Freedom Day protests, human rights violations, Iranian oil imports – world press digest
Over the past few weeks, the world media largely focused on the protests against the so-called 'social parasite' tax when covering Belarus. The government's reaction, which involved numerous arrests and brutal suppression, alarmed the West and international human rights organisations. They condemned the actions of security services and demanded the release of arrested demonstrators.
The press also took note of the changing dynamics in Belarusian-Russian relations and their implications for the West. The hike in Russian oil and gas prices, as well as the import ban on certain Belarusian agricultural exports, show that Belarus and Russia can no longer maintain the status quo in bilateral relations.
Belarus has begun importing oil from Iran and introduced a limited visa-free travel regime to reduce its economic dependance on Russia. Russia's response to potential political unrest in Belarus remains unpredictable, and is likely to have an effect on Russian-Western relations.
'Social parasite' protests are brutally suppressed by security forces. BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Reuters covered the 'social parasite' protests, which culminated on March 25th as an unofficial 'Freedom Day' demonstration. The Belarusian authorities toughened their position and violently detained hundreds of people, including journalists and passersby. New York Times reported on protests in regional centres, which went without serious incidents. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera highlighted the implications of the nationwide nature of the protests, proposing that Lukashenka appears to have lost support in provincial areas.
Human rights organisations report violations of protesters' rights. The Guardian reported on human rights organisations which are calling on the Belarusian government to release arrested writers and journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimated that at least 32 journalists were detained as of 3 March. Security forces detained several famous oppositional figures, such as historian Uladzimir Arloŭ, publisher Miraslaŭ Lazoŭski, and others. Whereas the Western media condemned the suppression of protests, Russia Today questioned the legitimacy of the demonstration, also stressing the fact that March 25, 'Freedom Day', was instituted under German occupation in 1918.
Lukashenka blames Western-backed 'fifth column' for plotting his overthrow. The international media quoted Lukashenka's blaming of a 'fifth column' for organising the protests. Deutsche Welle referred to Belarusian state television, which backed up Lukashenka’s claim by reporting on the discovery of weapons intended for use at the protest. The Russian Vesti news reported that dozens of professional fighters were detained. Lukashenka also claims that camps were established to train fighters in Belarus and Ukraine, with money coming from Lithuania and Poland. While Bloomberg media called such claims paranoia, Russian propaganda source Sputnik went along with Lukashenka’s theory, stating that the US organisation USAID is behind the protests.
Response from Russia expected should protests continue. In an attempt to predict the development of Russian-Belarusian relations, analysts in several media sources examined the recent Belarusian demonstrations. Bloomberg discussed Lukashenka’s desire for a rapprochement with the EU and mitigated economic dependency on Russia, which, according to the source, is caused by the president's fear of becoming the 'next Crimea'. New Belarusian visa regulations allowing citizens of 80 countries to visit Belarus visa-free for five days irked Moscow, which set up checkpoints on the Belarus-Russia border in response.
The LA Times interpreted Russia’s reaction to the visa decree, the rise in oil prices, and the ban on meat and dairy imports as clear signs of its unwillingness to tolerate Lukashenka's Westward turn. Politico magazine emphasised the West's unpreparedness for a regime change in Belarus, the unpredictability of Russia’s actions, and the possibility of its intervention. At the same time, Bloomberg suggested that Lukashenka’s accusations that Poland and Lithuania where involved in Belarusian protests might indicate a re-orientation in Belarusian politics back to Russia.
Response from Russia to Belarusian political change to shape Russian-Western relations. Forbes discussed the Belarusian protests, suggesting that political change is inevitable and is likely to affect Russian-Western relations. The nature of Belarusian political change, along with Russia’s and the West’s response, is likely to reshape politics in both places. If protests continue, forcing Lukashenka to leave, Russia will have to renegotiate its domination of Belarusian politics with a new government. To prevent the emergence of a pro-European leader, Russia might intervene to retain its position in Belarus.
On the other hand, given Russia's current military involvement in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, intervention in Belarus could come at an unpalatable financial cost. What's more, Russian involvement in Belarusian domestic affairs may lead to the first open confrontation between Putin and Trump, scrapping any chance at better Russian-US relations. Intervention would also worsen Russia-EU relations, which are already strained given the fear of Russian political ambitions in the Baltic countries and other Eastern European states. Nevertheless, if Moscow is not able to secure its interests in Belarus, some kind of action on its behalf can be expected.
Belarus receives first oil cargo from Iran. United Press International and Iranian Press TV reported on the delivery of 600,000 barrels of Iranian oil to Belarus through the port of Odessa in Ukraine, which is slated for processing at the Mazyr oil refinery. For the first time, Bel Oil purchased crude oil from National Iranian Oil Company with a view to find an alternative oil supplier after Russia cut oil exports. According to Press TV, in December 2016 Iran’s Oil Minister had stated that Iran was looking into cooperation with Belarus in manufacturing oil industry equipment and oil trade.
Lukashenka expresses support for tech industry. Red Herring reported on Lukashenka's support for the IT sector and start-ups during an event organised by successful IT businessman Viktar Prakapeinia. Lukashenka spoke of his commitment to technology, but warned that the IT business should work in a legal and transparent framework. The source quoted Aliaksiej Liavončyk, who insisted that despite improvements in the process of business registration, numerous obstacles remain. For example, it is still necessary to have an informal network of contacts and to pay concessions to certain people to ensure a business’s survival.
Western response to crackdowns, distance education, conference podcasts – Ostrogorski Centre digest
In March, analysts at the Ostrogorski Centre focused on the unfolding protests against the ‘social parasite’ tax and the Freedom Day celebration, which led to a violent response from the Belarusian security services and the arrest of more than two dozen suspects as a result of alleged planned armed resistance.
The Centre has released an analytical paper entitled ‘The state of distance education in Belarus: problems and perspectives’, which resulted from the Fourth Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish Conference.
We have also published podcasts of the Second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies.
Yaraslau Kryvoi discusses how the West can respond to the violent crackdowns which occurred on 25 March during protests in Belarus. Because EU presence and leverage in Belarus are very weak, the menu of responses is largely limited to the reintroduction of restrictive measures and reduction of high-level official contacts. On the other hand, visa liberalisation, as well as support for Belarusian civil society, education, media, and entrepreneurs should at least continue to receive support, since progress in these areas primarily benefits the Belarusian population.
Alesia Rudnik analyses the role of anarchists in the recent protests against the ‘social parasites’ tax. Anarchists were one of the most noticeable movements at the protests in Brest and Minsk, causing an immediate reaction from the police. Their creativity and integration distinguished them from other groups during the last two weeks of protests. The regime draws an analogy between anarchists and the football fans in Ukraine who strongly resisted the government during Maidan.
Igar Gubarevich discusses the problems of Schengen visa facilitation for Belarus. Simplification of the visa regime for Belarusians has been jeopardised by bargaining between Belarus and Europe over who should bear the risk and cost of migration. This bargaining may take years. In the meantime, EU countries are still capable of easing the visa procedure for Belarusians within the framework of existing visa rules. This could mean reducing wait time, simplifying paperwork requirements for frequent travellers, and further increasing the share of multiple-entry visas and their duration of validity.
Analytical paper: The state of distance education in Belarus: problems and perspectives
Extramural education still remains popular, although its utilisation is less wide-spread than in neighbouring countries. Promoting distance education in Belarus would make education more accessible to broader circles of society, including those who are constrained by physical or economic factors.
The established history of extramural education, good technical equipment at universities, and the wide-spread use of high-speed Internet mean that Belarus already possesses a good basis for the development of a high quality system of distance education.
In order to create a high-quality system of distance education in Belarus, it is necessary to create a corresponding legislative base, to organise additional training for specialists in the sphere of education, and to expand the cooperation between universities and the companies that work in the high tech sector
Read the full paper: The state of distance education in Belarus: problems and perspectives.
Podcasts of the second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies
On Saturday 25 February, Ostrogorski Centre organised the Second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies in cooperation with University College London and the Belarusian Francis Skaryna Library and Museum.
Speakers from Belarus, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, the United States, and other countries presented and discussed Belarus-related research. The conference panels covered Francis Skaryna’s work and legacy, problems of Belarusian national identity, foreign policy of Belarus and comparative politics, social and political movements, and language and literature.
Ostrogorski Centre has published podcasts of the conference, which are available here.
Comments in the media
On Polish radio, Alesia Rudnik discusses women’s rights in Belarus. Belarusian women are not aware of existing discrimination and this mind-set is encouraged by the state. Technically speaking, women are present in Belarusian politics, but they do little more than support the status quo when it comes to gender issues. Women’s organisations remain small and fail to cooperate with the state, society, and female politicians.
Ryhor Astapenia comments for Thinktanks.by on the causes and consequences of the brutal measures of the police during recent protests. This is unwarranted violence, since the protests do not pose a real threat to Lukashenka’s regime. Normalisation of relations with the West is likely to at least freeze, if not turn in the opposite direction. However, in the absence of a satisfactory solution to the ongoing oil and gas conflict, Minsk is unlikely to reconcile with Moscow.
Igar Gubarevich discusses the problems of visa regime facilitation between the EU and Belarus on Polish Radio. Scared by the influx of migrants, the European Union demands that Belarus sign visa facilitation and readmission agreements in one package. However, the threat of migration coming from Belarus seems exaggerated. Meanwhile, the visa issue remains crucial for the citizens of Belarus, who receive the largest number of visas per capita in the world.
Siarhei Bohdan discusses what Minsk traded for the newest Russian fighter jets on Polish radio. Minsk would like to reduce the scale of the military exercise West 2017 and the tense rhetoric of Russian officials. In return for the drills, Moscow offered something very important to Minsk. Delivery of a few aircraft in the near future seems to be the final argument which won Minsk over.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update its database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
- Aksana Shelest. The social base of the transformation programmes in Belarus. CET, 2017.
- Yaraslau Kryvoi. The state of distance education in Belarus: problems and perspectives. Ostrogorski Centre, 2017.
- Aliaksei Pikulik. Reforum: the results. BISS, 2017.
- Aliaksei Pikulik, Aliaksandr Autushka-Sikorski, Alena Artsiomenka, Aliaksandr Kazlou. Monitoring of reforms in the Republic of Belarus. BISS, 2017.
Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by completing this form.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.