Belarus tries to raise restive Orsha from the ashes

On 19 August, Aliaksandr Lukashenka visited Orsha District, a new Mecca for Belarusian officials. Over the past six months, almost all the country’s top bureaucrats have visited the town.

Orsha is getting a great deal of attention from the authorities due not only to its economic depression, but also its outsized protests against the government’s policies. This March, a thousand people protested against the social parasite tax, an impressive figure given the town’s size. To minimise dissent, the authorities are looking to boost the region’s economy with their signature mix of socialist and capitalist ideas.

In practice, however, their efforts amount to patching holes in a sinking ship. The government’s new policies might help in the short term, but are unlikely to have much effect further down the road.

Orsha in ashes

To many Belarusians, Orsha is known as ‘the city with three prisons and no university’. In reality, there are only two prisons now, but the town retains its criminal reputation. Orsha is also famous as a designated transport hub and as the place where the Grand Duchy of Lithuania defeated the Muscovite army in an epic battle near the Dnieper river in 1514.

The modern history of Orsha, however, is less glorious. On 21 April, Lukashenka stated that Orsha ‘must be raised from the ruins and ashes.’

Protests in Orsha (photo:

Orsha remains one of the most economically troubled towns in the east of Belarus. Moreover, residents of Orsha do not seem to fear articulating their problems: this spring, Orsha saw the largest per capita protest in Belarus. A thousand people protested against the social parasite tax in a town of only 115,000 inhabitants. 

Orsha’s problems are long term. Over the past 20 years, the region has lost 30,000 inhabitants, or more than 15% of the population. Over a quarter of the region’s enterprises remain unprofitable, according to the Belarusian Statistical Committee, and many businesses have overstuffed warehouses.

According to local media reports, a salary of just $250 a month in Orsha is considered high, and in some companies people work part-time, earning as little as $70. Nevertheless, people are reluctant to quit their jobs, as the unemployment rate may be as high as 15%, according to unofficial data. 

The high level of unemployment leads many people leave for Russia or search for temporary work. Every morning, several dozen people gather near the local employment centre, where ’employers’ arrive to order a one-off service, such as unloading goods. In Orsha, these groups of unemployed men even have a nickname: ‘the mafia’.

A Belarusian mix of ideas

Over the last six months, Orsha Region has become a Mecca for Belarusian officials. It has hosted visits from the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, head of the Presidential Administration, and the Minister of Economy. To demonstrate the seriousness of his intentions, Lukashenka has appointed his assistant, Alexander Pazniak, as head of the Orsha District Executive Committee. Despite the impressive number of bureaucrats involved, however, their ideas on how to fix the region remain uninspiring.

Andrej Kabiakou in Orsha (photo:

Lukashenka has proposed modernising local enterprises, providing them with financial support, and purchasing new equipment. In July, Prime Minister Andrej Kabiakou stated that the authorities had started the process of cleaning the financial accounts of the Orsha Tool Plant, the most moribund company in the region, and repairing its roof. Later, the enterprise would start buying new equipment.

Unfortunately, this modernisation effort is most likely doomed, just like previous efforts to massively modernise wood and cement plants. For example, in 2016, the profitability of the wood-processing industry was as low as 1% and boasted a $2.7bn debt. It remains unclear whether these plants will ever be able to pay off their debts. To put it more bluntly, Belarus is just wasting money on the modernisation of Belarusian state-owned enterprises.

The government would also like to create the best conditions for doing business. This is undoubtedly a noble pursuit. However, the extent to which this will benefit the region remains dubious, given that the local population lives in poverty, providing businesspeople little incentive to invest there.

In addition, the Minister of Economy is proposing to lease unused parts of state enterprises to new businesses. However, these premises are often so old that last year one company discovered nearly 2,000 unexploded ordnances left from World War II.

The authorities also intend to develop specialisation plans for the regions. In Orsha, the authorities want to expand business in two areas. Firstly, they aim to increase the importance of Orsha as a logistics hub. Secondly, the authorities are fantasising about IT sector development in the region. They do not seem to heed the fact that there is nothing close to an existing IT sector and the quality of life is far from what Belarusian IT employees have come to expect in Minsk.

Closing the gap

It is unlikely that the Belarusian authorities can really help Orsha’s economy through this sort of wishful thinking. One can, of course, expect short-term improvements: for example, investments in fixed assets in 2017 rose almost twofold, according to official figures. But the authorities have simply pushed money into a hole in a sinking ship.

What’s more, the number of such holes keeps growing. In June, Prime Minister Andrej Kabiakou announced that the Belarusian authorities will help the Barysau, Baranavichy, and Babruisk Regions the same way they are assisting the Orsha Region now: the town is a pilot project for Belarusian regional development.

At the end of the day, it remains difficult to understand how this new approach is different from previous policies. It still boils down to investment in state enterprises with some elements of liberalisation caused by lack of money. However, this time around the scale is completely different. If previously the authorities sought to spread out public investments across all regions evenly, now only a few will obtain priority status.

A better method could be for the authorities to give more power to local councils and democratise them, thus helping them to create new development strategies and increase the efficacy of budget management. However, this will fail to have much impact until the authorities answer one key question: what is to be done with failing Soviet enterprises which demand more and more money just to stay afloat?

How poverty spreads across Belarus

Perhaps one of Lukashenka’s greatest achievements in Belarusian society has been his fight against poverty. In the worst years of the 1990s, half of the population of Belarus was languishing below the poverty line. This figure is now 10 times smaller. 

However, poverty is once again on the rise. In some regions, the average worker earns just $100 per month, barely over the Belarusian poverty line (around $90).

The main reason people end up below the poverty line is loss of employment, as the state fails to provide any meaningful help for the unemployed. Belarusians on the dole are entitled to around $12 per month. Residents of neighbouring Poland, meanwhile, receive around $200.

It seems that poverty is doomed to continue spreading, as the authorities see no way out of the crisis other than shifting the country’s economic woes onto the backs of the poor. 

There and back again: Belarus’s road to poverty

Two decades ago, Belarus was an unambiguously poor country. In the 1990s, all over the region, wages dropped dramatically as a result of the collapse of the socialist economy. At that time, about half of the population of Belarus was below the poverty line.

Thus, it is no surprise that the campaign slogan of Aliaksandr Lukashenka in 1994 was ‘take people away from the abyss’. This message proved successful, and perhaps his fight against poverty is the reason Lukashenka has remained popular for so long. Belarusian economic growth most benefited the poorest segments of society, as director of the IPM Research Center Aliaksandr Chubrik told the author.

However, much has changed since the 1990s, and the current recession has drastically affected the poor. Despite claims of the authorities that the Belarusian economy is finally resuscitating, the crisis continues in the east of the country. According to official data, during the first half of 2017 the economies of Vitsiebsk Region shrunk by 3.2% and Mahiliou Region by 2.6%.

However, even if the economy grows, the poorest of the poor will not necessarily reap the benefits. In recent years, redistribution of resources is slowly tipping in favour of the wealthiest. If in 2010 20% of the richest Belarusians owned 36.7% of the total wealth, in 2016 this figure jumped to 38.8%, according to data from the Belarusian Statistical Committee.

This figure may in fact be misleading: inequality is probably rising even more sharply. Many rich people have bank accounts abroad and find legal ways to avoid paying taxes. For instance, while people working in the ‘old economy’ pay all taxes, IT companies are asking the Belarusian authorities to prolong already existing tax benefits for IT businesses and give them even more. Exacerbating the situation, anywhere from 10 to 25 per cent of the working population in Belarus operates in the shadow economy, according to the Solidarity with Belarus Information Office. The state is unable to redistribute wealth from this sector to those most in need.

In response to this crisis, foodsharing is gaining popularity in some parts of Belarusian society. People share posts on, the most popular social network in Belarus, offering food they want to give away. It usually only takes several minutes for someone to make a claim. Some people are even willing to go from one end of Minsk to another just for a meal. The largest foodsharing page on social media now has more than 8,000 followers.

Two causes of poverty

The World Bank sets out four important factors which contribute to poverty: younger age, living in the countryside, unemployment, and low education. In the case of Belarus, employment and region of residence seem to be the most important.

Unemployment certainly remains the deciding factor, as Belarus lacks a proper system of social protection for the unemployed and obscures the real unemployment rate. Welfare benefits for the unemployed range from $12 to $24, and ‘less than 10% of unemployed people actually receive them’, says economist Aliaksandr Chubrik. 

Thus, this winter’s social parasite protests should come as no surprise: people are simply not making enough money to live. Protestors in 12 Belarusian towns marched against a Belarusian tax on unemployment, gathering around 20,000 demonstrators. Many people linked the end of the protests to the fact that the weather improved and people went to their ‘dachas’ in the countryside. However, summer houses are not just a place to relax when it’s hot: an IPM Research Centre study shows that the share of income from part-time farming is growing everywhere in Belarus, even in Minsk.

Place of residence is another important factor influencing the poverty rate. Roughly speaking, the more one’s place of residence looks like Minsk, the less likely one is to be very poor. According to official data, in Minsk the poor comprise 1.4% of all households; in Homiel Region the figure is 5.9%.

In most countries, residents of the capital tend to be wealthier, but it seems that many Belarusian regions, especially villages, cannot free themselves of the cycle of poverty. Although the government aims to mitigate the standard of living discrepancy between the regions and the capital, in practice, the gap between Minsk and other parts of Belarus keeps widening

‘Let them find a second job’

Belarusian laws and the statements of officials suggest that the authorities have little empathy towards Belarusian poor people.

The Belarusian authorities’ response to the economic crisis is to shift the burden on ordinary people. For example, instead of supporting the unemployed, Belarusian authorities tax them. Recently, Aliaksandr Lukashenka stated said that a new version of the decree on social parasitism would be ready by 1 October.

Moreover, this year the authorities started incrementally raising the retirement age, and the payment of utility tariffs increased by one-third in 2016, according to the Ministry of Economy. Although these measures may be wise economically, they are not driven by a belief in liberalism. Instead, they simply reorganise the social functions of the state to hit the poorest. It is unlikely that the Belarusian authorities will introduce real free-market reforms.

More evidence of the authorities’ lack of interest in helping people is statements by government officials. For example, according to Lukashenka: ‘only the lazy in Belarus cannot earn enough money’. Mariana Shchotkina, a former Minister of Labour and Social Protection, advised Belarusians to find a second job, as ‘93% of Belarusians have only one job.’

Such statements, of course, do nothing for the government’s image. However, as voting in Belarus is merely a formality, officials are unlikely to suffer any consequences.

Will the Kremlin topple Lukashenka?

On 20 January, Alexander Lukashenka described the reactions of Russian officials to the introduction of the new five-day visa-free regime in Belarus as 'groans and wails.'

Recently, rhetoric surrounding Russian-Belarusian relations has become so sharp that some journalists and analysts believe the Kremlin plans to overthrow Aliaksandr Lukashenka or occupy Belarus.

However, off and on conflict remains a fixture of Belarusian-Russian relations. Despite belligerent grumbling, Lukashenka mostly upholds the Kremlin's interests, promoting cooperation between the two countries.

Would the Kremlin replace Lukashenka and occupy Belarus?

In recent months, people of different political views and backgrounds have begun to voice concerns that the Kremlin plans to replace Lukashenka.

On 4 January, the chief editor of the Belarusian oppositional news source Charter 97 Natallia Radzina stated that 'Russia is currently conducting an operation to depose Lukashenka.' Her colleague Dzmitry Bandarenka had spoken about the existence of documents that prove the existence of a plan to replace Lukashenka a few days earlier.

Meanwhile, on 11 January analysts Arsen Sivitski and Yuri Tsarik, who have warmer attitudes towards the Belarusian authorities, published a report claiming that Russia is considering occupying Belarus. Their conclusion was based on information regarding the Russian Ministry of Defence's plans to send four thousand railway carriages to Belarus next year, which is 83 times more than in 2016.

Although these two claims are coming from very different ideological backgrounds, both sides believe the Kremlin is angry because of Belarus's refusal to support the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine as well as its resistance towards the idea of a Russian base on its territory. Moreover, they believe the Kremlin is angry enough to attempt to get rid of Lukashenka. However, Russia has little chance of replacing the Belarusian president: unlike Ukraine, Belarus has stable public institutions.

Relations in conflict

These speculations do indeed seem to hold water given the present condition of Belarusian-Russian relations. Lately, it seems that Belarus and Russia are butting heads on just about every issue.

On 20 January, Lukashenka publicly responded to the criticism Russian officials, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, regarding the introduction of a visa-free regime in Belarus. The Russian government sees this new policy as a threat to its security and hinted that Belarus should create a single visa space with Russia, instead of taking such steps on its own. However, according to Lukashenka, 'they should accept this calmly and focus on their own work.'

One month prior, on 26 December 2016, Lukashenka ignored the summit of the Eurasian Economic Union, where Union heads of state signed the Customs Code, which members had discussed for three years. Although the code was signed by all other members on 26 December, the president of Belarus only agreed to approve it two days later on condition of further negotiations.

It is no secret that the Belarusian authorities are hindering the Eurasian integration project because of the oil and gas conflict between Minsk and Moscow, which has now dragged on for more than a year. Minsk demands a reduction in the price of gas while Russia seeks to make Belarus pay back their debt for previous deliveries, now amounting to $400 m. In order to encourage Minsk to pay, Moscow plans to reduce its supply of oil to Belarus by 12%, according to claims by Russian business newspaper Kommersant from 9 January.

On 26 December, Uladzimir Andreichanka, the head of the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament, stated in Moscow that 'the situation at the Belarusian-Russian border goes beyond the contractual framework and common sense.' In mid-September, the Kremlin closed its border with Belarus for third-country nationals without any prior notice – thus ruining Minsk's plans of becoming a transit country.

Belarus's list of grievances is quite long: Belarusian officials periodically complain about Russia implementing protectionist measures, or that the Russian media and commentators are portraying Belarus in a bad light. On 22 December, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry even recalled a Russian diplomat to protest statements by the head of the Russian Strategic Research Institute questioning Belarusian sovereignty.

Moscow and Minsk fluctuate between love and war

If the present misunderstandings between the two countries were a reason to overthrow Lukashenka or occupy Belarus, the Kremlin would have already done so dozens of times, as the countries have already been through many similar conflicts. But despite all the animosity between Lukashenka and Putin, the Belarusian leader remains simply a difficult ally for the Kremlin – not an enemy.

Belarus-Russia relations after the Ukraine conflict​ Moscow will keep Minsk in its sphere of influence for a long time, given the great political and economic significance that Belarus has for Russia. ​

Even given the conflict in Ukraine, the Belarusian government is less pro-Ukrainian than it lets on. According to information published by Radio Liberty on 4 January, a Belarusian militant fighting against Ukraine in Donbass, who has killed dozens of Ukrainians, freely visits Belarus. The KGB has invited him for talks, but has not opened a criminal case. Previously, Belarusian KGB officials stated that they would prosecute Belarusians who join the fight in Ukraine, on either the Ukrainian or the Russian side. However, evidence shows that the Belarusian authorities remain reluctant to initiate criminal cases.

Although Belarus's rejection of a Russian military base on its territory was certainly painful for the Kremlin, Belarus managed recover from the conflict by announcing the launch of an Integrated Regional Antiaircraft Defense System. Belarusian diplomats have repeatedly refused to support a UN resolution that would have condemned Russia's actions in Ukraine.

Although the Belarusian authorities are making small steps towards promoting their own culture, which Russian nationalists seem so afraid of, Russian culture and media still dominate in Belarus. When Russian television broadcasts reports about a possible re-orientation of Belarus to the West, Belarusian authorities do not block them. Even the recent arrests of several Belarusophobic authors seem relatively insignificant compared to Kazakhstan, where the authorities have consistently been condemning pro-Russian activists for several years now.

Neither does Belarus intend to undermine Eurasian economic integration, as Belarus needs this market to sell its own manufacture goods, while Western countries remain primarily interested in Belarusian petrol. Minsk is slowing down Eurasian integration to gain concessions from the Russian side, as the Belarusian economic system exists thanks to Russian energy 'subsidies'.

This new iteration of the off and on Belarus-Russia conflict is hardly unique, albeit with one exception. Russia has started to count money and seems reluctant to give Belarus handouts, demanding more loyalty from Belarus. However, this is a far cry from replacing Lukashenka or occupying Belarus.

Analytical Paper: Belarusian business education – from a command economy to the market

The Belarusian authorities have recently shown interest in developing business education; evidence of this can be found in the Concept adopted by the Belarusian government in 2015. However, the Ministry of Education has not yet done much to adjust state regulations to match the situation on the ground.

Three key problems exist today. Representatives of the government, the international community, and business educators would do well to focus on them: state regulations, poor integration into the international educational space and lack of affordable business education in the regions of Belarus.

These are some of the conclusions found in a new analytical paper Belarusian Business Education: from a Command Economy to the Market released by the Ostrogorski Centre today.


Business education is probably the education sector most sensitive to the economic climate. Whereas neighbouring countries, such as Poland or Russia, experienced a boom in business education in the early 1990s – due to an increase of the private sector share of the economy – in Belarus the business education sector grew slowly. Belarusian business educators did not have powerful clients, such as Gazprom in Russia, and resembled training centres oriented towards small business.

The rapid growth of the Belarusian economy, accompanied by private sector expansion, was mirrored by growth in the sector of business education, reinforced by business schools at universities and long-term programmes in private business schools. In 2009, economic growth faltered and the business education market shrank correspondingly. This situation was exacerbated by the the current economic crisis.

Conference panel on business education in Belarus (December 2016, mostly in Russian)

This crisis has left Belarusian business education in the lurch, as it is probably here for the long run. Providers of business education, like many others, will have to adjust to life in this ‘new normality’. Nowadays, the clients of business educators are raising their expectations and demand more of a practical outlook from education offerings. This is apparently connected with the maturing of the Belarusian private sector, which currently assesses and oversees its own effectiveness.

Trends in the development of Belarusian business education

At present, four main actors dominate the business education market: the Business School at the Institute of Privatisation and Management, the consulting group ‘Here and Now’, and ‘Business School 21st Century’ (all private institutions), along with the state-run Institute of Business and Management of Technologies at the Belarusian State University. Together, these institutions account for about half of the business education market.

According to representatives of business education, the annual scope of the market of private companies has decreased two-fold since the beginning of the crisis in 2014, when it amounted to $6,5 million –$10,5 million. Currently, the market is starting to revive, as many companies believe improving their effectiveness might be a way out of the crisis. In addition, universities have experienced growth in the number of students enrolled in Master’s programmes in business-related specialties.

However, this growth has not been felt to the same extent in the regions, where prices for business education remain prohibitive for most entrepreneurs, as their salaries are on average one third lower. Generally speaking, according to market actors, only about 10-20% of business education takes place outside Minsk. The few exceptions include state regional universities offering business-related degree programmes, and the IPM business school, which has opened branches in all the regional centres of Belarus and uses distance learning technologies to keep prices for trainings relatively low.

Belarusian authorities have exhibited some interest in developing business education. This is evinced by the adoption of a corresponding Concept by the Belarusian government in 2015. Unfortunately, the targets proposed by the Concept are unrealistic and it is not being properly implemented. For example, it remains unclear how the business education market will grow to $50 million by 2020 in conditions of economic stagnation.

Nevertheless, the authorities have accomplished little in the way of adjusting state regulations to the situation on the ground. More concrete plans for the implementation of the Concept will most likely be hammered out after the establishment of the Republican Council on Development of the Business Education System, planned for 2017.

The main demand of business school representatives (both private and public) for the upcoming Republican Council is that state regulations be made more pragmatic. For example, many methods used by business schools, such as coaching or case-studies, simply do not conform to the regulations of academic universities. Thus, it is quite natural that representatives of private business schools would like to see the market liberalise as much as possible.

Today none of the private providers of business education, apart from the IPM business school, possess the status of ‘educational type-establishments’. This means that they cannot issue state-recognised diplomas in re-skilling and advanced training and they are not eligible for tax benefits enjoyed by state education providers. Obtaining the status of ‘educational type establishment’ is a complicated and labour-intensive procedure.

Basic problems for the business learning sphere

State regulations. Although state officials openly advocate ‘real equality of all actors on the business education market', two key issues remain unsolved. First, private and state business educators are subject to different taxation regimes. Secondly, private companies which do not possesses the status of educational establishments cannot issue state-recognised diplomas on re-skilling and advanced training of specialists.

These regulations harm not only private educators, but state universities as well. For state universities, it remains important that academic programmes be flexible (this means that state-mandated compulsory components of the curriculum should not exceed 50% of academic programmes). Also important is that the status of MBA graduates be reflected in the documents of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, and that people with no academic degrees but with practical experience in business could are allowed to become lecturers at university business schools

Poor integration into the international educational space. Belarusian business educators struggle with a lack of international accreditation from such organisations as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the Association of MBAs, or the European Quality Improvement System. This is a significant problem on the world business education market. The only exception is the IPM business-school, which has an accredited programme (AMBA) with the Kozminski University in Poland.

Lack of affordable business education in the regions of Belarus. As prices for business education are set in the capital, many educational programmes are not affordable to regional business structures. One-day seminars, costing $ 70-90, can only attract the wealthiest regional businessmen, even though demand for such seminars could be quite high.

Therefore, the under-representation of business education in the regions creates a situation in which many entrepreneurs are simply unaware of the existence of business schools. According to an analysis conducted by the Research Centre of the IPM, over 40% of surveyed small and medium companies in Belarus do not know of a single business school.


As economic stimuli for market growth are absent, the Belarusian government could free sphere from unnecessary regulations which stand in the way of the development of business education. This would foster healthy competition between business schools. State schools too would benefit from deregulation, as they would no longer need to adjust their programmes to regulations on universities from the Ministry of Education. They would also be able to involve investors.

The international community can play a positive role by supporting the methodological development of business educators in Belarus. Today, Belarusian business schools require methodological training before they can offer long-term educational programmes. This is especially true for blended programmes which need valid methodology for distance learning. Moreover, foreign internships at Western business schools could be an invaluable experience for business educators who have no one to learn from in Belarus. These measures would increase the quality of work and the competence of teachers at business schools.

Given the competition between different business educators, assistance from the international community should be as broad as possible so as not to become a tool in competition. State-run and commercial companies may sometimes fail to meet the requirements of their grantors due to their status. Therefore, associations which bring together various providers of business education are the best fit for receiving foreign funds.

Moreover, foreign funds could be channelled into developing education in the regions of Belarus, where prices for business education remain prohibitive. Besides improving educational programmes, Belarusian business educators could use foreign assets to improve their presence in the regions, which would create a new administrative class for Belarusian companies.

Investing in Belarus: a story of Lithuanian businessmen

While the governments of Belarus and Lithuania continue to clash over the construction of the Astraviec nuclear power plant, Lithuanian investors in Belarus are continuing to operate normally. Lithuanian businessmen became the largest Western investors in Belarus, adding more than €80 mln to the Belarusian economy in 2015.

Investments remain at a high level, although several Lithuanian companies have abandoned their projects because of the Belarusian economic crisis. Moreover, the poor political reputation of the Belarusian authorities still discourages Western businessmen from investing.

Meet Lithuania, the biggest Western investor in Belarus

It seems that Belarus has never enjoyed a good reputation among foreign investors. While officials continue to harp on the need to attract foreign investments, investment figures remain low, falling slightly since 2013. If in 2013 Belarus received $2.1 bn in foreign direct investments, over the first six months of 2016 Belarus raised only $950 mln, according to the Belarusian Ministry of Economy.

In December 2016, Kiryl Rudy, Ambassador of Belarus to China, published an article arguing that foreign investors are fleeing from Belarus and the government needs to change its attitude towards investors. Rudy previously served as the president’s economic advisor and remains one of few openly pro-reform officials of Lukashenka’s regime.

According to official data, more than 60% of investments came to Belarus from Russia and Cyprus, where many Russian and Belarusian businessmen have registered companies. Thus, excluding Russia and Cyprus, Lithuania is the main foreign investor in Belarus, investing more than Dutch, Estonian, and Austrian companies combined.

According to Rudy, in 2011-2015 the five largest investors (such as the Austrian Kronospan or the Dutch Heineken) accounted for more than 40% of total investments. This underlines Lithuania's role: specific investments are not necessarily large, but they are numerous, pointing to a long-term rather than situational interest. Belarus and Lithuania have already held 12 bilateral economic forums.

Mapping Lithuanian investments in Belarus

For Lithuanian businessmen, Belarus is not the worst option for investment, as they understand Belarusian culture and mentality. As a former Lithuanian Ambassador to Belarus Evaldas Ignatavičius stated in 2016, 'free niches in the Belarusian economy attract Lithuanian business'. Moreover, the Lithuanian domestic market has a rather limited population (3 mln) only half again as large as Minsk’s (2 mln). Notably, Minsk is the nearest city to Vilnius with a population of more that one million people.

Moreover, as the Lithuanian political scientist Vytis Jurkonis noted to Belarus Digest, 'due to to EU technical regulations, it is much more convenient to open a factory in Belarus that in Lithuania, not to mention the cheaper labour force there. The geographical proximity and historical ties also play an important role'.

In 2013, another Lithuanian political scientist (and now MP), Laurynas Kasčiūnas, said that 'Every second rich Lithuanian has business in Belarus.' This appears to be the truth: in Belarus, there are 500 companies with Lithuanian capital. The largest investments are concentrated in several areas.

Retail. Lithuanian companies own OMA, a chain of construction materials stores, which employs around three thousand people, as well as the food chain Mart Inn, known for frequently using the Belarusian language in its shops.

Woodworking. The Lithuanian companies SBA and Vakaru Medienos Grupe produce furniture in Belarus, including for Ikea. Vakaru Medienos Grupe currently works in three Belarusian towns: Mahiliou, Barysau and Lahojsk, while SBA operates only in Mahiliou.

Food products. Two daughter companies of Arvi ir Ko are engaged in raising turkeys; they also own a factory processing livestock waste in Hrodna region. Meanwhile, owner of KG Group Tautvydas Barštys produces feed additives. In 2015 the company sold its products for about $15 mln, according to its website.

Energy. Modus Grupe, in addition to selling motor vehicles and establishing car parks, develops alternative energy sources in Belarus. In 2016 it launched one of the largest solar power plants in Eastern Europe. However, according to information given to Belarus Digest, the two countries are currently rethinking their cooperation in energy because of the Astraviec conflict, and may end all projects in this area.

Despite the activity of Lithuanian business, not all investment projects have become a reality. Last year the company Oil Pack Invest turned down the idea of building a waste recycling plant in Babrujsk, and the company Vicunai decided against establishing a fish processing plant near Minsk.

Obstacles to Lithuanian investments

It comes as no surprise that many are reluctant to invest in a country facing its third year of a recession. However, some businesses fear not only the economic crisis, but also pressure from the authorities.

In April 2016, the head of the Lithuanian confederation of employers Danas Arlauskas told Delfi News Agency that 'Belarus remains a peculiar market – without the approval and support from the authorities one can lose a lot there.' Foreign investors have to somehow communicate with authorities of a country that occupies 107th place in the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International. According to Vytis Jurkonis, 'unpredictable decisions by official Minsk, when some businessmen (or their lawyers) end up in jail without due process or the investment is simply "lost" remains a significant obstacle'.

Moreover, Lithuanian businessmen may be afraid of becoming political pawns. According to information published by the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), in 2012 the Belarusian Presidential Administration summoned foreign investors to explain that they must speak out against sanctions against Belarus, otherwise the Belarusian authorities would complicate their activities within the country.

Although Belarusian-European relations have improved, Belarusian-Lithuanian relations have conversely deteriorated. The governments of the two countries clash over the nuclear power plant being built in Belarus, and bilateral economic forums lack the previous blessing of the Belarusian and Lithuanian authorities.

While in 2013 and 2014 the prime ministers of both countries attended the Belarusian-Lithuanian economic forums, in 2015 and 2016 the level of representation of government officials decreased. The Belarusian delegation in 2016 was headed by the Deputy Minister of Economy. This may have changed not only because of the clash over Astraviec, but also due to personal changes in the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, the organiser of the forum, which lost some people connected with its previous president Bronislovas Lubys, who wielded significant political influence.

As a result, Lithuanian businessmen have lost the leverage brought by the good relationship between the governments of Belarus and Lithuania. Currently, they are using international financial institutions as an instrument to make their investments more safe. For example, Modus Group cooperates with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which provided a loan for the construction of the solar power plant. Thus, if Belarusian authorities put pressure on the Modus Group, it could also strain their relations with the EBRD.

All this shows that there is a lack of trust between Lithuanian businessmen and the Belarusian authorities. Nevertheless, 'external factors and rhetoric, or even the so called restrictive measures, very rarely play a role', according to Vytis Jurkonis, 'businessmen are (and will continue) to do business, despite the political climate.' Even with its problems, Belarus remains a good place for Lithuanian businessmen.

A U-turn in Poland’s policy towards Belarus?

On 20 December, Polish MP Robert Tyszkiewicz publicly stated that Poland will hold parliamentary debates on the future of Belsat, an independent Belarusian TV channel based in Poland.

According to Tyszkiewicz, 'the termination of Belsat TV would mean a U-turn in Polish foreign policy, we would consider this a political mistake.'

Nearly all Polish politicians, journalists, and analysts covering Belarus share this stance. Moreover, Belarusian civil society, including leading figures in the Belarusian Polish minority, condemn the Polish Ministry for Foreign Affairs' proposal to cut support for Belsat.

It appears that due to the growing uproar against the possible closure of Belsat, Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczywski may reverse his decision.

Policy change in the Polish government

A few years ago it would be difficult to imagine that the Polish government would develop such a good relationship with the Belarusian authorities. In 2016 the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Head of the upper chamber of the Polish parliament all visited Minsk.

As one Polish diplomat privately told Belarus Digest, 'The Minsk embassy is actually understaffed for such an intense relationship.' It seems that even the President or the Prime Minister of Poland would consider meeting with Lukashenka if they could ensure it would not damage their reputations.

Together with the thaw in relations between Minsk and Warsaw, the Polish authorities have begun treating Belarusian pro-democratic groups with greater scepticism. The lack of prospects for political change, along with the decrease in repression, makes Belarus seem like a less urgent cause for many donors.

Nevertheless, few people expected the Polish MFA to be so harsh to Belsat TV. The ministry has not disclosed any information about its plan to cut next year's support for the channel by two-thirds, although there are only two weeks remaining in 2016. This information first came to light on 15 December thanks to Agnieszka Romaszewska, head of Belsat TV, and was based on her sources.

Ironically, even the Belarusian authorities are not demanding that the Polish side close Belsat; it has in fact become more tolerant of the station. In 2016, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry even accredited four Belsat TV journalists for the first time.

No one is happy with Waszczykowski’s idea

On 18 December, Minister Waszczykowski explained that after reformatting Belsat, the Polish government hopes to persuade the Belarusian authorities to allow TVP Polonia to join Belarusian TV cable networks. TVP Polonia is a Polish-language channel tailored to Poles living abroad. This would arguably strengthen the position of Poles living in Belarus.

However, the Polish minority in Belarus has expressed dissatisfaction with this idea. On 19 December, Anżelika Borys, leader of the Union of Poles in Belarus, stated that 'the closure of Belsat will be a blow to Belarusian civil society.'

On the same day, Andrzej Poczobut, another important representative of the Polish minority, published an article in Gazeta Wyborcza claiming the Polish foreign policy has lost its credibility, and that 'the closing of Belsat comes at a fatal time and in a fatal style.'

The possible closure of Belsat TV also caught Polish politicians by surprise. Last week, the Commission for Foreign Affairs of the Polish Sejm passed a resolution to support the Belarusian independent media.

Even Robert Winnicki, a prominent Polish nationalist who previously called for the closing of Belsat, sees no point in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs' decision, as this change would be a move 'from being stupidly anti-Lukashenka to being stupidly pro-Lukashenka'.

Polish analysts are also dismayed. Adam Eberhardt, director of the influential Polish think tank Centre for Eastern Studies, tweeted that ' the possible extinction of Belsat would be a great gesture to Lukashenka. The problem is that he does not usually reciprocate gestures and respect agreements.' According to Witold Jurasz, a Polish analyst and former diplomat in Minsk: 'if the Polish government plans to cut the subsidy for Belsat, I can confirm that someone has gone crazy.'

Needless to say, Belarusian civil society also opposes the Polish minister's decision. Movement for Freedom has launched an online petition addressed to the Polish president which has already been signed by thousands of Belarusians. Opposition groups also held a demonstration in Minsk on 20 December.

While Belarusian civil society wields little influence, the emerging coalition of pro-Belsat politicians, journalists, and analysts may prove more effective. The negative political fallout of the decision may exceed the desire of Witold Waszczykowski to close Belsat TV.

The two main reasons not to abandon Belsat TV

Why the Belarusian television channel should continue to receive support from the Polish government boils down to two arguments.

Firstly, the closure of Belsat TV will further delay the democratisation of Belarus and hinder its movement towards the West. Belsat, as well as other projects, plays a large role in supporting Belarusian national identity, and Belarusian identity remains the basis for the existence of a Belarusian state.

Belsat remains for Belarusians the only TV alternative to the official views propagated on Belarusian and Russian television. While the station cannot democratise the country alone, Belsat’s journalists play an important role at a grassroots level. For example, in 2016, a corrupt official from Slonim came under investigation thanks to Belsat.

Now, even the Belarusian authorities are feeling the heat of Russian nationalism. Just this week the Belarusian Foreign Ministry officially protested statements by Leonid Reshetnikov, the Kremlin-linked head of the influential Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, who claimed that Belarus remains a part of Great Russia.

It seems that nowadays Lukashenka's regime has more problems with Russian TV broadcasts than with Belsat. The authorities are no longer seriously afraid of a pro-Western colour revolution, but are more concerned about the threat from the East. Incidentally, the Russian-backed welcomed the possible closure of Belsat calling it "a remnant of the past".

Secondly, de-funding Belsat will deprive Poland of its most important instrument of influence in Belarus, into which it has already invested around $40m. Furthermore, Poland will lose its moral credibility. When Polish politicians first launched Belsat TV, they gave speeches about solidarity and alluded to the help Poland received from the Western countries during the communist times.

Poland certainly has a right to set its own foreign policy priorities, but compromising its values and abandoning such a huge project will make Warsaw less credible and predictable to many countries. Diplomats from other Western countries have privately expressed to Belarus Digest their concern over the possibility of such a sharp U-turn.

Over the course of Lukashenka's rule Poland had 12 different foreign ministers. Some of them believed that they could engage Lukashenka and others wanted to isolate him. However, never has the Polish Foreign Ministry come this close to abandoning the long-term moral commitment of Poland to support Belarusian statehood, democracy, and independence.

Can Belarus punish Lithuania for its position on the Astraviec NPP?

On 7 December, the head of the Russian Railways stated that his company can provide a large enough discount to Belarusian companies to allow them to cease transporting cargo through the Baltic States. At the same time, Latvian officials continue to pitch their ports to the Belarusian government.

So far, Belarus primarily uses Lithuanian ports, but Russia and Latvia may take advantage of the cooling relations between Minsk and Vilnius – connected with Lithuania's criticism of the Belarusian nuclear power plant – to promote their interests.

Belarusian officials have hinted several times that Lithuania benefits significantly from the transit of Belarusian goods, so the Lithuanian government should soften its position on Astraviec. Nevertheless, it seems that Belarus will continue to use Lithuania as a transit country – as this remains an economically expedient option – but will also try to diversify supplies.

No more love between Minsk and Vilnius

The dynamics of the Belarusian-Lithuanian relationship often differ from the relationship between Belarus and Europe. Even in 1996, when Lukashenka’s regime was still consolidating, Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas met with the Belarusian ruler. In 1997, Lithuania blocked a resolution of the Baltic Assembly criticising the Belarusian authorities for human rights violations.

Lithuanian politicians, such as the president Dalia Grybauskaite, frequently sought to improve relations with Belarusian authorities. This was the case not only during times of Belarusian-European dialogue in 2008-2010, but also following the brutal crack-down on demonstrators in December 2010.

In 2011, the Lithuanian President stated that although the Belarusian opposition keeps asking for more and more money, she cannot heard in their words that Belarusian independence is a priority for them. Later, in 2013, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich visited a Belarusian-Lithuanian economic forum in Klaipeda.

Thus, Belarusian-Lithuanian relations were sometimes warmer than Belarusian-EU relations, and sometimes on the same level. This is no longer the case. Harsh criticism from Lithuania regarding the future Belarusian nuclear power plant, along with statements that the construction of the NPP is like an atomic bomb against Vilnius, raise doubts about whether Belarus and Lithuania can cooperate at all.

Currently, Lithuania is working to create an international coalition to restrict the supply of electricity from Belarus to Europe after the launch of the NPP. On 27 October, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid declared that 'in Astraviec, there is clearly a problem if all the costs, including environmental costs and risks, are not factored into the price scheme. In that case Europe should not accept such energy on its market.'

What Belarus can do

It comes as no surprise that such statements by Lithuanian politicians annoy the Belarusian authorities. Back in May, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei hinted that 'cooperation between the countries remains in Lithuania’s best interests, as the transit of Belarusian goods through Lithuanian ports contributes to the development of the Lithuanian economy.'

According to some media estimates, Belarusian companies account for one third of the capacity of the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda and the transit of Belarusian goods makes up about 2 per cent of Lithuania's GDP.

On 7 December, head of Russian Railways Oleg Belozerov said that his company was prepared to offer a 50 per cent discount to Belarusian refineries for the transportation of their goods. In doing this, the Kremlin means to punish the Baltic countries for their stance on sanctions against Russia; Russian leadership also wants Belarus to take part.

Latvia suffers from Russian foreign policy in this regard, but unlike Lithuania, it has warmer relations with Minsk and may use the cooling between Minsk and Vilnius to its advantage. In September, Uladzimir Makei met in New York with Edgar Rynkevich, the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs; in October, the Latvian Transport Minister Uldis Augulis visited Belarus. In November, the Belarusian Prime Minister met with the Latvian Minister of Economy in Minsk. All these meetings involved discussion of the transit of goods, among other topics.

So far, the results of these negotiations remain unknown, but few will be surprised if they result in greater use of Latvian ports by Belarusian companies. Nevertheless, a complete reorientation of Belarusian goods remains unlikely. Belaruskali, a Belarusian potash producer, owns 30% of Biriu kroviniu terminals (BKT), one of Klaipeda's terminals. Moreover, VKT is currently investing €8 mln in the development of the terminal, indicating that Belarus has no plans to curtail its activities in Lithuania.

As Vytis Jurkonis, a Lithuanian political scientist, told Belarus Digest, 'as long as transit through Lithuania remains economically feasible, the Belarusian authorities will take advantage of it, as they lack the luxury to choose more expensive transit roots'. The problem, however, is that Latvia and Russia appear willing to propose conditions beneficial enough for Belarus to stop relying on Lithuanian ports.

No time for cooperation

The conflict surrounding the nuclear power plant and the possible reorientation of Belarusian goods are not isolated cases. Instead, they reflect a trend in Belarusian-Lithuanian economic cooperation. The Belarusian and Lithuanian authorities seem reluctant to look for opportunities for new joint economic projects.

Trade in goods between the two countries decreased for the fifth year in a row, while imports from Lithuania fell for the fourth consecutive year. During the first 9 months of 2016, the trade turnover fell by almost 20% compared to the same period in 2015, according to the Belarusian Statistical Office.

Investment cooperation became less optimistic than before, and the authorities of both countries are paying less attention to it. If in 2013 and 2014 the prime ministers of both countries attended Belarusian-Lithuanian economic forums, in 2015 and 2016 the level of representation decreased. The Belarusian delegation in 2016 was headed by the Deputy Minister of Economy.

The conflict surrounding the Astraviec NPP became a poison to Belarusian-Lithuanian relations. It seems that as long as Minsk and Vilnius continue to fight about the Belarusian nuclear plant, economic cooperation will not be a priority.

No compromise between Belarus and Lithuania on Astraviec NPP

On 15 November, Lithuanian Energy Minister Rokas Masiulis presented his country's new energy strategy. Although it is not stated directly, the strategy strongly implies that Lithuania will not buy electricity from the Belarusian nuclear power plant, which will begin operating in 2019.

In recent years, the issue of the Belarusian NPP has stifled bilateral relations and it seems that a compromise remains beyond the pale of possibility. Lithuania exaggerates the lack of transparency surrounding the Nuclear Power Plant's construction. It also sees the NPP as an obstacle to its goal of connecting with electricity transmission grids in Western Europe.

A nuclear power plant provokes strong feelings

Several years ago, Lithuania looked to be a major advocate for dialogue with the Belarusian authorities. Even in 2013, when sanctions were still in place, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich visited a Belarusian-Lithuanian economic forum in Lithuania. Moreover, although few remember it, at the same time the Lithuanian MEP Justas Paleckis had prepared a report encouraging dialogue between Belarus and the EU.

But it now seems that Lithuania has made a U-turn. Despite the thaw in Belarusian-European relations, Belarus and Lithuania have yet to warm up to each other. For example, Minsk is now more likely to host Polish official delegations, which had previously been known for their tough attitude towards Alexander Lukashenka, than Lithuanian ones.

Lithuanian politicians are spending their time creating an international coalition against the Belarusian nuclear power plant. In doing so, they aim to ban the purchase of electricity from the plant to the European Union. The station, which Belarus began to build 55 km from Vilnius in 2013, has become a major stumbling block for bilateral relations.

So far, the only result of Lithuanian diplomacy are reflected in the words of Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who recently declared that 'in Astraviec, there is clearly a problem if all the costs, including environmental costs and risks, are not internalised into the price scheme. In that case Europe should not accept such energy on its market.'

Meanwhile, Poland, the beneficiary of a long standing offer to purchase electricity from the Astraviec NPP, has kept silent, as have other European Union countries. On 23 September, the State Secretary of Latvian MFA Andrejs Pildegovičs told the news portal that Latvia sees 'The NPP's construction as a sovereign right of the Belarusian government', and he 'will not judge, condemn or question the reasonableness of the project.'

Why does Lithuania dislike the Belarusian power plant?

Most Lithuanian politicians stress that the safety of the construction is dubious. This is actually true, taking into the account the poor reputation of Belarusian official transparency. On 10 July, the reactor casing, weighing over 330 tonnes, fell to the ground from a height of two to four metres. The wider public became aware of this disaster only on 25 July thanks to pressure from public opinion.

So far, the construction site has seen about 10 incidents, leaving three workers dead. This came to light thanks to pressure from the Lithuanian MFA. As Deputy Energy Minister of Belarus Mikhail Mihadziuk stated in September, 'this is an acceptable figure given that the construction site employs more than five thousand people.'

Moreover, the Lithuanian government emphasises the proximity of the Belarusian nuclear power plant to its border – should there be an accident, Lithuania would have to evacuate Vilnius.

However, Lithuanian authorities are exaggerating some issues. Despite the Belarusian regime's problems with transparency, the government has proved willing to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In October, the IAEA mission spent 12 days in Belarus, eventually concluding that 'Belarus is committed to nuclear safety'. Previously, while visiting Belarus in April, IAEA Director Yukiya Amano had stated that 'Belarus is one of the most advanced nuclear newcomer countries.'

No compromise?

The Lithuanian authorities dislike the Belarusian NPP not only for safety reasons, but also because it undermines Lithuania's energy strategy, which aims to 'connect the Lithuanian power transmission system (jointly with the Latvian and Estonian systems) to the grids of Europe for synchronous operation by 2025.' So far, Lithuania remains strongly connected to the electricity transmission grids in Belarus and Russia, a dependence it wants to overcome.

Lithuanian officials see NPP construction as a Russian project aimed at preventing that. On 15 November, Lithuanian Minister of Energy Rokas Masiulis said in a statement introducing a new strategy that 'the state will not be safe until the power transmission system affects managers sitting in Moscow.' One month earlier, at the Lithuanian Energy Conference, Masiulis had announced that 'if Belarus proceeds with the Astraviec Nuclear Plant, we will put electricity links with Belarus out of operation'.

The Energy Strategy of Lithuania seems likely to come to fruition, despite the fact that the IAEA praised the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, and the Belarusian authorities have begun to behave more transparently and responsibly. On 16 November, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka announced that Belarus would postpone launching the nuclear plant due to security concerns.

It seems that Lithuania's approach to the Belarusian nuclear power plant is already a foregone conclusion. The issue has become so politicised that Lithuanian politicians are even competing to speak against the NPP in Astraviec more sharply. Recently, Vytautas Landsbergis, one of the best-known Lithuanian politicians, called the construction of the NPP an atomic bomb against Vilnius.

The Union of Peasants and Greens, which won the elections in Lithuania last month, seems to see Astraviec in a similar way. Its politicians spoke out against the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus even before their election. Compromise, it seems, may prove impossible.

The Belarusian language in education: a reluctant revival?

On 7 October, Alexander Lukashenka criticised education officials for the lack of Belarusian language instruction in schools. According to him, “because of amateurs in the Ministry of Education, it has come to the point where pupils have six English classes per week, but only two of Belarusian language”.

Such a statement may come as a surprise, given that Lukashenka is largely responsible for Belarus's longstanding policy of Russification. In 1994, when Lukashenka became president, three-quarters of Belarusian school children studied in Belarusian, compared to only 13.7% now. In universities, the number of students who study in Belarusian is a mere 0.1%.

The authorities are currently changing their policy towards the Belarusian language. The appointment of Alena Anisim of the Belarusian Language Society to the Parliament shows that the Belarusian authorities do favour gradual measures promoting Belarusian. However, these measures may not necessarily lead to a revival of the Belarusian language, but rather simply prevent it from disappearing from the Belarusian education system.

Lukashenka and Belarusian medium education

In the eyes of many, the person who contributed most to the decline of the Belarusian language over the past twenty years would be Alexander Lukashenka. After coming to power, the new head of state re-implemented the Russification policy of the late Soviet Union, put in place after World War II.

The Russian language's domination of the Belarusian linguistic landscape would come as a surprise to those living in Belarus in the first half of the 20th century. In 1950, 85% of newspapers were published in Belarusian and in 1955 95% of schools operated in the language. Nevertheless, by 1969 one third of Belarusian pupils were not taught the Belarusian language at all. The role of the Belarusian language declined until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When Lukashenka became president in 1994, three-quarters of Belarusian students studied in Belarusian. In 1990-1995 Belarus could boast four times as many publications in Belarusian than ever before in the past 400 years combined. However, after his election, the leader of Belarus asserted that "the Belarusian language is an impoverished one" and returned Belarus to a policy of Russification.

Lack of Belarusian language in the education system

Lukashenka’s policy resulted in only 10.5% of preschool children, 13.7% of pupils and 0.1% students studying in Belarusian medium schools in the 2015/16 academic year, according to official statistics.

None of the 52 universities in Belarus use Belarusian as the main language of instruction. It seems that the only students whose whole education programme is in Belarusian are those majoring in Belarusian language and literature.

Moreover, some teachers are no longer teaching classes in Belarusian due to the internationalisation of the Belarusian education system. As one professor from the Belarusian State University told the author, he no longer gives his lectures on Belarusian foreign policy in Belarusian because Turkmen students could not understand him.

The case of school children is also problematic, as it is often difficult to find Belarusian-language teaching materials, calling official figures into question. On 30 August, Radio Liberty published a video in which a journalist attended a huge Education Fair and found few publications in Belarusian on subjects such as geography or computer science. This means that although schools are supposedly holding some classes in Belarusian, they are in fact often conducted in Russian.

Many Belarusian cities, including Viciebsk, a large regional centre with 350 thousand inhabitants, have no Belarusian-language school groups at all. In nearby Mahiliou, another large regional centre, only one pupil is studying in Belarusian.

This is a contrast to Minsk, where several Belarusian medium schools remain, and they enjoy a prestigious reputation. In 2016, citizens of Minsk even took turns waiting in line in the evening to be the first in the morning to submit documents to apply for Belarusian medium School №23.

Not letting the Belarusian language die

After the start of the conflict in Ukraine, the Belarusian authorities have changed their approach to the Belarusian language, expanding its use in the public space. In July 2014, Lukashenka made his first speech in Belarusian in decades. However, official statements regarding expansion of the Belarusian language in education have so far proved to have more hype than substance.

Even if the government adds one more Belarusian language class per week to school programmes, it will not change the fact that all other classes will remain in Russian. Moreover, Belarus lacks higher education institutions in Belarusian. Therefore, many people do not see the point of learning exclusively in Belarusian at the school level.

Analytical Paper: Belarusian Identity - The Impact of Lukashenka's Rule The regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka rejected the ethno-national model of state suggested by his predecessors in the early 1990s. Instead, he restored a soviet style “statist nation” with a centralised bureaucratic machine at its core.

Lukashenka's words recall previous statements from the Minister of Education Mikhail Zhuraukou. After taking office in 2014, Zhuraukou stated that "geography and the history of Belarus should be studied in the Belarusian language." However, so far nothing has changed.

Nevertheless, it is possible that the authorities may be able to slightly increase the role of the Belarusian language in society. This may be the reason why the regime appointed Alena Anisim, vice-head of the Belarusian Language Society, as one of the two democratic leaning MPs to the Parliament. It seems that she lacks any political agenda other than promoting the Belarusian language.

Moreover, the Belarusian language is no longer a political issue for Lukashenka, as it was in the 1990s when his Russophile policy opposed the Belarus-centric vision of the Belarusian Popular Front. Having marginalised this opposition group, Lukashenka himself can afford to take a more pro-Belarusian stance. Moreover, he lost his chance of becoming president of Russia, so his new aim thus became strengthening Belarus.

The leader of Belarus is unlikely to want more Belarusian medium schools, but one more Belarusian language lesson in Russian medium schools seems possible. It seems that the authorities remain reluctant to revive the Belarusian language, but also want to avoid its disappearance.

Towards a new agenda for the West and Belarus

The results of the parliamentary elections on 11 September surprised many in Belarus. Few believed that Lukashenka’s regime would allow independent deputies in parliament, but these elections have shown that the Belarusian authorities are at least willing to appear to change.

Although this does provide optimism, Belarus and the West still need to create a new agenda to ensure that Belarus remains on a positive trajectory. In other words, the EU and US should not make demands that are completely unacceptable to the regime.

The West's main requirement, free elections, is not an unreasonable one. However, increasing democratic space within the country should be a greater priority. This could be accomplished , for example, by moving Western foundations to Belarus and pushing for a greater number of opposition politicians in local councils.

Parliamentary surprise

The idea that Lukashenka’s regime cannot change has existed for a long time, but the parliamentary elections on September 11 have showed a slightly different side to the Belarusian authorities. The author, an observer at the elections, personally witnessed the election commissions inflating turnout, while the process of vote counting remained opaque. In the end however, the Belarusian authorities surprised many by letting Hanna Kanapatskaja and Alena Anisim, two women with democratic views, into the parliament.

This shows that Lukashenka's regime appears able to at least implement token reforms to appease the West. A year ago, the Belarusian government released a number of political prisoners to this end and now seeks to similarly utilise the democratic MPs. This is a huge step, despite the circumstances.

The Belarusian authorities have in fact made concessions before, such as during dialogues of 2008-2010. At this time the regime returned certain independent newspapers to the public distribution system, such as Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya, and registered the Movement for Freedom, an opposition group led by Alexander Milinkevich.

But today's concessions are of a different nature. Two people with democratic views received official status and a salary of $800 a month and influence, which has not happened in Belarus for 12 years. This legitimises democratic politicians even for those who are not sympathetic to the Belarusian opposition.

The need for a positive trajectory

Pro-regime experts often argue that Belarus is not yet ready for democracy, but the authorities are wisely taking baby steps in this direction. This is not the case. In fact, Lukashenka's regime would like to avoid democracy, as it would threaten many figures of authority or wealth: certain Belarusian officials have made their fortunes thanks to the authoritarian nature of Belarus. One example is Mikhail Miasnikovich, the head of the Upper Chamber of the Belarusian Parliament, whose watch reportedly cost $30,000.

Nevertheless, as the parliamentary elections show, the Belarusian government is capable of some concessions. Changes have become possible largely due to the desire of Belarus and the West to continue normalising relations. As Lukashenka told Scott Rauland, then charge d'affaires a.i. of the U.S. on July 6, Belarus will not have a full-fledged foreign policy without first normalising its relations with Washington. Today, Belarus needs the EU and the US for a variety of reasons – from economic support to a desire to distance itself from Russia.

However, the Belarusian regime remains reluctant to cede power by holding free elections and the West needs to understand this. If the EU and the US require only free elections, it will not encourage the regime to make any concessions. On the other hand, it is vital that the West not give up its ideals, otherwise Lukashenka will lack incentive to reform.

Both sides now need a positive trajectory, in which Western requirements do not exceed Lukashenka's ability to change. It is no surprise that the regime will require carrots, and the West should continue to provide them conditionally. For example, now that the Belarusian parliament has two oppositions members, the level of cooperation with the Belarusian parliament ought to be increased.

What should be done

The story of Anna Kanapatskaja and Alena Anisim shows what the West should focus on: gradual institutionalisation of democratic groups and civil society in Belarus.

The European Union and the Unites States may require Belarus to clear the Augean stables. Some people, like Eduard Palchys, still remain in prison, while accusations against him appear at least partly politically-motivated. Belarus also retains article 193.1 in criminal law, under which a member of an unregistered organisation can receive two years in prison.

The West must take a stand in these matters, but this should not be the focus of its energy, as these issues do not have long-term value. Lukashenka's regime can repeal the law, but nevertheless send people to prison under a different article in the event of a change in the political climate. For example, Ales Bialiatski, leader of the unregistered human rights organisation "Viasna", was sentence for allegedly avoiding taxes in 2011.

More important is to contribute to longer-term changes – to increase Western presence and to help civil society and democratic groups to do the same.

For example, the Belarusian authorities could allow Western political and civil foundations to open their representative offices in Belarus. Their activities may be monitored, but the presence of organisations such as the American National Democratic Institute or the Swedish Forum Syd will be more effective if they are conducted in Belarus. The funds will be able to reach a greater range of Belarusians and support more grassroots initiatives; they remain invisible while working from Vilnius and Warsaw.

Moreover, a physical presence in Minsk will bring the West and democracy greater legitimacy in the Belarusian public space. Belarusian officials, experts or politicians can build long term relationships with the West and stop seeing the European Union or the United States as enemies.

Thus, the West may require more opportunities for democratic groups from the authorities in the local elections in 2018. Representatives of the opposition do not yet have access to all local councils. Moreover, the value of such councils in the Belarusian system seems marginal. Therefore, the election of several dozen opposition politicians will not threaten Lukashenka’s regime, although it will strengthen the germs of Belarusian democracy.

Vitali Silitski, the most well-known Belarusian political analyst, who died in 2011, often emphasised that change needs to come from inside the country, not outside. It seems that today a window of opportunity for active change has appeared.

Attracting Foreign Students to Belarus: Success or Failure?

On 1 September, around 20 thousand foreign students will start the academic year in Belarusian universities and technical schools.

This figure has almost doubled over the past four years, with Turkmens accounting for half of all foreign students in Belarus.

The Belarusian authorities are trying to make a profit from the educational sector, hoping the relatively low price of living and learning will draw in foreign students. However, the poor quality and self-isolation of Belarusian universities may dissuade foreigners from studying in the country.

Belarus looks to attract foreign students

In early August, the Belarusian state-run Capital TV Channel proudly reported that 20 thousand foreign students will be studying in Belarus during the upcoming academic year. This figure also includes students at technical schools, although this is a much less popular option than universities.

Statistics from previous years show that Belarusian universities primarily attract students from Turkmenistan, Russia and China. International relations, economy and philology programmes at the Belarusian State University, the most popular university for foreign students, attract almost half of the international students in Belarus.

While IR and economy programmes are popular among Belarusians as well, philology programmes stay afloat partially thanks to foreigners. While such degrees may appeal to foreigners, Belarusians remain reluctant to major in Belarusian philology, seeing the discipline as useless in a Russian-speaking country.

Having understood how popular the education business can be, Belarus is rapidly looking to attract more foreign students. Moreover, during the economic crisis Belarus lacked additional funds for education, and foreign students' tuition fees supplemented university budgets. According to the Minister of Education Mikhail Zhuraukou, Belarus earned $73 mln from foreign students in 2014. The fees at the Belarusian State University amount to around $3 thousand per student per academic year.

For many international students this sounds like a good deal, as the price of tuition and accommodation in Belarus remains much lower than, for example, in Russia. As one Janapese student explained to, dormitories are 40 times cheaper than in his home country.

However, tuition fees do not seem so low compared with neighbouring Poland or Lithuania. Lazarski University in Warsaw, for example, where many Belarusians study, costs $2.5 thousand per academic year. Students also have the opportunity to study in an English language programme leading to a diploma much more respected in the West. The European Humanities University, a Lithuanian institute with Belarusian roots, also has tuition fees of around $3 thousand per year.

Limits of possible

Belarus can in fact attract more students, but two main obstacles remain in place. While Belarusian education may satisfy Turkmen students, may others perceive it to be sub-par The ranking of the best university in the country, the Belarusian State University, is 421-430 according to the QS World University Rankings. Other universities in the country are rated much worse.

In order to attract foreign students, Belarusian universities need to internalise. National Academic Recognition Information Centres around Europe do not recognise all Belarusian diplomas, although adherence to the Bologna process should improve the situation. For this reason, after completion of a five-year programme in Belarus, alumni cannot apply directly to a PhD programme in a Western university, but need to apply for an MA programme first.

Moreover, there are not enough courses taught in English or teachers with overseas teaching experience in Belarus, thus almost all foreign students study in Russian. On the other hand, Russian language programmes remain one of the reasons students from Turkmenistan or China come to Belarus.

Secondly, unnecessary bureaucracy and low professionalism of education agencies may deter some foreign students. In order to enter a Belarusian university, one needs to pay for registration, pass a paid medical examination, and translate and notarise documents. Moreover, according to Belarusian law, foreign students are not allowed to work during studies.

While it may excel at creating unnecessary bureaucracy, Belarus under-performs in other areas. The websites promoting education in Belarus, such as, remain misleading, to put it mildly. Among reasons to study in Belarus listed online, one can find “enrichment of learning experience through visiting professors from USA, Canada and the UK” or “good prospects of permanent residence and settlement in Europe following completion of the programme”.

Unfortunately, it remains difficult to find visiting professors from Western countries, and education in Belarus has nothing to do with getting the right to reside in the European Union.

Another problem is that Belarusian universities lack influential alumni organisations that can help attract new students. Several famous Vietnamese people, such as Nguyen Dang Quang or Fam The Long, who currently head universities or large companies in Vietnam, studied in Belarus. However, Belarus has few students from the country at present.

How many foreign students will arrive?

Currently, Belarus has two options – one of which seems much more desirable than the other.

On the one hand, the number of foreign students is still going to rise, as prices for housing and education will remain low for rich students no matter what. Moreover, Belarus attracts students with lower educational expectations. Many Belarusian lecturers and students complain that foreign students (especially from Turkmenistan) have shown little desire to learn. However, universities do not expel them, as they need their money. Therefore, the flow of such students will continue to grow.

On the other hand, Belarus faces difficulties attracting students with higher expectations (as well as those who have more money). Education in sub-par universities not internationally recognised in a country stereotyped as the last dictatorship in Europe is not tempting to everyone.

So far, Belarus has already succeeded in bringing many foreign students, but it should improve its education system to attract more.

Time for Belarus to Implement Real Student Self-Governance?

Belarusian authorities are discreetly preparing a new Education Code, partly to demonstrate to the West that they are making changes. In 2015, Belarus joined the Bologna process and is now required to reform the education system accordingly.

So far, the Belarusian education law has completely ignored the issue of student self-governance. Authorities restrict activities of student unions by depriving them of autonomy, placing university staff into student unions, and limiting activities of independent youth organisations in universities.

As Belarus is adapting its education system to the Bologna process, its partners should make it clear that the law should become more student-friendly.

Politicised perception of students

As in many other countries, Belarusian students historically played a major role in the democratic movement. In 1830-1831 and 1863-1864, students were among the initiators of uprisings against the Russian Empire.

Even during the Soviet era, Belarusian students created organisations and wrote appeals to increase the use of the Belarusian language and to expand academic freedoms. This usually resulted in expulsion for the instigators by Soviet authorities. In 1985, one of the expelled students even jumped from the sixth floor of the Belarusian State University in protest.

Since Belarus's independence, student organisations have become particularly close to the pro-democracy movement, comprising a significant part of opposition protests: in 2006, students organised a tent city to protest election fraud during the presidential campaign.

During this time, October Square, where the protests took place, received the unofficial name "Kastus Kalinouski," after the leader of the uprising of 1863-1864 in the Belarusian lands.

Although one can hardly call Belarusian students politicised, they still remain the most active part of society. They are also a huge group, consisting of about 460 thousand people, or 4.7 per cent of the population.

What's more, researches at the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, an authoritative Belarusian pollster, shows that the youth remain the group most exposed to the ideas of democratisation and Europeanisation in Belarusian society.

Fake student government

Many student unions actually do operate at Belarusian universities​. In practise, however, they have very little influence over the university establishment and cannot defend student rights when they are broken. The current Education Code, adopted in 2011, lacks even a single mention of student government. Therefore, internal university regulations subordinate activities of student unions and only one, the Student Union of the Belarusian State University, has an appropriate legal status.

Without legal status, student unions fail to attract money from outside sources, but depend on funding from universities. Belarusian authorities give financial support to only one youth organisation working at Belarusian universities and schools – the Belarusian Republican Youth Union.

This organisation is the successor of the Komsomol (the Communist Youth League) and has half a million members. However, the large number of members does not mean that all of them support the current regime. The majority of people are signed up for BRSM forcibly or because it helps them get a place in university accommodation during studies.

Most student unions are openly run by university authorities. At the Baranavichy State University, some members of the university administrative staff belong to the student union. Provisions of the Belarusian National Technical University or International Economic Institute state simply that the activities of student unions are under the leadership of universities’ vice-chancellors.

Aliaksandr Krot, Chairman of the Belarusian National Youth Council “RADA”, told Belarus Digest, that there are numerous cases in which universities interfered in student union elections.

Moreover, university authorities demand that student unions be wary of any cooperation with independent youth organisations. In February 2016, the administration of the Belarusian State Medical University sent a letter to class-leaders that they should conduct preventive conversations with fellow students explaining why they should not cooperate with independent youth organisations.

In the letter, three independent organisations, the Centre for Development of Students’ Initiatives, the Brotherhood of Organisers of Student Self-government and the Students’ Council were called illegal. However, all of them are actually registered in Belarus.

The Belarusian authorities also create fake structures to replace independent youth organisations. As an example, in 2015 the authorities set up a Student Council under the Ministry of Education, which may seem solid, but in practise has no influence. The Council includes representatives of all universities in Belarus, but its purpose remains unclear.

Making student government more genuine

Now is the best time for Belarus's international partners to encourage reform in Belarusian higher education, not only because of a thaw in relations between Belarus and the West but also because the authorities are working on a new code and want to show the European Union that they can introduce at least gradual changes. So far, the Belarusian government has tried to hide certain problems while continuing to restrict youth organisations and even expelling some students.

The new code should state directly that student government will be autonomous and free from guidance by university administration. Also, unions should obtain legal status, as this will allow them to obtain funding from outside the university.

However, even if the law changes, Belarusian authorities also need to change their behaviour towards student groups. Now that Belarus has become part of the Bologna Process, it should stop the persecution of independent youth organisations and student unions with whom they collaborate.

In 2015, the European Union invited Belarus to be part of the Bologna system, trusting that it would eventually implement reforms. Now it's time for Belarusian authorities to live up to their promises.

Analytical paper: Belarus-Russia relations after the Ukraine conflict

Since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict began, the Kremlin has persistently tried to expand its control over Belarus, a process that has had quite the opposite effect as Belarusian government policy became more independent in 2014-2015.

There has always existed a paradox in the simultaneous contingence and estrangement in Belarusian-Russian relations.

Estrangement looks the stronger of the two today, evidenced by the decrease in Belarus’ military dependence on Russia and its refusal to allow the establishment of a Russian military base on its territory; the reduction in the Russian economy’s role in Belarus; discrepancies in the foreign policy and media spheres; and conflicts between the political elites of both countries.

These are some of the conclusions found in a new analytical paper Belarus-Russia Relations after the Ukraine Conflict released by the Ostrogorski Centre today.


This paper examines the integration/disintegration tendencies in Belarus-Russia relations since November 2013, when protests started in Ukraine. The ensuing Euromaidan, annexation of Crimea, and war in the Donbass have considerably altered European politics, including relations between Minsk and Moscow.

Despite close relations and the formal joint construction of the Union State, which also provides for integration processes, Belarus and Russia are becoming estranged from each other, in numerous ways. There are two reasons for this.

Lukashenka has probably never before taken so seriously the possibility of a Russian military operation inside Belarus

First, the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukraine led to a re-thinking inside Belarusian authoritative circles of the possible steps that Russia could take with regard to Belarus. Alexander Lukashenka has probably never before taken so seriously the possibility of a Russian military operation inside Belarus as he did when he claimed in May 2015 that the Belarusian army needs to be so strong that it is capable of “being thrown from Brest to Vitebsk in half a night to strike a blow”.

Secondly, the decline of the Russian economy lessens the Kremlin’s role as guarantor of Belarus’ well-being. In the conditions of slumping prices, shrinking of the domestic market, and declining GDP growth and forex reserves in Russia, diversification of the Belarusian economy has transformed from wishful thinking into a vital necessity.

Military disintegration: how to say “no” to your ally

Military cooperation has always been the “holy cow” of Belarusian-Russian integration, and the basis for journalists’ and Western experts’ statements presuming that the Belarusian army remains a part of the Russian one.

One of the grounds for such a presumption is the existence of the Integrated Regional Antiaircraft Defense System which, according to the Russian military, started functioning in 2016. The agreement on its creation was signed back in 2009 and in fact brought nothing new to Russian-Belarusian military cooperation. It looks likely that announcing the establishment of an antiaircraft defense system was aimed at making milder Belarus’ refusal to place a Russian military air base on its territory.

The refusal to create the airbase reflects a broader trend – i.e. Belarus’ attempts to reduce its military dependence on Russia. The presence of so many Belarusian military personnel in Russia has always ensured that there is a mental connection between the Belarusian and the Russian armies – it is hard to find any top Belarusian military official who has not studied in Russia.

However, the number of Belarusian military cadets at the Russian military’s higher educational establishments is decreasing: last academic year there were 447, this year only 374.

The joint Shield of the Union exercises in 2015 gathered 1.5 times fewer military personnel than the 2011 Shield of the Union or West-2013 exercises (i.e. 8,000 participants compared with 12,000). While military exercises seemed all but impossible without Russia before, today the Belarusian paratroopers practice with the Chinese every year.

Although the scope of such training exercises looks miserly in comparison with the exercises with Russia, it shows Belarus’ desire to find new partners.

China, in general, has become a noticeable partner for Belarus. This is most clearly seen in the joint development of weapons systems by Minsk and Beijing, the multiple launch rocket system fire Polonaise being an example.

Failure of the Eurasian Economic Union and economic cooperation

In many ways, Russia’s economic decay is responsible for the fact that in only its first year of existence, the Eurasian Economic Union’s (EEU) became a failure for Belarus.

First, the integration project inherited practically all the tariffs (about 600) that existed in the Customs Union. Due to such mechanisms, about two third of goods and services have been withdrawn from the common market of the EEU. Secondly, economic interaction between the countries has reduced. According to data provided by the Eurasian Economic Commission, the trade turnover of Belarusian goods with the EU countries in 2015 was only 74.8 % of that in 2014.

Thirdly, although Belarus has introduced unpopular measures like increasing fees for the import of cars, the regulations of the economic union serve Russia’s interests, as evidenced by the continuing economic wars. Fourthly, the importance of oil and gas, which were the key motivators for Belarus to join the EEU, have fallen sharply

Discrepancies in foreign policy

Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and economic decline have become one of the most important motivators for the Belarusian authorities to normalise relations with the West. Data provided by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) shows that since 2013 Belarus has intensified its relations with the European Union, and today contacts with the EU outnumber those with Russia.

The BISS data reflects the fact that Belarus started normalising relations with the EU and building up contacts with “developing countries” at the beginning of 2013. This included support for Ukraine’s European integration. This shows that the increase in dialogue with the West started not because of Russia’ expansionist policy, but for internal reasons.

It is nonetheless indisputable that the activation of Belarusian contacts with the world and deepening discrepancies in the foreign policies of Moscow and Minsk in 2013-2014 were in many respects a product of Russia’s foreign policy and economic decline.

It is important to note that Belarus’ normalisation of relations with the West is not an attempt at a geopolitical U-turn. So far, neither Belarus on the one side, nor the European Union and the United States on the other, have taken any cardinal steps in the form of big economic projects (Belarus still hasn’t even managed to obtain a loan from the International Monetary Fund) and contact in the political and military spheres remains at a low level.


Despite Belarus’ lessening dependence on Russia, relations seem unlikely to come to the point of a dramatic breakdown in integration.

First, Belarus remains overdependent on Russia financially – it continues to receive from Russia loans and “subsidies” – i.e. discounts for oil and gas and access to the common market. Furthermore, it remains highly important to Lukashenka that Russia acknowledges the results of the presidential elections in Belarus. Secondly, Belarus remains an important country in Europe for Russia. Therefore, the Kremlin won’t allow the total disintegration of the two countries’ relationship.

Nonetheless, the process of estrangement will continue further, and this is also connected with the generational changes inside the societies. The number of Belarusians who once lived in the same state as Russia – the USSR – is steadily decreasing and the quantity of people who identify themselves as ethnically Russian is reducing. Also a new nomenclature elite is emerging, interest in Belarusian culture is reviving, and young people are becoming more open to the world.

And the last, but important change: a political class that is accustomed to sovereign power, in which decisions are taken independently, has formed in Belarus.

Ryhor Astapenia & Dzmitry Balkuniets

Poland Improves Links with Minsk at the Expence of the Opposition?

According to Polish MP Robert Winnicki, Poland should stop funding the Belsat TV channel and improve relations with Lukashenka. Although Winnicki remains a marginal figure in Polish politics, his statement is indicative of a new political climate in Poland.

Many Belarusian NGOs hoped that the new Polish Government, run by the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), would return to its policy of 2005-2007, when it last had control of the government.

At that time, Poland invested heavily in support for Belarusian democracy by creating the Kalinowski Scholarship programme for students experiencing political repression, and Belsat TV, the only independent channel broadcasting for Belarusians.

However, Poland has recently been reducing its level of support for pro-democracy groups and is trying to improve relations with the Belarusian authorities. Currently, the Polish Parliament has two separate groups on Belarus, one of which frequently lobbies to curry favour with Aliaksandr Lukashenka.

The changes in Polish policy cannot be explained only by attempts to improve relations with Belarusian authorities. The lack of chances for democratic changes as well as brutal repression reduces interest in Belarus among many donors, including Polish ones.

Polish support for Belarusian democracy

The change in policy towards Belarus after PiS's victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections took many by surprise.

Belarusian civil activists expected that the new conservative government would return to its previous policy of 2005-2007, when PiS ruled in Poland and played a crucial role in promoting Belarusian democracy. Poland supported Alexander Milinkevich during the 2006 presidential elections and continued to invest heavily in Belarusian democratic projects.

Belsat probably has the largest budget of any project directed at Belarus

A few days after the dissolution of the mass protests of 2006 in Belarus, Poland announced the creation of the Kalinowski scholarship. The program granted Belarusian democratic activists an opportunity to study in Polish universities with monthly scholarships of about $400 – a considerable sum in Poland at the time. A total of 244 students took advantage of this opportunity in 2006, when the scholarship first came in to effect.

A year later, Poland launched the satellite television station Belsat, with probably the largest budget of any project directed at Belarus. In 2007, the channel received about $6m for launch.

The government of the liberal Civic Platform (PO), which began to rule in Poland in late 2007, continued supporting these projects but gradually decreased their size. On the other hand, the liberal Polish government also increased spending on support of democracy in Belarus in 2010-2011, in connexion with the presidential election and the wave of repression which followed.

According to some sources, Poland then became a mega-donor for the presidential campaign of democratic candidate Uladzimir Niakliajeu, making it perhaps the most well-funded political campaign in Belarus so far.

Poland changes its priorities

Despite expectations, PiS has not returned to its old policy and the budgets of projects aimed at democratising Belarus have started to decrease.

Polish authorities have discontinued the Kalinowski Scholarship programme, creating in its place a smaller programme to support researchers without a political focus. Belsat remains uncertain about its long-term funding. In June, Agnieszka Romaszewska, director of Belsat TV, said that she is worried about the financial stability of the channel "due to the "warming of relations” with Belarus as well as a lack of vision for the prospects of such projects as Belsat TV."

Less is known about political groups which previously received money from the Polish authorities. However, according to rumours, the Polish authorities have decreased support for the Belarusian House in Warsaw, which unites Belarusian émigré politicians holding oppositional views.

These changes are taking place as the Polish government tries to improve relations with the Belarusian government. In March, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski visited Belarus and met with Lukashenka. Later, a delegation of the Belarusian parliament came to Warsaw; this was a real achievement for the Belarusian authorities.

The Polish Parliament currently has two groups focused on relations with Belarus. One of them lobbies in support of more democracy projects, while the second supports more cooperation with Belarusian authorities.

A member of the latter group, nationalist MP Robert Winnicki, recently stated that Poland should stop funding Belsat TV and interfering in Belarusian politics. Although Winnicki is a marginal figure, up to this point such views were absent in the public space.

What is behind the policy change

The Polish authorities make no secret of their desire to improve relations with Lukashenka. Unlike other Eastern European countries, such as Ukraine, Lithuania and Russia, Poland has no painful historical disputes with Belarus and would like to restore trade. According to official Belarusian data, imports from Poland in 2015 decreased to $ 1.1bn compared to $ 1.5bn in 2014.

At the same time, Polish authorities value Lukashenka’s role in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. On 8 July, during the NATO summit, the Polish Foreign Minister said that "his country would like to be a mediator in rapprochement between Belarus and NATO."

Trade between Belarus and Poland is perhaps currently based on mutual concessions. Among the possible issues which can be worked on, the most realistic and interesting for the parties may be the Polish minority in Belarus, which remains repressed by Lukashenka’s regime.

However, an attempt to improve relations with Lukashenka is not the only explanation behind the change in policy. The lack of prospects for political change as well as a decrease in repression makes Belarus less interesting for many donors. For example, in the last year Belsat lost a quarter of its funding. The money was mainly coming from Western European countries, which redirected the funds to help refugees from the Middle East.

Thus, Poland remained the only donor to Belsat and is now re-assessing whether or not to fund such projects. The conservative government, even if it wanted to, remains unlikely to shut down a project as large as Belsat in which Poland has invested so heavily. But funding smaller and more politicised initiatives are less likely to be perceived as being in Poland's interests.

However, despite the lack of severe repression or significant progress, Poland should continue supporting Belsat and the Kalinowski programme, as they can change the climate of ideas inside Belarus. It remains difficult to assess the impact of these projects, but they have certainly done much to cultivate a Belarusian identity separate from Russia. And even Lukashenka's soft belarusization may not bear fruit if Belarusian civil society has not first strengthened its own national identity with the help of Poland.

Independent Regional Newspapers in Belarus: Surviving despite the Odds

On 24 June, Belarusian authorities once again refused to include Intex Press, a regional newspaper, into the state distribution system. A few other Belarusian regional publications face the same problem, and almost all of them have reduced their circulation and earn less money than in 2015.

Although they flourished in the 1990s, independent regional publications have since suffered due to repression and the poor economic conditions of recent years. Nearly all of them currently lack funds, forcing talented journalists out of regional publications.

The West have done much to support the regional press, but could do more to train media managers and put pressure on the Belarusian government to include independent newspapers into public distribution network.

Regional publications in Belarus: why they still matter

The regional press flourished in Belarus in the '90s, as did other media. At that time, a politicised society ensured high circulation and a growing advertising market brought money. However, over time the authorities began to undermine the regional press.

Hanna Yahorava, Executive Director of the Association of Regional Press Publishers, told Belarus Digest that the greatest changes occurred in 2006-2009. At this time the government pushed a significant part of the regional media out of public distribution system, resulting in bankruptcy for many publications. Around 20 regional publications closed as a result of a dilemma: to write about politics, lose advertising money, and drop out of the state distribution system, or to stop writing on political topics completely.

Today the Association of Regional Press Publishers comprises 14 regional publications, all of which have survived the difficult times. These newspapers mainly operate in the west of the country and write to varying degrees about social problems.

Five of them lack access to the public distribution system, so people can neither subscribe to them in the traditional way nor purchase them at kiosks which sell the majority of Belarusian print media. This year, newspapers such as Intex Press or Borisovskije novosti were told that authorities would require more documents in order to consider returning these newspapers to the distribution system. Although the newspapers took this as a sign of possible policy change, the authorities once again declined their petition.

Several reasons explain why regional newspapers seem to be more resilient and often popular compared to their national counterparts. They remain much more relevant to readers, maintain a higher level of trust among the people and somehow manage to sell advertising places.

​The newspaper Intex-press in Baranavichy is full of private advertising, despite the fact that authorities dropped it from the distribution system and continue to issue vague warnings.

In 2015 the Ministry of Information gave the newspaper a warning for use of "RB" instead of "the Republic of Belarus" on output data. According to Belarusian legislation, the authorities can close a newspaper after two warnings in a year.

At the same time, regional publications use tools that major independent media do not. For example, remains the second most popular social network in Belarus, but many independent newspapers do not even have a public page there. Meanwhile, the small Rehijnalnaja hazeta has more than four thousand subscribers on

Current problems of the regional press

However, Lukashenka's regime is not solely to blame for the decline of regional publications. As in many other countries, newspapers are losing circulation because of the Internet and changes in the advertising market. The economic challenge to local publications in Belarus is even more difficult, as the advertising market shrank greatly during the crisis. In 2015, advertising revenues of regional publications were nearly halved.

Under such conditions, regional publications are constantly in need of money and lose talented journalists who go to work for the national media. According to data from the Association of Regional Press Publishers, salaries in regional publications are just one third of the average salary in the country. This means that such journalists earn about $200 a month.

Create bar charts

Weak financial conditions mean that independent publications appear more expensive than state-run ones receiving state subsidies. At the same time, private newspapers often lack access to information. In 2015, an official refused to respond to a correspondent from Babruisk Courier, saying: "I just did not want to talk to your media".

Help the newspapers need

Western donors have already done much for regional publications. For political reasons, neither the donor nor the media can disclose the amount of financial and organisational support from donors. But many media experts in Belarus say that a large portion of the media remains afloat thanks to Western assistance.

Currently, donors are reducing the amount of aid they send, resulting in a need for a different approach. Instead of offering grants to fund publications, the West should help create conditions conducive to the development of regional publications.

First of all, the absence of regional publications in the state distribution system should become a highly-politicised issue, as was the case for the newspapers Nasha Niva and Narodnaja Volia. A combination of pressure and dialogue with the West in 2008-2010 forced the Belarusian government to return them to the system – the same should happen with the regional media.

If this basic requirement is not met, newspapers will be afraid to write about politics, as this leads to problems finding advertisers and the regional press being incapable of competing with state-run media as they are unable to sell everywhere.

A programme of regional media support should be developed together with stakeholders in the country. According to Hanna Yahorava, this is not necessarily the case today.

In addition to seminars for journalists, there is still a need for training programmes for media managers, teaching them not only to cope with developing a newspaper in very adverse conditions, but more importantly, to find ways to persuade advertisers to invest in the newspaper despite the many problems with authorities.