Belarus Security Forces Detain Protestors, Block Opposition Web Sites – Politics and Civil Society Digest
Today Belarusian courts sentenced two people to 5 and 7 days of arrest for taking part in an unauthorized protest on 21 October. More people were detained on the 21st but only two were prosecuted. A few hours ago another action of solidarity with political prisoners was held in Minsk. So far no detentions were reported.
Both on the 21st and today Belarusian security services blocked several opposition web sites. Other notable events included a swift approval of the new set of amendments aimed at restricting political ad civil society activities in Belarus. It took the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament just 30 minutes to discuss and adopt the controversial amendments.
Security forces in the way of the media war. Belarusian security forces have launched a web-based resource "Traitors of Belarus" where well-known public and media persons (Alexander Shalaika, Ulad Velichka, Irina Khalip, Yulia Darashkevich, etc.) are represented in black paint. Experts believe that the site was created as a reaction to the resonance web project https://www.posobniki.com, which has an ideologically opposite content.
Valiancin Stefanovich fined. On 19 October, the tax inspector of the Minsk Partyzanski District has fined human rights defender Valiantin Stefanovich Br 727,330 (approx. $545) for alleged understating of his income. Stefanovich is a close associate of Ales Bialiatsky who is currently kept in prison on tax evasion charges. Both are active in the Human Rights Center "Viasna".
Supreme Court turns down lawsuit by Speak the Truth campaign. On 19 October, judge Mikalai Babkou has dismissed a lawsuit lodged by Uladzimir Niakliayeu and Siarhei Vazniak, contesting an earlier decision by the Ministry of Justice to deny registration to the civil campaign. This is the second time Speak the Truth is applying for an official status, after the Ministry of Justice refused to register the NGO.
No criininal case against Mikhalok. General Prosecutor announced that his agency did not file criminal charges against the leader of the group Lyapis Trubetskoy Sergei Mikhalok.
IT as a tool of repression. On 19 October, a roundtable "The embargo on digital technology’s pressure" was held in Minsk. The organizer is the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs. The participants discussed possible ways to prevent the Belarusian authorities from using digital technology as the repression against civil society.
Viasna awarded Danish Freedom Prize. The Human Rights Center “Viasna” has been awarded the 2011 Politiken Freedom Prize, an international human rights award sponsored by the Denmark-based Politiken radical-social, liberal newspaper. Founded in 2007, the Freedom Prize is awarded for taking “an outstanding responsibility in the fight for freedom and fundamental human rights”. The awarding ceremony will be held in Copenhagen on 14 November.
Belarusian NGOs address Parliament on controversial draft laws. On 19 October, an appeal signed by representatives of 25 NGOs and other non-profit organizations was passed to the Council of the Republic, the Upper Chamber of the Belarusian Parliament. The appeal expresses deep concern about the proposed amending of a number of key legal acts, including the Criminal Code and the Public Associations Code, as well as the Mass Events Code.
Swift approval of repressive laws. On 21 October, the Council of the Republic has approved the amendments to the Mass Events Code on its session. Discussion and approval of the bill took thirty minutes. Speaker of the Council Anatoly Rubinov listed 15 human rights NGOs, signed the appeal against the amendments, and expressed his surprise: "How we haven’t democracy if we have so many human rights organizations?"
Local EU Statement on some repressive draft laws. On October 19, the European Union Delegation to Belarus has issued a statement urging the Belarusian authorities not to pass “some repressive draft laws” that “would severely limit the freedoms and rights of Belarusian citizens and represent a step backwards as regards Belarus’ respect for human rights and the rule of law”.
International training program launched. On 11 October and 18 October, presentations of an International training program Business Edge were held in Hrodna and Homel. Head of the Belarusian office of International Finance Corporation (IFC) Max Yacub noted that Business Edge program is part of IFC funded by USAID. The purpose of the Program is to help Belarusian entrepreneurs to improve their activity through education and interaction with experienced practitioners.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.
Belarusian Vice Prime Minister: The Situation In the Country Is a Shame
On Thursday Nadzeya Yermakova, chair of the Belarusian National Bank, unexpectedly admitted that the government has almost no gold or foreign currency reserves. The National Bank only has USD 1.2 billion. The rest – 3/4 of the reserves – was borrowed from Belarusian commercial banks.
Official media are silent about this news, although the statement was made publicly at a press briefing of the National Bank on 20 October. This information shocked even the non-state media. Officially Belarus' gold and foreign currency reserves on 1 October amounted to USD 4.7 billion. The National Bank will also have to return the USD 3.5 billion borrowed from commercial banks in the so badly needed foreign currency.
The way that this money was dealt with also shows the adventurous nature of the government's economic policy over the last year. The National Bank took from commercial banks foreign currency at a rate under 0.5%, lending them in return rubles at 4%. It was more than strange business considering the nearly 300% real inflation of the Belarusian rouble.
Yermakova said the National Bank had yet to calculate its losses from such deals. If the National Bank is unable to return the borrowed money to the banks, some of them may default. According to independent weekly Nasha Niva, “these huge swap operations have been used to falsify statistics in order not to reveal in the pre-election year how rapidly the state reserves were diminishing. ” This way, Lukashenka avoided changes in economic policy and the ruble's devaluation, demonstrating the successes of his economic model.
Even according to official statistics Belarus has the lowest gold and foreign currency reserves in all of Eastern Europe, when calculated proportionally to national GDP. Yet the statistics evidently were not correct, and the actual situation was worse. Now it's clear why Belarus has such problems with paying even relatively small sums, like USD 200 million to Gazprom in July. And effectively the country is on the verge of bankruptcy.
For ordinary Belarusians, living conditions are worsening day by day. Goods are becoming more expensive and increases in salaries and wages lag far behind inflation. Problems are everywhere – at the same news conference Yermakova said that Belarus would probably suspend residential housing construction programs for several years. These programs were heavily subsidized by the government in the past but were stopped earlier this month.
Hopelessness embraced even the most senior regime officials. On Friday Deputy Prime Minister Siarhei Rumas made an unprecedented statement when he said that “the situation in the country is a shame”, and went on to harshly criticize the economic policy of the government.
Is There Anybody To Help?
The situation of economic collapse looks even more dramatic in the absence of prospects for external aid. The head of the IMF mission to Belarus Chris Jarvis on 17 October made it clear that this year the IMF was not going to support Belarus. They expect the Belarusian authorities demonstrate their solid intent to provide stability and undertake reforms and, more importantly, concrete action.
As Belarusian economist Dmitry Ivanovich said, the IMF position forced the government to urgently solve the problem of multiple currency exchange rates, and to look for other ways to court the IMF. Next year Belarus is entering the period when over several consecutive years it shall either return or refinance significant sums of foreign debt.
In 2012, Belarus will have to repay its debts to the IMF, Russia and Venezuela. It shall also make payments on eurobonds and short-term loans. According to the IMF, the total amount due to be paid on middle- and short-term debts next year is USD 1.8 billion. USD 200 million is needed for payments on bonds, while refinancing short-term debts will cost USD 4.9 billion. Moreover, the problem of negative current account saldo also persists.
Minsk has scarce resources for these payments and Moscow is not in a hurry to help. The credit line from Russian Sberbank has already been slashed by half and negotiations still go on. Even more difficult might prove an attempt to get a loan from the Eurasian Economic Community Russian-dominated post-Soviet integration structure. The recent talk of a hypothetical USD 400 million loan from Iran demonstrates only the wishes of the Belarusian regime and disregards the reality of relations with Tehran, who will never give such money.
Is Large-scale Privatization Inevitable?
If no foreign money is found, privatization becomes the only solution. Yet the Belarusian leadership apparently considers it to be the very worst-case scenario. After all, losing the most profitable assets undermines Lukashenka's regime. And for that reason the authorities prefer to take loans rather than sell property.
The political system of Belarus, which is dominated by the often irrational whims of its leader, is another part of the problem. It means that Belarus is even more vulnerable in this situation and lacks strategical long-term planning. The standard mechanism of holding decision-makers accountable for their actions is simply non-existent.
Lukashenka and Belarusian propaganda will probably try to explain the current economic troubles by the world economic crisis. Lukashenka warned recently that "this global crisis much talked about now, may come to us as well." However, the serious problems of the Belarusian economy are mostly home-made. Inheriting the Soviet-era economic system, Lukashenka rearranged and maintained it without significant reforms by re-distributing rents from reprocessing and re-exporting cheap Russian oil. In the past, this and other subsidies from Russia brought him USD 6-7 billion each year.
Even though Belarus signed a new integration treaty with Russia, the Belarusian economy will no longer be able to make serious money on re-exporting Russian oil and oil products. Losing this money means that the Belarusian economy has no chance of survival in its current form.