Big talk with the President, a drop in gambling, armed neo-Nazis – Belarus state press digest
Last week Alexandr Lukashenka spoke for over seven hours to journalists emphasising deep problems with Russia at the press conference “Big talk with the president”. According to him, Russia should not fear an influx of migrants after Belarus's visa-free regime starts.
Lithuania criticises the Belarusian NPP for solely political and economic reasons, not security concerns. The previously thriving gambling industry in Minsk is in decline. Experts discuss challenges to Belarus's accession to the WTO in 2017. Brest police detain a group of neo-Nazis with a large stockpile of arms and links to Ukraine.
This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.
Lukashenka holds a “Big talk with the president”. On 3 February Aliaksandr Lukashenka held a press-conference which lasted for the record breaking 7,5 hours and gathered an unusually diverse spectrum of participants – journalists, political experts, businessmen, MPs, representatives of civil associations. “There are forces that try to involve us into conflicts, and today we especially need spiritual strength and consolidation. The talk gathered people with diverse views, but we are all devoted to independent Belarus”, he emphasised before at the beginning.
Belarusian leader commented on all current problems of Belarus. He insisted that the government should guarantee $500 average salary by any means. He stated that Belarus lost $15bn due to protectionist policies of Russia within Eurasian Economic Union, and criticised Russia for anti-Belarusian media messages and setting a border control zone on border with Belarus.
Lukashenka said that Belarus can do without Russian oil, however difficult it could be, because independence and history are priceless and cannot be traded. He also revealed that it was Vladimir Putin who advised him to normalise relations with the West.
Russia should not fear an influx of migrants after the visa-free regime in Belarus starts. Soyuznoe Veche published Aliaksandr Lukashenka's response to the emerging concern in Russia over the new policy of visa-free entry to Belarus for nationals of 80 countries. This step could threaten Russia's security since the countries have no border, some Russian commentators argue.
The Belarusian side claims that the government had considered the visa-free regulations for a year and a half and examined all the potential risks for Belarus, its allies, and neighbours – including Russia. Lifting visas does not mean removing border control, and any fear of criminals entering Russia is groundless. 'This is our sovereign right. We are not violating any agreements with other states by introducing this regime', the Belarusian leader said.
Lithuania criticises the Belarusian NPP out of envy. Lithuanian political parties plan to draw up an agreement which would prohibit purchase of energy from the Belarusian NPP, reports Narodnaja Hazieta. President Dalia Grybauskaite had stated earlier that the NPP may become an instrument of unconventional pressure on the Baltic states. Quoting the expert Aliaksiej Dzermant, the newspaper writes that the real reasons for Lithuania's behaviour are political, as it plans to build its own NPP together with the other Baltic states and Poland.
However, Lithuania's neighbours do not support the initiative, while the Belarusian plant is looking more and more like a successful rival. The newspaper also quotes the Director of the Division of Nuclear Installation Safety of the IAEA, Grzegorz Rzentkowski, who says that Belarusian government fully realises the responsibility for nuclear safety and has invited a large number of monitoring missions to Belarus.
Minsk casinos are in decline. Respublika reports on the sunset of the gambling era in Belarus. After Russia restricted the gambling industry to a few special zones in 2010, Belarus decided to take initiative and become a Las-Vegas for Russia and other countries. Investors flooded into Minsk in order to set up businesses and wealthy Russians appreciated the proximity of the Belarusian capital. However, year by year the government kept adding new taxes on both casinos and gamblers.
Casino owners complain that they are completely mistrusted by Belarusian officials, who think that gambling cannot be unprofitable. Moreover, plummeting oil prices have significantly reduced Russians' appetite for gambling. On top of this, Russia is planning to open a new gambling zone in Sochi, which will definitely entice Russian clients. Many businessmen in Belarus are now simply hoping to close shop without losses or conflicts with the authorities.
Experts discuss the challenges to Belarus's accession to the WTO. By the end of 2017, after a long delay, Belarus may finally join the WTO. Respublika asked experts about the challenges and opportunities membership in WTO could bring to Belarus. Director of the National Centre for Marketing Valier Sadocha thinks that in the middle and long-term period, WTO membership could lead to some industries reforming and others closing. More transparent legislation, compliant with WTO standards, could attract more investors to Belarus.
Growing competitiveness on the market would also result in lower prices. Uladzimir Karahin, head of the National Confederation of Entrepreneurs, believes that Belarusian businesses should learn how to defend themselves in courts and participate in anti-dumping investigations. According to World Bank estimates, WTO accession would increase real income of Belarusians by 8.2 per cent.
Brest police detain a group of neo-Nazis selling arms and drugs. A group of men were detained during the sale of a gun and 1.5 kg of TNT, according to Belarus Segodnia. A search of their apartments revealed a large stockpile of arms and arms components, as well as amphetamines and marijuana. The arms included guns, rockets, bombs, ammunition, and explosives. They amassed the arms by accumulating remains from World War II as well as purchasing and smuggling them from Ukraine.
The men confessed that they planned to make money through arms sales, but during the interrogation they also admitted that they wanted to defend their land in case of invasion. According to the police, the group's motivations consisted of a grab bag of various radical ideologies: racism, Slavic paganism, hatred towards Russia and Donbass, and support for far-right organisations.
Architectural heritage decays because of bad regulation. Narodnaja Hazieta inquired why old castles, palaces, and manors continue to moulder in Belarus. The state is largely unable to finance their restoration. There are around 600 such sites in the Hrodna Region alone. These buildings have remained state property since Soviet times, but they need private owners regardless of what functions they are to fulfil. This will at least prevent further decay.
However, the conditions for purchasing such buildings remain unacceptable for investors. The state demands very short terms for restoration and exorbitant prices. Besides, the legislation on protection of cultural heritage is outdated and needs to be comprehensively overhauled.
The state press digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. 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.
Analytical paper: Challenges to Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area
In 2015 Belarus joined the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and committed to putting a Roadmap for higher education reform into effect by 2018.
The implementation of the Roadmap is running behind schedule, which poses a threat to fulfilment of Belarus' obligations by the due date.
This paper released by the Ostrogorski Centre today analyses the main challenges to implementation of the Roadmap in Belarus; it also provides recommendation which could help to do it on time and benefit a wider range of stakeholders.
Belarus as a new member of the European Higher Education Area
At a conference of 47 EHEA Ministers of Education (May 14-15, 2015, Yerevan) Belarus took on commitments to implement a Roadmap for higher education reform. It is expected that the harmonisation of Belarusian and European educational standards will ensure higher quality education, more opportunities for studying and employment, deeper integration in the European and global educational area, and inclusion of different social groups, including disadvantaged communities, in education.
The programme of higher education reform in Belarus stipulates a mechanism of international support and consultation for the implementation of the Roadmap by 2018, when the final report on the implementation of the Roadmap will be submitted at the Ministerial Conference in Paris.
An Advisory Group on Support for the Belarus Roadmap was established to assist in implementation of the Roadmap. It includes representatives of governments, supranational institutions, and civil associations of member countries of the EHEA along with three representatives of Belarusian state education sector.
Challenges to implementing the Roadmap
Belarus would like to avoid a painful breakdown of its educational system, bypassing ‘empty-headed copying of western models’, as Aliaksandr Lukashenka likes to put it. He has named several possible negative effects of internationalisation for Belarus, including brain drain and loss of ‘patriotic, moral, and aesthetic education’.
The fact that the country’s leadership takes this stance is a significant factor hindering the integration of Belarus into the EHEA. What’s more, relevant legislative changes proposed by the Ministry of Education are contested by other governmental bodies and ministries, which are often wary of change.
A group of experts from the Public Bologna Committee has developed methodology for monitoring the quality of Roadmap implementation. This allows monitors to use an index to measure the Roadmap’s progress. The term set for Roadmap implementation is three years. The final index value as of June 30, 2016 was 8,7%. This leads experts to conclude that Roadmap implementation is still in its initial stages, and in some areas has not even started.
It should be noted that the Advisory Group on Support for the Belarus Roadmap is more optimistic about the Roadmap’s progress, but its working documents are not available publicly, making assessment difficult.
Experts assert that the development and implementation of the National Qualification framework, the quality assurance system, ECTS credits system, and Diploma Supplement has been delayed for unknown reasons. For three years, the Ministry of Labour has been working on the National Qualification framework, piloting projects for professional standards.
Institutions which do not directly relate to the education system create barriers to student and staff mobility. For example, advertisements for activities by foreign universities are regulated by the anti-human trafficking law, developed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The state funding of academic mobility remains very modest and does not allow to reach the planned EHEA student mobility indicator of 20% by 2020
The obligation for students whose education is financed by public funds to accept work placements upon graduation has remained in Belarus since Soviet times, which does not correspond to EHEA and demand in the economy. Moreover, there is a discrepancy between the education sector and the needs of the labour market.
Most Belarusian HEIs are state run; they are subject to orders from higher executive powers. Rectors are appointed by the President and are under political governance.
Universities are still used as a tool for political education by means of state ideology courses, youth organisations such as the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, obligatory work, and participation in state holidays and political events. For the most part, civil society is only able to influence decisions by the authorities through external actors, primarily the European Union.
Recommendations on Roadmap implementation
To implement the Roadmap on time, the responsible institutions should consider the following recommendations:
Social dimension and labour market. The obligation to accept work placements should be limited to specific areas, where there is a significant need for professionals. Legislative measures should be taken to provide incentives to employ university graduates via preferential tax treatment for employers and other fiscal mechanisms. Tools to ensure this include ratings and monitoring of the quality of education. Moreover, HEI funding should depend on the level of employment among graduates.
Student and staff mobility. Bureaucratic barriers to mobility should be eliminated in cooperation with the stakeholders among governmental bodies. State funding of academic mobility should be significantly increased. To prevent brain drain, students should be offered prospects for professional development through social partnership with employers.
Conference panel on Bologna process in Belarus (December 2016, mostly in Russian)
Academic freedoms and principles of university autonomy. Guarantees of citizens’ and institutions’ rights to free teaching, learning, research, and protection from government interference should be codified in legislation. Institutional autonomy should be guaranteed in organisational, financial, personnel, and academic spheres. Administrative barriers to creating freely functioning student unions, trade unions, and other public associations should be eliminated.
Transparency and involvement of a wide range of stakeholders. The institutions responsible for the implementation of the Bologna principles should provide stakeholders and the public with up-to-date information on the progress of reform. The Advisory Group on Support for the Belarus Roadmap should engage a wider spectrum of stakeholders in its activity, including NGOs and business and student associations, as well as facilitate regular expert dialogue.
- Read full paper: Challenges to Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area
- Чытаць аналітычны дакумент: Выклікі далучэння Беларусі да Еўрапейскай прасторы вышэйшай адукацыі