Cycling Boom Reaches Belarusian Cities
On 18 September morning, cycling activists handed out fruits to Minsk residents who travelled to their job or university by bike. In this way they wanted to thank people for their choice and to draw attention to the lack of a cycling environment.
In recent years Belarusian cities have truly flourished with cyclists. According to the estimates of the Belarusian Association of Experts and Surveyors on Transport, currently around 400,000 Minsk dwellers can be called cyclists, and this figure increases 10% annually.
However, urban infrastructure, traffic rules and most importantly official perceptions are unready to face this wave. The authorities see no justification for developing cycling because of finance, health and other factors. Although some measures have occurred in recent years, no public policy so far exists to support cyclists.
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Authorities and Civil Society: Cycling Together?
In recent years Belarus, and especially the capital, Minsk, have seen a boom in cycling. The increasing number of cyclists has turned into a whole urban cultural and business trend. As an important transport and traffic element, it has brought a challenge to the authorities, who try to respond to the growing demands of cyclists.
In 2010 the Minsk State Automobile Inspection organisation published “A Concept of Developing the Cycling System in Minsk”. This was created by the Belarusian Association of Experts and Surveyors on Transport. This is a civil association. The concept stated that while many people support the development of urban cycling city infrastructure remains poor. It proposed a plan of adjusting city space for cycling and introducing bike-friendly norms in future urban planning.
Not only the police, but also other executive officials have shown an interest in the development of cycling. In 2013 Minsk mayor Mikalaj Ladućka ordered the creation of a detailed plan to support it by adjusting street infrastructure, creating rental points, a cycling club and other facilities.
However, Ladućka did not fulfil these ambitions as Lukashenka transferred him to a lower position. The new mayor Andrej Šorac does not seem to be too preoccupied with the issue.
Although the government has not fulfilled the Concept of a Cycling System in many aspects, its very appearance has become an important precedent. As Pavel Harbunoŭ, an activist of the Belarusian Cycling Society says, the Concept appeared only as a framework document. It does not set concrete indicators, roles and the responsibilities of state bodies, so one can hardly expect effective implementation.
However, it is important that civil activists and authorities manage to cooperate constructively. Now the cyclists have good reasons to hope that a real cycling policy will appear from the government in the near future.
Cycling Becomes a Part of Urban Culture
A view that a grown-up man should have a car has always been widespread among Belarusian youths, and every schoolboy dreams of a car or at least motorcycle. However, modern urban youth have another perspective on the matter. Being environmentally friendly and having a healthy lifestyle has become crucial for many.
Belarusians use bikes for various reasons. Some consider riding a bike cheaper and healthier than using a car or public transport. For others it serves as fitness for an active life and keeping fit, and this group so far dominates in Minsk. And for some it became simply a stylish thing, which demonstrates their belonging to urban trends. Young people clearly dominate amongst those who own bicycles, but it has also became popular among the upper class older generation.
In 2011 a group of activists created the Belarusian Cycling Society with the aim of expanding the use of bicycles, developing cycling culture and tourism. In 2013 they also opened the first bike kitchen, a noncommercial bike workshop, where any cyclist can learn to fix their bike and get other related information. It also became a place for civil events dedicated to cycling and urban development.
So far such groups do most of the work in communication with the authorities and lead all advocacy campaigns. Slowly they try to resolve infrastructure, legal, financial and cultural obstacles to the development of cycling. These issues still remain numerous.
What Inhibits Cycling in Belarus
Despite a rather constructive and friendly attitude of the authorities towards the growing cycling community, many problems for cycling and cyclists remain unresolved. Pavel Harbunoŭ sees the main reason for the problems in the lack of a government policy. No one has yet calculated and presented to city bureaucrats how much Minsk will gain from such things like money, health, clean air, road surface. Having no well-grounded reasons for caring about cyclists, officials do not understand why they should improve the cycling environment. So a few serious obstacles for cycling persist.
According to the Belarusian traffic code, a cyclist can only ride on the pavement as riding on the road is prohibited. The police argue that until special cycle lanes are built on the roads, cyclists will remain in danger of accidents. Cyclists have respond that currently dangers exist when they have to manoeuvre among pedestrians, and this will increase when heavier electric bikes spread around the city in the future.
High penalties also remain one of the major problems for cyclists. Besides, they remain an obstacle not only for cyclists, but also for wheelchair users. Belarus introduced zero heights at the intersection of roads and pavements only in 2013. According to the Cycling Development Concept, 500 km of adjusted pavements should have appeared in 2011-2015, but the expected length will only be equal to 100 km.
Finally, cyclists expect that developers should have a deeper involvement in public discussions on new cycle projects. Very often government planners and private developers do not think about cyclist’s needs when designing city space. Cyclists say public discussions could resolve this problem, but developers do not publish information about public discussion or organise them during the project, making any changes impossible.
Already the large cycling community needs to unite and involve new expertise to make their advocacy more effective. Hopefully, their positive experience of cooperation with the authorities will bring more results in the coming years.
New Agreement with EU, Reviving Embassies with the US – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Encouraged by "non-negative dynamics" in Belarus, the European Union is drafting a new kind of framework agreement with Minsk. It will take into account the realities of their relationship. In the meantime, Minsk and Washington are discussing the practicalities of resuming the normal functioning of their embassies, which have been frozen since 2008.
In two months from now, Belarusian and Israeli citizens will begin enjoying the convenience of a visa-free regime between the two countries. Several UN institutions have adopted their assistance programmes for Belarus over the next five-years amounting to $94 million in total.
Belarus and the US: Re-establishing Full-Scale Embassies?
On 11 September, foreign minister Vladimir Makei received a delegation from the United States Department of State led by Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy. In their press releases about the meeting both the Belarusian MFA and the US embassy confined themselves to a vague formula about the deliberation by the parties on the status of their bilateral relations.
Belarus and US are ready to discuss re-establishment of full-scale embassies Read more
In fact, the true purpose of Patrick Kennedy's trip to Minsk was to discuss the modalities of resuming the normal functions of the American embassy in Belarus. In 2008, Belarus restricted unilaterally the number of US diplomats allowed to reside in Minsk to five (later six) persons. The United States also had to withdraw its ambassador.
Patrick Kennedy's primary sphere of responsibility is human resources, budget and foreign missions. In all probability, Belarus and the US have reached a point in their step-by-step strategy of improving relations where they can discuss practicalities of restoring full-scale diplomatic relations. Both parties assume at this stage that the forthcoming presidential election will clear the way for such an arrangement.
Belarus and the EU: A Formal Agreement in Sight?
Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, who's country holds the EU presidency, said to journalists on 4 September that the European Union was preparing new agreements with Belarus and Armenia. These documents would bind the parties less than the association agreements. The diplomat failed to find a name for such agreements or elaborate on their modalities. However, he noted that they would be a "lighter and less fundamental version" of the association agreement and would not include tariff concessions.
Jean Asselborn noted the "non-negative dynamics" in Belarus. "Europe should not lose an opportunity, which is emerging [in relations] with this country. We should not think about the regime, we should think about people".
Currently, no framework agreement governs relations between Belarus and the EU. The parties signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 1995; but the EU did not ratify this document. The Belarusian government has not commented so far on Asselborn's revelations.
Meanwhile, deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna went to Brussels on 3 September to attend the sixth round of consultations on modernisation between Belarus and the European Union. The parties took stock of the results of the previous discussion rounds and discussed prospects of cooperation in priority areas.
Belarus foreign ministry seeks recognition of "certain progress" in the presidential election Read more
A week later, on 8 – 11 September, Alena Kupchyna visited Romania and Sweden for political and economic consultations with her counterparts in the respective foreign ministries. The trip to Stockholm also included a meeting with Kent Härstedt, special coordinator of the short-term OSCE observer mission at the presidential election in Belarus.
Back in Minsk, Alena Kupchyna and her boss Vladimir Makei have been meeting on a regular basis with the observer missions of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The ministry's task and ambition is to have European observers find "certain progress" and "positive developments" in the forthcoming election while recognition of Belarus having a free and fair election is still out of the question.
Securing UN Assistance to Belarus
Several UN agencies at their regular meetings in New York adopted development blueprints for assistance to Belarus for the next five years.
On 31 August, the Executive Board of the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Population Fund and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS) adopted the UNFPA country programme for Belarus for 2016-2020. The programme's indicative budget amounts to $3.7 million. The money will be spent primarily on strengthening sexual reproductive health policy, including family planning, prevention of cancer and HIV, as well as counteracting gender-based violence.
In two days, the same UN body adopted the UNDP Country Programme for Belarus for 2016-2020. The UNDP programme is the main UN development assistance package for Belarus with resources requirements estimated at $82 million. Under the new programme, the UNDP will contribute to strengthening effective governance systems, pursuing a green growth trajectory and ensuring universal access to basic services for vulnerable groups.
The EU and the US are among the main donors of UN assistance programmes in Belarus Read more
Finally, on 9 September, the Executive Board of the United Nations Children's Fund adopted the UNICEF Country Programme for Belarus for 2016–2020 with an estimated budget of $8.5 million. The programme will focus on children with disabilities, children deprived of parental care, juveniles in conflict with the law, children and female survivors of violence, as well as adolescents.
Only a small part of the funding will come from the regular UN budget. The bulk of the financing has so far been provided by international donors such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the European Commission and the US Agency for International Development. However, it is unclear whether UNDP and other agencies will manage to find the required resources for Belarus in the current global economic situation.
Facilitating Travel between Belarus and Israel
Starting on 26 November, citizens of Belarus and Israel will be able to travel visa-free between each country. The visa agreement only concerns holders of national passports and factors out holders of diplomatic and service passports. No biometric passports will be required.
The governments of Belarus and Israel signed the agreement on visa exemption for holders of national passports on 19 September 2014 in Minsk. Belarus completed all internal procedures in January 2015.
Thousands of people in Belarus and Israel may benefit from a visa exemption Read more
In Israel, the ratification of the agreement has taken much longer. First, a legal counsellor of the Israeli government blocked the procedure because of snap elections in Israel. Then, the Israeli ministry of the interior advised the government against the ratification, citing the threat of illegal migration as a reason.
The visa-free regime should facilitate business contacts, tourism and people exchanges between the two countries. Currently, over 120 thousand people of Belarusian descent live in Israel. Belarus has about 30 thousand ethnic Jews.