Closer EU Ties, Austerity Reforms, and A Cop Calendar – Western Press Digest
Belarus tries to improve its economy and sends signals to the West that it is ready to carry out reforms to attract investment and secure loans. Besides reforms, Minsk has been pushing state-owned potash producer Belaruskali to win more of the marketshare, even if it means losing money.
The EU views relations with Belarus pragmatically, making no guarantees. Despite the air of mistrust, Lukashenka has won the confidence of some policymakers in the EU that he is ready for reforms if the West is willing to support Belarus restore its image internationally with strategic issues.
A local police force in western Belarus has decided to put out a controversial calendar for the public. The calendar in question features pictures of real female members of the police force, a move that has led to a mixed public response. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
EU-Belarus Rapprochement Gaining Ground – Following Minsk's constructive role as a host and mediator in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the EU is seriously weighing how to improve ties with Lukashenka. The Wall Street Journal reports that these warming relations are still only in their initial stages, but there are serious discussions going on in Brussels about how to improve ties while not ignoring Minsk's past record.
Two issues under consideration, according to Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, are easing visa restrictions for Belarusian citizens and supporting Belarus as it makes its bid to gain entrance to the WTO. Rinkēvičs also said that improving ties between the EU and Belarus should not be seen as trying to pull Minsk into the EU's orbit of influence.
Diplomatic Barbs Exchanged with Kyrgyzstan – Following the murder of a prominent Kyrgyz mob boss in Minsk, ties between the two former Soviet republics are under strain. In their coverage of the diplomatic sparring match, RFE/RL reports that the conflict came about after a witness to the killing of Almambet Anapiyaev in Minsk said that members of ex-president of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiev's were involved. Belarusian authorities stated that an official investigation needed to be carried out and that the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' made it impossible for it to hand over anyone to the Kyrgyzstani authorities until guilt was established.
Kurmanbek Bakiev and his brother Janysh (then head of the state's bodyguard service) fled Kyrgyzstan in 2010 following the massacre of dozens of civilians who protested the then president's administration for its corruption. Bakiev contacted Lukashenka to ask that his family be given refuge in Belarus, after which the Belarusian head of state provided sanctuary for Bakiev and his entire family. Kyrgyzstan has demanded that Belarus return Bakiev, who was sentenced to life in prison in absentia for his alleged crimes.
Winning Over Confidence With Reforms – A recent article by Euromoney says that the authorities in Minsk are doing their best to convince western policymakers and investors alike that they are embarking a series of reforms to improve the domestic economy's standing. Some of these reforms including freezing public sector wages at their current levels, slashing government support for state-owned enterprises and halting state sponsored projects that are not 80% or more complete. Like other countries in the region, Belarus' economy is struggling in the face of the economic downturn due to the conflict in Ukraine.
According to Euromoney, the mantra in Minsk is that Belarus will make good on all of its debts this year, even if that means making cuts elsewhere. Still, most experts following the developments in Belarus are wary that any substantial change is underway – especially with the upcoming presidential election this fall. Major reforms, like the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, are still not on the table. Despite the sense that Minsk may not be serious about carrying out serious reforms, there is much optimism that rapprochement between Belarus and the EU is gaining traction and may open the door to stronger ties between the two parties.
Belarus Pushing Potash Exports – Bloomberg reports that Belarusian potash producer Belaruskali is working overtime to get a larger share of the lucrative global market. Following the messy split with its Russian partner Uralkali, the Belarusian potash exporter has struggled to gain better control over the market and mantain its relevance. It has done this by selling to countries like Brazil and China for a discounted rate and is suspected of flooding the latter's market to the point that it is not interested in buying more due to its large surplus. As currencies decline in value across the globe, potash producers are seeing export costs drop as well – a development that is driving more competition.
Man Detained for Writing on Fence – Based on an RFE/RL report, the BBC reports that a resident of Brest in eastern Belarus has been detained for keeping a public 'fence blog'. Mikhail Lukashevich has been writing on a city fence since the 1990s, but began regularly posting only around 10 years ago. His comments are typically confined to discussing current political issues and are critical of the authorities, according to the report. Lukashevich is under investigation by the authorities for 'defaming Lukashenka' and says that he may have to undergo psychiatric evaluation. The article notes that during the Soviet era he spent time in a psychiatric hospital in the past.
Not Your Average Calendar – Female traffic police have made quite a stir in Belarus lately, but it is not their professional accolades that are drawing the public's attention writes the Daily Mail. The Mail's photo exposé, based on a report from Vocativ.com, has created some controversy, with some citizens calling it a 'desperate' move by the government, while others appear to be rather fond of the idea. While not entirely uncommon in the West, this is the first documented calendar of its kind in Belarus.
Unique Underground Medical Treatment – An unconventional treatment for patients with lung ailments has taken foot in Belarus, reports the Daily Mail. According to the UK publication, children and adults alike are treated for issues like bronchial asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by breathing in the unique mineral-rich air found in an abandoned salt mine found some 1,400 ft below the surface. Treatment lasts for 19 days and is often repeated over a period of 2.5 years. Less one fret, patients sent to the underground facility treat it more as a period of leisure than treatment, as the treatment centre is full of things for them to do, including sport and games.
Belarus: No Appetite for Revolution?
The political year for Belarusian opposition will begin with a traditional rally on the so called Freedom Day 25 March. This day, which celebrates proclamation of the Belarusian People's Republic in 1918, in the past was bringing to the streets of Minsk thousands of people opposing the government of Alexander Lukashenka. This year, no massive attendance is expected.
Even the November presidential elections – unlike in 2006 or 2010 – will probably not cause serious post-election protests. Developments in neighbouring Ukraine seriously changed the calculus of political change in the Eastern European country. The Ukrainian crisis forced the government, opposition, Russia and the West to look differently at the power struggle in Belarus.
Addressing high-ranking police officers on 5 March, the Belarusian President said there would be no 'Maidan' protests (i.e. Colour Revolutions) in Belarus.
Two days later, the Belarusian People's Front, one of the nation's opposition parties, proposed to abandon its plans to hold 'Maidan' protests following the November 2015 presidential election.
Inspired by the success of the Colour Revolutions elsewhere, the Belarusian opposition has on multiple occasions tried to oust Lukashenka through post-election protests. They have failed, however, as the main prerequisite for it is a fragile and dysfunctional state.
This year, a successful anti-regime protest movement is even less likely. Unlike in the past, no serious international players will risk a "revolutionary" scenario. Still, provocative actions by a few remain a distinct possibility. Were clashes to occur following the announcement of the election results, the situation in the country would only take a turn for the worse.
Why the West Supported Regime Change in Belarus in the 2000s
Lincoln Mitchell, who for many years worked for the National Democratic Institute in post-Soviet nations, has recently published a critical book on Colour Revolutions. He argued that "by the spring of 2006 Belarus was one of the few countries in the world, certainly the only one in the former Soviet Union," where Washington sought regime change.
Geopolitical calculations explain why Belarus gained reputation of the last dictatorship in Europe Read more
Even though post-Soviet regimes such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, or Uzbekistan had greater problems with human rights and democracy, it is Belarus that was branded Europe's last dictatorship by the United States.
Geopolitical calculations explain why Belarus gained such a reputation. At the time, US interests were focused on the Middle East. Minsk aroused Washington's concern due to its active engagement with radical Middle Eastern governments, including its cooperation with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Mitchell writes, "[I]n the 'us versus them' framework of the early Bush years, Belarus had become part of 'them' and, by doing so, a target of the US.”
Because Belarus possessed little strategic value to the United States, it was often dismissed as a murky Eastern European state under Russian control. The only purpose Belarus served was to showcase Western commitment to human rights, democratic freedoms, and nuclear non-proliferation.
The West's Change of Heart in 2015
As of 2015, the geopolitical situation has changed. As the Belarusian president is happy to boast, and the opposition readily complains, the West has viewed Belarus in a different light following the onset of the conflict in Ukraine.
Western governments are now telling Belarusians that independence should come before democracy Read more
According to Yanukevich of the BNF party, Western governments are now telling Belarusians that independence should come before democracy. With the emergence of a new power constellation in Eastern Europe, the West has formulated a new strategic task for Belarus – to avoid a Russian takeover.
At the same time, Belarusian cooperation with the Middle East has become less of a problem for Washington both due to the changes in the Middle East, such as the multilateral negotiations with Iran, and thanks to the more cautious approach taken by Belarus with regards to its foreign policy.
In particular, in the early 2010s Minsk minimised its contact with Iran and Syria as these countries faced increased international isolation. Only after the international standing of Iran and Syria had improved and their talks with Russia and the West had resumed did Belarus reactivate its contacts with these states.
The recent United States' decision to lift sanctions on the Belarusian national oil company Belarusnafta is just the latest proof that Minsk has managed to sort out its Middle Eastern affairs.
Belarusians Will Take No Chances
When explaining his appeal to not flood Minsk's central square in November 2015, chairman of the People's Front Alyaksei Yanukevich said that few people would participate. According to him, Belarusians fear a repeat of the Ukrainian scenario in Belarus. Yet the problem lies not only, if at all, in concerns about what happened in Ukraine.
All these years, the Belarusian opposition has misapplied the lessons of protests in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan Read more
All these years, the Belarusian opposition has misapplied the lessons of protests in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in Belarus. Belarusian circumstances were, and are, very different than the circumstances in the countries where the colour revolutions had "won". When the government effectively controls society and provides people with many essential services, post-election protests are unlikely to produce a change at the upper echelons of the state.
Mitchell lists four main premises for that have lead to these colour revolutions. First, an opportunity to effectively participate in an election and making a plausible claim about the opposition's victory. Second, the media should be able to anticipate election fraud, to inform the people when such fraud is inevitable as well as cover the ensuing protests.
Third, the population should not be intimidated by the state. Fourth, in cases where colour revolutions are successful, foreign and international donors and democratisation-oriented NGOs have “a degree of political access and involvement in the countries where they work[ed] that would never be tolerated in their own countries.” None of these conditions apply in Belarus.
Sitting on a Barrel of Gunpowder?
To sum up, a successful colour revolution is impossible in Belarus. There is some probability that protests will occur, however, and this is not necessarily good news. As the Belarusian left-wing Prasvet web-site has recently commented, all the recent talk about election fraud has led to the opposition losing interest in working with the public. It lamented, "The mobilisation [of radical forces] still supercedes agitation, and popular support for opposition remains what it was five years ago."
The events in Ukraine has led many Belarusian activists to believe in the efficacy of radical rhetoric and methods, regardless of the mood of ordinary citizens. At the same time, the developments in Ukraine have influenced Belarusian law enforcement bodies and the state security apparatus. They may now be more willing than ever before to resort to extreme measures in order to defend the government. Russia may also be prepared to respond more radically to any new post-election protest in the former Soviet nations.
Were a radical provocation by a minority group to lead to a bloody clash in the wake of the 2015 presidential election, Belarusians would only suffer to lose from it. The political regime in the country would become more brutal, its politics more radical, and Belarus's relations with the West would deteriorate once more. Yet, the appearance of radical nationalist initiatives such as 1863x.com suggests that such a scenario may not be as far-fetched as it might appear.