Dodgy Bank Deals and Protest Theatre – Western Press Digest
Belarus has returned to the spotlight of Western press coverage after brief periods of interest which followed the December 19th crackdown, subsequent international sanctions, and April metro bombing. The new reports focus on the IMF loan request and business relations between the West and Lukashenka’s government. An occasional mention of rights abuses appear in a few concerned publications, with the Belarus Free Theatre leading the way in raising awareness amongst the Western public.
Western banks with dirty hands? The big Belarus story to the make UK headlines has been the decision by a group of European banks to finally cease raising Belarusian government bonds. More than $800m in government bonds were issued by UK bank The Royal Bank of Scotland only a month after the December election crackdown. The Independent continues to devote more attention than any other major Western paper to Belarus. They led with this story early this week and were highly critical of such prolonged unethical investment by a state-owned bank. They argue that the decision to stop selling the bonds was only taken following considerable pressure from the campaign groups Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now.
Evaluations of Belarus in the context of 20 years since the 1991 putsch appeared in a few sources. The Financial Times talked to US think tanks who point to Belarus as an example of those ex-USSR states where one leader has pushed out everyone else. Fox News categorizes Belarus as one of the three most authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union, and suggests a change to Lukashenka’s rule looks extremely unlikely any time soon.
The Belarusian request for an IMF bailout which began to be considered on 29 August has gained some media attention. The UK’s Independent reports that Belarus has introduced almonst none of the conditions necessary for a loan which were laid out earlier in the month. It describes two schools of thoughts within the IMF: one that considers a loan without reform will only strengthen Lukashenka’s oppressive regime, the other that sees a loan as necessary to prevent Moscow from gaining even more influence over Belarus.
US-Belarus tensions rise. Belarus’ decision to freeze their pact with America to give up enriched uranium has hit US headlines. The decision, which has been explained as a response to the most recent wave of US economic sanctions, has been described by the US State Department as “disappointing.” American experts have said they do not consider it likely the stockpile will fall into the wrong hands.
Good news for the free press? Radio Free Europe reports on changes in media consumption habits of Belarusians. Trust in state media has fallen sharply over recent months according to one source, due to the increasing disparity between the hopeful reports on the economic situation given in state papers and the daily hardships endured by ordinary people in buying basic goods. The article is optimistic that the market for independent news is expanding beyond the traditional intelligentsia, especially online, as people crave realistic accounts of the current economic situation.
Economic hardship and reform. The deteriorating economic situation for ordinary people continues to draw attention. Radio Free Europe describes ‘Belarus on the Brink’: Tom Balmforth spoke with commentators in Belarus who predict the situation will only worsen in the autumn, with incomes likely to fall further and construction drying up entirely; this in turn may spark a revival of this summer’s protests. He suggests that structural reforms to the economy are more urgent than ever. Bloomberg reports on the increasing difficult of buying currency and meat products in Belarus, noting that Russians are taking advantage of the crisis, enjoying favourable black-market rates on their in-demand Russian roubles.
Neighbours in the bad books. Jeremy Druker from Transitions Online has expressed his disgust at recent revelations that Lithuania and Poland passed information to the Belarusian authorities which aided them in arresting human rights activist Ales Bialatski. He reports that activists who had regarded Poland as a safe haven feel betrayed.
Spreading the word. Belarus Free Theatre staged their production ‘Minsk 2011’ at the Edinburgh Arts Festival this month. The Guardian and The Telegraph offer very positive reviews of the play, which treats issues of repression and censorship in Belarus through the theme of sexuality. Both consider it an important reminder of the repressive regimes which exist beyond the UK and which deserve attention.
Talks with Lukashenka Only After Release of Political Prisoners – Politics and Civil Society Digest
Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced on Monday his willingness to begin talks with the opposition on the future of Belarus. Yesterday Belarusian opposition leaders dismissed any talks until all political prisoners are released. As this digest demonstrates, despite their rhetoric, the authorities show few signs that they are ready to release political prisoners or reduce their repressions.
Criminal cases against Natalia Radzina, Aleh Korban and Anatol Liabedzka terminated. On 23 August 2011 criminal proceedings against Natalia Radzina, Oleg Korban and Anatoly Lebedko in a criminal case on mass riots in Minsk on December 19 were terminated due to a lack of evidence. In total, 43 people were convicted under articles of the Criminal Code for organization or participating in post-election protests on December 19th. Most of those convicted are serving prison terms of various lengths; they include three ex-presidential candidates: Andrei Sannikov (5 years), Mikola Statkevich (6 years), Dzmitry Us (5.5 years).
Ales Byalyatsky. The Office of Financial Investigations (UDFR) of State Control Committee refused to release Ales Byalyatsky despite calls from over 600 Belarusian citizens and influential foreign figures. Prominent Belarusian human rights activist Ales Byalyatsky faces up to seven years of imprisonment with confiscation of property for alleged tax evasion. The Belarusian authorities accused Ales Byalyatsky of failing to pay around BR 143.7 million in taxes (approx. $28,700). On August 22 the state TV channel BT showed a propaganda movie titled "Social shadows". BT portrayed Byalyatsky as a thief and a liar.
Pickets in support of Ales Byalyatsky. On August 23, six activists were detained following a picket in support of Ales Byalyatsky staged in downtown Minsk. They were all released later without charges. On August 23, two journalists and a civil activist were detained as a result of a picket in support of Byalyatsky in Mogilev. Two hours later the detainees were released without charge.
Lithuanian journalists banned from entering Belarus. The LTV Lithuanian television was refused entry to Belarus, after journalist Ruta Lankininkaite was declared a persona non-grata by the Belarusian border troops. The journalists were expected to shoot a report on the current economic crisis in Belarus.
Ministry of Justice refused to register "Tell the truth!" as an NGO. On August 22, the Ministry of Justice refused to register the research and educational NGO "Tell the truth!," headed by a presidential candidate in the 2010 elections Vladimir Neklyaev. The decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court.
"Stop Benzin" protest. On August 22, the latest "Stop Benzin" action was held in Minsk because of the 3% increase in petrol prices. The traffic police did not allow the action to go forth, and blocked the entrances to the central part of Independence Avenue. But, according to Director of “For Auto” NGO Artiom Sharkov, the action did take place nonetheless, as its main goal was not to take over the streets, but to articulate protest to the authorities. Adam Byalyatsky, son of human rights activist Ales Byalyatsky, was detained during the action and later fined BR 350,000 (or approximately $70).
Free Parking. "The Republican Association of Persons in Wheelchairs" NGO together with the road police are conducting a long-term "Free Parking" campaign. The purpose of the action is to draw public attention to the on-going problem of the inappropriate use of parking spaces for the disabled. The NGO is gathering volunteers to help in the campaign.
Educational study-tours. The Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, Institute for Public Affairs (Poland), and European Partnership for Democracy (Belgium) are organizing educational visits to Warsaw (for students and young professionals) and Brussels (for NGO activists and civil society). Visits will take place in November and October 2011 respectively.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.