Christmas Price Freeze, Russian Food Embargo, Cheap Schengen Visas – Belarus State Press Digest
Belarus rejects accusations from Ukraine officials claiming that it has joined the Russian food embargo against Ukraine. Visa facilitation between the EU and Belarusan is likely to succeed, but the extent of the programme will depend on Belarus' commitment to reform.
The Belarusian agricultural sector suffers from lobbyists who constantly force the government to raise tariffs and prices. Hightech Park becomes one of the most profitable enterprises in Belarus, moving ahead of the industrial giants. Men who cannot serve in the army due to religious reasons will be given the opportunity to participate in an alternative civilian service starting from 2016.
All of this and more in the new edition of the Belarus State Press Digest.
The government bans price hikes at Christmas time. The Ministry of Trade ordered the local authorities and state-owned industry to deter deliberate price hikes during the Christmas and New Year holidays, Belarus Segodnia reports. The government is trying to protect citizens from dodgy traders, who use the holiday shopping frenzy to make big profits. Price regulation remains one of the authorities' instruments to show their concern for social equality, a policy which international creditors have always been critical of.
Furniture industry cluster will appear in Smarhoń district. Belarus' Segodnia covers the investment forum which took place in Smarhoń, Hrodna region. The forum gathered around 50 Belarusian and foreign businessmen who deal with furniture. The event organisers – Kronospan company, Hrodnainvest free economic zone and the local authorities – plan to create a cluster with tax and duty privileges for export-oriented furniture businesses. The authorities are ready to offer 520 hectares of land for the cluster.
Belarusian Hightech Park will make a superprofit of $800m this year. The director of the Park Valier Capkala tells Soyuznoye Veche the history of the park's success. Companies in the park make a larger contribution to GDP than the industrial giants MAZ, BelAZ, MTZ and Gomsielmaš put together. The administration of the park receives 1% of the profit, translating into $8m this year. The park plans to open a branch in the city of Hrodna. While previously a brain drain of IT specialists was widespread in Belarus, today the park management has created comfortable conditions for young workers. Ten of the park's companies this year appeared on the Software 500 global rating.
Agricultural producers suffer from other institutions' lobbyists. Sieĺskaja Hazieta publishes an interview with Sluck district chief executive Andrej Jančeŭski on problems in the agriculture sector. The official criticizes the management system of the sector in Belarus and accuses many state agencies of lobbying their interests, thus damage agricultural production.
Processing enterprises, machine builders, energy producers, and pubic utility organisations always lobby for an increase in prices and tariffs. Meanwhile, the purchase price of agricultural production has remained at the same level for years. This is because village workers do not receive the same kind of protection from the government. The Ministry of Agriculture, on the contrary, accuses the villagers of carelessness, mismanagement, and a lack of initiative.
Belarus does not support Russia's food embargo against Ukraine. Narodnaja Hazieta criticises the rhetoric of Ukrainian officials who claim that Belarus has joined the Russian food embargo. Moscow plans to impose the embargo on Ukraine in 2016, when a free trade zone will become effective between Ukraine and the EU. Belarus has recently introduced obligatory sanitary inspections for imported products as part of Eurasian Economic Union law, which some voices in Ukraine have dubbed “joining Russian sanctions against Ukraine”.
The Belarusian side explains that the regulation has been introduced for all imports regardless of the country of origin. Director of the Centre for European Integration Jury Šaŭcoŭ opines to the newspaper that Ukrainian officials chose this confrontational rhetoric because their country remains in deep crisis and they are trying to use all means possible to defend their positions.
Belarusians will get cheaper Schengen visas. Respublika newspaper discusses the upcoming facilitation of a visa regime between Belarus and the EU, which the two sides are currently negotiating. Today, Belarus stands 67th in the freedom to travel rating and remains the last country to pay a visa fee of 60 euro in Eastern Europe.
According to representative of the Warsaw-based Stefan Batory Foundation Krzysztof Mrozek, the degree of facilitation has a lot to do with the political will of the EU partner. A mutual understanding between countries could bring Belarusians a reduction in visa costs, while a more comprehensive reform of institutions and mutual commitments could pave the way for a visa-free agreement.
Belarusians will be able to work in an alternative civilian service instead of the army. Znamya Yunosti explains the details of the new law on Alternative Civilian Service, which will become effective in 2016. Currently young men who cannot serve in the army because of religious creed have no right to refuse conscription.
The alternative service will include working in healthcare, social services, public utilities, the agriculture and wood industries, construction and road building. Alternative servicemen will have no right to do business or receive income from other sources. Those with higher education will serve two years and those who do not will serve three, compared with 1 and 1.5 years for those who serve in the army. The alternative servicemen will get a monthly salary of only $120.
Vocational education in the Viciebsk region experiences a difficult time. Vitsebskiye Vesti newspaper analyses trends in the educational sector. The population is declining and working professions are becoming unpopular among the youth, while higher education is more and more pervasive. Moreover, Belarusian industries are experiencing problems and cannot provide all graduates with jobs. The authorities have started to reorganise the vocational education system, and to date the number of schools in the region has reduced by 30%. Currently around 13,000 people study in the vocational schools of Viciebsk region, while five years earlier 18,000 did so.
The State Digest 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.
Wars in Syria and Ukraine Make Belarus More Important
After the Turkish downing of a Russian aircraft in Syria last month, Minsk refused to join Moscow in its accusations and recriminations against Ankara. It just lamented what happened between its “Russian ally” and “friendly Turkey.” Needless to say Minsk has also not supported any of the Russians sanctions imposed on Turkey.
Belarusian state media openly doubt Moscow's version of what is going on in Syria. That has not gone unnoticed in the Kremlin. Evgeny Satanovski, a political commentator close to the Russian government, puts Belarus alongside Qatar and Turkey as a country which opposes Russia's policies.
Why does Minsk risk challenging Moscow again? It calculates that the new international situation and, above all, the changed geopolitical significance of Belarus enables Minsk to play its own games. After all, Belarus has improved its relations with the West and after the Russo-Turkish war of words it has become the safest route for gas transit between Russia and the EU.
Pro-Western Friends of Minsk in the Middle East
Actually, Minsk has undertaken its own political line in regards the Middle East over the past decade. Since the early 2010s, it shifted its focus away from the radical regimes of Iran, Syria and Libya to conservative regimes allied with the West.
At the height of the Syrian civil war Minsk welcomed the then Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu Read more
The Belarusian regime focused its attention on Qatar, the UAE, Oman and also Turkey. At the height of the unrest in Libya, leading to the toppling of an old Belarusian partner, Muammar Qadhafi, Lukashenka headed in summer 2011 for the country which stood behind the Libyan uprising, Qatar. At the height of the Syrian civil war Minsk welcomed in spring 2013, the nemesis of the Kremlin and Damascus, then Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu and later sent high-level officials to meet Davutoglu in Ankara.
Minsk's activities in recent months are merely a less spectacular continuation of existing diplomacy. In the absence of serious contacts with Tehran, or Damascus the Belarusian government preferred deals with their opponents.
On Sunday, the French web-site, Intelligence Online, reported that Moscow had to step in and halt Minsk selling the UAE some military aircraft. These would be used to train against Russian and Iranian airforces which use similar types of planes. This is illustrated by the speaker of the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament, Mikhail Myasnikovich, who in October described relations between Minsk and Abu Dhabi as “among all the countries of the Persian Gulf, it is the United Arab Emirates with which we have managed to establish the longest, most confidential and large-scale relations.”
Also in October, Minsk welcomed a trade delegation from Iraqi Kurdistan, whose pro-American regime is clearly disliked by Moscow and its allies in the region. In September, a prominent Lebanese businessman and pro-Western politician, Adnan Kassar, visited Belarus to meet top officials, including foreign minister Uladzimir Makei. Kassar has business in the country, but he most probably also facilitated contacts for Minsk in the conservative Persian Gulf regimes.
Evgeni Satanovski wrote an article accusing Minsk of secretly playing against Russian policy in Syria. Read more
Finally last week the Kremlin reacted openly. Russian political commentator Evgeni Satanovski wrote an article accusing Minsk of secretly playing against Russian policy in Syria. He included Belarus in the “Alliance of Backstabbing Nations”, together with such patented opponents of Moscow like Qatar, the UAE and Turkey.
Satanovski, who has recently changed his image from an analyst of purely Middle Eastern affairs to a commentator on any political issue, acts as a mouthpiece for at least a part of the Russian regime. The high-level propaganda shows and programmes on Russian TV, especially those anchored by Vladimir Solovyev, feature him regularly speaking in a pro-Kremlin rhetoric.
Minsk Derides Moscow's Accusations against Erdogan?
The facts which Satanovski quoted are clearly not a smoking gun. He referred to the visit of Qatar's defence minister to Minsk in July, and the probable personal involvement of the ambassador of the UAE in getting an arms deal with Minsk. Minsk undoubtedly perceived the article as a stern warning, knowing the author's proximity to the Kremlin. The text itself initially appeared in a specialised periodical, the Military Industrial Courier, which is widely read by Russian politicians, before Vzglyad republished it.
Belarus Segodnya, published a brief, yet harsh, criticism of Russian accusations concerning the Turkish government Read more
On 4 December, the web-site of the main Belarusian government media outlet, Belarus Segodnya, published a brief, yet harsh, criticism of Russian accusations concerning the Turkish government's involvement in smuggling oil with Islamic State.
Formally, the article appeared as a blog entry, yet this official daily strictly controls everything that appears on its web-site, so it is not just a private opinion. Furthermore, the author, Yury Tsaryk, is closely connected to the Belarusian government and is known as a strategist and thinker of a pro-Western faction in the regime.
The New Geopolitical Situation of Belarus: Risky yet Favourable
Minsk clearly feels more confident pursuing its own policy which differs from the Russian. This is not only due to the improvement of relations between Belarus and the EU. Belarus finds itself in a new geopolitical situation and is working effectively in it.
On the one hand, Belarus managed to play some role in negotiations on Ukraine and through that the regime overcame its own international marginalisation. Now, it continue its attempts to become a recognised place for international negotiation. It follows the urgent visit of Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, on 27-28 November which probably was about possible mediation between Russia and Turkey over their clash in Syria.
Belarus now offers the safest and arguably the best route for an additional Russian gas pipeline Read more
Lukashenka has a chance to succeed in that endeavour. The state secretary of the Union State of Belarus and Russia and Russian General Grigory Rapota, recently discussed the possibility of Belarus as a negotiation centre on the Middle East. By that they also arguably meant the latest conflict between Moscow and Ankara.
On the other hand, Belarus's geopolitical situation changed after the beginning of the Ukrainian war and the Kremlin's conflict with Turkey. The significance of Belarus as a route for transport of Russian oil and gas to Europe has increased. Essentially, Belarus now offers the safest and arguably the best route for an additional Russian gas pipeline.
It means Belarus becomes a more valuable partner for Russia and the EU. That means Minsk can afford more leeway in dealing both with Russia and EU and profit from this situation. Sure, the situation is not risk free. At the same time Belarus, as a transit country for gas supplies between Russia and Europe is in competition with other countries, business interests and radical groups in the region.
This risk is the price for the transformation of the country from Europe's backwater to a more active and accepted player in international politics. Not everything depends on Belarus however. The recent moves by Minsk (its position on Syria or the Russian military presence in Belarus) demonstrates, however, its aspiration to use the new geopolitical reality and build up Belarusian independence and effective neutrality.