Top 10 events of Belarus Civil Society in 2018 according to Pact

Traditionally Pact highlights some of the most prominent developments in and affecting Belarus civil society. Belarus Digest publishes the top ten list below.

Soft “Belarusization” of the Year: BNR#100

A large-scale celebration of Freedom Day dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR) took place on March 25, in front of the Opera Theater in Minsk and gathered – according to various sources – up to 50,000 Belarusians. For the first time in many years, this day was held as a festival and for the first time sanctioned by authorities in the down-town of Minsk. Organized by civil society and opposition political parties, a crowdfunding campaign to conduct the event broke the national record by the number of donators: over 2,000 people contributed $25,000 to cover event-related costs.

Engagement of the Year: Civil Society Gains Voice

The international forum Eastern Europe: In Search of Security for All, organized by an unregistered Minsk Dialogue Track-II Initiative in May 2018 to discuss challenges to regional and global security, was addressed in person by Alexander Lukashenka. Belarus top-officials were in attendance of other flagship civil-society events. Few examples include: Prime Minister Siarhei Rumas opened the Global Entrepreneurship Week, GEW; First Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Turchin was a key-note speaker at the Kastryčnicki Economic Forum, KEF.

Civic Action of the Year: Gender Initiatives

At least two noticeable gender-focused initiatives emerged in 2018 in response to actions of state officials. The sexist remark Lady, Comfortable in Daily Life in the state-run newspaper describing an independent female journalist became viral in social networks and gave birth to the eponymous Art project. The campaign March, Baby! originated after Lukashenka rejected law criminalizing domestic violence as ‘Western nonsense’, prepares a public march to show that the issue is pertinent to the mainstream society in Belarus.

Grassroots of the Year: People Take Action

Kurapaty protests. Source: Radio Liberty

The growth of local activism continues in Belarus, especially in the field of protection of residents’ rights. In the village of Kolodishchi, local residents resist the construction of a plant that threatens a green zone near their houses. In Brest, regular rallies gather hundreds of people to protest against the construction of a battery plant with potential lead emissions.

Picketing in Kurapaty lasts for half a year: activists are seeking the closure of a restaurant built near the memorial to the victims of Stalin’s repressions.

Fundraising of the Year: Imena platform

Imena (’Names’ in English) non-profit platform is known for its local fundraising success. Starting its work as an online magazine about people in need, Imena attracted over $700,000 to support social projects and its own operations. In 2018, together with a commercial bank, Imena launched a unique initiative: 0.5% of each bank customer’s purchase goes for the Imena-sponsored projects. Now Imena is transforming into a fund that will help ad-hoc teams of activists develop from scratch into sustainable civic initiatives.

The inclusion of the Year: Sasha Avdevich and School of Inclusive Barista

Sasha Avdevich, a wheelchair user, is a bright example of how people with disabilities can live a full life. Sasha travels the world, runs his blog on YouTube and initiates projects for the “invisible” people to society. In 2018, Sasha created the first-ever School of Inclusive Barista that helps people in wheelchairs get a new profession. One more civic start-up is implemented jointly with a local sneaker factory: for each pair sold, part of the money goes to charity.

Repression of the Year: Independent Media

Searches in TUT.BY office. Source: tut.by

In 2018, independent media became a focus of government persecution. During the year, over 100 fines were imposed on reporters – an all-time record. In August, a wave of searches of Belarusian major independent media’s newsrooms and detentions took place under the so-called BelTA case – a criminal investigation into alleged unauthorized access to paid services of the government-owned BelTA news agency.

While 14 of the 15 accused journalists have been cleared of criminal charges having paid at least $35,000 in fines, the TUT.BY editor-in-chief is still under criminal investigation. Early in the year, an opposition website Charter97.org was blocked in Belarus.

’Never Before’ of the Year: Belarus Government Reports before the UN Human Rights Committee

Belarusian authorities presented a country report at the 124th session of the UN Human Rights Committee in October, in Geneva. The government last reported over 20 years ago despite the fact that Belarus is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and is obliged to periodically submit reports on the implementation of the Covenant. Belarusian human rights coalition prepared an alternative report.

Research of the Year: Supporters of Market Economy More Than Doubled Over 10 Years

Half of the Belarusian society stands for partial or full market economy, according to the study that examined the values of Belarusians in 2018. Belarusians believe that the main task of the state is “to give an opportunity to earn money”. Thus, over the past 10 years, the number of people who share the principles of a market economy has doubled – a major shift in Belarusians’ mindset towards paternalistic society? The study was commissioned by the IPM Research Center on the eve of Kastryčnicki Economic Forum, KEF.

And Now For Something Completely Different of the Year: Stepping on the Same Rake?

500,000 Belarusians are in the “social parasites” database. This is a list of the “freeloaders” or those who are not employed in the Belarusian economy, composed in early December to correspond the president’s decree #1 On Employment. Recall that the previously cancelled decree #3, imposing a “social parasite tax”, caused mass protests in 2017 across the country when tax authorities delivered “happiness letters” to 470,000 adult Belarusians. Lesson not learned!




10 most-read stories on Belarus Digest published in 2018

In 2018 Belarus Digest readers particularly interested in our articles on Belarus visa issues, security as well as the relations of Belarus and Russia.

Belarus Digest team wishes its readers a healthy, productive and happy new year!

Here we compiled our top 10 most read stories published in 2018.

1. 10 days visa-free: a new stage for Belarusian tourism by Alesia Rudnik

On 26 December, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka signed a new decree on a 10-days visa-free entry regime for foreigners. It expands upon last year’s decree on a 5-day visa-free entrance to the Augustow zone in the Hrodna region. The changes are in tandem with a February 2017 decree, which grants tourists a Belarus-wide, five-day visa provided they fly into Minsk airport.  

The new visa-free rules are valid from 2018 and allow citizens of 77 countries to spend 10 days without a visa in the Hrodna and Brest regions. No changes have been made for those who enter without a visa into Minsk airport, and as such can still only spend five days in Belarus, but are able to travel anywhere in the country.

The current visa-free regime appears to be a logical continuation of the process of visa liberalisation, which has been taking place within the country. However, the territorial and administrative restrictions on visa-free travel to Belarus still create inconveniences for tourists. Concerns of the KGB and the Internal Affairs Ministry create additional obstacles for the implementation for simpler and longer visa-free regimes.  

2. “Sex-training” courses sweep across Belarus by Olga Hryniuk

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.

3. Low-costs flights in Belarus: wishful thinking? by Alesia Rudnik

In a speech to the Belarusian parliament, Alexander Lukashenka expressed dissatisfaction with Belarusian airlines. The president questioned the absence of low-cost flights in Belarus and Belarusians’ extensive use of Vilnius, Warsaw and Kiev airports. This issue – discussed by Belarusians for several years – has been problematised by Lukashenka for the first time. 

Companies such as Ryanair and Wizzair find it unprofitable to fly to Minsk airport, and so Belarusians choose to travel to airports in neighbouring countries.

According to the administration of Belavia, the Belarusian national carrier, it would be detrimental for their business to welcome cheap flights to the country. As a result, Belarusians choose between Lithuanian, Ukrainian or Polish airports – or seek out rare Belavia online sales.

4. The average Belarusian: who is he? Actually, it’s she by Olga Hryniuk

On 25th January 2018, top Belarusian media outlet TUT.BY compiled a portrait of the average Belarusian citizen. The media outlet used a combination of recent data from the National Statistical Committee of Belarus, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations. Apparently, the average Belarusian citizen is a 42-and-a-half-year old woman with higher education. She speaks Russian, votes for Lukashenka, and consumes 64 kg of potatoes per year. 

At the same time, the recent statistical data on the Belarusian population raises a number of concerns. Belarus comprises an ageing nation with astonishing gender imbalances. While Belarusian women face difficulties in finding a marriage partner, Belarusian men fervently consume alcohol.

The diet of Belarusian citizens still lacks fruit and vegetables, and their salary ranks among the least competitive in the region. Permanent stress eventually take its toll in the form of heart disease.

5. Belarusian language: declining in state education, strengthening in civil society by Alesia Rudnik

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

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

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

6. Russia provokes religious conflict in Belarus? by Dzmitry Mitskevich

On 20 March 2018, Metropolitan Pavel (also known as Georgy Ponomarev) – the Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslaŭje, and Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus – stated his wish to organize the visit of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Minsk. He scheduled the visit to follow on the heels of Pope Francis’s visit to Vilnius. 

Some see this as the latest in a series of efforts by Russia to provoke religious conflict in Belarus. Russia’s actions earlier this year can be seen in the same light.

7. Belarus’s balancing between NATO and Russia: Squaring the circle? by Siarhei Bohdan

Speaking in Brussels on 1 June, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei warned that a proposed US military base in Poland would trigger a response in the region. Moreover, if tensions grow, as a result, the Belarusian government could soon play host to a Russian military base.

On the same day, while visiting border guards in the south of the country, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka sounded a different note. He would prefer Ukraine to join NATO than see it taken over by nationalism and turn into “a bandit state” where a war of “everyone against everyone” rages.  

The Belarusian government has held this ambiguous position for decades. As NATO enlarged towards Belarusian borders, Minsk constantly adjusted its rhetoric and engaged in cautious yet increasing cooperation with the alliance. The “NATO ghost”, however, remained a major theme in Belarus’s relations with Russia.

8. Skyrocketing economic growth and weak regional development – a digest of the Belarusian economy by Aleh Mazol from Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)

On 16 March 2018, the official statistical body of Belarus Belstat has announced that GDP growth in the first two months of the year has accelerated.

Meantime, the weak regional development cast doubt on the sustainability of Belarusian economic growth in the future.  Decreasing population number, lack of investment, and depressed business climate accompanied by low average wages play here a crucial role.

Finally, on 20 March 2018, the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka has announced plans for the establishment of a new ministry – The Ministry of Digital Economy. The digital transformation of the economy needs authorized governance.

9. Opinion: Cannabis Reform in Belarus? by Michael Dorman

On 17 February 2018, a group of young Belarusians holding a banner reading ‘Legalize Belarus’ gathered on Independence Avenue in the heart of Minsk. The group was campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana in Belarus, a proposition that, at least for now, seems unlikely to attract support from the public or government officials.

The perception of cannabis use in Belarus has been largely shaped by Soviet-era misinformation and anti-cannabis propaganda disseminated by the Lukashenka government. Adding to the stigma of cannabis use is the fact that Belarus has some of the harshest drug laws in Europe and its penal code makes no distinction between the categories of drugs.

10. Belarus: an unwanted friend of ‘Great China’? by Siarhei Bohdan 

On 6-8 April, Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe will visit Belarus. Wei’s combined visit to Russia and Belarus, his first foreign trip since taking up the post, demonstrates recognition that Minsk gives the highest priority to its partnership with Beijing.

The Belarusian authorities have chosen orientation towards Beijing as a fundamental dogma in foreign policy. Belarus pursues this policy despite contradictory effects of the alliance with China. The Belarusian government hopes that it will get a better place in the sun in a future world shaped by China. For the time being it tries to reap some smaller benefits from Beijing to restructure its industry, find new loans and rearm.




A revolutionary 2018? Belarus’s government changes its face

2018 witnessed huge changes in the Belarusian government. In August, President Alexander Lukashenka dismissed the prime minister, three deputy prime ministers, three ministers and the chairman of the State Military-Industrial Committee. At the same time, commenting on the government reshuffle, Lukashenka said that his decision was far from spontaneous.

While criticising the previous government, the President of Belarus mostly focused on discrepancies in the course of national development, as well as on the low level of labour discipline. Addressing these issues, Lukashenka appointed a team of relatively young technocrats in order to mobilise the state apparatus and tighten his grip on power ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections due during 2019 and 2020. In addition, several experts view the government reshuffle as Lukashenka’s response to the growing pressure from Russia.

The unexpected government reshuffle

In August, Lukashenka fired the ten key figures in the Belarusian government, including the prime minister, Andrei Kabiakou. While explaining his decision on Belarusian state TV, Lukashenka maintained that Kabiakou’s government had failed to demonstrate the due level of discipline and adhered too much to various privatisation initiatives. In fact, Lukashenka blamed the government for declining living standards of Belarusian people:

How much blood was spilled (and I had to do it, personally) in order to convince the government that people should have at least one thousand rubles as average pay in the country? (Approximately $500 – ed.) The lowest paid social strata, including nurses and caretakers, and people working in the cultural sphere and social services, as well as nursery teachers, should earn more.

At the same time, Lukashenka had particular considerations for firing each top official, starting with the prime minister. According to Arsien Sivitsky from the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, Andrei Kabiakou acted merely as administrator without his own programme. Lukashenka, on the other hand, looked for a more pro-active approach from the Belarusian government amid growing pressures from Russia. In this way, the absence of a distinct governmental program cost Kabiakou his job.

The dismissal of deputy prime minister Vasil Zharko links to a series of corruption scandals in the health care sector he oversaw. On the other hand, the dismissal of another deputy prime minister, Uladzimir Siamashka, merely related to the state of his health. The dismissal of Vital Vouk, the Minister of Industries, turned into a farce. Though Vouk received the highest amount of criticism from the Lukashenka, the president appointed him to the post of presidential aide in the Vitebsk region; a de facto promotion.

The new team of pro-market technocrats

As a result of the government reshuffle, Lukashenka appointed Siarhei Rumas, the Chairman of the Board of the Development Bank, as the new prime minister. Rumas held the position of a deputy prime minister previously, during the economic crisis of 2011–2012. Rumas’s reputation marks him as a skilled negotiator and a consistent supporter of market reforms, capable of dealing both with his Russian counterparts and with international financial institutions. Moreover, Homiel-born Rumas is a Belarusian national by blood (unlike his predecessor Kabiakou, who is of Russian origin).

According to Rumas, the major task of his government remains “providing Belarusians with a ‘decent standard of living,’ in particular:

We are not talking about state benefits and budget support, we are talking about how to make it possible for Belarusians to earn a decent standard of living.

Shortly after his appointment, Siarhei Rumas distributed responsibilities between the new deputy prime ministers. First Deputy Prime Minister Alyaksandr Turchyn has been tasked with implementing the “progressive” measures set forth in presidential decrees on the development of entrepreneurship and ICT. Accordingly, Turchyn will closely cooperate with the Ministry of Economy (under its new head Dzmitry Krutoy) and the Ministry of Communications and Information (under its new head Kanstantsin Shulgan).

Siarhei Rumas meets Dmitry Medvedev. Source: https://www.belnovosti.by/politika/rumas-i-medvedev-ne-podpisali-soglashenie-o-vizah

Turchyn has already made several statements regarding his further steps in information and communication technologies. According to Turchyn, the Ministry of Communications, under the leadership of Shulgan, will become the supporting ministry for the implementation of the ambitious IT-country project and, probably, the basis for the creation of a Ministry of Digital Economy.

Another of the new deputy prime ministers, Uladzimir Kukharou, will supervise the problematic housing and utility sector (as well as construction, transport and the Ministry of Emergency Situations). Kukharou’s main task, given his background as the controller of Minsk’s public utilities, will include the delicate increase of the share of services paid by the population without an explosion in utility tariffs. The resolution of this issue remains among the major conditions for Belarus to receive a loan from the IMF.

Ihar Lyashenka, another appointment to deputy prime minister and former chairman of the Belneftekhim Concern, replaces Uladzimir Siamashka and will oversee both the energy complex and industry as a whole. Lyashenka’s main tasks include carrying out an intense communication with Russia and monitoring those Belarusian companies receiving large profits from the illegal oil re-export industry, operating under the guise of oil products.

Finally, new deputy prime minister Ihar Petryshenka, who replaces the scandal-clad Vasil Zharko, found himself in the most difficult situation of dealing with “social issues.” At present, the situation with Belarusian health care remains tense due to the latest corruption scandals. Moreover, Petryshenka will have to implement the latest version of the deeply unpopular presidential decree persecuting the so-called “freeloaders,” or Belarusians without an official work contract.

Will Rumas’s government bring real changes?

A noteworthy circumstance of Lukashenka’s government reshuffle lies in his constant referral to the “difficult times” facing Belarus. According to Sivitsky, “difficult times” means the growing difficulties in relations with Russia. By appointing a team of young Belarus-born technocrats, Lukashenka attempts to mobilize the state apparatus to repel any blows from the Russians if needed.

Belarusian government

Ihar Petryshenka will have to deal with the unpopular policy on “freeloaders”. Source: sputnik.by

According to Valery Karbalevich, a political analyst with the analytical centre “Strategia,” Lukashenka decided to reshuffle the government in order to punish “the old guard” who had lost their fear of the Belarusian leader. The appointment of new and relatively unknown people to the top governmental positions should strengthen first and foremost Lukashenka’s power grip.

Despite the reputation of a “free market champion”, Siarhei Rumas will most probably fail to bring any notable market changes as the President of Belarus de facto defines the government policies himself.

Stanislau Bahdankievich, the former Chair of the National Bank of Belarus, agrees with Karbalevich’s low expectations on Rumas’s government. According to Bahdankievich, Lukashenka remains unprepared for the drastic changes needed in the economy. As for Rumas, the new prime minister has so far failed to recognise publicly the biggest challenges which face the Belarusian economy: the unprofitability of state companies, large stocks of unsold products, and huge accounts payable. Therefore, as the economy will likely continue its stagnation, the living standards of ordinary Belarusians will stay the same. Consequently, in about a year, Rumas risks facing the same kind of criticism from Lukashenka that Kabiakou faced in August.




Pressure against Belarusian independent media: what’s next?

Since August 2018 till present, the Belarusian authorities put pressure on independent media resources, including the top Belarusian media outlet TUT.BY. Taken into account that Alexander Lukashenka recently expressed the idea that “We must approach the elections in such a way that there is not even an alternative in people’s minds”, the Belarusian authorities will most probably keep the pressure on editorial offices of independent Internet resources.

The Internet resource TUT.by is the largest mass medium in Belarus with over one million daily visits. Besides advertising, TUT.by provides quite neutral information about current events in Belarusian politics, economy and society. As of November 30, the chief editor of TUT.by Maryna Zolatava stayed charged with article 425 part 2 of the Criminal Code (inaction of a person in office). The article envisages a penalty from a fine to deprivation of liberty up to five years.

Lukashenka’s dissatisfaction with TUT.BY: early clues

Several years ago, the first signal appeared that Lukashenka was dissatisfied with the existence of such a significant independent mass medium as TUT.BY and its owner Yury Zisser. When Lukashenka was giving a speech, “addressing to the people and Parliament”, he got off a topic and said a phrase: “Yakubovich and Shapiro! Deal with Zisser.”

At that time, the audience giggled. The sentence sounded like a joke. Lukashenka did not go into details about how Yakubovich and Shapiro had “to deal” with Yury Zisser, the founder and owner of TUT.by.

Lukashenka has one more reason to dislike Yury Zisser. The latter is the only representative of the large business who financed a number of events for those whom Lukashenka calls “the fifth column”. In June 2018, Zisser donated a significant sum of money for holding an event of For Freedom movement. An award “For freedom of thought” was presented at the birthplace of the famous Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau, at village Bychki (Vushachy district, Vitebsk region). Also, Yury Zisser donated to the Polish literary award for Belarusian writers named after Jerzy Giedroyc.

How the pressure against TUT.BY outburst

In August 2018, the director of the state-run informational agency BelTA Iryna Akulovich blamed the independent journalists, including journalists from TUT.BY, for stealing information and getting an unsanctioned access. Her claim served as the basis for initiating the criminal cases against the independent journalists.

On 7 August 2018 employees of the police held searches at the editorial offices of TUT.by. Information carriers and computer system units were seized. The police also searched flats of several employees of the TUT.by editorial office. On 8 August 2018, the TUT.by owner Yuriy Zisser and the director general Liudmila Chekina were questioned at the Investigative Committee.

media pressure in Belarus

Marina Zolotova, the chief editor of tut.by Source: tut.by

On 10 August, a representative of the Investigative Committee reported that proofs and testimonies obtained from the suspects served as a basis for initiating criminal cases under article 349 of the Criminal Code (unsanctioned access to computer information).

Most suspects were released under recognisance not to leave the country, facing liberty deprivation term up to two years. Maryna Zolatava, the chief editor of TUT.by has been charged with article 425 (inaction by a person in office), she faces deprivation of liberty for a term up to five years.

During the questionings, employees of the Investigative Committee exerted pressure on the journalists. On September 25, the editor of the resource finance.tut.by Zmitser Bobryk said:

“I received direct threats — against me and against my relatives and close people. First, I was promised that some details of my personal life would be publicised if I refused to cooperate. It ended with threats concerning my relatives who could suffer. I signed a paper on cooperation.”

Reactions on TUT.BY pressure

Regarding the claims of the Investigative Committee, Yury Zisser said: “I do not understand why one needed to do this. The news from BelTA is in public access.”

Commenting on the detentions of journalists and searches at the editorial offices, Zisser remarked: “The events got a cosmic scale of coverage in various state mass media, totally irrelevant to the matter of the case, thus, political underpinning has become evident.”

The head of the informational campaign Ales Lipay called the charges “absolutely absurd”. The human rights defender Ales Bialiatski remarked: “It is a targeted policy of restricting the information space in Belarus in order to keep Belarusian citizens in the atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and disinformation.”

On 19 October, employees of the Investigative Committee again turned up at the editorial office of TUT.by with an inspection: allegedly, after receiving a phone call that the office had been mined. Police employees often use such pretexts in order to enter premises of oppositional organisations, NGOs and to spoil their events and meetings.

On 22 November, all suspects of the BelTA case were summoned to the police to get registered on a criminal record for a term up to 15 years. Thus, they received a warning that they could turn up behind bars.

All other journalists involved in the case were held liable under the Code of Administrative Offenses and fined (in particular, the chief editor of BelaPAN Iryna Leushyna paid a fine of 735 BYN). The restriction to leave the country was withdrawn. The information carriers and system units were returned.

A pro-governmental TUT.BY?

According to Andrzej Poczobut, the famous journalist, an activist of the Union of Poles of Belarus, the pressure on the journalists “should be viewed in terms of counter-revolutionary strategy”.

Yuriy Zisser tut.by

The future will show if there will be any changes in the editorial policy of TUT.by. A gloomy scenario is probable, on the analogy with how the informational space got cleaned up in Putinist Russia. The authorities might pressurise the owner of TUT.by Yury Zisser, or might change the owner of TUT.by and then change the editors.

On October 5, the founder of TUT.by Yuriy Zisser in an interview to the Internet resource kyky.org replied to the question whether he was going to sell TUT.by:

“I do not see any sense in selling it. Most probably, after this, the portal will alter the course. A new owner will change the editor and will turn the portal into BelTA or Sovbeliya [state media outlets] – and nobody will read it.”

The former TV propagandist for Lukashenka and the head of the Belteleradiocompany, currently living in Russia media expert Alexander Zimouski remarked: “Zisser might be asked toughly to hire another editor to manage the portal.”

To conclude, the authorities are likely to keep the pressure on journalists of Internet resources. BelTA claimed material damages from all persons involved in the case varying from three to 17 thousand rubles (equivalent to 1.5 to 8.5 thousand dollars). Even for profitable companies like TUT.by paying such sums might be problematic. The BelTA case has been clearly fabricated. It might recur, and not even once. The authorities might trample on independent Internet resources from another side. There is no independent court in Belarus. When there is a will, there will always be a pretext for pressure.




Zoo-defenders congress, social parasites database – Civil Society Digest

Persecution of journalists increases in Belarus. The head of an independent trade union leaves his post amid pressure. Criminal prosecution continues against the chief editor of TUT.BY.

Belarusians raise money for the reconstruction of the 14th-century Kreva castle. Picketing the scandalous restaurant in Kurapaty continues already 6th months. Minsk hosts the first large congress of zoo-defenders.

Registration of online media starts in Belarus. Belarusians trust state-run media the most. Belarus marks 8888 days with Lukashenka.

Human Rights

Harassment of journalists breaks records in Belarus – nearly 100 fines so far this year. Reporters Without Borders calls on the Belarusian government’s international partners to react to the surge in its persecution of journalists, with nearly 100 fines imposed already this year on reporters working for exile media, namely Belsat TV – an all-time record.

Head of the independent trade union Fedynich leaves his post. The decision was dictated by a court order. Recall that on November 9, the Minsk City Court upheld the sentence to Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, leaders of the independent trade union REP – four years of restraint of liberty without imprisonment and the prohibition to hold managerial positions for a period of 5 years.

BelTA case: Criminal prosecution terminated against all journalists, except TUT.BY editor-in-chief. In total, 15 journalists were accused of unauthorized access to data of the state-owned BelTA news agency. For 14 of them, criminal charges were replaced with administrative liability. Maryna Zolatava, TUT.BY editor-in-chief is still accused of criminal offences and face a fine or five years of imprisonment.

500,000 Belarusians in social parasites database. The database of the ‘freeloaders’ or those who are not employed in Belarusian economy was launched on December 1. According to the president’s decree On Employment, unemployed Belarusians will have to pay a full price for the state-subsidized utilities and communal services starting from February 2019.

Civil society

In two days, Belarusians raised money for a hundred tons of stones for the reconstruction of Krevo Castle. Activist Hleb Labadzenka announced collecting stones through social networks. The raised money allows delivering to the castle 10-20 tons of stones daily. Krevo Castle is an architectural monument that was destroyed during WWI and lay in ruins a hundred of eight hundred years of its existence.

The historic 14th-century Krevo castle. Source: afisha.tut.by

16 Days Campaign of Activism against Gender-Based Violence held in Belarus. The campaign was initiated by UNFPA Belarus together with the government and civil society organizations under the theme #HearMeToo. It lasted from November 25 to December 10. The campaign showed the study on the prevalence of violence against women in Belarus. On December 4, the results of the monitoring of Belarusian media on gender inequality and discrimination were presented.

Picketing the restaurant in Kurapaty continues six months. The restaurant was built near the memorial to the victims of Stalin’s repressions. Activists plan to continue to picket the restaurant until it gets closed. They believe that because of their protest, the restaurant is losing visitors, as well as the issue of perpetuating the memory of Stalinist repression receives a wide public response.

Ecology

First large congress of Belarusian zoo-defenders held in Minsk, on December 1. The congress gathered several dozen activists from all over the country and took place in stormy discussions. The participants agreed that it is necessary to introduce international standards into national legislation; in particular, Belarus should adhere to the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals.

National law about organic agriculture adopted in Belarus. A number of CSOs, including the Center for Environmental Solutions, Agro-Eco-Culture, and EcoHome, have been working for over 5 years on the law together with state and private organizations. The CSOs note that the law is a good sign, that Belarus becoming a country, which starts to move towards the “green” economy.

The first mobile application to identify birds is released by APB BirdLife Belarus. The application requests a description of a bird (the place and the season of observation, size, colour, etc.) and provides several images based on the inputted characteristics. The program contains 325 bird species that can be found in Belarus. The bird guide app is available for free in the Play Market.

Media

Registration of online media starts in Belarus. From December 1, the changes to the Media Law come into force. In particular, the Ministry of Information will register resources that want to receive a media status. The law also introduces a rule on the mandatory identification of authors of online comments. The law applies both to Belarusian and foreign media that work in Belarus.

Poll: Belarusians trust Belarusian state-run media the most. According to the national poll conducted by the Belarusian Analytical Workshop (BAW) at the request of ThinkTanks.by, the largest number of respondents – 29.4% – trusts to the Belarusian state media; 24% – to Russian media; and 10.7% – to Belarusian independent media. Western media have a trust of 8.2% of respondents. The survey was held in June-July 2018.

Belarusian Memorial Chapel. Source: https://www.worldarchitecturenews.com/

KEF poll: 85.6% of Belarusians ready to fight for their country in time of war. This is data of the survey about the values of the Belarusians conducted within the framework of KEF in May-June 2018. Thus, 86.1% of respondents call the Belarusian language ‘an important part of the culture, and it should be preserved’; 85.8% say that they are proud of Belarus.

Other

8888 days with Lukashenka. On November 19, the mythical concurrence of numbers, an infinity date, occurred in Belarus’ history, namely: 8888 days had passed since the inauguration of Alexander Lukashenka as the president. During this period, GDP grew from $17.79 billion up to $54.44 billion; average life expectancy increased by 4.4 years, while population decreased by 736,000 people.

Belarusian chapel in London named World’s Best Religion Building at the World Architecture Festival (WAF) in Amsterdam. This is like an Oscar for architecture. The small wooden chapel’s design draws inspiration from the wooden churches in Belarus. It operates an energy-saving heating system and has a special walkway for wheelchair users.

Belarusian opened a hostel at the foot of a nuclear power plant. 18 km from Astravets town. The hostel is in demand among workers who are building the first Belarusian nuclear power plant. The hostel manager is confident that the place is safe, because “the degree of protection against radiation is very strong”.

Foreigners in Belarus will be able to register online starting January 2019. The procedure will be free of charge. The Ministry of Internal Affairs also plans to extend the stay of foreign citizens without registration from 5 to 10 days.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




Human rights in Belarus: arrests decrease, fines increase

Amid the Belarusian presidential election in 2020, it is unlikely that significant steps will be taken towards political liberalisation. After the lifting of Western sanctions in 2016 against Lukashenka and several Belarusian officials, there has been no improvement in the human rights situation in Belarus. The authorities are likely to maintain pressure on independent online resources (TUT.by and others).

Nevertheless, after the change of geopolitical situation in 2014, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the war in the east of Ukraine, it became even more important for the West to prevent Belarus from losing its independence. The dialogue with Minsk was intensified. Lukashenka was invited to visit a few EU capitals, including Paris, Vienna, and Riga. As a result, Belarusian authorities replaced brutal arrests with more sophisticated methods of punishments of civil society activists such as fines and employment ban.

As the number of arrests decrease, fines increase

After the lifting of EU sanctions, there was no change in the attitude of the authorities towards the opposition and civil society. As before, Lukashenka often speaks of them as “fifth column”. On 24 August 2017, he even spoke about “children of the fifth column” and “our, ordinary children.” More than once he claimed that BRSM (the state-run Belarusian Republican Youth Union), veterans’ associations and trade unions –  the organisations fully controlled by the authorities – were a civil society. Lukashenka often stated that human rights were the rights to life and to work and that the human rights situation in Belarus was no worse than in the West.

Only one aspect has changed – the government has modified somewhat the methods of pressure on the opposition and civil society. Since spring 2016, there have been fewer cases of arrest of opposition activists, independent journalists and people protesting the authorities’ actions. However, the number of fines has sharply increased.

According to the database of human rights activists, in 2017, activists and protesters were detained over 600 times. According to the courts’ decisions, they paid more than 200,000 rubles (about $100,000) in fines. In many regions of Belarus, a monthly salary of $200-300 is seen as a good salary.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), in 2017, the courts issued 69 fines under Article 22.9 (Part 2) of the Administrative Code (illegal production and distribution of media products). Journalists paid 52,923 rubles in fines (the equivalent of about $26,500). In the current year, the courts have already handed down 106 sentences to pay fines for the total amount of 92,316 rubles (about $46,000). According to preliminary data, the participants in the actions in 2018 will pay fewer fines issued by courts than in 2017. However, this in no way means a softening of the political regime.

Employment ban as a means of punishment

The government still widely uses the employment ban against leaders and the best-known activists of NGOs, as well as civil society activists, in whose activities the government sees political overtones. KGB officers make sure that a “black-listed” person cannot get a job at a state enterprise or agency. In a large city, one can still get employed at a private enterprise. However, it happens that the employer then starts to have problems with various government agencies, such as the tax inspection, the sanitary-epidemiological service, and the fire inspection.

Hienadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, the leaders of the independent trade union movement. Source: tut.by

In a town with the population below 50,000 people, such persons will not even find a temporary employment: they are known, and a business owner does not want to get into trouble. The maximum that they can count on is informal, casual earnings from an acquaintance. Or they will be offered the most unskilled, low-paid job – a janitor or a cleaner in a store so that whoever sees them learns a lesson.

The fate of an opposition-minded high-school history teacher, who was dismissed for having organised a campaign in his district to collect signatures for one of Lukashenka’s opponents, serves as an example. This person was the leader of the largest NGO in the district, which organised and held meetings with Belarusian historians, local history experts and cultural figures. He also wrote several history books. Nevertheless, his repeated attempts to get a job were unsuccessful as he remains blacklisted.

Politically motivated lawsuits and pressure against NGOs

Politically motivated lawsuits against Belarusian activists were also initiated. There was a possibility that political prisoners would reappear in Belarus. Thus, on 14 June 2018, officers of the KGK’s Financial Investigation Department searched the apartment of Ales Lipaj, a poet, renown independent journalist, founder and director of BelaPAN news agency, for seven hours. Criminal proceedings were instigated against him under Article 243 (Part 2) of the Criminal Code (large-scale tax evasion). On 23 August, Ales Lipaj died. He was only 53 years old.

Ales Lipaj Source: naviny.by

On 24 November 2011, under the same article, also for an alleged large-scale tax evasion, the court sentenced Ales Bialiatski, a renown human rights activist, to four and a half years in a medium-security correctional facility and to the confiscation of property.

On 30 July 2018, Hienadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, the leaders of the independent trade union movement, were put on trial. They were charged with large-scale tax evasion (Article 243 (Part 2) of the Criminal Code). After two months of trial, they were sentenced to four years of restraint and fines.

Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code, which provides for criminal liability (imprisonment for up to two years) for activities on behalf of an unregistered organisation, is yet to be repealed. Many Belarusian NGOs were denied state registration, or they are not able to obtain state registration under the current conditions. Their activists still face the risk of this article being used against them.

As before, there is information from the province that KGB officers have been having “preventive” conversations with businessmen, warning them about big troubles in the case of providing financial and material support to civic activists and initiatives. Therefore, it is unlikely that the authorities will ease the pressure on the opposition and civil society and take noticeable steps towards political liberalisation in the period preceding the presidential election.




Call for Papers: The Fourth Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies

The UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum in London invite proposals from established academics and doctoral researchers for individual papers and panels discussing various aspects of contemporary Belarusian studies. The conference will serve as a multidisciplinary forum of Belarusian studies in the West and offer a rare networking opportunity for researchers of Belarus.

The Annual London Lecture on Belarusian Studies will follow the main conference panels.  This year the Annual London Lecture on Belarusian Studies will be delivered by Anaïs Marin (France), Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus.

The organisers are particularly interested in papers that discuss history, political science, political economy, literature, sociology and religious studies. Interdisciplinary studies and panel proposals are particularly encouraged. Selected papers will be peer-reviewed and published in a special issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies in 2019.

To submit a paper proposal or a panel proposal please complete this form http://tinyurl.com/belconference no later than on 10 February 2019. The working language of the conference is English. The organisers are unable to cover the costs of participants but can facilitate obtaining a UK entry visa. Applicants will be notified about selection by 20 February 2019 at the latest.

The conference organising committee is composed Paul Stephen Hall, Paul Hansbury, Peter Braga, Aliaksandr Herasimenka, Karalina Matskevich. The conference co-chairs are Professor Yarik Kryvoi and Professor Andrew Wilson.

For any questions relating to the conference, please email belauk2018@gmail.com.

Please use this hashtag #belstudies




Reality Check Non-Paper: Belarus’s Slow and Subtle Transition

The 8th Belarus Reality Check took place on October 22, 2018, in Vilnius, Lithuania. The event gathered leading Belarusian and international experts and practitioners to discuss the latest political, economic and security developments in Belarus and to provide evidence-based analysis and balanced policy advice. This non-paper is the result of the meeting as well as further research.

After the August 2018 change of government, Minsk is now operating in “safe mode.” The new government came to power amid a series of destabilizing events, including corruption and mismanagement scandals, while the 2020 presidential and parliamentary elections are on the horizon.

The Siarhei Rumas administration was appointed first and foremost for its managerial credentials. It represents a break from the previous nomenklatura-style governments. This falls short of systematic change, however: President Alexander Lukashenka remains the country’s key decision-maker and the security services are in control of the implementation.

Nevertheless, the country is undergoing a slow and subtle transition to a market economy. The impact of decades-long redistributive policies — with the middle class now comprising 80% of the population — has shifted Belarusians’ value system from entitlement toward enterprise. The public’s key unmet expectation from the state, that it “create conditions for citizens to make money,” is a cause of growing frustration with the regime.

The social contract is currently under re-negotiation, and some social groups (SME, IT, the real economy, civil society, etc.) are seeing benefits from the country’s cautious economic reforms. The regime has also become friendlier toward certain civil society groups. While the government’s so-called policy of “soft Belarusization” has not brought about any large-scale reform of language or education policy, it has nevertheless allowed the state to engage with citizens who prefer a Belarusian identity without alienating more traditional (i.e. Soviet-minded) people.

Managing this “house of cards” — dependence on an external funding source and on Russian markets — is the key to maintaining the social contract. Although the Belarusian economic model is not sustainable, it has nevertheless worked for over 20 years. Minsk was able to absorb “shocks” from several economic crises while also reducing subsidies from Moscow and energy rents from 2006 onward. The state’s biggest headache is growing debt, particularly that of ineffective state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In addition, the purchasing power gap between Belarus and its neighbours is growing, adding to overall disillusionment within society.

There is rising speculation in the West that Belarus’ sovereignty may be in jeopardy. In particular, the worry is that Moscow may consider using the Union State consisting of Belarus and Russia to keep President Putin in charge after 2024, albeit in a different role. Although Russia’s strategic goal — to limit Belarus’ freedom of action in foreign and even domestic policy — has not changed, Moscow no longer treats President Lukashenka as its only Belarusian interlocutor. Since 2015, the EU’s policy of critical dialogue has led Minsk to take a more constructive attitude to a number of issues, including human rights dialogue.

Since 2015, the EU’s policy of critical dialogue has led Minsk to take a more constructive attitude to a number of issues, including human rights dialogue. However, no systematic political change is in the works. Negotiations over a basic bilateral partnership agreement with the EU are locked due to Vilnius’s opposition to the Astravets nuclear power plant under construction by Russia’s Rosatom, while Warsaw blocks progress on a visa facilitation deal. Even though the United States and European Union have lately been re-discovering Belarus’ geopolitical importance, Poland and Lithuania put their own interests first instead.

Politics: Safe Mode

While the economy is recovering and the “parasite tax” — which had spiked political tensions over a year ago — has been watered down, the question of Belarus’ debt and the challenges of external financing have come into the spotlight. The country again faces a “transition” at a time when government debt obligations are too high and reserves too low. Moreover, presidential and parliamentary elections are approaching in 2020.

The Rumas government, appointed after healthcare-related corruption and regional development program embezzlement sparked national scandals, is certainly reform-minded. Compared to its predecessors, the new government appears to have a more realistic understanding of the need for reform but does not want to make unnecessary promises. Its reform program includes separating ownership and regulatory functions in state property management, as well as abolishing criminal prosecution for tax violations—thereby addressing law enforcement’s “extortionary” tax collection practices. To maintain economic growth, the government wants to focus on developing the service sector, achieving large-scale digitalization, keeping inflation low, improving investment policy, and continuing to reduce regional inequalities.

At the same time, newly-appointed Prime Minister Rumas was primarily selected as a reliable and efficient manager, not a reformer. President Lukashenka now seems to trust the government more and grant it greater authority than in the past. But while the president does not want to engage in micro-management, he is also clearly keeping the direction of policymaking under his control.

Thus, the question is about how much room for manoeuvre the new government actually has. This is especially important with the 2020 elections approaching. Current economic and social policy is framed by the interests of Belarus’ broad middle class, which was created through redistributive policies. This redistribution—even if recently accompanied by the ill-treatment of entrepreneurs as well as the placement of the burden of cost-of-living increases on the shoulders of ordinary citizens—has had a significant impact.

These factors have transformed public expectations and shifted Belarusians’ relations to state from entitlement toward market economy conditions (Graph 1). According to a recent survey, the public’s key expectation of the state is now that it “create conditions for citizens to make money,” a clear sign of frustration and disillusionment with the system.

Graph 1. What the state should do for the people

Despite signs of common sense on the part of other policymakers, the head of state and the security establishment have little interest in a systematic transition.

Until the 2020 elections, the government’s main focus will be on attracting more investment and increase public spending in regions that are lagging behind—as a means of addressing dissatisfaction and minimizing social tension. This is evident from the most recent high-level Belarus-Russia and Belarus-Ukraine regional forums. The usual pre-election increases in social spending — including higher pensions and public-sector salaries as well as housing support for large families — will put further pressure on the budget.

The main challenge Belarus faces continues to be the absence of consensus on how to reform the social welfare system. Minsk still runs large state companies in part as a source of employment. Many reform measures are simply not taken out of fear of increased joblessness and the accompanying political ramifications.

At the same time, the social contract is under re-negotiation, and some social groups are benefiting from ongoing, if cautious, economic reforms such as a modest expansion of the private sector and limited liberalization. In particular, groups that do not heavily depend on state budget (SMEs, the IT sector, the real economy, civil society, etc) are seeing notable benefits. In the past several years, a great number of businesspeople have accumulated wealth as private entrepreneurs, rather than as the administrators of state-owned enterprises.

While the economic transition is slow and subtle, the regime has also adopted a “combined” approach to the opposition and civil society groups, becoming notably more tolerant towards some. This has been happening in part due to the above-mentioned policy of “soft Belarusization”, and in part, because there is simply no viable and visible alternative to the current political system. As part of this approach, some independent journalists, bloggers, and political activists are regularly detained and fined — while, at the same time, the authorities have released political prisoner Dmitry Polienko and continue to authorize traditional opposition rallies.

The political opposition is marginal, fragmented and continues to operate in a difficult political landscape. Even the question of how to conduct rallies divides opposition forces. Accordingly, the opposition is unable to take advantage of the opportunities that exist; for example, according to a recent survey, 67% Belarusians would like to see a stronger opposition.

However, there is one significant shift in the political environment: it is no longer characterized by a stark binary choice between the regime and the pro-democracy opposition. Now, Russia — with its ample resources — is emerging as a visible political player in Belarus.

Economy: House of Cards Forever?

In the first decade of the 2000s, Belarus’s economic model yielded decent growth coupled with low inequality and full employment. The country’s current politics have been shaped by its rapidly growing middle class. As much as 80% of the population is considered middle class if measured using the baseline figure of $10 or more per day in spending (Graph 2).

Graph 2: % of Belarusian households spending over $10/day

Belarus has been a “star performer” when it comes to sharing the benefits of economic growth across all of society. Guaranteed employment proved to be both an effective policy and the pillar of the country’s social contract. Not even the 2015-2017 recession had a serious impact on the poverty rate.

Due to redistributive policies and government regulation, standards of living grew more equal. Furthermore, Belarus managed to maintain a sense of social justice — despite the lack of democratic elections after 1996 — by taking tax evasion and fighting corruption seriously.

Belarus’ growth has been fueled by capital accumulation through high investment, although this has masked low productivity growth. High foreign borrowing and a shortage of domestic savings have resulted in increased vulnerabilities, although reforms in some areas — for example, guaranteeing the independence of the country’s central bank — have yielded results. The gradual shift toward an inflation-targeting regime resulted in a higher exchange rate and price stability. Official reserves have risen significantly, though they still remain considerably below the levels required.

The economy’s growth rate this year is 3.8%, thanks to the (temporary) effect of currency devaluation as well as price increases in primary products (primarily commodities and oil). Household living standards have recovered to 2011 levels, but the purchasing power gap between Belarus and its neighbours is growing. This is painful both for the new middle class and for the government as Belarus had previously closed much of the gap. The pace of growth has slacked off in recent years; now, even if 3% growth continues, it will take Belarus 39 years to catch up to Poland. If it does not, Belarusians may vote with their feet, and the decision to move west might be easier, given that Warsaw has an aggressive labour migrant strategy vis-à-vis Belarus and Ukraine aimed at addressing its own labour crisis (Graph 3).

Graph 3. Belarus GDP relative to its neighbours

The dollarization of the Belarusian economy makes monetary policy volatile, and the country’s forex reserves are lower than usual. Accordingly, maintaining macroeconomic stability will require addressing inefficient SOEs, as well as the country’s vulnerability to external shocks — especially those connected to the Russian market, as 40% of exports, go to Russia (70%, if commodities are included).

Because the cost of a serious crisis would be very high, Belarus must continue to pursue regional stability with a proactive foreign policy to protect its economic model. Russia — with its Eurasian Stabilization Fund — plays a dominant role in the region. Despite ongoing clashes with Moscow, Minsk has nevertheless managed relations with its key donor successfully for over 20 years.

Belarus’ “house of cards” – i.e. dependence on external sources – is the key to maintaining its redistribution-based social contract, which keeps the wider middle class satisfied with the state system. To keep its house standing, Belarus must not only manage its relationship with Russia but also further expand positive trade relations, both with its immediate neighbours as well as countries further afield. Although the Belarusian system is ultimately not sustainable, it has nevertheless functioned for over 20 years. Minsk has been able to absorb “shocks” from (several) Russian economic crises and has managed to adapt to reduced subsidies and energy rents from Moscow beginning in 2006 (Graph 4).

Graph 4. Russian subsidies and loans

The main Western policy suggestion for Minsk is to reduce dependence on Russia. One possibility — as other Central and Eastern Europe countries have done as EU members — is to develop a greater dependence on Germany; this is considered less dangerous by international financial organizations, as the German economy is much bigger and more stable than that of Russia. Minsk should be more economically linked with the EU and needs actively to encourage production and export relations with Brussels.

Belarus’s biggest headache is its increasing debt, 45% of which is made by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) subsidized by the Belarusian (state) banking system. The government is now considering restructuring some money-losing SOEs.

Graph 5. SOE and the private sector

The Belarusian private sector is now relatively large. It competes with SOEs not only in the retail trade and other areas where the state has been relatively passive but also in sectors where the state is traditionally strong such as manufacturing (of which the private sector now accounts for a 25% share) and services (30%). The number of Belarusian SMEs is still far below those in EU countries; however, they are gradually moving beyond the limitations of bad regulations and conflict with the authorities toward overcoming other serious challenges, for example, the quality of education of the country’s workforce (Graph 5).

 

Geopolitics: Balancing Dependence on Russia

Long-term analysis of the trends in foreign policy indices (Graph 6) shows that Belarus has managed to diversify its international relations under a multi-vector foreign policy, although ties with Russia remain the widest and deepest. Minsk’s assistance in regulating the Ukraine conflict has earned (Western) appreciation. However, while some now call Belarus a new diplomatic hub, there is growing concern that Moscow poses a great risk to the country’s sovereignty.

Graph 6. Belarus’ foreign policy indices

The EU`s critical dialogue with Minsk has brought some results: the government of Belarus now takes a more constructive attitude on a number of issues, including human rights dialogue and political prisoners. Brussels’ approach is to address individual cases privately, not publicly.

However, even if attitudes may have shifted, the EU’s approach has still not led to a breakthrough on key issues like freedom of assembly or press, nuclear safety and the death penalty. Regional security remains important for Poland and Lithuania, while Minsk’s transparency on military exercises, as well as resistance toward a Russian air base on its territory, has strengthened its (quasi-) independent position.

While Belarus’ relations with the EU have distinctly improved and the two parties have moved to normalize and formalize their ties, negotiations on the basic partnership agreement seem deadlocked over Lithuania’s strong objections to Belarus’ Astravets nuclear power plant, now under construction by Russia’s Rosatom. Moreover, progress on a visa facilitation agreement is blocked by Poland due to Minsk’s non-compliance with Poland’s request for an increase in its number of consuls. Although the Astravets project passed a recent EU stress test designed to assess the probability of a nuclear disaster, Lithuania continues to distrust Minsk — and now links nuclear safety with every other item on the EU-Belarus agenda. One of Vilnius’ concerns is that the project puts further pressure (through competition) on its own energy utility companies while calling into question Lithuania’s overall energy policy.

Meanwhile, Belarus’ continued pressure on political activists and renewed crackdown on journalists have fueled renewed Western criticism of the country’s human rights situation. Despite deepening bilateral relations with Washington, Minsk failed to satisfy the requirements for fully lifting US sanctions. So far, these restrictions have been renewed (and then immediately frozen) every 6 months, indicating that Congress views an eventual display of goodwill by Minsk — e.g., fulfilling some conditions such as registering political parties or human rights groups — as inevitable.

Meanwhile, trade is booming between Belarus and the EU. In January-August 2018, trade increased by 28.7% to $11.6 billion, with exports of goods to the EU increasing by 43% to $6.9 billion, and imports growing by 12.2% to $4.7 billion.

Russia`s strategic goal — to limit Belarus’ freedom of action in foreign and even domestic policy — has not changed. In fact, Moscow has a new tactic in the relationship: it has ceased to treat President Lukashenka as its only interlocutor. With the appointment of Mikhail Babich as its new ambassador, Moscow has started openly to engage with other actors. Moscow has also reminded Minsk that there is one institution in Belarus that the latter does not control: the Belarusian Orthodox Church, which is subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate. It is no coincidence that the synodal meeting responding to Ukraine’s moves towards church autocephaly took place in Minsk.

However, there is no reason to believe that Moscow plans to threaten Belarus’ territorial integrity into question. Overall, it is still cheaper and more productive for Russia to continue supporting Minsk in its time of need, even though this has grown more difficult since 2006 due to frequent clashes between these two nominal allies. At the same time, there is little reason to think Moscow lacks contingency planning — for example, to utilize the Union State between Belarus and Russia to keep President Putin in charge after 2024.

Belarus’ growing debt obligation toward Russia should be a concern, as this is how Minsk lost control of its gas distribution system (though not the transit pipeline) in 2011.19 Gazprom’s ownership of Beltransgaz makes it impossible for Belarus to someday follow Ukraine’s example and purchase gas through reverse flows from Europe, thereby challenging Russian gas dominance in the country. Economic relations with Ukraine remain positive; trade is growing, but political relations are rather tense. Security concerns over the Belarus-Ukraine border (Minsk cites illicit arms flows from Ukraine) and spy scandals (a Ukrainian spy was caught and sentenced in Belarus, while a young Ukrainian was abducted from Belarus to Russia) have complicated bilateral ties.

Meanwhile, relations with Poland are characterized by the absence of real progress despite the growing intensity of contacts. Just as the Ukraine conflict changed dynamics in the region, the new Polish government has changed its predecessor’s policy of isolation toward Belarus. Several issues — the small border traffic agreement (not ratified by Minsk), the status of the Polish minority in Belarus, and the issues surrounding Belarus’ military exercises with Russia — limit efforts toward greater engagement. Economic cooperation is also improving, but Western sanctions on Russia also affect Polish investments in Belarus.

This non-paper has been prepared by a group of international experts based on the findings of the 8th Belarus Reality Check meeting held on October 22, 2018, in Vilnius. Its pdf version is available here.