Combating Corruption, Harvest and Snowden – Belarus State TV Digest
Belarus Digest starts a new series of articles summarising what common Belarusians see on state television.
The aim of the series is to help our readers understand how the Belarusian state media form public opinion in the country, which topics they consider the most important and which myths they try to perpetuate. Reviews will go beyond mere “propaganda watch” to cover domestic politics, the economy, society and international affairs. We will avoid making comments and leave readers to make their own judgements.
During the first week of August the news on Belarusian state television was dominated by the anti-corruption campaign. It carried regular reports on the meetings, which Alexander Lukashenka had with top officials where he lambasted them for corruption. The successes scored by Belarusian farmers in bringing in the harvest were probably number two in the media coverage. The biggest religious festivity, the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus drew the attention of the Belarusian media, but television did not focus on Lukashenka’s absence in Ukraine.
War on corruption. Last week Lukashenka met with top officials to discuss the problem of corruption and economic crimes, or “the main threats to the state”, as he termed it. The media stressed that, although the number of reported incidents of corruption have declined over the past three years and the international image of Belarus has improved, the state still needs to find better solutions to a problem that still exists/refuses to go away.
Lukashenka pointed out that Belarus does not need to revise the law, because the existing regulations meet international standards. He strongly criticised officials and demanded more active involvement in the war on corruption. The media described the construction industry as suffering seriously from corruption. Lukashenka ordered the officials to solve the issue immediately.
The TV report also noted that other countries also had to deal with corruption. For example, Lithuania seems to be the worst level of corruption of all the EU member states. Transparency International recently estimated that 26 per cent of Lithuanians have given bribes at least once.
Preparing Belarus for the Ice Hockey Championship. Belarusian authorities started preparations for next year’s Ice Hockey World Cup. Recently the Belarusian border service cooperated with officers from Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia on the programme “West 13” (“Захад 13” in Belarusian). For the last month they registered over a thousand cases of breaking border regulations, as the television reports. The joint programme is not only a training for the Belarusian border service before the hockey event that is scheduled to take place next year, but also for “honest cooperation between security services”.
Modernisation of agriculture. Lukashenka visited with farmers in the Minsk region. The farmers presented him modern technologies in milking, production of rapeseed oil, linen and flowers. The television highlighted that “today all of the agricultural sector is undergoing through modernisation: from tractors to modern milk processing plants”.
The role of the Orthodox Church in Belarus. In the words of Lukashenka “after the demise of the Soviet Union, which was the foundation of Slavic identity, the church played a huge role for us in preventing us fighting with each other”. He also stated that the Orthodox Church, but like other churches, should change and undergo some “evolutionist, progressive reform” in order to be more in line with with contemporary society.
Belarusian ruble is trendy (again). The official media reported that more Belarusians have decided to deposit the Belarusian national currency in banks. In June, due to increasing devaluation of the Belarusian ruble, Belarusians started buying foreign currency and transfer deposits in Belarusian roubles into currency deposits. Now the situation has completely changed, according to television reports. The banks are offering a very good rate for deposits in BYR, which has attracted many people. A financial analyst to the news confirmed also that higher deposits in the national currency meant more provisions.
Harvesting in Belarus. Belarusian television enthusiastically and in great detail reported on the ongoing harvesting campaign. The television also presented a ranking of the leading regions and farmers with the best results. Lukashenka personally visited several farms to hear about the harvesting campaign from the farmers. He brought up the importance of agriculture and harvesting saying that, “This is our image. This is the level of our agriculture”.
A huge pilgrimage to Minsk. Over 300 thousand Belarusians from the whole country participated in the adorations of the Saint Andrew’s Cross. It arrived to Minsk due to the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus. People from all over Belarus came to Minsk to celebrate one of the biggest religious events in recent Belarusian, according to media reports.
Assistance for families with children. The state plans to increase support of Belarusian families. Families with children younger than 3-year old will receive a higher allowance of around US$140 a month. Families with more children will benefit more in accordance with the changes. The parents will receive also more financial aid with their first and the next child birth. Under the new policy, families will receive US$1,160 for their first child.
A minimum budget increase. Since the beginning of August the minimum budget has increased by 5.5% and reached a level of about US$141.69 per person and will be in effect until 31 October. The news reports that as a result, minimum wages, social pensions, and benefits will increase accordingly.
More expensive electricity and heating. However, together with the increase in social benefits and minimum wages, the cost of living in Belarus will be even higher. The television reported that from the beginning of August prices for electricity and heating would increase by 14% and 9% respectively.
Snowden granted asylum in Russia. The news of Russia’s support for Edward Snowden came as a disappointment to the American authorities. Belarusian television cited Senator John McCain’s call for the US to revise their relations with Moscow. The Kremlin, on the other hand, asserts that the whole situation should not influence relations between the two countries.
Belarus and Russia together for the world community. Both countries want carry out a programme of cooperation in Antarctica. Belarus has had a presence in the Antarctic region since 2006, though it had already started its own research there a year before. The partnership with Russia presumes carrying out joint research and work on specialised technologies. Belarus has its own state programme for Antarctica which runs until 2018 and plans to establish its own “town” with a proper infrastructure. Thanks to these developments, Belarusian researchers will have an opportunity to examine the region throughout the year. This, as the television put it, “will bring benefits not only to one country, but the whole world community”.
Belarus will support the Ukraine modernisation. Ukrainian farmers are using old tractors. Belarusian television proudly reported that 80% of the machines used by Ukrainian farmers actually make their work less efficient. Lukashenko’s June visit to Kiev, amongst other things, focused on the fact that Belarus can offer them more modern and efficient tractors, talks which resulted in agreements on cooperation in these spheres. Today Belarusian technology reaches 30% of the Ukrainian market. In 2013 a Belarusian company MAZ sent to Ukraine a thousand tractors, and in 2014 that number will be doubled, as state television reports.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1. 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.
Belarus Kills Thousands of Pigs to Stop a Pandemic
On 21 June the Ministry of Agriculture of Belarus had to acknowledge that they detected African swine fever in a village of the Hrodna region. By August, it had spread to other regions of Belarus. This highly contagious disease causes up to a 100% mortality of livestock. Moreover, medics so far failed to develop an effective cure.
The Belarusian government had to take unprecedented measures to fight the outbreak such as killing livestock on large pig farms as well as in private households, causing popular discontent. For many rural families, breeding pigs has been an indispensable part of their households. People cannot understand why they have to kill all their pigs at once.
Neighbouring countries have banned meat imports from Belarus and introduced disinfection procedures on the border. But whether or not it will prevent the virus from spread to the EU remains unclear.
A Dangerous Virus
African swine fever is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus. It comes from Africa where it has existed in populations of wild pigs who have an immunity against it. However, when the infection reaches domesticated pigs, it is typical that all of them die from the virus. The fever emerged in Southern Europe and Latin America in 1960-1970s, causing vast losses of livestock.
Mortality from the disease varies from between 50 to 100%, but the virus does no harm to humans. So far no effective preventive measures and cure against the fever have been created. The only way to fight the disease remains the total elimination of the entire livestock population in question. Virtually all of Europe and part of Russia is infected with African swine fever now and a whole branch of pig breeding is threatened throughout the region. The pandemic has inflicted great damage to farmers.
Fighting the Pandemic
In January 2012 the Ministry of Agriculture of Belarus issued a recommendation for local governments in Belarus to take additional measures to prevent the penetration of African swine fever from Russia. By that time, 22 Russian regions had detected the disease taking root. The Belarusian government banned the import of animal products from the infected regions, but despite this ban and other sanitary steps the pandemic broke out in June 2013 in the Hrodna region.
As it often happens in Belarus, the information on the outbreak came not from Belarusian official sources. On 21 June the Russian Service of Veterinary Surveillance announced this information, which it secretly received from Belarusian authorities. After that, Belarusian officials had no choice but to accept that the case of infection took root in one of the villages and the authorities did their best to prevent the spread of the disease.
According to the Belarusian Veterinary Service, African swine fever came to Belarus from abroad through animal fodder. On 4 July, authorities announced another outbreak of the disease in the Vitsebsk region on the border with Russia and soon it appeared in the Minsk region too.
Authorities decided to strengthen control over pig farms and eliminate the whole population of pigs in the outbreak zones. The state guaranteed a reimbursement for losses incurred at a rate of $2 for a kilogram of the live weight of an animal (while the market price of pork is about $6). According to a governmental order, people in the infected areas cannot breed pigs for half a year.
A special regime was established on large infected farms to minimise the risk of spread of the pandemic. Near some farms, police posts appeared to make sure that no one could access the farms without permission.
Additionally, in some areas of Belarus, authorities ordered the complete elimination of wild boars who also serve as major disease carriers. For that purposes, authorities engage local hunters and allow them to shoot boars without hunting permission. All bodies are disinfected and buried in special pits.
Panic on Border
Meanwhile, neighbouring states attempt to build a line of defence from the Belarusian pandemic. Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia banned the import of animal products from Belarus.
Citizens who do not deal with pig breeding but who travel abroad and have experienced fever symptoms have to drive through a special carpet covered with a liquid antivirus. And special units on the border spray the liquid on the bottoms of vehicles. Moreover, all passengers exit their vehicles and clean their shoes on the carpet.
On 2 July the head of Lithuanian Veterinary Service called the situation with the African swine fever in Belarus “threatening and practically uncontrollable”. Poland and Lithuania have the longest borders with Belarus and appear particularly vulnerable to the penetration of the disease. They requested additional measures from the EU to defend the border: to set a fence on the border of Belarus to prevent the movement of wild boars, and build special facilities for chemical treatment of vehicles.
In response to that, the Belarusian Minister of Agriculture Michail Zajac claimed that, “there is no need to dramatise the situation, it is under control. We have some specific regions where the disease is, but all the necessary measures have been taken. Veterinary services’ work is well organised.”
In support of this claim, the Head of the Eastern European office of International Epizootic Bureau Kazimiras Lukauskas said that, “Belarus presents an example of how the government should act in such situation. We see great efforts being made by the Belarusian government and they want to study Belarusian experience of dealing with the fever and offer it to other countries”.
The Personal Tragedy of Villagers
In Belarusian villages, most households have at least one pig to support themselves financially. For them, the mass killing of pigs and the ban on their breeding in the near future has become a real tragedy. More often than not, the situation has deteriorated because of the awkward actions of the local authorities.
This is how it happened in Stajki village, Minsk region:
Authorities gave us one day to kill our pigs. In order to do this, people had to drop their work. There remained no space for meat in the fridge, so people went to town to buy new fridges, and when the local stores ran out of fridges people went to another town to buy them. Some have tried to pass meat to relatives in other villages, but special services check cars and buses very closely. Authorities warned us not to hide pigs because they would find them anyway.
In village of Lazavičy, the local people resisted plans to kill their pigs and when special units came, they demanded documents that the disease was detected in the village. The unit had no such proof and people simply did not let them into the village.
The true scale of African swine fever outbreak can only be calculated later, but clearly it has caused huge economic to and damaged the morale of state farms and private households. The risk of penetration into the European Union remains high and EU agriculture can suffer greatly if the disease spreads there.