Concerns about Belarusians Fighting in Ukraine, Cooperation with Poland, Budget Cuts – Belarus Security Digest
The Belarusian authorities are concerned about Belarusians fighting in Ukraine. Belarus and Poland have been expanding cooperation of rescue departments. Belarusian peacekeepers are ready to participate in UN missions. Belarus's territorial defence has not been definitely shelved yet.
Export of extremism concerns the Belarusian authorities. Money for Belarusian law-enforcement bodies in 2015 will be scarce.
Belarusian Fighters in Ukraine
The Belarusian authorities are concerned about Belarusians' joining the fighting in Ukraine. The authorities take very seriously information about participation of Belarusian citizens (especially from among former military personnel) in the fighting in the territory of Ukraine. Currently, they focus mainly on preventing the departure of Belarusian citizens to the hostilities and monitoring those who could participate in the war.
Minsk strives to remain equidistant between both sides in the war, and therefore participation of its citizens in the conflict may result in undesirable claims of political or ideological nature from Kyiv or Moscow. Second, there are fears that combatants with combat experience and serious ideological motivation may participate in activities aimed at destabilising the domestic political situation.
The Belarusian authorities obviously see the threat of an externally provoked destabilisation as real. They get ready to respond harshly to any attempts of active protest. At the same time, they categorically deny the fact that they have been creating the ground for shocks through their own policy miscalculations.
Territorial Defence Drills
The training of the territorial defence resumed after a one year hiatus. Information appeared in early March about a two-day staff training of the territorial defence, which took place in late February in the military commissariat of the Hrodna region.
The participants practised interaction between territorial defence troops and units of the Interior Ministry, the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the State Security Committee, the Investigative Committee, and the State Border Committee in maintaining order. They focused on protecting sites, mitigating the aftermath of terrorist attacks, accidents, self-inflicted and natural disasters, etc. Local officials and military commissioners of the region's towns and districts participated in the event.
On 5 March, the training involved staffers of the command structures of the territorial defence and law-enforcement bodies of the Vitsiebsk region. They drilled interagency interaction and training of territorial defence troops. On 23-27 March, a planned joint staff exercise of the unified command of the regional grouping of Belarus and Russia took place. The staff headquarters of the territorial defence zones (i.e., the regions and Minsk) and agencies of the Belarusian state administration participated in the event among other units. The exercise was carried out at the stationary command posts.
The territorial defence training resumed almost immediately after Alexander Lukashenka's statement before the military command on 19 February. The Belarusian leader stressed the importance of creating an efficient system for the territorial defence of Belarus. The Ministry of Defence is playing the leading role in this sphere. This is despite the fact that recently the Belarusian military authorities wanted to shift this responsibility mainly to the local authorities.
Budget Revenues Have Been Falling
Despite the significant operating surplus (4.9% of GDP), there is a tense situation with the execution of the state budget. Because of falling crude oil prices, the budget will lose about $1 bln in oil duties alone. Already the Ministry of Finance announces adjustments to the budget in the first half of the year by reducing its expenditure. It is obvious that the curtailment will affect primarily expenses, which are not related to the social sphere.
the authorities have been actively promoting football fans in the role of the regime's new enemies Read more
Given the lack of resources, the interagency competition to get them becomes more intense. Some siloviki follow tried-and-tested practises: on the eve of the presidential election, some law-enforcement agencies take advantage of the fear factor concerning possible political unrest modelled after the one that took place in Ukraine.
As the opposition's weakness is obvious, the authorities have been actively promoting football fans to the role of the regime's new enemies, while the fan movement is essentially a subculture, which is very fragmented and without a clear political platform. A possibility remains that due to diversification of information sources, the highest political leadership will not drift into a costly and absolutely senseless struggle with windmills.
Police Focuses on Banks and Taxes to Raise Money
Problems with replenishment of the state budget compelled the authorities to revise law-enforcement priorities in the sphere of prevention and suppression of economic crimes. Earlier, the Interior Ministry paid special attention to government procurement, modernisation of state-owned companies and use of public funds.
This year, they have new priorities: the return of foreign exchange earnings to the country and the control over the currency exchange market and financial sector (especially banks). This is due to falling exports and the inflow of foreign exchange earnings into the country against the backdrop of massive foreign debt payments. The second task is to ensure the revenue side of the state budget. In this connection, the struggle against tax evasion is getting tougher.
No Visas for Polish Rescuers
Minsk and Warsaw plan to abolish visas. So far, for rescuers only. The Belarusian-Polish sub-committee on cross-border cooperation met on 13 April. The parties reached agreement that the emergency services of both countries would be able to cross the border without visas in future emergencies. Belarus and Poland are drafting an agreement on cooperation in the prevention of accidents, natural disasters and other emergencies as well as mitigation of their consequences, which will include this provision.
Belarus in Peacekeeping Missions
Belarus plans to take a more active part in UN peacekeeping missions. On 26-28 March, a delegation of Belarus headed by Deputy State Secretary of the Security Council Stanislau Zas attended a conference of defence ministers dedicated to the issues of UN peacekeeping missions. On 26 March, during his meeting with Atul Khare, Under-Secretary-General for Field Support, expressed Belarus' interest in expanding its participation in UN peacekeeping missions.
During his meetings with the chiefs of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Spain and Serbia, Stanislau Zas discussed the prospects for expanding Belarus' participation in the UN military mission in Lebanon.
On 28 March, Stanislau Zas met with Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, and Lt. General Maqsood Ahmed, Military Adviser for Peacekeeping Operations, also to discuss the expansion of Belarus' participation in the UN peacekeeping activities.
Today, Belarus can provide a peacekeeping company of 240 servicemen, a military transport aircraft Il-76MD with two flight crews and two teams of ground service personnel, officers to serve in multinational staff headquarters (up to 15 people), a team of medical specialists (up to 7 people) and a mobile hospital.
Andrei is the head of “Belarus Security Blog” analytical project.
Why Belarus Needs the Bologna Process
Belarus remains the only European country excluded from the Bologna Process to date. This situation may finally change on 14-15 May 2015 when the ministerial meeting of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) will consider Belarus’s second attempt to join the 47-nation club.
Even though the Belarusian system of higher education has not seen any fundamental improvements in recent years, this time around it has a good chance of being brought into the fold. If it happens everyone, and especially Belarusian students and universities, will win. However, it will only be a single step in the right direction – as the real work will start afterwards.
Will Belarus Be Accepted This Time?
The EHEA ministerial meeting set to take place on 14-15 May in Yerevan will consider Belarus’s application to the Bologna group. The Belarusian Minister of Education Mikhail Zhuraukou has received an official invitation to attend the event. The Belarusian media have already read this as a sign that the country’s bid for membership has been successful.
Minister Zhuraukou also sounds optimistic. In his words, “Belarus observes almost every principle of the Bologna Declaration, there remain only some formalities [to be worked out]”.
Unofficial sources point to a potential positive decision as well. According to Uladzimer Dunayeu, member of the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee, the Bologna Working Group, which reviewed the application, prepared a ‘yes’ recommendation for the ministerial meeting in May.
At the beginning of March, the Working Group visited Minsk and held a seminar at the Belarusian State University. The Head of the Education Department of the Council of Europe Sjur Bergan, who took part in the seminar, made quite an unequivocal statement: “The fact that we have come to Belarus proves that we are seriously considering your application. Otherwise we would not be here”.
Second Attempt in Four Years
The general mood appears to be quite different from the situation at the end of 2011, when Belarus applied to the Bologna Process for the first time. Even though the Belarusian application at that time caused similar discussions inside and outside the country, some things have changed this time around.
As with the current situation, the government then stressed the gradual progress of the educational system and its technical compatibility with the European Higher Education Area, the country's readiness to organise international exchange programmes and apply a unified educational credit system. Also similar to the present-day situation, the Independent Bologna Committee then argued that higher education in Belarus fell short of the Bologna standards and core values.
Yet, the 2011 review of Belarus’s application took place against a very different political background. Only one year had passed since the Belarusian authorities cracked down on mass demonstrations during the presidential election night at the end of December 2010. Belarus-EU relations saw one of the worst periods ever: sanctions lists were growing, both sides exchanged harsh statements and mutual accusations, and EU ambassadors left Minsk several times to display their diplomatic protest.
As a result, in December 2011 the Bologna Working Group recommended a ministerial meeting (held in April 2012) to not accept Belarus – and at that time, the ministers agreed. According to their assessment, the Belarusian system of higher education did not respect the principles and values of the Bologna Process, such as academic freedom, institutional autonomy and student participation in the governance of universities.
Now that the relations with the EU have entered a phase of rapprochement, the overall political context for Belarus’s Bologna application has considerably improved. The growing bilateral agenda and Minsk’s efforts in mediating a de-escalation of the Ukraine crisis have played their own role.
Has Anything Changed in Higher Education in Belarus?
In December 2014 the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee prepared a new report on the country’s readiness to join the EHEA. According to this report, the system of higher education in Belarus has made significant progress but still failed to meet the necessary criteria with the issues that prevented its acceptance three years before. Representatives of some independent student organisations agree with this assessment.
Officials from the Ministry of Education and rectors of Belarusian universities have offered up different points of view on the degree to which things have changed over the past four years. Minister Zhuraukou argues that:
now we can say with confidence that Belarus has a two-stage system of education with bachelor programmes (from three to five years depending on one's specialisation) and master programmes. … We have introduced the possibility of getting PhD through defending a thesis. Moreover, now a PhD defence can be conducted in English. All Belarusian universities have started to have courses in English. … Of course, Belarus has its own issues, as does any other country, but in general we are in compliance with the guidelines of the Bologna convention.
The First Deputy Minister of Education Vadzim Bohush claims that in all Belarusian university students now have a direct vote on all issues facing their institutions. Students’ representatives sit on university councils and have the right of a binding, not advisory, vote.
However, according to the monitoring carried out by the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee and the youth trade union group Students Rada, the student quota (25%) in university councils is hardly respected.
Why Is Bologna Good for Belarus?
Thus, the state of play in the field of higher education in Belarus has not progressed a lot since 2011. Neither have the discussions about Belarus's potential Bologna membership: both supporters and opponents of the idea firmly adhere to the same arguments.
And this is no surprise.
The fundamental mistake of traditional Western policies towards Belarus is expecting too much too soon, even though the reality on the ground simply precludes a possibility of a quick change.
A realist needs to accept that the full implementation of the Bologna principles contradicts the very nature of the present-day political reality in the country and that there is no external or internal power capable of changing it at present. And the real question of the day has to do with the prospects of long-term improvements.
Isolation, as Belarus has already demonstrated, hardly serves anyone: whether it be the country in general, the government, opposition, civil society, educational system or individual citizens. Moreover, the prolonged isolation of higher education institutions primarily harms those whom it claims to protect – the young generation of Belarusians, who are deprived of basic opportunities as a result of these policies.
Even a minor opening up of the Belarusian education system, which the Bologna process can facilitate, will be a meaningful step in the right direction. It will also help equip more progressively minded individuals in government circles with additional arguments against the Soviet-style retrogrades that still dominate many academic and policy-making institutions in Belarus.
In the light of this, the ministers of the Bologna group should accept Belarus to the European Higher Education Area. And it is important to use the membership not for political sloganeering but for promoting the fundamental principles of the Bologna process in practise, in a manner that is patient but also consistent.