Losses from Sanctions War, Liability for Extremism, Geely Cars – State Press Digest
The Belarusian authorities are trying to debunk Russian accusations that it is making increasingly nationalist policies. The authorities are tightening legislation on extremism by introducing criminal liability for extremism and fighting in foreign conflicts.
The president has ordered all officials to drive only Belarusian-Chinese Geely cars. The state newspaper blames business associations for weak legitimacy and a lack of support within business circles. All of this and more in this edition of State Press Digest.
Belarus has lost $1bn as a result of Russia's sanctions war with the West. Zviazda newspaper published the words of Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makiej, who spoke in Moscow at a press conference dedicated to Belarus-Russia relations. According to the minister, Belarus-Russia relations are seeing a growing number of myths and distorted interpretations.
Some groups have accused Belarus of increasingly nationalistic and anti-Russian behaviour, but this sounds like “blasphemy in relation to our shared history and the Belarusian people, because we have always seen Russia as our closest friend.” Makiej also attempted to debunk the view that Belarus benefited from the Russia-West food embargo. He said that Belarus actually lost around $1bn from these sanctions.
The authorities are introducing criminal liability for extremism and participation in foreign conflicts. Belarus Segodnia reports that parliament has approved amendments to the criminal code which introduce criminal liability for extremism and participation in armed conflicts abroad. Counter-extremist legislation in Belarus has become outdated and the Criminal Code does not currently provide liability for extremism, KGB head Valier Vakuĺčyk said at the parliamentary session. Interestingly, the law will also consider production, storage and sale of Molotov cocktails as extremist activity.
The newspaper opines that Belarusian nationals fighting abroad not only damage the image of the country, but can cause its involvement in the conflict.
Besides, professionally trained fighters sooner or later return home and can use their skills in the interests of certain groups and organisations. Currently the Criminal Code provides liability only for mercenaries – individuals who fight solely for financial reasons. Now the amendments make it possible to try persons who fight for ideas, not just money.
Belarus will seek responses to growing NATO presence near its border. Narodnaja Hazieta interviewed expert Aliaksandr Špakoŭski on Belarus-NATO relations. Military industry groups, primarily from the US, are artificially creating the idea of an aggressive Russia in the information space, which threatens the security of NATO members. In this way the US is forcing NATO allies to increase defence spending while being the leader of arms manufacturing and export.
Since Belarus has a military alliance with Russia, it will be engaged in this confrontation and seek responses to the strengthening of NATO capacities near the Belarusian border. There is no direct risk of a conflict as neither Russia nor the West want a war, but the growth in the mood of conflict on both sides also poses a threat to Belarus' security. Therefore the country should remain alert and have an effective, mobile army.
Belarusian officials are obliged to drive only Belarusian-Chinese Geely cars. Vitebskie Vesti highlights President Alexander Lukashenka's visit to the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) – the Belarusian machine building giant. He noted that the plant will receive loans from the government only if it demonstrates the ability to sell products to concrete markets.
“I can not once again invest hundreds of millions dollars in products that you will dump in warehouses …MAZ, BelAZ and Motovelo are the face of our country, and we have no right to ruin these enterprises. MAZ will live forever, during my rule and after it”, Lukashenka stated.
The Belarusian leader also ordered all officials, from district heads to ministers, to use only the Geely cars produced at the Belarus-Chinese joint plant BelGee. “Except for the prime minister, his deputies and some high officials no one should use foreign cars during their work”, Lukashenka said.
The first private hydroelectric power station in Belarus will be built in Hrodna region. Hrodzienskaja Prauda writes about the first private hydroelectric power station in Belarus, that will appear in Slonim district of Hrodna region on the Issa river. The projects is worth $450,000 and the investor plans to build the station by 2017.
It will produce 240 kilowatt-hour of energy annually. The company will sell the energy to the country's general electrical network according to a quota defined by the Ministry of Energy. Currently Hrodna region has the largest hydroelectric power station in Belarus with a capacity of 17 megawatts.
Belarusian business associations have weak legitimacy. Respublika newspaper claims that business associations in Belarus have failed to become mass organisations and unite less than 10 per cent of Belarusian businessmen. Besides, leaders of business associations, instead of promoting business interests of the whole sector, seek connections in the government or lobby their commercial interests.
The newspaper gives the example of an association of entrepreneurs called Perspektyva and its head Anatoĺ Šumčanka, who became one of the leaders of recent protests of small business owners.
The newspaper was unable to identify how many members there are in Perspektyva, and noted that the petitions of the organisation usually gather only a few hundred signatures. It concluded that Perspektyva lacks the support of business and therefore cannot represent it in negotiations with the authorities or formulate policy proposals.
In 2015 the birth rate in Belarus grew as a result of demographic security policies. Reproductive health services in Belarus reached the level of France, Finland and Luxembourg, said deputy prime-minister Natallia Kačanava in an interview with Belarus Segodnia. Belarus is in the top 50 countries in terms of the quality of pregnancy and birth care and is in 26th position for maternity comfort.
Moreover, Belarus occupies 4th place for low infant and maternal death rate. The number of families with many children is also growing and has now reached 80,000. At the same time, Belarus has 21,000 orphans, 80 per cent of whom have living parents who have been deprived of parental rights.
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.
Does the single air defence system bring Belarus closer to Russia?
On 6 April Moscow declared that the agreement on establishment of a Single Air Defence System of Belarus and Russia had been implemented.
That announcement downplayed the contradictory situation around military cooperation between the two countries and the question of Belarus' international balancing.
First, the air defence agreement itself brings little new. It mostly formalises already ongoing cooperation between Russian and Belarusian militaries. Secondly, on 8 April Belarusian Foreign Minister UladzimirMakei confirmed that the issue of a Russian airbase in Belarus was 'closed'.
Last but not least, on 3 April, chief editor of the main media outlet of the Belarusian government Pavel Yakubovich called the visit of a US Defence Department official to Minsk “the event of the week”.
That is, Minsk is continuing its attempts to avoid being squeezed between Russia and its opponents. Hence, it is developing relations with all and is avoiding siding with anybody.
Little new in the new single air defence system
On 6 April, Deputy Commander of the Russian Aerospace Force Pavel Kurachenko announced that the implementation of the 2009 agreement on a single air defence system with Belarus had been completed. Its implementation after seven years of bargaining provides mostly for the continuation of existing arrangements in air defence.
Since 1995 Russia with little success has been trying to reconstruct a semblance of the Soviet air defence system, aimed at including most of the CIS countries in a collective mechanism. By the late 2000s the futility of most CIS-based collective projects in all fields became clear, as adopted decisions simply remained on paper. Moscow moved instead to work with every post-Soviet nation individually.
So the 2009 joint air defence bilateral agreement with Minsk came into being. The Russian media proudly proclaims today the establishment of a 'single system in Eastern European region'. However, only Belarus and Russia are participating in it.
the single system of air defence will function under Belarusian command Read more
What was the point of this agreement, which Moscow has been demanding from Minsk for years? Initially it looked like the new scheme would bring a part of the Belarusian army under Russian command. But Minsk held its ground and the single system of air defence will function under Belarusian command. The Kremlin also failed to establish a Russian airbase in Belarus as part of the single system. Technically, the situation remains very much the same, as the air defence units of the two countries already work together and will continue working together.
The Belarusian and Russian governments have avoided explaining what they will achieve by implementing the agreement. Indeed, the core elements of the single system have already been in place for years. For example, joint standby alert duty arrangements [sovmestnoe boevoe dezhurstvo] have been underway since 1996. The same is true for information exchange, joint training sessions and supplies of equipment.
Formalising relations between two armies
No wonder that in 2009 Russia's official daily Rossiyskaya gazeta commented on the newly signed agreement in a restrained vein: "All these years the skies over our two countries were already guarded by joint efforts. Now the standby alert duty arrangement will gain legal status." Today, facing problems with the West and Eastern European nations, the Kremlin needs to demonstrate some achievements elsewhere. And so it spins the Single system.
That Moscow does not take the Single system seriously follows also from the situation with equipment supplies. Responding to Minsk's stubbornness on military and other matters, Moscow denied Belarus modern fighter jets and granted it only obsolete second-hand S-300P surface-to-air missile systems. Crying crocodile tears, Moscow-based daily Nezavisimaya gazeta lamented, “Still we cannot say that [after implementation of the agreement on the Single system] all tasks with regards to efficient air defence of the Union State [of Belarus and Russia] will be fulfilled.”
Moscow denied Belarus modern fighter jets and granted it only obsolete second-hand S-300P surface-to-air missile systems Read more
Against this backdrop one thing is clear. By further formalising their relations in the air defence field Minsk and Moscow are moving further away from the baseline of Belarus-Russian relations of the 1990s, a situation in which the Belarusian and Russian militaries were effectively one body, like the Soviet army. No clear borders or differences existed, and officers easily switched between the two armies.
As a result, establishment of the Single air defence system is not a step forward in integration but rather the transformation of the last remnants of messy post-Soviet military structures into a clear bilateral intergovernmental mechanism.
Contacts with the US in the military sphere after a decade-long break
The latest developments in Belarus-US relations also indicate that establishment of the Single air defence system does not amount to some radical decision by Minsk to move closer to Russia.
On 28 March the US embassy revealed that last December a delegation from the Belarusian ministry of defence visited Washington. After ten years in which Minsk had no cooperation with the US on military issues, the Belarusian government is looking for an opportunity to resume contact.
It has found some understanding in Washington, and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Michael Carpenter visited Minsk on 28-30 March. The Belarusian government went out of its way in welcoming him. Carpenter held meetings with the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He even met President Alexander Lukashenka – something unusual taking into account his relatively junior position. Carpenter also put forward a proposal to exchange military attaches. Minsk agreed.
Moscow smells treason
Carpenter's visit was greeted by loud condemnation in the Russian media. The chauvinist Regnum news agency asked “Does he wish to tease Russia or is this the early signs of treason?” But even moderate news agency Lenta.ru exclaimed:
The visit of a Pentagon representative to Belarus is only a link in a chain of political games around Belarus and its relations with Russia. […] the Belarusian leadership is already on the verge of losing control over the situation. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry and President had gone too far and that is also evident from the fact that Minsk kindly embraced Carpenter effectively by spitting on Moscow.
On 8 April, Belarusian Foreign minister Makei responded to this criticism, pointing out that Minsk simply wants to have a normal dialogue with the West and, for example, to discuss with the EU and NATO their military activities on the western borders of Belarus.
Minsk is doing everything possible to avoid being squeezed between the increasing military activities of both NATO and Russia. In these circumstances its attempts to find a new channel of communication with the West, particularly in the security sphere, reflects survival logic.
At the same time, the Belarusian government realises the risks of ignoring the security needs of Russia which the Kremlin perceives as vital, such as the air defence of Moscow. Minsk provides for these needs, yet defends concurrently its own sovereignty, interests and neutrality as far as possible.