Fighting for the Traditional Family: Values over Pragmatism – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
In May, Belarus fought another battle for the traditional family at the UN, even if its stance on the issue antagonises the West and finds little international support outside of the Islamic world.
The country maintained an active dialogue with Europe but mostly at a working level. Unlike in previous months, not a single European foreign minister visited Belarus.
Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei met high-level EU officials only in the framework of multilateral events. Government-run media tried to present President Alexander Lukashenka’s audience with Pope Francis as a breakthrough visit to Italy.
Minsk continued to use means of questionable efficiency, such as obtaining observer status in exotic organisations, to develop its relations with developing countries.
Relations with Europe stuck at working level
On 4 May, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei travelled to Prague to participate in a meeting of foreign ministers of the Visegrád Group and the Eastern Partnership countries. On 23 May, he visited Brussels to attend the annual Eastern Partnership ministerial meeting.
There, Belarus fostered the ongoing reformatting of the Eastern Partnership leading to a greater emphasis on trade, investment and development projects.
In addition to his encounters on the sidelines of the events, in Prague Makei held formal meetings with his Czech counterpart Lubomir Zaorálek and European Commissioner Johannes Hahn. In Brussels, he talked to Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of the Energy Union.
The meeting was warranted by the current crisis in relations between Belarus and Lithuania caused by their disagreements over the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant near their shared border. Belarus is seeking to counter Lithuania’s efforts to secure greater involvement of the EU in this issue.
At working level, Belarus held meetings of the bilateral commissions on economic cooperation with Romania and the Czech Republic in Minsk and with France in Paris. On 17 May, mid-level diplomats from the Benelux countries met Makei and his deputy Alena Kupchyna in Minsk. Three days later, Kupchyna travelled to Riga for political consultations with Latvia’s foreign ministry.
On 24 May in the Austrian capital, the Belarusian government organised the Vienna Forum: Promoting EU Investments to Belarus. Ninety business executives from ten EU countries, thirty Belarusian entrepreneurs and several Belarusian and EU officials attended the event.
First deputy prime minister Vasily Matyushevsky, who led the Belarusian delegation in Vienna, stressed that Belarus and the EU were “hearing each other” and highlighted the “mood of openness and mutual understanding” in their relations. Matyushevsky promised to reveal at a later point “numerous deals” reached in Vienna. However, no specific results of the forum have been made known so far.
Stopover in Italy on way to see the Pope
Belarusian state-run media tried hard to sell Lukashenka’s trip to Rome on 20 and 21 May as a resumption of top-level contacts with Europe after the removal of the sanctions.
In fact, this trip should not be perceived in this context. Rather, it was a long-sought audience with the Pope complemented by a perfunctory meeting with an Italian ceremonial official. Tellingly, even the official communiqués about the “visit to Italy” failed to define its status – state, official or working. So, it had none.
Seven years ago on 27 April 2009, on a similar trip to Rome, Lukashenka talked to Silvio Berlusconi, the powerful then-Prime Minister, for more than three hours over a late-night dinner. This time, he was entitled only to a 50-minute encounter with President Sergio Mattarella, whose role in Italy’s political sphere is strictly ceremonial.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Italy’s de facto number one, failed to meet the Belarusian leader. Lukashenka’s meeting with Mattarella was a face-saving solution, accommodating his visit to the Vatican to see Pope Francis.
Exotic and traditional ways to befriend the developing world
Belarus uses means of questionable efficiency when seeking to increase its exports to the “Remote Arc” counties. One of them is the quest for observer status in various organisations that regroup predominantly developing countries.
On 17 May, Belarus obtained such status at the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organisation, through which it hopes to “expand its ties and the international treaty framework with Asian and African countries”.
Earlier, Belarus was granted observer status at the Association of Caribbean States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that greater involvement in the work of such specialised and often exotic organisations has helped to increase Belarusian exports to developing countries.
Fortunately, the traditional forms of developing cooperation with the “Remote Arc” countries are still on the agenda. On 3–4 May, Belarus and Iran held a meeting of their joint economic commission in Minsk. On 17– 19 May, Belarusian government agencies welcomed a representative Saudi delegation for a similar event in Minsk.
On 25 May, Belarusian and South Korean officials met under the format of the economic cooperation commission in Minsk. Contact with developing countries also included a visit by a deputy minister for industry from Syria and political consultations with Mozambique.
On 23 May, Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermúdez Mario, the second person in the official Cuban hierarchy, paid a working visit to Minsk where he met Lukashenka and Prime Minister Andrei Kabiakou. Belarus is seeking to maintain and develop its strong relationship with Cuba in the changing context of the island’s international relations.
All these meetings focused heavily on developing trade with the “Remote Arc” countries, with the traditional emphasis made on promoting sales of Belarusian heavy machinery but also on cooperation in education, research and high technologies.
Protecting conservative values at the UN
At the United Nations, Belarusian diplomats have continued to fight for the traditional (or, as Belarus’ MFA puts it, “natural”) family.
On 16 May, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov presented the programme statement of the Group of Friends of the Family at a special high-level event at the UN headquarters in New York.
Belarus, together with Egypt and Qatar, founded the Group in early 2015. Currently, it counts twenty-five UN members, almost exclusively Muslim countries. Belarus is its only European member.
Despite the Group’s strong rejection of same-sex unions, the joint statement initiated by Belarus avoids using confrontational language. However, it invites the UN agencies and officials “to refrain from any inherent controversial actions that depart from the widely accepted family concept”.
Belarus is well aware that liberal democracies are bound to strongly oppose the concept of the traditional family promoted by the Group. These UN stakeholders are working to withdraw the theme of the family from the UN agenda.
Speaking at an NGO-sponsored dinner on 18 May in New York, Rybakov confided Belarus’ desire to convene a Family Summit in September in New York. One wonders who will fund this event given its absence from the UN agenda.
Belarus wants the summit to adopt a non-consensual declaration on the family, by which the Group and like-minded countries will oppose the “moral relativity, permissiveness and unashamedly homocentric perspective on [the] world”.
It seems that the Belarusian authorities are unwilling to abandon the advocacy of the conservative values shared by most Belarusians even if this would help to further improve relations with the West.
Will Belarusian Single-Industry Towns Survive?
According to recently-published data from the Ministry of Finance, Belarusian Cement Plant lost $ 16.5 million in 2015.
Such news may not come as a shock for the Belarusian economy as a whole, but is a disaster for Kasciukoichy, one of a few Belarusian monotowns.
Single-industry towns remain one of the curses that Belarus has inherited from the Soviet Union and almost all of them are now facing hard times. For example, Kasciukovichy, a town in eastern Belarus, is becoming a ghost town, as local rappers sing.
Last year, Belarusian Cement Plant, a city-forming enterprise, decreased the salaries of employees and laid off several hundred of them.
Similar processes are occurring in other single-industry towns in Belarus, forcing local authorities to face difficult choices. Closure of large enterprises that are currently generating losses will lead to further degradation of these towns. In an adverse scenario, the authorities will soon lack funds for their maintenance.
Belarusian authorities can still help monotowns by creating horizontal development strategies linking several regions, using international funds to restructure zombie enterprises and helping small businesses not only with tax breaks, but entrepreneurship education.
Monotowns in Belarus
Belarus inherited monotowns from the Soviet Union, which had a state policy of creating a large enterprises to provide jobs and livelihoods for the population of a city. This system worked in an environment where the state was ordering these companies' products, but collapsed almost without exception with the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Russian city of Tolyatti, which produces cars, remains the most famous example of a town whose fate depends on a single enterprise. Compared with Ukraine or Russia, where some towns completely disappeared, Belarus suffered the least. The country has preserved a command economy and the state remains the owner of major large town enterprises. Such a state of affairs permitted enterprises to quickly restore economic links and demand for their goods returned.
According to Uladzimir Valetka, a senior researcher at the economic think tank CASE Belarus, about 5-6% of the Belarusian population lives in 40-50 single-enterprise towns. These local town enterprises employ more than 25% of their population and account almost exclusively for a town’s budget. Moreover, these enterprises provide work to other businesses that exist in the town.
Some of these single-industry towns remain relatively functional, as their companies remain profitable. Salihorsk, for instance, where the potassium producer Belaruskali is based, boasts salaries comparable with those in Minsk. Belaruskali is the most profitable enterprise in Belarus and Salihorsk is the richest town in the country.
The fate of monotowns
However, Salihorsk remains a rare case, while a majority of single-industry towns are degrading socially and economically, as their enterprises are going through difficult times. Kasciukovichy, a town in eastern Belarus, illustrates this trend.
The Kasciukovichy-based Belarusian Cement Plant took advantage of broad government support for modernisation of their enterprise. However, the company failed to find customers to buy its cement and it has been one of the most loss-making enterprises in Belarus for several years. The plant lost around $ 16.5 million in 2015.
In order to reduce the losses, the company continues to lay off employees. In 2013 the company employed 2,754 people but over the course of two years this number decreased by three hundred people. This is a fairly high figure for a town with a population of 16 thousand people, where almost half are children or retired.
Many people today see no economic prospects for Kasciukovichy. Local rappers, in a song about their town, call it ghost town and cursed and say that unemployment has destroyed many lives. At the same time, competent employees are leaving town – for example, the hospital cannot find enough doctors .
For a long time, Belarusian Cement Plant remained the only place where people could find a slightly higher than average salary. Even today, BCP employees earn more than most. According to published vacancies, the company pays its staff about $200. This is still twice more than employees of the social sphere, such as teachers.
At the same time, many regions in Belarus live by a rather feudal system, where local officials use positions of power for their own benefit. In May, the newspaper Nasha Niva published an article arguing that the head of the Kasciukovichy executive committee wrote off large bonuses to unprofitable enterprises close to him. Currently, law enforcement agencies are conducting investigations into the offence.
Is there any solution?
Like everywhere in the world, authorities are having difficulty reviving single-industry towns where main industries are dying. The American city of Detroit remains the most famous example.
The Belarusian government currently faces a dilemma: it cannot bankrupt loss-making enterprises such as the Belarusian Cement Works, as it will further worsen the condition of single-industry towns. However, maintaining such enterprises becomes an impossible task, as the government lacks the necessary financial resources. In Biarozauka, a monotown in western Belarus with a population of 10-thousand, "Neman" Glassworks decreased the number of its employees from four to two thousand over 10 years.
official employment in the region improves, while the actual poverty levels remain the same Read more
Meanwhile, the authorities do their best to encourage local business initiatives, providing them with tax breaks. This, however, has had limited effect, as Uladzimir Valetka told Belarus Digest. Some Minsk companies just transfer parts of their business a little further out of town. Their workers commute from Minsk to a neighbouring district and the local labour market does not add new jobs. Thus, official employment in the region improves, while the actual poverty levels remain the same.
Therefore, the government should help people not only with tax breaks, but also with business education in monotowns. Foreign money can be used for this. For instance, USAID currently supports such a project in Kazakhstan by providing business training in depressed regions.
Many western regions, like South Yorkshire in the UK, used entrepreneurship development strategies to overcome decline of the main industry.
As Uladzimir Valetka told Belarus Digest, another possible solution is mastering horizontal development strategies. The government should bring local authorities and businesses from several neighbouring regions to plan their development and specialisation together.
While the government cannot do much for large enterprises, other plans for development should support local people and encourage socially responsible restructuring. It seems that the International Monetary Fund, which continues negotiating new programmes with the Belarusian government, can be very helpful in this.
many things can be done by the authorities even without bringing in Western expertise Read more
But many things can be done by the authorities even without bringing in Western expertise. As Uladzimir Valetka told Belarus Digest, in the case of Biarozauka, local employment has improved thanks to one simple measure: private minibus companies created routes to the neighbouring towns of Lida and Navahrudak, where most people from Biarozauka currently work.
High mobility of people has traditionally helped many Americans find better jobs in other states. Likewise, the Belarusian government would do well to make Belarusians more mobile, if it cannot revive their hometowns.