Belarusians Ousted From the Russian Market, Spongers, Small Business – Belarus State TV Digest
Belarus state TV Channel 1 harshly criticised Belarusian spongers – people who do not wish to work as their fellow citizens do and abuse the nation's welfare system.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka made a number of angry statements in response to Russia's latest round of restrictions on imports from Belarus.
State TV continues to present the developments in Belarus in a generally positive light, while abroad, particularly in the EU, they cover primarily negative developments such as massive strikes, protests and clashes with the police.
What is upsetting Alexander Lukashenka? ONT TV showed Lukashenka’s recent comments on problems the nation is having exporting and transporting food products from Belarus to Russia. He warned that if the countries are not able settle this issue soon, he would have to react. “The behaviour of Russian authorities does not only surprise me, but upsets me as well”, he stated. "We are not little puppies to be taken by the scruff of the neck", he emphasised.
Russia ousts Belarusians from its market. According to coverage on state-controlled Channel 1, the recent problems with food imports from Belarus are giving Russians an additional reason to fast beyond a traditional religious pre-Christmas fasting.
The Russians have banned produce from Belarus that ”is perplexing and doubt of the decency of partners” and has already brought about serious losses to the economy. It was not so long ago that the Russian media praised both the prices and quality of Belarusian food, and now the country continues to push out Belarusian food producers. Experts speaks of “unfair competition”, although the country is respecting all agreements related to the Customs Union and the Union State with Russia.
Budget-2015. Channel 1 reported the Belarusian economy's success stories since the beginning of the year. “Hundreds of new organisations were established, thousands of new working places were created, salaries and pensions increased”. The coverage also showed the head of state telling off several officials and their approach to the economy.
However, in Lukashenka's opinion, the state needs to do more to protect the Belarusian market. “Why haven’t we found mechanisms for protecting our own enterprises? Why have we given up our own market? We go to the Emirates, Mongolia, Myanmar and other places, and give up our own market?” – he shouted at a meeting with the officials.
A new enemy of the Belarusian state? Channel 1 reported about “people who have lost a sense of responsibility and respect for themselves” – also known as spongers. The coverage regularly employed the term 'bum' to describe them. According to Channel 1's report, these people just drink alcohol and live on the state and Belarusian taxpayers' dime.
The programme showed a local shelter where these 'spongers' live, some of whom had lost their documents, some are disabled, and some are unemployed. “However, the guests of this shelter often rely on the comforts of life [provided by the state]”, as one journalist critically noted.
Outbursts of dissatisfaction in Europe. According to Channel 1, EU countries have to step up and begin dealing with their public's anger. Two big protests against budget cuts took place in Belgium and France accompanied by large-scale clashes with police. The reporter hinted that the “farmers’ revolt” in France was caused by Russian ban on imports of food from the European Union.
Social justice according to a communist politician. Belarusian communist Georgi Atamanov pointed out that the negligence in “labour-wise” upbringing of young people caused the problem of the spongers. According to him, liberals think that people need freedom and lower taxes. But "these guys [pointing his finger at Yaraslau Ramanchuk, a former presidential candidate] will squirt out money. The bourgeoisie will be getting fat and we again will be their slaves”.
“Look at American society”. A member of the Belarusian parliament talked about the pressure to work and succeed in American society and the social exclusion for those who act like “parasites”.
We all pay taxes. In the view of Natalia Riabova from the project "Kosht Urada", everyone de facto pays taxes in Belarus, by buying articles such as alcohol, cigarettes. Her opinion caused a controversy among some of the guest speakers. Anton Boltochko from Liberal Club also supported Rabiova’s opinion. He pointed out that the social aid should focus on helping the most vulnerable. According to the coverage, 50% of the state budget goes to social welfare.
Problems small businesses face in Belarus. A theme of another broadcast of the talk show “Delo principa” was running small and medium business in Belarus. Michail Malash, a Belarusian entrepreneur, argued that the bureaucracy of the tax system, high costs of rent and difficulties with getting permission to rent a premises in the country remain the biggest challenges for businessmen. In his view, these remain “temporary problems” and in principle could be resolved soon.
Attitudes towards small businesses. Valeryi Bojniov, an economics professor (no affiliation was given) refuted a myth, in his view, that portrays small business as a driver for the economy and “the myth that if you give them complete freedom, they will feed us, dress us up, make us happy”. The Belarusian state greatly helps Belarusian business, he added. Bojniov complained that the state walks on eggshells when it comes to business.
Valeryi Karpunin from the Republican Club of Financial Managers, disagreed with him and noted the importance of having a positive attitude towards entrepreneurs, even if a few of them avoid paying taxes. Karpunin argued that in the first instance the state should not harass business and should refrain from creating any cumbersome tasks for them.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1) and ONT TV. 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.
The Ukrainian Flag Banned in Belarus?
On 21 November the Minsk Arena hosted the famous Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy, who are known for their support of Euromaidan and its pro-European orientation. The musicians did not raise any political issues during the gig according to agreement with the administration, but their concert became politicised nonetheless.
The next day videos appeared online in which policemen refused to allow people sporting the colours of the Ukrainian flag into the concert and even went so far as to pull a flag out of a fan’s hands inside the venue.
Belarus has so far only placed a ban on the Belarusian national white-red-white flag which is considered by the authorities to be an anti-government and anti-Lukashenka symbol that is unauthorised at public gatherings.
With the start of Euromaidan and the Ukraine Crisis the symbols of these conflicting sides have also become a target of political persecution.
Music and Politics
The Russian government banned Okean Elzy from holding concerts back in the spring while the Euromaidan revolution was unfolding in Ukraine. St Petersburg city government representative Vladimir Milonov accused them of radicalism and holding anti-Russian views and went on to urge the Minister of Culture to restrict their activity in Russia. Shortly afterwards several entertainment agencies informed the band that they were not going to be able to have any concerts in Russia.
However, in Belarus Okean Elzy does not face any restrictions so far. On 21 November they played a gig at the largest concert hall in Minsk — the Minsk-Arena, which holds a total of 15,000 people.
The band was truly triumphant in their return to Belarus with a hall full of fans – a rare situation for Belarus. This itself did not come as much of a surprise as the previous Okean Elzy concert in Minsk, back in December 2013, had a similar turnout.
Deputy Director of the Minsk-Arena Mikalaj Serhiejenka commented after the concert that the administration had discussed the set list with the band in advance and asked them not to sing certain songs that might be viewed as having political undertones. “We do not want to escalate the atmosphere during the concert as it can lead to some kind of abnormal action”, he said. In compliance with this agreement, Okean Elzy did not raise any political issues during the concert.
The Ukrainian Flag Banned?
The next day, however, a video appeared on the Internet in which plain-clothed policemen, who were searching audience members, refused a group of girls enter the concert with a Ukrainian flag. They forced visitors to leave all symbols containing yellow-blue Ukrainian colours in a cloakroom outside the hall.
The girls demanded to see some kind of documentation that forbade Ukrainians symbols being displayed at concerts, but instead they received only a vague response that “this is not a political event”. After some resistance and the police's own persistent demands, they gave in after being threatened with arrest.
Another video from the concert showed a policeman pulling a Ukrainian flag out of a fan’s hands after failing to persuade her to give it up voluntarily.
In an interview with TUT.by after the concert, Volha Kavaĺkova and Maryna Chomič, the girls from the same video, said that “the police did not even let people in with small Ukrainian flag ribbons on their bags. They even insisted that we remove a ribbon from my friend’s hair”.
The Minsk-Arena web site only says that visitors cannot display symbols of fascist or racist content at concerts.
The Authorities Deny Political Background
The concert organisers acknowledged that the decision to ban Ukrainian flag came from the Minsk police. Regarding the inquiries made by TUT.by journalists, the Press Secretary of the Minsk Internal Affairs Department explained that flags and other things might disturb other visitors, and their use was restricted strictly in the name of security.
After a few taped incidents appeared online, the Press Secretary of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote on his twitter in Belarusian: “Colleagues, is this sane? Is the Ukrainian flag banned in Belarus?”
— Yevhen Perebyinis (@YPerebyinis) November 23, 2014
On 24 November the Belarusian MFA replied to the tweet “According to the Ministry of Interior, when the house is full, the same thing would be seen with the Belarusian flag because it should not disturb the spectators. Our people love Okean Elzy!” The Ukrainian reply was “Thanks for the reply, but I cannot imagine [a scenario where] the police handled the Belarusian flag with equal disrespect and brutality”.
On 25 November the Belarusian Ambassador to Ukraine was summoned to the Ukrainian MFA. The Ukrainians asked him to explain the incident with the flag and he replied that concert regulations do not allow for it to be displayed. However, he failed to explain why the police handled the flags with disrespect.
Politicised Symbols in Belarus
In Belarus, the white-red-white flag that was abolished by the Lukashenka-initiated referendum in 1995 remains one of the most contentious of outlawed symbols in the country. The flag can only be used as a BNF political party symbol at officially sanctioned meetings and pickets. Otherwise its appearance in public is regarded as a kind of anti-government protest and is a regular target for the police.
Merely displaying it in a public place is qualified as an "unauthorised action" that can lead to fines being levied or even a few days in jail. Even hanging the flag out of the window of your own apartment is illegal.
The most famous case of a demonstration held under the white-red-white banner occurred in 2010 in Viciebsk when the activist Siarhei Kavalienka placed a flag on the top of the city's downtown Christmas tree. Thus far this has also been the only strictly flag-related criminal case, though Kavalienka was accused of disturbing public order.
Despite the authorities’ claims that during a concert flags cannot be displayed on security reasons, the official Belarusian flag can regularly be seen at concerts. In fact, before the Euromaidan revolution, the Ukrainian flag also was not considered a “political symbol”. Afterwards, however, it has become highly politicised and a source of potential problems with the police.
It now appears that besides the white-red-white flag, symbols employed during the Ukraine crisis have also received official censure. The flags of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics have yet to show up at large public events, but during Victory Day this past May, Belarus banned the use of St. Georges ribbons – a World War II symbol that has also become a symbol of the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
Another remarkable case of pro-Russian symbol restriction occurred back in November 2012, when the Mahilioŭ local authorities forbade the organisers of “Slavic March” to use a black-yellow-white flag – the traditional symbols of Russian monarchists and nationalists. In effect, this means that the authorities are restricting not only the symbols of the democratic opposition but every other dubious political symbol that they cross.
Belarus continues to maintain its balancing act between Russia and the West on the Ukraine issue, all while trying to be a reconciling partner for the conflict. Clearly, non-alignment will remain an important element of Belarus's foreign policy, including the symbolic dimension that this entails. The Belarusian police, as usual, will continue to try to serve Lukashenka to the best of their ability, even if that means ensuring that the smallest disagreeable symbol does not rear its head in public.