Homeownership in Belarus: an unaffordable dream

On 3 October, at a meeting to discuss the drafting of a new housing code, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka said that helping citizens to improve their housing conditions will remain a key priority.

However, while the state has achieved some success in helping the most vulnerable groups, the majority of the population cannot afford an apartment or have to queue for social housing for decades.

High interest rates for loans, the absence of mortgage schemes and low salaries make homeownership an unattainable dream for many young Belarusians.

Meanwhile, receiving public housing in rural areas may be easy (and even free), but few people agree to do so, because there is a trade-off. It requires working for a state-dominated agricultural industry that many Belarusians consider backward.

The decay of Lukashenka’s social housing era

State aid to acquire private homes has long been a major electoral slogan for president Lukashenka.  The state, indeed, built a large amount of housing and kept prices below market levels for low income earners for the past decade. Jungles of social apartment blocks, in areas like Kamiennaja Horka, have become a cultural meme among the Minsk population.

However, after the financial crisis of 2011, the construction boom and accompanying social housing programmes are beginning to trail off. Since 2007, the annual output of new housing space averaged about 5 million square metres. In 2017, the total area of new housing will be only half that.

Exchange rates are also having an effect. The value of the Belarusian rouble to the dollar has fallen seven times since 2011. This has undermined Belarusians’ ability to buy housing. The rate of the average Minsk salary to a square metre of housing in the city centre is now 1:4. For comparison, in Warsaw, Prague and Berlin, the difference averages about 1:2 or 1:3.

International financial institutions also demand that the state reduces its subsidisation of the housing sector as a pre-condition for loan talks. The government has chosen to relent to these demands.

Help for vulnerable groups, but not others

The state indeed achieved a certain amount of success in providing housing to Belarus’s most vulnerable citizens. Large families (defined as having three or more children) and orphans can get a home loan at the lowest possible interest rate of 1 per cent. Inhabitants of rural areas and towns with populations below 20,000 enjoy a 3 per cent loan interest rate. A 5 per cent rate is applied to a wide range of groups, including military servicemen,  young families with two children, victims of the Chernobyl disaster, families with disabled children, war veterans, and others.

In July 2017, the government introduced a new financial instrument to support vulnerable social groups—targeted subsidies for home purchasing. The subsidy covers either part or the majority of a loan that a family takes from a bank. Taking into account the rate of annual inflation of 10 per cent, the policies for vulnerable groups offer real and generous help from the state.

For the rest of population, however, banks offer only commercial interest rates of 14-15 per cent and for a maximum 12 years. Mortgage mechanisms are still unavailable in Belarus, and an average citizen cannot take a loan for 20-40 years. Meanwhile, mortgage interest rates in EU countries do not usually exceed 2-3 per cent and a buyer can take a loan lasting 40 years.

Картинки по запросу квартира для молодой семьи минск

Winning an apartment in a lottery – a dream of many Belarusians. Photo: loto.by

Citizens that can be classified as “needing an improvement of their home conditions” can also enjoy a discount, which can as much as halve the market price. However, the queue for getting this discount has become legendary. In Minsk, the people who joined the queue in 1989 are only now receiving discounts on apartments. In regional centres, the situation is better, but people still have to wait many years.

Thus, the government has so far failed to provide affordable housing to the majority of the population, focusing only on those most in need. Owning a flat remains an unattainable dream for most young people, especially those living in the capital.

Overcrowded Minsk

Due to the rapid growth of construction in the recent decade, almost no free land for housing remains in Minsk. The queue for social housing stands at 208,000 families. President Lukashenka has repeatedly demanded the slowdown residential construction in Minsk. The president instead advocates the development of satellite towns nearby the city.

However, developers see this option as unprofitable. Satellite towns require large investments to build utilities, while the demand for apartments in these areas is not guaranteed. No wonder—few people would agree to move 20 km away to the towns, which often feature poor facilities.

Фото: Александр Васюкович, TUT.BY

Transportation of kids to the less overcrowded kindergartens in Minsk. Photo: tut.by

Therefore, construction in Minsk continues mainly through the demolition of old individual houses and industrial plants. This policy has repeatedly sparked social tensions and protests. Citizens leave their inherited private houses and old areas very unwillingly. Sometimes the protests can turn into vast social campaigns, as was in the case of Asmaloŭka area.

The lack of kindergartens also remains a crucial problem for Minsk. The capital remains a hub for the migration of young people from all over the republic. Minsk has the largest population of children in the counrty. In some districts, the kindergartens are overloaded by 60 per cent.

The authorities created special daily bus tours for transporting children and their parents from the overloaded districts, but parents complain that this takes a lot of their time. Encouraging private kindergartens or other forms of childcare, as well as raising fees for parents and salaries of the staff could definitely improve the situation. But the authorities do not dare to give in to one of the last features of the decaying “socially oriented state.”

Rural Belarus – chance for a Renaissance?

In the early 2000s the government invented a new approach to resurrecting Belarus’s deserted rural regions. Planners launched the 2005-2010 State Programme for Rural Revival and Development. The programme set out the concept of agro-towns. These are rural settlements with a high level of industrial and social infrastructure and amenities. Areas tagged for agro-town developments were to feature communal utilities, roads, housing, communication and transport, education and medical care facilities.

Картинки по запросу агрогородок

A typical agro-town in Belarus. Photo: reb.by

The programme was aimed at attracting young specialists with families. It granted free housing to those who agreed to be employed at unpopular agricultural collective farms. As a result, 1500 agro-towns sprouted up in Belarus.

Nevertheless, the rural population continues to fall. Rural communities now account for 22.1 per cent of Belarus’s population. While the idea of agro-towns appeared attractive at first, it did not resolve the main problem for rural areas—economic unattractiveness, stemming from the state’s monopoly over farming and Soviet-style management techniques.

The government is now trying to create additional incentives for moving to the rural areas. A new, “revolutionary” law on business liberalisation may come into effect in the coming months. However, as long as the state remains the dominant owner of the agricultural industry, the people are unlikely to return to the land. No infrastructure or housing projects will bear fruit unless people can feel themselves owners of their farms and freely sell their production.




Why do the authorities persecute independent trade unions?

On 2 August, the Department of Financial Investigations detained the leaders of the Radio Electronic Industry Trade Union, filing a criminal case on tax evasion charges.

The few independent trade unions which have survived decades of restrictive policies in Belarus remain a strong oppositional force in the country.

As active participants in the mass protests against the social parasite law in Spring 2017, union leaders likely became targets of the authorities’ preventive action to deter future demonstrations. However, the police force asserts that all charges are of a purely economic nature to avoid criticism from western governments and international organisations.

A crackdown on independent trade unions

On 2 August, the Department of Financial Investigations arrested the head of the Radio Electronic Industry Trade Union (REP), Hienadź Fiadynič, and his deputy, head of Minsk the office Ihar Komlik, on tax evasion charges. The financial police also confiscated hard disks and paper documents from the organisation.

On the same day, searches took place at the offices of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union in Salihorsk, the heart of Belarusian potash industry. The apartments of activists linked with the movement were also searched, and the financial police have interrogated many trade union leaders. Fiadynič and other activists were released following the interrogation, but Komlik remains in custody.

The police claim that REP leaders opened bank accounts abroad, where they accumulated ‘hundreds of thousands dollars’ from foreign donors, even though they had no license from the National Bank of Belarus to open a foreign account. Allegedly, they were trying to obscure their financial deals and evade taxes at home. REP activists deny all accusations and claim that the account mentioned by the police was closed in 2011.

Фото взято с сайта: belnp.org

The office of REP after a police search. Photo: tut.by

Leaders of the Belarusian opposition gathered shortly after the events to discuss a possible response and called on Belarusians and the international community to support a campaign of solidarity with independent trade unions. In the resolution’s own words:

‘We call upon the representatives of the international community to immediately put the release of political prisoners and the complete cessation of political repressions in Belarus as a condition for dialogue with the Lukashenka regime’.

However, the head of the Department of Financial Investigations, Ihar Maršalaŭ, argues that ‘this case has no political background. We are doing our usual job of uncovering tax evaders’.

The history of free trade unions in Belarus

Under the Soviet system, trade union were the ‘social pillars’ of the state. Nevertheless, they had no real power and served as an instrument of the Communist party. After the dissolution of the USSR, numerous independent trade unions and associations emerged in Belarus. However, there was a split regarding support for the Lukashenka regime following his 1994 election. Only after 2001 did the authorities manage to wrest control of the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions (FPB) and purge it of oppositional elements. The authorities continue to persecute the most vocal unions.

As a result, the oppositional trade unions formed an alternative association: the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions. Over the past two decades, independent trade unions have faced constant pressure and struggle to meet bureaucratic requirements such as registration and legal address. Union members often face restrictions and punishments at their place of work. As a result, membership to independent trade unions has dropped to around 10,000, while the official FPB boasts 4 million members.

Despite formal membership numbers, FPB can hardly be regarded as a protector of workers’ interests. Governed by the political leadership of the country, it never challenges official policies. In contrast, independent trade unions actively struggle against violations of labour rights and criticise the government, for which they are hated by both enterprise bosses and the political leadership.

International actors frequently point to violations of labour rights in Belarus. For example, the persecution of independent trade unions has led to the exclusion of Belarus from the EU Generalised System of Preferences, resulting in hundreds of millions dollars of loss since 2006.

A strong organisational force with links to citizens

Following the arrest of the REP activists, human rights groups immediately recognised them as political prisoners. This differs from the White Legion case, when two dozen people were detained on charges of creating an illegal armed group. Activists were hesitant to step in because of the presence of weapons and other evidence. Valiancin Stefanovič, an activist for the human rights group Viasna, explains that this time, the state has clearly violated the right to free association, because trade unions cannot freely receive foreign aid in Belarus. For years, the authorities consciously complicated the process of receiving foreign aid for civil society, viewing it as support for political enemies and interference in the politics of a sovereign state.

Demonstration of independent trade unions in Minsk. Photo: spring96.org

Most commentators agree that it was REP’s active participation in the spring protests against the social parasite decree that has led to the organisation’s repression. The union gathered 45,000 signatures demanding the abolition of the decree and offered legal consultations to people who planned to contest their obligation to pay the tax.

REP also provides legal assistance for citizens on a daily basis and constitute one of the few real forces that actively works with the people. What’s more, many activists in the union participate in the Belarusian National Congress, headed by oppositional hardliner and former political prisoner Mikalaj Statkievič.  It seems that in the wake of the events of spring 2017, and fearing another wave of social unrest in the future, the authorities have decided to weaken potentially powerful actors.

Repressions without political prisoners?

Many noticed that the case of REP resembles the case of Alieś Bialiacki, who was arrested on the same charges in 2011 after the government of Lithuania handed over information on Viasna’s bank accounts to the Belarusian authorities. He spent three years in prison and was released in 2014 as part of the Belarus-EU rapprochement process. However, unlike seven years ago, it seems that this time around there will be no political prisoners.

The Belarusian authorities have drawn very clear lessons from their experience with the West. Imprisonment of political activists causes outrage, while criminal persecution without imprisonment earns a far more muted response. At the same time, it effectively decreases the power of the opposition.

The fact that those arrested during the White Legion case have all been released despite the fact that a criminal investigation continues confirms this assumption. The authorities are learning how to justify repressions with purely security (in White Legion case) or economic (in the case of trade unions) evidence, in order to avoid politicisation and criticism from western countries.




Belarus becomes safer, but political persecution continues

Numbeo, the world's largest database of user-confirmed data about cities and countries worldwide, ranked Belarus the safest country in the region in 2017. Other global metrics also indicate that Belarus is a relatively safe part of the world.

Domestic trends demonstrate that all kinds of crime have decreased over the past decade, with the exception of drug crime. However, political repression tarnishes the generally positive picture, as world media and local journalists report on these cases extensively.

The authorities should stop targeting the regime's opponents if they want to further develop relations with the civilised world and strengthen the rule of law at home.

Belarus: a safe country according to world rankings

In 2017, Belarus scored 10th in a ranking of crime and safety published by Numbeo, the world’s largest database of user-contributed data about cities and countries worldwide. The country went up by 15 positions since 2016. According to the ranking, Belarus's neighbours are far more dangerous: Poland took 30th place, Latvia – 40th, Lithuania – 50th, Russia – 67th, and Ukraine – 85th.

In a world ranking of intentional homicide, Belarus took 116th position, remaining between Albania and North Korea. In total, the rating included 219 countries. This rating was last compiled in 2013 according to the methodology of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Compilers of the rating recorded 5.1 murders per 100,000 people in Belarus, while in 2016 the figure decreased to around 4.5.

This is one of the most reputable indicators to assess the overall level of physical security in a particular state or region. Often, it is perceived as an index of the level of violence in society as a whole.

In the Global Terrorism Index 2016, prepared by the Institute of Economics and Peace in cooperation with the University of Maryland, Belarus scored 86th of 130 countries. According to the index, Belarus is a country with a low level of terrorism. Among the countries of the former USSR, Ukraine has the highest level of terrorism and ranked 11th. Russia (30), Tajikistan (56), Kyrgyzstan (84) also appeared below Belarus as more prone to terror. However, neighbouring EU members – Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania – ranked 130th as countries with no threat of terrorism at all.

The American nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative also published a study according to which Belarus ranks 12th in the world in terms of number of prisoners. According to their data, Belarus has 306 inmates per 100,000 people. A total of about 200 countries, along with every US state, is included in the ranking.

The United States was the world leader in this ranking, with 693 inmates per 100,000 people. Turkmenistan, a post-Soviet authoritarian regime, scored second with 583 prisoners, while Russia was third with 453. Belarus's other neighbours keep fewer people locked up: examples include Lithuania (254), Latvia (224), Poland (189), and Ukraine (173).

Domestic crime trends

Belarus has experienced a steady decline in most types of crime over the past decade. Theft, the most common crime, fell by almost three times – from 103,000 to 37,000 cases. Serious crimes, such as murder and attempted murder, rape, and assault all decreased about 2.5 times, while robbery fell by four times. Hooliganism also halved, although it had seen a certain upsurge since 2012.

The only crime that grew over this period appears to be drug-related crime. Following an upsurge in the popularity of synthetic drugs (also known as spice) in the 2010s which lead to many deaths, the government started paying more attention to drug issues and made anti-drug legislation much harsher. Thus, the rise in drug crime could simply be a result of tougher legislation and the growing attention of the police, rather than a decrease in drug trade or consumption.

Nevertheless, alcohol remains the number one trigger of crime in Belarus. Belarusians commit over 80% of murders while drunk. Moreover, it remains one of the main causes of suicide.

As for the regional distribution of crime, the western regions of the country are traditionally less crime-ridden than the eastern and central regions. This could be explained by their large Roman Catholic and Protestant communities, as well as their geographical and historical proximity to Europe. Although Homiel Region was traditionally considered the most criminal in Belarus, it has now ceded its place to Minsk Region: the economic, financial, and human resources centre of the country.

Safety only for loyal citizens

Although Belarus may indeed be safer than its post-Soviet peers and neighbours, and the crime rate is consistently decreasing, one detail spoils its 'safe' image. Politically motivated persecution of the opposition and activists continues to be widespread. When it comes to politics, the good guys and bad guys reverse roles.

False evidence presented by police officers during political trials has already become a legend within civil society circles. The same officers who detain activists after mass rallies or other demonstrations usually serve as the primary witnesses. Their usual formula at the witness stand is that activists were swearing, waving their hands, and shouting anti-governmental slogans. In many cases, the police testify against a particular person even though they did not personally detain him or her or the suspect was even abroad at the time.

Their false evidence usually serves as grounds for administrative arrest or a fine. In more serious criminal cases, such as the recent White Legion case (a supposed illegal armed group), the authorities often fabricate a more sophisticated set of evidence, bolstered by large-scale TV propaganda. For instance, in the White Legion case, the KGB brought in a false informant (‘Frau A’ from Germany), accused the detainees of links with ISIS, plans to bomb the Moscow metro, and other outrageous claims.

This machine of political repression mars the image of Belarus as a safe country, and the world media and local journalists report extensively on such cases. Thus, Belarus retains its reputation as a dictatorship despite the many positive trends. The authorities should stop such repressive practises targeting the regime's opponents if they want to further develop relations with the civilised world and strengthen rule of law at home.




Why do the authorities continue to arrest Belarus’s top businessmen?

On 12 April, Belarusian authorities arrested Vitali Arbuzaŭ, one of the most successful businessmen in Belarus. He was another casualty in Belarus's ongoing war against tycoons.

Being close to Lukashenka is by no means a guarantee of safety for oligarchs, and many prefer to register their companies and reside abroad. Those who cannot do so must demonstrate their support for the authorities in various ways and never make a misstep.

As the Belarusian state system is dominated by the security services, they spend their time and resources over-zealously pursuing white-collar criminals rather than improving the business environment in the country. This causes serious damage to the investment climate.

In the absence of strong rule of law, large businesses continue to depend on patronage networks and informal arrangements with the country's leadership.

One arrest after another

On 12 April, Belarusian authorities arrested Vitali Arbuzaŭ, a top Belarusian businessman, on tax evasion charges.

In 2017, Vitali Arbuzaŭ ranked 11th in the annual list of the Top 200 Most Successful and Influential Businessmen in Belarus, though in 2016 he was second and in 2013 third. He is the co-owner of the holding Fenox Global Group and venture fund Fenox Venture. Both companies deal with automobile components, medicine, logistics, food retail, investments in R&D, and the IT sector.

In recent years, Belarus has witnessed a series of arrests of top businessmen. On 19 August, the KGB arrested Uladzimir Japryncaŭ, number 19 in the aforementioned 'Top 200' ranking and the closest business partner of Juryj Čyž, as well as Japryncaŭ's son Kazbek. The KGB stated that Juryj Čyž had informed them of the Japryncaŭ family's illegal activities. They were accused of fraud, and Japryncaŭ junior received eight years in jail; his father received only a fine.

Six months later, on 11 March 2016, Juryj Čyž himself faced criminal charges. Čyž ranked first in the 2013 list of top Belarusian businessmen and was believed to be a close associate of Alexander Lukashenka, as he often appeared near the president in photos planting watermelons or mowing grass. After half a year in jail, and $13m in damages, Čyž was released. In 2017, his position had dropped to 53rd, a dramatic fall and presumably the end of an important business career.

At around the same time, the KGB arrested another Belarusian tycoon, Jaŭhien Baskin, number six in the 2016 ranking, also on tax evasion charges. Baskin owns the company Servaliuks, which deals in agricultural production. He was quick to compensate for the damage and was freed several months later. Incidentally, both Baskin and Čyž were arrested while trying to escape Belarus after they received information about searches in their offices. In the 2017 ranking Baskin scored 21st.

These individuals, of course, were highly important figures. It is important to remember that dozens of smaller-scale businessmen have faced similar troubles since 2015, including Andrej Paŭloŭski (number 26), Dzmitry Ronin (130), Alieh Zuchavicki (157), and a number of other well-known figures. This illustrates the scale of state pressure on large business. So how do the very wealthy manage to survive under Lukashenka at all?

Stay abroad or watch your step

More prudent businesspeople prefer to stay out of Belarus and register their companies abroad to minimise their risk of arrest. Viktar Kisly, number one in the 2017 ranking and owner of the Wargaming group, moved his head office to Cyprus in 2011 and now resides there himself.

Arkadź Dobkin, creator of another renowned IT company, EPAM (Number six in the 2017 rating), lives in the US, where the head office of the company is also located. The owners of the Belarusian retail giant Evroopt, Uladzimir Vasilka (Number eight in 2016) and Siarhiej Litvin (number seven in 2016) left Belarus in 2003 and now reside in Monaco.

Another method for the wealthiest Belarusian businesspeople to stay out of trouble seems to be behaving irreproachably and maintaining good relations with the top decision maker. For example, tobacco trader and retailer Paviel Tapuzidzis (Number two in the 2017 rating), often heads the district-level electoral committee during parliamentary and presidential elections. During the 2016 parliamentary election, when answering naviny.by's question about his reasons for doing so, he openly replied 'this can help me save my business'.

Belarus's number three businessman, Aliaksandr Mašenski, also courts Lukashenka's favour and has reportedly joined him on a number of trips and events; he worked as Lukashenka's authorised representative during his 2010 presidential campaign. Number four on the list, Aliaksandr Šakucin, is also a member of the president's entourage; he has held the post of senator in the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament.

What is the main obstacle to business?

According to anonymous sources, since the beginning of the economic crisis in Belarus, Belarusian businesspeople have tried to hide or move their capital. The security services control these activities thoroughly and organise public arrests in order to warn others and prevent growing shadow schemes.

Conducting large-scale business in Belarus almost always involves informal arrangements with the country's ruler. Security forces remain the most influential group in Belarus after Lukashenka, and they see their job as hunting for illegal activities rather than improving the investment climate. Lukashenka is also highly concerned with personal security and stability, and therefore remains unlikely to downgrade the influence of the siloviki.

Back in 2011, Lukashenka outlined his approach to 'dishonest' businessmen: 'If you've damaged the state's interests – pay double or triple the sum and you're free'. Lukashenka is believed to personally control the arrests and releases of tycoons. He claims that there are no privileged people in Belarus and everyone is responsible for him or herself. What's more, trials of high-profile businesspeople offer a perfect opportunity to fill gaps in the budget as the economy continues to struggle.

The series of arrests of Belarusian businesspeople stands in contrast with the institutional changes under way in the country. In 2017, Belarus scored 37th in the Doing Business rating, surpassing a number of EU members including Italy, Hungary, Belgium, Greece, and Luxembourg. In trying to increase the country's attractiveness for investment and realising the high risks, the Belarusian government has so far refrained from punishing any foreign businessmen, except for the Russian Uralkali case.

Nevertheless, the overall negative atmosphere contributes to the fact that foreign investment in Belarus remains negligible compared to its neighbours. Non-transparent game rules, dependence on patronage, and the dominance of the security services also frighten investors away. This is a serious challenge for lobbyists advocating a liberal and transparent business environment in Belarus. The Belarusian government should seek to treat the country's top businessmen more fairly if it wants to improve its image internationally.




Was the White Legion really planning an armed attack?

On 11 April, the official Belarusian media launched a massive propaganda campaign. They aimed at revealing the alleged plans of a group called White Legion to destabilise the country and overthrow the government. The White Legion is a patriotic sports and military-style organisation which ceased to exist in the early 2000s.

At the moment, 35 people remain under investigation on charges of organising mass riots and creating an illegal armed group. However, independent experts have revealed numerous facts that prove the official evidence false.

The authorities seem to have reanimated the White Legion to create a fabricated threat and discredit the wave of protests sparked by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The authorities are also attempting to sell the threat of a Maidan scenario, complete with anti-Russian armed groups, to the Kremlin.

A secret organisation with terrorist plans uncovered

On 11 April, Belarus Segodnia, the largest official newspaper in Belarus, published a lead article describing a 'journalist investigation' of the preparation of mass riots set for 25 March, 'Freedom Day' in Belarus. According to the article, 35 people are currently under investigation. 17 detainees have already been charged, while the rest remain suspects.

20 people also face charges on another criminal case – creation of an illegal armed group. This is unprecedented in Belarusian history. The newspaper gave a detailed report on the White Legion group, including their training and plans for 25 March, along with evidence from the investigation.

The piece explains that although the White Legion was officially dissolved in the early 2000s, this was really a cover for a more elaborate conspiracy and an attempt to outwit security services. The group supposedly preserved its links and continued training, avoiding publicity and oppositional communities.

According to the investigation, the group also took part in the Ukrainian Maidan and the following military conflict in Eastern Ukraine to gain experience. The article maintained that White Legion fighters were preparing to topple the political regime in Belarus and using patriotic training as a cover. They possessed illegal weapons and had assembled a cachet of iron rods to attack the police. According to the state media, the White Legion was closely associated with former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkievič, and backed his political endeavours.

Security services revealed to the main state-run daily newspaper Belarus Segodnia that they had received information about the planned mass riots on 25 March from a German woman with Belarusian roots, called Frau A. She heard about the plot from a friend acquainted with Belarusian oppositional activists in Poland. She immediately rushed to the Belarusian embassy in Germany to write a letter to the President Lukashenka, asking him to take immediate action.

On 12 April, an even harsher propaganda film, 'White Legion with Black Souls' was aired on the TV channel Belarus 1. The film accused the White Legion of Nazism, links with the Islamic State, plans to commit terror attacks in the Moscow metro, training children to become suicide bombers, and similar ludicrous claims. Moreover, the film cast Belarusian singer Anatoli Jarmolenka and actor Uladzimir Hasciuchin as 'experts'. Observers were quick to characterise the film as very poor-quality propaganda.

How true is the official version?

Even without the accusations of White Legion links to ISIS and Nazism, the investigation's 'evidence' appears mostly false. Belsat published an article which analysed photos of the weapon cache and concluded that they were either replicas of real arms or legally-sold airguns and airsoft guns.

Siarhiej Čyslaŭ, former head of the White Legion, who has been living in Ukraine over the last years, denies the article's accusations. In an interview with Euroradio, he stated that he would be honoured to be responsible for the creation of a deeply secret organisation, but in really the group had ceased all activity long ago. It was simply impossible to function legally in Belarus.

People close to former White Legion members informed the newspaper Naša Niva that although the organisation ceased to exist ages ago, its former associates still retain links and engage in training and cultural activities, including youth education in a Patriot Club near Babrujsk. They also admitted that they were ready to become the backbone of a volunteer battalion in case of Russian aggression, but had no plans for toppling the Lukashenka regime.

Mikalaj Statkievič also called the article a lie – he was not acquainted with any of the detainees, and the last time he met Čyslaŭ was ten years ago. Many other facts also prove the criminal cases to be a politically-motivated fabrication. For instance, Frau A., who speaks Russian with a strong accent in the propaganda film aired on the Belarusian television, somehow managed to write a letter without a single typo and used technical phrases commonly found only within security agencies.

Pro-Russian organisations not perceived as a threat

With exception of a single case when Russian nationalist publicists from the news website Regnum were arrested in December 2016, most pro-Russian groups face no serious pressure in Belarus.

Various Belarusian pro-Russian Cossack groups perform openly on a much larger scale the same activities of which  the Patriot Club and former White Legion are accused. They regularly conduct military drills with replica guns, train children, and cooperate with their Russian colleagues, who took an active part in the war in Eastern Ukraine on the pro-Russian side.

What's more, real pro-Russian combatants of Belarusian origin who fought in Ukraine freely visit Belarus and face only 'preventive talks' with security officers. Many of them admit in interviews that Belarusian siloviki sympathise with them and 'express support', as they have maintained close cooperation with Russian security and military forces since Soviet times.

Let's invent a threat as a distraction from the economic crisis

The case of the White Legion seems to aim at discrediting the wave of protests triggered by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The majority of the population is experiencing economic hardship and is losing faith in the government. The authorities are trying to destroy any group which could even theoretically be capable of organising resistance.

As Siarhiej Čyslaŭ puts it, it is important for the authorities that protestors be framed as fighters and terrorists, rather than political prisoners, thus avoiding new confrontation with the West.

The West, frightened by the Ukraine crisis, fears similar developments in Belarus and is inclined to trust the Belarusian government. At the same time, the authorities are trying to represent the crackdown on 25 March as an operation to save citizens from a terror attack.

Finally, the authorities are also apparently attempting to sell the threat of Maidan and anti-Russian armed groups to the Kremlin in order to achieve better oil and gas prices and other subsidies.

The White Legion case shows that in a difficult situation, the authorities prefer to rely on brutal force and illegal methods rather than open dialogue with the opposition and civil society. However, by destroying patriotic communities, they make themselves  and the Belarusian statehood even more vulnerable to threats from Russia.




Belarus authorities uncover a ‘putsch’ to deter mass protests

On 22 March, Alexander Lukashenka revealed an extraordinary discovery – the authorities had arrested armed fighters who were planning to overthrow the government on 25 March, the day when the Belarusian opposition traditionally celebrates Freedom Day with mass rallies.

The fighters allegedly had training camps inside Belarus and in neighbouring countries. The official media also reported on a series of related incidents, such as gunmen in a car attempting to force their way through a border checkpoint in Ukraine. This all comes in a context of mass arrests of oppositional activists protesting the ‘social parasites decree’.

While some observers claim that the threats were fabrications from a pro-Russian party within the Belarusian security services and Lukashenka had been a victim of disinformation, others say he is simply wary of mass protests and is using the tale to justify renewed repression.

Meanwhile, external actors – namely the West and Russia – are silently observing the developments, waiting to see what happens on 25 March.

All of a sudden, armed fighters inside Belarus

Everything started on 19 March when someone hacked the Facebook account of Miraslaŭ Lazoŭski, the former leader of youth patriotic organisation Biely Liehijon (White Legion), and posted a call 'to take arms and show the authorities who is the real boss in the country. Our friends from Russia and Ukraine have already arrived'.

The next day, the official media reported that a car of armed men in possession of an explosive had attempted to break through a Belarusian border checkpoint from Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities responded that no such car had crossed the Ukrainian border. On 21 March, Lukashenka announced another 'sensation' – the authorities had arrested dozens of fighters who were training in camps inside Belarus, as well as Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland.

On 21-22 March, the KGB arrested at least 17 people, some of whom were serving in Belarusian security bodies while participating in the military and nationally-oriented Patriot Club based in Babrujsk. The club has existed since 2003. Notably, not only was it officially registered, it also had a 'curator' from the security apparatus. Currently the detainees are charged with 'training, preparing or financing mass riots'. The KGB has not revealed any details but says it will 'soon make them available'.

Siarhiej Čyslaŭ, a former leader of Biely Liehijon, informed Euroradio that security services had filmed 'Patriot's' entire summer camp in 2016. Apparently, the authorities planned to use these materials in case of emergency to fabricate compromising evidence on the opposition.

These accusations come just at the right time – 250 people have so far been arrested around Belarus, including many oppositional leaders and activists, following protests against the ‘social parasite tax’.

Who initiated the crackdown?

It beggars belief that these Ukrainian fighters and military camps have anything to do with reality. However, opinions vary as to the initiators and motives of this provocation.

Some experts, such as Jury Caryk from the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, believe this drastic method of protest deterrence was launched by a pro-Russian group from within the Belarusian security forces. According to this version, siloviki gave Lukashenka false reports on extremist groups who were planning to turn protests violent and provoke a Belarusian Maidan.

Others, such as Aliaksandr Fiaduta, the former head of the information office of the Presidential Administration, argue that Lukashenka is not so stupid as to trust his appointees' every word and would have verified the information from various sources.

The crackdown resulted from Lukashenka’s own fears of growing protests coupled with economic pressure from Russia and the West’s reluctance to offer unconditional financial support. Belarusian authorities cannot find any way of pacifying growing social discontent, and have thus returned to their favourite tool – repression of the political opposition.

The opposition's plans and the people’s mood ahead of 25 March

Opposition leaders, as usual, had been disputing the details of the march for a long time, but finally agreed that it should start at 14:00 near the Akademija Navuk metro station and move along Niezaliežnasci Avenue to Kastryčnickaja Square. Mikalaj Statkievič insisted that the march should proceed further to Niezaliežnasci Square, taking all responsibility for the march upon himself.

Many people in Belarus seem to be frightened by the authorities' coming crackdown on 25 March. Popular blogger Anton Matoĺka asked his readership on Facebook why they do not plan to join the protests on 26 March; many admitted that they are afraid of being beaten, arrested or losing their jobs. Others stated that they consider oppositional leaders generally untrustworthy and incapable of organising a safe protest. Nevertheless, many activists are ready to join the Freedom Day celebration and say no to repression.

Meanwhile, the authorities use a variety of tricks to reduce the number of potential protesters on Freedom Day. Many schools and companies are organising compulsory events at the same time as the protests.

The pro-government Federation of Trade Unions has invited citizens to come together and clean up Kurapaty – the location of mass executions during the Stalin regime, which was also the subject of a recent protest action. Moreover, the authorities have permitted Freedom Day meetings in regional centres around Belarus – apparently to prevent locals from joining the main action in Minsk.

The reaction abroad: still watching and waiting

Russia seems to be biding its time and observing from the side, at least publicly. It has not made any statements regarding the protests or repressions. Notably, a Belarusian delegation is currently in Moscow for another round of negotiations on oil and gas agreements, over which the sides have failed to reach an agreement for over a year now.

The authorities' return to mass repression of the opposition has provoked a muted reaction from Western democracies. An EU external action spokesman released a careful statement demanding that 'Recently detained peaceful protesters, including journalists covering the events, be immediately released.' Obviously, the EU is reluctant to revert to confrontation mode with Minsk after several years of normalisation.

However, if repressions continue, the West will be pressured to take a clear position. Russia, it seems, would be happy to see a renewed cooling cycle between Belarus and the EU, which would probably result in more influence over the country from the Kremlin and broader support for Russia’s foreign policy on behalf of Belarus.

According to Kamil Kłysiński from the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies, a window of opportunity still remains, and European diplomats hope that a sane approach to foreign and domestic policy will prevail in Belarus.

This might yet prove to be the case – with the bulk of opposition leadership and activists in jail, the authorities can let the crowd march freely on 25 March and release activists shortly after. However, if a feeling of insecurity persists within the leadership, Belarus may see a backslide to December 2010-style crackdowns with many sad consequences.




Analytical paper: Challenges to Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area

In 2015 Belarus joined the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and committed to putting a Roadmap for higher education reform into effect by 2018.

The implementation of the Roadmap is running behind schedule, which poses a threat to fulfilment of Belarus' obligations by the due date.

This paper released by the Ostrogorski Centre today analyses the main challenges to implementation of the Roadmap in Belarus; it also provides recommendation which could help to do it on time and benefit a wider range of stakeholders.

Belarus as a new member of the European Higher Education Area

At a conference of 47 EHEA Ministers of Education (May 14-15, 2015, Yerevan) Belarus took on commitments to implement a Roadmap for higher education reform. It is expected that the harmonisation of Belarusian and European educational standards will ensure higher quality education, more opportunities for studying and employment, deeper integration in the European and global educational area, and inclusion of different social groups, including disadvantaged communities, in education.

The programme of higher education reform in Belarus stipulates a mechanism of international support and consultation for the implementation of the Roadmap by 2018, when the final report on the implementation of the Roadmap will be submitted at the Ministerial Conference in Paris.

An Advisory Group on Support for the Belarus Roadmap was established to assist in implementation of the Roadmap. It includes representatives of governments, supranational institutions, and civil associations of member countries of the EHEA along with three representatives of Belarusian state education sector.

Challenges to implementing the Roadmap

Belarus would like to avoid a painful breakdown of its educational system, bypassing ‘empty-headed copying of western models’, as Aliaksandr Lukashenka likes to put it. He has named several possible negative effects of internationalisation for Belarus, including brain drain and loss of ‘patriotic, moral, and aesthetic education’.

The fact that the country’s leadership takes this stance is a significant factor hindering the integration of Belarus into the EHEA. What’s more, relevant legislative changes proposed by the Ministry of Education are contested by other governmental bodies and ministries, which are often wary of change.

A group of experts from the Public Bologna Committee has developed methodology for monitoring the quality of Roadmap implementation. This allows monitors to use an index to measure the Roadmap’s progress. The term set for Roadmap implementation is three years. The final index value as of June 30, 2016 was 8,7%. This leads experts to conclude that Roadmap implementation is still in its initial stages, and in some areas has not even started.

It should be noted that the Advisory Group on Support for the Belarus Roadmap is more optimistic about the Roadmap’s progress, but its working documents are not available publicly, making assessment difficult.

Experts assert that the development and implementation of the National Qualification framework, the quality assurance system, ECTS credits system, and Diploma Supplement has been delayed for unknown reasons. For three years, the Ministry of Labour has been working on the National Qualification framework, piloting projects for professional standards.

Institutions which do not directly relate to the education system create barriers to student and staff mobility. For example, advertisements for activities by foreign universities are regulated by the anti-human trafficking law, developed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The state funding of academic mobility remains very modest and does not allow to reach the planned EHEA student mobility indicator of 20% by 2020

The obligation for students whose education is financed by public funds to accept work placements upon graduation has remained in Belarus since Soviet times, which does not correspond to EHEA and demand in the economy. Moreover, there is a discrepancy between the education sector and the needs of the labour market.

Most Belarusian HEIs are state run; they are subject to orders from higher executive powers. Rectors are appointed by the President and are under political governance.

Universities are still used as a tool for political education by means of state ideology courses, youth organisations such as the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, obligatory work, and participation in state holidays and political events. For the most part, civil society is only able to influence decisions by the authorities through external actors, primarily the European Union.

Recommendations on Roadmap implementation

To implement the Roadmap on time, the responsible institutions should consider the following recommendations:

Social dimension and labour market. The obligation to accept work placements should be limited to specific areas, where there is a significant need for professionals. Legislative measures should be taken to provide incentives to employ university graduates via preferential tax treatment for employers and other fiscal mechanisms. Tools to ensure this include ratings and monitoring of the quality of education. Moreover, HEI funding should depend on the level of employment among graduates.

Student and staff mobility. Bureaucratic barriers to mobility should be eliminated in cooperation with the stakeholders among governmental bodies. State funding of academic mobility should be significantly increased. To prevent brain drain, students should be offered prospects for professional development through social partnership with employers.

Conference panel on Bologna process in Belarus (December 2016, mostly in Russian)

Academic freedoms and principles of university autonomy. Guarantees of citizens’ and institutions’ rights to free teaching, learning, research, and protection from government interference should be codified in legislation. Institutional autonomy should be guaranteed in organisational, financial, personnel, and academic spheres. Administrative barriers to creating freely functioning student unions, trade unions, and other public associations should be eliminated.

Transparency and involvement of a wide range of stakeholders. The institutions responsible for the implementation of the Bologna principles should provide stakeholders and the public with up-to-date information on the progress of reform. The Advisory Group on Support for the Belarus Roadmap should engage a wider spectrum of stakeholders in its activity, including NGOs and business and student associations, as well as facilitate regular expert dialogue.




Does Belarus stand a chance in a new oil war with Russia?

The year 2016 left Belarus with a serious economic problem: its unresolved dispute with Russia over energy.

On 9 January 2017, the Russian daily Kommersant revealed that Moscow will reduce oil supplies to Belarus from 4.5 to 4m tonnes in the first quarter of 2017. In doing so, Russia is pressing Belarus to pay its $425m gas debt.

Simultaneously, Belarus announced the discovery of a new oil field on its territory. Unfortunately, its own oil reserves allow for 1.6m tonnes worth of production annually, while Belarus needs around 25m for its refineries.

Oil products remain Belarus's No.1 export commodity, making a third of Belarus export revenues. With no alternative options for hydrocarbon supplies and Minsk's decreasing political and security leverage, the country will have to play by Moscow's rules.

Oil reserves in Belarus

On 3 January, the Belarusian official media outlet BelTA reported the discovery of a new oil field in the Rečyca district in southern Belarus. The field, however, is classified as hard-to-reach because of its depth. Preliminary research estimates the volume of the field at around 850,000 tonnes of oil. Totally, Belarusian oil reserves are estimated at 50m tonnes, although larger fields may exist, as Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Protection Andrej Kaŭchuta has claimed.

Belarus extracts around 1.6m tonnes of oil on its territory annually. This amount is tiny compared to world oil production leaders. Russia, for example, produces roughly the same amount daily. The capacities of Belarusian refineries, however, require an additional 24m tonnes per year, which the country traditionally buys in Russia.

Processing Russian oil and the export of oil products has guaranteed economic stability for Lukashenka for almost two decades. However, the Putin era brought regular oil and gas tensions, which forced Belarus to seek alternative supplies. Belarus even resorted to importing oil from Azerbaijan and Venezuela in 2010-2011 and 2016, as well as re-examining its own reserves.

In 2016, Belarus and Russia participated in another oil war. However, this time around events are unfolding in a new political context and its results are less obvious. The Russian media have attacked Belarus for alleged turning to the West and redundantly striving for independence. It has also attacked its policy of 'soft Belarusianisation', all of which calls to mind the 'Ukrainian scenario'.

Russia’s food safety administration consistently bans Belarusian food exports for various reasons. Moreover, the cut of oil supplies from Russia has hit the receding Belarusian economy heavily and created serious concern for Belarusian leadership .

Another hydrocarbon war

On 9 January, the Russian daily Kommersant revealed that Russia will cut oil supplies from 4,5 to 4m tonnes in the first quarter of 2017. In doing so, Russia is trying to persuade Minsk to pay its $425m gas debt. According to previous arrangements, Belarus was expected to receive a total of 18m tonnes of oil in 2017, but the sides failed to conclude a deal on Belarus’s gas debt by the end of 2016.

The dispute started in January 2016, when Belarus demanded that Moscow reduce its gas price for Minsk because of falling prices on the global market and the inability of Belarusian industries to compete on the Eurasian Economic Union market because of unequal energy prices. Russia denied the claim, and Belarus unilaterally decided to pay less, accumulating a debt of $425m by the end of 2016.

Moscow responded by putting conditions on the gas debt by limiting the amount of oil supplied to Belarus, a crucial resource for the Belarusian economy. A planned 5,3m tonnes per quarter contracted to 3,5m and finally to 3m tonnes in the last quarter of 2016. Before 1 January 2017, the sides were close to a deal but failed to finalise it. As a result of supply cuts, in January-October 2016, Belarus exported 15% less oil products compared to the same period of 2015, and 38% less in terms of money, which became a significant blow to the Belarusian budget.

No way out of the oil trap?

Belarusian-Russian relations saw a number of oil and gas wars in the 2000s, which usually ended in mutual concessions. Although Russia's image suffered as a result of these wars, it always retained a stronger position in negotiations.

Reductions or delays in oil supplies are inevitably extremely costly for Belarus, as oil products have been its No.1 export commodity for decades. Oil production exports make up around a third of Belarus's exports, which makes the country vulnerable to global market fluctuations.

Faltering oil prices hit Belarus heavily, as the adjacent diagram shows. Oil revenues peaked in 2012, with $16,4bn of revenues, and have steadily declined since. In 2016 Belarus received only $6,1bn from oil sales, a $10bn difference from 2012.

Moreover, there are still no viable alternatives to oil and gas supplies from Russia for Belarus. Minsk attempted to teach Russia a lesson by importing oil from Venezuela and Azerbaijan in 2010-2011, when it received around 1,5m tonnes of oil by sea via the Ukrainian port of Odessa.

During the new hydrocarbon war, Minsk imported 85,000 tonnes of Azerbaijani oil in autumn 2016, and Lukashenka revealed that Belarus was negotiating oil supplies with Iran. However, the negotiations apparently led to nothing, and Azerbaijani oil cannot cover the deficit of a few million tonnes of oil.

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. ​

The experts considered imports from outside Russia to be an economically unfeasible option. However, regardless of the direct gains, Minsk managed to secure better terms in its oil deals with Moscow by using these alternative deliveries as leverage, according to Vice Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamaška. But the current context of the Belarus-Russia disagreement have changed significantly since 2011 and Belarus became much more vulnerable economically, while Russia continues to assert its influence in the region and globally. Can Minsk counteract the Kremlin’s pressure in this new context?

There seems to be little chance for Belarus to gain an upper hand in this conflict. Russia needs political allies less and less, as it increasingly relies on itself. This means that the strategy of 'brotherly rhetoric' in exchange for economic gains does not work anymore in Belarus-Russia relations. Besides, Russia is taking steps in the military sphere to ensure its independence from the Belarusian army on the western front.

This significantly reduces Minsk’s leverage and restricts Lukashenka’s tricks with the Kremlin. With no alternative options for energy supplies and a heavy economic dependence on Russian resources, Belarus will have to play according to Russian rules for the foreseeable future.




Belarus opens up? The government announces visa-free entrance

On 26 October 2016 a new visa-free area along the Augustow Canal, a conservation protection zone in the Hrodna region on the border with Poland and Lithuania became effective.

Tourists will also be able to visit adjacent districts of Hrodna region as well as the city of Hrodna (population 300,000) visa-free, an unprecedented measure in the history of sovereign Belarus.

The visa-free regime will last until 31 December 2017. This will make it the second visa-free zone in Belarus after the national park Bielaviežskaja Pušča opened up in 2015; foreign citizens can stay in the forest for up to three days.

These initiatives appear to be an experiment before Belarusian authorities implement a more comprehensive simplification of the visa regime: future plans also include the long awaited authorisation of local border traffic. Belarusian authorities have long overlooked tourism as a source of profit, but the crisis in traditional industries has forced them to consider this option.

Is Belarus finally opening up to the world?

On 23 August Aliksandr Lukashenka signed decree No. 318: "Concerning the introduction of visa-free entry and departure for foreigners” which came into effect on 26 October 2016. The document allows visa-free stay in the Augustow Canal nature park and adjacent territories for a period of up to five days. The authorities launched a special web site explaining the visa-free entry procedure.

Foreigners will be required to obtain permission to stay on the territory of the Augustow Canal park. Permission can be requested from Belarusian tour operators and travel agencies.

Tourists will need to submit a form to border authorities via e-mail or post at least 24 hours before their arrival. Visitors to the park will be able to enter Belarus via four border checkpoints – two on the border with Poland and two with Lithuania.Visa-free stay can last up to 5 days, after which foreigners must leave the territory of Belarus.

Importantly, tourists will also be able to stay in adjacent districts of the Hrodna region and the city of Hrodna (population 300,000) visa-free, an unprecedented measure in the history of sovereign Belarus. Minsk and other major cities are outside the visa-free zone, so a trip there would be considered a violation of visa-free entry rules.

According to Deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism Michail Partnoj, this is a preliminary measure before Belarus opens up to the world even more. The first such initiative appeared during the 2014 World Hockey Championship which took place in Minsk. Authorities announced that foreigners with a ticket for the championship could enter Belarus without a visa.

In summer 2015 the government introduced a visa-free regime for tourists entering the national reserve Bielavieža forest on the border with Poland. Visitors need only posses a valid ID and a ticket for the national reserve.

The fact that Poles and Lithuanians will have easier access to Hrodna may indicate that Minsk wants to test the impact of local border traffic. Its authorisation was long delayed because of Poland and Lithuania’s critical position towards the political regime in Belarus.

Furthermore, the government fears that Belarusians will drain foreign currency reserves while shopping in borderland areas of the EU. However, as relations with the EU improve, Minsk may reconsider the local border traffic issue.

A major obstacle to tourism development

Despite being an immediate EU neighbour, Belarus remains the most closed country in Europe when it comes to visas. Except for former Soviet republics with mutual free travel policies, the citizens of only a dozen countries in Latin America and Asia can enter Belarus visa-free, and even then only for 30 or 90 days per year. Russia has a very similar visa regime, but it offers visa-free entrance to a slightly higher number of countries.

In March 2016 Deputy Minister of Sport and Tourism Michail Partnoj, speaking at a seminar on inbound tourism, made a resolute statement: “We need to open up Belarus… We will break down bureaucratic obstacles by the law and authority endowed upon us. Tourism will develop in Belarus.”

The Ministry of Sports and Tourism remains the main advocate of simplification of entrance to Belarus. This is no wonder, since the success of the tourist industry directly depends on the number of tourists entering the country, and visa barriers remain a major obstacle to visiting Belarus.

To give an example, official statistics report that in 2015 Belarus hosted 300,000 organised tourists (the actual figures seem to be smaller), while Lithuania's capital Vilnius, not the most popular destination in Europe by any stretch of the imagination, hosted around one million visitors. What's more, out of these 300,000 tourists the majority came from Russia, which has an open border with Belarus.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long been reluctant to advocate visa-free travel, as consular fees bring a good deal of income to the ministry. Currently, a person who wants to obtain a Belarusian visa has to pay €60-150 depending on the type of visa. In recent years, however, the ministry has changed its position and supports easing the visa regime.

Belarus security agencies remain the main opponents of a mass inflow of tourists, as they would need to considerably change the way they work. The Border Committee claims the border infrastructure is not capable of handling a larger numbers of visitors, while police will have to cope with much more work registering foreigners and maintaining order in the streets and on roads.

What comes next?

People both inside and outside Belarus have criticised the government for dragging its feet about the visa issue. Many contrast Belarus with Ukraine, which made entrance for all Schengen zone citizens visa-free some 10 years ago.

However, Belarusian authorities are notorious for extreme caution and incrementalism – they never make radical moves when it comes to politically sensitive issues. Therefore, the country opening up all at once seems like a highly unlikely scenario. Moreover, Belarusian authorities are also known for reversing policies if the political environment changes, which happened with local border traffic in 2010.

Nevertheless, these new initiatives indicate an understanding within the government that tourism can become a profit-making industry in times of crisis when traditional industries such as machine building are experiencing stagnation.

Easing the visa-regime will benefit tourism-related businesses, improve Belarus' image in the world, facilitate person-to-person contacts and encourage the integration of Belarus into the European context.

Potential travellers and business owners can only hope that the new visa experiments will lead to a comprehensive simplification of the visa regime shortly after.




John Silver: A New Political Prisoner in Belarus?

In June the Investigatory Committee of Belarus confirmed that Eduard Paĺčys, the editor of the website 1863x.com, was extradited from Russia and is undergoing criminal investigation.

The website was known for its critical position towards Russian and Belarusian authorities, and its author had remained anonymous until his arrest.

Political activists have already recognised him as a political prisoner, while human rights groups are waiting for more evidence.

A new political prisoner is in the interests of neither the European Union nor the Belarusian government, as a warming of relations continues to be important for the bilateral agenda. However, Belarusian authorities may use the case of Eduard Paĺčys to demonstrate that any activity inspiring national conflict, including anti-Russian discourse, will be stopped immediately.

1863x.com as a reaction to Russian aggression

The website 1863x.com first appeared about two years ago at the start of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. It became known for for publishing political texts, often with acute criticism of Belarusian and Russian authorities. The editor of the website remained strictly anonymous and worked under the pseudonym John Silver.

In November 2015 John Silver announced that half a year ago special police had detained him and he was sent to mental hospital for a month. At the same time, the authorities initiated two criminal investigations against him, and in October 2015 he decided to leave Belarus.

The story of the arrest

On 25 January 2016, 1863x.com announced that John Silver had been arrested in Russia. Since that day the website has ceased updates. The Russian nationalist resource “Sputnik i pogrom” later published an article alleging that John Silver was kept in Bryansk Prison, his real name was Eduard Paĺčšys and he originated from the western Belarusian city of Lida. He attempted to obtain political asylum in Ukraine, but later decided to go to Russia, where he was detained while crossing the Russia-Ukraine border.

On 22 June the head of the Investigative Committee of Belarus Ivan Naskievič confirmed that John Silver had been extradited to Belarus and indeed appeared to be Eduard Paĺčys. The authorities charged Eduard with two criminal offences: inciting hatred on grounds of race, nationality, religion, language, or other social affiliation, and manufacturing and distributing pornographic materials.

Editor of Naša Niva newspaper Andrej Dyńko argues that the Eduard's publications only contained criticism of Russian aggression in Ukraine. As for pornographic materials, Eduard's girlfriend later revealed that someone had indeed sent him such materials. However, they depicted an insult to Belarusian nationality and national symbols, so Eduard decided to publish a critical article about this “art." These became the grounds for accusations.

Will Paĺčys become a new political prisoner?

On 23 June around 50 political activists held a peaceful demonstration in which they sent postcards to Eduard at the central post office in Minsk. According to Zmicier Daškievič, a former leader of oppositional organisation Youth Front, people in the street were reluctant to take part in the demonstration as they did not know who Eduard Paĺčys was.

Political activists including Mikalaj Statkievič, representatives from Belarusian Christian Democracy, Youth Front, and others consider Eduard a new political prisoner and are calling on international actors to recognise him as such and assist in his immediate release. However, human rights activists have yet to publish any statements on this case and are awaiting more information.

As human rights activist Valiancin Stefanovič explained to Naviny.by, the publications need to be analysed by specialists to understand whether authorities are persecuting Eduard for expressing his views or if he really was inciting hatred.

Is Russia Involved?

Some experts claim that the authorities initiated the case against Eduard to demonstrate loyalty to Russia: harsh critics of Putin are not tolerated in Belarus. However, expert at Belarus Security Blog Andrej Parotnikaŭ stated to the news agency BelaPAN that “there are a lot of critics of the Kremlin in Belarus, including famous journalists, but they do not face any pressure”. Instead, he sees anonymous criticism of Belarusian authorities as a more likely reason for his arrest.

Indeed, Belarusian authorities barely tolerate any participation in anti-governmental actions, as they established full control over the opposition long ago. Anonymous activists with radical ideas immediately become a target for special services. Cases of repression against anarchists and football ultras amply demonstrates this. On the other hand, Russian could have possibly facilitated a criminal case against Eduard simply by pointing out the significance of this case for bilateral relations.

Belarusian authorities, it seems, try to prevent anyone from playing the "Russian card" and giving Russia grounds for accusing Belarus of Russophobia and nationalism. They may use Eduard's case as a warning to those considering organising political actions.

Foreign governments and human rights groups have so far remained silent on this case and are apparently waiting for more information and evidence. However, the appearance of a new political prisoner looks highly undesirable for both the Belarusian government and the the EU .

No one wants political prisoners in Belarus

Belarusian authorities hope to hold a smooth electoral campaign with a democratic facade and thus facilitate further rapprochement with the west without any real political change. This will require absence of repression of the opposition, a free electoral campaign, cosmetic improvements in electoral law, and most importantly, absence of political prisoners.

The issue of political prisoners has long been the greatest obstacle for unfreezing Belarus-EU relations. The release of the last of them in August 2015, along with peaceful presidential elections, led to the lifting of EU sanctions against Belarus and a warming of relations. The authorities will hardly risk putting another person in jail for political reasons and must have solid evidence of his guilt to present to the west.

The EU also has no desire to initiate another round of sanctions against Belarus due to an aggravation of the human rights situation in the country. Every rapprochement in bilateral relations is a long and tiresome process, and the massive EU decision-making machine hardly wishes to start this cycle over again. The fact that regional security is a new European priority makes any conflict with bordering states undesirable, and Europe tends to wait for clear facts before formulating any critical statements on Belarus.

Belarusian authorities are unlikely to sentence Eduard Paĺčys to a serious prison term and he may end up with a fine or suspended sentence. The European Union has no appetite for escalating the tension either. However, the case of John Silver will become a warning sign for those intending to take radical action in Belarus: any activism involving the Russia-Ukraine conflict will be punished severely.




Belarus-Ukraine: Time for Strategic Cooperation

On 8 June Belarusian ambassador to Ukraine Valiancin Vialička reiterated that Belarus supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

He emphasised that Belarus will never pose a threat to Ukraine or allow third parties to attack Kyiv from its territory. He spoke at the presentation of 'Foreign Policy Audit: Ukraine-Belarus', a discussion paper prepared by the Institute of World Policy in cooperation with Belarusian experts.

Belarusians have recently produced a number of analytical materials discussing current Belarus-Ukraine relations as well as their potential, and offering recommendations for their enhancement. This article summarises three of them.

Foreign policy audit: Ukraine-Belarus

On 8 June, the Institute of World Policy presented the discussion paper 'Foreign Policy Audit: Ukraine-Belarus'.The research was conducted by Olena Betliy, Research Fellow at the Institute of World Policy, and Yauheni Preiherman, Head of the Minsk Dialogue Track-II Initiative; Chairman of Board of the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club.

The authors argue that Russian aggression has reinforced the main foreign policy priority for both Ukraine and Belarus, which is to ensure the national security of each state. In addition, it has highlighted the fact that bilateral relations between the two countries are underpinned by specific common interests, despite being based on different values.

The authors identify five such areas: military cooperation, border, trade, regional projects and people to people dialogue. The description of developments in these areas is followed by recommendations:

  • It is important for Ukraine to maintain the neutral status of Belarus in the conflict with Russia.To this end, Ukraine needs to enlist the support of not only the Belarusian authorities but also Belarusian society. This can be achieved only by developing a distinct communication campaign to bring information about the situation in Ukraine to Belarusians.
  • In the conditions of an unstable geopolitical situation and continued fighting in eastern Ukraine, it is in the interests of both countries to rapidly complete border demarcation.
  • Kyiv, Brussels, and other capitals, especially those of the CEE countries, needs to maintain the neutral status of Belarus and prevent a Russian airbase and other military facilities from being set up in its territory.
  • Kyiv and Minsk can join efforts to provide cybersecurity and counteract misinformation, which will increase the capacity of both countries in confronting “hybrid warfare”.
  • The governments must move away from protectionist policies and abandon “trade wars” as a means of solving contentious economic issues.
  • In order to bring Belarusian tourists and businessmen back to Ukraine and support those Belarusian citizens who have moved to Ukraine for residence, it is advisable to change migration policy on Belarusians.
  • Ukraine should encourage cooperation between NGOs and participate in discussion expert forums on the topical issues of bilateral relations.
  • Academic exchanges of students and researchers should become another platform for long-term cooperation.
  • Both countries have a good chance of using Chinese investment for infrastructure development and better optimisation of their transit capacity.
  • Ukraine should not delay the appointment of a new ambassador to Belarus.

Belarus and Ukraine: time for reforms

At the presentation of the above paper in Kyiv, Ukraine-based analyst of Belarusian origin Ihar Tyškievič presented a report called 'Belarus and Ukraine: time for reforms', in which he compared the situation in the two countries, showed their strengths and weaknesses in a number of areas, and analysed their reform strategies.

He starts with the observation that both Belarus and Ukraine are currently undergoing periods of reform. In the coming years the countries can transform into knowledge economies, yet there are a number of obstacles complicating this:

  • Turning into commodity economies
  • High level of energy consumption in economy
  • Dependence on the resources of neighbouring states
  • Widening gap between the two countries and developed world in terms of development of science and the availability of technology for production of new products
  • Post-Soviet system of decision-making, varying from oligarchic consensus to the lack of structured groups of influence.
  • Shortage of personnel. Restrictions in the social mobility and the weak capacity of the old elite
  • Depopulation problems

The two countries have employed opposite strategies for reform. Ukraine pursues changes in state decision-making and personnel mobility, which hopefully will lead to changes in the economy. In Belarus, the authorities will not risk political change, but understand the irrelevance of the post-Soviet model and agree with the need for economic reform, which can subsequently lead to political change. Tyškievič substantiates this thesis by analyzing the number of reformists in key areas of government, and finds them mostly in the economic sphere.

To tackle the problem of personnel quality, Belarus has already taken a number of steps, such as the Belarus-EU project MOST, introducing business education to bureaucrats, engaging independent experts in discussion of reforms, and reforming local government. He notes that concentration of power in the hands of Lukashenka has allowed him to implement a number of unpopular measures, such as abolition of many social guarantees and raising the pension age.

Belarus is also changing its approach to economic development, evidenced by the prioritising of knowledge economy, introduction of land market, transition from directive to indicative planning, demonopolisation of energy and communal services sectors and other steps detailed in the new government plan for 2016-2020.

He concludes that Belarus and Ukraine have completely different export structures and therefore can effectively complement each other and develop regional cooperation rather than compete.

Towards strategic cooperation in Belarus and Ukraine: benefits and challenges

In an analysis of Belarus-Ukraine relations called 'Towards a Strategic Cooperation of Belarus and Ukraine: Benefits and Challenges', Andrej Skryba argues that this is the best time for a new stage of Belarus-Ukraine cooperation, as it has been stimulated by the recent developments in the region. The author suggests five incentives that could foster Belarus-Ukraine dialogue:

  • While the rapprochement should be led from a high political level, the politicians from both sides remain rather passive. The expert community can become the main generator of ideas and develop new agendas through special sites, such as Yalta European Strategy and Minsk dialogue.
  • Rapprochement should move gradually to the grassroots: industrial and business cooperation, trade and economic cooperation, free environment for trade and investment. Special working groups with representatives of both countries can be created in the relevant areas of cooperation.
  • Political rapprochement should promptly resolve current problems. This requires institutionalisation, or at least the creation of an appropriate interactive format. The Belarusian-Ukrainian Advisory Council of Business Cooperation could be the first step in this direction.
  • Minsk-Kiev dialogue should not provoke further tensions in the region and be directed against a third party. Potential convergence of foreign policy positions should seek win-win solutions and models of relations with other states.
  • Belarus-Ukraine co-operation should be as inclusive as possible, particularly with regard to post-Soviet states and EU Eastern European members. Belarus and Ukraine should be included in a wide range of regional and integration processes, such as the EU-EEU convergence and Silk Road Economic Belt. The two countries should avoid becoming consumers and hostages of external and often competing regional projects, and instead offer their own new models of regional cooperation.

Despite a varying focus of their studies, all experts agree that the current moment presents a window of opportunity for establishing a strategic cooperation between the two countries, developing bilateral relations and common regional frameworks. Hopefully, decision makers from Ukraine and Belarus will understand that too.




Belarus Cracks Down on Pro-Ukraine Donbass Fighters

On 18 April the Belarusian authorities launched the trial of Taras Avataraŭ, a fighter from the Right Sector battalion who participated in the Ukraine conflict.

Earlier this month they introduced amendments to legislation which allow prison sentences for those fighting in foreign conflicts for ideological, not just mercenary, reasons.

However, the government seems to be taking a rather unbalanced approach, repressing only supporters of the Ukrainian side. By doing so Minsk risks creating a strong pro-Russian force inside the country, capable of overthrowing disobedient President Alexander Lukashenka at the Kremlin's order.

Authorities introduce anti-extremist policies

On 4 April the Belarusian parliament approved amendments to the law “On counteracting extremism” proposed by the KGB, Belarus' state security agency. The amendments introduce criminal liability for extremism, which previously was only an administrative offence. The law will target individuals who “create an extremist group, or head it or its branches”. It will punish those convicted with extremist activity with three to seven years in prison, and in case of a repeated offence six to ten years.

Not long before the amendments were introduced, police started a raid against football ultras and radical supporters of the Ukrainian side in the Donbass conflict.

Before 2014 Belarusian ultras rarely expressed political attitudes. However, since Euromaidan and the start of the Ukrainian conflict they have repeatedly declared support for Ukraine.

The police feel that youngsters from ultras groups, who have been inspired by the example of Ukrainian protesters at Maidan, are one of the major groups capable of actually carrying out and supporting street protests in Belarus.

Anonymous ultras told Novy Čas newspaper that the football fan movement in Belarus has been practically destroyed in recent years, regardless of the ideological views of particular firms. The police search ultras' homes and question their relatives about connections between those fighting in Ukraine and and ultras based in Belarus.

Fighting for ideas will become a crime

The same parliamentary session also approved amendments to the law on “Incitement to action against external security, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security”. They introduce liability for fighting in foreign conflicts without mercenary intentions. Now Belarus citizens fighting for ideological reasons will face up to five years in prison if convicted.

Previously the Criminal Code contained only punishment for mercenary activity, as well as recruitment, training, financing and using of mercenary. However, the authorities faced difficulties when charging Belarusian fighters in Ukraine. Police could not gather proof of their receiving remuneration for the service.

On 25 March senior police official Mikalaj Karpiankoŭ revealed to Zviazda newspaper that the police had already filed criminal cases against 135 Belarusians fighting abroad. The police gather intelligence on Belarusians in Ukraine from various sources and also undoubtedly receive information from their Russian colleagues.

The Belarusian authorities seriously fear trained fighters returning home. They could become a dangerous element in the opposition to Lukashenka’s rule. As the economic situation in Belarus gets worse and poverty among the population grows, the risk of internal instability is becoming even higher.

The first trials take place

This April the Belarusian authorities are holding the trial of Taras Avataraŭ, allegedly a fighter from Right Sector, a radical nationalist Ukrainian organisation. He was detained in November 2015 at Minsk railway station in possession of a gun and a self-made grenade. He had a document which confirmed his participation in the Ukraine conflict in the Right Sector battalion, but the organisation has denied these allegations.

In the middle of April police detained another fighter nicknamed “Terror Machine”, this time allegedly from the pro-Ukrainian Azov battalion, on charges of hooliganism dating back to 2013 and alleged mercenary. Although both fighters are charged with crimes other than mercenary, the authorities will also investigate their involvement in the conflict.

Meanwhile, cases of combatants fighting for the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk being on trial remain unknown in Belarus. Only one person from that side of the conflict has been detained, in January 2016, and that was on other charges; he only later revealed his participation in the conflict.

A number of DNR fighters freely gave interviews to Belarusian and Russian media while staying in Belarus and apparently did not fear persecution.

Pro-Russian fighters to remain free?

Independent commentators claim that this is the result of close relations between pro-Russian fighters and the Belarusian security forces, with the support of Russia. For example, a number of pro-Russian combatants revealed that they had previously served in an elite special force group in Marjina Horka. Many of the Belarusian security structures sympathise with Russia and its policy in Ukraine, as they have maintained close cooperation with Russian security and military forces since Soviet times.

An anonymous DNR fighter from Mahilioŭ in an interview with gazeta.ru said that he got involved in the conflict through Russia-backed Belarusian cossacks when he worked in an Orthodox patriotic club.

Many from Eastern Belarus had a similar path. Since the start of Euromaidan pro-Russian groups have become more active in Belarus. They train youth in the ideology of the "Russian World" and maintain close links with the Russian military.

If the Belarusian authorities have indeed decided to tolerate pro-Russian fighters to please Russia, they risk seeing what they fear most coming true. Trained combatants who respect the Russian world more than Belarus independence would probably take Russia's side in case of intervention in Belarus. Meanwhile, pro-Ukraine fighters who value Belarusian independence are mostly taken for radical opposition and repressed. This is obviously a very short-sighted view.

But the Belarusian authorities should also pay serious attention to the reasons why Belarusians go to fight for breakaway republics.

As one Belarusian DNR fighter put it in an interview with the Russian Planet website:

We went there neither for ideas nor for money. People going to war were those who could not realise themselves here (in Belarus). Their future was to become alcoholics, marry ugly women and give birth to children who would face the same fate. None of the Belarusians I met there came from Minsk, because people from the capital have a different mentality and opportunities.

This vivid citation points to the deep social problems that lead Belarusians from the periphery to leave their homes and head for war. Desperate from unemployment, with no hope for a better life and heated with aggressive Russian propaganda, they become easy prey for Russia’s military plans.

Through turning a blind eye to pro-Russian groups in Belarus, failing to counterbalance the Russian media and maintaining a poor regional policy, the authorities have generated a threat that they apparently refuse to deal with. However, it may become a fatal mistake one day.




Can Uber Become a Success in Belarus?

On 23 March Evgenia Shipova, official representative of Uber Technologies in the CIS region, announced that Minsk was developing faster than in any other city in Europe, Africa or the Middle East. Within four months, 80,000 city residents used this online taxi service.

Feeling threatened by the competition, regular taxi drivers have requested that the government investigate Uber activities. In contrast, most customers seem rather content with Uber. People are enjoying the high quality of service and hope it will promote a client-oriented framework which will influence the market as a whole.

Uber, however, will hardly conquer the Belarusian cabbing market, considering that old habits of ordering cabs by phone or catching them in the street remain extremely prevalent. For example, most people over 40 do not use Internet capable mobile devices and therefore cannot become potential Uber clients.

What is Uber?

Uber is a mobile application, which allows consumers with smart phones to submit a trip request which is then routed to Uber drivers who use their own cars. It spots a client via GPS and finds the closest driver who would be able to pick them up. The consumer can initially see the route price, choose a driver according to his rating and watch him approach the pick up location. Uber clients cannot pay in cash as it accepts only bank cards.

Currently, the company operates in 400 cities worldwide with their main office in San Francisco, USA. The company claims that it creates an innovative competition environment among drivers and thus raises quality of service.

However, governments and taxi companies across the globe challenge the legality of Uber because it does not follow proper consumer and labour laws. The use of drivers who are not licensed to drive taxicabs is unsafe and illegal.

Uber comes to Minsk

Uber officially opened its service in Minsk on 5 November 2015. The Belarusian media widely discussed the new service and social media highlighted user's riding experiences.

To mention a few problems, taxi drivers often use old uncomfortable and sometimes dirty cars and cheat on trip prices.

In February 2016, Uber launched a cheaper UberX service which led to a mass use of their service by Minsk residents. Those who heard about Uber earlier or used it abroad were quite excited. They hoped that Uber would raise competition and quality of taxi service.

Regular taxi drivers in Belarus often use old uncomfortable and sometimes dirty cars and cheat on trip prices. Taxi drivers in the post-Soviet space have been associated with music called criminal chanson, which is regarded as the music of criminals and people of low socioeconomic status. They are often involved in shadow market like trading i.e. illicit alcohol or prostitution deals.

In contrast, Uber drivers undergo strict control; they cannot have a previous criminal conviction, minimum three years of driving experience, a car no older than 2010 year and, moreover, pass a psychological test.

Minsk taxi drivers protest

On 6 February, Minsk taxi drivers from major taxi companies organised a spontaneous rally to discuss the “growing chaos on the market, where Uber became the last straw”. They claim that Uber has far more favourable conditions of operation: “We have to pay taxes, insurance, road tax, dispatcher service, taximeters, deal with controlling state bodies, and Uber does nothing of that!” drivers said with outrage.

Drivers threatened to “take to the roads and halt the city” if the authorities do not find a solution to Uber's activity. Less radical ones urged others to organise a trade union that will lobby taxi interests in the bureaucrat’s offices.

Uber does not breach law, partners do

On 8 February head of Minsk city Andrej Šorac ordered to investigate Uber operation in the city. “Taxi drivers complain that the service puts them in the unfair working conditions. We need to study the subject and inform the stakeholders on the results”, the official said.

After an investigation, state transport inspection reported that companies and individuals cooperating with Uber in Belarus have special licences for cabbing and do not need to have all attributes of taxis, like taximeter and lamps. They pay taxes and insurances like taxi services, but do not need to pay for dispatching office services since the online application does this job. However, this type of cabbing supposes signing a contract with each client, and the inspection doubts that Uber drivers do that properly. They also violate legislation by not using yellow car number plates.

Irregular cabbing supposes signing a contract with each client, and the inspection doubts that Uber drivers do that properly.

After the investigation the transport inspection stopped the licence of Molberg company, one of the Uber partners and filed a case against another one. The reason was violation of contracting procedures with the clients. Meanwhile, Uber says the authorities punish partners who violate the rules, not the company who runs the online platform itself. Uber also claims that pressure from authorities came as the result of rivals' campaign to oust Uber from the market.

Getting rid of rivals or promoting competition?

Despite the unfriendly environment and emerging rivalry, Uber has recently announced its success in Belarus. According to Evgenia Shipova, official representative of the company in Minsk, Uber has developed more rapidly than in any other city in Europe, Africa or the Middle East. Within four months, 80,000 people have used the service. However, Uber does not yet seem to have an interest in entering other Belarusian cities.

The reaction of taxi companies to a new and unusual market player is understandable. They have operated in a familiar environment for years and have met any innovative trends with enmity. Uber, if operating in compliance with law, will definitely make the market more client-oriented and quality of service will grow.

Regular taxies should not worry much – if companies introduce high standards of service, the clients will see no major difference. Customers are deeply rooted in the habit of calling dispatcher offices or catching a cab in the street. This will last for years. Moreover, most people over 40 do not actively use Internet capable mobile devices in Belarus, and will retain their old way of cabbing. All this offers taxi companies enough time to adopt to higher working standards. Belarusian companies can finally realise what competition on the market is.




Belarusian MPs at PACE, Cooperation with Turkey, Retirement Age Increases – State Press Digest

Belarus continues to boost cooperation with western partners and is seeking to avoid excessive economic dependence on Russia.

MPs hope to receive special guest status at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) after the issue of the death penalty is resolved in Belarus.

Foreign minister Vladimir Makiej says that the current turbulence in the world has made the west better understand the priority of security over democracy, which Belarus has always pursued.

All of this and more in the latest edition of State Press Digest.

Politics

Belarusians are not yet ready to abolish the death penalty. Soyuznoye Veche newspaper interviews Mikalaj Samasiejka, a member of the Standing Commission of the House of Representatives on International Affairs, on Belarus' growing cooperation with PACE. The newly elected president of PACE Pedro Agramunt during a meeting with the Belarusian delegation promised to restore the country's special guest status after Belarus abolishes or at least puts a moratorium on the death penalty.

The MP said that the death penalty issue cannot be easily resolved, as the majority of Belarusians still support the policy, though their numbers are gradually declining. The majority of parliamentarians are also in favour of leaving the death penalty in place. Samasejka also expressed support for the Russian delegation, which boycotted the recent PACE session because of some restrictive measures imposed on it.

West starts to better understand Belarus. Belarus Segodnya newspaper interviews foreign minister of Belarus Uladzimir Makiej during the Munich security conference. According to the minister, foreign countries seem to now better understand the reasons for Minsk's behaviour, its decisions and policies. The current turbulence in the world and the EU migrant crisis is making the west appreciate the significance of stability and security, which Belarus has always put before democracy and human rights.

The minister also explained that “the president has set a clear directive to avoid dependence on one economic partner”. The Belarusian economy is highly dependent on exports and Russia accounts for half of the country's trade turnover. This situation brought plenty of trouble after Russia fell into crisis, and Belarus will seek to establish firm economic relations with as many countries as possible to reduce its dependence on its eastern neighbour.

Security

Governors prepare to organise territorial defence. Belarusian governors – heads of the six regions and Minsk city – took part in a military drill at the firing field nearby Minsk, reported Belarus Segodnya. The military leadership organised the drill as part of its so-called territorial defence training. The governors learned how to shoot with various kinds of guns and how to organise the defence of their region in case of a conflict.

Territorial defence is a military system designed to involve the broadest possible population in defence in case of armed conflict. It works according to the administrative divisions of the state under the command of the executive vertical – heads of regions, who supervise the heads of districts. President Alexander Lukashenka initiated territorial defence drills for regional chiefs to be held on a regular basis.

Economy

The authorities initiate public punishment case against Ministry of Housing and Communal Services officials. The State Control Committee initiated 17 criminal cases against officials of the ministry and local governments after a sharp rise in the cost of communal services in January, Respublika reported. The Committee claims that the officials made multiple mistakes when introducing new tariffs which the government announced earlier in 2015.

Many Belarusians were shocked when they saw the new communal bills for January. The problem received wide attention in the media and among state officials, and Lukashenka had to deal with it personally. Low tariffs on communal services have traditionally been one of the key elements of Belarusian social model, which must now be reformed because of economic difficulties.

Turkey will expand its projects in Hrodna region. Hrodzianskaja Praŭda highlights the meeting of heads of Hrodna region with Turkish businessmen. Over the past three years Turkish business has been increasing its presence in the region, with six Turkish-capital organisations currently working there.

The parties discussed a project for a Turkish industrial park in the free economic zone Hrodnainvest. Belarusian officials are offering 300 hectares of land for realisation of the project. Contacts with Turks are increasing as a backdrop to the crisis in Russian-Turkish political relations, which has resulted in a decrease of economic cooperation.

Public policy

The government prepares public opinion for increasing the retirement age. In 2015 the issue of the rising retirement age became one of the most popular in official media. The state tried to explain to citizens the need for a highly unpopular step. Vecherniy Minsk writes that the state currently spends 10 per cent of GDP on pension payments. Belarus has one of the earliest retirement ages in the world – 55 for women and 60 for men.

In Minsk, the youngest city in Belarus, only a quarter of residents have reached this age, while in the countryside they make up the majority of the population. If the current pension system remains in place, after 2050 every working age Belarusian will have to support the life of one pensioner. The authorities plan to raise the retirement age in several stages to 60 and 65 years, but will not announce the final decision until the public is ready.

Belarusian education system faces serious challenges. The working meeting of the Education Ministry raised a number of problems in the national education system, writes Belarus Segodnya. Lukashenka himself recently criticised the quality of school textbooks. The Ministry admits that the system seriously lacks qualified author teams for writing textbooks. Excessive paperwork remains another major school problem, which turns teaching into red tape.

The authorities have also failed to attract foreign students into Belarusian universities. Out of 19,000 students from 98 countries, 50 per cent originate from Turkmenistan, while Russians make up only 5 per cent, and there are even fewer westerners.

Belarusian universities lack programmes in English – for example, the largest university, the Belarusian State University, offers only three such programmes. Meanwhile, one third of candidates and two thirds of doctors of science who teach at universities are over 60 years old. Young people do not want to teach at universities because of poor payment conditions.

The State Press Digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.




Poland Lures “the Best Migrants in the World” from Belarus

On 28 January the Polish Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers proposed granting residence permits to a million migrants currently in Poland. The majority of them are Ukrainians, followed by Belarusians and Vietnamese.

In recent years Poland has been aiming its immigration policy at absorbing a young labour force from the regions of former Polish rule, and has created unique preferences for foreign citizens in the form of the Card of the Pole. The card gives its holder the right to work and study in Poland, and later to obtain Polish citizenship.

Many Belarusians see it as an opportunity to work and study in Poland with the prospect of getting EU citizenship in the conditions of the ongoing economic crisis. The authorities of Belarus definitely dislike the initiative, but have proved unable to counter it so far.

Poland attracts migrants

On 28 January the Polish Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers in a publication estimated that due to the demographic crisis, by 2050 Poland will need to accept between 2m and 5m migrants to retain current economic growth rates. Currently, around one million people, mainly from Ukraine and Belarus, are employed in the Polish economy. Thanks to them the Polish budget receives an extra €1.5-2bn annually.

In an interview with Gazeta Prawna, union head Cezary Kaźmierczak said that migrants from these countries are “the best in the world”. They do not take away jobs from Poles and cost nothing for taxpayers. He contrasted them to migrants from the Near East and Africa, who in most cases do not work and live on social benefits. As discontent with current EU migration policy grows in Poland, Belarusians and Ukrainians are increasing their chances of becoming resident in Poland.

The Card of the Pole

In 2008 Poland introduced a Law on the Card of the Pole, which targeted the population of lands formerly ruled by Poland in Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltics. The card gives its owner the right to get a long-term free Polish visa, legally work, do business and study in Poland on an equal footing with Polish citizens, as well as offering some other benefits.

To get a card, one needs to demonstrate documented proof of ancestors living in Poland in 1921-1939. Poland at that time included the current western Belarusian territories. Alternatively, one must make a considerable contribution to Polish culture to receive the card. These criteria makes a few hundred thousand Belarusians potentially eligible for the card.

In 2013 the Polish authorities announced that they had granted the Card of the Pole to 42,000 Belarusians. The current number of card owners in Belarus remains unknown, as Polish officials are reluctant to reveal the latest figures. According to Eurostat, around 70,000 Belarusians have received national long-term visas, which gives an approximate indication of the number of Pole card holders in Belarus.

In November 2015 a special commission of the Polish parliament recommended an amendment to the Law on the Card of the Pole, which would allow its owner to get Polish (and EU) citizenship after living in Poland for only one year. Moreover, the card owners would receive a grant of around €5,400 per family member to cover their adaptation costs, as well as professional and language training.

Initially Poland declared the Card of the Pole a symbolic step to support its nationals abroad, but it has obviously become a purely pragmatic policy – an instrument to absorb the young workforce from neighbouring countries, which cannot go unnoticed by the Belarusian government

Authorities see Card of the Pole as a threat

In 2012 the Constitutional Court of Belarus announced that the Law on the Card of the Pole contradicts international law and violates a number of bilateral agreements. The government also made amendments to the law on the civil service which forbids officials from having a Pole card and similar documents from other states.

Andrei Jelisiejeŭ, migration expert from Belarus, told Belarus Digest that few countries would tolerate the fact that a considerable number of their citizens, including officials, declare themselves loyal to another state. He recalled the reaction of Lithuanian officials to the Card of the Pole law in 2009, when Lithuanian MPs tried to restrict card holders' right to run in parliamentary elections.

The negative reaction of the Belarusian authorities is justified. The Card of the Pole will cause a drain on the Belarusian labour force and strengthen the influence of Poland, a NATO member and ardent critic of Lukashenka, on the Belarusian population.

However, the authorities unwisely stimulate the rush for a Card of the Pole by protracting visa liberalisation with the EU and blocking small local border traffic with Poland. Many Belarusians would be satisfied just with free Schengen visas to shop in nearby Poland and Lithuania. With the Card of the Pole they receive a more alluring opportunity to get EU citizenship.

Belarusians are heading west

The economic situation in Belarus has been worsening for the last two years, and the coming years do not look bright either. Russia, which traditionally served as a migration hub for many Belarusians, is also declining and in addition getting increasingly aggressive and xenophobic. These developments push Belarusians to look west, to countries with more stable economies and effective rule of law.

Most Belarusians wish to get a Card of the Pole not because of sentimental attachment to Polish culture or pride in their ancestors. They want concrete material benefits – getting free visas with the prospect of receiving a residence permit and later citizenship of the EU, and the ability to work and study on equal terms with Polish citizens in a country with a three times higher average salary. Those who are not ready to move abroad wish at least to get the possibility of shopping and travelling.

Ihar from Minsk, 30, has recently become a happy owner of a Card of the Pole. He told Belarus Digest that among his friends around 10 people already have cards, and it has become increasingly popular among young people. For example, a section of the largest Belarusian Internet forum Onliner dedicated to discussion of ways of getting a Card of the Pole has 3,000 pages – one of the most popular topics on the forum.

Andrej Jelisiejeŭ thinks that the current economic crisis will definitely cause an outflow of Belarusians towards the west. Those not eligible for a Card of the Pole will use other opportunities, like seasonal works in Poland.

If the Belarusian authorities want to stop the brain drain, they should in the first place enforce local border traffic and make efforts to liberalise or completely remove the visa regime with the EU. In a longer term perspective, the government should think of introducing a similar policy to attract ethnic Belarusians from abroad and provide them with special preferences.