increased more than two-fold.

Prisoners Need to be Reintegrated

High recidivism may be partly due to the dysfunctional prison culture in Belarus. Wardens beat and humiliate prisoners.

Last year, political prisoner Mikalaj Aŭtuchovič cut his abdomen in protest to the abuse by the prison administration.

Living conditions in prisons are deplorable. Single cells do not exist, and prison overcrowding is a problem. This produces a lot of diseases.

An even larger problem, however, is the failure to integrate the released offenders back into society. Unlike west European nations, Belarus has not developed an adequate system of post-penitentiary integration.

Last year, the first reintegration project was launched with the help of a 300,000 Euro grant from the EU, as well as the technical guidance by the international Federation of the Read Cross and Red Crescent.

The project seeks to provide psychological, legal, professional, medical, and humanitarian help to the former prisoners. It will begin work with prisoners half a year prior to their release and only interested prisoners will be participating. Currently only three penitentiary institutions, all in Mahiliou oblast, are participating, with about 120 prisoners.

Turning prison from crippling into corrective institutions is a difficult but necessary task. While recidivism cannot be completely eliminated, reducing it will improve not only the lives of prisoners but also potential victims and is a less costly alternative to keeping offenders incarcerated.




Will Lukashenka Shoot Himself in the Foot by Reducing Bureaucracy?

On 11-12 August the Belarusian authorities announced three upcoming legislative initiatives – all intended to complicate the life of state officials.

They include a new anti-corruption law, an abrupt reduction in the number of civil servants and a presidential decree, limiting career prospects for state managers who fail to comply with the government's economic plans.

These three measures appear to be setting a new trend: Aliaksandr Lukashenka, disappointed with his administrative vertical power structure, decided not to punish his subordinates, but instead to shake up the ranks. He also needs popular anti-bureaucracy reforms to raise support before the 2015 presidential campaign season begins.

But it is precisely because of these upcoming elections that the Belarusian ruler will stray from becoming too radical in putting pressure on officials. He needs them to retain his post.

Full-Scale Pressure on State Apparatus

The first reform, announced on 11 August, suggests that there will be job cuts among Belarusian bureaucrats. Lukashenka said he wanted to curtail the unnecessary functions of the officials and thus dismiss half (!) of them and raise salaries for those remaining. Such an ambitious plan looks particularly odd if one recalls that in 2013 a quarter of civil servants were cut under a reform with an identical goal.

The following day a draft anti-corruption law was published for public debate – an extremely rare practise in Belarus. In July 2014 Lukashenka himself requested this bill introduction after a number of high-ranking officials came under fire from corruption charges.

Among them – the heads of state holdings "Belnaftahim" and "Bellkaapsaiuz" Ihar Zhilin and Siarhei Sidzko, deputy prosecutor-general Alyaksandr Arkhipau, ex-mayor of Homiel, Belarus' second largest city, Viktar Pilipets and several others.

Lukashenka even convened two unscheduled sessions of the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament, the Council of the Republic, to deprive its members – Hanna Shareika and Vitali Kastagorau – of their immunity, when courts needed to arrest them, allegedly, for charges of corruption.

The draft law introduces certain additional restrictions for civil servants, such as making it illegal to possess shares in a company. Corrupt officials will permanently lose the right to hold public office and the state will deprive them of receiving a higher-tier pension. Additionally, all bureaucrats and their family members will have to declare their incomes and cost of assets.

The very same day Lukashenka announced his third, closely related, novel legislative initiative in his battle with Belarus' bureaucracy. He ordered his administration to draft a presidential decree to ban any bureaucrat or senior-level manager of state enterprises who had failed to fulfil their pre-established targets, outlined in the government's economic plan, from holding any managerial position both in state-owned and in private companies.

This latter norm seem to contradict the Constitution of Belarus (private firms are supposed to be free to hire whom they please), though this has rarely prevented Alexander Lukashenka from adopting new, less than legal, regulations whenever the need arised.

All three measures, announced almost simultaneously, mean that the Belarusian ruler has once more decided, as he called it in 1990s, "to shake up the bureaucracy".

Another Doomed Reform?

In fact, all the three of the aforementioned upcoming "reforms" appear to be a response to the their predecessors' failures.

In 1994 Lukashenka came to power by exploiting an image of himself as being a relentless fighter against corruption. As an MP he headed the anti-corruption commission in parliament and he became extremely popular by exposing bribery in the Belarusian government's ranks.

But Lukashenka has never generally succeeded in carrying out a real anti-corruption campaign. In 2013 Transparency International ranked Belarus 123rd in its annual Corruption Perception Index alongside the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Togo. This latest series of high-profile corruption scandals only further supports their findings. Corruption remains a serious issue in Belarus.

2013 Corruption Perception Index
Rank Country
38 Poland
43 Lithuania
49 Latvia
123 Belarus
127 Russia
144 Ukraine

As for the sheer number of civil servants employed by the state, the Minsk-based think-tank "Liberal club", in a review of the outcomes of the previous culling of the bureaucracy in 2013, concluded that the reforms also failed to bring about any real change.

Authorities often simply just voided new vacancies instead of firing members of their staff. This phenomenon has led to many local administrations not having the requisite specialists in many areas and an overall decline in the quality of governmental agencies' work.

With regards to the potential ban on hiring delinquent state managers to public or private managerial posts, this seems to be a response to the government's failed attempt at modernising Belarusian industry, a fact that became all too apparent in 2013.

In fact Lukashenka's strategy of clamping down on officials by itself cannot resolve any of these problems.

Having too many civil servants, who appear to fail to comply with official governmental plans, owes much to the absence of an established market economy in Belarus. Overregulation by scores of poorly qualified bureaucrats cannot even theoretically be more effective than private management.

To combat corruption, the government has also to lessen its role in the economy. Currently state-owned enterprises produce about 70% of Belarus' GDP (according to IMF reports) and the regulatory bodies control the rest of privately owned business.

This naturally creates numerous incentives for officials to use their vast powers improperly. A thorough anti-corruption policy should include strengthening democratic institutions and public oversight over the government. Such a policy would include bolstering several important pillars of a democratic society: a free media, independent courts, influential political opposition.

None of the above, however, are acceptable components of society to the Belarusian authoritarian regime because its political future depends on maintaining complete control over the nation's politics and economy.

Pre-Election Image Making

Many Belarusian analysts tend to explain Lukashenka's efforts to shake up his state apparatus not only by its failures, but also in terms of the upcoming presidential elections in 2015.

In previous election years (2001, 2006 and 2010) the Belarusian head of state has managed to guarantee the majority with an appreciable, stable growth in their personal incomes in the months leading up to the elections.

These days, however, the situation has changed. The GDP grew less than 1% in 2013, the same is being forecasted for 2014 by the IMF and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Contrary to Lukashenka's promises (dating back to 2010) to raise the nation's average salary to $1,000 by 2015, it has just reached $600 as of August 2014. The National Bank predicts Inflation remains in the double-digit and will be about 16-17% by the end of the year.

In the absence of economic resources to fuel public support Aliaksandr Lukashenka has deferred to other available ideological levers of gaining the public's backing.

For one, he has focused on the peace and stability existing today in Belarus, as compared to the post-revolution chaos and war seen in Ukraine. Independent polls showed it has worked: Lukashenka's level of support has grown throughout the Ukrainian conflict. But the instability in Ukraine will someday subside and, at the same time, Belarusians are slowly becoming accustomed to the conflict south of their borders.

Now, then, is the time for a whole new energising campaign. A serious fight against corruption and the bureaucracy in general has always been, and will always be, popular among voters. Thus, a ruler can redirect people's dissatisfaction with the nation's economic failures that have been aimed at him personally to his subordinates and regain public support through this misdirection.

However, Lukashenka depends on a loyal bureaucracy to retain his position. It is ironic, but the very event that caused this latest anti-bureaucracy push – the 2015 presidential elections – is the best guarantee that any reform in this direction will be neither intense nor radical.




Belarusian Students Unite in Lithuania

Belarusian youth studying abroad have three days left to send their applications to participate in the annual Rally of the United Students of Belarus, which will take place in Lithuania on 1-5 October 2014.

Young people studying abroad and in Belarus will meet for the eighth time to exchange contact information and share their academic and personal experiences.

Since 2007 the project has become the largest group of alumni of young Belarusians living abroad. The rally offers a chance for informal and formal ideas to be presented about the future of Belarus.

During recent years, Belarus has become a country of young emigrants and this trend is set to continue. The United Students of Belarus link these people together and can play a big role in the future of the country, including potential future changes in the political establishment.

The Vilnius-based Eastern European Studies Centre, based in Vilnius, serves as an organiser of the event.

Need for a Common Platform

It would be fair to call Belarus a country of emigrant students. Belarusians have a university in exile – European Humanities University, and a large number of scholarship programmes exclusively for Belarusians that help they study abroad.

The Kalinowski Scholarship and the ​​European Scholarship Scheme for Young Belarusians remain the most prevalent in terms of the size of their programmes. The first programme offers education for youth that have dealt with repression, while the other is for all Belarusians. Moreover, thousands of Belarusian students receive education through smaller schemes, college scholarships, or pay their own way.

The number of Belarusian students abroad, by all indicators, will only increase in coming years. According to a survey by the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, only 13.7% of young Belarusians do not want to leave the country to study or work. Many remain reluctant to return to Belarus as they do not see any prospects for themselves.

This is why the United Students of Belarus remains the only inclusive platform for Belarusian students and graduates abroad. Besides USB Rallies, alumni of Kalinowski Scholarship or graduates of British universities organise meetings now and then, but these events lack regular gatherings and remain rather exclusive events.

In comparison, Ukraine has dozens of such associations of professionals who have been educated in the West. Ukrainians usually integrate into clubs of university graduates, like the Harvard Club of Ukraine or the Association of Fellows, or as alumni of the Fulbright programme.

Today, these clubs have become the core of the Professional Government initiative involved in the replacement of corrupt officials with young Ukrainian experts. It is possible that the United Students of Belarus will once play a role in building a new government in the country.

Origins of the Initiative

The first Rally of the United Students of Belarus took place in 2007 and tried to support the emergence of an informal network of the country`s future leaders. The rally played a large role insofar as it helped maintain connections between Belarusians stranded abroad after the wave of repression in 2006. After the presidential elections, the authorities expelled hundreds of students from universities.

The project has become the most extensive network of young Belarusians who live both in Belarus and abroad. Belarusian students from over 15 countries participate in the project and every year about 50-60 people come to the rally to share their ideas and network.

USB participant Zhenia Tsikhanovich admits that ‘in the course of just one Rally people build a new network of Belarusians throughout whole Europe and the US’.

Since 2007, about 300 Belarusians have attended the rally, and some people try to attend the event every year. The author of this text met the editor of Belarus Digest during the 2012 USB gathering.

The Rally brings together two worlds of Belarusians – those who remain in country and those who have emigrated. It is noteworthy that the students abroad and those residing in Belarus lack a single major organisation or association that can bring them together. The United Students of Belarus fills this gap.

The event program combines work and fun in the form of the intellectual debate or concerts by popular Belarusian groups. Each rally has its own theme. Organisers and the USB Community devoted the 2014 Rally to the development and promotion of multicultural dialogue and the maturation of Belarusian identity.

The USB has a good reputation not only among young Belarusians. Representatives of the Lithuanian authorities, Western diplomats located in Vilnius and NGO staff attend rallies to share their views on the future of Belarus with young leaders of the country.

Aivaras Žukauskas, coordinator of Rally 2014 said that besides opening ceremony with high-profile officials, one seminar about constructing of an image will be conducted by well-versed diplomat.

Room for Growth

Belarus has long been affected not only by the lack of formalised structures of students and graduates, but also bringing together new generations of Belarusian emigres.

Last year USB participants launched a new organisationthe Global Belarusian Leaders. The organisation is going to recruit new members from among young and perspective Belarusian professionals from all over the world.

However, this organisation, as is often true of most emigre organisations, has failed to remain active over a long period of time. The GBL is just one example of the new ideas popping up within Belarusian civil society, but still faces the typical problems associated with the Belarusian community.

For one, new emigre organisations tend to become too politicised, as they usually unite around a particular political group. Such structures fail to attract a large number of people. Traditional emigre communities appear to be too old-fashioned, so they cannot offer new emigres incentives to build networks.

Therefore the United Students of Belarus has set before itself the serious task of inventing new fresh ideas that will connect Belarusians from the world over.




Lukashenka’s Climbing Ratings, Coding Wunderkind, and Blue Potatoes – Western Press Digest

Lukashenka's popularity rises as the conflict in east Ukraine shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Belarus may stand to benefit from Russia's sanctions against EU agricultural goods, though the Belarusian government has agreed not to re-sell sanctioned EU goods to Russia.

Belarusian scientists have bred a blue potato, with plans for pink and purple potatoes to follow in the near future. An 18 year old Belarusian took first place at an annual coding competition at Google, defeating an international group of competitors.

Activists are gaining notoriety for a new petition aimed at stopping the opening of a new Russian-funded nuclear power plant in Belarus which they say could be the next Chernobyl. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.

Politics and Economics

Lukashenka’s Ratings Climb as Crisis Continues in UkraineThe Guardian reports that the Belarusian head of state, who has ruled the former soviet republic for 20 years now, has seen his approval rating climb as weary Belarusians watch the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

The role of Russian media, a mainstay in most Belarusian households, has had a great deal of influence on the Belarusian public’s opinion about the EuroMaidan protests. According to a survey done by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, 63.2% of Belarusians do not support the movement and over half believe that the new government in Kyiv is a fascist regime.

The absence of any independent media in Belarus limits Belarusians’ access to critical sources. Many Belarusians believe that Russian programming is superior to local Belarusian programming. As a result, public opinion, more oft than not, comes out in favour of the official Kremlin line.

Lukashenka’s role as a stabilising force in Belarus lifted his personal approval rating up to 39.9%. At the same time, more and more Belarusians (54%) oppose forming a union with Russia, whereas a decade prior, a majority had favoured a union.

Russia’s Ban on EU Goods and Belarus’ RoleBelarus and Kazakhstan have agreed to Russia’s demands that neither country will purchase and re-sell banned EU goods to Russia while the sanctions are in place. Belarus sees a silver lining in the newly applied sanctions and believes it stands to significantly increase its exports to Russia for a host of goods that will be subject to the sanctions.

One Belarusian entrepreneur went on record saying that while a formal agreement was signed off on between the three governments, local traders will have little trouble getting goods of EU origin into Russia. One of the easiest ways to fool customs officials is to just change the goods’ paperwork so that it appears that Belarus is its country of origin. The success of these and other schemes will depend on, according to the entrepreneur, how interested Russia really is in keeping the goods from coming in.

Pollute in Belarus, Lose Your Car and Other Oddities Under Lukashenka Arbitrary rulings and laws are by no means a new development in Belarus, but a recent proclamation by the nation’s head of state has the West looking more than a little puzzled.

In a recent blog on the Washington Post web site, Rick Noack takes a look at a few of the stranger ideas to be put forth by the Belarusian leader. Individuals who are found guilty of polluting the environment, according to the blog and the state-run BelTA news agency, may see punishments as harsh as having their personal vehicles confiscated for dumping trash in undesignated places.

The author of the blog also references the infamous Swedish activist-fronted teddy bear drop and the oft-cited ban on clapping as evidence of the nature of the regime. While the teddy bear drop did humiliate Belarus’ air defence forces, the author implies that Lukashenka had a ban placed on teddy bears in the country as a result of the incident (editorial note: no such ban was ever put in place).

Civil Society

Activists Fighting the Opening of the “Next Chernobyl” Belarusian activists have gained the world’s attention recently with their petition against the opening of a nuclear power plant in Belarus. Activists have several grievances about the opening of the new power plant, stating that it has not received proper inspection and that the official assessments of the plant fall far short of international standards.

Activist Tatyana Novikova not only opposed the opening of the plant, but to the use of nuclear energy in general, especially in Belarus, who suffered the most from the Chernobyl catastrophe. As a result of her outspoken views against the plant’s construction, her and her family has been subject to harassment. The plant, officially funded by Russia, would be a major source of energy for Belarus.

The Belarus Free Theatre Still Making Waves in AmericaThe activist theatre troupe, banned from performing in Belarus, has continued to gather the attention of critics and activists alike in the United States.

Following a recent viewing of the documentary film Dangerous Acts, artist and author Marcia G. Yerman discusses the hardships the troupe has faced since the 2010 December election crackdowns. In her article, the author focuses on opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov and how his travails are symbolic for the larger repressive trends that have become commonplace against opposition figures and groups in Lukashenka’s Belarus.

Odds and Ends

18-year old Belarusian Wins Google Coding Contest 26 competitors from all over the world came to Google’s LAX office to compete in the annual challenge, but a young Belarusian, Gennady Korotkevich, dashed the other programmers dreams of winning the competition. This was not the wunderkind’s first run in the competition which has approximately 20,000 programmers vying for the $15,000 prize. As a 17-year old, Korotkevich made it to the finals, but was not eligible to compete because he was under age.

Belarusian Scientists Create Blue, Pink, and Purple Potatoes A nine-year long potato cultivation project has finally come to an end in Belarus, and the results have been eye-opening. As one of the staples of Belarusian traditional cuisine, the new coloured potatoes are looking to boost potato consumption and be used in traditional potato dishes and snack foods.




Belarus Hopes To Cash In On Russian Sanctions

Earlier this month, Russia introduced a full embargo on imports of meat, fish, dairy, fruit and vegetables from the European Union (EU), United States, Australia, Canada and Norway.

Moscow sought to retaliate for the sanctions imposed by the West following the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight over Eastern Ukraine in July. The food ban went into effect immediately.

Belarus, itself no stranger to Western sanctions, took the news in stride, promising to increase Belarusian food exports to Russia.

Whether the food embargo indeed holds substantial economic opportunities for Belarus, however, is not clear, especially if Russia will be able to fully monitor Belarus’ exports and re-exports. Russia has already accused Belarus of lacking capacity to monitor exports, reportedly identifying 11 violations at the Russian-Belarusian border last week.

Even if it does, the benefits for the Belarusian economy in the short run may be outweighed by negative impacts in the long run. Sustained sanctions will eventually produce an economic downturn in Russia that will also ripple through the Belarusian economy.

Belarus Is Getting Ready to Cash in

Last year, Russia imported $15.8 billion worth of agricultural products from the EU, as well as $1.3 billion worth of foodstuffs from the US. Following the recent imposition of sanctions, Western media reported that truckloads of fruit had been detained at the Russian border and left to rot.

Reacting to the panic of Greek farmers, who were hit hardest by the embargo, the EU commission promised to compensate peach and nectarine growers.

Farmers and producers in non-EU states like Belarus are much more cheerful. They view the embargo as a lucrative opportunity to boost exports to Russia. But how exactly is Minsk going to benefit?

On August 11, President Lukashenka said that Belarus, which enjoys a customs-free zone and shares a long border with Russia, would fulfil all obligations to protect the market of the union state as regards the transit of goods across its territory.

He also promised to increase food exports to Russia. At the same time, Lukashenka did not follow Russia’s ban. Neither did the third member of the customs union – Kazakhstan.

The Hard Limits of Belarusian Food Industry

Despite Belarus’s promises, the opportunities for increasing food exports to Russia without violating the embargo are highly constrained in the short run. Belarus cannot breed more cows or grow more potatoes overnight.

Therefore, any immediate increases of food exports to Russia, short of flaunting the embargo by simply relabeling European products, will lead to the disappearance of produce in the domestic market.

Belarus’ reaction to the Russian-Georgian war provides a blueprint that can be followed this time as well.

Back in 2008, Georgian wine and mineral water easily found their way into Russia via Belarus. Russia chose to look the other way because it needed allies.

Whether Belarus will cash in on the embargo depends primarily on Russia’s willingness to monitor and enforce food exports from Belarus.

A quick look at the long list of Belarusian food exports shows just how difficult it is to shut down the flow of Western food into Russia without undermining Russia’s trade relationship with Belarus.

Data from Belstat, for example, shows that, from January to May of this year, Belarus exported 11,921 tons of citrus fruit, 149.9 tons of Atlantic Salmon, and 304 tons of bananas into Russia.

Even greater quantities of Western produce are exported to Russia after being processed in Belarus. The Belarusian firm Santa-Bremor, owned by the oligarch and Lukashenka confidante Aleksandr Moshensky, is a poignant example.

The company sells all of its products under the “made in Belarus” label. However, its products contain salmon, caviar, and seafood, which cannot be found in landlocked Belarus. Belarusian media recently reported that Santa-Bremor increased its exports to Russia by 30% over the past week alone.

Belarus is also home to a number of fruit and vegetable processing plants, which rely on Western produce and sell the finished products to Russia. Allowing these companies to continue exports technically violates the embargo. But exports continue under the “made in Belarus” label, in part because Russia knows that prohibiting such exports would hurt the Belarusian economy and crack the foundations of the Customs Union.

Recognizing that a number of vehicles with perishable projects were stuck at the Belarusian border, Lukashenka has already proposed that products banned from entering the Russian market be sent to Belarusian processing facilities. 

On August 20, Belarus cancelled ban on live cattle from the EU, which may be a sign that it hopes to increase re-exports of meat to Russia. Officially, however, the ban was scrapped due to lower concern over Schmallenberg virus. 

Because the Russian-Belarusian border can be crossed without customs checks, Western products can reach Russia via many other routes. In fact, thousands of Russians may simply choose to go shopping in Belarus more often.

Reacting to the likely increases in domestic food prices, Belarusians, in turn, may increase their shopping trips to Poland, where food is already cheaper than in Belarus.

How far will Russia go to Enforce the Embargo?

Circumventing Economic Customs Union rules when they hurt the national interest seems to be a recurring pattern in Belarus’s behaviour. Last year, Russia failed to secure Belarus’ and Kazakhstan’s support in imposing restrictions on Ukrainian goods in the even that Kiev would sign the Association Agreement.

Russia raised the issue again in June at the meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission but its proposal, to no avail. Thus, Belarus was able to insulate itself from the economic consequences of Russia’s trade war with Ukraine and may even benefit from re-exporting not only Western, but also Ukrainian goods to Russia.

Moscow certainly has enough power to pressure Belarus into compliance. However, it seems reluctant to do so at the time when its influence in the post-Soviet space is threatened and Belarus is a valuable ally.

Early signals from Russia indicate that it is not ready to look the other way. Just this week, Russia’s Federal Service for veterinary and phytosanitary control (Rosselhoznadzor) has said Belarus was unable to control exports of prohibited foodstuffs to Russia. According to Rosselhoznadzor, Minsk’s failure to control exports “threatens Russia’s food security”. According to UNIAN, the Russian side identified 11 violations of the ban by Belarus between 11 August and 15 August alone.

Tellingly, however, Moscow did not blame Belarus directly. Rosselhoznadzor’s official statement has placed the responsibility on the EU – for not labeling the products correctly. It decided to warn Belarus rather than criticize its directly.

The Long-term Impact of Western Sanctions

The deterioration of Moscow’s relationship with the West has contradictory consequences for Belarus’ economy. In the short term, the conflict has opened new export opportunities for Belarus.

Over time, though, Belarus’ economic dependence on its larger neighbour means that Moscow’s economic problems sooner or later will ripple through the Belarusian economy.

The Russian stock market and the rouble have already fallen, and Russia's growth forecasts for the year look bleak. Belarus may feel the effects of Moscow’s economic downturn in the not-so-distant future.

Russia’s economic problems could, for example, weaken the Belarusian machine-building industry. Large export-oriented plants in this sector, such as the Minsk automobile plant, stand to lose a lot of money if Russia’s demand slows.

The Belarusian financial sector is also vulnerable. Four Russian state-owned banks that are targeted by Western sanctions — Sberbank, Vnesheconombank (VEB), Gazprombank, and VTB Bank — all have operations in Belarus.




Belarusian Army: Capacity and its Role in the Region

Without any loud political rhetoric to bolster the Belarusian army, it has nonetheless gradually developed from an appendage cut off of the huge Soviet military into an army more adapted to the needs and capacities of a 9.5-million nation.

Belarus has been spending little on its armed forces yet has consistently used them to promote better and closer relations with Russia. Despite their close ties, Russia has not shown interest in taking over Belarus’ armed forces or integrating them into their own.

These are some of the conclusions found in a new analytical paper Belarusian Army: Its Capacities and Role in the Region released by the Ostrogorski Centre today.

Does Belarus Have a Proper Army?

After the fallout from the Soviet Union’s collapse had begun to settle, Minsk’s future armed forces emerged under rather favourable conditions. Belarus was able to transform the well-armed, trained and supplied military units of the Belarusian Military District of Soviet times into their own armed forces.

Part of this successful transromation hinged on the fact that there were more than enough ethnic Belarusians – officers and specialists in the Soviet army – to help build a full-fledged army for the young independent nation.

Since gaining independence, Belarus has had a history of spending the bare minimum on its armed forces. Although it has more soldiers than many European countries, this does not strictly stem from its military ambitions or needs. It can partially be attributed to the Belarusian leadership’s aspirations to use the army to promote civic consciousness among Belarusians.

The Belarusian army continues to possess advanced arms and equipment, but its condition has deteriorated over time as the government has purchased no new arms since gaining independence.

In recent years, Russia has effectively renounced its policy of delivering arms to Belarus at symbolic prices, delivering a serious blow to its ability to rearm itself.

The Belarusian Army: Between Russia and NATO

In addition to fulfilling the traditional security-related tasks of every army, Belarus’ armed forces play an important role in Belarus-Russian relations. Belarus is located in the vicinity of Russia’s heartland.

Given Minsk’s alliance with Moscow, a major function of the Belarusian army is its role in securing the area immediately adjacent to the main political, economic and military centres of Russia. Thanks to its geopolitical strategic importance, the Belarusian government is able to use its armed forces to get favours from Moscow in other arenas.

While the Belarusian army’ defence capacity remains relatively strong, its offensive potential is very limited. Much of its role in the region has been shaped and determined by Belarus’ foreign policy.

The government seeks to find balance in its alliance with Russia and also create a place for itself between the West and Russia. One of the most important functions of the Belarusian armed forces is to strengthen the government’s position in its dealings with Moscow.

So far, Belarusian collaboration with Russia remains limited and is more reactive than proactive in nature. Moreover, since the mid-2000s Belarus has increased its level of cooperation with NATO. This cooperation has been a long-term and relatively successful enterprise, one that continues to this day without much publicity.

Military cooperation between Belarus with Russia, however, has recently been undermined by Moscow. The Belarusian military has suffered for years from minimal funding and supplies. Recently Russia has renounced its previous generous policy of providing Belarusian military with modern equipment at low prices, a move that leaves Belarus with growing stockpiles of obsolete equipment.

Moreover, the Kremlin does not really see Belarus as an ally. Russia seeks to take direct control over components of Belarus’ national defence system, specifically those that are of the greatest importance to Russia (such as air defence).

Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising then that Belarus is very pragmatic in its cooperation with Russia and considers itself free to look for other strategic military partners besides Russia (NATO, China).

The Belarusian army, despite its travails and pressure from its neighbour to the east, remains a distinct entity and has not been incorporated into Russia’s forces. Although the air defence systems of Belarus and Russia are now formally united, Minsk retains effective operational control over the Belarusian units and has been holding its ground at the highest levels of their cooperation by pushing for the appointment of a Belarusian commander for their united air defence system.

The rest of the Belarusian army has no direct official ties with Russia and functions under a Belarusian command, with Moscow exerting no control over it. Belarusian dependence on Russia for equipment and some specialised and advanced training is not at all unusual for a country of Belarus’ size and geopolitical situation (neighboring key regions in Russia).

Does Belarus Need an Army?

Neighbouring states and the wider Western community should recognise the security concerns of Belarus. It would be wrong to dismiss the current Belarusian state as a marionette of Russia.

On the other hand, harsh reactions and criticism levelled at ordinary military exercises in Belarus, or the promotion of flights dropping pro-democracy literature on Belarusian territory, may cause a more extensive Russian military presence in Belarus.

Such actions present a real threat to the gradual transformation of the country and its integration into the region. Simply put, Belarus is not a threat to anybody in the region, or beyond it. Responsible Western politicians and media should avoid helping the Belarusian regime by overstating their concerns about military related issues.

There are few, if any, real reasons for considering a repetition of the Crimean scenario unfolding in Belarus in the short- or mid-term. Firstly, the Russian military presence is restricted to two highly specialised technical facilities and a planned air force base. Moscow has no ‘stand-by’ military forces on the ground. Secondly, Russia has no comparable strategic interest in Belarus as it had in Crimea.

The Russian military facilities in Belarus, whilst valuable, do not hold the same level of the importance as the Crimean naval base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The Kremlin is also quite satisfied with the Belarusian regime and would hardly risk throwing it over in today’s climate.

There is only one plausible scenario in which Russia would intervene militarily in Belarus. It is – in the very distant future – a radical pro-Western takeover of power in Minsk with an anti-Russian programme pushing for closer ties with the US and joining NATO. Even under this scenario, Moscow will have more difficulties in Belarus than it currently has in Ukraine.

In the end, the Belarusian army can be seen as a guarantee that there will not be any Ukrainian-style conflict from taking place, although in order to better fulfil its role, it needs better funding and modernisation.

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Reluctant Alliance with Russia, Hope for S-300, Milex-2014 – Belarus Security Digest

Reluctant allies: Moscow has to put up with Minsk's position in the war against Ukraine. However, Putin does not see it necessary to hide his irritation any longer.

The exhibition of arms and military machinery Milex-2014 was a success. Helicopters are a luxury for Belarusian border guards.

Belarus hopes that Moscow will finally keep its promise and transfer four battalions of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems.

Moscow is unhappy with Minsk; Minsk does not believe Moscow

On 2 July 2014, Russia's President Vladimir Putin paid a one-day visit to Minsk to attend the festivities on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from the Nazis.

Initially, Minsk hoped that Vladimir Putin would come on 3 July to attend the festivities and the traditional military parade. According to our sources, it was the reason for moving the parade to the evening. For the daytime, they scheduled a number of events with participation of Putin and Lukashenka, which eventually had to be moved to 2 July.

The Belarusian authorities showed their lack of confidence in Moscow's reliability as an ally during the entire month. On 8 July 2014, during his visit to the 103rd Guards independent mobile brigade of the Special Operation Forces of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka imparted his apprehensions that "the brothers [i.e. the Russians] would fail to cover our backs and we would have to fight the war on our own".

On 15 July 2014, while receiving graduates of military schools, Alexander Lukashenka said that the Belarusian army was able to "respond adequately to internal and external threats to the national security".

It should be noted separately that during the reception of graduates of military schools Lieutenant General Viktar Sheiman was on a par with the current leaders of security agencies. Sheiman may be regarded as an anti-crisis manager. And if Alexander Lukashenka once again has called upon his old proven staff, it means that the crisis is "on the doorstep".

Exhibition of arms and military machinery Milex-2014

The traditional international exhibition of arms and military machinery Milex-2014 took place on 9-12 July. The event was the biggest in its entire history. At the exhibition, Belarusian companies of the military and industrial complex signed about 60 contracts, agreements and letters of intent in the area of armaments and military equipment.

According to officials, the total volume of the contracts amounted to $60 mln. Besides, further contracts worth over $1 bln are under discussion.

The visit to Belarus of Pakistan's Minister of Defence Production Tanveer Hussain held in the framework of Milex-2014 is especially noteworthy.

Pakistan presents a special interest to Belarus also because this country is one of China's key partners. In addition, the level of development of Pakistan's defence industry may be of interest to Belarus in a number of areas, including missile and aviation technology.

Russia is ready to transfer S-300 to Belarus

At least, they say so. During the exhibition, the signing by the Russian party of a contract for a gratuitous transfer of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Belarus was announced. The transfer of the equipment will take place after the Belarusian party signs the document.

The number of the systems to be transferred is not known: will all four battalions promised already in 2011 be transferred or only a part of them? The modification of the anti-aircraft missile systems in question is also unknown.

Earlier, they talked about S-300PMU1 but the transfer of S-300PS systems of earlier modifications (1989 – 1995) appears more likely. The latter are upgradable to versions that are more sophisticated.

Since April 2011, the issue of supply of four battalions of S-300 has been publicly discussed. In the meantime, they have always said that the supply can be expected in the nearest future. The equipment should be transferred "as is" and Belarus will pay for its repair, shipment and modernisation.

It should be noted separately that Moscow has demonstrated far greater quickness in the issue of supply of five battalions of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Kazakhstan. In January this year they signed a respective agreement and the delivery of the equipment should begin later this year already.

Minsk needs S-300 to replace the liquid fuel missile systems S-200.

The border guards left without helicopters

The helicopter unit of the State Border Committee of Belarus was transferred to the Ministry of Emergency Situations. The reason for this was the need to optimise the costs of the border agency.

Belarus plans to replace the helicopters by UAVs, which have much lower operational costs and announced that the border guards would receive the short-range UAVs Berkut-2. The tactical range of its operation is up to 35 km with altitudes range from 100 to 3,000 metres. However, those are the declared parameters which in practise are likely to be more modest.

Belarus continues to develop its own anti-aircraft missile system

It was announced that there were already 15 procurement requests for the domestic anti-aircraft missile system Halberd. However, most likely the question is not about firm contracts but only letters of intent. The development of the anti-aircraft missile system Halberd is in its final stage; the product is not ready yet.

Further development of the project of the domestic anti-aircraft missile system Halberd bumps into the absence of Belarus' own missiles. The instability in Ukraine restrains cooperation with this country.

Attempts to buy missiles in the West or in Russia are doomed to failure: nobody needs competitors. In this regard, integration of the missiles of the anti-aircraft missile system Buk in Halberd may be of interest.

Firstly, these missiles have more powerful warheads in comparison with the already used. Secondly, there is a certain stock of these missiles. Thirdly, the domestic air defence system, which, in its turn, is a part of the unified regional air defence system of Belarus and Russia, uses the anti-aircraft missile systems Buk.

The number of those wishing to become army officers constantly decreases

During the second year in a row, the admission campaign to military schools and military departments of civilian universities essentially ends in failure. An additional enrolment has been announced in an expedited manner and the requirements to the level of training of the prospective students have been dramatically reduced.

Moreover, some schools substantially reduced their recruitment plans already in the beginning of the admission campaign. However, it will not solve the problem.

Thus, the last year's experience shows that many students admitted during the additional recruitment failed to pass the first exams and were dismissed for underperformance. 

Andrei Parotnikau

Andrei is the head of “Belarus Security Blog” analytical project.




How the Belarusian Political System Works

Last year the Ostrogorski Centre launched its Belarus Profile web site. Since then the database of the most influential Belarusians has become an increasingly popular source of biographical information.

However, not many people in the West know what the Belarusian political system looks like under the Constitution. This article intends to fill that gap.

State of the Super President

Alexander Lukashenka was not joking in 1995, when during an interview to Handlesblatt magazine he praised the concentrated official powers of Hitler. One year later, a rigged referendum made him something akin to a super President.

At the time, many people compared the competencies of the President of Belarus with those of the President of France, although Lukashenka was authorised to do much more.

The Presidential Administration is much more powerful than the Council of Ministers and the Parliament

Since 2004, the President has had the right to run for office an unlimited number of times. The term of office is 5 years. According to the Constitution, the President of Belarus not only has very broad executive powers, but legislative ones as well.

Lukashenka has the right to issue decrees that automatically assume the power of being law and override existing laws. Contrary to the Constitution, the President has significant competencies in the judicial field: he has the power to exempt individuals from criminal culpability for some crimes and can even pardon people for economic crimes.

The Presidential Administration is much more powerful than the Council of Ministers and the Parliament, with considerably more power. The Presidential Administration's 'legislators' effectively make the nations laws. Some departments of the Administration duplicate the work of the ministries. They make any number of key decisions that determine the policy of the state.

The President also chairs the Security Council, which is probably the most important institution in the Belarusian political system. This body brings together the country’s top leaders and the main security agencies. Lukashenka keeps security officials in very close, as he does not trust them.

The top security staff basically unchanged over the past 19 years, with Lukashenka occasionally shuffling the same deck of cards in the nation's law enforcement agencies. It should also be noted that his oldest son – Viktar Lukashenka – is a member of the Council.

Puppet Government

Belarusian political scientist Uladzimir Rouda describes the value in terms of the government being an economic and administrative agency that subordinate to the Head of State.

The President appoints and dismisses the prime minister and all other ministers. He also often leads the Council of Ministers' meetings which usually devolve into public humiliation sessions – or "a beating of the boys" – i.e. the ministers.

The Council of Ministers oversees several state organisations

The government itself remains little more than a functionary, destined to execute the decisions of the President and his administration. Ministers in Belarus are not prone to quick turn over, yet despite the apparent job security afforded them, as a former employee of the Lukashenka`s team Siarhei Chaly said, "no one wants to be a minister."

The Council of Ministers has 24 ministries and seven committees, such as the Committee for State Security. The Council of Ministers oversees several state organisations, such as the Belarusian State Concern for Oil and Chemistry. This concern includes the largest enterprises in Belarus, such as "Belaruskali" and oil processing plants.

Pocket Parliament

Belarusian parliament has two chambers: the House of Representatives (lower chamber) and the Council of the Republic (higher chamber).

the Parliament has independently drafted only one law

110 deputies elected in direct elections constitute the House of Representatives. 64 deputies constitute the Council of the Republic. Members of local councils from each region and Minsk elect eight members. Lukashenka appoints another eight personally.

The Parliament plays a very insignificant role. It has no real executive functions and the main task of the Parliament is basically rubber stamping laws whose content has already been drafted and finalised before it reaches them. According to Andrej Jahorau, over the course of its last four-year term, the Parliament has independently drafted only one law.

The House of Representatives or Council of the Republic do not hold any debates and MPs often just pass a given law unanimously. The Chamber Speakers or Chairmen of the parliamentary committees play a marginal role in Belarusian politics. Even Parliament property is managed by the Office of Presidential Affairs.

Dependent Judicial System

The judicial branch, as well as the legislative, remains almost entirely dependent. The executive branch organises the courts, appoints its judges and even determines the size of the bonuses that Court officials receive. The Constitutional Court is composed of 12 members, the President and the Council of the Republic appoint six judges each.

Since 1996, the Constitutional Court has not considered or renounced any legal act passed by Lukashenka to be unconstitutional. Moreover, the Constitutional Court is not able to start a case by their own, but instead must seek approval from the head of state.

No Local Self-Government

Although Belarusian traditions of local self-government have roots stretching back to the 14th century, these days Belarusians do not even have the possiblity of electing their own mayors. The President himself appoints the heads of local executive bodies, so they remain primarily loyal to him, and not to its local citizens.

A few members from opposition political parties were elected at the local elections in 2010

Belarusians call this system the "executive vertical". The President can dismiss ordinary officials of the local executive committees and even revoke their decisions.

The local councils are made up of 21,288 deputies, but their official competencies remain pitifully narrow. Only a few members from opposition political parties made it through the sieve of fraud at the local elections in 2010. In 2014 Belarus will hold new elections to its local councils with what would appear to be rather predictable results.

The Final Count

Belarus remains a country with super-presidential system. Lukashenka controls the executive and legislative branches of government. The President also significantly influences the judicial branch, despite the fact that this is a clear violation of the fundamental Law of the country.

The Council of Ministers is doing little else but working to make sure Lukashenka`s policy objectives are met. Parliament is a body is a rubber stamp institution that is charged with approving legislation created by the Presidential Administration. Local executive bodies, as well as the Council of Ministers, implement Lukashenka`s policies, but only at the lowest level.

It is inconceivable that the judicial system will confront the President, as it remains almost entirely dependent on him.

The rigged referendums in 1995, 1996 and 2004 brought great changes to the Constitution and gave the President unlimited powers. Thus, Lukashenka's dictatorship has roots not only in his political practises, but also in the fundamental laws of Belarus.




Thin Wallets, Fat Bodies: Why Belarus Leads Europe on Female Obesity

Only eight McDonalds restaurants operate in Belarus, and fast food remains a rare treat for most residents.

Obesity, however, is on the rise. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Belarus leads Europe in the share of obese and overweight women who are now recommending to use supplements like resurge, read more reviews of resurge to check what is it about.

Belarusians’ diet to a large extent accounts for their expanding waistlines.

Even as Belarusians spend most of their money on food, they eat unhealthy meals due to a combination of the lack of knowledge about nutrition. High food prices contribute to the problem.

Tellingly, Belarus leads the world in per capita potato consumption. As more cheap, fast food restaurants open throughout the country, Belarusians’ girths will continue to expand. Due to to high consumption of fast food many of them opt for the best diet pills to lose weight faster.

Obesity is a Growing Problem

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By this measure, nearly 70% of Belarusian women over the age of 15 carry too much weight. Obesity is slightly less prevalent among Belarusian men: “only” 63.7% of men suffer from excess weight, according to WHO. For those people who suspect that such weight gain may lead to life-threatening complications or may have caused by underlying factors, they can browse this site.

Alarmingly, Belarus leads all other East and West European states in female obesity. “Only” 49% of Ukrainian and only 44% of Polish women are obese or overweight.

Female obesity rates in the United States are 6% higher than in Belarus.

The problem is not only affecting adults, but also children. Over the last ten years, the share of overweight or obese children and teenagers has grown twofold. If your son or daughter suffer from obesity, we recommend to read this article about the best belly fat burners.

Today, every fourth child suffers from excess weight.

Unhealthy Diet: We are What We Eat?

What accounts for this worrisome trend? One arguably positive consequence of Belarus’ isolation has been the scarcity of Western fast food restaurant chains. Furthermore, due to low incomes, most Belarusians do not frequent cafes, bars, and restaurants.

Instead, a homemade unhealthy diet has contributed the prevalence of obesity in Belarus. The diet of a typical Belarusian centres around fatty dairy and meat products. Belarusians also eat large amounts of potatoes and bread. If they want to turn this around, they can find more helpful articles online.

Belarusians pride themselves when serving the traditional meal of draniki, or pancakes made from grated potatoes, with machanka, a high-calorie sauce made with pork, sausage, sliced onion, sour cream and flour.

In fact, Belarus leads not only in obesity among women, but also in potato consumption. In 2005, Belarusians consumed 181 kg of potatoes per capita.

For comparison, even their closest neighbours eat differently: Ukrainians consume “only” 136 kg per capita, and Poles and Russians – only “131” kg per capita, according to the data provided by Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO).

An unhealthy diet affects not only Belarusians’ weight, but also their overall health and even their longevity. According to the Ministry of Health of Belarus, Belarusians die from diseases of the digestive organs twice as often as other Europeans.

Alarmingly, Belarusians also lead the continent in other unhealthy habits, such as smoking and drinking.

Do Thinner Wallets Lead to Fatter Waistlines?

While eating their unhealthy meals, Belarusians spend a substantial part of their income on food. According to the household survey conducted by the Belarusian National Statistics Committee in the first quarter of 2014, food accounts for 41.4% of all expenditures of a typical Belarusian household. Belarusians spend one third of this amount on meat.

A 2013 survey conducted by the Institute of Sociology of National Academy of Sciences in 15 small towns presents a far more worrisome picture.

According to this survey, every fifth household spends 70-90% of its income on food and every third household spends 50-70% of household income on food.

Not surprisingly, the survey also indicates that two thirds of the respondents worry about food prices.

A 2012 RIA rating, compiled by the RIA Novosti rating agency using data provided by the statistics committees of 40 countries in Europe, allows us to see how Belarus stacks up against other European states.

Post-Soviet states all cluster at the very bottom of RIA rating, as their citizens spend the greatest share of their income on food. Wealthy western European states ranked highest because they spend far smaller shares of income on food.

RIA rating suggests that the share of income spent on food is roughly inversely proportional to the level of income. A reverse trend describes the expenditures on alcohol and tobacco. These items tend to be disproportionately cheap in countries with low-income levels.

Fast Food Forward

Growing incomes will not improve Belarusians’ health in the short run. Instead, the Belarusian diet may further deteriorate in the coming years as they discover the pleasures of eating out.

Today, about 12,500 catering establishments operate in Belarus. About 2,000 of them are in Minsk. Food service is one of the sectors of the economy that is wide open to private entrepreneurs. In the last decade, domestic private ownership has steadily overtaken state ownership.

Currently, there are about 790 Belarusians per one catering establishment. In the US, there are about 150 people per one catering establishment.

In Europe – 300 people per one catering establishment. In other words, the food service market in Belarus has room to grow. Its growth may also expand Belarusians’ waistlines.

In 2012, Belarus had only 43 fast-food restaurants. This will change, however, as a growing number of international fast food companies are seeking entry in the Belarusian market. Among them is the well-known fast-food franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC, which has already opened about 250 restaurants in the CIS region.

Obesity negatively affects human health. Limiting food intake, while producing some weight loss, results in reduction of lean body mass. Combined with moderate exercise it produces significant weight loss, maintains lean body mass and improves insulin sensitivity, but appears difficult to adhere to. Bariatric surgery is clinically effective for severely obese individuals compared with non-surgical interventions, but has limitations. Clinical and pre-clinical studies have implicated a role for testosterone (T) in the patho-physiology of obesity, read about the best testosterone booster and the benefits of the use of it.

Obesity per se impairs testicular T biosynthesis. Furthermore, lower-than-normal T levels increase accumulation of fat depots, particularly abdominal (visceral) fat. This fat distribution is associated with development of metabolic syndrome (MetS) and its sequels, namely type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) and cardiovascular disease (CVD). It would pay dividends for people who suspect they have diabetes to learn vital information like gangrene in foot. T treatment reverses fat accumulation with significant improvement in lean body mass, insulin sensitivity and biochemical profiles of cardiovascular risk. The contribution of T to combating obesity in hypogonadal men remains largely unknown to medical professionals managing patients with obesity and metabolic syndrome.  Many physicians associate T treatment in men with risks for prostate malignancy and CVD. These beliefs are not supported by recent insights.

Russian Embargo and the Belarusian Food Market

Last week, Russia imposed an embargo on food products from the EU and the US, reacting to Western sanctions over its policies in Ukraine.

Moscow banned imports on beef, pork, fruit and vegetable produce, poultry, fish, cheese, milk and dairy products from the European Union, United States, Australia, Canada and Norway.

Belarusian officials seemed to rejoice at the news, vowing to increase exports of Belarusian foodstuffs to Russia and likening this opportunity to 19th century gold-rush in Klondike, Canada.

While Belarusian producers will benefit from the growing demand for Belarusian food in Russia, Belarusian consumers may suffer.

A sharp rise in Belarusian exports will raise the food prices in the internal food market. Since most of Belarusian produce already make their way to Russia, the fastest way to increase exports is by reducing the supply of Belarusian produce at home.

If the food prices rise or incomes fall, no amount of nutrition education will wean Belarusians off their bread-and-potato diet.




Lecturers Exiled from the Belarusian University in Exile?

A number of Belarusian lecturers who were particularly vocal in criticising the administration of the European Humanities University – a Belarusian university in exile – will no longer teach there after this summer.

Their departure is the result of a previously announced round of faculty hiring that wrapped up at the end of July.

Commenting on the administration's decisions, representatives of the EHU Senate and its union argued that they were not offered employment because of their vocal disagreements with the university's management.

EHU's administration has stressed that agreement or disagreement with its policies was not a criterion. The administration explained that the criteria considered during its hiring process included the quality of applicant's teaching and research, but also the workload requirements of departments.

Financial considerations also figured into the hiring process. The university needed to lower the overall number of academics the university could afford to hire.

Belarus Digest interviewed David Pollick, EHU Provost, and Andrei Lavruhin, a former EHU lecturer and Secretary of the Senate.

Senate vs Administration

EHU administration and faculty relations were strained a few years ago when a group of Belarusian lecturers left the university after a disagreement with its administration. While things had been relatively calm in the interceding years, the conflict flared up once again in February 2014.

At that time, the administration had recently dismissed Paval Tereshkovich, the head of the democratically elected Senate – the university's self-governing body. He was one of the authors of a pro-reform platform championed by EHU academics called “For a New EHU”.

Tereshkovich and his colleagues rallied for a series of specific changes such as improved employment conditions for the faculty and a shift towards having research and teaching focus more on Belarus.

Following his firing, Tereshkovich told Belarus Digest in an interview that his dismissal was unlawful and an act of revenge for his criticism of the university’s administration. His colleagues supported him and another lecturer, Maksim Zhbankou, even predicted at the time that there would be further dismissals of other academics that made the administration uncomfortable.

At the end of July, EHU officially announced that it was offering one-year employment contracts to 61 lecturers. The leaders of the "For a New EHU” platform were not among those offered employment.

The list of faculty offered contracts after the hiring process did not also include the management of "EHUnion" Aliaksei Kryvalap, his deputy Kanstancin Tkachou or Andrei Ralionak, a member of the "Council" union and the Senate.

Other EHU Senate representatives, including Volha Shparaha, deputy head of the Senate, Andrei Lavruhin, the Secretary of the Senate and member of the "Council" union and Maksim Zhbankau, a Senator, also lost their jobs.

Lavruhin: Political Dismissals

Andrei Lavruhin told Belarus Digest that the administration's decisions were politically motivated and they proved academic repression against the lecturers.

In his view, the decision not to hire back members of the faculty was due to their criticisms of the EHU administration. “All of the dismissed lecturers enjoyed a high level of admiration among the student body (as seen in their annual student evaluations) and had significant academic potential”, he explained.

The former lecturer does not yet know what he will do personally. “It is hard to say at the moment, because we found ourselves in this position only a week ago”, he told Belarus Digest. The fact that he taught at EHU will also probably make it very difficult, if not impossible, to find a job at any other state-run Belarusian university.

He and other lecturers are planning to sue EHU in Lithuanian court, and also seek the help of human rights organisations and other European agencies.

EHU Administration: Quality of Teaching and Research Above All

David Pollick, EHU’s Provost, explained to Belarus Digest that the "Hiring Commission's recommendations to the Rector were based on criteria such as the quality of a faculty member's teaching and research, and the workload requirements of departments (…) Whether someone called for changes or disagreed with the Administration’s policies was not a deciding factor”, he said.

Pollick explained the decision-making process: "Following on internal departmental consultation, the heads of academic departments provided recommendations as members of the Commission".

According to the Provost, members of the Senate were aware that there would be additional costs associated with moving core teaching staff from service contracts to employment contracts. “Because of the additional costs, a reduction in the overall number of faculty was inevitable”, he stated.

Towards a More Transparent EHU?

The prior dismissal of Paval Tereshkovich and recent decisions made by the administration may raise a few questions regarding the transparency and fairness of the university's hiring process.

According to an EHU media release, the Internal Faculty Hiring Commission consisted of the heads of EHU’s four academic departments, the Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs and the newly-appointed Provost.

However, it is unclear – from either the press release or EHU's web site – who the heads of the departments are and how they were appointed.

At the same time, it seems quite logical that if EHU were to improve the employment conditions (i.e. raise the salaries) of its academics, it would have to cut the number of those employed.

The administration began switching members of its staff from service contracts to employment contracts earlier this year and, as part of this process, had already appointed the university's core faculty by the end of the July.

These new improved working conditions will definitely give the university's faculty more financial security and stability than they had with service contracts, which had been the standard form of employment for years.

Who is Concerned About EHU's Image?

The university's donors would appear to still be its most important constituency. As donors that help fund it, they help ensure that EHU is functioning in accordance with its stated mission of being a truly democratic university working for the future of Belarus.

The administration, for its part, believes that it is fulfilling its obligations to its donors. "We have kept donors informed of our plans and actions and we are confident that they understand and support us", David Pollick told Belarus Digest.

Pollick also believes that the changes "will improve the quality of education and research at EHU, and, thereby improve our image in a very real way”, he added.

Belarusian media, on the other hand, have been very critical of the conflict.

Nearly all of the headlines surrounding the recent events at the university have carried a bitter tone: "What is EHU Mutating Into?" (EuroBelarus), "Rebel Professors Driven Out of EHU" (RFE/RL​). Other headlines include "The Students of EHU Collect Signatures in Support of Lecturer-Rebels" (Charter'97) and "Everyone Who Thinks Critically at EHU – at Risk" (EuroBelarus).

The state-run Belarus newspaper Belarus' Segodnya published an article entitled "Study in the Shadow of Scandals", a piece that commented upon the conflict at the university with particular satisfaction.

The administration argues that its decisions were not dictated by the lecturers’ critical attitudes. However, the fact remains that all of the leaders of the Senate and EHU's union will no longer be employed at EHU come this fall.

Naturally this raises questions about whether the hiring decisions made by the university's administration were based solely on their academic credentials.

Because EHU exists to serve Belarusian students, it needs to do more to build a positive image in Belarusian society, including being tolerant of internal dissent.

A tolerant, pluralistic environment would demonstrate that EHU is a place that encourages genuine and open discussion, without the threat of reprisals – something which is sorely missing in Belarus.




Online Travel to Belarus, USB Rally, Kraj.BY – Belarus Civil Society Digest

Budzma campaign and the Belarusian Language Society launch the second season of a weekly Kraj.BY program which is online-travel throughout Belarus.

Legal Transformation Center Lawtrend has released the latest data of its monitoring on information provided at the official state web sites of Belarus.

Falanster Minsk NGO invites to a meeting to discuss the topic how to improve the city's infrastructure for its residents. A particular attention will be paid to the expanding community of cyclists.

Cultural events

The EESC announces registration to the USB Rally 2014. The Eastern Europe Studies Centre invites Belarusian students to register for the annual United Students of Belarus (USB) Rally that will take place in Lithuania on 1-5 October 2014. USB Rally is an opportunity to meet Belarusian youth studying around the world, to exchange experience and contacts, as well as to join the informal international network of Belarusians residing at home and abroad known today as the USB. This will already be the 8th USB Rally taking place in Lithuania.

Kraj.BY invites for online travels again. From 12 August the Budzma campaign and the Belarusian Language Society launch the second season of a weekly Kraj.BY program. The program offers online-travel into the world of mystery, intrigue and attractions throughout Belarus implemented by creative association PAN-studio. The program host is actor Paval Kharlanchuk.

Exhibition 'Visual Maps of Historical Memory, or the Grand Duchy of Lithuania on Ancient Maps' takes place in the Minsk venue CEKH, from July 24 to 31 August. The organisers – Belarusian Philosophical Space, the Flying University, Publishing House Ekanompres and TSEKH space – are offering a view at ancient maps of Europe and the world to try to see Belarus in different historical contexts and scales, to initiate discussions that may lead to rethink about the "borders" of Belarus.

Art-Environmental exhibition is held on 7-31 August in the Gallery Ў. Weekly lectures and presentations are related to the environment and the arts; a discussion on the relationship of ecology and art highlights the responsibility of art. The final event will be the Eco-Cultural Festival on 31 August. The organisers are AgraEkaKultura non-profit entity, the Minsk Gallery Ў, Ecodom NGO, Green Alliance and the Centre for Environmental Solutions NGO.

Budzma in Hrodna. On 5 August in Grodna, the Budzma cultural campaign organised a Press Club on covering cultural issues in the regional media. That day a talk show 'Belarusiness as a Concept in the Holiday Industry' tried identifying the prospects for promoting Belarusian theme in event business and indicated that archery and throwing spears, picnics in the Empire style, traditional wedding with embroideries are quite feasible to be organised in Belarus.

Discussions

City for people. On 23 August Falanster Minsk NGO invites to a meeting to discuss the topic how to improve the city's infrastructure for its residents. A particular attention will be paid to the expanding community of cyclists. The purpose of the meeting is to consider a bicycle in the city from the point of view of different road users, to assess the needs of bicycles, cars and pedestrians, in order to launch a mutually beneficial dialogue.

Round table on services for disabled. The Republican Confederation of Entrepreneurship invites to take part in the round table 'On the State and Development of Small Business in the Service Sector: a View of Consumers. The Problem of Accessibility for People with Disabilities'. The event took place on 6 August in Minsk, at the Ministry of Trade venue. Among the speakers are representatives of government and non-government organisations.

Civil society reports

Belarusian Public Authorities Online. Legal Transformation Center Lawtrend has released the latest data of its monitoring on information provided at the official state web sites of Belarus. The data show that no one of the 98 investigated web sites of Belarus' executive bodies at various levels hasn't got the maximum possible index (100%), reflecting the degree of regulatory compliance with the completeness, relevance and accessibility of information online. The report concludes that active interaction with the citizens and transparency, that is the essence of e-governance, still remain marginal practises.

Monitoring the Accessibility of the World Hockey Championship 2014. The Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities releases the final report on monitoring the accessibility of environment, held before the start of the IIHF World Championship in Minsk. The report analysing the information on different facilities – railway stations and airports, sports complexes, hotels, shops and other places of the service sector – indicates the unsatisfactory degree of accessibility. The report includes recommendations that are important to consider while carrying out the large-scale sporting events.

Interaction between State and Civil Society

The Belarusian justice ministry has denied state registration for a new human rights organisation called the Movement for the Implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or Pact (Covenant). The founders of the organisation filed a registration application and the required package of documents on 27 June. Mikhail Pastukhou, a former judge of the Constitutional Court, was elected chairman of the organisation at its founding conference. The activists call the pretexts of denying registration ridiculous; in particular, among the reasons for refusal is that the date of birth of one of the founders was stated as 21 June 1949, whereas the correct date was 26 June 1949.

Other

The International Visegrad Fund is announcing a call for proposals for Extended Standard Grant projects within the Visegrad 4 Eastern Partnership (V4EaP) program. The purpose of the call is to promote democratisation and civil society in the countries of the Eastern Partnership through medium-term projects aimed at providing access to the experience of the Visegrad Group countries in democratic transformation, EU integration, civil society building and regional cooperation. Deadline is 22 September 2014.

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.