London conference, Annual Report, Belarusian language trends, the longevity gap – Ostrogorski Centre digest

In March, the Ostrogorski Centre held its annual London conference on Belarusian studies and published its report covering the centre’s activities in 2017.

Analysts from the Ostrogorski Centre wrote about trends in Belarusian language use in public education and civil society, Belarus’s massive gender longevity gap and the ongoing quiet reform of the Belarusian army.

We also added five new research papers from the Belarusian think tanks to our BelarusPolicy database.

Recent analysis

Alesia Rudnik discusses trends in Belarusian language use in the state education system and civil society. At present, the near impossibility of receiving pre-school education in the Belarusian language concerns some parents. Others cling on to even the slightest possibility of ensuring their children’s education in the Belarusian language. Yet others wonder why the question arises at all – thinking that it would be better to teach students English or Chinese.

The rapid disappearance of the Belarusian language from the education sector (from 19% in the 2010-11 academic year to 13% in 2017-18) paradoxically coincided with the increasing popularity of various kinds of Belarusian cultural initiatives and projects.

Ryhor Astapenia analyses Belarus’s massive gender longevity gap. The Belarusian gender debate understandably focuses on women’s rights, but in reality, men deserve as much attention. Belarusian men have a far lower life expectancy than women; lower even than North Korean men. Both men themselves and state authorities bear responsibility for this. Belarus remains one of the most alcoholic nations in the world and Belarusian men generally treat their health with indifference.

This has painful consequences. Families lose a parent and a money-maker, while the state loses a taxpayer. Even before death, poor health among men leads to low productivity and hence holds significance for the economy. The Belarusian government undertakes some efforts to promote healthy lifestyles but it fails to do so systematically.

Siarhei Bohdan writes about the ongoing quiet reform of the Belarusian army. On 18 February, president Alexander Lukashenka offered to deploy a 10,000-strong Belarusian contingent as peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine. This represents a rather large commitment for the Belarusian army comprising in total 46,000 military personnel.

Minsk pays increasing attention to its military and has even raised spending on its armed forces by a fifth. But the Belarusian army still faces problems, which go beyond the acquisition of expensive weaponry. It also has fewer conscripts than it would like. Consequently, it employs additional professional soldiers and relies ever more on reservists. In this way, the army adjusts to the needs of the country.

3rd annual “Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century” conference

The 3rd annual conference, Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century, took place on 23 March in London. University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum together organised the event.

Здымак Ostrogorski CentreThe conference featured speakers from the UK, the USA, Canada, Germany, Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus. Panels covered history, social and political movements, foreign policy and art. The traditional Annual London Lecture on Belarusian Studies, delivered this year by Dr. Alena Markova, was called “Belarusian State- and Nation-Formation: From Polatsk Principality to Independent Belarus”.

The conference guests included Stanislaŭ Šuškievič, the first head of independent Belarus (in office 1991-1994), and the UK ambassador to Belarus, Fionna Gibb. The conference programme is available here. Podcasts of the conference will be made available online on the Ostrogorski Centre Soundcloud.

2017 Annual Report of the Ostrogorski Centre

In March, the Ostrogorski Centre published its annual report for 2017. The Centre has strengthened its team as well as the reach and impact of our work, particularly in the field of online education.

It published analytical papers on distance learning, the challenges of Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area, and the reform of business education.

In June, the Ostrogorski Academy has been officially launched. Its ambition is to serve as the first entirely online educational platform in Belarus, which features video lectures, transcripts and tests presented in an engaging format.

As in previous years, we held three major annual conferences – the Ostrogorski Forum in Minsk dedicated to foreign policy and security issues, the annual London conference on Belarusian studies, and a conference on the reform of higher education in Minsk. The new 2017 issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies features articles by researchers from Canada, the United States and Belarus, as well as several book reviews.

In 2017, the Ostrogorski Centre continued to provide daily analysis of events related to Belarus in English through the Belarus Digest website, and in the Russian/Belarusian languages on Ostro.by. We also kept the Belarus Policy and Belarus Profile databases up to date.

This year, Belarus Digest welcomed a new analyst on national security and defence – Dzmitry Mitskevich from the Belarus Security Blog. Peter Braga, a PhD candidate at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London joined the editorial team of Belarus Digest. Siarhei Bohdan, a regular contributor to Belarus Digest, defended his PhD thesis at the Free University of Berlin.

Comments in the media

Siarhei Bohdan became the author of the Security Barometer section of the Minsk Barometer project – a regular monitoring of foreign policy and regional security. In the first issues, Siarhei writes that on the one hand, Belarus avoids being drawn into the confrontation of the current Russian leadership with the West and its eastern European allies. On the other hand, it is increasingly disappointed in the growing reluctance of the Kremlin to strengthen its allies militarily and economically.

The Belarusian leadership understands that the Russian media strongly influence mass opinion in Belarus and wage information attacks against official Minsk. At the same time, Minsk cannot go too far in countering it, for example by closing Russian channels which broadcast in Belarus, says Alesia Rudnik in a comment to Polish radio.

Belarus Policy

The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update its database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:

Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion in the database by emailing us.

The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to a market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian StudiesBelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.




Opening public spaces for people with disabilities in Belarus

On 18 March, the Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang finished with Belarus eighth in the medals table. While the state invests in its paralympics competitors, the living conditions for other Belarusians with disabilities remain discriminatory.

Recently, various initiatives and individuals have promoted a barrier-free environment and inclusion for people with disabilities in such spheres as fashion and cultural life. Although public spaces for this social group have been opened up more than before, Belarusians only partly accept people with disabilities as equal members of society. 

An unnoticeable minority of Belarusians

Entrance to one of the restaurants in Minsk. Photo: kyky.org

After the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016, public areas in Belarus started to adapt for wheelchair users. However, the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has noted repeatedly that most ramps have inclines too steep, while lifts are too small for wheelchair users. In January 2018, the labour minister, Iryna Kastsevich, said that the government plans to introduce an administrative responsibility for the creation of a barrier-free environment.

According to Belstat, only a third of the 180,000 employable people with disabilities in Belarus have a job, while the rest live on a salary of $75 to $112 (data for August-October 2017). In that regard, in January the authorities initiated a discussion about the proposed introduction of a 5% quota for the employment of people with disabilities. 

Of more than 500 thousand people with disabilities in Belarus, most remain invisible. Only part of the public transport system has special ramps and places for the disabled and public spaces remain inaccessible because of high stairs or small premises; this forces thousands of people to stay home. Greater restrictions also impose access to the culture and the labour market, where persons with disabilities lack representation. According to the National Research Institute of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, more than 70% wheelchair users rarely leave their homes.

An inclusive beauty industry in Belarus 

Aliaksandra Chychykava, Miss Wheelchair World 2017. Photo: sputnik.by

Aliaksandra Chychykava attracted attention to people with disabilities in the beauty industry when, in 2017, she won the Miss Wheelchair World competition. In February, the Tumany bar in Minsk refused to admit her into the venue because of its unsuitability and the presence of many drunken people. The reaction of Chychykava drew media attention to the place of wheelchair users in Belarusian society. While the authorities claim to work on developing infrastructure for people with disabilities, such cases demonstrate the real situation with an access to public places.

Belarusian fashion designers have paid attention to the needs of people with disabilities. In May 2017 they organised the first fashion show with models using wheelchairs. Katsiaryna Tsikota released a TIKOTAinclusive collection with a special range of clothing designed to be comfortable for wheelchair users. Dozens of wheelchair users attended the show, including paralympians and social activists. So far, this remains the only show in Belarus using models in wheelchairs, while the massive state-owned enterprises ignore a need of such clothes production. In May last year the project won the Grand Prix in the annual competition of the best social initiatives at Social Weekend 9

On 4 March, models in wheelchairs took part in another popular event, the Hrodno Fashion Show. Designers Valiantsina Apanovich and Volha Vialichka from Hrodna created two trendy collections for people with disabilities. Before 4 March, the organisers refused to let people in wheelchairs from Hrodna perform at Hrodno Fashion Show for two years because of “inconsistencies with the aesthetic format of the show,” according to the show’s administrators. After models in wheelchairs participated in the show, the designers announced their intention to produce and distribute a catalogue of clothes for wheelchair users.

Business and food places for wheelchair users in Belarus

In contrast to civil society activists, wheelchair users appear very rarely among Belarusian businessmen. For ten years Alexander Mahortau has produced qualitative and stylish wheelchairs at his own Minsk-based enterprise, Invatech. As the businessman told Radio Liberty, state-produced wheelchairs have a very low-quality and ugly appearance. Since the majority of his employees use wheelchairs, they aim to create comfortable wheelchairs taking into consideration users’ measurements and preferences. Mahortau receives orders from abroad and from famous Belarusian wheelchair users. For instance, Chychykava performed in the Miss Wheelchair World competition in one of the company’s wheelchairs. 

Belarus’s first fashion show involving wheelchair models. Photo: TUT.by

The Belarusian authorities are ready for dialogue and action in support of persons with disabilities but remain reluctant to take the initiative. Civil society activist Alexandr Audzevich has demonstrated an ability to negotiate with the authorities. Thanks to him, the town of Lida has the first beach in Belarus adapted for people in wheelchairs. In addition, an activist successfully raised money through crowdfunding in order to travel 4,000 km through Europe on a manual bike, raising awareness about other Belarusians in a similar situation. Audzevich constantly visits Minsk’s cafes and restaurants, and motivates wheelchair users to pursue an active life.

Most public places in Belarus remain unavailable for wheelchair users; a problem that can be solved at the local level. At the end of 2015 a journalist from Kyky.org, Dmitry Valotka, checked the availability of 11 central cafés and restaurants of Minsk – only one of which wheelchair users can access on their own. According to the owners of such cafés, people with disabilities do not visit them, “so there is no need for [special] equipment.” Research conducted by the Belarusian State University and the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016 revealed that only 60 hotel rooms in Minsk suit tourists with special needs, and only five tourist agencies organise tours for wheelchair users. 

Inclusive Belarus without governmental reform?

In recent years, the authorities have begun to address the problems of people with disabilities. After the Belarusian Parliament signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2015, wheelchair-friendly infrastructure has become topical once again. The authorities focus on the question of benefits, the definition of disability in the framework of international qualifications and the introduction of quotas for the employment of people with disabilities.

However, Belarusian society remains a long way from accepting people with disabilities as an independent part of society. This is demonstrated through the attitude in public places. At the same time, there exist positive examples in spheres such as fashion shows for wheelchair users or businesses created by people with disabilities. 

To create favourable conditions for wheelchair users, Belarusian activists and authorities must cooperate closely towards the education of society. Labour quotas discussed in the parliament, better conditions for businesses owned by disabled as well as widening spheres of inclusion of disabled might lead to real, not merely formal, improvements. 




Multi-party system in Belarus, High Tech Park expansion, Trudeau’s socks – Belarus state press digest

Alexander Lukashenka considers a transition to a multi-party political system. Russian ambassador Alexander Surikov says no deep integration of Belarusian and Russian industries has occurred thus far. Lukashenka says Belarusians need to know the history of the Belarusian People’s Republic, but should not be proud of it.

46 new companies take up residence in the Belarusian High Tech Park in a single day. Lukashenka criticises the government for its poor performance in 2017. Brest Stocking Mill presents a pair of socks to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.

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

Politics

Belarus considers a transition to a multi-party political system. During a meeting with constitutional court judges on 16 March, Constitution Day, Lukashenka mentioned possible future amendments to the constitution. He particularly addressed the topic of a full-fledged multi-party system, reports Zviazda. Proposals to create a party on the basis of the Bielaja Ruś GoNGO (government-organised non-governmental organisation) have long circulated, but the president firmly opposes turning it into a pro-government party.

“Some say that it is high time to delegate certain powers to political parties in order to solve the human resources problem, and this is correct. Others say that the time has not yet come. If society is willing to create a true multi-party system, we need to clearly establish its role in the constitution. However, at this stage, the parties lack sufficient membership,” Lukashenka submits.

Russian ambassador Surikov: deep integration of Belarusian and Russian industries has not happened so far. Ahead of Russian presidential election, Soyuz newspaper talked to the Russian ambassador to Belarus about present and future of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. Surikov does not foresee any significant changes in the relationship between the countries. The Union State will remain a model for integration on the post-Soviet space for a long time.

However, he acknowledged that deep integration of close industries in the two countries has not yet happened and much should be done. “We need to think about what functions to transfer to the supranational level, how to make the Union State a legal entity, so that it has a voice in the international arena,” he said. Surikov also insisted that equal hydrocarbon prices will apply to all members of Eurasian integration projects by 2025.

Lukashenka meeting with the judges from the Constitutional Court. Photo: zviazda.by

Lukashenka: Belarusians need to know the history of the Belarusian People’s Republic, but should not be proud of it. During a meeting with young people working in the creative professions on 20 March, Lukashenka commented on the centenary of the Belarusian People’s Republic, which civil society will celebrate on 25 March. According to him, Belarusians need to know the history of the Belarusian People’s Republic’s (BNR) founding, but they should not be proud of it.

The president drew attention to the fact that this period has not been studied thoroughly, and that existing information remains very contradictory. The founders of the BNR sought independence for the country, but they were ready to collaborate with any foreign power for attaining this goal and would fall into dependence anyway, writes Belarus Segodnia.

Economy

On 13 March, the Belarusian High Tech Park registered 46 new resident companies. An expansion of this scale never before occurred in more than ten years since the park’s establishment, writes Belarus Segodnia. This became possible due to the adoption of Decree No 8 “On the development of the digital economy” which becomes effective on 28 March. Last year, service exports from the park exceeded one billion dollars. Almost half of this volume goes to the EU, and 43% to the USA.

Belarusian companies provide IT services to global corporations including Samsung, HTC, the London Stock Exchange, the World Bank, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Google, and British Petroleum. About 1 billion people in more than 150 countries use mobile applications developed in the park. Such success can be largely attributed to the special legal status of the park’s residents. They are exempt from all corporate taxes, and income tax is set at only 9%. The decree extends this special tax regime until 2049.

Lukashenka criticised the government for poor performance in 2017. On 2 March, the Belarusian president discussed reports provided by the government, the National Bank of Belarus, regional executive committees and the Minsk City Executive Committee. He criticised these organs for failings in economic policies, reports Belarus Segodnia. According to him, the government concerns itself only with the formal achievement of indicators. Over the past 7 years, world GDP grew by 25%, while the Belarusian GDP growth did not even reach 6%. The president noted that Belarusian regions develop unevenly – only Minsk, and to some extent the Hrodna region, showed clear progress.

Lukashenka also criticised the unfair competition on the Russian market despite the existing economic union and urged the government to seek new markets. Lukashenka demanded that in the next five-year period, Belarus reaches $100bn of GDP from its current level of $54bn. Only this will make an average salary of $1,000 possible.

Photo: sb.by

Belarus attracts more hunters from Europe. Last year the number of hunters coming to Belarus from the European Union grew by a third thanks to the new visa-free regime. If, as expected, the government increases the period of visa-free travel to ten days, the effect will be even more impressive, writes Respublika. Europeans know about the abundance of wild animals in Belarusian forests, including species that are quite rare in the continent.

They are particularly interested in hunting bison, moose, wood grouse and wolves. The wolf is almost extinct and protected in the EU, yet in Belarus the wolf population grows. Visitors do not need to wait for a month to get a weapons licence since all state hunting companies offer it for rent. Last year, the revenues from hunting exceeded $2m, half of which came from foreigners.

B(r)est foot forward

The Brest Stocking Mill sent an unusual gift to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. The Canadian leader is known around the world for his brightly-coloured socks, which he often wears to official events. With this in mind, Brest residents decided to send a parcel to Mr Trudeau: a set of exclusive socks featuring the cartoon dog Snoopy.

“He loves original socks and we have been working to develop new designs recently. Our main goal is to expand knowledge about Belarus, so we wrote to him that our countries have much in common. A large Belarusian diaspora lives in Canada, and the world-famous ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky has Belarusian roots,” explains company director Siarhiej Žaŭniarovič. Trudeau’s aide recently confirmed that they received the parcel, writes the Minsk Times.

The state press digest is based on a review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media primarily convey the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.




“Sex-training” courses sweep across Belarus

On 26 February, Thai police arrested Belarusian model Nastya Rybka (Anastasiya Vashukevich) and her Belarus-born “sex coach” Alex Lesley (Alexander Kirillov) on charges of arranging “sex-training” courses in Thailand without work permits.

Prior to this, Rybka and Lesley sparked a major sex-scandal in Russia involving oligarch Oleg Deripaska and the Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko. Rybka subsequently claimed to be in possession of secret recordings proving Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and requested US asylum.

While Russians have paid between $600 to $1500 for Lesley’s seduction classes in Moscow, Belarusians eagerly splash similar amounts of money on “sex training” courses and consultations with parapsychologists. Belarusian astrologers, bioenergy consultants, and “sex coaches” vigorously advertise themselves on the internet. The general decline in levels of education, as well as the demographic gender imbalance, have created a perfect breeding ground for the appearance of numerous occult practitioners and self-proclaimed “sex experts” in Belarus.

Nastya Rybka and Alex Lesley – the most famous Belarusian “sex-coaches”

Although several Western media has described Rybka and Lesley as merely “a call-girl and her pimp”, the Belarusian duo lived a much more diverse lifestyle. Nastya Rybka participated in fashion shows, agitated in support of Harvey Weinstein, and released a book called “The Diary of How to Seduce a Billionaire”. Lesley published bestsellers on seduction practices and quietly worked for Skolkovo Innovation Centre (the Russian analogue of Silicon Valley) in the meantime.

While professional psychologists described Lesley’s seduction advice as little more than manipulation techniques, “EKSMO” – one of the largest publishing houses in Russia –  has published his books for years. According to Lesley, in order to win the affections of the opposite sex, women should aspire to become “huntresses”, and men – to train as “masters”. “Masters and huntresses” skilfully play with feelings of their “victims” using a carrot and stick approach. The top “huntress”, Rybka, has widely praised Lesley’s guidance, which helped her to lure Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska on a yacht trip near Norway.

Nastya Rybka and Alex Lesley arrested in Thailand. Source: CBC News.

At the same time, Lesley’s “sex training” classes have nothing to do with professional psychological help. Neither Rybka nor Lesley holds a degree in practical psychology. They preach a dubious philosophy of “the hunt”, which might eventually harm human relationships. Nevertheless, the Belarusian duo previously arranged tens of “sex-training” courses in Belarus, Russia and Thailand which include a guide on choosing penis enlargement pills. Until the outbreak of the Deripaska-Prikhodko sex scandal, the Russian authorities turned a blind eye to the self-proclaimed “sex-gurus”. In this way, the scandalous arrest of Rybka and Lesley in Thailand has seriously harmed the growing industry of unlicensed psychological counselling in CIS states.

Why do “sex coaches” prey on Belarusian women?

Rybka and Lesley represent the tip of an iceberg; regularly held “sex-training” courses can be found in Belarus. Numerous “sex-coaches” skilfully exploit Belarus’s demographic imbalance. Taking into account the fact that at least 6% of Belarusian women will not meet a marriage partner, the competition for the available men remains high. To increase their attractiveness and competitiveness in the “marriage market”, women eagerly subscribe to well-advertised “sex training” courses.

A range of Belarusian “sex coaches” and “sex schools” skilfully apply aggressive marketing techniques. For instance, one Belarusian “school of feminity” – calling itself “Blueberry Nights” – offers a range of courses across major cities in Belarus.  A one-day class called “Scheherazade Tales” offers to teach “top-secret seduction techniques used by intelligence operatives” as well as methods of hidden hypnosis to lure men.

Another “sex-training” course offered by “Blueberry Nights” – a  one-day class titled “The School of a Skilful Lover” – promises to teach how to sweep men off their feet. A two-day course, “A Magnet for Men”, applies a combination of parapsychological exercises, after which women should learn “how to turn themselves into a honeytrap”. A five-week “sex-training” course, “the Geisha school”, offers an intensive coaching to help women become “the strongest drug” for the opposite sex. At the same time, the “school of feminity” does not provide satisfaction guarantees.

Apart from Belarusian “sex coaches”, foreign specialists also frequently visit Belarus, mostly from Russia and Ukraine. For instance, a “sex coach” from Moscow, Oksana Alexeeva, holds a one-day “Sacral Sexuality” seminar this week, where women will learn how to “uncover deep-down sexuality”.  Numerous “sex-training” retreats bring Belarusian participants to Sochi and Crimea each summer.

Due to a high demand, prices for sex-courses do not correlate with the average Belarusian salary ($426 in 2017). “Blueberry Nights” charges approximately $200-300 for a one-day “sex-training” class and $300-400 for a two or three-day “sex-training” seminar.  Oksana Alexeeva’s one-day class costs $225. A week-long “sex-training” retreat in Russia starts from $600.

The more you know about sex toys, the more inclined you’ll be to use them and the better your sex life will be, a great start is with a good bluetooth vibrator that has a remote control and you can use it anywhere.

Parapsychologists bombard the Belarusian internet

Apart from the regular  announcements by “sex-training” courses, the Belarusian internet bustles with adverts from various occult consultants, including astrologers, magicians,  and “energy” specialists. The most popular occult services include astrology prognoses, Bert Hellinger’s family therapy sessions, “energy” revivals, and esoteric practices.

A well-known Belarusian astrologer, Tatsiana Kalinina, advertises her services in VKontakte. Source: vk.com

Since Belarusian legislation prohibits the public advertisement of occult practices, astrologers and magicians have no choice but to promote themselves on the internet. For instance, a well-known Belarusian astrologer, Tatsiana Kalinina, runs a personal web-page and numerous accounts on social networks. She frequently appears in television talk-shows and publishes horoscopes for politicians and film stars on her blog. Tatsiana advertises a range of services, including a career horoscope, marriage prediction, and seminars for astrology beginners.

Many Belarusians eagerly pay for occult services in hope of quickly resolving their personal issues. Hence the prices of such services do not correlate with the average Belarusian salary.  Tatsiana Kalinina’s individual consultation costs $100, a session of “energy revival” costs between $80-100, and an individual consultation of a shaman starts from $200.

In conclusion, Belarusians of all ages aspire to build successful relationships, improve health, and reach financial stability. Demographic imbalance pushes Belarusian women into competition for available men.Therefore, occult practitioners and “sex coaches” will continue to flourish. With the decline of education level and scientific research in Belarus, mass critical thinking diminishes, and magical thinking develops instead. This creates an additional ground for pseudo-experts to exploit a naïve faith in miracles.




Belarusian anarchists: Lukashenka’s political opponents or criminals?

On 12 March 2018, a Minsk court sentenced Sviataslau Baranovich to three years in prison thanks to the hard work made by lawyers in LA for criminal justice. He admitted that he had hit police officers in civilian clothes during the brutal arrests of anarchists.

In recent years, the anarchists have become the most persecuted group opposing Alexander Lukashenka’s regime. They remain the most extreme organisation with a capacity to organise street protests and radicalise them. There is a website which keeps track of all of their criminal activity to keep them in control. 

However, it remains difficult to call some of the anarchists’ actions, such as the burning of billboards, politicised or even rational. Therefore anarchists have become a serious dilemma for human rights organisations because they do not know how to view them, although the government clearly sees anarchists as a political problem.

Origins of anarchism in Belarus

Anarchism in Belarus first appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, although it took a very different form to the contemporary movement. At that time Bialystok (then part of the Hrodna region in the Russian Empire) became the centre of the Belarusian anarchist movement; anarchists organised economic strikes, expropriations and the killing of police officers. The anarchists in Belarus had strong links to the movement in Russian (perhaps even belonged to it). For instance, the first Belarusian anarchist, Siarhiej Kavalik, followed the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin, one of the principal founders of anarchist theory.

Anarchists often had Jewish origins and their victims were also Jews, since they often represented the capitalist (exploitative) class. But in general the movement proved something of an alloy, including intellectuals, the unemployed and criminals, according to a recent Russian-language book by Jury Hlushakou called Revolution Is Dead! Long Live the Revolution! Anarchism in Belarus 1902—1927.

Despite differences from earlier eras, contemporary anarchists’ choice of a specific ideology faces some restraints since communism remains an origin of Belarusian anarchism. As Mikalai Dziadok, one of the representatives of the movement, explained in an interview to Euroradio in 2017, anarcho-communists comprise the majority in the Belarusian anarchist movement. Where other versions of anarchism, popular in other countries, emphasize individuality, Belarusian anarchism remains primarily collectivist.

Meet the Belarusian anarchists

In all countries anarchists annoy the state authorities, but the Belarusian government has a much stronger feeling.

Undoubtedly, the Belarusian anarchists remain the most radical opponents of Lukashenka. In 2010 they threw smoke grenades and set fire to the Ministry of Defence and a casino; in 2016 they threw paint at the main entrance of the state television company; and in 2017 showed themselves the most organized group of the protesters against the law on parasitism, the most popular protests in the Belarusian regions in history. In Brest, a city in western Belarus, anarchists initiated those protests.

The movement’s structure remains opaque, so no one knows exactly how many people it comprises and their capabilities. The movement has a number of public representatives, including Mikalai Dziadok and Ihar Alinevich, known publicly because the court previously sentenced them to 4 and 8 years respectively in 2011. Their publicity is the result of their criminal record and not their wishes. Both, along with Alexander Frantskevich, formed part of the “anarchist case”, but Alinevich received the longest prison term. The court found him guilty not only for the aforementioned 2010 actions, but also for attacks on a branch of the Moscow-Minsk Bank and the Isolation Centre for Offenders Minsk.

Photo: Svaboda.org

Even without traditional methods of organisation during their actions, anarchists look like they have the most effective organising capacity. Although it remains difficult to assess the size of the anarchists’ regional structures, for sure the figures are not small. For instance, the organisation of “Revolutionary Action” has four-and-a-half thousand subscribers on the social network VKontakte. No opposition group has as many subscribers. Recently, the Belarusian authorities blocked the page, but it still works through a virtual private network (VPN) or outside the country, confirm LG Networks IT experts.

However, such repressions do not mean that the government represses all activities of anarchists. The movement still has its own media website, pramen.io, which actually has a modest number of followers in social networks of around three thousand people; a “Free Thought” library operates in Minsk, although it is open just four hours per week; a “Food Not Bombs” initiative feeds poor people each week at three locations in Minsk, but also has some smaller groups in several other towns; and an “Anarchist Black Cross” helps anarchists and others somehow connected to the movement that have been imprisoned. Although Sviataslau Baranovich’s political views remain unknown, he will receive the help of the “Anarchist Black Cross”. 

Political radicals or criminals?

The authorities see them at the same time as the most extremist enemies, able to radicalise protests and criminals, says the respected human rights defender Nasta Lojka in a comment to Belarus Digest. Accordingly, the prosecution of anarchists stems from mixed motives; it remains difficult to know whether Belarus’s authorities are defending public safety or Lukashenka’s regime. In fact, the government shows that it sees anarchists as political activists. For instance, before the presidential election in 2015, when Lukashenka pardoned a group of high-profile critics of the regime, the group included politicians such as Mikalai Statkevich and anarchists such as Dziadok and Alinevich.

Photo: 1reg.by

In some ways anarchists supply a convenient enemy for the authorities since they often break the law, giving the government an excuse to move against them. In 2017  members of the movement burned a billboard of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Ivacevichy. Afterwards, three anarchists (17, 19 and 21 years old) received three years of probation. Independent journalists and human rights activists devoted little attention to this trial because it held no political significance. But, as Nasta Lojka says, police used the burned billboard as a pretext for searches in other cities, which looked quite far-fetched.

In 2017 Belarus held a long trial against an anti-fascist group of football fans, who received from 4 to 12 years for fighting, drug distribution and leading an unregistered organisation. However, authorities stretched some evidence in the case against anti-fascists so as to intimidate the entire community of informal youth groups.

The politicization of other cases looks more obvious still. During the protests against parasitism police arrested dozens of anarchists or others close to the movement. As a result of the protests, one activist, Zmicier Paliyenka, went to jail. Belarusian human rights activists have recognized him as a political prisoner.

However, the example of Paliyenka remains one of several. In practice, human rights activists try to avoid such criminal cases, especially involving violence. If anarchists consciously use violence, the human rights activists are forced to close their eyes to violations of rights against them.




Lukashenka’s recent appointments: in search of efficacy

On 5 March 2018, Siarhei Kavalchuk, a little known employee of the Presidential Security Service, became the Minister for Sports and Tourism. This and other appointments have virtually transformed key elements of the Belarusian state apparatus over recent months.

The personnel rotated include heads of major TV channels, a major publishing house, a government-controlled public association, two ministries and two special services. Although the reasons for each appointment were multiple and often unique, one can see well-recognisable patterns in play.

Expansion of the “president’s bodyguards”

First, the expansion of the president’s “bodyguards” – the Presidential Security Service – fits into a pattern.

In late 2017, the head of the service Andrei Paŭliučenka became head of the Operation-Analytical Centre (OAC). A special service set up in 2008, the OAC performs protection measures with regard to the state secrets and other classified information. Moreover, this agency bears responsibility for monitoring internet communications and has become an active player in the government’s policy for regulating the internet. Direct evidence indicates that OAC coordinates the work of all special services and possibly monitors the activities of higher level officials.

Until the end of 2017, Siarhei Shpiahun, a person close to Viktar Lukashenka, the president’s elder son working as his aide for national security, headed the OAC. However, the president severely criticised the agency’s leadership in the middle of November 2017 for poor performance and collusion in corruption. After this, a team from the Presidential Security Service replaced the incumbent managers. The Presidential Security Service came under the control of Paŭliučenka’s former deputy, Dzmitry Shakhrayeu.

 

Positions controlled by recent appointees from the Presidential Security Service

Alexander Lukashenka appointed another veteran of the service, Mikalai Latyshonak, as his aide for general issues in February 2018. This seemingly unimpressive position actually makes Latyshonak the head of the president’s secretariat. He will perform as a major “filter” of information flows destined for Lukashenka and “the gatekeeper” for high-level officials seeking a personal meeting with the president.

 

Yet another of the “president’s bodyguards”, Siarhei Kavalchuk, became the Minister for Sports and Tourism. His predecessor, Aliaksandr Shamko, was fired after “failing to take effective measures to counter corruption” in the area of his competence.

Renovation of media management

Media management rotation stands out as another prominent features of the recent reshuffle. This included the retirement of Paviel Jakubovič, the iconic editor-in-chief of the major state newspaper SB-Belarus Segodnia and the head of the media holding comprising a number of other state outlets (including newspapers and magazines) and a radio station. Jakubovič bore the unofficial title of the most influential intellectual in the establishment, often performing as the president’s personal advisor and speech-writer.

Dzmitry Zhuk, the long-time head of the state information agency BelTA replaced Jakubovič as head of SB-Belarus Segodnia. His appointment clearly shows the priorities of the authorities. They want to use the potential of the state printed media in order to balance information flows on the web where the state still remains on the defensive.

Another ex-BelTA manager and specialist in internet communications, Ihar Lutski, left the Ministry of Information where he had been working as the deputy minister, to take up the leadership of the STV TV channel. The latter has underperformed recently. The new director, who replaces an old-style and Russia-leaning Jury Kazijatka, will struggle to deliver results both as a TV and internet communications manager.

A further important recent appointment included the promotion of the former deputy head of the National TV and Radio Company (NTVRC, the state’s biggest media holding), Ivan Eismant, to that organisation’s leadership position. He replaced Hienadź Davydźka, who moved to head the public association Belaja Ruś, the largest Belarusian GONGO.

 

Major positions under the responsibility of the president’s spokesperson

Eismant’s appointment marks an important trend in the Belarusian media-sphere: the expanding influence of the president’s spokesperson, Natallia Eismant (Kirsanava), a former employee of the NTVRC and wife of Ivan Eismant, the new head of NTVRC. Rumours suggest other recent appointees are close to her: namely, the head of the National Press Centre Volha Shpileuskaya, the head of the president’s Protocol Service Darja Šmanaj, and the new leadership of the ONT TV channel.

It is also worth noting that in the framework of the reform of the Presidential Administration in early 2017, the spokesperson received considerable new powers including oversight over all state media.

Lukashenka’s own checks and balances

An obvious dimension to the named appointments stands out: the rise in influence of the Presidential Security Service and the president’s spokesperson (see the charts).

Another, no less obvious dimension, can be discerned: the newcomers are often younger and always more technocratic and performance oriented. They have been appointed on merit, and not because of historical contexts or personal relationships (even in the case of Ivan Ejsmant). Accordingly, they will be at a greater distance from Lukashenka personally than their predecessors, who might have tended to perceive him as “an equal” of sorts.

A less obvious dimension of the recent rotation is the shift of identities. At least some of the retired officials (Jury Kazijatka, Hienadź Davydźka, Aliaksandr Radźkoŭ who used to be the head of Belaja Ruś before Davydźka, former ONT head Ryhor Kisiel, and the former Minister of Information Lilija Ananič) seemed to be somewhat Russia-leaning in one or the other way. The newcomers, in contrast, attach themselves much more to Lukashenka’s Belarus than to the international context.

However, the most important dimension of the reshuffling proves less ostensible. Lukashenka tries to install a new system of checks and balances. While the Presidential Security Service expanded its influence, the country’s most powerful special agency – the State Security Committee (KGB) – underwent a substantial optimisation process. The agency downsized and its capacities somewhat reduced. Meanwhile, the budget spending for the OAC in 2018 increased by 42%.

Thus, the independent positions of the Presidential Security Service and OAC now balance the previously unrivalled domination of the KGB. On the other hand, the management rotation and introduction of an independent oversight function performed by the president’s spokesperson both curb the overarching influence that the KGB exerted over the state media was also curbed both by

As the Kremlin becomes increasingly aggressive and Belarus-Russia relations find themselves at a new low, Lukashenka seems eager to have a more balanced and professional state apparatus in the wake of 2019–2020 political campaigns. Will this strategy entail higher efficacy and help him to avoid a new political crisis? The answer will probably be clear by the end of 2018.

Yury Tsaryk

Yury Tsaryk is a Head of Russian studies at Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies (Belarus), Chevening Scholar 2017/2018 at UCL SSEES




One Hundred Years of Belarus Independence Proclamation: Uniting the Nation or Dividing the Opposition?

On 1 March 2018, Minsk municipal authorities granted a permission to install a memorial plaque on the historical building, where on 25 March 1918 Belarusian independence was proclaimed. On the following day, Belarusians crowdfunded the project, promptly collecting 2500 in just 3 hours.

Out of those states that gained their independence after the fall of the Russian Empire, Belarus remains the only one that does not officially celebrate this date. In the modern Belarusian history, the Belarusian Democratic Republic (Bielaruskaja Narodnaja Respublika or BNR)  anniversaries antagonised society – while the opposition made a specific point on public celebrations, the authorities usually marked 25 March with violent crackdowns.

This year, as the centennial of the Belarusian statehood approaches, authorities and opposition seem to agree on the importance of the date, in a stark contrast to the previous years.

What happened on 25 March 1918?

The BNR government in 1918. Source: bnr100.by

As Germany and Soviet Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty without Belarusian participation, Belarusian national elites finally realised the need to take responsibility for their homeland. After the proclamation of the Belarusian Democratic Republic on 9 March 1918, the declaration of independence followed on 25 March 1918. 

In reality, the BNR lacked many formal attributes of a state and heavily depended on German toleration. Yet, more importantly, it created an important historical precedent. Ten months later, the Bolsheviks appropriated the idea of Belarusian state and (mis)used it for their own political ends, but the BNR established a continuous statehood tradition. It survived throughout the 20th century, serving as a basis for the creation of the independent Belarusian state in 1991. 

The BNR did not disappear with the arrival of the Bolsheviks and continued to exist within the Belarusian diaspora abroad. Its government – the BNR Rada  – derives its legitimacy from the democratically elected All-Belarusian Congress and is famous for being the oldest government in exile. The BNR Rada considers the current political regime in Belarus undemocratic and refuses to hand over its mandate.

Freedom Day in Lukashenka’s Belarus

Celebrations of 25 March, also known as Freedom Day, resumed in 1989, yet it did not become a public holiday. Instead, the authorities opted for 3 July as the official independence day, marking the date of the liberation of Minsk from the Nazis in 1944. This date does not bear connections to the re-establishment of the statehood or its independence whatsoever.

Under the current political regime, 25 March usually antagonises official authorities, ending in violent clashes and arrests. The Freedom Day represents the very opposite of the regime’s  Soviet-based sentiments. In 1996, it coincided with a political crisis, threatening the annexation of Belarus by Russia and bringing 30.000 people to the streets. In 2000, authorities used military equipment and riot police units against the peaceful demonstration.

Freedom Day 2017 in Minsk. Source: svaboda.org

In 2017, the same trend was still in place: the authorities brutally detained over 700 persons out of a few thousand, who dared to gather in the centre of Minsk for the demonstration. Mass protests over the infamous ‘social parasites‘ decree last spring fuelled the authorities’ repressive reaction. 

However, with the exception when Freedom Day celebrations were reinforced with similar political or social crises, the usual scenarios stabilised at two-three thousand participants. Often without a clear plan of action, opposition kept struggling to revive the Freedom Day, while the authorities effectively prevented it from becoming a unifying date.

The BNR centennial and the regime: the limits of passive toleration

By contrast, this year might offer something fresh, as the Minsk municipal authorities permitted a rally and a concert on 25 March in a downtown location, near the Opera Theatre. Moreover, they also promised that the unregistered national white-red-white flags and ‘Pahonia’ coat of arms could be used without restrictions.

Few other concessions include several BNR-themed exhibitions at major Minsk museums and marking BNR-related spots in the urban space. On 13 March, a memorial plaque was unveiled in Janka Kupala Park, memorialising the brothers Ivan and Anton Luckievič, the leading ideologists of the Belarusian national movement. Another plaque should appear on the building at Valadarskaha Str. 9, where the BNR proclaimed its independence.

In regard to the soft Belarusisation trends, the centennial of the BNR might present the regime with an opportunity to abandon the dominant Soviet version of Belarusian history. Yet, according to the political analyst Aliaksandr Klaskouski, Belarusian authorities face two major obstacles – giving up their Soviet-defined identities and a fear that public celebrations might turn unpredictable.

In this context, Belarusian authorities want to appear benevolent on the issue of the BNR centennial, yet distanced themselves from celebrations on the official level.

Divide and rule: the opposition and its dilemmas

Civil society and opposition took over the planning of the BNR anniversary, launching a crowdfunding initiative to fund the concert and coordinating volunteers for the information campaign. However, the authorised concert and small concessions from the regime immediately revealed that there is no common ground within their ranks as to the format of the Freedom Day.

The organisational committee split between those who prefer festive celebrations to the more traditional political protest. United Civic Party, movement For Freedom and Belarusian Popular Front along with civil society activists, including Pavel Bielavus and blogger Eduard Palčys, opted for the concert. They argue that the BNR centennial should become an occasion for a national holiday with the appropriate festivities.

Mikalaj Statkevič. Source: svaboda.org

Their adversaries, Mikalaj StatkievičViačaslau Siučyk, and Uladzimir Niakliaeu support a traditional demonstration through the streets of Minsk. Statkevič pointed out that festivities might discredit the authority of the opposition, achieved during the social protests last year.

“We face a number of social and political issues […] People always come out to these events with their problems and needs. A demonstration gives them an opportunity to express these, while the guarded concert does not,” commented the uncompromising Statkevič. 

Thus, the roads of the opposition activists might part on 25 March 2018, allowing the regime to keep the face with the concert and prosecuting the participants of the unauthorised march.

The opposition’s lack of unity reminds of the similar divisions that tormented national elites in 1918, when they debated independence of the BNR in the early hours of 25 March one hundred years ago.

The centennial of the BNR coincides with a period when Belarusian regime shows interest in a stronger national identity. It also does not mind to compromise with the opposition, albeit on specific terms. A sizable part of the opposition, in turn, appears eager to use the warmer attitude of the authorities.




Opinion: Cannabis Reform in Belarus?

On 17 February 2018, a group of young Belarusians holding a banner reading ‘Legalize Belarus’ gathered on Independence Avenue in the heart of Minsk. The group was campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana in Belarus, a proposition that, at least for now, seems likely to attract support from the public or government officials, if you are a user, try Laweekly products since they have the best reviews online.

Why reform is needed

The perception of cannabis use in Belarus has been largely shaped by Soviet-era misinformation and anti-cannabis propaganda disseminated by the Lukashenka government. Adding to the stigma of cannabis use is the fact that Belarus has some of the harshest drug laws in Europe and its penal code makes no distinction between categories of drugs, people in Belarus would like to have more flexibility, specially when it comes to growing some marijuana for medical purposes. If you plan on opening a dispensary with these medicinal strains, then make sure you go through the process of insuring your dispensary.

This means that possession of cannabis is prosecuted (and perceived by the public) in much the same way as possession of heroin. With Belarus’s draconian drug laws having a permanently detrimental impact on the lives of untold numbers of youth due to simple cannabis possession, those advocating for legalisation would likely consider any measure of decriminalization a success.

Картинки по запросу legalize belarus

Legalize Belarus action in Minsk. Photo: svaboda.org

On Legalize Belarus’s website it states that more than 15,000 people are currently in prison in Belarus for drug-related crimes. The majority of those convicted are serving 5-8 year sentences with many working as forced-labourers in prison camps. In an article posted in January 2017 on Belarus Digest, Alesia Rudnik noted that in Belarus a conviction for drug possession can carry a significantly heavier prison sentence than even criminal acts of paedophilia.

In clear cases of petty possession, Belarusian prosecutors tend to always push for trafficking charges, as this guarantees a minimum prison sentence of 5-years. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities’ intolerance of both drugs and dissent puts participants in organisations and events supporting the decriminalisation of cannabis at risk for steep fines and up to 15 days in jail for their activities.

 Anti-cannabis propaganda

As part of instilling a fear of cannabis into the minds of Belarusian children, the government occasionally holds trials of accused (though soon to be convicted) cannabis users in public locations such as schools. In the Fall of 2017, a 30-year-old woman charged with ‘storing hash’, was sentenced to three years of ‘restricted freedom’. The trail was held in the classroom of a school in Minsk while students watched.

And while three years of ‘restricted freedom’ was a mere slap on the wrist by Belarusian standards, this case was an outlier. Show trials and unreasonably long prison sentences undoubtedly serve as powerful deterrents against cannabis use amongst Belarusian youth, especially when the accused are tried and convicted in schoolrooms full of children.

Cannabis in neighbouring states    

Even in comparison to the Russian Federation’s cannabis laws, Belarus is far stricter. In Russia, possession of 6 grams or less of cannabis is prosecuted as an administrative offence, the Russian equivalent of a misdemeanor. You can get a hemp flower online in the country, but there have been restrictions placed on them and slowly, websites selling cannabis are being taken down. In Ukraine possession of up to 5 grams and the cultivation of up to 10 plants for personal consumption is also classified as an administrative offence. Of Belarus’s neighborhoods, it is Poland who has been the most progressive in terms of cannabis reform and in 2017 legalized medical marijuana. Moreover, nearly 80% of Poles were in favor of the legislation, a level of support that would be difficult to imagine in Belarus.

In 2017, even the production of industrial hemp, a plant that contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, was made illegal. Since industrial hemp has a wide range of practical uses, particularly in the production of textiles and paper products, and no potential to be abused as an illicit substance, outlawing the crop seems to have been a hysterical reaction on the part of the government rather than a serious measure to protect public health. If, however, the Lukashenko regime is shielding Belarusians from cannabis and industrial hemp due to health concerns, they may be focusing on the wrong substance. They do not imagine the amount of R&D is required to bring new hemp oil products to market so we can ensure the safety of the consumers.

Cannabis vs. alcohol

In Belarus, like much of Eastern Europe, alcoholism is a significant health crisis that seems to affect, at least in some way, nearly every family in the country. Based on current statistics coming from the U.S., the legalization of medical marijuana appears to result in a substantial decrease in alcohol consumption. To learn more about the marijuana health benefits you can always view the page linked.

Картинки по запросу US pot shop

Marihuana shop in the US. Photo: moneyinc.com

In fact, a study published in 2017 found that in states where both medical marijuana and alcohol are sold, the legalisation of medical marijuana and the ease of purchasing CBD products from an online dispensary had reduced alcohol sales by an average of 15%. Of course, this only sounds like good news to those who view marijuana as significantly safer than alcohol for one’s overall health and wellbeing. If you’re looking for great CBD products like vape juice, edibles, and more, check out Fresh Brosâ„¢.

With its never-ending financial crises, if Belarus’s authoritarian government is to be persuaded on the issue of cannabis reform, it will likely be due to economics, not ethics. In 2015, just one year after recreational cannabis became legal for purchase in Colorado, the state’s marijuana tax revenues were three times greater than those from alcohol sales, people started to buy more from websites like www.cannabis.ninja.

Additionally, though Colorado has a population of just 5.5 million, from 2014-2017 the state’s total tax revenue from cannabis sales was $506m. With sales from government-owned alcohol companies accounting for approximately 80% of Belarus’s alcohol sales, advocates for cannabis legalisation in Belarus will likely need to make their case to the authorities by presenting cannabis as a more profitable and less dangerous alternative to alcohol.

If you are interested in getting full spectrum wholesale products, we suggest to read more about growing cannabis and to also learn more about the legal status of your current location.

Michael Dorman

Michael Dorman holds an MA from the University of Texas at Austin’s Centre for Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies. His research interests include WWII and the Holocaust in Belarus, post-Soviet Belarusian politics, and current social issues in Belarus.




How many divisions does Lukashenka have?

On 18 February President Alexander Lukashenka offered to deploy a 10,000-strong Belarusian contingent as peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine. This represents a rather large commitment for the Belarusian army comprising in total 46,000 military personnel.

Minsk pays increasing attention to its military and has even raised its spending on armed forces by a fifth. But the Belarusian army still faces problems, which go beyond the acquisition of expensive weaponry. It also has fewer conscripts than it would like. Consequently it employs additional professional soldiers and relies ever more on reservists. In this way the army adjusts to the needs of the country.

Arms or soldiers? Minsk’s spending dilemma

This year Belarusian government spending on the national army amounted to $576m; about a fifth more than last year. This remains a small figure, as even its neighbours with considerably smaller armies manage to spend more (see Table 1). To be sure, one has to take into account that the Baltic states pay a lot for Western equipment, while Minsk still has Soviet stores and national defence industries producing some equipment at affordable prices.

As Belarus increased its army budget, initially it looked as if it had allocated more funds in order to purchase costly new fighter jets from Russia. With time it appears that the decision relates to more than equipment. First, the deal on aircraft, according to recent news, is not yet finalised. Second, the growth in spending may partly stem from personnel costs. In 2017 the government raised salaries of all military personnel three times, and wages of civil personnel – twice.

In addition, for several years the Belarusian armed forces have been increasing the share of professionals — so-called contracted soldiers. Defence minister Andreij Raukou, in an interview for BelTA news agency on 23 February, revealed that, whereas in 2014 professional servicemen and women made up 16 per cent of all soldiers and sergeants, this figure has now reached 20%. The remainder comprises conscripts and regularly called up reservists. While Belarusian government officials firmly insist that the army will never be entirely professional, the share of professional contracted soldiers grows. 

Poorly qualified soldiers and sergeants

Image: ONT.by

The figures hide the occasionally difficult reality concerning the quality of even professional Belarusian military personnel. After a conscript’s suicide at the 72nd Combined Training Centre because of hazing, the control bodies also re-examined all sergeants dealing with trainees at the centre. The results, as reported by Belorusskaya voennaya gazeta on 15 December, shock: about 30 % of sergeants failed to prove they held appropriate qualifications, leading to their dismissal from the facility.

The situation with ordinary soldiers is no better. In recent decades the Belarusian draft system involves conscription of less than a fifth of the whole age group. In the autumn 2017 draft campaign, more than seven-and-a-half thousand men have been called up for compulsory 18 or 12-month military service, and more than one-and-a-half thousand men for service as reservists.

In the news conference on 14 February minister Raukou lamented that about five per cent of conscripts from the latest draft had past criminal convictions. As recently as the early 2000s such people would not be admitted to the army. The minister added that almost two thirds of the conscripts had been detained by police for administrative offences, while the police had 12 per cent under constant observation because of recurrent offences.

No wonder that the army shifts its priorities away from conscripted recruits towards the hiring of professional soldiers, and also towards the deployment of more reservists. The latter mostly have better education than current recruits, and serve in the army for several shorter stints during two years (if they have a university degree) to gain some military qualification. Later on, they can be called up for refresher courses and participation in exercises.

MLRS Uragan. Image: Belorusskaya voennaya gazeta

The Belarusian army boasts success in training reservists. On 7 February the official Belarusian military daily, Belorusskaya voennaya gazeta, run a story about the 51st Guards’ Artillery Brigade in which reservists make up ninety per cent of its personnel. They deal with sophisticated systems like the multiple-launch missile system (MLRS) Uragan, the towed 152.4 mm howitzer Msta-B, or the 152 mm self-propelled gun Giatsint-S. Apparently they cope with the task; in 20152017 the brigade’s units were acknowledged as the best artillery divisions in the Belarusian army.

Belarus has enough officers

The situation with officers looks better. Speaking at an official event on 18 January, the defence minister, Raukou, said: “The staffing of the posts of officers for some years has been growing in a fairly stable way and has presently reached the highest level for the entire period of the Belarusian army’s existence.

Most officers receive their education in Belarus. The head of military education department in the defence ministry, Ihar Slutski, told Belarusian military media on 20 December that 277 officers and 1,114 reserve officers graduated from Belarusian colleges in 2017.

Traditionally, a significant number of Belarusian officers train in Russia. Mostly they study there to gain rarer qualifications or because they have interest in higher levels of military education. Official sources provide only general data for this, according to which at present almost 440 Belarusians are being trained in 56 specialities in Russian military colleges. In other words, the ratio of Belarusian officers being educated inside Belarus today and in Russia last year equated to approximately three to one.

Readjustments and cuts

The Belarusian army transforms not only in terms of its equipment where it “selectively” rearms. As described above, the government also reforms military personnel and the general structure.

Most probably, Minsk will further, although not dramatically, reduce the size of its standing army. That follows not only from officials’ statements about problems with conscripts, but also from the evident lack of funds to properly maintain the existing army.

Defence minister Raukou. Image: Zvyazda

The defence ministry begins to get rid of unnecessary material assets which may indicate the intent to subsequently reduce the number of personnel. At a press conference on 14 February, Raukou announced plans to get rid of 25 per cent of the stored arms, equipment and other military material.

Belarus’s military pursues similar policies with regard to its civil personnel. On 21 December, the head of support services department in the defence ministry, Dzmitry Strashynski, told the official military media that in 2017 they reduced the civilian personnel providing security for military bases by 346 men thanks to the installation of electronic equipment.

Of course, Minsk will not simply cut its military. It also buys the equipment it needs and readjusts the structure of the national armed forces. A case in point provided by the establishment of a new air defence regiment in December. The new unit, located in the city of Baranavichy, operates the modern surfacetoair missile systems TorM2. That is, Minsk cares about its air defence capacities because of its commitments visavis Russia.

For its own needs, Minsk prioritises special operations forces and missile capabilities. Other parts of the military probably will be reduced.

Whatever problems the Belarusian army encounters in terms of equipment and personnel, the government looks for ways to solve them. Above all, by readjusting the army to make it suit Belarus’s own needs and opportunities. Although Minsk carefully takes into account some Russian sensitivities in the defence sphere, say, by maintaining massive air defence components in its armed forces, it sets limits. Otherwise, the Belarusian government decides for itself and pays for itself in respect of military issues. Doing so, it can develop a robust army without fomenting destabilisation in the region.




Belarusian language: declining in state education, strengthening in civil society

Only 13% of pupils in Belarus study in the Belarusian language. The authorities therefore roused great public interest with a recent promise to establish Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens in each district in Minsk.

At present, the near impossibility of receiving pre-school education in the Belarusian language concerns some parents. Others cling on to even the slightest possibility of ensuring their children’s education in the Belarusian language. Yet others wonder why the question arises at all – thinking that it would be better to teach students English or Chinese.

The rapid disappearance of the Belarusian language from the education sector (from 19% in the 2010/2011 academic year to 13% in 2017/2018) paradoxically coincided with the increasing popularity of various kinds of Belarusian cultural initiatives and projects.

Russian language dominates the education system

The reduction in the number of pupils studying in Belarusian stands in tension with the growing interest in Belarusian language and culture in society. Founded several years ago, Belarusian language courses under the “Mova Nanova” initiative gather hundreds of people in Minsk and other Belarusian cities. Crowdfunding enables the publication of Belarusian-language books and the translation of movies into Belarusian. Inscriptions on the jerseys of Belarusian football players increasingly appear in Belarusian. The education system in Belarus, however, still shows signs of Russification rather than Belarusisation.

Fewer and fewer children today study in Belarusian. Of the six regional centres, Belarusian-language schools exist only in Minsk. In some of the regional cities schools do have small Belarusian-language forms. However, most of the Belarusian-language schools are located in villages. Totally only 13.3% of all pupils study in Belarusian according to the National Statistical Committee of Belarus.

The situation looks more problematic in pre-school and higher education. Belarusian-language kindergartens represent a minority among the preschools. In the biggest cities there exist only small groups with the Belarusian language. Until now, Belarus has no university providing a Belarusian-language education.

The problem of access to the Belarusian-language education grew in importance for Belarusian society. On 21 February, International Mother Language Day, a group of parents in Minsk visited the Ministry of Education to discuss pre-school education in the Belarusian language. During the meeting, parents proposed the introduction of more Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens and schools. Later, the Ministry of Education promised to open a Belarusian group in each Minsk region.

Parents struggle for more education in Belarusian

To date parents have to fight for the education of their children in the Belarusian language. Increasingly, parents collect signatures for the creation of Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens and schools. On 21 February, public activists of the Young Front collected 2,000 signatures in Minsk for creating a Belarusian-language university.

Occasionally, local authorities meet with parents to discuss the status of the Belarusian language in education, as happened on 21 February. One of the participants of the meeting, Volha Kavalchuk, told to Radyjo Svaboda that her child can not get into a group with Belarusian as the language of instruction. “Due to the shortage of Belarusian speakers, kindergartens take in Russian-speakers, who become a majority later,” and the group becomes a Russian-speaking one.

Parents at the meeting with the education ministry. Photo: svaboda.org

 

Belarusian-language parents worry that their children gradually shift into the Russian language from studying in a Russian-language system. At the meeting of pro-Belarusian parents with the Ministry of Education on 21 February, parents noted that groups exist only in certain areas of the city and that this is logistically inconvenient for many parents. Often, as is the case in the Pershamajsky district of Minsk, different age groups emerge. These factors influence the quality of teaching; many parents have to send their children to Russian-language kindergartens.

How has the status of the Belarusian language in education changed?

Since Alexander Lukashenka came to power, the Belarusian language began a gradual decline in the education system. In 1994-1995 more than 75% of pupils studied in Belarusian. After the referendum in 1995, when the Russian language received the same status as Belarusian, the latter started to disappear from education. From that moment on, many Belarusian schools and kindergartens began to teach partially in Russian.

In the years after the collapse of the USSR Belarus’s neighbours, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine, actively worked on the transition of schools into teaching in the national language. In contrast, from 1995 the Belarusian authorities embraced a Russification of education system. The titular language of Belarus appeared as a threat to the authorities. Lukashenka saw the main threat to his power in the Belarusian-speaking opposition and methodically narrowed the space for studying the language and culture. Whereas 22% of pupils studied in Belarusian in 1988, the comparable figure for 2017 was 13.3%.

In recent years, after events surrounding Ukraine’s Maidan, the Belarusian language situation within the education system started to improve in small steps. Observing Russian aggression in Ukraine, the authorities began to demonstrate more support to the Belarusian language and national history at different levels, so-called “soft Belarusisation”. However, until now, soft Belarusisation hardly affected schools, kindergartens and universities.

The fate of Belarusian language: in citizens’ hands

Social activists continue to do the most work promoting the Belarusian language. For example, recently created initiative, Perakladaton, has translated the civil code into Belarusian with the help of volunteers and plans to translate other laws (only 3% of legislative acts in the country are written in Belarusian).

Social activist Ihar Sluchak has long communicated with the Belarusian government and commercial organisations, trying to force them to speak Belarusian. Recently an online catalogue of Belarusian businesses and services, SVAJE, appeared. Regular updates include new businesses and places where the staff speak Belarusian.

This work of social activists partly compensates for the poor condition of the Belarusian language in the education system. However, some positive signals appear from the government. For the first time the authorities have allowed the holding of a celebratory concert on Alternative Independence Day in the centre of Minsk. If the concert does not bring police detentions, then it might give some hope that the “soft Belarusisation” will extend into Belarusian schools, kindergartens and universities.




The crisis of Belarusian youth sport: can we expect a new Domracheva?

At the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, Belarus finished 15th in the medal table with two golds and one silver. The result represents a true sporting achievement for a country with a relatively small GDP. Yet, despite the triumphs of Darya Domracheva and Hanna Huskova, the Belarusian team failed to repeat its success at the 2014 games in Sochi when Belarus finished 8th in the medal standings. Belarusian youth sport faces several problems which reduce expectations of victories at Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022.

First, numerous sports clubs lack either private sponsorship or state support. Secondly, poor salaries reduce the motivation of talented youth coaches for career advancement. Finally, an abundance of entertainment, as well as the high cost of sports equipment, prevents youngsters from attending sports schools. For these reasons, instead of investing in sports infrastructure, the Belarusian government needs to support youth coaches. An efficient approach towards youth sports will improve the results of Belarusian sports teams in future.

Belarus’s sporting triumphs

As a part of the USSR, Belarus produced numerous sporting legends, including Olga Korbut, Vital Scherba, and Alexander Miadvedz. Belarusian sportsmen and women have traditionally demonstrated impressive achievements in fencing, gymnastics, rowing, track and field, skiing, and wrestling, if you will like to start making your way in to the skiing crowd, you might want to check out the Altitude Sports skiing gear collection at the link. The Soviet period left behind strong sports traditions and an excellent coaching system. However, the rapid breakdown of the Soviet economic system took its toll on the development of sport in independent Belarus.

Source: pyeongchang2018.com

Nevertheless, Belarus managed to preserve strong Soviet sports traditions in biathlon, freestyle skiing, rhythmic gymnastics, rowing, wrestling, and weightlifting. In Pyeongchang, Belarus – with a GDP per capita of just $4,989.25 (2016 figure) – finished 15th among 92 competing nations.

In comparison, the GDP per capita of Norway, which topped the medals table, amounts to $70,812 (2016); the GDP of 10-million-strong Sweden – $51,559 (2016); and the GDP of Austria with 8.7 million people – $44,176 (2016). Belarus, the poorest country among the top 15 medal winners, managed to do so well despite its economic hardship. A stable medal flow leaves hope for future Belarusian sporting achievements. However, Belarusian sport faces a number of problems.

Belarusian sport vs. the market economy 

Sources: World Bank (2016), pyeongchang2018.com

After the break of the Soviet Union, Belarusian sport had to adjust to a market economy. In order to attract serious sponsors, sports events required tens of thousands of spectators. However, despite cheap tickets, sports events have never managed to attract regular crowds in Belarus. For instance, only 3,864 spectators supported the national football team in its European Championship qualifying match against Slovakia. The attendance at ice hockey matches has turned into a farce whereby students fill empty stands in exchange for better grades for years. So far, the national sport has failed to be considered first-rate entertainment among Belarusians.

Since Belarusian sport cannot provide for itself, the Belarusian government obliged enterprises to finance sports teams across the country. For instance, the Belarusian Potash Company “Belaruskali” sponsors the “Shakhtyor-Saligorsk” ice hockey club, while OJSC “Byelorussian Steel Works” sponsors another ice hockey club, “Metallurg-Zhlobin”.  However, the level of financial support depends on the profitability of each particular enterprise and, in cases of bankruptcy or financial crisis, teams must survive without support for months, if not years. Financial straits have put an end to several Belarusian sports teams, including male volleyball teams from Hrodna and Homiel.

Belarusian sport vs. the entertainment industry

Aside from financial challenges, Belarusian sport faces a decreasing talent pool. At present the national sports industry competes with numerous entertainment giants. Films, concerts, clubs, cafes, the internet and computer games simultaneously fight for young Belarusians’ attention.  While Soviet youngsters pursued sports activities due to the lack of entertainment, contemporary Belarusian teenagers possess plenty of it. Moreover, music idols such as Rihanna and Jay-Z score higher in teen popularity than the biggest national sports stars, including Victoria Azarenka and Alexander Hleb. As a result, many potential sporting talents do not develop their potential.

Expensive sports equipment also deters talented children. Youth hockey equipment costs between $600-800 (approximately one-and-a-half times the average Belarusian monthly salary); especially problematic for a growing teenager who requires new hockey equipment each year. While golfers will need a golf launch monitor to effectively practice at home.

A rhythmic gymnastics suit costs $400 and lasts just half a year. A high quality tennis racquet costs about $3,000 (or nearly eight times the average Belarusian salary). Belarusian parents therefore have to think twice before investing in their child’s sports activities. In this way, the proclaimed state support for national sport looks rather hypocritical.

Belarusian sport vs. diminishing coaching talent

Belarusian youth coaches have outlined two major problems harming the development of Belarusian sport. The first problem concerns poor salaries for a highly challenging job of coaching children and teenagers. At present, Belarusian youth coaches receive between $200-350 per month, even less than the official average salary of $426. Consequently, the best specialists quickly move into better-paid roles coaching adults and prospective juniors.

Mikalai Lukashenka competes at Snow Sniper biathlon event. Source: belta.by

The second problem relates to a decline in the quality of coaching education. The lack of professional prestige deprives sports faculties of a competitive selection. As a result, education standards also drop, as does motivation of young specialists. Aside from this, Belarusian sports specialists rarely attend international conferences or apply creative teaching approaches. Therefore, a higher education diploma in physical education does not guarantee a professional coach.

To conclude, Belarusian youth sports undergoes a crisis, which has stemmed from its slow transition to a market economy. Youth sports schools suffer a shortage of talent, sports clubs lack sponsors, and spectators are not entertained. The primary task facing Belarusian sport remains to increase its target audience. As soon as national sports become important for Belarusians, they will attract sufficient financial flows. As for state support, the major investment should be redirected into supporting youth coaches instead of building infrastructure.




Exploring Belarus’s massive gender longevity gap

The Belarusian gender debate understandably focuses on women’s rights, but in reality, men deserve as much attention. Belarusian men have a far lower life expectancy than women; lower even than North Korean men.

Both men themselves and state authorities bear responsibility for this. Belarus remains one of the most alcoholic nations in the world and Belarusian men generally treat their health with indifference. 

For persons with severe obesity (BMI ≥40), life expectancy is reduced by as much as 20 years in men and by about 5 years in women. The greater reduction in life expectancy for men is consistent with the higher prevalence of android (ie, predominantly abdominal) obesity and the biologically higher percent body fat in women. The risk of premature mortality is even greater in obese persons who smoke. If you want to fight you obesity, check these tips that will help you burn fat fast, I you are looking for a good weight loss supplement, try reading the Revitaa pro reviews.

This has painful consequences. Families lose a parent and a money-maker, while the state loses a taxpayer. Even before death, poor health among men leads to low productivity and hence holds significance for the economy. The Belarusian government undertakes some efforts to promote healthy lifestyles but it fails to do so systematically. 

The short lives of Belarusian men

Worldwide women live longer than men on average. For example, in 2015, life expectancy in Sweden for women stood three years longer than for men (84 years and 80.7 respectively) according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In other countries, like in the United States, this gap may be even larger (81.6 and 76.9 years respectively).

Belarus differs from Western countries because it has a much larger difference in life expectancy between men and women. A Belarusian girl born in 2015 can expect to live 11.5 years longer than a boy (78 and 66.5 years). The difference turns out so great that Belarusian women rank 66th in the world by life expectancy, while men sit in 119th place. Only Russia has  a larger gender longevity gap larger (76.3 and 64.7 years). 

But today’s reality remains much sadder and does not only affect those who have just been born. Currently, many men die before they reach retirement age, especially those who live in rural areas. In the 1990s and 2000s life expectancy occasionally dropped below 60 years for rural men. Belarusian males have lives as short as butterflies.

Why do men die so early?

The achievements of Belarusian men in cutting short their own lives look quite logical. Belarus remains one of the world leaders in alcohol consumption according to the WHO data from 2014. Belarusians drink 17.5 litres of pure alcohol per capita, but that refers to the national average. Belarusian males consume 27.5 litres per capita. Meanwhile, the world average consumption is 6.2 litres. Despite government attempts to set up a programme for the prevention of alcoholism and rehabilitation of alcoholics, Belarus has so far failed to combat heavy drinking. 

Photo: Shutterstock

According to the chief expert in narcology at the Ministry of Health, Belarus has 160 thousand alcoholics on record, and 85 thousand remained under preventive supervision in 2016. That equates to almost 4% of the population, although in reality one may double or triple this figure since the state authorities fail to record everyone who has problems with alcohol. 

Smoking remains another big reason why Belarusian men live so few years. According to a sociological study by the Belarusian state university, a third of the Belarusian adult population smoked in 2016.

Most smokers are men, who often start the habit even before the time at which the statistics start taking them into account. Belarusian youth remains one of the biggest smokers in the post-Soviet space. The author tried smoking at the age of 7 and became a habitual smoker by the age of 12.

In addition, Belarus has a set of further reasons determining short male life expectancy, similar to those found elsewhere in the world. For instance, men tend to avoid doctors and take bigger risks. Men more typically work in hazardous occupations, such as those associated with mining or construction. Moreover, a Ministry of Labour provision practically prohibits women from working in dangerous jobs such as blacksmith or long-haul driver. Belarusian feminists see this as discrimination. 

Belarusian men remain much less socialized and this influences their psychological stability. Therefore, for example, they are more likely to commit suicide – in 2016, 386 women killed themselves, while 1,656 men committed suicide according to official figures. 

Men’s earlier deaths affecting society

Actually, the Belarusian authorities do not seem concerned about low male life expectancy. The issue remains absent from officials’ public speeches and so far it is difficult to find any mentions in media or academia about the matter. Yet the problem affects not only men, but it has painful consequences for society as a whole.

Belarusian men earn more than women, so their loss means a significant fall in total income. Raising two children with a single Belarusian average monthly salary of $250 is difficult even to imagine. Those children without a father (or, to a lesser extent, a grandfather) will have far fewer chances of professional and personal success in life.  

Photo: Shutterstock

A more common example, when a woman in retirement has to pay for housing utilities alone this amounts to around $40 per month for a small flat, which previously she shared with her husband. In fact, this puts the woman at risk of poverty since the average pension in Belarus remains around $150 per month.

The state also loses, although some may cynically believe that the state benefits from so many men not reaching their retirement. However, in practice, this means a premature withdrawal from the labour market of qualified and experienced personnel. Moreover, men’s poor health means that their productivity remains below their potential and slows down the whole economy.

It remains in the interests of Belarus to lengthen the lives of men, but the authorities seem unprepared to take steps to achieve this. The government takes half-hearted measures to promote a healthy lifestyle, such as putting social advertisements on billboards, but it fails to raise prices on alcohol and cigarettes, fearing that it will increase illegal alcohol production and smuggling from Russia. 

Moreover, an unhealthy lifestyle still serves as a tool of authoritarianism because it helps Belarusians forget their problems. Unless this attitude of the authorities changes, nothing is likely to prevent Belarusian men from dying early. 




Shrinking economic freedom and milk war with Russia – Belarusian economic digest

On 16 February 2018 Belstat, the official statistical body of Belarus, announced that GDP growth for the first month of the year had reached a new high, surpassing the previous month’s record.

Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation’s statement on 5 February that the country’s economic freedoms have declined dampened the mood in the business community.

Finally, on 1 March, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka acknowledged the existence of problematic issues related to the supply of Belarusian milk to the Russian market.

Economic growth: Optimism after January figures

According to Belstat, in January 2018 GDP growth reached 4.6 per cent year-on-year (see Figure 1). Export, investment in fixed capital and industrial production provide the foundation of this positive economic tendency.

In January 2018, the growth of import of goods slowed down in sharp contrast with the strengthening growth of the export of goods. This pattern of imports mostly resulted from decreasing consumer demand which, for instance, led to declining food imports.

Industrial production recovers gradually, growing by 9.7 per cent in the first month. The effect of “delayed” external demand plays a crucial role here, while the associated growth in imports of intermediate goods largely bypasses the role of domestic demand.

During the preceding four years, depressed investment in the Belarusian economy showed itself most drastically in respect of fixed capital. As a result, the share of investments in GDP has fallen from its peak of about 40 per cent in 2010 to about 25 per cent today.

Meanwhile, according to data announced by Belstat on 26 February, fixed investments have increased by 26 per cent year-on-year (see Figure 1).

The lower level of investments in previous years has raised their quality because economic entities reject less effective projects. The growing return on capital for new investment projects in Belarus therefore probably indicates that the period of depressed investment has ended.

Trade: Milk tensions on the eastern border

Belarus currently supplies milk to 45 countries, but Russia remains its main market. However, on 9 February Rosselkhoznadzor (the Russian State Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Supervision) imposed restrictions on the import of Belarusian dairy products, strengthened laboratory controls and suspended the certification of products from a number of Belarusian plants due to violations of Eurasian Economic Union norms.

In 2017 Rosselkhoznadzor repeatedly limited the supply of agricultural products from Belarusian enterprises to the Russian market. For example, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food of Belarus, in December last year 54 Belarusian companies fell under Rosselkhoznadzor’s sanctions.

The Belarusian authorities blame the Russian side for unfair claims. According to official estimates, in 2017 Belarus lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the Russian food market due to sanctions imposed by Rosselkhoznadzor.

Last year the enterprises of the Ministry of Agriculture of Belarus increased exports of products by 3.9 per cent, yet the share of exports to Russia decreased. According to Belstat, in 2017 Belarus delivered to Russia condensed and dried milk and cream for $371.4m – 12.8 per cent less than in 2016.

According to experts, Russia constantly finds “harmful and dangerous substances” in Belarusian milk not because of its low quality, but due to increased production of dairy products by Russia’s own producers.

The Director of the Centre for the Study of the Dairy Market of Russia, Mikhail Mishchenko, admits the lower price of Belarusian products compared to Russian. However, Russia also blames Belarus for significant volumes of re-export that pass through the country and form a significant surplus of dairy products on the Russian market.

All this leads to lower prices in the consumer market of Russia, decreasing revenues of its domestic producers and results in increasing trade tensions between the economic allies.

Entrepreneurship: Losing economic freedom

According to the latest data from the Heritage Foundation, Belarus position in the Index of Economic Freedom worsened (see Figure 2).

Belarus moved from 104th to 108th place in the ranking prepared by the American research organization. The authors of the study note that, due to the stagnating economy, liberal approaches lost priority in the economic policy of the Belarusian authorities.

Moreover, according to the authors of the study, the violation of private owners’ rights continues (for example, through expropriation of private property through de-privatization), as does the spread of state participation and control of the economy. The state share reaches approximately 70 per cent.

These factors seriously impede economic growth, social development and lead to widespread corruption in the country. According to official statistics, the number of corruption crimes in Belarus has grown – 1,922 cases of bribery in 2017; almost twice as high as in 2016.

According to the survey conducted by the IPM Research Centre in 2017, a third of respondents (representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises) admit that corruption remains a widespread phenomenon in Belarus. The Chairman of the supervisory board of the IPM Research Centre, Igor Pelipas, explains that corruption increases business costs and this, as a rule, leads to an increase in the cost of products sold and services rendered.

Taken altogether, the revival of exports and end of the investment depression have given a positive impetus to the entire economy. However, Belarus still substantially lacks economic freedoms and export disagreements with Russia over food products remain unresolved.

Aleh Mazol, Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)

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




London conference, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, Holocaust memory, Lithuania – digest of the Ostrogorski Centre

In February Ostrogorski Centre analysts discussed the Holocaust memory in Belarus, the clash between Belarus and Lithuania over common history, as well as the sentencing of pro-Russian bloggers who remained under investigation for the past year.

We also published the newest issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies and opened registration for the 3rd Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies, which is scheduled for 23 March.

Analytics

Lizaveta Kasmach discusses what Belarusians remember about the Holocaust. A distinct lack of reflection over the largest tragedy of the 20th century marks mainstream perceptions of the Holocaust in contemporary Belarus. Among Belarusian citizens, the Holocaust serves as a background for narratives of wartime heroism. Any commemoration of the tragedy often depends on individual initiatives and support from abroad. In this respect, a comprehensive discussion of the Holocaust as part of the school curriculum might pave the way towards a better understanding of the past.

Ryhor Astapenia analyses how common history divides Belarus and Lithuania. Instead of uniting the two countries, shared history actually divides them and puts Lithuania on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, it would like Belarus to transform into a Western democracy. On the other hand, it recognizes that the Western identity of Belarus challenges Lithuania’s own identity since it requires both countries to draw on the same historical heritage.

Vadzim Smok writes about the finale of the criminal prosecution of pro-Russian bloggers. Their case sets a precedent. Never before have the Belarusian authorities brought a criminal prosecution for Belarusophobia and pro-Russian propaganda. Yet, surprisingly, the Russian government’s official public reaction has been muted. By trying pro-Russian journalists, the Belarusian authorities draw a red line with regards to propaganda in the bilateral relationship with Russia.

The Journal of Belarusian Studies 2017

The Ostrogorski Centre in cooperation with the Anglo-Belarusian Society is pleased to present the latest issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies.

The 2017 issues includes articles on Belarusian national mobilisation and the practical challenges encountered by national activists in eastern Belarus during 1917, American political attention towards Belarus through the research of the Congressional Record, and the sources of astrological knowledge for the 16th century Belarusian publisher Francis Skaryna.

Established in 1965, the journal is oldest periodical on Belarusian studies in the English language.

“Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century” conference

The Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century Conference Committee, the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum proudly announce the 3rd Annual Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century Conference. The conference will take place on 23 March 2018 at the University College London (UCL). The preliminary conference programme and registration form can be found here.

Comments in the media

The Belarusian leadership understands that the Russian media strongly influence mass opinion in Belarus and wage information attacks against official Minsk. At the same time, Minsk cannot go too far in countering it, such as by closing Russian channels which broadcast in Belarus, says Ostrogorski Centre analyst Alesia Rudnik in a comment to Polish radio.

Also on Polish radio, Ostrogorski Centre associate analyst Ryhor Astapenia talked about how common history divides Belarus and Lithuania (as mentioned above).

Following staff cuts, the Belarusian foreign ministry will face difficulties promoting the interests of the country abroad, including on economic issues. Many countries try to economise on their diplomatic service, but they also clearly identify their priorities. First of all, Belarus should cut the branches of its embassy in Russia, since it has as many as ten spread across the country, says senior analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre Igar Gubarevich in a comment to Polish radio.

The Ostrogorski Centre’s associate analyst Siarhei Bohdan, in an article for the Azerbaijani military online publication armiya.az, discusses military cooperation between Belarus and Azerbaijan. In particular, he considers the potential sale of the Palanez multiple launch rocket system to Baku, as well as Armenia’s role in this cooperation.

Russia increasingly routes cargo and passengers around Belarus. Minsk’s losses from these Kremlin policies will be considerable both economically and politically, says Bohdan in a comment to Polish Radio. The only alternative for Belarus is providing transit routes for new passenger and cargo flows between regional countries, the EU and China.

In a further comment to Polish radio, Bohdan talks about how, in recent years, the Belarusian authorities have been phasing out the policy of expanding access to the sea through other countries of the region: Poland and Ukraine. Relations with Lithuania continue to deteriorate because its leadership sees Belarus as a threat. This all weakens the position of Belarus and promotes the interests of the Kremlin.

Belarus Policy

The BelarusPolicy.co database has been enriched with a number of publications by Belarusian think tanks.

The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Ostrogorski Academythe Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.comBelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.




Local elections in Belarus: takeaways

On 18 February 2018, Belarusians elected their representatives to local councils.

This campaign presented the authorities with an opportunity to demonstrate their openness and improve performance on their democratisation and human rights record. Instead they used it as a testing ground for their ability to dominate and manipulate domestic politics.

This choice sends a strong message about the authorities’ assessment of the strategic environment and oncoming challenges.

The campaign: liberal-minded expectations vs. harsh realities

Given the insignificant role of local councils in the Belarusian political system, local elections rarely stir significant public attention. They are usually perceived as “not a big deal” (albeit with traditionally high, but hardly trustworthy, reported turnout).

Accordingly some believed that the authorities would use this relatively insignificant campaign in order to repair their image in respect of liberalization and democratization, which was an important part of the Belarus-West normalization efforts in 2014-2016. Unfortunate developments in 2017 substantially damaged this image, including mass protests over the “anti-parasite decree”, the suppression of those protests, and multiple detainments of independent and opposition activists, politicians and journalists.

The actual campaign scenario upset those expectations. The authorities undertook a major effort to safeguard an unrealistically high level of declared turnout. They claimed that some 77% of eligible voters showed up at the polling stations. This clearly contradicted numerous independent reports of low public interest in the elections.

Independent and opposition observers and candidates claimed numerous discrepancies between the turnout they observed and the one reported by the electoral commissions. The latter often failed to explain those discrepancies or even did not make any effort to do so.

A special sign in a passport that allows a person to participate in carousel voting. Revealed by civil activist Dzianis Kraŭčuk. Photo: bramaby.com

The authorities claimed a massive (over 34%) turnout during early voting. Besides, the observers reported an unusually high level of postal voting. Both are a handy tool for manipulation. The ballots cast early or away from the station cannot be monitored by observers. Accordingly, there are hardly any opportunities to check the authenticity of reported turnout level.

For the first time in many years, the observers claimed to detect the use of the infamous technique called carousel voting (multiple voting by designated voters at different polling stations). An observer even managed to take part in it personally (voting three times at different polling stations) and now demands an investigation into this affair from the Ministry of the Interior and the Investigative Committee.

The vote count was also kept expectedly non-transparent, according to independent observers. At one polling station, the scandal erupted and led to a recount overseen by the public that showed the opposition candidate taking the vast majority of the votes cast on the main election day. However, he eventually lost the race after the early voting ballots were taken into consideration.

The outcomes: authorities’ continued domination

Quite logically the non-transparent electoral process resulted in non-transparent outcomes. Only two opposition candidates, both at the lowest village level, were elected alongside over 18,000 new deputies allegedly authorized by the powers that be. Of those elected almost 56% were incumbent deputies and only 2.5% represented political parties (all of them pro-government).

One of the two successful independent candidates was Roza Strelchanka, elected in a major village in the Kalinkavičy district of the Homiel region. Soon after her victory, unidentified persons called her using the phone number of the regional administration and threatened to put her into a mental health facility. The other successful candidate re-elected in 2018, Valery Bilibukha from the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democrats, also has a long record of dealing with pressure from the authorities.

Alongside the reported poor performance of the opposition, other outcomes merit comment.

The Communist Party’s showing proved quite remarkable. The pro-government Communists managed to bring 309 of their rank to the councils at various levels (including taking 10% of seats on the Minsk City council).

The advance of Russia-advocates represented another interesting feature. Among those elected, 21 were the citizens of the Russian Federation who have the right to run for the local elections because they have permanent residence in Belarus. 127 of the successful candidates were the members of the Republican Party of Labour and Justice that positions itself as an openly pro-Russian actor (its leader Vasily Zadnepryany recently claimed that his party recognizes Crimea as a legitimate part of Russia).

Getting ready for the tough times?

The picture outlined poses a question: why was the Belarusian Government willing to go to such lengths for the delivery of such questionable outcomes?

One thing can be said confidently: the authorities have dropped the idea of restructuring the country’s political system (even if they ever planned to). This contradicts rumours and debates in 2017 regarding the possible transformation of the constitution and electoral law that would favour the development of political parties. The Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus (LDP) even formally came up with some suggestions, such as the introduction of party list voting. But the outcomes of the local elections clearly show that those suggestions are off the table. Quite illustratively, despite running a rather vigorous campaign, LDP ended up with only five delegates elected.

Image: bragin.by

The other thing one can say with confidence is that the authorities made certain decisions on further political developments. Alexander Lukashenka, it seems, will rerun for the presidency when his current term ends and will do so it in the “old school” manner; with heavy reliance on economic incentives, “administrative resources” and similar notorious features.

This roll-back to more manipulative and less democratic policies has everything to do with how the authorities assess the existing strategic situation. The forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections (due to take place no later than in August-September 2020) will most probably run amid persisting economic turmoil, popular unrest, unfriendly Russian media and indifference from the EU and USA. With that in mind, the authorities are preparing to hold those elections the way they perceive as safe. It is therefore quite natural that they reported an unrealistically high level of turnout. Their real potential for mobilizing the constituency and the real level of their electoral support thus remain unclear for the wider public.

The problem, however, is that such way of running elections implies excessive reliance on the security services. As the loyalty of those is not warranted, especially in critical situations, their non-transparency is inevitably ambivalent and might affect not only the public but also the authorities themselves. It is interesting to know in this context whether it was the real intention of Lukashenka to let so many Russian and pro-Russian politicians into the local and regional councils; or whether this result actually reflects the “independent” influence of unidentified actors within the establishment.

Yury Tsaryk

Head of Russian studies at Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies (Belarus), Chevening Scholar 2017/2018 at UCL SSEES