Chinese Workers Protests, Election Observation, Protestant Priests – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Over 200 workers from China march nearly 30 km from Dobrush to Homel in a protest against delayed wages. Competitiveness of Belarus and national identity of Belarusians discussed in Minsk. Belarusian-language advertising festival "Adnak" completed in Minsk.
Human rights organisations announce the start of election observation campaign. Freelance journalists and protestant priests under pressure in Belarus.
Civil society activities
Conditions and Ways to Improve the Competitiveness of Belarus conference took place on June 25, in Minsk. This is the 3rd economic conference, organised by the For Freedom Movement within the campaign People's Program. Based on the discussion's results the participants came to the conclusion that Belarus has a chance to get to the World Competitiveness Index. The People Program is public and will be offered to the candidates for the upcoming presidential election.
Defend What is Yours: Cultural Activism and Belarusian National Identity roundtable was held on June 25, in Minsk. Organised by the Assembly of NGOs, the event gathered together 20 leaders of cultural NGOs and representatives of Belarusian culture and art. Based on the results of the discussion, recommendations for the Belarusian civil sector, cultural initiatives and national culture patrons will be published. In a longer run, it is planned to develop cultural strategy, which will be available to all activists and civil society bodies.
The 6th annual Festival of Belarusian Advertising and Communications ADNAK summed up the development of Belarusian-language advertising for a year and awarded winners. The final ceremony was held on 2 July in Minsk. The festival brought together advertisers and professionals in communication to enlarge the expansion of the Belarusian-language advertising. Grand Prix and 12 diplomas went to the creative platform Art-Siadziba that introduced a fashion on vyshymaiki (embroidery shirts) and other products with national symbols.
National Platform keeps going. On 25 June, in Minsk, a EaP CS Forum Belarusian National Platform (NP) conducted its regular conference aimed to sum up the key results of its activity, re-elect a Steering Committee and decide whether NP should exist in general. As a result, the vast majority of NP members voted for keeping it alive; the Steering Committee has been upgraded significantly with a new Head Sviatlana Karaliova (Belarusian Association of Working Women).
Minsk Third Age University sums up results. On 24 June in Minsk, the project Third Age University: New Opportunities for Social Inclusion summed up key results for 2-year activity. The educational project for the elderly Minskers covered more than two thousand people of 60+ years old who got new knowledge, expanded their social contacts and feel active members of society. The project implementer is the Belarusian Association of Social Workers.
Campaign to save a city water-green diameter launched in Minsk. The Minsk water-green diameter includes 18 parks and 650 acres of landscaped grounds, which recently are at the risk of new construction. Green Network together with Urban Forester initiative and other CSOs are launching an information campaign to save this Minsk sight. The campaign plans to use a number of tools, like a series of interviews with experts and VIPs, a competition of Minskers’ photo stories, an interactive map, and performances.
IV Forum of Belarusian environmental NGOs will take place on 24-26 July in Minsk and bring together representatives of environmental organisations and initiatives, independent experts, international environmental organisations, ministries, schools and universities, churches and the media. The Forum is held once in 2 years, and serves as a platform for communication among environmental organisations in Belarus. The Organising Committee includes APB BirdLife Belarus, Green Network, etc.
Election Observation Campaigns
Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Human Rights Center Viasna launch a public campaign on observation. The campaign Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections is independent and politically unbiased and aims to carry out observation of the presidential elections in Belarus in October 2015, to assess the electoral process and observance of human rights in the course of their conduct from the viewpoint of Belarusian electoral legislation and international standards of free and democratic elections.
The initiative Right of Choice 2015 launches a campaign on elections observation. The initiative consists of eight political parties, movements and independent trade unions, including Hramada, Belarusian Christian Democracy, Govori Pravdu and For Freedom movements, Belarusian Popular Front, etc. The campaign aims to prevent violations of the law at all stages of the presidential election campaign in Belarus. The campaign includes actors that have expressed support for a potential candidate Tatyana Karatkevich.
Interaction between State and Civil Society
Chinese workers protest in Belarus. On 2 July the Chinese workers who are employed in the construction of a paper factory in Dobrush (Homel oblast) left their jobs and walked to Homel, attempting later to move to Minsk. The workers protested against the delay of wages by a Chinese contractor. No police force was used and the workers were shuttled back to Dobrush after a conversation with the Chinese Ambassador.
Persecution of freelance journalists – $7,067 for state budget. Since the beginning of 2015, there were 21 administrative cases against freelance journalists who faced charges for “Illegal production and/or distribution of media products.” The total amount of fines for the first half-year amounted to 108 million Belarusian rubles ($7,067), which is already two times the amount of fines for the entire 2014.
Homel priests threatened with criminal charges under Article 193.1. The house of Siarhei Nikalayenka, pastor of the Homel-based religious community ‘Church of God Transfiguration’, as well as the apartment of his deputy Aliaksandr Chuyeu, has been searched by police officers. The raid reportedly dealt with the preliminary investigation of the criminal case under Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code (activities on behalf of unregistered organisation).
BHC success at Constitutional Court. On 2 July the Constitutional Court of Belarus ruled on an appeal submitted by the Belarus Helsinki Committee (BHC) regarding the right of witnesses in criminal trials to legal counsel. BHC challenged the lack of provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code that would require law enforcement agencies to allow legal representation of witnesses in criminal proceedings.
The first meeting of the Public Council for Belarusians living abroad at the Foreign Ministry of Belarus will be conducted on 1 July. The meeting, headed by Minister Vladimir Makei is expected to engage 32 representatives of associations of Belarusians abroad from 18 countries, as well as representatives of the Belarusian government, CSOs and mass media. The MFA website does not specify the names of CSOs that will participate in the Council.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.
Collapsing Economy Weighs on the Authorities – Digest of Belarusian Economy
A labour strike at a major state-owned plant in June suggests that the current economic crisis will present serious political challenges to Belarus. Despite it being an election year, wages and pensions are not growing – a rare occurrence. Yet, it stagnating incomes are not the country's primary problem.
Many state-owned enterprises do not have enough money to even pay the low wages they have in place now. They have to cut back on their labour expenses. Even the government expects situation to worsen, and this may just be one of the factors behind moving the election one month ahead.
Economic Crisis and the Labour Market
Belarusian GDP continued its descend in May, dropping 3 per cent in January-May 2015 relative to the same period last year. Manufacturing experienced the most serious decline – 8.3 per cent. Many enterprises are experiencing serious issues with their liquidity. Most of manufacturing enterprises, especially those that are state-owned, export a large portion of their goods to Russia. As the Russian market continues to decline, exports for Belarusian companies have similarly fallen, despite the stimulating effects that typically accompany devaluation.
Declining production adds strain to the labour market. In the absence of any stimulation policies from either the government and the National Bank real wages continue to fall (-3.2 per cent in Jan-Apr 2015 relative to the same period last year). But the real crisis lies in paying wages to their bloated workforce, a task that is all but impossible for most enterprises.
the official unemployment figure is climbing mainly thanks to the so-called “social parasite” law Read more
Official employment figures dropped by 25 thousand people over the course of December 2014 to April 2015. The official number of individuals registered as unemployed also grew slightly, up to 1 per cent of the overall labour force. But this low figure says nothing of the true reality facing the labour market – it is abundantly clear that not every unemployed person will register, as the unemployment benefits are minuscule.
Currently the official unemployment figure is climbing mainly thanks to the “social parasite” law – obtaining the status of being unemployed frees one from the obligation to pay the “parasite tax”. Employment centres have even had to increase their working hours to accommodate everyone who wishes to register.
Many state enterprises are avoiding releasing their workers despite their inability to pay their wages. As a result of this policy, on the 1st of June 444 companies had wage arrears. A total of 75,900 people have not received their wages on time. Wage arrears and cutting back on the number of working hours and days of operation at the factories could provoke social unrest.
a factory in Slonim paid its employees wages not in roubles, but in sour cream Read more
On 8 June the workers of Maladechna plant producing steelworks organised a strike because they had not received wages for two months. A couple of days after the strike the workers received their wages, but the plant still has a number of other debts to contend with, and its future prospects are dim.
Another instance of social arrest unfolded at a milk-processing factory in Slonim that paid wages not in roubles, but in sour cream. One of the most successful Belarusian enterprises, lingerie-producing Milavitsa had to cut its working days from 5 to 3 days a week with a corresponding cuts in wages.
The difficult situation facing the labour market may be one of the reasons that convinced Lukashenka that he should move to hold the presidential election a month earlier. The situation in the economy is getting worse and worse every day, and even one month could make a big difference. Still there is life after the elections, and the government has a difficult problem to solve – how to restructure the inefficient state-owned enterprises without causing widespread social unrest?
Motovelo, Prakapenia and Reforms
It is not clear precisely what to do with the state-owned enterprises, but the government bodies responsible for the economy understand quite well what the private sector needs. At the end of May, the Council of Ministers approved a draft of a new directive to support entrepreneurship. The directive excludes unnecessary intrusions by the government into market matters, separates the functions of the state as a regulator and as an owner, and proposes other steps to make competition fair for both state and private firms.
But at the same time the government continues to use the old methods of “regulating” economic problems. After the loud, and still unresolved, arrest of an IT entrepreneur and investor Viktar Prakapenia, the authorities have nationalised Motovelo, a plant producing bicycles and motorcycles, and have arrested its owners.
The privatisation of Motovelo was not done in a transparent manner, and the new owners, as it turns out, have violated the investment agreement, decreasing the number of employees it has substantially and did not bother to develop the capacities of the plant. While the nationalisation move may be legitimate, it certainly does not send a positive signal to any potential investors.
Exchange Rate Liberalisation
The National Bank, which has made several important steps towards macroeconomic stabilisation this year, has decided to further liberalise the exchange rate market. On the 1 June official exchange rates were formed through continuous order matching, a procedure that allows for direct trades between buyers and sellers matched by a price as explained in more detail below.
Before 1 June the Belarusian rouble was floating freely technically (the National Bank declared did not influence the exchange rate and only smoothed out the fluctuations).
While the trends seen here with the exchange rates reflects a balance of supply and demand, the National Bank has determined the size of permissible change. With the new mechanism the market will completely determine the exchange rate, although the National Bank still reserves the right to take part in market operations.
The introduction of this new mechanism coincided with the sharp depreciation of the Russian rouble. As Belarusian economy remains heavily dependent on Russia, after the switch to a floating currency regime, the Belarusian rouble fluctuated together with the Russian rouble. And as the Russian rouble depreciated almost 10 per cent over the week, the Belarusian currency followed.
In June the rouble once more hit a historical low, almost reaching 15,500 per US$1, which will have consequences for rouble deposits (they tend to go down as the rouble depreciates) and for the banking system as a whole.
Clearly, next year will pose many challenges to the Belarusian economy. But the government should not forget about long-run growth when trying to save the economy from its short-term malaise. At the end of the day inefficient state enterprises would have to shed some of its excessively large labour, and the government should soften the blow by offering employment programmes to the unemployed, not by printing money in order to provide loans to the plants and factories.
The aggressive attitude towards investors also is coming at an inopportune time. And while the National Bank, under the new leadership, takes important steps towards macroeconomic stabilisation, it is not up only to the National Bank to undertake reforms.
This article is a part of a joint project between Belarus Digest and the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Centre (BEROC)