A visit from Erdogan, investments from the Gulf, labour migrants – Belarus state press digest
Lukashenka expresses concerns over the ‘growing antagonism’ in EU-Russia relations during a meeting with a delegation from the Political and Security Committee of the Council of the EU. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, together with a delegation of Turkish businessmen, pays his first official visit to Minsk.
Belarus seeks to establish closer cooperation and attract investments from the UAE and Qatar. The VIII International Investment Forum 'Melnitsa Uspekha' in Mahilioŭ results in investment deals totaling $250m. 24,000 labour migrants came to Belarus in 2015, working mainly in construction, education, and trade.
This and more in the new edition of the state press digest.
Belarusian President expresses his concerns over Russian-EU relations. On 21 November Lukashenka met with a delegation from the Political and Security Committee of the Council of the EU, writes Belarus Segodnya. Lukashenka mainly focused on the ‘growing antagonism’ in EU-Russia relations. He stressed that Belarus prioritises neither the EU nor Russia, and strives to develop relations with both parties.
The president also pointed out that Belarus remains the only country among the Eastern Partnership members not dealing with a military or frozen conflict. Belarus and the EU have already taken the first steps towards normalising relations by establishing a Coordination Group.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka holds a press-conference for Russian regional media. On 17 November the Belarusian president spoke with more than 100 journalists and bloggers from 46 regions of Russia, reports Zviazda. The conference covered many topics ranging from media freedom in Belarus to Belarusian migrant workers in Russia.
Over the last year Lukashenka has experienced difficulties in relations with Russia, primarily due to the economic crisis in the region. However, he promised that the average salary in the country would reach $500 in the next year. Lukashenka believes that Belarus has a sufficient level of media freedom. Although the state gently urges journalist to support the government, generally the official media produce unbiased materials. Lukashenka also highlighted that the government prioritises human rights and justice.
Turkish president pays his first official visit to Belarus. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, along with a delegation of Turkish businessmen, came to Belarus to discuss bilateral relations. Although this was the Turkish leader's first visit to Belarus on the highest level, Aliaksandr Lukashenka affirmed that the two leaders have had ‘kind relations for almost a decade’, reports The Minsk Times.
The Belarusian-Turkish forum, which took place in Minsk during the visit, attracted around 200 Turkish and 300 Belarusian businessmen. Lukashenka and Erdoğan also took part in the opening ceremony of the new Cathedral Mosque in Minsk, the construction of which Turkey financed.
In a joint communiqué, the two heads of state mentioned machine building, the agricultural industry, transport and logistics, textiles, and science as priorities for economic collaboration. They also stressed their determination to coordinate their foreign policy and provide mutual support in international organisations. The two parties outlined a concrete plan of cooperation for 2016-2017.
Belarus seeks investment from the Gulf Countries. Lukashenka's recent visit to Qatar and the UAE is evidence of Belarus's interest in cooperating with these countries. The strong economic and energy positions of Qatar and the UAE are the main factors motivating Belarus to establish closer cooperation and attract investments from the Gulf states, writes Zviazda.
Although Qatar and the UAE invest mainly in the hotel industry, logistics, and banking, Belarus expects the two states to consider investing in other areas as well. Belarus will continue to export dairy products and machinery to Qatar and the UAE, while the timber industry and the high-tech field are two other fields in which future cooperation may be possible.
VIII International Investment Forum 'Melnitsa Uspekha' in Mahilioŭ gathers around 500 businessmen, officials, bankers. Representatives of 32 countries, including Poland, Russia, China, Germany, and Japan came to Mahilioŭ on 4-5 November, writes Mahilioŭskija Viedamasci. The investment portfolio of the Mahilioŭ region proved one of the central events of the forum. As a result of the forum, the region initiated projects totaling $250 million.
At the opening ceremony, permanent UNDP representative Sanaka Samarasinha noted Belarus's success in decreasing the poverty rate, although she also mentioned that Belarus needs to make improvements in its education and healthcare spheres. Belarusian Minister of Economy Uladzimir Zinoŭski highlighted the significant role of Belarus in linking the Eurasian Union with the European Union.
Head of Rosatom Aleksei Lihachev visits the Belarusian nuclear power plant. He affirmed that the Belarusian NPP has a high level of safety. Rosatom recently introduced a similar system at the Novovoronezh NPP, writes Soyuznoye Veche. The company noted that it bears full responsibility for the safety of the Belarusian NPP. Currently, the Belarusian side takes care of around 70% of construction, while Russian organisations deal with the remaining 30%. In total, 5,000 workers are employed in the construction of the Astraviec NPP.
Chinese lead among labour migrants in Belarus, Ukrainians second. 24,000 migrants came to Belarus in 2015. Currently, a total of 1,827 migrants in Minsk region have a work permit. According to Belarusian legislation, employers have to publish an official call for any position. If the company cannot find a Belarusian candidate within 15 days, it has the right to hire a foreigner.
Narodnaja Hazieta cites expert Kaciaryna Barnukova: ‘People are afraid of migrants because they are perceived to rely excessively on social benefits. However, social benefits in Belarus remain inaccessible to migrants’. The majority of labour migrants come to Belarus from China (6,413 in 2016). Ukrainians hold the second position, with 4,754 workers in 2016. However, external migration is not the only way to fill gaps in the workforce. Internal migration of people living close to big cities should also be considered as an option.
The state press digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily 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.
Against all odds: raising a large family in Belarus
On 27 October 2016, the first Belarusian Nobel Prize winner Sviatlana Alexievič made a donation to the Ravenka family, a couple in Slonim with six children.
She deliberately made her act public, as discussions of this particular case in the media are telling of the many challenges faced by large families in Belarus.
Despite some state support, large families in Belarus struggle to survive financially. Many also suffer from stereotypes and prejudices: some view families with more than two children as a burden on the social system or, even worse, as intentional parasites.
Moreover, economic insecurity, combined with the poor housing situation, are significant obstacles for Belarusians considering having more children. These hurdles threaten to make large families extinct. Even though the birth rate has grown in recent years, experts anticipate a decrease in the Belarusian population in the future.
Grim demographic scenarios
By October 2016, the population of Belarus comprised 9,505,200 people. On 17 November 2016, the UNFPA Belarus, in cooperation with the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, presented a study on possible demographic scenarios for the country.
Most of them predicted that the economy would continue to stagnate, keeping the birth rate low. According to the worst case scenario, the population of Belarus could fall by half a million people by 2030.
Among the major factors contributing to the negative trends, experts identified depopulation, rapid ageing, low birth rates (which do not guarantee population replacement rates), and uneven distribution of the population throughout the country. For instance, over the past 17 years, the Belarusian regions have lost about 10 per cent of their population. Currently, roughly 20 per cent of the population resides in Minsk; this is slightly more than 1,900,000 people, not taking into account those who stay in the capital temporarily.
On top of these negative demographic trends, the 21st century is transforming social perceptions of the family structure. People no longer prioritise having children. The recent increase in birth rates is likely a short term phenomenon, as the state will not be capable of supporting such trends financially.
Experts agree that in the long term, negative demographic trends could increase pressure on the social system and contribute to GDP decline. Thus, Belarus still needs to develop an effective approach towards sustaining its birth rate.
Benefits and incentives vs. harsh realities
Belarus has been actively promoting the image of a large family since the early 2000s. A family qualifies for the status of 'large family' if it has three or more children. Currently, there are over 62,000 such families. The state offers them a number of benefits and financial incentives. In 2015, it introduced a family capital programme, offering a one-time allowance of $10,000 to families who decide to have or adopt a third child.
Other benefits for large families include tax incentives and special low interest mortgage loans. The state also compensates mortgage loan payments, depending on the number of children in the family. For instance, if a family has four and more under-age children, the state covers 100 per cent of their loan payments.
Currently, more than 4,800 large families live in Minsk. If they decide to build their own house, they qualify for priority in distribution of land plots within city limits. However, in response to recent hotline questions, Head of the Minsk Executive Committee Andrej Šorac stated that individual construction would not be possible for large families in Minsk anymore.
He justified this by pointing to the lack of available plots. Ironically, only a month ago, the Minsk municipality did not have this land allocation problem when deputy prime minister Natallia Kačanava decided to build a house in the elite suburb of Drazdy.
Lukashenka has stated that Belarus needs at least 25–30 million people to secure full economic independence Read more
Lukashenka, the president of Belarus, has stated on many occasions that Belarus needs at least 25–30 million people to secure full economic independence. However, large families are not likely to become common in Belarus. Fighting social rejection and bureaucratic hypocrisy is only part of the problem.
Political analyst Valer Karbalevič pointed out that birth rates are falling all over Europe, and Belarus is victim to the same trends. Moreover, he pointed out that Belarus in particular faces a number of challenges in connecting with specific social factors. These include an uncertain economic situation, unemployment, small salaries, poor housing, and migration. In the long run, these factors can only exacerbate the demographic decline in Belarus.
Callous society and a scrutinising state
Much like the Ravenka family from Slonim, which struggled to find money to make their initial mortgage payment, families with kids often face financial difficulties. On 16 November 2016, one of the leading official newspapers, Belarus Segodnia, told the story of Aliaksandr Pastolau, a father of four. After losing his job in Minsk, he decided to downshift and moved to a village in the Dokšycy district (Viciebsk province).
In August 2016, Pastolau found a house to rent and started planning to launch a small family-run farm. However, not more than a month later, social services and the local school authorities started to frequent the house. They claimed that Pastolau's children were not receiving adequate care and attention. Threats of termination of parental rights forced the family to return to Minsk.
state institutions treat large families with a heavy dose of legalism and scrutiny Read more
In the Pastolau's case, safety concerns regarding heating in the house prompted local authorities to choose an overbearing manner of communication with the newcomers. Eventually, this provoked a conflict. This incident illustrates how state institutions treat large families with a heavy dose of legalism and scrutiny. Often, they use the well-being of the children as a justification to interfere in family matters.
Moreover, ordinary Belarusians can be suspicious of large families. Having more than two children may lead to questions about whether the family is deliberately seeking social benefits from the state or is overly religious. Even the ideal large family of famous Belarusian actor Pavel Harlančuk, who raised five children, gave rise to such commentary from the public.
Having a large family needs to become a more attractive option for wider sections of the population. Ideally, Belarus needs to develop more affordable housing programmes, expand the childcare system, and ensure that families do not feel economically insecure.
Last but not least, the state should also pay attention to the change of attitudes to large families in society. Sweden, for instance, is a good model. It has promoted baby-friendly public spaces and improved the reintegration of new mothers into social life.