London conference, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, Holocaust memory, Lithuania – digest of the Ostrogorski Centre
In February Ostrogorski Centre analysts discussed the Holocaust memory in Belarus, the clash between Belarus and Lithuania over common history, as well as the sentencing of pro-Russian bloggers who remained under investigation for the past year.
We also published the newest issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies and opened registration for the 3rd Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies, which is scheduled for 23 March.
Lizaveta Kasmach discusses what Belarusians remember about the Holocaust. A distinct lack of reflection over the largest tragedy of the 20th century marks mainstream perceptions of the Holocaust in contemporary Belarus. Among Belarusian citizens, the Holocaust serves as a background for narratives of wartime heroism. Any commemoration of the tragedy often depends on individual initiatives and support from abroad. In this respect, a comprehensive discussion of the Holocaust as part of the school curriculum might pave the way towards a better understanding of the past.
Ryhor Astapenia analyses how common history divides Belarus and Lithuania. Instead of uniting the two countries, shared history actually divides them and puts Lithuania on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, it would like Belarus to transform into a Western democracy. On the other hand, it recognizes that the Western identity of Belarus challenges Lithuania’s own identity since it requires both countries to draw on the same historical heritage.
Vadzim Smok writes about the finale of the criminal prosecution of pro-Russian bloggers. Their case sets a precedent. Never before have the Belarusian authorities brought a criminal prosecution for Belarusophobia and pro-Russian propaganda. Yet, surprisingly, the Russian government’s official public reaction has been muted. By trying pro-Russian journalists, the Belarusian authorities draw a red line with regards to propaganda in the bilateral relationship with Russia.
The Journal of Belarusian Studies 2017
The Ostrogorski Centre in cooperation with the Anglo-Belarusian Society is pleased to present the latest issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies.
The 2017 issues includes articles on Belarusian national mobilisation and the practical challenges encountered by national activists in eastern Belarus during 1917, American political attention towards Belarus through the research of the Congressional Record, and the sources of astrological knowledge for the 16th century Belarusian publisher Francis Skaryna.
Established in 1965, the journal is oldest periodical on Belarusian studies in the English language.
“Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century” conference
The Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century Conference Committee, the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum proudly announce the 3rd Annual Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century Conference. The conference will take place on 23 March 2018 at the University College London (UCL). The preliminary conference programme and registration form can be found here.
Comments in the media
The Belarusian leadership understands that the Russian media strongly influence mass opinion in Belarus and wage information attacks against official Minsk. At the same time, Minsk cannot go too far in countering it, such as by closing Russian channels which broadcast in Belarus, says Ostrogorski Centre analyst Alesia Rudnik in a comment to Polish radio.
Also on Polish radio, Ostrogorski Centre associate analyst Ryhor Astapenia talked about how common history divides Belarus and Lithuania (as mentioned above).
Following staff cuts, the Belarusian foreign ministry will face difficulties promoting the interests of the country abroad, including on economic issues. Many countries try to economise on their diplomatic service, but they also clearly identify their priorities. First of all, Belarus should cut the branches of its embassy in Russia, since it has as many as ten spread across the country, says senior analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre Igar Gubarevich in a comment to Polish radio.
The Ostrogorski Centre’s associate analyst Siarhei Bohdan, in an article for the Azerbaijani military online publication armiya.az, discusses military cooperation between Belarus and Azerbaijan. In particular, he considers the potential sale of the Palanez multiple launch rocket system to Baku, as well as Armenia’s role in this cooperation.
Russia increasingly routes cargo and passengers around Belarus. Minsk’s losses from these Kremlin policies will be considerable both economically and politically, says Bohdan in a comment to Polish Radio. The only alternative for Belarus is providing transit routes for new passenger and cargo flows between regional countries, the EU and China.
In a further comment to Polish radio, Bohdan talks about how, in recent years, the Belarusian authorities have been phasing out the policy of expanding access to the sea through other countries of the region: Poland and Ukraine. Relations with Lithuania continue to deteriorate because its leadership sees Belarus as a threat. This all weakens the position of Belarus and promotes the interests of the Kremlin.
The BelarusPolicy.co database has been enriched with a number of publications by Belarusian think tanks.
- Piotr Rudkouski. Toward a ‘Healthy’ Nationalism. BISS research on the national identity policy. BISS, 2018.
- Viktoryia Smalenskaya, Alena Hrushetskaya. The effectiveness of activities of business unions and the National Business Platform of Belarus. IPM Research Centre, 2018.
- Sierž Naŭrodski. The role of labour in the penitentiary system of Belarus. CASE Belarus, 2018.
- Hleb Shymanovich, Katsiaryna Alieksiatovich. Influence of the regulatory environment on the development of small and medium business in Belarus. IPM Research Centre, 2018.
- Katsiaryna Barnukova, Hanna Aginskaya, Yuri Tserlukevich. Trust, institutions and economic growth in Belarus. BEROC, 2018.
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 Ostrogorski Academy, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.
Should Europe imitate China when dealing with Belarus? – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
The improving relations between Belarus and the West have thus far failed to secure President Alexander Lukashenka an invitation to visit an EU country. Nevertheless, he has been actively welcoming foreign dignitaries at home. In the past few weeks, Lukashenka received an EU commissioner, the heads of the Latvian and Turkish governments, the foreign minister of Algeria, and the UN Deputy Secretary-General.
Despite the proclaimed goal of boosting relations with third-world countries, Belarus has been more successful in developing economic ties with Europe. Its bilateral trade with the EU has increased by 30 per cent. However, cooperation on human rights and democracy lags far behind. Will the lack of progress in these fields hinder trade and investment cooperation at some point?
Should the EU follow China’s example in its dealings with Belarus?
Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy, visited Minsk on 30 January to follow up the Eastern Partnership Summit which took place on 24 November 2017 in Brussels.
The high EU official met with President Lukashenka, Prime Minister Andrei Kabiakou, and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. The one-day visit has helped to finalise the new EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities, which will set the strategic frame for their cooperation in the coming years.
Both Lukashenka and Kabiakou chose to focus on practical outlets for trade and investment cooperation. In fact, the trade between Belarus and Europe is on the rise. In 2017 turnover increased by over 30% from 2016, attaining $14.5bn, while Belarusian exports skyrocketed by nearly 39% to $7.9bn.
The president thanked his guest for the progress achieved in negotiations on Belarus’s accession to WTO as well as the assistance in organising the Belarus investment forums in Vienna and Luxembourg. The prime minister praised cooperation in the fields of energy efficiency, environmental protection, and development of small and medium-sized businesses.
In Minsk, Johannes Hahn met activists from civil society and the opposition to listen to their grievances and to explain current EU policy towards Belarus. According to the EU official, the Belarusian regime has so far shown little progress in the fields of human rights, election legislation reform and failed to implement a moratorium on death penalty.
At the meeting, Hahn described how Belarusian officials had extensively praised the advantages of their bilateral relations with China, since this country never brings human rights issues to the negotiation table. However, the EU official assured the opposition leaders that Europe had no intention of dropping human rights and democracy issues from the agenda of their talks with Belarus.
Latvia: new outlets for cooperation explored
Latvian Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis came to Minsk on 7-8 February. It represented the first visit of a head of the Latvian government to Belarus after a 9-year hiatus. Latvia has become the second EU country, after Slovakia, to resume dialogue with the Belarusian authorities at the head-of-government level.
Belarus remains Latvia’s largest trade partner among the Eastern Partnership nations. In 2017 bilateral turnover reached $440m, having increased by 29% compared to 2016.
Today the two nations focus on cooperation in transports, transit and logistics. In Minsk, the Latvian prime minister emphasised his country’s interest in establishing a “tripartite cooperation between Latvia, Belarus and China, particularly with regard to cargo transit from the Great Stone industrial park through the ports of Latvia.”
Kučinskis also called for the development of railway electrification in Belarus on routes into Latvia. The two parties agreed to explore the opportunities for Ukrainian goods transit, especially grain, through Belarus and Latvia to other countries.
During their meetings with Kučinskis, both Lukashenka and Kabiakou expressed their appreciation of Latvia’s pragmatic position on the construction of the Astraviec NPP. Since Belarus’s relations with Lithuania soured considerably over this issue, Latvia would gratefully appropriate at least some of Belarus’s transit now passing through Lithuania’s Klaipeda port.
The Belarusian and Latvian leaders also discussed opportunities for expanding cooperation in other areas, such as the IT industry, tourism, sports, education, agriculture and forestry.
Getting help from Visegrad friends
On 23 February, the EU officially announced the prolongation of the leftover sanctions against Belarus – initially introduced for human-rights abuse – for one year, until 28 February 2019. These measures include an arms embargo, a ban on the export of goods for internal repression and an asset freeze and travel ban against four people listed in connection with the unresolved disappearances in Belarus.
At the same time, the EU council made a derogation to these restrictive measures to allow the export of a limited number of specific-use sporting rifles and sporting pistols. This derogation complements the exemption of biathlon rifles made last year (and now extended). Allegedly, Hungary has led the charge to ease the arms embargo, seconded by Slovakia. The two nations have been guided by commercial interests; they are also eager to establish closer ties with Lukashenka’s regime.
Reacting to the EU decision, the Belarusian foreign ministry predictably pointed out the “unfounded nature” of the sanctions but also “noted” the sports arms exemption.
There have been speculations that some Central European countries have been ready to go as far as breaking the EU consensus on the extension of sanctions against Belarus. However, the Belarusian authorities may not want to become yet another source of disunity in Europe.
During his meeting with Johannes Hahn, Lukashenka again spoke insistently about Belarus’s preference for a stronger, united Europe, calling the EU “one of the strongest pillars” of the multi-polar world. A weak Europe would mean a geopolitical imbalance and an increased Russia’s pressure on Belarus – something the Belarusian authorities would want to avoid.
The remaining sanctions are largely symbolic and narrow; their full revocation can probably wait for broader EU agreement on the issue. While the regime in Minsk has been eagerly profiting from some EU countries’ dissenting position on the development of relations with Belarus, it has no intention of attempting the risky game of overplaying these differences.
The latest developments in Belarus’s relations with Europe show that the country’s authorities still believe that Minsk’s self-ascribed role as a “donor of stability” in the region and their willingness to discuss human rights with the West (while avoiding implementation of any meaningful reforms) may yet help to secure larger assistance packages and more cooperation projects from Europe.