Can Belarus punish Lithuania for its position on the Astraviec NPP?
On 7 December, the head of the Russian Railways stated that his company can provide a large enough discount to Belarusian companies to allow them to cease transporting cargo through the Baltic States. At the same time, Latvian officials continue to pitch their ports to the Belarusian government.
So far, Belarus primarily uses Lithuanian ports, but Russia and Latvia may take advantage of the cooling relations between Minsk and Vilnius – connected with Lithuania's criticism of the Belarusian nuclear power plant – to promote their interests.
Belarusian officials have hinted several times that Lithuania benefits significantly from the transit of Belarusian goods, so the Lithuanian government should soften its position on Astraviec. Nevertheless, it seems that Belarus will continue to use Lithuania as a transit country – as this remains an economically expedient option – but will also try to diversify supplies.
No more love between Minsk and Vilnius
The dynamics of the Belarusian-Lithuanian relationship often differ from the relationship between Belarus and Europe. Even in 1996, when Lukashenka’s regime was still consolidating, Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas met with the Belarusian ruler. In 1997, Lithuania blocked a resolution of the Baltic Assembly criticising the Belarusian authorities for human rights violations.
Lithuanian politicians, such as the president Dalia Grybauskaite, frequently sought to improve relations with Belarusian authorities. This was the case not only during times of Belarusian-European dialogue in 2008-2010, but also following the brutal crack-down on demonstrators in December 2010.
In 2011, the Lithuanian President stated that although the Belarusian opposition keeps asking for more and more money, she cannot heard in their words that Belarusian independence is a priority for them. Later, in 2013, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich visited a Belarusian-Lithuanian economic forum in Klaipeda.
Thus, Belarusian-Lithuanian relations were sometimes warmer than Belarusian-EU relations, and sometimes on the same level. This is no longer the case. Harsh criticism from Lithuania regarding the future Belarusian nuclear power plant, along with statements that the construction of the NPP is like an atomic bomb against Vilnius, raise doubts about whether Belarus and Lithuania can cooperate at all.
Currently, Lithuania is working to create an international coalition to restrict the supply of electricity from Belarus to Europe after the launch of the NPP. On 27 October, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid declared that 'in Astraviec, there is clearly a problem if all the costs, including environmental costs and risks, are not factored into the price scheme. In that case Europe should not accept such energy on its market.'
What Belarus can do
It comes as no surprise that such statements by Lithuanian politicians annoy the Belarusian authorities. Back in May, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei hinted that 'cooperation between the countries remains in Lithuania’s best interests, as the transit of Belarusian goods through Lithuanian ports contributes to the development of the Lithuanian economy.'
According to some media estimates, Belarusian companies account for one third of the capacity of the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda and the transit of Belarusian goods makes up about 2 per cent of Lithuania's GDP.
On 7 December, head of Russian Railways Oleg Belozerov said that his company was prepared to offer a 50 per cent discount to Belarusian refineries for the transportation of their goods. In doing this, the Kremlin means to punish the Baltic countries for their stance on sanctions against Russia; Russian leadership also wants Belarus to take part.
Latvia suffers from Russian foreign policy in this regard, but unlike Lithuania, it has warmer relations with Minsk and may use the cooling between Minsk and Vilnius to its advantage. In September, Uladzimir Makei met in New York with Edgar Rynkevich, the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs; in October, the Latvian Transport Minister Uldis Augulis visited Belarus. In November, the Belarusian Prime Minister met with the Latvian Minister of Economy in Minsk. All these meetings involved discussion of the transit of goods, among other topics.
So far, the results of these negotiations remain unknown, but few will be surprised if they result in greater use of Latvian ports by Belarusian companies. Nevertheless, a complete reorientation of Belarusian goods remains unlikely. Belaruskali, a Belarusian potash producer, owns 30% of Biriu kroviniu terminals (BKT), one of Klaipeda's terminals. Moreover, VKT is currently investing €8 mln in the development of the terminal, indicating that Belarus has no plans to curtail its activities in Lithuania.
As Vytis Jurkonis, a Lithuanian political scientist, told Belarus Digest, 'as long as transit through Lithuania remains economically feasible, the Belarusian authorities will take advantage of it, as they lack the luxury to choose more expensive transit roots'. The problem, however, is that Latvia and Russia appear willing to propose conditions beneficial enough for Belarus to stop relying on Lithuanian ports.
No time for cooperation
The conflict surrounding the nuclear power plant and the possible reorientation of Belarusian goods are not isolated cases. Instead, they reflect a trend in Belarusian-Lithuanian economic cooperation. The Belarusian and Lithuanian authorities seem reluctant to look for opportunities for new joint economic projects.
Trade in goods between the two countries decreased for the fifth year in a row, while imports from Lithuania fell for the fourth consecutive year. During the first 9 months of 2016, the trade turnover fell by almost 20% compared to the same period in 2015, according to the Belarusian Statistical Office.
Investment cooperation became less optimistic than before, and the authorities of both countries are paying less attention to it. If in 2013 and 2014 the prime ministers of both countries attended Belarusian-Lithuanian economic forums, in 2015 and 2016 the level of representation decreased. The Belarusian delegation in 2016 was headed by the Deputy Minister of Economy.
The conflict surrounding the Astraviec NPP became a poison to Belarusian-Lithuanian relations. It seems that as long as Minsk and Vilnius continue to fight about the Belarusian nuclear plant, economic cooperation will not be a priority.
Education as a lifeline for elderly Belarusians?
In 2030 the number of elderly in Belarus will predictably reach 29,7% of the population. Life quality of seniors in Belarus is low and nothing indicates further improvement.
Instead of the pension age reform, elderly population needs an effective strategy of active ageing. One of the main tasks lies in providing educational opportunities for this group.
Despite the fast ageing of the country, Belarus demonstrated little experience in educating seniors, comparing to the neighbouring EU countries.
Education of seniors in Belarus: in search of the own model
As a response to ageing trends, in 1973 Pierre Vela opened the first "Third Age University" in the world, located in France. With the aim of better integration of elderly to the society, Vela’s university focused on the communication of younger and older population through education. Third Age Universities further formed the ideas of using a potential of elderly in economy, creating opportunities for intellectual, physical and social activation, building anti-discrimination environment for seniors.
Third Age Universities received wide popularity in the beginning of 2000, forming two main models of seniors education. French model implies binding of the seniors’ education projects to universities in form of autonomous departments. According to the British model, Third Age Universities emerge on the basis of NGOs. 20 years after the foundation of the first Third Age University the ideas of seniors education came to Belarus.
Historically, the first project for seniors education in Belarus emerged due to the work of Union of Poles in Belarus in the 1990s. Mokotow Third Age University (Warsaw) supported the foundation of educational platform for seniors in Hrodna. Although the initiative succeeded quickly, only representatives of the Polish minority participated in the project.
In 2010 the NGO 'The Third Sector' in Hrodna founded the first Belarusian Third Age University. The largest such university started its work in Minsk in 2013 as a project of the NGO 'Belarusian Association of Social Workers' funded by the German foundation 'Remembrance, responsibility and future'. The government has quickly followed the path and introduced its own Institutes of the Third Age. Based in Brest and Navapolatsk, Third Age Institutes form a part of the local social care centres.
Currently, there are four Third Age Universities in Belarus with relatively low coverage of students.
Despite the similarities of state and non-state projects, educational approaches significantly differ. Governmental projects mainly focus on psychological and social support for seniors. At the same time, independent Third Age Universities tend to develop new skills and knowledge for further empowerment and stimulate active participation of Belarusian seniors.
Although such universities provide education for elderly, Belarus lacks action plans for seniors. An absence of project for seniors education in academic system characterises Belarusian model for seniors education.
Belarusian Response to Ageing
Increasing retirement age became a response of Belarusian government to ageing challenge. Since 2017 a retirement age in Belarus will annually increase for 6 months preserving a 5-year gender gap. On one hand, raising a pension age sounds rational. On the other hand, such decision fails to improve seniors life quality.
The income-replacement ratio in Belarus – 43% – is close to many European countries. At the same time, Belarusians now earn extremely low wages. The researcher of IPM Research Centre Hleb Šymanovič notes that increasing the retirement age is unable to insure seniors from impoverishment and decreasing of living standards.
Low pensions force people to search for the new sources of income. Due to a reducing physical activity, seniors face a challenge in working at the same positions or finding new jobs without needed competencies.
Today only 11% of Belarusian elderly supplement pensions with additional work. This is the lowest labour force rate of 65+ population among the Post-Soviet countries.
A decreasing speed of the information processing, as well as a need of permanent repetition in the learning process, require customisation of educational programmes to demands of seniors. Organising more educational opportunities for elderly would develop an inclusive society where seniors have enough competencies for a modern labour market. With the development of technologies elderly require additional knowledge.
Digital education has a wide popularity in Hrodna Golden Age University and Minsk Third Age University. A success of computer literacy courses created by mobile provider MTS proves a high demand for digital education among seniors. The project aimed at educating seniors in digital sphere had more than 30 study centres and 2,000 graduates across Belarus.
Integration in education enables seniors with additional instruments for managing own and public issues independently. This could significantly reduce the workload of the social system and impact to the country’s economy.
It would also be beneficial for seniors and state to shorten expenses for medical care. Widening a promotion of healthy lifestyle, physical activities, workshops, through education would have a positive impact on seniors life quality. Despite this, the Universities help to change a perception of elderly by the society, – believes a coordinator of the Third Age University in Minsk, Alena Stanislauchyk.
First Steps to Start
The fast ageing of the world demands to search for new approaches of seniors empowerment. In Belarus a share of 60+ population has overcome 20%. At the same time, low pensions and lack of professional competencies lead to low labour force participation of seniors. In such situation, education can become a lifeline for elderly Belarusians.
Four Third Age Universities with small amount of students across Belarus are struggling to provide educational opportunities for Belarusian seniors. An introduction of the French model in Belarus would allow reaching a progress in seniors education.
The state, civil society, academic institutions and seniors themselves can take responsibility for creation of the Third Age Universities and other educational platforms, as it often happens in Poland, Great Britain, Lithuania and other countries.
Development of the action plans for elderly in Belarus would positively reflect on the economic and social systems of the country. However, these steps are unrealistic until Belarusian seniors, society and government recognise a need for changes.