Eurasian Customs Code, new visa liberalisation, food exports – Belarus state press digest
Lukashenka finally signs laws on implementaiton of the Eurasian Customs Code. After a presidential meeting in Saint Petersburg, Russia approves additional credit for Belarus.
Foreign visitors of the 2019 Eurogames are to enjoy more beneficial visa-free regime. Legislation on business liberalisation is open for public consultation and recommendations.
Belarusian space scientists prepare to launch two satellites by 2020.
This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.
Lukashenka signes a set of agreements on strengthening the integration of the Eurasian Economic Union. On 11 April 2016, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka signed a package of agreements on integration with the Eurasian Economic Union, including the Customs Code of the Union, reports Belarus Segodnia. All other Union members signed the Customs Code at the Summit in December 2016 but Lukashenka refused to participate on the grounds that Russia had gravely violated existing agreements within the Union.
The agreements will secure the strategic engagement and political stances of Belarus within the Union regarding further integration with the global economy, as well as enhancing economic cooperation and free market negotiations with developing foreign economies. Additionally, they will advance custom-free regulations, coordinate the financial and energy markets among the members of the Union, and coordinate transport, information, and trade policies.
Belarus will extend the visa-free term for foreign visitors for the 2019 Eurogames in Minsk. Zviazda reports that the government is considering extending the length of visa-free stays for visitors of the 2019 Eurogames, so that they will have enough time to discover nearby places, which in turn will contribute to the development of Belarusian cultural tourism. Voters decided to hold the 2019 Eurogames in Belarus at the 45th session of the General Assembly of the European Olympic Committee in Minsk in October 2016.
Legislative and regulatory acts on business liberalisation open to public consultation. The government presented a set of regulations meant to ease the business environment significantly for a month of public consultation, writes Belarus Segodnia. The altered legislative framework facilitates setting up businesses, minimising requirements and allowing hopeful entrepreneurs to simply notify the government when they open a business. It will be the responsibility of business owners to comply with the new framework.
It also repeals scheduled inspections, ensuring that only informal and well-grounded inspections will be held, and introduces a tax advisory for business. The regulations also enact a moratorium on introducing new taxes for business.
Rosselkhoznadzor gradually lifts ban on Belarusian food exports. Experts at Rosselkhoznadzor, the Russian supervisory agency responsible for overseeing food production, checked 18 Belarusian food processing plants and lifted temporary restrictions on beef, meat products, and finished meat products from two enterprises.
Leanid Zajac, Belarusian Minister of Agriculture and Food warned farmers, food processing companies, and officials in the Ministry of Agriculture to pay maximum attention to the implementation of technologies and production regulations. The Russian supervisory authority remains extremely meticulous about Belarusian exports and sometimes goes beyond the bounds of common sense.
The Russian market remains a priority: in 2016 Belarus exported food products worth $3.7b to Russia, or 14.8% of the Russian Federation's total import. The inspection also targets the re-export of agricultural products banned by Russian counter-sanctions against Western countries. The head of Rosselkhoznadzor, Sergei Dankvert, accuses Belarus of re-exporting products from the sanction list and deliberately distorting statistics.
Russia will give Belarus an additional $1b in credit. On 9 April 2017, Belarusian Vice Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamaška announced that following the meeting between the Belarusian and Russian presidents in Saint-Petersburg, the two parties have reached an accord to grant Belarus about $1b in credit through the Eurasian Fund for Stabilisation and Development. This comes in addition to an already-facilitated loan from Russia worth $1.4b allocated to Belarus through the Fund between 2016 and 2017. Belarus received both loans on favourable terms, reports Belarus Segodnia.
Belarus fails to tackle forced labour of Belarusian construction workers in Russia. According to Oleg Melnikov, head of the movement Alternativa, which provides assistance to victims of slavery and forced labour, his organisation has rescued and assisted in the release of about 400 Belarusian citizens subjected to slavery in the Russian Federation over the course of almost six years. However, there are no official statistics on Belarusians being forced into slavery overseas, therefore their number could amount to several dozen every year, writes Respublica.
Human traffickers typically seize the documents of Belarusian men upon their arrival in Russia, put them in squalid living conditions in unknown locations, and force them to work 14-16 hours a day with little or no payment. They often subject slaves to torture and threats to prevent them from escaping, and some have been mutilated or killed while working. Meanwhile, neither Belarusian nor Russian laws provide the necessary normative-executive grounds to prevent and combat slavery.
Belarus develops potential in space technology. The Belarusian chairman of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, Aliaksiej Bielacarkoŭski, argued in an interview with Respublica that Belarus has inherited priceless knowledge and experience in space technology from the Soviet Union. Many inventions and technologies developed by Belarusian scientists are actively used for building land registries and maps, systems of accurate localisation, geodesic systems, satellite-based navigation, geological explanations, and weather forecasting, among other technologies.
Belarus closely cooperates with Russia in space technology; however, more ties and collaborative projects should be developed with other foreign institutions and states as well. The country has built a new satellite and plans to launched it very soon. It will also launch a nano-satellite created by the Belarusian State University by 2020.
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.
Covering protests: a new epoch for the Belarusian media
On 25 March, a record number of Internet users visited the website of the independent Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva. 109,000 Internet users read articles describing the protests against the social parasite law. In Belarus, this is nothing to sneeze at.
The state media either ignored the March protests or covered them in a negative light. Thus, the independent media became the only source of information for the public about the countrywide demonstrations against the social parasite decree.
Despite 120 cases of detention or arrest of journalists between 10 and 30 March, the independent media managed to cover the protests with great degree of professionalism. Due to the arrest of oppositional leaders in smaller cities, reporters found themselves in the spotlight.
Unorganised protesters gathered around journalists to express their discontent with the government and hundreds thousand Belarusians followed online streams of people meeting to criticise the economic policy of the authorities on camera.
Due to the rapid developments in media technology, Lukashenka’s propaganda machine can no longer keep up with real journalists.
How free is the press in Belarus?
Unlike in many authoritarian states, in Belarus the public has free access to local and foreign news portals. Nevertheless, human rights organisations are highly critical of Belarus when it comes to freedom of press issues.
The country traditionally occupies the lowest rungs of media freedom indices. In 2016, the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Borders, assigned Belarus 157th place out of 180 countries. According to Freedom House, Belarus occupies the 194th position. Only Crimea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and North Korea earned a worse ranking.
Indeed, the state controls all TV and Radio stations in the country and has a monopoly on print media distribution. Nevertheless, independent media has found much more success on the Internet. The most popular private news portal, TUT.by, is accessed by 46.42 % of Internet users in the country. According Google Analytics, in March 2017 the TUT.by news service attracted almost 6 million unique users.
According to a Belarusian rating of web-pages, Akavita.by, the most popular state news portal in the country was the official news-agency Belta.by. Approximately 470,000 users visit the page each month.
Media experts within the country agree that the media situation is not as drastic as international ratings claim. According to human rights organisations, no journalists are currently under arrest. The last killing of a journalist occurred 13 years ago in 2004. According to Belarus Association of Journalists chair Andrei Bastunets, the situation in Belarus is much better than in Azerbaijan or Syria, which rank above Belarus in many indices.
The highly restrictive nature of media legislation is the main reason for such low ratings. Several influential Belarusian media outlets, such as satellite TV channels Belsat and Euroradio, are based in Poland. To hinder their work, authorities introduced a law prohibiting journalists from working with foreign media companies without government accreditation.
This legislative norm is often used to target freelancers working for these stations or other 'foreign' media organisations forced to work without Belarusian accreditation. As a result, fines for freelance journalists have become a common practise. The law also allows the Ministry of Information to block websites containing articles harmful to the interests of the state. Websites can even be blocked because of unsavoury comments under articles.
Protests against the parasite law and the following crackdown on 25 March have politicised Belarusian society. Naturally, this provoked a huge amount of interest on behalf of the independent media. The last time non-state media enjoyed such wide popularity was during the Silent Protests of 2011. While state TV stations broadcast propagandist programmes comparing the demonstrations to Nazi riots, independent journalists streamed online coverage from the ground.
However, the scale of repression of journalists in 2017 was much larger than in 2011. Between 10 and 30 March, 120 journalists were detained, arrested, or fined. Nevertheless, after 25 March, some media analysts started to talk about a new era of journalism in Belarus. Indeed, the media was able to not only cover protests, but also mobilise protesters.
Due to the absence of oppositional leaders at the demonstrations in small cities such as Pinsk, Slonim, or Rahachou, people gathered around journalists and openly criticised the government on camera. Somewhere between 20,000 to 350,000 people followed Radio Liberty and Belsat TV live-streams of the protests all over the country. Some journalists even managed to broadcast their own arrests and continued live-streams from inside police stations.
Commenting on the work of the media on 25 March, editor-in-chief of Euroradio Viktar Malisheuski admitted that this was the first time that journalists managed to be so brazen. They worked in the same way that journalists in democratic countries do. Thus, media consumers received much higher-quality material than the authorities expected.
The state media responds
The professionalism of the independent media was especially notable when compared with the state media. On 25 March, Internet users actively discussed developments on the website of the largest state-controlled Belarusian newspaper, Belarus Today. On a day when at least 700 protesters were detained in the centre of Minsk, the headline of the publication read '25 March. Everything is calm in Minsk'. The reaction of the public led to the post being deleted on 27 March.
In online broadcasts for state TV, the authorities provided low quality propaganda movies. A recent documentary, broadcast on 12 April, linked activists suspected of inciting riots to ISIS and Nazi groups. Internet users were quick to respond with ironic comments and jokes comparing the documentary to science fiction.
Only a fraction of the public retains an interest in politics during lulls in repression Read more
Experts agree that unlike state media, independent journalists showed a high level of professionalism. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether the free media really expanded its audience. After crackdowns on protests come to an end, interest towards politics usually declines.
Only a fraction of the public retains an interest in politics during lulls in repression, and this group remains the primary target audience of the non-state media. Just as in 2011, interest towards independent media is expected to fall for this reason.
Nevertheless, the work of journalists this time around is evidence that the techniques of protest coverage have forever changed. New technology allowed the public to watch the demonstrations and witness police brutality online in real time. This gives the journalistic community immense power. The arrests, fines, and police attacks on the offices of Belsat TV in Minsk which occurred on 31 March are proof that the authorities are well aware of this danger.