Environmental protection in Belarus: are the rankings misleading?
In the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy’s recently published environmental performance index (EPI), Belarus took 35th place in the world. According to the rating, Belarus performs fairly well in protecting human health and ecosystems compared with many other countries.
However, Belarusians themselves express concern about the ecological situation in Belarus, says recently conducted research by Belarus-based organisation SATIO. For example, one in eight Belarusians still live in areas polluted by radiation after the Chernobyl catastrophe.
While authorities continue to sidetrack policies and problems, Belarus’s full environmental potential remains unattainable. Belarus needs more forward-thinking green policies and the authorities must improve cooperation with environmental activists.
EPI and environmental contradictions in Belarus
The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) appears to place Belarus among the greenest countries. Based on around 20 indicators, EPI assesses two main areas: protection of human health and protection of ecosystems. Belarus took the 35th position with the highest possible rate for ‘access to electricity’ and the lowest rate for ‘air pollution PM 2.5 exceedance.’ Finland took first place among 180 countries, and Somalia the last.
Although the EPI results might appear surprising, the index reflects only several aspects of environmental policy. For instance, EPI does not access radiation pollution. This could explain why Belarus and Ukraine take such high positions, 35th and 44th respectively. For instance, Radioactive Environmental Monitoring created by the European Commission names Belarusian city Brahin and Ukrainian Chernobyl as the most radiation polluted in Europe. Including radiation indicators in the EPI would significantly lower Belarus’s rank.
The Chernobyl catastrophe imposed serious circumstances upon Belarus’s environment. Air quality is one example. According to WHO, Belarus still takes the third place in the air pollution death rate per 100,000 people. That is, while China may have a higher total volume of deaths from air pollution, if deaths are measured per 100,000, then Belarus’s air is much deadlier than China’s.
Today, every eighth Belarusian lives in the territory polluted by radioactive caesium, reports the Department for the Liquidation of Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe. Belarus has suffered more than any other country from Chernobyl. Its effects will negatively influence Belarus’s environment and ecology for the foreseeable future.
However, the state has aimed certain policies to engage with existing environmental problems. In 2010, authorities cancelled the state monopoly on energy production, which has resulted in open opportunities for private companies. Thus, due to mobile operator Velcom, Belarus now has a large solar power plant in the most polluted area in the country, the town Brahin. Despite this, Belarus still obtains only around 1 per cent of its energy from renewable sources.
Furthermore, Belarus remains behind many countries in managing the waste disposal. In 2016, Belarus has recycled only 16 per cent of its waste. Indeed, recycling trends have improved. For example, the country uses waste material as a fuel in certain power plants. However, authorities are reluctant to recycle various other types of waste. Additionally, the state remains the only one responsible for waste disposal, which excludes non-state solutions.
Perhaps most importantly, the EPI rating data reflects only what is provided by the authorities. Belarusian officials present data to the international agencies without including independent data from non-governmental actors. Thus, instances such as the mass logging of forests remain hidden by the Belarusian authorities. In Poland, by contrast, civil society is protesting against allegedly commercial deforestation. Their efforts have received widespread media attention. Meanwhile, the Belarusian campaigns against logging remain largely invisible.
Clean and cheap: What do tourists think about Belarus?
The number of tourists in Belarus continues to rise. In the fall, Minsk has become the top city visited by tourists among all CIS countries, reports agency TurStat. After Belarus introduced a 5-day visa-free regime, the number of tourists has increased by 12 per cent. Around 700-800 thousand foreigners visit Minsk annually.
Cheap prices and clean streets remain among the things most noted by tourists. According to the question-answer webpage Quora, according to data from tourists, visitors to Minsk highlight cleanness of the city. Online news portal TUT.by has published a video where visa-free tourists say clean streets and cheap prices are among Belarus’s main advantages. Among others, tourists from neighbouring countries often compliment the quality of Belarusian roads.
One of the main things tourists recommend avoiding in Belarus is tap water. Although some places the water might be clean, tourist webpage ‘isthewatersafetodrink’ includes Belarus in a list of the countries where unbottled water is generally unsafe for drinking.
Belarus’s environmental potential
Despite Belarus’s overstated environmental performance, the country has strong potential to become an ecologically clean country. Belarus has thousands of lakes, forests and swamps. These resources still appear to be less exploited than in neighbouring countries. The success of such civic campaigns such as “In Defence of Belarusian Swamps” demonstrates a certain openness of among the Belarusian authorities to cooperate with civic organisations on environmental issues in the country.
Belarus’s nuclear power plant (NPP) project has slowed down the implementation of other alternative energy projects, such as the construction of power generating windmills. Belarusian authorities calculate the NPP will produce more energy than Belarus needs. However, neighbours such as Poland and Lithuania intend to avoid buying energy from the station.
Additionally, on occasion the authorities challenge environmental activists, which can prevent effective cooperation. For example, the authorities largely ignored environmentalists’ criticisms of the NPP project. In general, Belarus’s environmental activists tend to face obstacles on the path to encouraging environmental progress in Belarus.
By contrast, the authorities are all too ready declare the success of their environmental policies. For instance, authorities claim to protect the largest remaining primeval forest in Europe, Belavezha forest. At the same time, they introduce programmes for the commercial logging of Belavezha forest.
In sum, the high rank awarded to Belarus in the EPI demonstrates ongoing environmental progress in the country. However, such rankings would be closer to reality if they were to include information from both government officials and environmentalists.
Belarus’s immigration policy: perpetuating a demographic crisis?
On 8 November, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka met with the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Lukashenka mentioned that the number of Ukrainian refugees who arrived in Belarus since 2014 has reached 150,000.
Over the past 20 years, the population of Belarus has decreased by more than 600,000 people. At a security meeting on demographics in August, President Lukashenka set a target to increase Belarus’s population to 15 million.
In the context of low birth and high death rates, the Belarusian population can only grow due to an increased number of immigrants. However, Belarus still has no clear policy to encourage labour migration. Moreover, bureaucratic procedures, such as work permits, remain difficult to obtain for the majority of foreigners apart from citizens of CIS member countries (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine), especially Russians, which have special conditions for working in Belarus.
Labor migration: Ukrainian factor does not work anymore
Lukashenka stated that more than 150,000 Ukrainians have come to Belarus since the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine. This figure significantly differs from Internal Affairs Ministry statistics, which report about 42,000 refugees from Ukraine in the period 2014–2017.
The war in Eastern Ukraine indeed contributed to a growth in labour migration in Belarus, but not all Ukrainians who moved to Belarus stayed for long.
“The situation with work in Belarus itself is quite sad: Belarusians lose jobs [or] take pay cuts from a salary that is already very small,” writes Ukrainian website Workland, which helps Ukrainians to find jobs abroad.
Workland reports that in Belarus it remains easy to get agriculture-related work, but there is almost no chance of finding an office position. The best that a Ukrainian immigrant can expect in Belarus is €150–200 per month.
Therefore, current conditions in Belarus are unlikely to bring large numbers of labour immigrants from Ukraine to Belarus. Indeed, now that Ukrainians have received visa-free travel to EU countries, they are even less likely to come. In the past year, Belarus has experienced a reduction in the number of immigrants—21,038 comparing to 28,349 people in 2015. The number of tourist visitors from Ukraine has also decreased by half from 10,000 in 2015 to 5,000 in 2016.
Receiving a work permit in Belarus
Every year thousands of foreigners arrive in Belarus in search of work. Most of them come from China, Ukraine, Russia, and Uzbekistan. In the first quarter of 2017, 4,369 labour migrants came to Belarus, according to official statistics. So far, the vast majority (almost 80 per cent) of immigrants in Belarus are employed as labourers. At the moment more than 20,000 foreigners have the right to work in Belarus.
Enticing highly skilled employees to Belarus remains difficult. Anastasia Babrova at the Institute of Economics of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences lists a number of constraints. In previous years, a law on labour migration limited employment possibilities for foreigners in Belarus. However, in 2010 the government liberalised the law, which simplified the employment of foreigners in Belarus. In 2016, authorities revised the law again, increasing bureaucratic involvement in the work permit process.
Rules for receiving work permits in Belarus vary depending on a person’s country of origin and occupation. According to the law on external labour migration, foreigners willing to work in Belarus need to receive ‘special permission’ approved by an executive committee and the police. From 2014–2015, the number of rejections of ‘special permissions’ decreased by 21 per cent, reports lastrada.by, the Belarusian arm of an international anti-human trafficking network.
Receiving ‘special permission’ remains the most difficult step for foreigners. They need to possess five years of experience in the relevant field. Moreover, a Belarusian employer needs to pay at least $1,500 salary to the highly qualified foreigner. “This appears as a high threshold, taking into account the fact that the average salary in Belarus barely reaches $500,” said Babrova in an interview with Naviny.by, a news website.
Russian citizens face the least paperwork when it comes to labour immigration to Belarus. They receive a right to work in Belarus by registering in the population register within 90 days after arrival. Moreover, a Belarusian employee pays a regular salary to Russian citizens comparing to $1500 for other foreigners.
Belarus’s Migration policy supports citizens of particular countries. Different rules apply to citizens of Russia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Foreigners coming from these countries can work without special permission. The Eurasian Economic Union agreement (signed May 2014) created guidelines for granting CIS citizens the right to work in Belarus.
How to improve migration?
Conditions surrounding labour immigration to Belarus vary significantly depending on the country of origin. CIS countries have many favourable conditions for employment in Belarus compared with foreigners from other countries. The law remains even more welcoming for Russian citizens, who just need to register as a resident when they arrive.
However, to provide a migration gain in circumstances of growing emigration, the Belarusian government needs to review the policy on foreign labour migration. It seems overly optimistic to assume that qualified labour immigrants will choose to move to Belarus without additional incentives.
The most necessary policy changes are the simplification of employment procedures for foreigners outside the CIS area and the lowering of the obligatory $1500 salary for immigrants to a more equal level with Belarusian salaries.
Additionally, Ideaby.org, a media platform created by young professionals who promote smart large-scale reforms in Belarus, notes that Belarus lacks accommodation even for its own citizens. This suggests the building of new living areas would also be needed to improve conditions for immigrants.
Another incentive could be ‘the Belarusian card,’ which would encourage the return of Belarusians to Belarus who also have citizenship of other countries. So far, it seems that the authorities are trying to patch the demographic hole with labour migrants. However, Belarus has an immigration policy that favours a select few countries, instead of liberalising the law and opening its doors to a more inclusive group of foreigners.