Air Base Suspended, Seeking Support in Asia and Africa, Belarusian Studies – Ostrogorski Centre Digest
In December and January the Ostrogorski Centre analysts are busy analysing Minsk's complicated games in foreign policy and security affairs, finalising the most recent issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies and organising a conference on Belarusian studies.
It appears that Belarus continues to cooperate with Ukraine on the issues where Belarus can gain financially and technologically, while keeping its distance from aggressive Russian foreign policy. Minsk has also managed to win the standoff over a Russian air base in Belarus.
Siarhei Bohdan argues that Minsk consistently avoids supporting Moscow in Ukraine and Syria. Belarus is continuing its active collaboration with Kyiv, aimed not only at business deals but also at acquiring the military technology which Russia has failed to provide it with. At the same time, Minsk seems to be winning the ongoing game over a Russian air base. A base will, it seems, not appear in Belarus in the near future, and on top of that Belarus will soon have Russian warplanes at its disposal.
Igar Gubarevich in his foreign policy overview shows that despite his renewed right to travel to Europe, Lukashenka’s "social circle" has so far remained limited to authoritarian countries. While visiting and hosting Asian and African colleagues, the Belarusian leader had to postpone his most important foreign trip to Moscow because of disagreements over relations with Turkey and the Russian air base in Belarus.
Ryhor Astapenia analyses the performance of Belarusian industry in 2015. While many enterprises, such as Kamvol, are poised on the verge of bankruptcy, others like potash exporter Belaruskali have saved the Belarusian economy, allowing inefficient industries to be subsidised.
Comments in the media
Siarhei Bohdan in an interview with the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty comments on the normalisation of Belarus-EU relations and their future in 2016. According to Bohdan, Belarus is trying to pursue a neutrality policy in a quiet manner and is seeking to boost trade cooperation with the EU. However, warming of relations will not change domestic politics significantly, as it will be dominated by Russian and Ukrainian factors.
Aljazeera quoted director of the Ostrogorski Centre Yarik Kryvoi, who analysed the reasons why the Belarusian authorities refrain from large-scale privatisation and its associated social costs. The Aljazeera piece also cited Ostrogorski Centre associate analyst Alieś Aliachnovič’s article on BelarusDigest dedicated to the role of Russia’s subsidies in the Belarusian economy.
Ryhor Astapenia together with several well-known experts summed up the year 2015 on Radio France Internationale. Among the most important events of the year Ryhor mentioned was Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize, which put Belarus in the focus of world media, and the October presidential election, which demonstrated people’s disappointment with politics and the economic crisis in the first years of Lukashenka’s new term in power.
According to the experts, the European Union should increase its presence in Belarus to be able to influence the situation from the inside Read more
Siarhei Bohdan discussed with the Belarusian Programme of Polish Radio current trends in the development of the Belarusian Armed Forces. Despite the declared military union with Russia, the Belarusian army is seeking more autonomy and hampering major bilateral military projects.
Yarik Kryvoi and the Ostrogorski Centre's senior analyst Siarhei Bohdan commented on the role of sanctions in Belarus' relations with the west for WorldECR, the Journal of Export Controls and Sanctions. According to the experts, the European Union should increase its presence in Belarus to be able to influence the situation from the inside. Patient critical engagement and economic modernisation can ultimately strengthen Belarusian statehood and improve the human rights and democracy situation.
Vadzim Smok took part in a discussion titled In What Ways Can We Talk about the Nation and Nationalism Today?, organised in Minsk as a part of the Debates on Europe programme and supported by the German Federal Foreign Office. The experts exchanged ideas on various models of nation-building in today’s Belarus and the role of nationalism in this process.
The Belarusian government allows the existence of a sizeable shadow economy because its main revenue comes from outside the country Read more
Siarhei Bohdan discussed with Radio Racyja the problem of the shadow economy in Belarus. The Belarusian government allows the existence of a sizeable shadow economy because its main revenue comes from outside the country, mainly from Russian hydrocarbons. Many businesses operate via illegal schemes, and the authorities turn a blind eye to them in exchange for political loyalty.
Belarusian Studies in the 21st century conference
The Ostrogorski Centre and the UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) invite proposals from established academics and doctoral researchers for individual papers and panels to discuss various aspects of contemporary Belarusian studies.
The conference will take place on 23-24 March 2016 at the SSEES in London. The Annual Lecture on Belarusian Studies will follow the main conference panels. 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 conference call for papers is available here and the deadline is 15 February 2016.
The 2015 issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies
The Ostrogorski Centre presents the 2015 issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies. The new issue of the journal focuses on the Belarusian-Polish-Lithuanian borderland and the period stretching from the uprising of 1863 to the inter-war period of the 20th century when the territory of today’s Belarus was split between the Soviet Union and Poland.
Two longer articles are followed by several essays which resulted from a conference held by the Anglo-Belarusian Society and other London-based organisations at University College London in March 2014.
This issue also includes the transcript of the first Annual London Lecture on Belarusian Studies, and two book reviews – one by Stephen Hall examining the meaning of Europe for the Belarusian and Ukrainian authorities, and the other by Siarhej Bohdan looking at relations between various ethnic groups in Eastern Poland in the inter-war period, which is now Western Belarus.
The issue features authors from Estonia, Lithuania, United Kingdom, Belarus and Sweden.
The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following personalities: Aliena Arciomienka, Andrej Parotnikaŭ, Uladzimir Kaltovič, Dzmitryj Markušeŭski, Juryj Caryk, Kiryl Koktyš, Aliaksandr Aŭtuška-Sikorski, Andrej Rusakovič, Siarhej Vazniak, Uladzimir Kavalkin.
We have also updated the profiles of Stanislaŭ Kniazieŭ, Anton Kudasaŭ, Valiery Kulakoŭski, Aliaksandr Lahviniec, Dzmitry Lazoŭski, Žana Litvina, Anatoĺ Lis, Ihar Laciankoŭ, Alieh Latyšonak, Paviel Latuška, Viktar Lukašenka, Anatoĺ Liabiedźka, Anatoĺ Marazievič, Viktar Marcinovič, Siarhiej Maskievič, Andrej Šorac, Andrej Hajeŭ, Uladzimir Amaryn, Maksim Jermalovič, Dzmitry Charytončyk.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
- Ina Ramašeŭskaja, Natallia Rabava. What motivates public servants in Belarus: money not important. BIPART, 2015.
- Uladzimir Kavalkin. Public procurement: increasing transparency and accountability. BIPART, 2014.
- Ina Ramašeŭskaja, Tacciana Čulickaja. Do government agencies operate effectively? Modern challenges and responses. BIPART, 2014.
- Kaciaryna Korzun. Public-private partnership in Belarus: what is after the law? BIPART, 2014.
- Dzmitry Markušeŭski. On the way to e-government in Belarus. BIPART, 2013.
- Anastasija Luzhina. Pension benefits as a component of the social security system. BEROC, 2015.
- Katsiaryna Barnukova. Support of maternity in Belarus. BEROC, 2015.
- Katsiaryna Barnukova, Anastasiya Luzhina, Katsiaryna Lisiankova . Pension system of belarus: current state and necessity for reforms. BEROC, 2015.
- Alieh Mazol. Local government in the Republic of Belarus. BEROC, 2015.
- Dzmitry Kruk, Katsiaryna Barnukova. Decomposition of economic growth in Belarus. BEROC, 2014.
Any partner organisation of BelarusPolicy.com can submit its research for inclusion onto the database by completing this form.
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 Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com and BelarusProfile.com. Follow all the news from the Ostrogorski Centre on Facebook.
Belarus Struggles to Reduce Energy Dependence on Russia
At the end of 2015 Belarus published a new energy security concept according to which it remains a country with a critical level of energy dependence.
90 per cent of Belarusian energy imports come from a single supplier – Russia. Moreover, a third of export revenue is traditionally generated by refining Russian oil.
The authorities prefer to retain the status-quo as an easier and conflictless strategy, but the need to strengthen statehood will sooner or later require a solution to this deep problem.
Dramatic energy dependence on Russia
As the newly published Concept notes, Belarus has a critical level of dependence in most aspects of its energy security. Currently, 90 per cent of imports of all energy resources come from Russia. Moreover, Russian natural gas accounts for 90 per cent of heat and electric energy production.
The growth of energy independence and diversification of suppliers should become a strategic goal for the government in the coming years. The new Concept sets concrete goals up until 2035. Belarus plans to reduce the share of Russia in its energy imports from 90 per cent to 70 per cent. Most strikingly, the government plans to reduce the share of gas in production of electric and heat energy from the current 90 per cent to 50 per cent.
Another related problem the authorities will have to deal with is high energy consumption in the economy. The heavy industries built in the USSR consume huge amounts of energy, and many of them work on decades-old, outdated technologies.
For example, Hrodna Azot, a chemical industry enterprise, consumes 10 per cent of all imported gas. Apart from high energy consumption, these demand large state subsidies and demonstrate low economic efficiency. Reform of these industrial giants would resolve a whole bunch of problems, but the government seems unwilling to do that due to high social costs.
Belarusian citizens will also have to change their energy usage habits. The population has for a long time enjoyed discounted prices on public utilities for home use, including energy, as a part of the government's social policy.
While an average Pole or Lithuanian has to pay $160-170 for communal services, Belarusians currently pay only around $40. This has caused much criticism from market reform advocates and international creditors of Belarus. Finally, the government has agreed to reform this sector and citizens are seeing their bills grow constantly.
Petroeconomy and the EEU market
In the last decade oil products have accounted for a third of Belarusian exports and brought in up to $16bn of revenue annually. Together with potash, oil products filled the Belarusian budget, allowing the government to keep a tight grip on the economy without introducing reforms, and preserving the loyalty of citizens.
Russia, of course, remains the cheapest and most profitable option for Belarusian oil refineries located in Mazyr and Navapolack. At times of economic tension, Belarus has in the past attempted to threaten Russia with turning to alternative sources of oil. In 2010-2011 Minsk shipped oil from Venezuela and Azerbaijana decision that had no economic grounds but brought political results eventually, as Russia returned to more favourable contract terms with Belarus.
However, the Belarusian oil business now faces a number of challenges. Belarus as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) remains in an unfavourable position as regards oil consumption. The single market of energy resources in the EEU will come into force only in 2025, a condition that Russia insists on and Belarus strongly opposes.
More fundamentally though, the sector itself presents a bigger problem for Belarus. Reliance on Russian oil as a major export commodity means backwardness in other sectors, dependence on oil price jumps and of course the supplier. The current drop in oil prices and subsequent economic decline present a good lesson for the Belarusian leadership, but will they learn from it?
Will nuclear power plant increase energy independence?
In the early 2010s a new nuclear power plant (NPP) was proclaimed as the hope of the Belarusian energy sector. It is intended to cover a quarter of the country's energy needs, with its first reactor to be launched in 2018.
However, the case for energy independence in this instance looks doubtful, as Russia remains the key actor at all stages of the project's implementation. Russia provides its design, supplies its most important components, as well as the nuclear fuel. Finally, the whole project is financed by a $10bn Russian loan.
An expert from the Institute of Energy at the National Academy of Sciences who wanted to remain anonymous told Belarus Digest that Belarus can in fact purchase uranium elsewhere, but the issue of utilisation of exhausted fuel will remain nevertheless.
Besides, the NPP is located only 55km away from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. This poses a number of other security threats which the Belarusian authorities prefer not to talk about. Lithuanian officials and NGOs have been criticising Belarus since the project's inception, saying that Belarusians have not properly assessed the environmental impact of the NPP and do not want their neighbours to get involved.
Belarusians never witnessed a real public debate on the NPP, rather ridiculous for a nation that suffered dramatically from the Chernobyl disaster. Yet the plant may in the end prove to be the lesser of two evils compared to gas and oil dependence.
Can Belarus become energy independent?
Belarus remains trapped in energy dependence primarily because of the inertia of its leadership, who are scared to change the status-quo and implement sector reforms. High revenues from oil could be used to develop alternative and local energy resources, which Belarus uses to a minor extent. Belarus has natural resources which have fine energy potential: rivers, woods, swamps and biomass.
Energy efficiency, which the authorities like to talk about but fail to introduce, should become a technical standard in all spheres, from construction and transport to agriculture. Read more
Alternative and green energy is the area where the European Union has vast experience and will be eager to assist in both expertise and financing. For example, the EU has allocated €8m for local development projects in 2014-2017, where energy is a priority area. Belarus could receive many more funds for green energy were it to demonstrate real interest in cooperation in this area.
Large enterprises with old energy-consuming technologies should be reformed and replaced by an economy based on small and medium business, the service sector and IT. In the long run, this would not only reduce energy consumption, but would also change the structure of budget revenues and dependence on oil refineries.
Energy efficiency, which the authorities like to talk about but fail to introduce, should become a technical standard in all spheres, from construction and transport to agriculture.
Last but not least, Belarusians should learn how to save energy – something they had no need to know about in the state-run economy. Raising energy prices to market levels should be accompanied by comprehensive education programmes to teach the population how to live in a new energy reality.