Ignore OSCE, Private Farming, Cooperation with Poland – State Press Digest
A Polish expert advises Belarus to ignore OSCE recommendations, as they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the modern political context. Belarus's new military doctrine shifts its focus from external threats to preventing regime change due to provoked internal conflicts.
President Lukashenka suggests engaging private farmers to save unprofitable collective farms. UNDP and Coca-Cola help Belarus restore one of the largest bogs in Europe. Belarus and Poland agree to increase academic exchange. This and more in the new edition of the State Press Digest.
Belarus should ignore OSCE recommendations – Polish expert. Belarus Segodnia published a comment from Marcin Domagala, director of European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis in Warsaw, who critisized the OSCE recommendations for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Belarus. According to him, the OSCE’s main goal is promotion of the Western European political system. The popularity of this system peaked 20-30 years ago, but European societies are now facing transformations and are focusing on local traditions.
However, the OSCE continues to promote its values and ignores traditions of other countries. The expert sees intolerance of other political systems as a major problem in Europe. The new context requires new modes of cooperation, in which partners change independently rather than forcing each other to adopt certain models. Finally, Domagala advises Belarus to ignore OSCE recommendations.
The new military doctrine focuses on internal threats and defence sector. On 20 July Aliaksandr Lukashenka ratified a new Belarusian military doctrine, reports Soyuznoye Veche. Belarusian authorities claim that it is of a defensive nature as they do not consider any state an enemy. The new doctrine introduces a number of new terms including: military threat, local war, illegal armed group, defence sector of the economy, strategic deterrence and others.
While Belarus faces no direct military threat at the moment, the document does mention other types of threats, such as colour revolutions or international terrorism. The doctrine shifts its focus from external threats to internal ones, and emphasises the prevention of regime change due to provoked internal conflicts. It also highlights the role of the economy in the country's military capabilities as well as the need for a modern high-tech defence industry.
Lukashenka suggests relying on private farmers. Belarus Segodnia highlighted Lukashenka’a visit to the private farm ‘Cna Ecoproducts’. He praised farm owner Uladzimir Adamovič for turning two state farms with huge debt into successful companies. The Belarusian leader noted that state agricultural managers fail to make 25-30% of enterprises profitable, and private farmers can help save them.
“Without a good manager a company will never succeed. Give me a hundred such revolutionaries and we will build a new Belarus. There are good farmers in Belarus, and they should make use of the land”, Lukashenka said. From 1995 to 2015 the total area of privately farmed land increased three times to 187,000 hectares, with an average farm size of 75 hectares. However, private farmers produce only 1,5% of Belarus’ agricultural output, as the government invests heavily in collective state farms while private farmers receive little if any support.
Europe’s major bog restored in Belarus. Scientists from the Institute of Experimental Botany at the National Academy of Sciences have conducted a study and estimate that the economic potential of the Yelnya bog could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. However, as Respublika writes, it first needs to restore the damaged hydrological balance. Yelnya is one of the largest bogs in Europe with a territory of 23 hectares.
The bog contains 450 million cubic metres of drinking water and plays a major role in the local environment. In the 1930s local farmers started to drain it for agricultural purposes, but the resulting dry peat became a constant source of fires. In 2002 more than half of the area of Yelnya burned. However, the situation began to improve after UNDP introduced a programme to restore the bog with support of the Coca-Cola foundation.
Students of professional technical schools lack practical skills. Belarus has inherited the Soviet system of professional technical schools, which aimed to provide professional training as an alternative to theoretical university training. However, Belarusian youth increasingly prefer university education, resulting in a lack of blue collar workers in the economy, writes Narodnaja Hazieta.
Yet the schools’ curriculum contains an excessive number of general subjects that take up too much of students’ time. Technologies change rapidly and schools lack the funds to replace and update equipment. Teachers also need constant re-training, as they have little contact with functioning industries.
Belarusian children swallow recently introduced coins. While banks, shops, and the general population were apparently prepared for the introduction of new money, parents seem to have had more problems. Since 1 July the coins, which appeared in Belarus for the first time since the dissolution of the USSR, became a threat to kids and a challenge for doctors. Around 30 children a day have been visiting hospitals to have coins extracted. Today’s parents grew up in a Belarus without coins and did not even think that they could pose such a threat.
Belarus signs a new agreement on academic exchange with Poland. It includes not only exchange but also internships for both students and teachers, informs Vecherniy Grodno. Belarusians and Poles will have the opportunity to study in Polish and Belarusian universities free of charge and will apply separately from the normal application pool.
A joint meeting of officials from both countries' education ministries will determine the number of students eligible each year. In addition, up to 20 students working on their BA or MA in Belarus will be able to continue their studies in Poland. 10-15 teachers a year will be offered a one month internship.
The agreement also stipulates that both parties will improve the content of school history textbooks. As Belarus and Poland have close historical ties, historians from both countries will jointly work on a correct interpretation of mutual history for textbooks.
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.
Incident at Belarus Nuclear Power Plant Raises Safety Concerns
On 10 July 2016 there was an incident at the construction site of the new Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant.
According to local whistle-blower Mikalai Ulasevich, a crane dropped the 330-tonne reactor from a height of 2-4 metres during a test lift. Until 26 July the officials either actively denied the incident or simply kept silent.
For Belarusians, this is painfully reminiscent of Chernobyl. When the Chernobyl accident occurred in April 1986, the Soviet government chose to conceal information from the people for as long as it could. This decision exacerbated the situation for the general population, who did not know to take precautions against radiation fallout.
The location of the construction site for the future nuclear plant has also caused tensions with neighbouring Lithuania. Astraviec NPP – just 50 km from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius – poses an immediate threat to residents of Lithuania in the case of an accident. However, despite the significant social and political controversy and safety concerns the Belarusian government has chosen to continue with the project.
The official line vs rumours
The Ministry of Energy, the government entity responsible for the plant, released an official statement only on 26 July. It confirmed that rumours of the incident, now circulating for more than two weeks, were true. The wording of the official press release described "an emergency at the site", which occurred during "the horizontal movement of the frame". On 1 August the general contractor confirmed the safety of the reactor, but suggested that it should be up to the Belarusian authorities to decide whether to use this particular item.
Belarus, the country that suffered the most severe consequences of the Chernobyl disaster in 1989, has now decided to build its own nuclear power plant. The project for the NPP, conceptualised in 2007 and first initiated in 2009, lacks both transparency and public support and controversy surrounding it is plentiful.
First, the Belarusian government could not find enough funding for it, so the money had to come from Moscow with strings attached. Russia agreed to provide $9bn out of $11bn required for the NPP, as a result of which Rosatom, or Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, won the bid as the major partner in construction and supply.
Secondly, the Lithuanian government protested against the choice of the NPP construction site due to its location just 12 miles from the Lithuanian border. They also accused Belarusian authorities of violating the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (the Espoo Convention). The recent incident has only added to rising tensions between the two governments.
According to Delfi news agency, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė stated on Tuesday, 26 July:
Incidents at the Astravyets power plant, a nuclear facility that Belarus is building close to its border with Lithuania, show that Vilnius has reason to be concerned about the project's safety.
Lithuania has sent at least three notes to the Belarusian government voicing their concerns for safety.
When nuclear becomes political
As Mikalai Ulasevich, the whistle-blower and member of the Belarusian oppositional United Civil Party stated on Wednesday, 27 July: “The only way to ensure the safety of the Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant is by shutting it down.” This seems to be a common sentiment among many opposition leaders. According to Yury Tsarik, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies on 28 July:
This situation (the construction of the NPP) has provided some real grounds for oppositional action, and allowed them to play on the widespread phobia in Belarus of nuclear energy. Andrey Dzmitryeu (opposition leader of “Tell the Truth” Initiative) has already announced his intention to do so.
Belarusian authorities defend their right to build the nuclear power plant. The project will address the demand for power in Belarus, which has scarce domestic fuel resources. Belarus aims to diversify its energy resources, including renewable resources, replace the import of natural fossil fuels (five million tonnes of fuel-equivalent a year), reduce electric power production costs, and increase the country's capacity to export electric power. Ideally it will also decrease the country's energy dependence on Russia.
Furthermore, the project will generate approximately 8,000 jobs during the peak construction period and 1,000 new permanent jobs when it starts operations, according to the Ministry of Energy. In an attempt to bring down costs and boost the popularity of the project, Belarusian authorities have handpicked 400 students to send to the construction site. According to news portal Tut.by, the young people had to go through rigorous competitive selection to qualify for a summer job there.
Moving forward despite controversy
Ironically, this week experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced their intention to visit Belarus to examine the construction site of the NPP.
The Site and External Events Design Mission (SEED) was supposed to be carried out before the construction site was approved. This constituted one of the Lithuanian government's requirements for Belarusian authorities regarding the plant’s safety.
Lithuania has already announced that it would not purchase any energy from the Astraviec nuclear power plant. They have also promised to bring the issue to the attention of neighbouring countries and urge them to join the boycott, according to the Lithuanian news agency Delfi.
This is not an empty threat. According to expert estimates the Astraviec NPP will produce enough energy for export. Vladimir Nistyuk, from the Belarusian association “Renewable Energy”, commented in Deutsche Welle that: "There is no one around Astraviec willing to buy energy from the plant, yet it could produce a net surplus of energy as early as 2018”.
Undeterred by the rising controversy, Belarusian authorities have chosen to move forward with their plans. According to official information, the first energy unit should be completed by 2018, the second one – by 2020.
Belarus has once again found itself between a rock and a hard place. Going forward with the construction may mean deteriorating relations with Lithuania and possibly the European Union, while freezing the project may antagonise Russia.