BRSM, Lukashenka’s Press Conference – Belarus State TV Digest
Aleksandr Lukashenka attended a recent BRSM Youth Union conference and tried to convince young Belarusians to stay in the country and be loyal.
Lukashenka's press conference with domestic and foreign journalists on 29 January turned into one of the biggest news events of the year. According to coverage on state-run TV, even the journalists deemed “disloyal to the authorities” were given a chance to express their views at the event.
State TV journalists have been disseminating confusing messages on EU-Belarus relations as of late. On one occasion they took note of several positive developments, but in another instance they were very critical of a Latvian official for his interview on a potential “thaw” in relations between the West and Belarus.
All of this and more in this edition of Belarus State TV Digest.
Belarus: An Island of Social Stability According to the Glavnyj Efir programme on state-run Channel 1, Belarus distinguishes itself on a global arena via its generous financial support for the poorest and most vulnerable segments of society. Its commitment to maintaining a high level of social welfare support remains a priority for the authorities.
However, not every Belarusian has been contributing their fair share to this enormous financial burden. The authorities have already come up with an idea of how to encourage tax evaders to contribute to the budget. Anyone who has been unemployed for more than half a year will be charged a special fee in lieu of taxes.
Is the EU Ignoring Belarus' National Interests? According to a Channel 1 report, there is room for real improvements in EU-Belarus ties. State TV noted that for years Belarus has been advocating for “pragmatism in its relations with its European partners and respect for its national interests”. There is potential for EU-Belarusian relations to obtain an entirely “new quality” before the Eastern Partnership Summit scheduled to take place in May in Riga.
Who Needs Better Relations with Minsk? In a recent programme, a journalist from ONT TV “Bez Granic” criticised an interview by a Latvian official, Andrejs Pildegovichs, for his comments on the need to release political prisoners as a pre-condition for improving ties between Belarus and the EU. According to the coverage, the interview with Mr Pildegovichs was tragicomic in its content. “Who is advocating for Belarus now? Latvia?(…) Every eighth person living in Latvia appears to be stateless”, scoffed the commentator. Co-operation with Belarus is still quite beneficial for Latvia due to severe the economic difficulties that the country is facing at the moment – a comment made with a tone of peculiar satisfaction.
Belarusian Youth – an Apple in the Eye of the Head of State. State Channel 1 widely covered the 42 assembly of the BRSM (Belarusian Republican Youth Union), the largest government-organised nongovernmental youth organisation in Belarus. In covering the event, state TV noted that it was an opportunity for the nation's youth to have an “open dialogue” with Lukashenka. The report also emphasised that the head of state has made great efforts to improve the situation of young Belarusians throughout his years in office.
If You Want to Earn Money – Stay in Belarus. Lukashenka pointed out that all of projects oriented towards modernising the economy will be completed to offer workplaces for the younger generation. This, in turn, will ensure that young Belarusians will not need to emigrate to find a well-paid job.
The State’s Support to the Youth Wanting Their Loyalty in Return. Young people should “resist the [ongoing] provocations and the information war”. If there was any threat to the nation's security, they should get involved in its defence by joining the armed forces. In its latest coverage, state TV also pointed out that they should defend the history, culture and the Belarusian language. The speech of the head of state was delivered in Russian.
Belarusian Youth is not Susceptible to Western Influence ? One journalist proudly noted that the youth remains a driving force for the modernisation of the country and society. The authorities have taken care of younger Belarusians for over two decades now and, unlike in the West where young people all too often have no idea what to do with their lives, here in Belarus they are neither the fuel or kindling that could lead to social or political upheavals.
Local Authorities Happy to Speak with Ordinary Belarusians. ONT TV commented that the Minsk authorities have recently initiated a new practice to learn about the problems of average Belarusians. People now have an option to call and personally discuss the actual problems with the governor himself. According to the reporter covering the story, the sheer number of those who called (over 17 thousand people) proves that Belarusians trust this type of dialogue with the authorities.
Nothing Taboo During Lukashenka’s Chat with the Media. According to Channel 1's coverage Lukashenka's press conference of 29 January was a unique opportunity to hold an “open dialogue” not just with journalists but, more importantly, with society. Even journalists “disloyal to the authorities” got a chance to express their views during the event. Here are a few key moments from the coverage:
An American Political-economic Model for Belarus? A reporter from Channel 1 inquired about an alternative to the present state model in the country. Lukashenka emphasised that Belarusians would not like the “shock therapy” they would be subject to if serious changes were put into play. “Even if we would implement the most efficient American model, the very next day a number of militants – the [nation's] fifth column would appear on the streets – trying to create a “Maidan” there…” As a result a large number of Belarusians would not be able to survive a radically changed state model and would live in poverty, according to Lukashenka.
No Restrictions on the Belarusian Language. A Belarusian girl asked what the state authorities would do to promote and support the language. “The issue of language has already been decided once and for all”, he stated. As he explained, the turbulent events in Ukraine begun because of the senseless national policies, including its language policy.
Who is a Better Partner for Belarus? Minsk will maintain its multi-vector foreign policy. No spectacular changes are to be expected in the nation's relations with either the EU and United States. “I don’t really trust our Western partners”, remarked Lukashenka at one point. He went on to state that there will not be any big shifts in the country's relations with Brussels or Washington leading up to this year's presidential elections. “There will be no Maidan in Belarus so long as I am the president”, Lukashenka huffed.
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.
Is Lukashenka Preparing for a War?
At the end of January, Belarus temporally mobilised nearly 15,000 reservists – a large number for the nearly 50,000-strong national army.
A major Russian news portal Gazeta.ru linked this move to the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict. At the same time, the Belarusian army began conducting military exercises.
The Belarusian parliament also introduced several amendments to existing legislation – allegedly with the view of preventing "hybrid wars," like the one currently going on in Ukraine's eastern regions.
These actions have generated rumours about the intentions of the Belarusian government which has to date sought to preserve its neutrality in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Belarus's neutral stance has provoked criticism from Kyiv and Moscow alike and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.
Not only is Belarus's economy suffering from the external effects of the conflict, but the Ukrainian war has caused political rifts inside Belarus as well. While the Crimean scenario is unlikely to play out in Belarus, the destabilisation of the country's internal politics and a rise in tensions on the border with Ukraine are highly probable.
The Belarusian Army Training Close to the Border
On 23 January the Belarusian army begun exercises at six different military training grounds. The Belarusian Defence Ministry said that the manoeuvres were motivated by an increased level of activity by NATO's forces near Belarus's borders. The nature of the exercises would seem to suggest another, more complex motivation.
According to the Chief of the General Staff, major general Aleh Belakoneu, the army will conduct exercises to hone their own air force and air defence systems, as well as strengthen border security.
While the focus on air defences may indeed stem from NATO's activities, beefing up security on the border betrays a different concern – namely, sealing Belarus's perimeter.
The war in neighbouring Ukraine escalates, while Belarus-Ukrainian border remains porous. In these circumstances, it is extremely important to suppress illegal activities or infiltration of all kinds of force in both directions through the Belarus-Ukrainian border which can cause further destabilisation of the situation in Belarus or difficulties in relations with Kyiv.
Legislating for a Future Conflict
Minsk's concern over the developments in Ukraine may have also been the motivation behind changes to the the Law "On Martial Law" that entered into force on 1 February. The amendments stipulate that martial law can be imposed if another state sends "armed bands, irregular forces, or units of regular troops" to the country, regardless of whether war has been declared or not.
Some opposition media, including Belorusskiy Partizan, view the amendments as Belarus's reaction to Kyiv losing Crimea. Dzyanis Melyantsou of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies disagrees with this view and emphasises that the earlier versions of this law already discussed this type of threat.
Yet some aspects of the amendments merit more consideration. For instance, the law stipulates that an act of aggression against one of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) member states (Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, or Armenia) is regarded an act of aggression against Belarus.
the Belarusian government has learned a lesson from Ukraine Read more
Furthermore, the document contains new provisions on the use of physical force, weapons, special equipment and technical means by military personnel while enforcing martial law. According to Melyantsou's analysis, "soldiers and other individuals involved in enforcing martial law have the right to use force and weapons in virtually any situation, including against unarmed civilians.” These provisions suggest that the Belarusian government has learned a lesson from Ukraine.
Amendments to the Law “On Defence” that entered into force in 2015 also merit some attention. The amendments concern, inter alia, the territorial defence system established in 2011 to strengthen national defence by creating district-level paramilitary units. Recently, Gazeta.ru quoted a source in the General Staff as saying that the territorial defence units can be used to prevent “hybrid warfare [as in Eastern Ukraine] in different regions of the country.”
Ukraine and Russia Not Pleased with Belarus
Moscow-based Nezavisimaya Gazeta reacted to Belarus's recent spurt of legislative activity by publishing an article titled “Lukashenka Goes to War.” The article argues that the recent legal innovations are aimed at preventing the “Crimean Scenario” and cites Lukashenka's criticism of the Ukrainian army for failing to defend the country.
Some Russian pundits have been more outspoken in criticising the Belarusian president. Russian nationalist Egor Kholmogorov told the Vzglyad daily that Lukashenka:
is doing exactly as much as necessary to not to spoil relations with Russia. Yet we shall not forget about his absolute dismissal of the uprising in Novorossiya. … Even Crimea […] he does not recognise as Russian, but simply proposes that Ukraine forget about it in order to avoid more grave consequences.
The Ukrainian news agency Novyi Region struck a different tone by asking, “Are Belarusians Being Prepared for a War with Ukraine? There is no one else to fight.” Novyi Region justifies their position by referring to the “complete financial and political dependence of Lukashenka's regime on Moscow” and by Belarus's common border with Ukraine.
No Modern Arms for an Ally
At a meeting with journalists on 29 January, Lukashenka emphasised that Belarus was a sovereign and independent state. He said the country will never surrender its territory to anyone. The Belarusian Head of State also explained that in order to protect Belarus's sovereignty, the government is reforming the army, restructuring the defence industry and developing new weapons.
Lukashenka also made some ambiguous statements about Russia:
We seek to provide Belarus with its own arms. Now our army is supplied primarily with the weapons produced in Russia. We are manufacturing some components for these weapons […] Yet we must have the proper weaponry so that any potential aggressor would not even imagine going to war with Belarus.
Indeed, Belarus lacks modern military equipment. According to daily newspaper Vzglyad, Belarus received two batteries of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems for free because they “were not needed anymore” in Russia. The Russian army decommissioned the S-300s in order to integrate more modern weapons into its arsenal.
This year, Belarus also gets nuts – five training Yak-130, spare parts for aircraft and helicopters, some complete helicopters, tank engines and other supplies. Minsk seems to have already given up on hopes of replacing the aircraft it inherited from the Soviet Union with modern fighters.
To date the Belarusian government has been desperately trying to avoid getting entangled in the confrontation in Ukraine. The Ukrainian crisis has forced the Belarusian authorities to promptly adopt the logic of national interest and with unprecedented resoluteness challenge the Kremlin's policies. However, Belarus still remains vulnerable to destabilisation attempts.