Cooperation with Podlasie, Union of Poles, IT Startups, Chernobyl Myths – State Press Digest
On the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster government officials are trying to dispel some common Chernobyl myths circulating in Belarusian society.
The authorities are preparing for the All-Belarusian Assembly in June – an event that aims to add legitimacy to various political initiatives.
Belarus is working on the abolition of energy subsidies and is calculating the possibility of popular discontent resulting from rising tariffs. Belarusian IT genii are winning global startup contests but do not want to set up companies at home. All of this and more in the latest edition of the State Press Digest.
All-Belarusian People's Congress will unite power and people. Zviazda newspaper talked to Marat Žylinski, rector of the Public Administration Academy and MP, about the significance of the All-Belarusian People's Congress scheduled for June. The assembly is a forum in which the government talks to the representatives of people, tells them frankly what has been achieved, what has failed, and why.
The delegates should understand clearly where the country is heading, and then transmit this vision to their constituencies. According to Žylinski, although Belarus has low wages and a deficient public administration, the preservation of peace and unity should come before everything. The All-Belarusian congress has become one form of legitimisation of President Alexander Lukashenka's rule. It allows the authorities to appoint delegates who “represent” the grassroots and who will approve government strategy for another five years.
Hrodna region intensifies cooperation with Podlasie Voivodeship (region) of Poland. Hrodzienskaja Praŭda highlighted a visit of the delegation of Hrodna region leaders to Podlasie Woivodeship of Poland at the beginning of May. The Poles called the visit “a historic event”, since the last visit of Hrodna officials to their Polish neighbours took place 10 years ago. The visit included a joint cycle, a tour of Bielavieža forest, the Augustow channel and some other spots, as well as informal negotiations.
According to the head of Podlasie region Erzy Leszczynski, the sides have a particular opportunity to cooperate in walking and cycling tourism, the more active joint use of the Augustow channel, opening of new border crossing points, expanding the areas of visa-free visits, and cultural exchange. Hrodna region head Uladzimir Kraŭcoŭ announced that the Hrodna authorities plan to apply for EU funding for around 50 projects in the area of cross-border cooperation.
Tax inspectorate ffines the leader of the unofficial Union of Poles. The tax inspectorate of Hrodna city ordered that Anžalika Borys, head of the unofficial Union of Poles in Belarus, pay a fine of $6,000, wrote Belarus Segodnya. Borys owned a private company called Polonica that specialised in cultural and educational events financed by the Polish government. The newspaper claims that the company often organised fake events and engaged in other forms of deception to secure funding from Poland.
The Belarusian authorities qualified it as a misuse of funds and issued a fine. The company subsequently went bankrupt and now its head has to pay the fine herself. Borys heads the unrecognised group of Poles' Union, which emerged after the breakup of the organisation in 2005 as a result of conflict with the authorities. Since that time the unofficial organisation has been facing pressure in a number of ways.
Belarusians win global startup contests, but do not set up companies at home. Narodnaja Hazieta described a number of successful IT startups created by Belarusians in 2015. Arciom Stavienka and Kiryl Čykiejuk found success at the Pitch to Rich contest with their screen that makes holographic 3D projections. Their company Kino-mo won a £150,000 prize for advertising and marketing, and received partnership requests from 40 countries. Their device also featured on all top lists of the famous CES exhibition in Las Vegas, along with LG, Samsung, and Toshiba gadgets.
Jury Birčanka won $220,000 at prestigious British competition The BIG Awards. He presented a wireless networking platform that enables low-cost and low-power communication between devices and clouds. Siarhiej Churs and Dzmitry Marozaŭ won a Grand Prix and a prize of $100,000 at the innovative startups contest, the Wolves Summit in Warsaw. They presented a portable scanner to detect dental problems at early stages. However, the newspaper noted that all these IT-breakthroughs are registered in the EU and the US, and tried to explain why startups cannot effectively develop in Belarus.
Removal of energy subsidies will cause 2.5 fold price rise for households. Respublika called attention to an overview of the Belarusian energy sector prepared by the OECD with the support of the EU and the UN. The report states that energy subsidies for the population and industry grew from $1bn in 2010 to $1.7bn, or about 2.2 per cent of GDP, in 2014. However, due to the fact that gas, heat and electricity tariffs are exempt from VAT, in 2014 the national budget lost $199m from subsidy policies.
A full cessation of subsidies in the energy sector would imply that Belarusians have to pay 2.5 times more than the current price. In terms of money this will mean an increase from about $60 to $150 per person annually. The average monthly fee for a family will reach $38 and increase to $58 during the cold season.
Belarus will gradually be freed from radiation. Belarus Segodnia interviewed Head of Contaminated Areas Department of Emergency Ministry Dzmitry Paŭlaŭ, who dispelled a number of myths about Chernobyl that are still widespread among the Belarusian population.
The radiation in Belarusian lands will not last forever, as the 30-year half-life of cesium and strontium has now passed. In 2046, affected areas in Minsk and Hrodna regions will become clean.
However, the area in the immediate vicinity of Chernobyl, which was also contaminated with plutonium, will remain dangerous for hundreds to thousands of years. The government is not in a hurry to return contaminated areas to cultivation, despite what many think. Out of 250,000 hectares of contaminated land only 17,500 have been returned to agricultural use in the past three decades.
Homiel region continues to suffer from a high rate of alcohol-related deaths. Homielskaja Praŭda presented data from the State Committee of Court Expertise on deaths caused by drinking alcohol. Within the first three month of 2016 in Homiel region 75 people fatally poisoned themselves with alcohol. In 2015 the death toll from alcohol poisoning reached 254 people, 15 fewer than in 2014. The victims usually consume excessively large quantities of legal alcohol, and many drink highly toxic technical spirits which easily cause death or serious health damage.
The State Press 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.
Belarusian arms industry struggles to survive under Kremlin pressure
On 25 April, Belarus ' State Military Industrial Committee announced that in the first quarter of 2016 its defence industrial enterprises had increased exports by 31 per cent compared to the previous year. Their net profit grew even more, by 1.6 times.
Remarkably, the Belarusian defence industry has succeeded even while Moscow continues its policy of restricting access to Russian markets for Belarusian defence firms. The Kremlin continues to design substitutes for Belarusian products.
Minsk is responding by cooperating with Ukraine, China and numerous developing countries. The Kremlin is effectively forcing Belarusians to distance themselves from Moscow and build the economic foundations for an independent state.
Why MZKT is so important
On 20 April, President Alexander Lukashenka announced that Minsk would sell Russia the Minsk Wheeled Tractors Factory (MZKT) only if Moscow gave Belarus some oil deposits in Siberia. The Moscow-based Vzglyad daily commented that Lukashenka himself realised that the Kremlin will neither pay the price he demanded nor give him an oil deposit.
MZKT for many years has provided Soviet and later Russian missile and rocket systems with chassis. Among them are the famous missile system Iskander, multiple rocket launcher systems Uragan and Grad, surface-to-air missile systems Tor, Buk, S-300 and S-400, ballistic missile systems Topol and Yars, and others. According to Russian experts, Russia buys between 60 per cent and 90 per cent of MZKT's production.
Throughout the 2010s, Russian firms repeatedly claimed to have designed replacements for the Belarusian MZKT chassis. This happened most recently in March when Almaz-Antei said it was ready to cease using Belarusian products. Yet Moscow still wants to acquire MZKT products and Russian firms continue to install their weapons on Belarusian chassis. This raises questions about the veracity of Russia's claims and threats.
Kremlin bent on substituting its Belarusian allies
Russia started to design replacements for the MZKT chassis as early as 2010 and has been trying to do so consistently since. It points to a clear political line. One leading Russian military expert, deputy director of the Russian Centre for analysis of strategies and technologies Konstantin Makiyenko confirmed to Vzglyad,
“The strategy of import substitution concerns not only Western and Ukrainian products […]. It is a global concept. Russia, after burning its hands on Ukraine and Europe, strives to substitute imports across the spectrum […] We are ready to completely abandon the Belarusian products [of the defence industry].”
The Kremlin's official policies reflect that. Recently, Minsk even complained to the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC), a body established in the course of Eurasian integration, about Russian regulations on defence orders. Specifically, it challenged the decision of Russia's cabinet of ministers of 29 December 2015 that restricted acquisition of foreign goods and services for Russia's defence needs.
On 12 April, the EEC recognised that the Russian government had violated the principle of equal access to the government's orders for participants in the Eurasian integration process. But Minsk has nothing to celebrate: Moscow is known to have simply ignored earlier such verdicts of the EEC.
Ukraine as a solution
The Kremlin is effectively destroying an important link between Belarus and Russia by disrupting industrial cooperation that goes back to Soviet times. Russian experts – and probably the Russian government – believe that the Belarusian defence industry in general and the MZKT in particular have no choice but to work for Russia. Vice President of the Russian Union of Engineers Ivan Andrievski emphasised that “It would be problematic for the MZKT to find access to European and other markets.”
It is partly true. Belarusian industry is hardly currently in a position to find a good replacement for Russian markets and partners. But if Putin attempts to squeeze Belarusians out of Russia, they are not going to surrender and are already working on alternatives.
Belarus' continuing large-scale cooperation with Ukraine fits this pattern. The most well known illustration of this concerns MAZ activities in Ukraine. In March Belarusian truck manufacturer MAZ signed an agreement on establishing a production line of trucks in Ukraine's Cherkasy with the Ukrainian corporation Bohdan. It will manufacture trucks according to both civilian and military modifications using Belarusian and Ukrainian components. That creates an alternative to the established Ukrainian KrAZ truck production works.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko allegedly responded to criticism about neglecting the existing KrAZ production by explaining that Belarusian trucks successfully passed the necessary tests and are more resilient in combat conditions. On the basis of MAZ-6317 the Ukrainians have also designed an armoured vehicle for their police and National Guard.
According to MAZ's own information, the company has become a leader in sales of trucks of a corresponding type in Ukraine after providing Kyiv with 294 trucks in 2015. According to Lyashko, in February Kyiv may have bought another 120 MAZ trucks.
New markets already bring profits
Belarus continues to do numerous defence industrial projects with China or other, more distant countries. In March a military parade in Myanmar featured surface-to-air missile system Kvadrat-M modernised by the Belarusian firm Alevkurp. Incidentally, its launchers also operate on the MZKT chassis. Another Belarusian firm, Minotor-Service, last year modernised almost 500 BTR-50s for Egypt.
Circumstantial evidence points to some unpublicised major deals on military equipment being underway with Pakistan. Recent months have seen other significant breakthroughs. On 26-27 February Defense Minister of Thailand Prawit Wongsuwan came to Minsk. On 28-30 April he was followed by Defence Minister of Indonesia Ryamizard Ryacudu who was also received at the highest level, by Lukashenka.
These efforts to diversify the markets and partners of the Belarusian defence industry have already brought some results. The National defence industry achieved good results not only in the first months of this year but also in 2015.
Based on the results of the economic activity of Belarusian firms in 2015, the government has included on its list of the 29 most profitable national enterprises three major defence firms. That represents not only an honour but also a commitment to make a contribution to the state budget fund of national development.
Russian politicians and experts are quick to dismiss their official Belarusian allies. The Kremlin apparently believes that Minsk has no choice but to gradually surrender Russians national economic assets or even statehood. That is the mindset that Russian leaders have displayed with regard to former Soviet nations since 1991. History proved them wrong many times as the former Soviet countries distanced themselves from Russia after experiencing such attitudes. Belarus could become just another such case.