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.
Belarusian diplomacy in 2016 – annual foreign policy digest
In 2016, Belarusian diplomats succeeded in getting rid of most Western sanctions, improving the international legitimacy of the national parliament, regularising dialogue with Europe, and converting Poland from a strong critic into a good partner.
Nevertheless, they failed to make Lukashenka fully presentable to his peers in Europe, alienated Ukraine’s political elite, botched export growth and diversification of the export market, and turned Lithuania from a supporter into a foe.
Belarus Digest offers its summary of Belarusian diplomacy’s achievements and failures over the past year.
A farewell to EU sanctions. In February, Belarusian diplomacy scored a major victory when the European Union ended travel bans and asset freezes against most individuals and all companies from Belarus.
Meanwhile, in the months preceding the final removal of sanctions, the Belarusian authorities failed to systematically improve the human rights, democracy, and the rule of law situation in the country.
Geopolitical considerations played the decisive role in the EU's decision, even if European officials denied it. In the regional security context, Europe decided against rebuking Belarus, which had previously acted as a fairly independent player.
Maintaining an ‘optimistic status quo’ with the US. Unlike Europe, the United States refrained from definitively removing sanctions against Belarus. However, Washington remunerated Minsk for its renunciation of overtly repressive policies by suspending economic sanctions repeatedly.
Belarus and the United States focused their dialogue on regional security issues. They also resumed military cooperation.
President Alexander Lukashenka chose to become personally engaged in these talks. He received several mid-level US envoys without giving diplomatic protocol too much mind.
Similar to Europe, the United States prioritised Belarus’s distancing from Russia’s assertive behaviour in the region over long-time concerns for human rights and democracy. However, the lack of progress in these areas precluded further improvement of bilateral ties.
Mainstreaming dialogue with Europe. In 2016, Belarus developed high-intensity relations with Europe, in both institutional and bilateral dimensions.
Hardly a month went by without high or mid-level EU emissaries coming to Minsk or Belarusian officials visiting Brussels. Belarus and the EU launched a new format for structured dialogue, the Coordination Group.
While high-level bilateral exchanges with many EU countries has become quasi-routine, Belarusian diplomacy remained most successful in strengthening bilateral contacts with Central and South-East European nations, leaving the 'old' Europe behind.
Lukashenka has remained a political outcast in Europe. His only ‘visit to Italy’ in May was a mere face-saving encounter with an Italian ceremonial official on the way to his meeting with the Pope.
Befriending Poland. Regional security considerations and genuine economic interests have encouraged Warsaw to pursue greater engagement with Minsk, putting aside ‘ideological superstitions’.
The two countries managed to re-establish multifaceted interagency contacts, which included long-taboo parliamentary cooperation. However, they stopped short of highest-level meetings. Poland also cut down its support for the opposition in Belarus and considered shutting down Belsat, the only independent Belarusian TV channel, which it supports financially.
It is not clear what Warsaw got in return, besides strengthened economic cooperation and hesitant signs that Belarus is turning away from Russia.
Meanwhile, several unresolved issues, mostly related to ethnic minority rights and trans-border contacts, have hampered a full normalisation of bilateral relations.
Fending off Lithuania’s diatribe. Although Belarusian-Polish relations improved, Belarusian-Lithuanian relations deteriorated. The two countries’ disagreement over the construction of the Belarusian NPP near their shared border caused a crisis.
Lithuania expressed fear about environmental and safety issues. Belarus saw economic and political motives behind Lithuania’s claims.
Vilnius attempted to form an international coalition to block potential exports of electric energy from Belarus. Minsk countered these efforts by pitching cheap energy to Lithuania’s neighbours and gradually increasing transparency around the nuclear project. Bilateral trade and investment cooperation suffered as a result.
Legitimising the puppet parliament. Over the last twenty years, the international contacts of Belarusian MPs has remained largely limited to their Russian counterparts, the CIS, and developing countries. European legislators have overwhelmingly boycotted the rubber-stamp institution, which the executive branch appoints and controls.
In 2016, several Western parliaments apparently took the removal of sanctions as an encouragement to reengage with Belarus in all areas, including inter-parliamentary relations.
Exchanges of parliamentary delegations between Belarus and Europe have become commonplace. The visits of high-level MPs from Poland and Austria were especially instrumental in helping the marginalised Belarusian legislature to gain international recognition.
No convincing attempt to provide an explanation for the sudden need to ‘normalise’ the entity, which has no say in Belarus’s domestic or foreign policy, has been made so far.
Withstanding Russian pressure. In 2016, relations between Belarus and Russia reached their lowest point in years.
The two countries squabbled over a number of unresolved issues in different spheres: oil and gas supplies, market access, exports of Belarusian agricultural and food products to Russia, loans, transit of third-country nationals through the Belarusian-Russian shared border, and more.
Both countries avoided verbalising the intensity of disagreements at the political level. Instead, they took recourse to various ‘soft power’ measures. These included airing propaganda talk shows on Russian TV with speculation about pro-Maidan trends in Belarus; arrests of pro-Russian journalists in Belarus; fomenting fears of a Russian invasion of Belarus; and Lukashenka’s refusal to attend a Eurasian summit in Russia.
Belarus remained dissatisfied with Russia’s reluctance to provide its usual level of economic sponsorship. Russia was unhappy about Belarus’s decreased level of loyalty in foreign policy and security matters.
Disappointing the Ukrainian elite. In 2016, Belarus managed to increase its bilateral trade with Ukraine; this stands in stark contrast to its deteriorating commercial relations with most other countries. The two countries also succeeded in putting an end to a tariff war between them.
However, despite Belarus’s tacit refusal to support Russia in its hybrid war against Ukraine, political relations between Minsk and Kyiv deteriorated.
Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko have not met in a bilateral format since mid-2014. Their agreement to meet in late 2016 failed to materialise after Belarus voted against a UN resolution on human rights in occupied Crimea. This vote angered many among Ukraine’s elite.
Failing to achieve a breakthrough with ‘Distant Arc’ countries. Belarus sought to achieve a more balanced geographical distribution of its exports to decrease the national economy's vulnerability to stress situations in its main markets.
Lukashenka travelled extensively outside Europe and Russia – visiting China, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE. His diplomats also focused mostly on Middle-Eastern and Asian nations.
However, efforts to increase the share of ‘Distant Arc’ countries in Belarus’s trade have largely failed. In January-November 2016, exports to these markets decrease by 12.5%, from $7.13b to $6.24b, and the share in total exports remained at 29%.
Belarus took pride in improving its relations with China from a simple ‘strategic partnership’ to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership featuring mutual trust and win-win cooperation’.
Belarus's excellent political relations with China may serve to counterbalance Russia’s outsized influence on Belarus. However, these relations have failed to provide an immediate economic payoff as Belarusian exports to China in 2016 contracted to their lowest level since 2009.
Faltering at the United Nations. In 2016, Belarusian diplomacy invested much effort in reforming the process of appointment for new UN Secretary Generals. Throughout UN history, its leader has been chosen based on consensus of the Security Council’s permanent members.
Despite some external signs of greater transparency and inclusiveness, Belarus’s reform efforts have largely failed. Even Belarus’s closest ally, Russia, refused to support this initiative.
Minsk stuck to its non-consensual initiative in promoting the traditional family. It also created a group of like-minded middle-income countries, exploring a new way to access UN development assistance.
Belarus’s policy statements at the UN contrasted with its recent pragmatic approach to bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Using strong anti-Western and anti-capitalist rhetoric, they assigned blame for Belarus’s economic, social, and security failures to West-induced ‘global chaos’.
In 2017, Belarusian diplomats will continue to work wonders: developing relations with the West without a hint of meaningful democratic reforms at home; keeping Russia as its closest ally and sponsor without offering the usual degree of loyalty in return; and increasing exports and attracting investments without economic restructuring and reforms.