Is Belarus Coming Out of Isolation?
On March 3, in Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin presented his Belarusian counterpart Aliaksandr Lukashenka with the Order of Aleksandr Nevsky award. Ostensibly it marked his work in international cooperation in the service of the Russian Federation, linked perhaps to his hosting of the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015.
Those agreements brought in the first instance a very short-lived ceasefire in the conflict in Ukraine, and in the second, a shaky peace, which put an end to major fighting after a short 60-hour delay around the town of Debaltseve, in Donetsk region, which was taken over by the rebels.
A day earlier, the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with Belarus announced that it “may” visit Minsk in June and commented on the “notable” role of Belarus in seeking a comprise between “Moscow and Kiev,” i.e. once again making reference to Lukashenka’s newly assigned role as a peacemaker. And on February 27, a meeting took place in Minsk between Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Rubin to discuss potential areas of bilateral cooperation and “ongoing developments in the region.”
These events beg the question: is Belarus emerging from the isolation that followed the violent aftermath of the December 2010 presidential election and expansion of travel sanctions on leading government and civil officials? Has Lukashenka successfully shed the image of neighbourhood villain to be reincarnated as an international statesman who is promoting, and possibly even securing, peace in the region? Is he seeking to leave the “Russian sphere” and move toward Europe?
Partnership with Russia
For many years, Lukashenka has managed to manoeuvre skillfully between the EU and Russia, occasionally irritating and angering both, and until the events of December 2010, he was quite successful. He now perceives correctly that the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russia renders the latter’s leaders more willing to reach accommodation with Minsk. He is not alone in pursuing such an ambivalent policy. His former counterpart Leonid Kuchma, who became president of Ukraine twenty years ago as Lukashenka took on the same mantle in Minsk, also followed what was termed a “multi-vectored” foreign policy.
Ukraine, however, has a longer tradition of separation from Moscow and in 2005-10 under Viktor Yushchenko, its relations with Russia reached a new impasse. Moscow has not had the same concerns about Belarus because in spite of some colourful rhetoric from Minsk, the reality is that Belarus is firmly embedded in the Russian security network.
Belarus is indebted to Russia and needing further loans, and dependent on cooperation for the completion of a number of projects, including the Astraviec nuclear power plant in Hrodna region. Though Lukashenka has talked occasionally about withdrawing from the Russian-led Customs Union, his state remains a member of that entity as well as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, not to mention the Russian-Belarus Union, which is meeting in Moscow during the week of March 2-6.
The 70th Anniversary of the ‘Great Patriotic War’
On March 2, the recently appointed Belarusian Prime Minister, Andrei Kabiakou, formerly the head of the presidential administration, announced plans to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War in Belarus on May 9. He noted, however, that Vladimir Putin had also invited Lukashenka to similar celebrations in Moscow. All evidence suggests that for the 70th anniversary, in spite of very difficult economic circumstances, no expenses will be spared. Kabiakau also reiterated the now familiar but flawed refrain that Belarus lost one in three citizens (with no mention of the Jewish Holocaust) in that conflict but “our land became the single line of defense.”
in reality the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is the defining historical landmark for both Russia and Belarus Read more
Both Putin and Lukashenka have used the war victory and losses suffered as a form of legitimacy for their authoritarian regimes. Though symbolic—it appears on paper at least to be a harmless gesture toward a dwindling number of veterans. But in reality the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is the defining historical landmark for both Russia and Belarus, and the means selected to forge links with the younger generation, who are asked to carry the torch. Only 12,000 war veterans remain alive in Belarus, or 0.12% of the total population, and the youngest ones are around 88 years of age. Once again the commemoration marks a reversion to the Soviet past and this common occasion again links Belarus with Russia.
Relations with the EU
French and German leaders in Minsk last month reflected the EU’s anxiety to stop the conflict in the Donbas rather than revisionism toward the Lukashenka regime Read more
At present, the door to Europe for Belarus is at best very slightly ajar. There is talk of a visa liberalisation agreement in May to enhance the travel of Belarusians to the EU. Of the six countries that made up the original Eastern Partnership project introduced in 2009, Belarus remains on the backburner, with little chances of signing the sort of Association Agreement that sparked turmoil in Ukraine. Although there is no hostility of the 2010 level, the appearance of French and German leaders in Minsk last month, unique as it was, reflected the EU’s anxiety to stop the conflict in the Donbas rather than revisionism toward the Lukashenka regime.
For Angela Merkel, the February agreement offered no more than a “glimmer of hope,” but for the Europeans, it was perhaps the only foreseeable resolution to the escalating war in Ukraine. As a result they were prepared to sit at a table with figures regarded in former days as odious or dictators: Kuchma and Lukashenka; and to countenance a document signed by such unreliable and disreputable figures as Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, the leaders of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The other participant at the Minsk talks, Vladimir Putin, did not sign the agreement and still maintains that Russia is not involved in this war.
A New Lukashenka?
Fundamentally, the Lukashenka of 2015 is not much different from the Lukashenka of old. Belarus still has political prisoners—the most notable now being former presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich, who still has almost two years of his six-year sentence for inciting mass disturbances after the elections, and who lives under very difficult conditions. There are, however, two new aspects to Lukashenka the president, which one did not see earlier in his presidency.
Lukashenka remains the one state leader who can communicate with all parties in a location that does not appear to favour any of the sides involved Read more
The first is Lukashenka the statesman working for international peace, a pose that is partly a factor of geography. He also remains the one state leader who can communicate with all parties in a location that does not appear to favour any of the sides involved, namely Russia, Ukraine, or the two breakaway republics. The talks could not have taken place in a NATO country, for example, or in Moscow. But this humanitarian side to the president’s character is reserved for a prestigious occasion; it has never been manifested domestically. Indeed compromise with internal adversaries has never occurred. Ideally, they are chased out of the country; and if not, then at least carefully watched.
The second is the apparent metamorphosis of a pro-Russian president into a Belarusian national leader, belatedly promoting the native language in schools, speaking it occasionally himself, and embracing some sort of national identity. Belarus, he declared, “is an independent and sovereign state” and not part of the “Russian world”. Still, Lukashenka’s Belarus remains heavily dependent on Soviet legacy and traditions. Every major commemoration and holiday in Belarus is a former Soviet one, and there are clear limits to how far “Belarusianization” can be allowed to go before it becomes in his eyes threatening to his security or stability.
As a short-term device it seems quite convincing, but it is rather late to eradicate the damage already done to the national culture and its place in the independent state. But like most aspects of his long presidency, it appears to be a piecemeal and temporary solution based on expediency. That is not to say that flexibility in a politician is not an asset; only that in this case it benefits the politician rather than those he is allegedly serving, namely the people of Belarus.
David Marples, special to Belarus Digest
David is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.
CharkaShkvarka Index, McDonnald’s in Belarusian, Talaka.by – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Belarusian civil society organisations try to measure the falling value of the Belarusian rouble. Internet platform “Talaka.by” has launched a new service that will help spread the word about about civil society projects.
McDonald’s launched its website and menu in Belarusian. A crowdfunding campaign help independent publisher Lohivau raise over $32 thousand in a month.
Civil Society Initiatives
BIPART develops CharkaShkvarka Index. The Index helps to calculate the real rate of the Belarusian ruble. The basis for the Index is cost of standard glass of vodka and 100 grams of pork. In this "currency" BIPART independent think tank counts the salaries of the population and finds out how far the ruble can be devalued. Among neighbouring countries, Poles have the highest CharkaShkvarka Index; Belarusians take the penultimate place.
McDonald`s website now in Belarusian thanks to Mova Nanova. The world famous fast-food chain McDonald's launches the menu in Belarusian, thanks to free translation from Mova Nanova (Language Anew) initiative. The free Belarusian translation Language First-Aid service has been available on the Mova Nanova website for several months now. About 40 firms and entrepreneurs have already benefited from it, among them a network of petrol stations A-100, Protection of Homeland Birds and others.
Internet platform Talaka.by launches a new service #TalakaNavіny. The service allows anyone to share the news about social projects, urban practises, events or activities beneficial to communities. The news should not affect politics or religion. After posting the news become available to more than 6.5 thousand subscribers in Talaka.by groups.
Belarus in Numbers
In Belarus there are 2,596 registered NGOs. In 2014, the Ministry of Justice registered 86 newly-established non-governmental organisations (1 international, 13 republican, 72 local), 3 unions (associations) of non-governmental organisations, 11 local foundations. In comparison to 2013, the total number of registered NGOs increased by 2.9% and to the moment reaches 2,596 NGOs. The most frequent activity among registered NGOs is sports and physical training (684 NGOs).
CSR Forum gathers over 150 participants. On 26 February the IV International Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility was held in Minsk. Organised by the Fund of Ideas, the Forum became a platform for the exchange of ideas and experience in promoting corporate social responsibility for over 150 representatives of CSOs, business, local authorities, international and national experts. Among partners of the Forum there are UNDP, Pontis as well as Pact with USAID support.
New discussion What Do Belarusians Think will take place on March 12. The Office for European Expertise and Communication (OEEC) and the Belarus Research Council (BRC) invite to the seventh live panel discussion titled What Do Belarusians Think: Who Is Your City Minsk? to discuss the tendencies and problems of development of the Belarus' capital – the city of Minsk. The event will be held on March 12, in the TUT.BY Gallery starting at 7 pm (Minsk time). The online streaming will be available on Naviny.by, New Europe, Citydog and Delfi.ru.
Amnesty International Report 2014/15. The Amnesty International has released its regular report 2014/15 that documents the state of human rights in 160 countries and territories during 2014. Namely, the report states that Belarus remained the only country in Europe to carry out executions; the right to freedom of expression was severely restricted and journalists faced harassment; NGOs continued to be arbitrarily denied registration.
Interaction between State and Civil Society
Ministry of Information and independent newspapers: 5 warnings in 4 days. Within four days, independent newspapers received from Ministry of Information five warnings. The recent ones went to newspapers Intex-Press, Gantsavitski Chas, Borisovskiye Novosti, Reklamny Borzhomi and a regional Gazeta Slonimskaya. One of the reasons for warnings is shortening Republic of Belarus to RB. Until now, there were only two warnings, and only for Narodnaya Volya.
Crowdfunding helps raise half of fine for LohvinaŬ book shop. People have collected about $32.5 thousand in a month during the campaign #SaveLohvinau. Minsk Economic Court fined the bookshop LohvinaŬ and ordered to return ‘the illegal income’ (about $63,000) to the budget for selling books without a license. Under the campaign, an online auction of art works was launched to support Lohvinau book house – artists sell their works and donate the funds received to the book house (the auction is to work until March 10).
Journalist denied visa to Belarus. David Crawford was going to be a lecturer at the Press Club Belarus on 27 February. The topic of the long-time planned seminar was journalistic investigation and work of Berlin-based CORRECT!V, among all their participation in investigation of the shooting down of the Malaysian plane over Ukraine last summer. The seminar has not been cancelled, instead it will be held in the format of a webinar on 27 February at TUT.by Gallery.
Information Ministry is the most closed state body. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) held a survey among its members asking to evaluate the work of press services of state agencies and the degree of their openness to the public. The Ministry of Information was named the most closed state body; the best grade was given to the Ministry of Emergency Situations. The aim of the survey is to ensure better access to information, more openness of public institutions.
Program to support rural initiatives. The Representative Office of the German Adult Education Association (Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband e.V.) in Belarus announces the launch of educational and counseling Program to support rural initiatives Adult Education and Rural Development. The program’s objective is to strengthen the capacity of rural initiatives that undertake historical, cultural and educational activities in rural areas. Deadline for applications is March 25.
Mikalaj Dziadok to spend one more year in prison. On 26 February Mikalaj Dziadok’s trial ended in Mahiliou prison #4. He was supposed to be released a few days later but the court imprisoned him for one more year. Anarchist movement activist, recognised as a political prisoner by the Human Rights Centre Viasna, Mikalaj Dziadok was imprisoned for 4.5 years in May 2011 under Article 339-2 (malignant hooliganism).
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.