Religion in Belarus – from Orthodoxy to Protestantism?

On 26 May, Archbishop Tadevuš Kandrusievič, the head of the Belarusian Catholic Church, announced that the Episcopate is working on an alternative to concordat.

Concordat is a formal agreement regulating the relationship between the church and a secular state, with the Belarusian government. If he succeeds, this would probably be the first such agreement between the local Catholic Church (not Vatican) and the government.

Leaders of religious organisations based in Belarus understand that strengthening their position vis-à-vis the government bolsters their image, allowing them to exert greater influence on society. In light of a recent study on religiosity in Central and Eastern Europe by the Pew Research Centre, there is a lot to fight for in Belarus.

According to the study, the overwhelming majority of Belarusians believe in God and affiliate themselves with specific religious organisations. Nevertheless, the number of practising believers who regularly engage in religious activities is far smaller. Unexpectedly, Belarusian Protestants, not covered in the study, might be the de facto leaders on the ground.

The Belarusian religious landscape

The most recent Pew study presents key findings regarding various aspects of religiosity in the former communist countries and sheds light on religious dynamics in Belarus. It appears that the vast majority of Belarusians (84%) declare they believe in God.

This number contrasts to statistics in Belarus's immediate neighbours, such as Lithuania (76%) or Russia (75%). More people declare they believe in God only in Poland and Ukraine (both 86%). Therefore, it would seem that Belarus is fertile ground for religious organisations, despite decades of state-enforced secularisation.

Eastern Orthodoxy dominates throughout the region, and this holds true for Belarus as well. As the study shows, 73% per cent of Belarusians identify themselves as Orthodox, 12% as Catholics, 3% declare no affiliation, and 12% are affiliated with other confessions.

Despite the high number of believers, a closer look into the reasons behind personal religiosity shows that for many people, religion holds a more ceremonial significance.

For example, only 23% of Orthodox Christians relate their religious identity with personal faith, and slightly above half of them emphasise the importance of religion for their national identity or family background. This is less true for Belarusian Catholics, 40% of whom connect it with personal faith, and 42% explain their religious identity in terms of national/family culture.

Belarusian believers: in word only?

A more practical look at religiosity can better explain the dynamics of religion on the ground. In Belarus, it appears that a typical believer rarely attends service: 12% of respondents said they do so once a week. This is twice more than in Russia (6%).

In contrast to Orthodox believers, 25% of Belarusian Catholics attend service weekly, as do 43% of Ukrainian Catholics.

In fact, according to the Pew study, Belarusian Catholics tend to engage more often in religious activities, such as daily prayer and reading scriptures, at least monthly outside the church.

The Pew report presents Belarus as following larger trends in religious dynamics throughout the region as well as in Western Europe. People claim to have an interest in religious matters, but tend not to regularly practise their faith. With regard to Belarus, this is largely explainable by its post-Soviet legacy.

Mixing sacred and profane in Belarusian society

As the Pew report demonstrates, there is a correlation between religious affiliation and national identification. With regard to Belarus, less than a half (45%) connect religion with their national identity. Ukrainian (57%) and Russian (51%) respondents are more likely to connect these two issues.

Membership to religious groups, as with any other type of membership, contributes to the process of socialisation of specific values, norms and attitudes. Thus, religious affiliation often corresponds to political orientation.

For example, members of predominately Orthodox societies in the region tend to support the sentiment that Russia ought to act as a balance for the West. The vast majority of Belarusian respondents (76%) agree with this view.

In contrast, only 22% of Ukrainians agree with Russia's need for a natural geopolitical buffer zone, most likely due to the ongoing conflict between the two countries. In other neighbouring countries, such as Poland and Lithuania, significantly fewer people support this view (in both cases 34% of the population).

Notably, the Pew study also examines national attitudes towards democratic vs. other forms of government. Accordingly, in Belarus, as in Ukraine, slightly more people favour democracy (38%) to those who support other forms of government (25%). Russians, to the contrary, prefer other forms of government (41%) to democracy (31%). Lithuanians favour a democratic form of government the most (64%), whereas less than half of Poles do (47%).

Belarusians even have their own Christian-Democratic political party, co-chaired by Paviel Sieviaryniec and Vitali Rymašeŭski. In the end of May, the party leadership and its members celebrated the 100th anniversary of its establishment. Today, the party attracts mainly opposition-minded politicians who claim to respect Christian values. As the news portal Krynica.info informs, since 2007 the leaders of the party have attempted to register officially 20 times, with no success.

Is Belarus nominally Orthodox, but practically Catholic and Protestant?

One of the major features of religious life is its communal character. The majority of Belarusian respondents (62%) emphasise that the chief role of religion boils down to bringing people together.

Slightly more people (64%) think that the religious institutions should strengthen morality in society, while nearly a half (49%) consider support for the poor and people in need to be the key responsibility of religious institutions. Christian organisations in Belarus willingly engage in charitable activity. The Catholic Church, for example, does this mainly through the organisation Caritas. Certain Protestant congregations offer support for alcoholics.

When it comes to public initiatives, the churches are able to speak the same language. For example, they are all involved in the pro-life movement. The newspaper Naša Niva reports that in 2013, the Belarusian Orthodox Church, together with the Catholic Church, Belarusian Christian-Democracts, and other civic organisations, supported a rally against abortion.

Certain Christian churches feature activity related to national revival on their agenda. For example, in an interview in 2017 with Belapan, an independent news agency, the Apostolic Nuncio to Belarus rather proudly noted that the Catholic Church engages in strengthening the national identity of Belarusians.

The Pew report, although very comprehensive, gives an incomplete picture of the religious dynamics among Belarusian Christians. Unfortunately, the authors focused predominantly on the Orthodox-Catholic paradigm, excluding Protestant minorities. Although they constitute only a small part of the population in Belarus, their activism is a remarkable phenomenon, especially given the restrictions they face from the government.

In 2015, 31.9% of all registered religious communities in the country were Protestant, which is significantly more than Catholics (14.8%) but less than Orthodox (49.6%). With this in mind, along with peoples' real engagement in religious activity, it is no longer a given that Belarus is an Orthodox country.




Religious freedom in Belarus: worse than in Ukraine, better than in Russia

Last month, the Pew Research Centre released its Global Restrictions on Religion report, which gauges barriers imposed by governments as well as social hostilities towards religious organisations. Out of the nearly 200 countries studied, Belarus ranked among the 'high-risk' group when it comes to religious restrictions.

In a regional context, Belarus fared worse than neighbouring Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic States, but better than in Russia. Rather surprisingly, Belarus scored relatively well with regards to the level of social hostility towards religious groups.

As another social survey demonstrated, all major Christian churches in Belarus enjoy a relatively high level of social trust. The Belarusian Orthodox Church, however, given its privileged position vis-a-vis state authorities, is more influential than others. Nevertheless, despite the significantly lower human and financial resources of other Christian confessions, Belarusians did show some trust towards them as well.

Government restrictions

In its 'Global Restrictions on Religion' report, the Pew Research Centre, a Washington-based non-partisan fact tank, measures the level of government restrictions and social hostility towards religions in nearly 200 countries. Overall, religious restrictions imposed by the Belarusian government were less severe than in Russia, which was ranked as a 'very high-risk' country. Belarus's neighbours, such as Ukraine and Poland, scored 'moderate', while the level of restrictions in Lithuania ranked 'low'.

Likewise, in last year's report, Belarus received a 'high-risk' score for barriers imposed by local and national government to religious organisations. The report alluded to cases of coercive and forceful impediments to various organisations' activity, including physical abuse and government favouritism of particular religious groups.

The Pew Report, however, did not provide any specific examples of such cases in Belarus. The 'Religious Freedom Report', commissioned by the US State Department, is more detailed in this regard.

Religious freedom and equality – only for the chosen?

The 'Religious Freedom Report' portrays Belarus as a country which limits the right to practise religion, especially targeting minority organisations. For example, the government selectively denies registration to groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses or Hare Krishna. Although one Buddhist community did manage to obtain registration in Minsk in 2015, this is an exception which proves the rule.

What's more, many communities are reluctant to report abuses out of fear of intimidation or retribution, as the report makes clear.

Among Christian groups, Protestant congregations seem to struggle the most to exist in Belarus. This is illustrated by the case of the New Life Church, which uses a cow barn for its gatherings and services. Minsk authorities wanted to deprive the community of a place of worship.

One common problem for religious minorities in Belarus has been renting or purchasing a place of worship. Formal registration remains a huge barrier. Without it, Belarusian law precludes any type of religious activity. In order to register a religious community, applicants must compile a list of full names and addresses of all members of its congregation; this discourages some communities from registering.

Proselytising, as well as promotion of religious beliefs and activities, is not always possible for all churches in Belarus. In order to conduct missionary activities, religious groups must obtain special permission from the authorities. However, the Belarusian Orthodox Church is exempt from such restrictions; they are also able to easily collect donations on public premises. In the past, some religious groups have reported incidents of harassment from the authorities when they tried to raise money for charity at other locations.

Protestant communities as civil-society actors

Protestants in Belarus, and in the post-Soviet space in general, have been increasing in number since the fall of communism. According to the 2015 'Religious Freedom Report', out of 3,315 registered religious communities in Belarus, 1,643 are Orthodox Christian, 491 are Catholic, and 1,057 are Protestant. Considering the human and financial resources the Belarusian Orthodox Church enjoys, as well as its privileged position in society, the growing popularity of Protestantism may indeed seem surprising.

The nature of many Protestant communities is especially outstanding considering the nature of Belarusian and post-communist society in general. Protestants often form intimate and vibrant communities and foster safe spaces for social interaction. Besides their religious activity, some congregations help alcoholics, offer English language classes, and provide religious education for children. Perhaps most importantly, people often meet and spend quality time together as a community after worship.

Religion and Belarusian society

Interestingly, the grim picture painted by various reports is slightly improved when social hostility is taken into account. Social hostility here implies intimidation and violence on behalf of society. In the Pew report, Belarus, along with Poland, scored 'moderate', while Ukraine ('high') and Russia ('very high') lagged behind.

This result could mean two things. First, it is possible that Belarusian society is relatively open and tolerant, or at least less intrusive when it comes to religious matters. Second, the rather hostile attitude of the authorities towards various religions, and religious minorities in particular, is not necessarily reflected in popular sentiment.

In fact, as social surveys demonstrate, some Belarusians trust Protestant minorities. According to findings from a survey published by NISEPI in 2015, 65.2% of Belarusians trust the Orthodox Church. This is slightly less than in 2014 (67.2%), 35.3% of people trust the Catholic Church, whereas 9.5% of respondents trust the 'Protestant Church'.

The authorities perfectly understand this phenomenon, and they strike while the iron is hot. Hence, the Ministry of Education signed a special agreement with the Orthodox Church in November 2015 stipulating that the Orthodox Church would get more involved in celebrations of the Great Patriotic War, one of the cornerstones of the state-driven historical narrative in today's Belarus. In fact, they even involved the Orthodox Church in promoting certain models of patriotism and citizenship. No similar arrangements have been made with other confessions.

True religious freedom in Belarus – near impossible?

The present politics of the state vis-a-vis religious organisations is full of contradictions.

On one hand, the authorities boast about the historically multi-confessional character of Belarusian society. On the other hand, although they have drawn up an official list of the five traditional and historical faiths in the country, they conveniently overlook Calvinists and Old Believers.

Alexander Lukashenka, the president of Belarus, readily attends certain ecumenical services and later poses for pictures together with the heads of the major Christian churches. Nevertheless, the authorities pursue a selective policy towards different Christian churches, and the registration procedure for religious organisations remains complicated. Despite restrictions, however, in 2015 the authorities allowed a gathering of several hundred mainly Evangelical Christians at the Čyžouka Arena in Minsk for collective prayers.

Although the Belarusian constitution guarantees the basic right to equality for religious organisations, the situation on the ground is highly problematic. Liberalisation and more religious diversity could benefit society as a whole. It would be interesting to see how different churches would compete for members in a religiously diverse (and equal) market.




How Belarusian Television Covers Elections – Belarus State TV Digest

Belarusian state television continues to convince its audience that voting matters. It also tries to create an impression that it remains an open platform for all candidates. Yet, at the same time state TV clearly promotes one particular candidate while only briefly covering others.

However, in regards the election campaign, state TV sometimes allows critical comments such as “The ongoing campaign is boring and uninteresting", or "The state machinery works for just one candidate”.

Channel 1 commented on the results of a recent social survey according to which Alexander Lukashenka is highly trusted by Belarusians. All of this and more in this edition of Belarus State TV Digest.

Domestic Affairs 

The head of state shows his humane face. Journalists of Channel 1 briefly reported on the release of all political prisoners including Mikola Statkievich and Mikola Dziadok. Lukashenka did it because of the “principle of humanism”, they explained.

“Dedolarisation” of Belarus. State TV jointly with the Belarusian Ministry of the Economy has launched a project aimed at promoting the concept of paying in Belarusian roubles rather than the US dollar. This will build respect for the national currency, and also strengthen the economy, journalists stated.

Why Belarusians go to another country’s war? Channel 1 covered the death of a young Belarusian, Aleś Cherkashchyn, who had recently been killed while fighting in the war in Ukraine. The reporter a few times repeated that the Ukrainian war remained “foreign” to Belarusians, and “Belarusians should not be there”.

2015 Presidential Elections

Channel 1: the electoral campaign is equal for all candidates. “The first round of the electoral campaign was fair for all competitors”, according to one of the registered candidates, Siarhei Haidukievich, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. In his view, all competitors could freely collect signatures. According to the coverage, giving free time to all candidates on the air both on state Channel 1 and the Belarusian National Radio 1 proves that they treat all candidates equally during the election campaign.

Traditional Belarusian symbols used by pro-Lukashenka campaigners. Belaya Rus”, a state-supported public association, has begun its pre-election agitation campaign for the incumbent head of state. According to coverage on Channel 1 the event’s attractions included Belarusian folk music and free bracelets with a traditional ornament. Belarusians also had the chance to leave their written requests to Lukashenka.

Taciana Karatkievich. Journalists also reported on Tatsiana Karatkievich’s pre-election campaign in the town of Lahojsk, where her team distributed leaflets. They pointed out that Karatkievich directly spoke to people about her political programme.

Who really cares about Belarusians? Channel 1 reports that three fourths of Belarusians trust Lukashenka. This is according to the results of a survey conducted in August by the information-analytical centre. Over 74% of people agreed that the politics of the incumbent president is supportive of ordinary people. According to over 77% of people, Belarus under Lukashenka is going in the right direction.

Lukashenka as a remedy for the corruption and poverty in the early 1990s. Glavnyj Efir in an evening programme on Channel 1, launched a series of documentary movies on how the country has changed over the last 20 years. While speaking of the achievements they mainly emphasise the role of the current head of state, whereas failures are usually assigned either to internal opposition forces or external issues with Russia.

Describing the years 1993-1994, reporters of Glavnyj Efir emphasised the major economic hardships of that time: empty shelves in stores, rising prices, destroyed collective farms, wild privatisation, poverty and mandatory vouchers for food. However, the solution to these difficulties arrived with Alexander Lukashenka stepping into power, as the journalists hinted. The incumbent head of state with his famous anti-corruption speech given in Parliament won Belarusians’ heart and proposed a new quality in politics, reporters emphasised.

Who saved Belarusian independence. Describing the years 2002-2003, reporters mainly focused on the “construction” achievements including the National Library and the first underground shopping centre in Minsk, something that was unbelievable in the early 1990s. Reporters also pointed out that Lukashenka has done a lot to maintain the independence of Belarus by not allowing the country to be transformed to just another Russian region.

Belarusian maidan. Commenting upon the protests following the 2007 presidential elections, journalists stated that “a political minority did not agree with the peoples’ will” which decisively supported Lukashenka.

Participants of Dzielo pryncypa, a talk show hosted by Vadzim Hihin, discussed collecting signatures for the nomination of candidates for the presidential election. Among the participants on the talk show was an MP, an independent political analyst, and also the heads of all candidates’ electoral committees.

The pre-election campaign is colourless? Valery Karbalevych, an independent political analyst, vocally criticised the authorities. He mainly argued that the pre-election campaign was boring and reflected the lack of real political life in the country. In his view, the vast majority of Belarusians remain indifferent towards the election. “The whole state machinery works in favour of just one candidate, the President”, Karbalevych openly said.

The majority of the discussants strongly disagreed with him. “If you think that an interesting pre-election campaign is when the candidates are arguing, when there is blood spilt on the streets, and mass protests are taking place… we do not need such a campaign!”, replied Aleh Haidukievich, who is the head of Siarhei Haidukievich’s electoral team.

Access to state media for all? Andrej Dzmitryjeu, the head of Taciana Karatkievich's electoral team, pointed out that the political debates in Belarus are taking place only during the pre-election campaign rather than as a part of the regular political process. He also noted that his organisation remained unknown to most of Belarusians as it had no access to state TV and radio.

Not so voluntary support for Lukashenka? Karbalevich noted that people working in state enterprises were often forced to sign on to the support lists of Lukashenka. That roused some controversy in the studio.

Conflict and democracy in the opposition? Karbalevych argued that the real political life in Belarus actually takes place amid the opposition, as people argue there which remains a part of a normal political reality.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT TV. 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.




Subbotnik With Top Officials, Opposition And The Presidential Elections – Belarus State TV Digest

Did the Americans dismantle the Soviet Union? Did Belarusians benefit from the fall of the Soviet Union at all? These are some of the topics discussed by guests on the “Delo Principa” talk show on state-run ONT TV.

A recent subbotnik, a traditional voluntary (at least officially) clean-up day on Saturday, was a resounding success. State-owned TV focused its coverage voluntary work of officials in Hugo Chavez park. Around 3 million Belarusians participated in it and as a result over $4 million will find its way into the state budget. The head of state along with other officials, like millions of ordinary Belarusians, picked up and laboured away.

All of this and more in this edition of State TV digest.

Economy

Will the decree against “social parasites” stimulate people to work? According to “Panorama" on Channel 1, the new bill requiring people without official jobs to pay a levy, actually aims to protect of the rights of those Belarusians who actually pay their taxes.

Journalists portray those who avoid paying taxes as being typically well educated, with their own housing and a job, but who nonetheless receive their salaries in an “envelope”. The new law will help the state fight this long-standing practise.

According to Belarusian TV, other countries employ similar practises against tax evaders. For example, in the US such people can be fined or even end up in prison. Belarus, it was argued, appears "more democratic" on this front and will require tax evaders to pay lower fines. The decree has already started bringing in results as more Belarusians have expressed their interest in looking for a job.

Is the Belarusian economy open and attractive? Standard & Poor’s has confirmed a long-term credit rating of B- for Belarus, according to “Panorama”. According to the coverage, much of this has to do with the "rational economic policies of the Belarusian authorities". In addition, they have managed to "adapt the economy to complicated external circumstances". The programme went so far as to say that the positive rating proves the "transparency and openness" of the Belarusian economy.

Politics

Does the Belarusian opposition support Lukashenka? Journalists from “Glavnyj Efir” on Channel 1 covered the upcoming presidential elections, reporting that a number of the opposition-minded organisations in Belarus have already declared that would not participate in the elections. For example, the “For Freedom” movement of Aliaksandr Milinkievich will not nominate a candidate from among its ranks. Another organisation “Nash Dom” led by Volha Karach will also not be participating. “Today’s alternative to Lukashenka is war, unemployment and collapse”, journalists cited a letter published by the “Nash Dom” leadership.

Belarusian president can take up a shovel ... in addition to the fact that he can play hockey, drive a car, or a motorcycle

Lukashenka: No Room for Populism. “Glavny Efir” on Channel 1 covered the subbotnik, a traditional voluntary community work and clean up day that falls on Saturdays. This year it attracted rather diverse crowd, according to the coverage, ranging from a “school child to the president”. Alexander Lukashenka was working on the construction of a new children hospital in Minsk. But he also found time for a press conference.

“Everyone knows that the Belarusian president can take up a shovel, or any other instrument for construction in his hands, in addition to the fact that he can play hockey, drive a car, or a motorcycle”, stated one journalist, flattering the head of state. Lukashenka explained he "does nothing just for show, but rather tends to do things which he does in real life".

Subbotnik: All (officials) hands on board! Other senior officials also took part in some volunteering. Andrej Kabiakau, Prime Minister, planted pine trees. Aliaksandr Kosiniec, the head of the Presidential Administration, helped out with building a new school in Minsk. Mikhail Miasnikovych, chairman of the Council of Republic, also helped out with a construction project. Uladzimir Andrejchanka with other MPs tended Hugo Chavez Park in Minsk. As a result of the subbotnik nearly 61 bln BYR (over $4m) will be saved. The authorities will spend the money on equipment for Belarusian hospitals, festivities for the the Great Patriotic War celebration and modernising sanatoriums in Belarus.

Perestroika and Belarus

On his talk show “Delo Pryncypa” on ONT TV, Vadzim Hihin discussed the results of perestroika in the Soviet Union for Belarusians. Among the guest speakers were Valentin Holubieu (former opposition MP from 1990-1995), Valentina Leonienka (Secretary of the Communist Party and MP), Aliaksandr Shpakouski (the head of the information centre "Aktualnaja Kancepcyja"). Participants discussed the reasons behind the fall of the Soviet Union, but also its consequences for Belarusians.

Charhyniec forcefully argued that the Americans stood behind the collapse of the Soviet Union

Did the Soviet Union have to be reformed? “The Soviet system was rotten” according to Valery Karbalevych, a political scientist. Mikalaj Charhyniec, the head of the Association of Writers of Belarus, strongly disagreed with Karbalevych and pointed out that the Soviet Union was a worldwide leader in education, but also its citizens were highly motivated to work. Juriy Zisser, the founder of the popular Belarus news portal tut.by, noted that the Union bankrupted itself politically and economically.

Did the Americans dismantle the Soviet Union? Mikalaj Charhyniec forcefully argued that the Americans stood behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the talk show it turned out that 65% of people gathered in a studio supported Aliaksandr Shpakouski who stated that there was an operation by American special service aimed at the destruction of the Soviet Union.

Any benefits from the fall of the Soviet Union for Belarusians? Valery Karbalevych, Aliaksandr Shpakouski, Valentin Holubieu agreed that the demise of the Soviet Union had fortunately led to the creation of a sovereign Belarus. Some of the guest speakers pointed out that with respect to culture and education Belarus had actually suffered as a result of the fall of the Soviet system.

At the end of the talk show Vadzim Hihin presented the results of a telephone vote: only 15% of people assessed perestroika positively, whereas 85% of voters negatively.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT TV. 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.




BRSM, Lukashenka’s Press Conference – Belarus State TV Digest

Aleksandr Lukashenka attended a recent BRSM Youth Union conference and tried to convince young Belarusians to stay in the country and be loyal.

Lukashenka's press conference with domestic and foreign journalists on 29 January turned into one of the biggest news events of the year. According to coverage on state-run TV, even the journalists deemed “disloyal to the authorities” were given a chance to express their views at the event.

State TV journalists have been disseminating confusing messages on EU-Belarus relations as of late. On one occasion they took note of several positive developments, but in another instance they were very critical of a Latvian official for his interview on a potential “thaw” in relations between the West and Belarus.

All of this and more in this edition of Belarus State TV Digest.

Belarus: An Island of Social Stability According to the Glavnyj Efir programme on state-run Channel 1, Belarus distinguishes itself on a global arena via its generous financial support for the poorest and most vulnerable segments of society. Its commitment to maintaining a high level of social welfare support remains a priority for the authorities.

However, not every Belarusian has been contributing their fair share to this enormous financial burden. The authorities have already come up with an idea of how to encourage tax evaders to contribute to the budget. Anyone who has been unemployed for more than half a year will be charged a special fee in lieu of taxes.

Is the EU Ignoring Belarus' National Interests? According to a Channel 1 report, there is room for real improvements in EU-Belarus ties. State TV noted that for years Belarus has been advocating for “pragmatism in its relations with its European partners and respect for its national interests”. There is potential for EU-Belarusian relations to obtain an entirely “new quality” before the Eastern Partnership Summit scheduled to take place in May in Riga.

Who Needs Better Relations with Minsk? In a recent programme, a journalist from ONT TV “Bez Granic” criticised an interview by a Latvian official, Andrejs Pildegovichs, for his comments on the need to release political prisoners as a pre-condition for improving ties between Belarus and the EU. According to the coverage, the interview with Mr Pildegovichs was tragicomic in its content. “Who is advocating for Belarus now? Latvia?(…) Every eighth person living in Latvia appears to be stateless”, scoffed the commentator. Co-operation with Belarus is still quite beneficial for Latvia due to severe the economic difficulties that the country is facing at the moment – a comment made with a tone of peculiar satisfaction.

Belarusian Youth – an Apple in the Eye of the Head of State. State Channel 1 widely covered the 42 assembly of the BRSM (Belarusian Republican Youth Union), the largest government-organised nongovernmental youth organisation in Belarus. In covering the event, state TV noted that it was an opportunity for the nation's youth to have an “open dialogue” with Lukashenka. The report also emphasised that the head of state has made great efforts to improve the situation of young Belarusians throughout his years in office.

If You Want to Earn Money – Stay in Belarus. Lukashenka pointed out that all of projects oriented towards modernising the economy will be completed to offer workplaces for the younger generation. This, in turn, will ensure that young Belarusians will not need to emigrate to find a well-paid job.

The State’s Support to the Youth Wanting Their Loyalty in Return. Young people should “resist the [ongoing] provocations and the information war”. If there was any threat to the nation's security, they should get involved in its defence by joining the armed forces. In its latest coverage, state TV also pointed out that they should defend the history, culture and the Belarusian language. The speech of the head of state was delivered in Russian.

Belarusian Youth is not Susceptible to Western Influence ? One journalist proudly noted that the youth remains a driving force for the modernisation of the country and society. The authorities have  taken care of younger Belarusians for over two decades now and, unlike in the West where young people all too often have no idea what to do with their lives, here in Belarus they are neither the fuel or kindling that could lead to social or political upheavals.

Local Authorities Happy to Speak with Ordinary Belarusians. ONT TV commented that the Minsk authorities have recently initiated a new practice to learn about the problems of average Belarusians. People now have an option to call and personally discuss the actual problems with the governor himself. According to the reporter covering the story, the sheer number of those who called (over 17 thousand people) proves that Belarusians trust this type of dialogue with the authorities.

Nothing Taboo During Lukashenka’s Chat with the Media. According to Channel 1's coverage Lukashenka's press conference of 29 January was a unique opportunity to hold an “open dialogue” not just with journalists but, more importantly, with society. Even journalists “disloyal to the authorities” got a chance to express their views during the event. Here are a few key moments from the coverage:

An American Political-economic Model for Belarus? A reporter from Channel 1 inquired about an alternative to the present state model in the country. Lukashenka emphasised that Belarusians would not like the “shock therapy” they would be subject to if serious changes were put into play. “Even if we would implement the most efficient American model, the very next day a number of militants – the [nation's] fifth column would appear on the streets – trying to create a “Maidan” there…” As a result a large number of Belarusians would not be able to survive a radically changed state model and would live in poverty, according to Lukashenka.

No Restrictions on the Belarusian Language. A Belarusian girl asked what the state authorities would do to promote and support the language. “The issue of language has already been decided once and for all”, he stated. As he explained, the turbulent events in Ukraine begun because of the senseless national policies, including its language policy.

Who is a Better Partner for Belarus? Minsk will maintain its multi-vector foreign policy. No spectacular changes are to be expected in the nation's relations with either the EU and United States. “I don’t really trust our Western partners”, remarked Lukashenka at one point. He went on to state that there will not be any big shifts in the country's relations with Brussels or Washington leading up to this year's presidential elections. “There will be no Maidan in Belarus so long as I am the president”, Lukashenka huffed.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT TV. 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.




Belarusians Ousted From the Russian Market, Spongers, Small Business – Belarus State TV Digest

Belarus state TV Channel 1 harshly criticised Belarusian spongers – people who do not wish to work as their fellow citizens do and abuse the nation's welfare system.

Aliaksandr Lukashenka made a number of angry statements in response to Russia's latest round of restrictions on imports from Belarus.

State TV continues to present the developments in Belarus in a generally positive light, while abroad, particularly in the EU, they cover primarily negative developments such as massive strikes, protests and clashes with the police.

Domestic Affairs

What is upsetting Alexander Lukashenka? ONT TV showed Lukashenka’s recent comments on problems the nation is having exporting and transporting food products from Belarus to Russia. He warned that if the countries are not able settle this issue soon, he would have to react. “The behaviour of Russian authorities does not only surprise me, but upsets me as well”, he stated. "We are not little puppies to be taken by the scruff of the neck", he emphasised.

Russia ousts Belarusians from its market. According to coverage on state-controlled Channel 1, the recent problems with food imports from Belarus are giving Russians an additional reason to fast beyond a traditional religious pre-Christmas fasting.

The Russians have banned produce from Belarus that ”is perplexing and doubt of the decency of partners” and has already brought about serious losses to the economy. It was not so long ago that the Russian media praised both the prices and quality of Belarusian food, and now the country continues to push out Belarusian food producers. Experts speaks of “unfair competition”, although the country is respecting all agreements related to the Customs Union and the Union State with Russia.

Budget-2015. Channel 1 reported the Belarusian economy's success stories since the beginning of the year. “Hundreds of new organisations were established, thousands of new working places were created, salaries and pensions increased”. The coverage also showed the head of state telling off several officials and their approach to the economy.

However, in Lukashenka's opinion, the state needs to do more to protect the Belarusian market. “Why haven’t we found mechanisms for protecting our own enterprises? Why have we given up our own market? We go to the Emirates, Mongolia, Myanmar and other places, and give up our own market?” – he shouted at a meeting with the officials.

A new enemy of the Belarusian state? Channel 1 reported about “people who have lost a sense of responsibility and respect for themselves” – also known as spongers. The coverage regularly employed the term 'bum' to describe them. According to Channel 1's report, these people just drink alcohol and live on the state and Belarusian taxpayers' dime.

The programme showed a local shelter where these 'spongers' live, some of whom had lost their documents, some are disabled, and some are unemployed. “However, the guests of this shelter often rely on the comforts of life [provided by the state]”, as one journalist critically noted.

Outbursts of dissatisfaction in Europe. According to Channel 1, EU countries have to step up and begin dealing with their public's anger. Two big protests against budget cuts took place in Belgium and France accompanied by large-scale clashes with police. The reporter hinted that the “farmers’ revolt” in France was caused by Russian ban on imports of food from the European Union.

On whom Belarusians should rely to solve out their problems – the state or themselves discussed “Delo Principa”, a TV talk show.

Social justice according to a communist politician. Belarusian communist Georgi Atamanov pointed out that the negligence in “labour-wise” upbringing of young people caused the problem of the spongers. According to him, liberals think that people need freedom and lower taxes. But "these guys [pointing his finger at Yaraslau Ramanchuk, a former presidential candidate] will squirt out money. The bourgeoisie will be getting fat and we again will be their slaves”.

“Look at American society”. A member of the Belarusian parliament talked about the pressure to work and succeed in American society and the social exclusion for those who act like “parasites”.

We all pay taxes. In the view of Natalia Riabova from the project "Kosht Urada", everyone de facto pays taxes in Belarus, by buying articles such as alcohol, cigarettes. Her opinion caused a controversy among some of the guest speakers. Anton Boltochko from Liberal Club also supported Rabiova’s opinion. He pointed out that the social aid should focus on helping the most vulnerable. According to the coverage, 50% of the state budget goes to social welfare.

Problems small businesses face in Belarus. A theme of another broadcast of the talk show “Delo principa” was running small and medium business in Belarus. Michail Malash, a Belarusian entrepreneur, argued that the bureaucracy of the tax system, high costs of rent and difficulties with getting permission to rent a premises in the country remain the biggest challenges for businessmen. In his view, these remain “temporary problems” and in principle could be resolved soon.

Attitudes towards small businesses. Valeryi Bojniov, an economics professor (no affiliation was given) refuted a myth, in his view, that portrays small business as a driver for the economy and “the myth that if you give them complete freedom, they will feed us, dress us up, make us happy”. The Belarusian state greatly helps Belarusian business, he added. Bojniov complained that the state walks on eggshells when it comes to business.

Valeryi Karpunin from the Republican Club of Financial Managers, disagreed with him and noted the importance of having a positive attitude towards entrepreneurs, even if a few of them avoid paying taxes. Karpunin argued that in the first instance the state should not harass business and should refrain from creating any cumbersome tasks for them.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT TV. 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.




Non-Formal Education in Belarus: Unleashing the Civil Society Potential

Over the past couple of years informal education has witnessed remarkable growth in Belarus. It offers Belarusians possibilities missing at the nation's over-regulated state-run universities.

New grass-roots initiatives such as the European College of Liberal Arts and the Flying University are organising innovative and inspiring courses in Minsk. Although functioning within a certain limitations peculiar to Belarus, they still manage to appeal to the nation's youth.

Belarus Digest interviewed representatives of the Flying University and the European College of Liberal Arts about what it is like to organise non-formal education in Belarus.

Education in Belarus: a Sensitive Area?

Many people in the West often have a distorted view of the educational system in Belarus thinking that nothing is impossible in Belarus living under a non-democratic regime. Despite its relatively strong standing in international rankings for education, academic freedom in Belarusian universities remains rather limited.

Belarus remains the only country in Europe outside the common European educational space, also known as the Bologna system. The educational system, largely unchanged from Soviet times, is reacting very slowly to the demands of the market. The stagnate system fails to promote Belarusian civil society and often remains out of touch with the new realities of Belarus.

However, the emergence of projects like the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus, the Flying University, the Belarusian Collegium​, and a number of Belarusian language courses show a real demand for new modern forms of education. They also show that education no longer exclusively the domain of the state.

The first serious non-formal education initiative, the Belarusian Collegium​, dates back to 1997. Its founders gathered a few Belarusian intellectuals and started running evening courses for adults. Despite financial difficulties it continues to function. Aliaksei Lastouski from the Belarusian Collegium told Belarus Digest that they have around 125 students at the moment who study topics such as history, philosophy and journalism. In the 2000s several new institutions emerged.

The Flying University: Responding to the Need for a National Belarusian University

The Flying University (Liatučy Universytet) was established in 2010 by Uladzimier Mackievich, a civil society leader. According to Tatsiana Vadalazhskaja, a project coordinator, however, the idea to establish an university emerged back in the 1990s. Then many argued for a proper national Belarusian university with a clear mission of raising future generations of the Belarusian intelligentsia and future leaders as well as strengthening Belarusian civic identity. "Then it was absolutely clear that without a [truly national] university neither a nation nor a country could exist”, she pointed out.

Much has been changed in education in Belarus since the 1990s. “We can observe the process of squeezing out critically thinking people from academia and education”, Vadalazhskaja told Belarus Digest. Belarus's traditional universities teach, educate, issue diplomas, but they do little to encourage students to contribute to civil society with their own ideas.

The name of the University relates to the underground “Flying University“ (Latający Uniwersytet) that organised courses to promote the self-education of people in communist Poland. The Flying University offers its courses for free. It does not issue any diplomas and Vadalazhskaja​ emphasises that the education that the University provides remains largely non-formal.

This year around 300 young Belarusians applied for its courses, and on average around 15 students are attending each course. The University offers 20 different courses and seminars. The most popular courses include the study of the Bible, the "European choice" of Belarus, methodology and design.

34 years old Alexey Konstantinov has been attending courses and seminars at the Flying University already for three years now. Originally from Ukraine, for over 20 years he has been living in Minsk. He told Belarus Digest he was attracted by the unique learning environment at the University, but also its strong principles of encouraging critical thinking.

Liberal Arts: Belarus Today

Another initiative, the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus (ECLAB), launched its courses only this past October. Currently more than 40 Belarusian students are attending various courses at the European College. The most popular courses are in popular culture, media, but also social problems and collective values.

Aleksandr Adamianc, a project director, explains that the liberal arts remain an underdeveloped area of education in Belarus. The idea to establish the College came about as a result of an existing niche in the education market. “Our programme of Liberal Arts is the first in Belarus”, he proudly notes.

Adamianc believes that Belarusians should have the opportunity to obtain a modern European education inside the country saying that "many young people neither have the possibility of studying abroad, nor do they want to". He points to “the conservatism of state education organisations” as the main factor impeding the development of liberal arts education in Belarus.

Predominantly young people attend their courses, with ages varying between 19-35 years old. The vast majority of them have already received degrees from higher education institutions, with a third currently enrolled in other university programmes.

Presently, ECLAB offers a free programme of education and issues certificates for its students. Aleksandr Adamianc told Belarus Digest that they plan to introduce tuition fees at some point.

Non-formal vs Formal Education

Achieving success with new non-formal education initiatives can be challenging in Belarus. The biggest challenge for the Flying University was to find rooms for classes. “First, we rented some space, but in a month we were asked to leave. From there we went on “flying” from one place to another”, Tatsiana Vadalazhskaja explains, suggesting that not everyone welcomes their work.

Aleksandr Adamianc from the European College of Liberal Arts told Belarus Digest they did not have difficulties with finding space in Minsk.

The informal nature of these initiatives appeals to many Belarusians, particularly to young people. Tatsiana Vadalazhskaja from the Flying University notes that the project has managed to attract a number of prominent Belarusian public figures, intellectuals and social activists, such as Aleś Smalianchuk, Ihar Babkou and Iryna Dubianieckaja. Another important aspect is maintaining the right atmosphere, or as Aliaksandr Adamianc puts it: “an atmosphere of free, non-hierarchical communication”.

Both the Flying University and the European College run attractive and informative web sites and a have strong presence on social media networks, an item that is crucial nowadays. The European College also has ambitious plans to expand and start to co-operate with other European universities so that Belarusian students could obtain dual degrees that would be recognised in Europe.

Non-formal Education's Enormous Potential

Both Belarusian and Russian languages are used for instruction at the Flying University and the European College. Their representatives emphasised that the language of instruction depends entirely upon the instructors themselves.

“For example, the course on “Mathematics as the Language of Thinking” is taught in Belarusian on purpose, because the instructor, Mr Liavonau, wanted to develop this topic in the Belarusian language”, Tatsiana Vadalazhskaja​ told Belarus Digest.

The European College and the Flying University prove that these kinds of education projects have great prospects in Belarus helping to unleash Belarusian civil society's own potential. They also suggest that new education initiatives inside Belarus are possible despite the grim political situation.

With very limited resources, especially when compared to state-funded universities, the organisers of informal courses already managed to make attractive education outside the bounds of state-run institutions. With the organisers' mix of idealism, pragmatism and professionalism, their student numbers and the geographical prominence of their activities is likely to grow further.

Paula Borowska




Benefits of the Eurasian Integration, Jobless Belarusians, Code of Conduct For Officials – Belarus State TV Digest

Over the last few weeks Belarusian state TV devoted much attention to discussing Eurasian Union integration, how to make officials nicer and the alleged low level of unemployment in Belarus. It also proudly reported Belarus's high ranking in the Human Development Index.

Compared to other coverage over the last few weeks, less attention was paid to Ukraine with only a short story about the Ukrainian elections which went off rather quietly and will certainly be recognised by Belarus.

Domestic Affairs: New Code of Conduct for Officials, Jobless Belarusians

Michail Arda: the new head of the officially recognised trade unions. According to the coverage, the new leader of the biggest public organisation in Belarus was elected in an “open election process”. According to state Channel 1, the newly elected head of the official trade unions, a former head of the pro-Lukashenka BRSM youth organisation, wants to increase its cooperation with Belarusian youth.

What to do with “useless” people? State Channel 1 was particularly preoccupied with the question about what to do with 400 thousand Belarusians that are not contributing anything to the Belarusian economy. In a video aired by the Channel 1 Lukashenka harshly told off those who do not work but use healthcare system, education and other social services. The same applies to the migrants from Ukraine: they should find employment as soon as possible in order to avoid conflicts with their Belarusian “brothers/Slavs”, according to Lukashenka.

22 thousand people remained jobless despite over 50 thousand available vacancies in the country

There is a job for every Belarusian. On another occasion, state TV covered a job fair that took place in Minsk. The coverage emphasised that officially 22 thousand people remained jobless despite over 50 thousand available vacancies in the country. Unemployment in Minsk remains the lowest in the country and reached only 0.2%. About a third of employers offers salaries between 5 million BYR (around $470) and 15 million BYR ($1,404).

Who should be more honest and nice. During a recent round of appointments’ of new officials, Alexander Lukashenka spoke about how officials should have a “human approach” towards peoples’ problems, particularly leading up to the upcoming elections. The elections will be like an “exam” for the authorities, thus they should do their best to act fairly and honestly towards Belarusians.

According to Lukashenka, some people suggested that the elections should take place earlier. Some believe that this would help secure voters' support for him, but he was not in favour of having the elections that early. “This would deceive people”, the head of the state pointed out.

Belarus: a leader among the post-Soviet countries. Belarusian state TV proudly reported that according to a report by the UN on Human Development, Belarus ranked 53rd out of 187 countries. It even climbed in the rankings in terms of gender-equality, scoring 28th overall.

Hopes for more money from the International Monetary Fund. ONT TV covered a meeting of between prime-minister, Michail Miasnikovych, and the head of the IMF mission to Belarus. So far the cooperation between the organisation and Belarus remain on good terms, primarily due to Minsk’ discipline in paying off its $3.5bn loan.

How will the Eurasian Union change the life of ordinary Belarusians?

In a recent episode of the talk show “Dielo principa” on ONT TV, hosted by Vadzim Hihin, guests discussed Belarus's integration into the Eurasian Union.

The Eurasian Union: an opaque project. One of the guest speakers, Andrej Karpunin, chairman of the Republican Club of Financial Executives, noted that the integration with the Eurasian Union has brought up more questions than it has answered for Belarus. Belarusian MPs Nikolai Samosiejka and Aliaksandr Shpakouski, director of the Information-Analytical Centre, strongly disagreed. Shpakouski argued that there was no real alternative for Belarus other than the Eurasian Union.

“Belarusian business concerned about the integration”. Borys Miednik, a Belarusian businessman who was also on the show, openly aired his concerns regarding the trying competitive environment in the Eurasian market. The competition would be particularly harsh for smaller Belarusian entrepreneurs like himself. Another guest, a businessman from Kazakhstan, painted a picture a rosier picture of the economic bloc, emphasising the potential benefits that the common economic zone would bring to business in all three countries.

integration was not a panacea for the Belarusian economy, but rather an opportunity

“Belarus and Russia are interdependent”. The participants discussed the efficiency of the Belarusian economy and the subsidies it receives from Moscow. In the opinion of Shpakouski, both countries have very close economic ties. The fact that Belarus remains one of Russia's top business partners makes the economies of both countries interdependent, in his opinion.

“It will be more expensive and difficult” after the period of integration with the Eurasian Union, said Andrej Karpunin. Looking ahead at the next two years, Belarusians should expect a significant increase in prices. Shpakouski commented that integration was not a panacea for the Belarusian economy, but rather an opportunity. All of guests agreed that Belarusian society does not know enough about the integration project with the Eurasian Union.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT TV. 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.




Ukrainians Trust Lukashenka The Most, Luring in US Business – Belarus State TV Digest

Belarusian state TV showed the Belarusian leader directly blamed Americans for plotting the present military conflict in Ukraine. On another occasion, state TV journalists reported on the benefits of bringing more American business to Belarus.

Belarus is faring better than the USA or Russia – or so state-run media journalists report when covering the recent rankings of healthcare systems by Bloomberg. They explained that its accessibility and equality, despite the financial situation of Belarusian patients, make the healthcare system unique when compared to other countries.

This and more in Belarus State TV Digest.

Ukraine

Ukrainians trust Lukashenka the most according to a survey carried out in August by the Ukrainian research centre “Rating”, Lukashenka is the most beloved of international leaders. Journalists from Belarus state TV noted that 62% of Ukrainian respondents showed a positive attitude towards Alexander Lukashenka. 54% of respondents favoured Barack Obama versus 51% arguing for Angela Merkel.

Americans are behind the Ukrainian crisis?Lukashenka suggested in an interview to the Russian state-run Channel 1 that the US was responsible for the developments in Ukraine. The journalist noted that the recent activity of Lukashenka managed to improve the image of Belarus and its leader in the international politics. The Belarusian leader charged Americans and some Ukrainian politicians with causing the Russian-Ukrainian turmoil. The only force interested in “pushing us in to this struggle” is "Uncle Sam", he stated.

Invalid East-West division of the Ukrainian society. Lukashenka also added that there is no "aggressive division in the Ukrainian nation between the West and East". He noted that the Western part of both Belarus and Ukraine are in general more nationalistic and more-Western oriented. "(…) But it does not mean they want to live in Poland or in the West”, Lukashenka explained to the interviewer.

Domestic affairs

A Youth Chamber in Belarusian parliament? – During a recent youth forum, organised by the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM), an idea to have a separate Youth Chamber was proposed. High profile politicians, such as Lidzija Jermoshyna, attended the event. A journalist for the state TV channel commented that such youth chamber could be well be just “one more initiative for the new generation to articulate its ideas, and to be heard”. The leader of the youth association Union also pointed out the necessity of attracting more young people to state bodies and institutions.​

World Bank delegation comes to Minsk: a "constructive visit". Alexander Lukashenka met with the World Bank’s vice-president, Laura Tuck. He raised the issue of roads in Belarus. “The World Bank understands that Belarus is a transit country and therefore the efficiency of economies of both the East and West depends on what the roads will are like here”, Lukashenka argued. Reporters noted that Laura Tuck praised the development of Belarus, but also mentioned the necessity of reforms. “We know how to listen and implement recommendations” – a journalist comments at the end of the report.

Housing for every Belarusian? A story on improving Minsk's infrastructure and housing was another item to make the national news. The coverage displayed citizens of Minsk who were more than happy to comment on the opening of new schools and swimming pools. However, as the anchor noted, the facilities for the inhabitants are not being built at the same speed throughout the city.

The Belarusian Supreme Court rules against Belsat TV. BTR covered a court ruling that banned the use of the name “Belsat” for a Warsaw-based Belarusian independent TV channel. According to the report, Belsat violated the copyright of a Belarusian businessman who owns a company that employs the name “Belsat Plius”. It also note that similar cases are found elsewhere in the world on a fairly regular basis.

“Traditional and accessible healthcare system in Belarus". Belteleradio Channel 1 covered Bloomberg's ranking of healthcare systems throughout the world, with Belarus being ranked 43, achieving a higher standing than both America and Russia. “Everyone, regardless of their financial situation or social status, are equal when they come to the doctors' office”, she added.

Foreign relations

Belarus attractive to American business. State TV reported on a recent Belarusian-American Economic Investment Forum that took place in New York. “The meeting can be a good foundation for long-term and potential relations”, according to the report. Americans are interested in doing business in Belarus, according to the opinion of the reporter covering the story, because of Belarus' “success and role in carrying out Eurasian projects, [its] importance in creating a settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, the taxation system in Belarus, and political stability” all help draw Americans towards Belarus.

“Dielo principa”: Will the peace in Ukraine be long-lasting?– Was a question directed at the audience during a new political talk show on ONT TV hosted by Vadzim Hihin. During the talk show the audience gathered in a studio also had a chance to react and vote either in favour or against the various positions of the show's guests. Hihin invited politicians from pro-government parties, but also analysts from Ukraine and Russia.

One guest even offered up a conspiracy theory of events explaining that it was the Americans and some forces in the Ukrainian leadership who were interested in "renting out the Black Sea". Their goal of weakening Russia's position, and not the politics of Viktor Yanukovych, were what caused the turbulent events in Ukraine. The Russian and Ukrainian experts agreed that Russia was not interested in making the Donbas a second Transdniestria. “Russia wants to be integrated with Ukraine”, Vadzim Karasyev from Ukraine stated.

The European versus Russian model of development. Maira Moira, the head of the EU Delegation to Belarus, was also a guest-speaker on the talk show. She pointed out that the EU cannot be blamed for the situation in Ukraine. She also disagreed with the Russian analyst, according to whom, Ukraine's fate in Russia, not in the EU. Moira noted that what makes the EU model of development more attractive is the "rule of law", rather than the "rule of power". Covering the debate, the state TV reporter noted that while Maira Moira was talking, the audience gave her the least support.

NATO summit in Newport. Belteleradio​ covered the recent NATO summit that took place in the United Kingdom. The situation in Ukriane dominated the gathering's agenda. Didier Burkhalter, the president of OSCE, noted, however, that the conflict in the country could not be settled without Russia. The report also noted that the very rhetoric of the summit was far from peaceful. “They decided to establish a rapid reaction force for Europe in Poland”, the report explained. During the gathering various groups, “who had suffered from NATO activities” protested nearby. The Belteleradio Channel 1 journalist covering the story said that the alliance had either indirectly or directly created a number of flash points in the world.

Belarus and Moldova: mutually beneficial relations. Belarusian state TV noted that both countries have found themselves living in a new reality: Belarus becoming a full-fledged member of the Customs Union, and Moldova having signed the Association Agreement with the EU. Actually, the report notes, the association between Moldova and Brussels will also be profitable for Belarus. “Moldova invites Belarus to utilise its free trade zone with the EU”, according to the story. “We will sell goods together to the EU and share the income”, Lukashenka stated during a press conference.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT TV. 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.




Belarus And Poland: Brought Together By Russian Sanctions?

On 28-29 August the head of Belarusian diplomacy, Uladzimir Makiej, met with the top Polish officials in Warsaw.

The war in Ukraine and Russia’s self-imposed isolation can bring Belarusand Poland closer together.

Following the Russian ban on food from EU countries, Polish officials and food producers are hoping to find new markets for their products, and among their targets is Belarus.

Despite political disagreements, trade turnover dynamics indicate that the business is, against all odds, doing well. Poland remains one of the largest business partners for Belarus in the European Union.

Although both countries are on the outer edges of the tense EU-Russia relations, they both may actually find a common language through joint business creation.

One Polish Apple a Day, but not in Belarus?

Belarus decided not to join in on the Russian ban on food products from the European Union. However, Belarusian Minister Lieanid Zajac confirmed during a meeting with a senior Russian official, Siargey Daknvert, in Minsk on 12 August, that Belarus would not re-export banned goods from the EU to Russia. The Belarusian BelTA news agency and other state-run news media like to portray the authorities treating the issue of re-export seriously in their coverage.

After the Russian sanctions were imposed on 14 August, the Polish Minister of Agriculture and Development, Marek Sawicki, hastened to Minsk for talks with his Belarusian counterpart, Minister Zajac. They discussed the possibilities to increase cooperation in general, but also increase of Polish exports to Belarus. Minister Sawicki said later that the countries would consider the establishment of joint Polish-Belarusian food plants in Belarus. These joint venture companies could then go on to sell their goods to Customs Union member states.

"Belarus is open to cooperation with Poland, we will discuss the conditions until the end of August", Marek Sawicki tweeted after his meeting in Minsk. After his second visit to Minsk at the beginning of September, the Polish minister announced that the Belarusian side was interested in buying 200 thousand tonnes of milk from Polish producers each month to produce it and sell to Russia.

At the moment, the sale of apples and other fruits still remain one of the biggest concerns of Polish farmers. Expectations that Belarus would purchase more from Poland turned out to be in vain. On 4 September, after a visit of Polish fruits producers to Minsk, it became clear that the Belarusian side actually wants to decrease apple imports for the time being. Previously it re-exported part of these imports to Russia, now it is afraid to do so.

Uladzimir Makiej comes to Warsaw

On 28 August Uladzimir Makiej came to Warsaw on a two-day visit where he met with the head of Polish diplomacy, Radoslaw Sikorski, Janusz Piechocinski, the Deputy Prime Minister and other officials. There would be nothing spectacular to report about this visit if not the fact that a top level official meeting of Polish and Belarusian officials of this kind last took place a few years ago.

Since November 2010 when Radoslaw Sikorski, and his German colleague, Guido Westerwelle, met with Alexander Lukashenka in Minsk, relations appeared to be "suspended". Eventually, due to the results of the presidential elections, accusations of violations of human rights and electoral procedure fraud, Brussels tightened the screws on Belarus.

However, media in Poland and Belarus covered the recent meetings between Makiej and Sikorski without much enthusiasm. The Belarusian state-run Channel 1 just briefly mentioned the visit. Similar coverage was found on the Polish state TVP 1, which also did not pay much attention to the event.

The Polish press focused more on the economic aspect of the recent intensification of Poland-Belarus relations, and chances for Polish food producers with the potential to export Polish goods to Belarus.

When Two Parties Quarrel, Belarus Wins?

At the press conference following the Sikorski-Makiej meeting both officials commented on the meeting in a positive way. As both noted the issues related to Ukraine dominated the agenda of their discussion.

Minister Makiej argued that any problems between both countries should be solved through dialogue, to prevent them from escalating into a conflict. He also pointed out the positive tendencies in their mutual relations. Both countries are “destined to live together as neighbours”, he noted.

The Russian sanctions against European Union member states continue to severely affect Polish farmers and food producers. The losses appear to be tremendous for not only farmers, but also other companies specialising in transporting goods east. Polish exports of apples to Russia is worth nearly 500m Euro annually. The financial compensation to be given to Poland from the EU is clearly insufficient.

As Minister Sawicki said, Minsk offered to purchase raw products from Polish producers to produce food in Belarus and then to sell it domestically and to Customs Union member states.

Although it seems that Minsk is wary of buying food from Poland, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Michail Rusy stated that Belarus was ready to increase its food exports to Russia, including the Kaliningrad Oblast. By doing so they would actually need to allow Poles and the Baltic states to enter their market.

A Close Neighbour Makes for a Good Partner?

The geographical proximity of Poland and Belarus makes the countries close neighbours and convenient business partners.

Given that Minsk would be willing to find a compromise with Brussels, Warsaw could be helpful in Belarus' modernisation and breaking the long-standing international isolation in Europe. Poland could also potentially be an advocate for Minsk in Europe, as it is for Ukraine.

When the relations between Belarus with Poland or other EU countries are tense, Minsk is forced to rely increasingly on Russia and move away from the West.

It seems, however, that businesses are coping regardless of the current political climate. In 2012, Poland remained the second largest exporter of its goods to Belarus in the EU, following Germany. It was also a key country for imports of Belarusian goods (fifth overall). Trade turnover between the countries was the fourth largest in the EU.

The recent activation of Belarus-Poland relations means profits for both sides. In any case, Belarus is already making money on Russian sanctions against the West. Although the recent meetings have not led to any breakthroughs, still they have let in fresh air, even for business relations.




The Fate of European Security Decided in Minsk, An Anti-Corruption Law – Belarus State TV Digest

Belarusian state TV provided extensive coverage of the negotiations in Minsk, calling them "constructive" and playing a decisive role in securing the safety of the whole of Europe.

Belarusians can now actively discuss a new anti-corruption law and express their views on the web site of “SB – Belarus Segodnya", a state-run daily newspaper.

State TV journalists also showed how European farmers have suffered serious damage as a result of the Russian sanctions on their food products. As a result, the number of opponents towards western sanctions grows daily.

Minsk – a platform for international dialogue. For first time in its history, Belarus hosted an international meeting involving high profile officials from the EU, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

“Minsk became a platform for a final attempt for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in the east of Ukraine”, states the reporter. In his opinion, the gathering in Minsk would decide the fate of peace and security in the whole Europe.

Alexander Lukashenka declared Belarus' readiness to host any future rounds of negotiations. “Innocent people die, infrastructure is being destroyed, hundreds of thousands of refugees are forced to leave their native land (…) These are not scenes from the history, this is our reality today. Can we look upon what is happening today with indifference? Of course, we cannot”, he stated in his speech.

After the talks, Lukashenka speaks with the press. The Belarusian leader stated that the meeting was a successful step in the direction towards further talks. “The talks were not easy, but the dialogue was essential and open”, he told international journalists gathered in Minsk. Lukashenka also emphasised that all of the participants in the talks had a chance to express their point of view. Despite various positions, “all agreed on one thing: we should find a compromise”.

Lukashenka also noted the importance of the encounter between the two powerful economic blocs, i.e. the EU and Customs Union.

Initial media commentary on the summit in Minsk. “Observers, political scientists and journalists of the world's leading media outlets" agree that the talks in Minsk were difficult but constructive. “Minsk has a unique atmosphere that is conducive to constructive political and economic talks, something that is invaluable for international relations”, one reporter proudly stated.

It was also noted that the leaders focused on three key issues: peace, or at least an armistice, humanitarian aid, and energy-related issues – an agreement on gas supply and transit “to not let Ukraine and Europe freeze”, but also the economy – especially the possible losses the Customs Union member states may face as a result of the Association Agreement of Ukraine with the EU.

Further Russian humanitarian aid. One report took note of Moscow's plan to send another convoy of humanitarian aid to people living in the Donbas. Sergey Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, informed the media of Russia sending the appropriate official notice to the authorities in Kyiv.

UN Under-General-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, also argued for more aid, including medication and food, to the eastern Ukraine. She also called on all sides in the conflict to not politicise the issue of humanitarian aid, one Belarus state TV journalist added.

Foreign Affairs

Belarus-Poland relations. The Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs set to travel to Warsaw on a two-day visit. He will meet with Polish officials, including Radoslaw Sikorski, the head of Polish diplomacy. The officials will be discussing issues of “interest to both sides” – the report stated, but did not, however, provide any further details about the visit.

European farmers suffer serious loses due to Russian sanctions. Farmers are struggling with a “catastrophic decrease in demand” for their agricultural goods. Thus, a number of opponents of the “economic confrontation” between the EU and Russian steadly increases on a day to day basis. Producers count their losses and feel that the EU's sanctions towards Russia are ineffective, states the report.

Explaining the context of the ongoing exchange of sanctions, the state TV reporter states that the EU and US imposed sectoral sanctions on Russia, and Moscow reacted with a “boycott of their food products”. This subsequently brought about the losses being experienced by European farmers presently.

State TV's coverage of the issue also pointed out that not everybody supports the politics of sanctions. The Swiss Minister of Economy, Johann Schneider-Ammann, criticised the idea of imposing mutual sanctions and argued how it would negatively affect both sides.

Domestic Affairs

Belarus-Ukraine mutual trade. State TV reported that beginning 19 August both Belarus and Ukraine lifted previously imposed barriers on mutual trade. At the same time, according to the coverage, Belarus must protect the Russian market from illegal exports through its territory of products from countries that Russia has sanctioned.

Belarusians free to discuss new anti-corruption draft law. The Belarusian leader says Belarusian society should join in discussions on the proposed amendments to the nation's main anti-corruption law. People can now express their views on the web site of the “SB – Belarus Segodnya”, the largest state-run daily newspaper.

So far a number of Belarusians have actively joined the discussion, one journalist noted. “Over only the course of the previous week 150 suggestions were made”, they explained. “SB – Belarus Segondya” will send the best and most concise comments to the General Attorney for further assessment.

Agro-tourism as a source of economic development. The head of state has visited several agro-tourism farms in the Volozhynkij region. He spoke with the owners of the farms and praised them for their hard work. “In this way, we can turn Belarus into Switzerland”, he cheerfully chimed. He also argued for the further revival of small Belarusian villages.

Bumper crops in Belarus. Journalists from state Channel 1 widely covered the results of this year's harvesting campaign. According to their sources, 10 mln tonnes of grains has been collected in total. The coverage notes that the Belarusian leader set a threshold at this level a few years ago, but then nobody believed that would be attainable. Today this is a reality, one journalist proudly noted. “There will certainly not be any shortage of bread in the country”, he added.

The report explains that the key to the harvest's success was primarily due to financial support from the state. In addition to the high level of investment by the state, the report also pointed to the “dictatorship of technology” as another reason behind its success.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). 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.




Lecturers Exiled from the Belarusian University in Exile?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate vs Administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lavruhin: Political Dismissals

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

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

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

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

EHU Administration: Quality of Teaching and Research Above All

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

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

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

Towards a More Transparent EHU?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Concerned About EHU's Image?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Congress Of Belarusian Studies Scheduled for October in Kaunas

Organisers of the International Congress of Belarusian Studies officially published its list of sections and panels for the upcoming event.

This year's Congress will include a wide range topics such as culture, Belarusian language translations of the Bible and problems facing the modernisation of the Belarusian economy.

The Congress remains a rare opportunity for scholars from all over the world to gather with their colleagues from Belarus. This year it will take place the 3-5 October in Kaunas.

The Congress has already become a recognisable brand and an academic must for researchers and experts who professionally deal with Belarus.

Kaunas will be hosting a few hundred international participants for the event for the fourth time. During the Congress' gathering, this sleepy Lithuanian city becomes a vibrant meeting point for researchers of Belarus.

Belarus Digest spoke with Aliaksei Lastouski, Head of the Department of Modern History at the Belarusian Collegium and a senior analyst at the institute for political studies Political Sphere, which is the main organiser of the Congress, in order to understand what it is all about.

Who Comes to the Congress in Kaunas?

The Congress has already become a permanent fixture of autumn in Kaunas. The International Congress of Belarusian Studies took place there for the first time back in 2011 as an initiative of Andrei Kazakevich, the Director of the institute for political studies Political Sphere.

Today the Congress remains the largest event fully devoted to research on Belarus. “We expect around 350-400 scholars this year”, Aliaksei Lastouski told Belarus Digest.

Belarusian researchers constitute a majority of the participants of the Congress. Other scholars come primarily from neighbouring Poland, Lithuania, but also from more remote and less obvious places, like Japan. Last year nearly 400 scholars from 16 countries took part in the Congress.

Kaunas: Connecting Scholars from Belarus

The large number of participants from countries other than Belarus proves that there is indeed a niche for Belarus-oriented research. The event fills this gap and facilitates researchers coming together. The popularity of the Congress also demonstrates the demand from the Belarusian scholarly community to meet and communicate with their colleagues from other countries. Belarusian scholars continue to carry out their work in stifling isolation, Aliaksei Lastouski argues.

The organisers of the Congress aim to provide participants with an opportunity to meet up, present their research, as well as discuss their ideas and potential opportunities for future cooperation. Indeed, the organisers guarantee facilities, so the participants can busy themselves networking with other scholars.

Participants stay in the same hotels, have lunch in the same place, and have ample opportunity to talk during coffee breaks – apart from more practical purposes, it also helps to create a specific sense of solidarity, according to Lastouski.

The Congress also promotes researchers of Belarusian area studies, awarding them annually for the best Belarus-related publication in humanities and social sciences. What clearly distinguishes this event from others, is its multidisciplinary nature. This year the list of sections to be covered is to include economics, politics and society.

The Congress: "a Zone of Freedom", but is not Politicised

According to Lastouski, the Congress remains a “zone of freedom”, where academics can freely present and discuss their research without fear of being censored, unlike in Belarus. The organisers openly welcome scholars with various views.

But at the same time, the Congress is not a political platform. The event should be regarded as a platform for constructive dialogue where its participants can freely discuss differing views on the development of the country.

Although the Congress specifically brings together Belarus-oriented scholars, and a majority of the researchers who attend are Belarusian, it takes place in neighbouring Lithuania rather than in Belarus. The organisers decided to organise it outside of the country in order to minimise the risks associated with potential academic censorship.

This is an issue that a number of Belarusian-related events and organisations have faced and, as a result, have moved to Lithuania in search of more favourable conditions. For example, the Belarus Research Council holds its events in Vilnius and the institute for political studies Political Sphere is also registered in Lithuania.

Moving Back to Belarus

Belarus, naturally, would be the most ideal place to organise these events event. "Kaunas is just a temporary place for the Congress", Lastouski explains. Given the current circumstances, the city has simply several advantages over other places outside Belarus.

These include its high quality infrastructure and affordable accommodation for the congress' participants, even for those coming from further abroad. Organisational support from the Kaunas-based Vytautas Magnus University is an additional argument supporting holding the congress there. “I hope that the situation in Belarus will improve, and there will no longer be any restrictions or barriers to organise it there one day", Aliaksei Lastouski explains – but for now, this is just wishful thinking.

Over the past couple of years Lithuania has become a hub for a number of Belarus-oriented events. Clearly, Belarus' neighbour offers something that is scarcely available in Belarus, as true in the case of academic events – a better environment for discussion of pressing political, economic and social issues.

Lithuanian cities, such as Kaunas and Vilnius, are well-known for hosting not only the International Congress of Belarusian Studies, but also the European Humanities University and other conferences and seminars devoted to Belarus. It seems that both Lithuania and Belarusian civil society derive benefits from this situation. Lithuanian receives financial benefits and provides support, while Belarusian scholars and activists can freely work on their projects.

The organisers of the Congress have already closed the call for submissions for individual applications. However, anyone interested in the event, can register to attend one or another section as a guest. The registration form is available here.




Belarus’ Three Independence Days

Although many question whether Belarus is really an independent state today, its three independence days paint a different picture.

Depending on one's political views, Belarusians consider either 25 March, 3 July or 27 July as their real day for commemorating their independence as a nation.

On 27 July, Belarusian civil society activists and journalists symbolically celebrated the third of these independence days – the 24th anniversary of the Declaration of Belarus' Sovereignty in 1990. Two decades ago it was essentially the main official holiday for the young nation.

This year the authorities organised a bloated, pompous celebration of the Belarus Independence Day on the 3rd of July. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians came out to watch a military parade in Minsk for the capital's official Independence Day celebration for the duration of Lukashenka's reign.

The opposition, however, believes that the 25th of March is the nation's real independence day, as it was the day when the Belarusian Peoples Republic was founded in 1918.

Official Independence Day – 3 July

The authorities only recognise and celebrate 3 July as the nation's official Independence Day, also known as the Day of the Republic.

Every year they commit substantial financial and human resources towards its preparations. This year they wanted to make it an especially notable commemoration as it would mark the 70th anniversary of Minsk's liberation from Hitler's Nazi forces.

This year Russian president Vladimir Putin came to Minsk right before Belarus' Independence Day to open with his Belarusian counterpart a new Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

This joint opening of the museum was meant to demonstrate the historical and political unity of both countries. Perhaps due to him having slightly different views about Belarusian independence on the eve of Belarus' Independence Day parade, Putin quietly made his way back to Moscow.

As the independent newspaper Naša Niva reported, around 200 thousand people gathered to watch the traditional military parade held on 3 July. Moving the time of the parade from its traditional morning schedule to the evening may help to explain the record turn out this year.

The parade proceeded through the city centre with military vehicles bearing not only Belarus' official red-green flags, but also Soviet and Russian flags.

Lukashenka typically avoids speaking Belarusian

Lukashenka typically avoids speaking Belarusian, and is known to ridicule those who do so, but on 1 July he surprised many by delivering part of his speech in Belarusian.

He spoke about the unity of the Belarusian nation and the universal consensus held among its people in support of its sovereignty. He also emphasised Belarus' independence and the historical links of Belarus with the Soviet Union, calling the victory over the Nazi forces "our victory".

Justifying the choice of making 3 July a national holiday, he said that Belarusians themselves had decided to “restore this historical connection” when they voted for this date as Independence Day in a nationwide referendum in 1996.

Declaration of Sovereignty – 27 July

Prior to 1996, Belarus celebrated its independence on 27 July. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Belarusian parliament passed its Declaration of Sovereignty on 27 July 1990. The 1995 referendum organised by Lukashenka was responsible for changing the timing of Independence Day.

In this referendum, one of the questions suggested moving Independence Day from 27 July to 3 July. According to officially reported results, nearly 90% of voters came out in favour of changing the date. The West, however, did not recognise the referendum’s results due to what they stated were multiple election violations and widespread vote rigging.

Since then, the state media and authorities have been silent about 27 July. For example, last year although Belarus' state Channel 1 journalists covered extensively the preparations and celebrations of the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus, they did not say a word about the Declaration of Sovereignty. This year the anniversary also went unnoticed.

Some opposition-minded Belarusians try to commemorate the anniversary of the Declaration of Sovereignty of Belarus on their own.

Last year on 26 July 2013, just a day before the anniversary, the young activists from the movement "Alternativa" (Alternative) tried to wave the traditional Belarusian red-white-red flag on a bridge in the centre of Minsk.

The police, however, prevented them from doing so and eventually arrested them for their illegal unsanctioned political act. In the past the opposition has organised meetings, but few people attend them.

The Declaration of Sovereignty of Belarus clearly refers to the end of a particular epoch in history, one that remains uncomfortable for the current neo-Soviet political rhetoric, and hence their avoidance of the topic.

Freedom Day: 25 March

Belarusian opposition and many diaspora groups consider Freedom Day, which falls on 25th of March every year, as the most important day for commemorating the iedependence of the Belarusian state. This date marks the proclamation of the Belarusian Peoples Republic (Bielaruskaja Narodnaja Respublika or BNR) in 1918.

The BNR existed for only a few months, as the Communists subsequently crushed and destroyed it. Its leadership moved into exile. Ivonka Survilla has served as the President of the BNR’s Council since 1997, an organisation which primarily consists of Belarusian diaspora.

For supporters of recognising Independence Day on 25 March the proclamation of the BNR signifies the first properly independent example of Belarusian statehood.

without the BNR neither Soviet Belarus and nor contemporary Belarus would have ever seen the light of day

According to an article recently published in the Journal of Belarusian Studies, many historians believe that without the BNR neither Soviet Belarus and nor contemporary Belarus would have ever seen the light of day.

Celebrations surrounding Freedom Day in Belarus take place primarily in opposition-focused centres and media, while the official channels of communication disregard it outright or distorts its image. This year, for example, Freedom Day coincided with the turbulent events unfolding in Ukraine and was used as fodder to dissuade people from making Belarus like Ukraine.

Opposition activists organised a rally throughout Minsk and brought not only white-red-white flags (unrecognised by the state), but also Ukrainian flags. In the 1990s public rallies on 25 March gathered tens of thousands of Belarusians, but now they draw considerably smaller numbers.

To discredit the opposition, state media accused those who celebrate the declaration of the BNR of being supporters of the Ukrainian banderovcy (the Ukrainian nationalists from WWII who fought against all sides in the war).

The government conveyed a very negative message: those who celebrate the 25 March Freedom Day are trying to launch their own "maidan" in Belarus, and these same people are the “successors of the Nazis".

Unity needed?

According to a 2009 survey conducted by the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies and the Novak Laboratory, 57% of respondents considered 3 July as Belarus' primary national holiday. The 27 July and 25 March received only 1% of support of respondents of that survey.

As Aliaksandr Klaskouski on Naviny.by noted 25 March, celebrated by the opposition, remains foreign to many Belarusians. Most of them know little about its pre-war history.

By promoting the Soviet era and nearly ignoring the rest of Belarusian history, the country has become more vulnerable to an increasingly assertive Russia.

Hopefully the country's president speaking in his native language on the Independence day will become the first step in helping Belarusians reclaim their rich history and culture.




Celebrating Lukasheka’s 20th Aniverary in Power, Liberation from Nazis – Belarus State TV Digest

Last week on Belarus state TV was a week of historical anniversaries.

The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus, Belarusian Independence Day and, finally, the 20th anniversary of election of Alexander Lukashenka all were presented to demonstrate the success of Belarus' current leadership.

Commenting upon the situation in Ukraine, journalists often made reference to the situation using terms like “slavic unity”, “refugees from Ukraine”, but also readily noted Kiev’s reluctance to paying off arrears to Gazprom.

Domestic Affairs

20 years ago, on 10 July Lukashenka became the President of Belarus. Casting their votes for Lukashenka, “Belarusians voted for sovereign politics and independence”, one state TV journalist narrates. According to the report, people voted then for "real independence” not the one just on paper.

The reporter covering the story also commented upon the political rivals back in 1994: Viačaslau Kiebič, the one “from nomenclature”, Zianon Pazniak, a “nationalist” from the Belarusian Popular Front, and finally, Alexander Lukashenka, a “deputy from the people, without a party affiliation’. “Today they call him a “pro-Belarusian candidate”, then he was just “ours”.

The mysterious victory of Lukashenka. The coverage states that Lukashenka’s victory remained an interesting phenomenon up until the present day. He explained further that the 1990s was a time of “romantics and euphoria”, a period that lasted only until the first serious economic difficulties arose.

These times lasted up until 1994 and had their own colourful charm, with the reporter reminiscing about “coupons for pasta and vodka, delays in paying salaries, a soap opera of endless disagreements in the Parliament”. Lukashenka offered solutions to these problems and won the support of Belarusians.

The coverage also commented upon the opposition from the 1990s and positively evaluated the shift towards a “monolyth in politics” as it gave Belarus a chance for its economy to develop.

Closing, the reporter concluded that today Belarus remains a place where bilinuguism and inter-confessional peace are a norm.

Symbolic opening of a war museum with Putin. Just a day before Belarus' Independence Day, both Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin opened the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Minsk.

During the opening ceremony, the Belarusian leader spoke about the importance of the unity of the Soviet republics that fought together against the Nazis. According to Lukashenka, instead of the West showing their gratitude for their Soviet ally's sacrifices, “we see a dictate of sanctions”.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, praised the bright future of Belarus-Russia co-operation within the Eurasian Union.

Kupalle: uniting the Slavic people. Belarusians again gathered in the village Aleksandryja in the Shklov district (Lukashenka's home region) to celebrate the midsummer festival, Kupalle. Lukashenka also attended the event and in his speech explained what coming back there meant to him personally. He also argued that the situation in “brotherly Ukraine” should be resolved as soon as possible.

In their coverage, state TV narrates that festivals such as Kupalle in Aleksandryja and Slavianski Bazaar in Viciebsk had played an important role in history – they reunited the Slavic world. This is particularly important, according to the report, after the events in Ukraine.

According to an old legend, the main goal of the Kupalle festivities was to find a fern flower and, should one be successful, it would bring them happiness and prosperity. “We would like to believe that it will bring peace and prosperity to all Slavic nations", the reporter concludes.

Less help from the state for Belarusian enterprises' modernisation. At a special meeting, headed by the prime-minister Michail Miasnikovič, officials discussed new approaches for pushing for modernisation. The country is in need of a fairly comprehensive “complex modernisation, and the management must be responsible for their companies’ efficiency”.

“At present, every company should increase its efficiency on its own”, the reporter clarified. “It is time that the state alone stops financing modernisation, but should just focus on supporting the most highly prioritised enterprises”, he concluded.

A new task for the Belarusian army – increase its mobility. Lukashenka visited the 103rd Independent Guard Mobile Brigade of the special operations forces of the Belarusian army. The coverage notes that the Belarusian leader personally evaluated the battle readiness of the brigade.

During his visit, Lukashenka argued that Belarus would need to acquire more equipment for mobilisation "in case we would have to wage a war on our own". He also visited a local canteen which can feeds up to 240 soldiers. The reporter covering the event was keen to point out that all of its equipment was made in Belarus and all of the food came from local producers. The head of state ordered a meal in the military canteen.

Ukraine

The Association Agreement is signed, but is all of the EU ready to support Ukraine? “Although the EU summit was called historical, it was no bombshell”, states a state TV journalist analysing the event. Following up on this thought, the reporter asks rhetorically whether all of the EU was really ready to support Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

The coverage described the ceremony for signing the Association Agreement as pompous and full of optimism. The EU leadership pointed out throughout the event how historical it was. This co-operation with Brussels will, however, cost Kiev $8bn, which the country will lose due to Russian taxation on goods exported from Ukraine. “Experts explain that Russia will have to protect its market from re-exported European goods", the journalist explains.

In the same report the journalist also discussed Kiev’s arrears in payments to Gazprom, the controversies surrounding the South Stream and the issue of refugees from Ukraine. She cited Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian Ambassador to the EU, who stated that “the project does not satisfy those in the West who want to take control of the gas transportation system in Ukraine”. “But thinking Europeans understand that the South Stream will serve in the interests of energy security of the EU”, reporter emphasises.

Refugees from Ukraine are invading the EU countries? In another report, state TV reports that according to the European agency in charge of refugees, ten times more Ukrainian immigrants have come to the EU after "the coup d’etat in Kyiv". Štefan Füle​, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, confirmed the arrival of a number of refugees from the east of Ukraine.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). 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.