Belarusians awaken in protest against polluting factories
On 14 April almost 1,000 people in Brest protested against the construction of a battery factory. During the past year similar protests took place in Astravets, Brest, and Svetlahorsk; all against environmentally-harmful enterprises threatening neighbourhoods with dangerous factory emissions. However, as with other non-political protests, the authorities reacted in all of these cases with either silence or detentions.
Low production costs in Belarus attract foreign investors and potentially create new jobs. However, environmentally unfriendly enterprises in residential areas prove controversial. They discontent citizens and harm Belarus’s environment. While the environment is increasingly becoming a central issue in Western countries, it looks like Belarus takes a backward step and encourages the construction of environmentally-unfriendly factories.
Environmental protests: a new target for repressions
Belarus’s environmental profile continues to deteriorate. In addition to the widely-discussed nuclear power plant (NPP) in Astravets, which envisages the preservation of nuclear waste on Belarusian territory, two more factories captured the attention of green activists. Both the Svetlahorsk pulp-bleaching factory, which uses dangerous bleaching methods, and the Brest battery factory, located less than one kilometre from a residential area, have disturbed residents with their emissions. In total, at least four big enterprises criticised by eco-activists intend to start functioning within the coming years.
The Environmental Performance Index for 2018, a rating that measures the environmental performance of countries, shows that Belarus has lost almost 10 points (out of 100). One reason is that harmful enterprises continue to receive state support despite civic protests.
Approval of new factory construction tends to happen without citizens’ participation. Even though officials organise public hearings, these barely impact on an actual agreement between the authorities and investors about construction conditions. When citizens do demonstrate their discontent through public protest, the authorities suppress those initiatives by administrative or even criminal cases.
The pressure on environmental protesters has become a focus for green activists. In February, the Belarusian organisation Ecodom informed the Aarhus Committee about an increasing violation of eco-activists’ rights in Belarus. Belarus became the first country to violate the rights of its citizens within the framework of the Aarhus convention, according to a report in Novy Chas.
Svetlahorsk, Brest, and Astravec: a similar scenario
Protests in Svetlahorsk have been ongoing for more than two years, though they have brought few results. On 20 March the Svetlahorsk court declined an appeal from activists demanding additional eco-expertise at the pulp-bleaching factory that is already working under a testing regime. Activists, however, managed to prevent the removal of the regulation that allowed private citizens to file a case against enterprises.
Despite the involvement of green activists, lawyers and independent experts, officials remain reluctant to restrict the construction and highlight the creation of jobs and generation of money. At the same time, according to the activist Alena Masliukova from the human rights centre Viasna, the factory could have been built at a much lower cost with more qualitative and less harmful equipment. As a result, when fully-functioning, the factory will have to pay back with both money and produced materials.
Similar to Svetlahorsk, the Brest factory construction was neither discussed with citizens nor environmentally friendly. Local authorities and representatives from the factory have organised public hearings to inform citizens of their decisions, but have not sought any public opinion.
When hundreds of people started to come to a weekly meeting, the authorities reacted with ignorance. The authorities placed two of the activists, as well as bloggers Siarhei Piatruhin and Aliaxandr Kabanau, under criminal investigation. As human rights defenders claim, they face fabricated charges.
The Belarusian NPP, which has just started to test its first nuclear reactor, remains the most difficult project to influence since large investments have already been made. As in the cases of Brest and Svetlahorsk, despite the efforts of activists and international pressure from environmental organisations and neighbouring countries, the authorities have never considered adapting the energy policy. They have ignored the potential from wind-turbines or solar batteries. Since the beginning of construction at Astravets at least 10 accidents have occurred, leaving three people dead.
All these cases of factory construction have a similar scenario of state-society dialogue. First, citizens protest against the location of the factories in residential areas and the old-fashioned materials or means of production, usually involving investors from China or Russia. Second, protests involve groups of citizens who don’t usually engage with public matters, such as families with children or teachers. And finally, in all the cases, the authorities show themselves reluctant to openly comment on the construction, which usually becomes a case when the state receives new investors but doesn’t want to disappoint citizens.
How can Belarus improve its environmental record?
As in many spheres, there exist few chances that protests can influence policy all the while the authorities publicly silence the problems. Parallel to the construction of environmentally-damaging factories, there are a number of interesting eco-initiatives emerging in the country that receive neither attention nor public support. For instance, a small project (pavetra.online) measuring air-pollution in the Mahiliou region and the first packaging-free store in Minsk, “Zero Waste”.
Last year’s protests against these factories reiterate the inability of the authorities to listen to citizens’ voices when it comes to the construction of such enterprises. Disregarding the environmental perspective, the Belarusian factories and the economy as a whole lose their chance to show themselves modern and competitive.
International criticism is unlikely to bring a change in Belarus’s policy of earning money by hosting dangerous enterprises, which prove profitable for foreign investors. Yet neighbouring and some post-Soviet countries have started to change their approach towards the environment; Georgia recently introduced a complete ban on plastic bags.
Belarus would benefit from green investments and ties with eco-friendly countries (like Sweden, Germany or Netherlands that actively promote green energy and other policies in their countries). These countries might invest in small projects involved in testing for air pollution or similar.
Instead of becoming a platform for foreign investors heavily polluting projects, Belarus could host eco-startups and become a regional hub demonstrating its successful environmental performance. Such an approach would rather stimulate citizens participation than bring them to the streets.
Belarus opens online registration for foreign visitors
On 2 January 2019, a website for the digital registration of foreigners staying in Belarus for more than five days went online. Until now the majority of foreign nationals have needed to visit a local Belarusian Citizenship and Migration Department office. The new initiative represents the latest successful step from the Belarusian authorities to simplify the entry and stay of foreign nationals in Belarus.
At the same time, some foreigners have already experienced difficulties with online registration. According to the Belarusian Internal Affairs Ministry, online registration requires care and attention. Inaccurate data entry may cause the system to deny a registration. In addition, foreigners travelling to Belarus via the Russian border still have to contact the nearest citizenship and migration office. This also applies to foreigners wishing to prolong their stay in the country.
Online registration for foreigners: a long-awaited relief?
On 2 January 2019, the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Centre of Electronic Services opened the online registration system for foreigners. Since then, foreign nationals and stateless persons can register themselves on the website portal.gov.by instead of attending a local Citizenship and Migration Department office upon arrival.
The registration remains available free of charge via any PC, a mobile phone, or other devices in possession of an internet connection. In order to register, a foreign national should create an account on portal.gov.by. As soon as he or she receives a confirmation message, a foreign national becomes officially registered at the listed address in Belarus.
A foreign national might not show proof of successful online registration to border officers, although a registration screenshot speeds up the border checking procedures. At the same time, in case a foreign national forgets to register online, he or she might still visit at the closest Citizenship and Migration Department office afterwards.
At the same time, citizens of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine can stay in Belarus without registration for up to 30 days, and Russian citizens for up to 90 days. As soon as citizens of the above-mentioned countries exceed the allowed period of stay without registration, they must obtain a temporary residence permit.
Problems and limitations of online registration
According to the first statistical data, out of 420 foreigners who used the website portal.gov.by for online registration, 194 failed to pass the registration process. The Belarusian Internal Affairs Ministry analysed the numerous failures and issued an explanation.
According to Uladzimir Kuzura from the Office of the Citizenship and Migration Department, the registration process requires great care on the part of users.
The most common mistakes include mistyped passport characters, incorrect border crossing dates as well as obligatory fields left blank. In case of a failed online registration, foreigners have to register in person at their local Citizenship and Migration Department offices.
There also exist certain limitations on the online registration. In particular, foreigners entering Belarus via the Russian border cannot register online and their only option remains attending the nearest Citizenship and Migration Department. Apart from that, all foreigners wishing to extend their period of stay in Belarus have to attend a Citizenship and Migration Department as well.
The Belarusian visa-free regime: a success story?
On 24 July 2018, Alexander Lukashenka signed the groundbreaking presidential decree allowing foreign nationals from 74 states to enter Belarus up to 30 days visa-free, provided they cross the border at the Minsk National Airport. Previously, in February 2017, Lukashenka signed another crucial presidential decree, which allowed foreign tourists from 80 states to enter Belarus for up to 120 hours without visas via the Minsk National Airport. Those legislative measures became a turning point in the development of Belarusian tourism.
The 30 days visa-free policy has immediately yielded positive results. In the first month since the extension of the visa-free stay, the number of foreign visitors travelling to Minsk has substantially increased. Specifically, the number of American tourists increased by 48.2%, British tourists by 49.7%, Dutch tourists by 120%, French tourists by 53.4%, and Italian tourists by 52.6%. In comparison with the analogous five-day visa-free period in August 2017, the total volume of foreign tourists increased by 35%.
According to Maryna Kandrashova, the head of the tourist company “Around the world”, the visa-free regime has substantially improved Belarus’s attraction for business tourists.
In particular, “Belarus started hosting serious international conferences and congresses, and such events could never happen there before due to the difficulties with visas for international participants.” The number of tourists flying for a city-break to Minsk has also increased, notes Kandrashova, however the growth of business tourists remains higher.
Filip Guly, the Chair of the Republican Union of the Tourist Industry, observes that despite the increase of tourist flows to Belarus, there still exist milestones for growth in the visa regulation. Particularly, numerous tourists unable to visit Belarus from Russia, or vice versa, even with a Russian visa in the passport. Such an unpleasant situation persists due to the existing trans-border agreements between Belarus and Russia. At the same time, Guly praises the improved cooperation between the national tourist services and law enforcement agencies, which grants a high-security level amid the change of the visa regime.
The Belarusian tourism industry: a soft tool to strengthen independence?
As both Guly and Kandrashova note, the national tourism industry awaits continuous progress. The recent positive changes include the growth of English-speaking staff and the increased international advertising of the Belarusian tourist products. The Ministry of Tourism assigns financial means for popular bloggers and opinion-makers to generate reviews and videos of their stay in Belarus. As for the tasks for future, Guly names the necessity to improve the tourist infrastructure and services as well as to lower tourists’ costs.
The recent successive efforts of the Belarusian authorities to open up the country to the world might also go in line with the government’s sporadic attempts to enlarge the manoeuvre space for talks with Russia. As the national tourism industry grows, more and more people across the world discover an independent Belarus, in a way serving to emphasise Belarus’s separateness from Russia – at least in the heads of international tourists.