Belarus Smuggles EU Food to Russia Despite Sanctions
On 19 September Russian Agricultural Control announced that Russia can restrict the imports of fish and dairy from a number of Belarusian companies. These companies allegedly violate the sanctions regime by re-exporting EU products under fake labels.
Since the very imposition of sanctions, Russia has constantly charged Belarus with cheating. Belarusian officials have denied the accusations or blamed incidents on technical mishaps.
For Belarusian food producers, Russia's ban on Western food imports has become an opportunity to cash in, and they have been willing to take risks in order to earn money.
A Klondike for Belarusian Food Producers
On 6 August Russia imposed a ban on the import of food products from the Western countries that had previously supported sanctions against Russia. Russia also sought to counterbalance the loss of imports. Western producers who worked on the Russian market experienced serious problems, while non-Western countries benefited by increasing their exports to Russia.
Belarus reacted to these developments immediately. On 7 August the Deputy Minister of Agriculture Leanid Marynič said in an interview with RIA Novosti that Belarus is ready to replace the banned products, calling the situation a “Klondike for Belarus." The Ministry of Agriculture officials reported that they could earn an estimated $200-400m more this year thanks to the sanctions.
Vladimir Putin called Lukashenka on 7 August after the sanctions were introduced, asking him to “accept this measure with understanding” and protect the Russian market. Apparently, Putin anticipated the unscrupulous behaviour of Russia's Customs Union partner. Unsurprisingly, Lukashenka promised full transparency for any goods that were to cross the Belarus-Russian border.
The head of the Russian Agricultural Control Agency Sergei Dankvert arrived in Minsk on 12 August and urged Belarus to increase agricultural exports to Russia. Dankvert reported that Belarus would be allowed to process EU food products and export them to Russia. In response to this, Deputy Prime-Minister Michail Rusy confirmed that Belarus was in full control of the situation and that the deliveries would proceed in full compliance with corresponding agreements.
Meanwhile, Lukashenka described his opinion of the situation in a very simple way: “We need to move on this, seize the moment and makes some money. We did not commit ourselves to any restrictions regarding our own internal market. We can import the [food] products from anywhere, process them, and sell them to Russia”.
The Dishonest Partner
Despite the ongoing public assurances from Belarusian officials, the Belarusian side was caught cheating friends in the east on multiple occasions.
On 18 August Dankvert told the ITAR-TASS agency that Russia had detected attempts to re-export EU fruits and vegetables via Belarus. He said some EU countries do not indicate the place of origin of their production or mislabel their goods before sending produce to Belarus, from where exports eventually travel to Russia.
The goods sold to Russia sometimes lack accompanying documentation. Upon examining the goods on the Russian side, it was found that many products actually originated from Poland, Slovenia, the Netherlands, and Lithuania.
Interestingly, state-owned company Belmytservis, founded by the State Customs Committee, was listed as one of the main violators of the Russian embargo on EU food products.
Dankvert urged Belarus to monitor the situation more closely and threatened to impose restrictions on the imports from Belarus if violations persisted. However, the Ministry of Agriculture of Belarus has denied all accusations. The Minister called Dankvert privately, but and received no confirmation of the alleged violations, according to a Ministry official who spoke to BelaPAN news agency. Nevertheless, the Russian Agricultural Control Agency has continued to report violations on a daily basis.
Collapse of TIR Business
Although Belarusian officials hoped for a Klondike, many Belarusian businesses have actually suffered from sanctions. One example is TIR companies, which owns large trucks and specialises in transporting goods from the EU to Russia. The imposition of Russian sanctions have led to a sharp decline in TIR's business.
The owners of Belarusian transport companies say that the market is virtually collapsing, with orders falling by about 30% in recent months. Competition grew sharply, and many companies offer cut-throat prices in order to attract customers.
As Stanislaŭ Savicki, the director of the Autamahistral company from Belarusian border city of Hrodna said in an interview to Naviny.by: "The European market is dead for us. Profits have fallen by 60%. At the moment, selling the trucks looks more reasonable than using them."
Competitors from Russia and the EU have flooded into the Belarusian market, as they are also losing their markets. Companies that own refrigerator trucks became especially vulnerable to competition, since these vehicles have been traditionally used exclusively to transport food stuffs. Now they are loaded with anything for the businesses to stay afloat.
Many companies have turned to the Belarusian Ministry of Transportation offering their vehicles for transporting the allegedly increased exports of Belarusian foodstuffs to Russia. Even so, this is unlikely to make up for their losses due to the imposition of sanctions.
Sanctions Bring EU Investment
EU businesses are demonstrating renewed interest in investing into Belarus. Several EU producers have offered Belarus to cooperate in processing and selling EU goods to Russia, which was permitted by Moscow.
Aliaksej Bahdanaŭ, head of the Foreign Trade Department of the Belarusian Economy Ministry, said the Ministry is currently examining offers from potential partners. Officials from Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have already discussed possibilities for cooperating with Belarus as far as dairy exports are concerned.
The Polish Minister of Agriculture Marek Sawicki visited Minsk on 14 August to discuss the increase in supply of Polish fruits and vegetables to Belarus. Twelve Polish companies attended the meeting. After the meeting, Sawicki announced that Belarus would be buying 200,000 tonnes of Polish milk per month.
Moscow's sanctions are thus having divergent effects on the Belarusian economy. On the one hand, sanctions have benefited food producers and may increase Western investment in Belarus. On the other hand, the food ban has harmed delivery companies that relied on EU-Russia trade.
The ongoing re-exports of goods also show that Belarus seeks to make money on the tensions between Russia and the West, using Russia's momentary weakness to its advantage.
For Lukashenka, the Eurasian Union does not present itself as a union of values, but rather a means of extracting as many economic benefits as possible to support his regime.
The Union's architect Vladimir Putin seems to understand this. Given the difficult circumstances, however, he needs as much Belarusian support as he can get – and he is ready to pay for it.
Why Is the Eastern Partnership Dead? Map of Reforms, Talaka, Greenmap – Belarus Civil Sociey Digest
Foreign policy of the European Union in Eastern Europe and the possible future of the Eastern Partnership were debated in Minsk this week.
Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) under the REFORUM project announces a call for national experts to develop proposals for reform in the fields of direct foreign investment and education. Map of reforms of law civil society organisations and a draft law on charity were discussed.
Why the European Union's foreign policy is failed, and is the Eastern Partnership dead? On 8 September within the framework of the European Intercultural Festival, Belarusian political scientists and EU-based researchers discussed EU foreign policy in Eastern Europe and the possible future of the Eastern Partnership.
A series of live debate entitled What Do Belarusians Think starts on 26 September. The series aims to publicise expert debates and create a space where facts and evidence matters. The first debate, focusing on research conducted on reforms, will take place on 26 September in the IMAGURU Minsk business club. There will be a live online broadcasting of the event. The project is implemented by the Office for European Expertise and Communication, in partnership with the Belarus Research Council with the support of Pact/USAID.
Belarus Reality Check. The 4th Belarus Reality Check meeting, organised by Pact, the East European Studies Centre and LATO, with the support of Latvian MFA and USAID, took place on 11 September. The meeting focused on Belarus-Russia relations, the upcoming presidential elections and relations between Belarus and the West. Policy reviews based on three previous Belarus Reality Check meetings are available here.
Mediation Week in Belarus. On 13-19 October Belarus will host a Mediation Week dedicated to the International Conflict Resolution Day. The central event of the week will be the First National Forum of Mediation on 15 October where mediators, judges and lawyers will discuss the prospects of mediation in the country. Among the organisers are the Belarusian National Bar Association and the Centre for Mediation and Negotiation with the support of the Ministry of Justice.
ACT invites the public to discuss a draft law on charity. ACT NGO has drafted a concept for the Law ‘On Public Benefit’ as an instrument to regulate philanthropy and sponsorship in Belarus. ACT's goal is hold an open discussion of the concept for public organisations, experts and all interested bodies. The first workshop is to be held on 26 September.
A single map of reforms in CSO legislation to be created. On 18 September in Minsk, the Assembly of pro-democratic NGOs and the Legal Transformation Centre organised a roundtable, set to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Law ‘On Public Associations’. Participants discussed the possibility of creating a single map of legislative reforms in the interests of civil society that could serve to promote tactical coordination between lobbying initiatives to improve the legal conditions for CSOs.
Student Leadership Academy. The Centre for the Development of Student Initiatives (CDSI) announces the start of the Fall 2014 session in the Student Leadership Academy. The Academy will offer students of Belarusian universities a series of educational seminars in all of the regional capitals of Belarus, as well as a chance to implement their own project ideas. The courses will be held between September – December 2014.
Civil Society Campaigns
Talaka.by collects ideas from Minsk residents. On 13 September the Talaka.by initiative collected from Minsk residents more than 130 ideas for the interactive map project Lets' Improve Minsk by Talaka/Together. During the day passers-by provided more than 80 ideas and suggestions to improve the lives of citizens, and more than 50 local challenges to solve.
Third Capacity Building Fair to be held in Minsk. On 31 October the third time Capacity Building Fair is set to take place in Minsk. Organised by the Capacity Building Marketplace, the Fair will present the Belarusian market of organisational development services for CSOs. This year an annual popular event will become a true market where customers (CSOs) will have real money to pay for services of consultants. To provide CSOs with real purchasing capacity, the Marketplace announced a call for CSOs to get pre-approved vouchers and make deals with providers directly at the Fair.
Don't be Silent in Belarusian cards. The idea of the project belongs to a young artist Daria Mandzik, a winner of the Budzma campaign contest of cultural ideas. The cards are handy guides for anyone who is interested in the Belarusian language and want to speak Belarusian on basic daily topics. The cards are can be found at Budzma’s events and in bookstores.
1514 Board Game released. On 8 September at the Logvinau book shop, the PRAS art studio presented the 1514 board game. This interactive game seeks to promote Belarusian history and is dedicated to the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Orsha.
Flying University programme announced. On 9 September the Flying University presented a new programme of study for the 2014-2015 academic year. Anyone interested can sign up for various lectures, six different schools and any of the five seminars offered by the Flying University before 25 September.
REFORUM calls for experts. The Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), under the REFORUM project, announced a call for national experts to develop proposals for reform in the fields of direct foreign investment and education. BISS invites research teams and expert groups, think tanks, as well as individual experts to participate in the project. Two thematic expert groups will be composed from the candidates selected.
Social Weekend 4. On 10-30 September Social Weekend 4 is accepting applications from everyone who is interested in changing the world for the better and wants to participate in a lottery grants totaling more than 100 million Belarusian rubles (about $9,500). Proposals should be related to education, culture, charity, health, etc. All ideas will be posted on the contest page for the public to vote on and expert evaluation.
International Mobility Week. The Green Alliance, in partnership with Minsk Urban Platform, has announced the second annual Mobility Week, which will take place on 16-22 September in Minsk, Brest, Gomel, Grodno and Baranvichi. This year’s slogan of the Week is “Our streets – our choice”. The organisers will offer everyone interested the chance to attend to lectures by international urban development experts, films screenings, competitions and take part in city tours. Throughout the week, Belarusians will have access to the Green Telephone hotline, where they can call regarding urban environmental issues.
Eco-friendly life style for young moms. The Centre of Environmental Solutions has announced online courses for young mothers on how to live an eco-friendly life. The 7-week course covers such issues as green consumption, energy efficiency, chemical safety and other topics and will utilise a variety of learning tools, such as lectures, forums, and video material. Anyone interested may sign up until 15 September.
Twelve Belarusian cities are cleaning their streets every weekend from 13 September to 12 October, as part of the global campaign To Make! The campaign has no single focal point: anyone can organise his/her own group of volunteers and clean up any area of the city. This year it is easier to join the campaign: all scheduled cleaning points can be found at greenmap.by.
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.