Constitutional referendum, organised crime, internet control – Belarus state press digest
The Central Election Commission head says the government can prepare a referendum in Belarus in 70 days with extra-budgetary funds. Alexander Lukashenka reveals he has “a large number of issues to discuss with the European Union.” The government amends legislation to increase control of internet media.
The police fight organised crime and war mercenaries. Belarus carries out an emergency check after the Kemerovo fire. Belarusian citizens buy more flats in Moscow than citizens from any other CIS member.
This and more in the latest Belarus state press digest.
Foreign policy and domestic politics
The government can prepare a referendum in Belarus in 70 days with extra-budgetary funds. The head of the Central Electoral Commission, Lidzija Jarmošyna, informed that a referendum, the plans on which were recently revealed, can be arranged within 70 days.
The Central Electoral Commission organises a national referendum because most sections of the constitution can only be changed in this way. However, Jarmošyna did not specify what constitutional changes the authorities will propose, and said that the Constitutional Court will largely deal with the issue.
Moreover, it will be organised with extra-budgetary funds; companies and individuals will transfer money to the Central Electoral Commission’s account. It will cost three-to-four times less than elections because the budget only covers leaflet printing and one week’s work by the election commissions, writes Zviazda.
Lukashenka accumulated a large number of issues to discuss with the European Union. Zviazda reports that during his visit to Georgia on 22 March, the Belarusian president gave an interview to the Georgian television. Responding to a question about why he did not attend the summit of the Eastern Partnership in Brussels late last year, Lukashenka said that foreign minister Makiej was better prepared for the event’s agenda. However, in future, the president also plans to visit an EU summit since he has “a lot of proposals and issues that should be discussed with the EU.”
Asked what he would demand from the EU, Lukashenka responded: “I do not have any claims. I just want that Europe respects us and understand the value of Belarus.” At the same time, he urged the EU not to “teach” Belarus democracy: “We see a democratic Georgia, a democratic Europe, all the pros and cons of the model. But we have our own national peculiarities.”
Belarus amended legislation to increase control over internet media. Belarus Segodnia interviewed information minister Aliaksandr Karliukievič on legal amendments designed to regulate the internet in Belarus. The amendments impose on owners of online media outlets responsibility for any information posted. The minister argues that this will make the internet safer for children.
The law introduces the term “web resource” to refer to internet media which, after voluntarily state registration, will be able to employ journalists and claim the same rights as traditional media. Their obligations will include banning the dissemination of restricted information, materials containing obscene words and expressions, false information that could harm the state or public interests, and information discrediting the honour, dignity and business reputation of individuals and legal entities.
The new law contains one particularly controversial aspect. It introduces mandatory authentication of users who post any information on the internet, including comments. The minister, however, claims that the identification procedure primarily protects the owners of internet resources, who risk being prosecuted should they publish illegal content.
Belarus carries out an emergency check following the Kemerovo fire. The Belarusian authorities launched an emergency check of all buildings that serve large crowds of people after a fire in the Russian city Kemerovo left dozens of people dead. President Lukashenka demanded that the interior minister, Ihar Šunievič, “severely punishes” any flaws that could lead to similar consequences.
In Minsk alone, emergency services checked 103 places and launched preventive measures without imposing penalties in a further 84. As a result, the authorities fined 30 heads of organisations residing in the checked buildings and 13 officials, and launched administrative proceedings against 87 people according to Respublika.
The Belarusian police fight organised crime and war mercenaries. Specnaz magazine interviews the head of the Central Department for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption, Mikalaj Karpiankoŭ, on the agency’s 27th birthday.
In recent years, grey schemes involving goods subject to import bans in Russia because of sanctions proliferated among Russian dealers. They bring goods from Europe to Belarus, change the labels and documentation, and move them on to Russia as legal imports. Other Russian criminals present themselves as logistics company managers and offer services to Belarusian businesses. They take the goods on false invoices and then vanish into the expanses of Russia.
As for criminal gangs, about 700 members and leaders of organised groups remain under monitoring on the territory of Belarus, especially in the prison system. Karpiankoŭ’s department takes measures to prevent the penetration of crime bosses from Russia and Ukraine and thwart their efforts to settle down and invest their money in Belarus. Another recent direction of the department’s work is dealing with Belarusian mercenaries in the war in eastern Ukraine. The agency currently is checking 734 Belarusian citizens and non-citizens for involvement in the conflict. Of these, 188 were recognised as such, and the agency initiated ten criminal cases in 2017.
Belarusians buy more flats in Moscow than any other CIS citizens. The Minsk Times quotes a study by the Est-a-Tet investment and property company on apartment purchases in Moscow by CIS citizens. Belarusians appeared the keenest buyers of Moscow flats, accounting for 42.5% of all deals. Residents of Minsk and Brest, aged 35-40, featured most prominently accounting for 25 per cent of such cases taking out mortgages in Russia.
In total, residents of CIS states account for around 1 per cent of buyers. Belarusians take the lead, followed by Ukrainians (23.75%) and Kazakhs (13.75%). Belarusians receive assistance from banks which give mortgages on almost the same terms as for Russian citizens. For example, if residents from other CIS states want to buy property in Moscow, they face complex procedures and much red tape, and therefore prefer to rent. Belarusians don’t face such problems.
Agriculture should be a business, not a social project. During the national seminar on the development of rural areas and improving the efficiency of the agricultural industry, Lukashenka stated that at the present level of technology and discipline of production state agricultural companies can increase the output by one-and-a-half times.
As he said, “Food is politics, both domestic and foreign. The state of the agricultural sector shapes the well-being and stability of the country. This is the most important factor of our independence.” However, problems in agriculture remain widespread. The prosecutor general and head of the State Control Committee reported cases of falsification, theft, corruption and underperformance, writes Belarus Segodnia.
The state press digest is based on a review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media primarily convey 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.
London conference, Annual Report, Belarusian language trends, the longevity gap – Ostrogorski Centre digest
In March, the Ostrogorski Centre held its annual London conference on Belarusian studies and published its report covering the centre’s activities in 2017.
Analysts from the Ostrogorski Centre wrote about trends in Belarusian language use in public education and civil society, Belarus’s massive gender longevity gap and the ongoing quiet reform of the Belarusian army.
We also added five new research papers from the Belarusian think tanks to our BelarusPolicy database.
Alesia Rudnik discusses trends in Belarusian language use in the state education system and civil society. At present, the near impossibility of receiving pre-school education in the Belarusian language concerns some parents. Others cling on to even the slightest possibility of ensuring their children’s education in the Belarusian language. Yet others wonder why the question arises at all – thinking that it would be better to teach students English or Chinese.
The rapid disappearance of the Belarusian language from the education sector (from 19% in the 2010-11 academic year to 13% in 2017-18) paradoxically coincided with the increasing popularity of various kinds of Belarusian cultural initiatives and projects.
Ryhor Astapenia analyses Belarus’s massive gender longevity gap. The Belarusian gender debate understandably focuses on women’s rights, but in reality, men deserve as much attention. Belarusian men have a far lower life expectancy than women; lower even than North Korean men. Both men themselves and state authorities bear responsibility for this. Belarus remains one of the most alcoholic nations in the world and Belarusian men generally treat their health with indifference.
This has painful consequences. Families lose a parent and a money-maker, while the state loses a taxpayer. Even before death, poor health among men leads to low productivity and hence holds significance for the economy. The Belarusian government undertakes some efforts to promote healthy lifestyles but it fails to do so systematically.
Siarhei Bohdan writes about the ongoing quiet reform of the Belarusian army. On 18 February, president Alexander Lukashenka offered to deploy a 10,000-strong Belarusian contingent as peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine. This represents a rather large commitment for the Belarusian army comprising in total 46,000 military personnel.
Minsk pays increasing attention to its military and has even raised spending on its armed forces by a fifth. But the Belarusian army still faces problems, which go beyond the acquisition of expensive weaponry. It also has fewer conscripts than it would like. Consequently, it employs additional professional soldiers and relies ever more on reservists. In this way, the army adjusts to the needs of the country.
3rd annual “Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century” conference
The 3rd annual conference, Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century, took place on 23 March in London. University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum together organised the event.
The conference featured speakers from the UK, the USA, Canada, Germany, Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus. Panels covered history, social and political movements, foreign policy and art. The traditional Annual London Lecture on Belarusian Studies, delivered this year by Dr. Alena Markova, was called “Belarusian State- and Nation-Formation: From Polatsk Principality to Independent Belarus”.
The conference guests included Stanislaŭ Šuškievič, the first head of independent Belarus (in office 1991-1994), and the UK ambassador to Belarus, Fionna Gibb. The conference programme is available here. Podcasts of the conference will be made available online on the Ostrogorski Centre Soundcloud.
2017 Annual Report of the Ostrogorski Centre
In March, the Ostrogorski Centre published its annual report for 2017. The Centre has strengthened its team as well as the reach and impact of our work, particularly in the field of online education.
In June, the Ostrogorski Academy has been officially launched. Its ambition is to serve as the first entirely online educational platform in Belarus, which features video lectures, transcripts and tests presented in an engaging format.
As in previous years, we held three major annual conferences – the Ostrogorski Forum in Minsk dedicated to foreign policy and security issues, the annual London conference on Belarusian studies, and a conference on the reform of higher education in Minsk. The new 2017 issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies features articles by researchers from Canada, the United States and Belarus, as well as several book reviews.
In 2017, the Ostrogorski Centre continued to provide daily analysis of events related to Belarus in English through the Belarus Digest website, and in the Russian/Belarusian languages on Ostro.by. We also kept the Belarus Policy and Belarus Profile databases up to date.
This year, Belarus Digest welcomed a new analyst on national security and defence – Dzmitry Mitskevich from the Belarus Security Blog. Peter Braga, a PhD candidate at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London joined the editorial team of Belarus Digest. Siarhei Bohdan, a regular contributor to Belarus Digest, defended his PhD thesis at the Free University of Berlin.
Comments in the media
Siarhei Bohdan became the author of the Security Barometer section of the Minsk Barometer project – a regular monitoring of foreign policy and regional security. In the first issues, Siarhei writes that on the one hand, Belarus avoids being drawn into the confrontation of the current Russian leadership with the West and its eastern European allies. On the other hand, it is increasingly disappointed in the growing reluctance of the Kremlin to strengthen its allies militarily and economically.
The Belarusian leadership understands that the Russian media strongly influence mass opinion in Belarus and wage information attacks against official Minsk. At the same time, Minsk cannot go too far in countering it, for example by closing Russian channels which broadcast in Belarus, says Alesia Rudnik in a comment to Polish radio.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update its database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
- Ihar Pielipas’, Aliaksandr Chubryk, Iryna Tachytskaya, Hleb Shymanovich, Darya Urban. Belarusian Business in 2017: State, Trends, Prospects. IPM Research Centre, 2018.
- Aleh Mazol’. Institutes and Economic development. BEROC, 2018.
- Yaraslau Kryvoi, Raman Maroz. Reform of Legal Education in Belarus and the Experience of the UK. Ostrogorski Centre, 2018.
- The Belarusian Economic Review, Q4 2017. BEROC, 2018.
- Mikita Bialiayeu, Yauhen Mardasevich. Self-Regulation of Business in Belarus on the Example of Advertising: From Declaration to Implementation. Liberal Club, 2017.
Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion in the database by emailing us.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to a market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.