Belarus struggles to control its borders
On 13 October Belarusian border guards received EU-funded special equipment worth €2.5m. This will help Minsk control the Ukrainian border. There is an element of irony in this: although it works to remove borders within the EU, Brussels is helping to construct them in the rest of Europe.
If Belarus succeeds in sealing off its border with Ukraine, its Russian border will be the only one to remain open. However, despite decades of integration, the status of this border is precarious. In mid-September, the Kremlin closed its border with Belarus for third-nation nationals without any prior notice – thus ruining Minsk's plans of becoming a transit country.
Belarus still has serious problems with the development of adequate border control agencies, as their dependence on foreign aid, as well as allegations of corruption, reveal.
Why is the EU giving millions to Minsk?
In order to provide the Belarusian border patrol with what it need to control its border, the EU is funding a project called “Strengthening surveillance and bilateral coordination capacity along the common border between Belarus and Ukraine” (SURCAP), implemented by of the International Organisation for Migration.
The EU launched SURCAP in 2012 after a period of disruption in relations with Belarus following the 2010 presidential election in the country. In November 2012, Lukashenka even hinted that without such EU assistance, Minsk would no longer be able to control illegal migration to the EU.
Was averting such a threat the reason Brussels initiated the SURCAP project? This is unlikely. By the time the Belarusian president had articulated this threat, SURCAP was already a done deal. Moreover, such declarations have never been particularly alarming, given the fact that illegal migration from Belarus to the EU has always been relatively insignificant.
Brussels probably intended to help Ukraine establish control over its borders and thus move it further towards eligibility for EU membership. The Belarus-Ukrainian border has for years been an issue which Minsk links to Ukraine's need to settle its debts with Belarus.
For the first phase of the project the EU allocated €1.3m to Belarus in 2012-2014. In the second phase (2014-2016) funding doubled to €2.68m. Thanks to these funds, Belarusian border guards received SUVs, swamp buggies, speed boats and motor boats, quadracycles, motorcycles, and other equipment. This collaboration proves that the interests of Brussels and Minsk coincide in this area and that the Belarusian government is not averse to working with the West on issues of national security.
The empire strikes back
Although problems with the Ukrainian border are being solved, Minsk is unexpectedly encountering problems from the east. At some point in mid-September, Russia – without any prior announcement – closed its 1,230-km long border with Belarus for all third-country nationals.
They can now cross the Belarus-Russian border in just one place: the southernmost part of Belarus where the borders of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine intersect. This came as an unpleasant surprise for Belarus as many foreigners are accustomed to entering Russia via Belarus.
For many years, persons banned by Russia from entering its territory could circumvent this by first coming to Belarus and then heading to Russia. Minsk and Moscow also failed to coordinate their visa policies, and kept their own lists of unwanted persons and citizens not allowed to go abroad.
As a result, for many years citizens of Belarus and Russia, as well as of third countries, used the Belarus-Russian border to enter or escape the two countries. The Kremlin put up with this despite the fact that Russia's borders have become increasingly closed since the mid-2000s.
So why did Moscow decide to close the border with Belarus now? There are good reasons to believe that this was a reprimand for Minsk. In July, Reuters reported a roughly 40 per cent decrease in Russia's oil supplies to Belarus as a punishment for Minsk's overly friendly gestures toward the West: the Kremlin has many other tools to put pressure on Minsk.
Another detail seems to prove that this is the real reason for the border closure rather than, for example, a response to the smuggling of sanctioned goods to Russia via Belarus. Russia continues to let cargo trucks cross the border unimpeded; only the movement of individuals is controlled.
The Belarusian border control system struggles with a number of internal problems as well. On 26 July, President Lukashenka publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with the work of the State Border Committee. He emphasised that it was already the third time in 2016 that he had addressed the activities of border control agencies saying that they cause “not worry but deep unhappiness.”
Although he did not elaborate further, corruption and large-scale smuggling might be what Lukashenka had in mind. There are more and more examples of this. Thus, on 21 October Polish customs officials discovered 356,000 packets of cigarettes smuggled from Belarus in a cargo train. If sold at market price in the EU, they would cost $1.2m. In Belarus that quantity could cost as little as $72,000.
This is not the first time Polish authorities have apprehended this sort of illegal cargo; the problem has existed since the early 2010s. For instance, in July Polish authorities in Terespol confiscated two loads of cigarettes smuggled from Belarus in cargo trains with a total market value of more than $1.2m. Evidently, somebody is reaping huge profits. More conspicuously, it is impossible to smuggle such large quantities of cigarettes in this way without the collusion of border control officials.
Problems despite investment
Such problems present a paradox. The social prestige of border control agencies is high: even Lukashenka's sons have served on the border.
In material terms, Belarusian border control agencies belong to the most prestigious and developed government agencies in the country. Unlike other security agencies, they regularly receive up-to-date equipment. This comes not only in the form of foreign technical aid: in the late 2000s, the Belarusian government even purchased four French helicopters Ecureuil АS 355 NP for border guards. This was an unprecedented deal, as Minsk usually procures sophisticated hardware for its security agencies only from Russia.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian government struggles to maintain control over its hundreds of kilometres of borders. Over the past two decades it had to start patrolling borders which had not previously existed – with the exception of the Belarus-Polish border inherited from Soviet times.
In addition, Minsk has made efforts to avoid the harsh border control measures of Soviet times, when 30-km border zones, a highly militarised system, the subordination of border guards to the KGB, etc. were the norm. The Belarusian government has succeeded in overcoming many of these residues of the past. Constructing a more efficient system takes time as well as trial and error.
Going green: towards a zero-waste economy in Belarus
On 12 October 2016 Belarus announced its intention to adopt a national action plan for a green economy. This September the country also ratified the Paris Climate Change Agreement. What's more, the European Union has invested over €10m in a project aiming to fascilitate Belarus’ transition to a green economy.
What a "green economy" entails could be anything from simply recycling to increased use of renewable energy sources, all areas in which Belarus needs improvement. According to some calculations, the average Belarusian produces 1–1.5 kg of garbage per day. This adds up to roughly 300kg of garbage a year. In Belarus, only about 12% of this amount will be recycled. The rest goes to landfills.
Business as usual
Belarus is a country lacking its own significant energy and fuel resources. It therefore relies heavily on imported crude oil, natural gas, and peat. However, almost all existing energy resources within the country are renewable: water, wind, solar energy, and biomass. Therefore, it would be logical for Belarus to invest primarily in the development of renewable energy sources.
And yet according to Naviny.by, in 2015 only 5% of energy in Belarus came from renewable sources. The government plans to increase this number to 6% by 2020. The is nevertheless a negligible margin compared to the neighbouring EU’s plans to spike at 20% by 2020.
A look at the structure of renewable sources of energy also reveals that wood fuels account for the major part of such sources. Almost 93% of renewable energy comes from wood, wood chip and wood waste. This in itself presents a problem and can hardly prove to be sustainable in the long run.
Belarus has also begun the costly and controversial construction of a nuclear power plant (NPP) on the border with Lithuania. According to some experts, Astraviec NPP will not only produce a surplus of energy in Belarus, it will also stall the development of alternative energy resources. Some argue that it will increase the country’s dependence on Russia as well, as the main contractor is a Russian company also likely to stay on to take care of the NPP’s nuclear waste disposal.
Recycling in Belarus
Major improvements in the recycling sphere can also make Belarus a more eco-friendly and sustainable country. The present rate of recycling peaks at 12% at the Speckommuntrans Waste Sorting Facility in Homyel, according to its Deputy Director Aliaksandr Nikonov. In contrast, about 80% of waste in Germany will be recycled and the USA can boast a reported 93% recovery rate for cardboard packaging for recycling, according to WBUR. The difference in attitudes towards recycling is staggering.
The state still has a monopoly on the recycling sector in Belarus. People continue to expect the government to pay them to return their their waste products, such as paper, plastic, and glass. However, because the rates are so low, most citizens do not take advantage of these opportunities. According to Denis Grebenchuk, Chief Engineer at Gomelhimtorg, a scrap metal facility, Roma people and the homeless, who view recycling as a business opportunity, provide the bulk of the resources.
Thus, ecology remains a marginal issue in mainstream Belarus. In Germany, for instance, a major shift occurred in 1985, when the federal government announced its priorities to recycle and reduce waste. However, the government failed to act, and the amount of rubbish continued to grow, until private small enterprises stepped up.
Today Germany leads the EU in recycling and zero-waste efforts, thanks to combined private and state efforts. Massive public information campaigns encouraged citizens to commit to separate waste management and recycling.
In Belarus change is slow. Private initiatives have sprung up across the country, while the state lags behind in ecological matters. The mentality that the state should take over and solve ecological issues has slowly changed in major cities thanks to new generations of Belarusians. One can find separate containers for glass, paper, and plastic. The younger generation seems to be more willing to take responsibility for its own carbon footprint.
How to achieve a greener economy
One initiative, called “Green Map” http://greenmap.by/, aims to educate people about utilisation of toxic waste, such as used batteries, bulbs, and other products. It also provides information on how to sort garbage. Such initiatives step up where the state has failed – they encourage Belarusians to take ownership of their future by managing their own waste today.
Air quality in Belarus causes concerns, as the number of car owners has increased. According to BelStat there are 412 cars per 1,000 residents in Minsk. This is the highest ratio in any former USSR country. In comparison, Moscow stands at 380 cars per person.
This ratio, an all-time high, also leads to very tangible problems in terms of air pollution, noise, traffic jams, and parking issues. Despite the well-developed and affordable public transportation system in Minsk, 2015 has seen a 5% decrease in the number of passengers, according to the Ministry of Transport.
Another way to go green is the paradigm of the “sharing economy” or the peer economy. This is when owners rent something out that they are not using. To some extent, this mentality has already caught on in Belarus, and it will only become more widespread. Both Airbnb.com and uber driving service have a strong presence in the country.
Since 2014 there have been regular initiatives such as free-markets, charity shops and book crossings, where people exchange, donate, or lend their old things. These events attract thousands of motivated Belarusians who care about the environment. According to scientists at the individual level any person can make a difference by giving up driving, plastic bags, or bottled water, and reducing the amount of meat they eat.