Holy See: Belarus is a Model for Our World
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, second in line in the Vatican hierarchy to Pope Francis, called an internationally ostracised Belarus a "model for our world".
Visiting Minsk on 12-15 March, he also denounced the West's policy of isolation and promised to provide the Holy See's help in improving Minsk's relations with Europe.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka's trip to the Vatican is now all but settled. Pope Francis' visit to Minsk remains less probable as the Holy See would avoid further alienating Russia.
Vatican Envoy Gets Exclusive Reception
Pietro Parolin, the Holy See's Secretary of State, received a welcome in Minsk that many heads of state would envy. The cardinal met with all of the country's senior officials, including the president, prime minister, chairman of the parliament's upper house, and foreign minister.
To date, the Catholic Church is the second-largest confession in Belarus after the Russian Orthodox Church. About 15% of Belarusians associate themselves with the former. Interestingly, the share of regular church-goers is much higher among Catholics than among Orthodox believers.
Parolin: Belarus is a model for our world suffering from conflicts Read more
In this context, Cardinal Parolin has certainly taken comfort in Lukashenka's reassurance that Belarus "would prevent any attempts to favour one church over the others".
The Belarusian ruler can hardly complain about a lack of reciprocity. Meeting reporters in Minsk, Pietro Parolin called Belarus "an example of harmonious coexistence of different cultural and religious traditions". Such statements certainly hearten the much-maligned regime.
Holy See Against Isolating Belarus
Alexander Lukashenka has long sought support of the influential Catholic hierarchy for his attempts to normalise relations with the West. In June 2008, he received Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Pietro Parolin's predecessor, and announced forthcoming talks on the concordat between Belarus and the Holy See.
In April 2009, Pope Benedict XVI held a private audience with Alexander Lukashenka, accompanied by his youngest son Mikalai, in the Apostolic Palace, an event that was seen as a breakthrough in contesting Lukashenka's diplomatic isolation.
Despite some international criticism, the Apostolic capital remains committed to its policy of engagement with Belarus. Pietro Parolin said in Minsk that the Holy See was ready to help the Belarusian authorities improve their ties with the EU. The Vatican envoy has also denounced the EU's policy of isolating Belarus:
The isolation of a nation, its marginalisation, albeit for reasons which may seem understandable or even noble, is the defeat of diplomacy…
Lukashenka: "We Have Some Issues, Not Problems"
In return, the Holy See is seeking to improve the Catholic Church's situation in Belarus.
At his meeting with Cardinal Parolin, Lukashenka boasted of having transferred about 300 religious buildings to the Catholic Church. Indeed, the number of Catholic parishes has increased fourfold in the last 20 years.
In reality, the authorities' attitudes towards Catholics remain far from cosy. In 2013, Uladzislau Lazar, a Catholic priest, spent six months in prison after being accused of espionage. The KGB later dropped the charges.
Lukashenka: Opening a theological seminary was my idea Read more
In January 2015, Lukashenka and another senior official accused Polish-born priests of meddling in domestic politics. The Catholic hierarchy called these accusations "a baseless insult… an incitement of ethnic and religious hatred". Following this flare up, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei had to interfere to defuse tension.
After many decades of government-imposed atheism, Catholics in Belarus have experienced a serious shortage of local-born clergy. At the same time, they have spent many months trying to register a theological seminary in Minsk. This bureaucratic heel dragging never prevented Lukashenka from taking credit for this idea.
The government also hinders the development of a small, yet vibrant community of Eastern-rite Catholics, successors of the Uniate Church, which once dominated in the country. Since the country's independence, they have not been able to secure a plot of land to build a church in Minsk.
Concordat Put on Hold
The Vatican's envoy and its Belarusian hosts also preferred keep mum on the issue of a concordat. The parties have accepted that the talks on the matter have stalled.
The Holy See has been seeking an end to negotiations for this international agreement in order to ensure the Church's rights in religious education, appointment of priests and bishops, etc.
The Orthodox Church and Russian ambassador have fought against a concordat Read more
According to Belarus Digest's sources in the Catholic hierarchy, the authorities struggled to water down the first draft and to subordinate it to Belarusian law.
The same sources affirm that the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia's ambassador in Belarus, Alexander Surikov, have been making every effort to prevent the concordat from happening.
As a result, it has become abundantly clear that the concordat is not going to happen anytime soon. The Belarusian authorities have suggested substituting it with specific-area agreements concluded with the local Catholic authorities, thus downgrading the legal framework of relations.
Pope Francis Invited to Belarus
It is now safe to say that Pope Francis, like his immediate predecessor, will give a private audience to President Lukashenka. According to Belarus Digest's sources, the visit is most likely to take place in September, in the midst of Lukashenka's re-election campaign.
However, whether Pope Francis will come to Belarus remains unclear.
Senior Belarusian officials have invited the Pope to visit Minsk. The explicit and repetitive nature of these invitations indicate a well thought-out plan and not merely a formal gesture.
Most experts agree that Moscow will put more pressure on Minsk in order to prevent the Papal visit from happening. The Russian Orthodox Church regards Belarus as its "canonical territory". They fear growing influence of the Catholic Church in the countries with predominately-Orthodox population.
Indeed, Metropolitan Pavel, the head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, who received a courtesy call from Cardinal Parolin, declared already that the Papal visit was "not on the agenda".
The Vatican fears to alienate Russia Read more
However, Alexander Lukashenka is perfectly capable of disregarding Moscow's opposition. Despite popular belief, the Orthodox Church has limits to its influence in Belarus. They cannot afford a serious quarrel with the country's secular authorities.
Ironically, the real opposition to the Papal visit will come from within the Roman curia. It has many influential people who believe in possibility of a successful ecumenical dialogue with the Russian Orthodox. They will be strongly against putting it at stake by allowing the Pope to go to an insignificant "Orthodox" country.
Notwithstanding what happens to the Papal visit, the parties will remain interested in maintaining warm and constructive relations. Minsk needs the Vatican's mediation in its relations with Europe and seeks domestic PR benefits. The Apostolic Capital will continue to seek further improvement of the Church's operating conditions in Belarus.
Belarusian Authorities Battle Street Vendors to Save the Textile Industry
On 17 March, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka paid a personal visit to a popular bazaar in Minsk, the capital, to resolve a conflict between the authorities and local street vendors.
Earlier this month, a new government request was issued requiring all street vendors to obtain quality certificates. That prompted the vendors to go on strike.
Although Belarusian officials handpicked the vendors who met with Lukashenka, the president's speech at the bazaar at least acknowledged the main cause of the conflict. He stated that the Belarusian textile sector is being undercut by cheap imports from Russia.
What Lukashenka failed to mention is that Belarusian clothing chains also want the government to introduce new regulations in order reduce competition from street vendors.
Although the authorities pretended to make concessions, the street vendor strike has been a lost cause. The fragmentation of this small business movement is one of the main reasons it has failed to achieve its goal.
The Force that Does not Feel Its Power
Individual shop owners play a much greater role in Belarusian commerce than is commonly believed. Official figures show that 248,952 people were registered as individual entrepreneurs at the beginning of this year, representing 2.5% of the Belarusian population. Since this group employs roughly the same number of people, the total workforce active in this segment of the economy could represent as much as 5% of all Belarusians.
Although accurate data is lacking, it is estimated that about 100,000 of these self-identified entrepreneurs are sole proprietors of stalls who trade in the markets where many Belarusians still buy their clothes. The authorities have sought to clamp down on the activities of this group of entrepreneurs. The sheer size of the street vending sector has not prevented the authorities from introducing tedious regulations every few years.
The most egregious example is a 2008 ban on the hiring of non-relatives, which effectively forces sole proprietors to set up firms in order to hire workers legally. Also in 2008, the last private kiosk disappeared from Minsk; the authorities deemed this type of business outdated, even though it was quite cost-effective and doing well at the time. Eight years ago, Minsk had 4,000 such kiosks.
Moreover, the regime often arrests local leaders who seek to organise the interests of street merchants. Anatol Shumchanka, head of the business association "Perspective", served prison sentences in 2003, 2008, and 2013.
Explaining the Recent Conflict
The 17 March visit of Lukashenka to the Minsk market was a rare show. The president, now at the outset of another reelection campaign, likely wanted to show who is in charge. The secret service officers who accompanied him hand-selected street vendors with congenial attitudes to serve as his audience. The market was also full of police who frisked shoppers with metal detectors.
Lukashenka proposed his idea on how to resolve the conflict: Rather than apply for a quality certificate, street vendors will now be asked to pay higher taxes. The hand-picked audience of street merchants dutifully applauded the announcement.
Lukashenka's staged meeting with the street merchants could possibly end their strike, which dates back to 1 March. According to the association "Perspective", around 80% of local street vendors took part in the strike.
Belarusian entrepreneurs lack quality certificates because they buy clothes from Moscow wholesalers who do not have them either. If the new regulations are enforced, the retail price of clothes could rise so much that ordinary Belarusians may not be able to afford them. Lukashenka stated that the new regulation will be postponed and introduced only next year.
The president accused individual entrepreneurs of "decimating" the Belarusian textile industry by procuring cheap clothes in Moscow. Since most of Belarus's textile industry is run by the state, the choice seems simple: either state employees or private businesses will be deprived of income.
Lukashenka stated that Prime Minister Andrei Kabiakou takes responsibility for supplying Belarusian commodity distribution centres: "If entrepreneurs cannot acquire [here in Belarus] the types of garments or footwear they get at the Cherkizovsky market [the most popular market in Russia], Andrei Kabiakou will answer for this." The reality is that made-in-Belarus products are more expensive and of worse quality than those sold in Russia. Forcing vendors to procure locally will fail to solve the problem.
Another interest group lobbying the government behind the scenes are supermarket chains. They already have the requisite quality certificates, and so have good reason to demand that individual street vendors obtain them as well. Aliaksandr Mashenski, one of the most influential Belarusian businessmen, stated that "entrepreneurship should be pursued in a civilised manner."
Mashenski may be right, but the new regulation still looks strange, as such a rule has not been instituted for over 20 years. Reduced competition will simply help large retailers stay afloat during the current economic crisis.
At the same time, it seems the authorities have realised that small entrepreneurs cannot afford to comply with the new requirements. Aliaksiej Novikau, a small entrepreneur from Salihorsk, told Belarus Digest that "the Minsk traders can take on the burden, but for vendors elsewhere it would spell the end of their business."
Survive or Die
Why are the authorities making such a fuss about fighting a group which represents a small segment of the national economy? In fact, this conflict could become the most difficult for private businesses in Belarus since the early 1990's. It's not just that the authorities are making unreasonable demands in the form of certificates and higher taxes; the worst thing is that this is happening at a time when the Belarusian economy is preparing for a recession.
It is precisely the threat of economic crisis that strengthens the government's hand. Relations are tense among individual entrepreneurs who are struggling to make ends meet, so they cannot concentrate on battling Lukashenka together. “Many try to somehow negotiate with the government officials because they need to feed their families," Novikau said.
Such internal conflicts could reduce the leeway for entrepreneurs to lobby for their interests in the future. Many will be forced to close their businesses and let go of their workers. They will only stand a chance of influencing the authorities if they stay united, but it seems they will not.
Lukashenka's postponement of the certificate demand looks like a temporary victory, but that will not change the fundamental relationship between individual entrepreneurs and the government. Every step Lukashenka takes, the businessmen follow, even at great cost to their livelihoods.