Lukashenka Entertains Loyal Russian Journalists
Last week, almost one hundred journalists from Russian regions came to Belarus to enjoy a carefully staged show.
The most important component of it was Lukashenka's performance at his press conference on 16 October. Belarusian authorities use free trips for Russian journalists as an instrument of propaganda targeted at journalists from various parts of Russia, the Russian government and Belarusian electorate.
Lukashenka expects the Russians to buy his image of effective Soviet-style ruler. He tries to contrast the problems of Russia, such as social inequality and poor governance, with Belarusian “socialism and order”. Meanwhile, the Russian government is blamed for all major problems in Belarus. Lukashenka uses this tactics to persuade Belarusians that he is not guilty for the worsening problems under the Belarusian model. But as time goes on, the old propaganda methods seem to lag behind and lose their effectiveness.
A Major PR Investment
2012 was the tenth anniversary of these organized trips for Russian journalists to Belarus. 90 journalists represented 80 Russian media from 48 regions – quite a number for a propaganda campaign.
This event is much more than a press-conference. It also includes a week of travelling around Belarus and visiting enterprises, organisations, and historical and cultural sites. Of course, authorities include only the most successful sites on the list, as the aim of the journey is not to paint a real picture of Belarus but to create a positive image.
It is not easy to become a guest of this week-long tour around Belarus. The Presidential Administration carefully screens all potential candidates. As a result, one will not find representatives of federal TV channels and major newspapers among the participants.
All journalists come from regional media, as Russian regions show much stronger support for the Belarusian ruler. They present a more conservative side of Russia, and therefore like the authoritarian style of the Belarusian president coupled with myths about Belarusian order and respect for common people, which reminds them of Soviet times.
The Belarusian authorities usually act very generously during these visits: they cover all expenses, provide journalists with nice accommodation and meals. In addition, after visiting any enterprise the guests usually receive its products as gifts. No wonder that after such visits Russian journalists have sweet memories about rapidly developing little Belarus and its strict but fair leader.
The journalists understand the price they must pay in exchange for such generosity. The regime expects them to report to their audience a standard set of myths about Belarus. Some of the most popular myths include the following: they did not ruin the Soviet legacy, they did not let the oligarchs rob the ordinary people and privatise national property, and they maintain everything in good order.
Slavic Brothers that Swindle Belarus
Another goal of these conferences are to reach the Russian elite and Lukashenka's own electorate in Belarus.
Such conferences provide a good opportunity for Lukashenka to tell his Russian colleagues things that are not easy to tell in personal meetings. In other words, Lukashenka can criticise the Russian government without facing them. The conference is also a good opportunity to blame Russia for Lukashenka’s own political failures.
Support for the regime is in constant decline, and turnout at the recent parliamentary elections proved it. Lukashenka badly needs justification for his failures and Russia is very convenient for that purpose.
This year, Lukashenka sounded offended. Throughout the conference, the Belarusian president complained about the Russian government constantly swindling poor Belarusians. He blamed Russia for not letting Belarusians produce gas and oil from Russian subsurface like western countries do. Russia obviously wants to control Belarus through minerals supply, as its own production will increase Belarus independence from the energy empire.
Lukashenka also criticised the Russians for recently joining the WTO. According to the Belarusian ruler, Russia declared EurAsEC (Eurasian Economic Community) its main integration priority, but in reality joined the WTO without Belarus. Now Belarus has to “struggle” in the unexpected economic environment of the WTO without having made any special preparations.
He openly blamed Russia for the 2011 economic crisis in Belarus. Lukashenka repeated his favourite myth that the crises occurred because of the introduction of duties on second-hand cars. The duties were Russia’s initiative to protect the Russian car industry.
According to that myth, Belarusians bought huge amounts of foreign currency and rushed to neighbouring EU countries to buy used cars. This resulted in financial distortion and the subsequent sharp devaluation of the Belarusian rouble. Of course, he did not elaborate that the national currency was printed before the 2010 elections to reach the electoral promise of a $500 per month average salary.
Lukashenka also revealed some interesting facts from Belarusian backstage politics. He mentioned that he once received a luxurious Maybach car as a present from a foreigner (it could indeed be a form of bribe for the dictator’s favours).
He also announced that some Russian oligarch offered him a $5bn kickback for the privatisation of the largest Belarusian enterprise, Belaruskali. Of course, the defender of the common people rejected that generous offer.
Is the Old Game Over?
Such a PR campaign needs substantial funding, but will this investment bring the expected profit? If we look at the three main target audiences of the conference, the answers vary.
The only audience where Lukashenka can definitely succeed is the Russian regions. Ordinary Russians that live in remote places where freedom of media is restricted will likely believe the reports of local journalists that were properly brainwashed in Belarus. However, with the other two target groups the situation looks more difficult.
Russians have extensive leverage on Lukashenka and seem to actively use it while publicly expressing proper and polite rhetoric. Belarus for its part has nothing to counterbalance this leverage, since it cannot turn to the West without radical changes inside the regime. Lukashenka is trapped and is now trying to shake off responsibility, But as he confessed at the conference, Belarusian negotiators are “already laughed at” in Moscow.
The Russian establishment do not take Lukashenka seriously, like they did some 15 years ago. They fully understand the situation that Belarus has ended up and will use that situation to their advantage. Short-sighted politics of the Belarusian president are indeed worth laughing at: he becomes he is totally dependent on his “Slavic brothers”.
Meanwhile, in Belarus trust in the authorities is gradually falling. An October poll conducted by the IISEPS shows that support for Lukashenka is at around 30 per cent. After last year’s notorious devaluation, people do not believe any assurances on economic policy. They behave according to rumours and insider information from relatives and friends. Lukashenka’s pleading not guilty in front of the electorate is also likely to fail.
It looks like the regime is running out of substantial arguments for propaganda. The reality turns out completely different and becomes too obvious to not be accepted. So, the Belarusian regime faces a major challenge with an unknown outcome. Playing by the old rules is impossible, but the new rules will destroy the game.
Inbound Tourism in Belarus: Rosy Plans, Feeble Measures
Belarus aspires to attract half as many foreign tourists by 2015 as in 2011 and to create over hundred regional tourism brands. However, so far, official plans are restrained by procrastination and poor practical moves. Without proactive measures such as visa facilitation and tourism liberalisation, the adopted plans will remain unrealistic.
Dynamics of Poland-Belarus border crossings serves as a good illustration of the negative consequences of visa regime which Belarus maintains for the EU citizens. Since 2003 the difference in numbers among the Poland citizens’ entries to Belarus and Ukraine rose many times. Ukraine kept visa-free regime for the EU citizens and helped attract more foreign visitors. Intensification of people-to-people contacts at the Poland-Belarus border is further hampered by the stalled small border traffic agreement.
New Zealanders Are Coming
According to Belarus National Statistics Committee, in 2011 the number of arrivals of foreign citizens to Belarus reached almost 6 million. The figure does not include crossings of Russia-Belarus border and arrivals for permanent residence. According to the official statistics, circa 60% of total arrivals are usually made for private reasons and about 30% make transit trips. Business and tourism purposes account only for about 7% and 2% correspondingly.
Russia traditionally tops the list of the countries that give the biggest share of foreign tourists to Belarus. Interestingly, in 2011 New Zealand with 3,085 tourists followed Russia (83,843) and Turkey (3,596) and left Lithuania (3,170) and Poland (2,983) behind.
New Zealand’s leadership seems even more inconceivable if one takes into account that only 18 tourists from these remote islands visited Belarus in 2010. These odd figures underline shortcomings of the official Belarusian statistics which counts as tourists only those individuals who come with tourist visas.
Earlier, trips of New Zealanders who came to Warsaw airport and headed to Moscow via Belarus were counted as transit. A sudden change may well have occurred due to the national agencies’ play with statistics in order to comply with the official tourism development five-year plan.
According to the State program on tourism development for the years 2011-2015, the number of foreign tourists (it was 130 thousand in 2011) is to increase annually and reach 190 thousand by 2015. Export of services by the foreign tourists is planned to reach half a billion USD (it was USD 138 mln in 2010).
Main destinations of inbound and outbound tourism
As noted above, tourism figures are very relative as no permanent monitoring is in place and merely individuals with tourist visas are taken into account. However, official statistics roughly illustrates the main tourism destinations.
In 2011, only 10,6 thousand Poles, 3,2 thousand Lithuanians and 600 Latvians came to Belarus with tourist visas. Other countries (besides Russia, Turkey and newly emerged New Zealand) whose citizens relatively often visit Belarus with the purposes of tourism include Great Britain, Germany, and Italy. The number of Italian tourists is gradually going down from year to year, with less than 2 thousand Italians in 2011 compared to more than 4 thousand in 2007.
Countries most frequently visited by Belarusian tourists in 2011 were Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Egypt, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Turkey and Czech Republic. They hosted 87% of all outgoing Belarusian tourists.
Distribution of inbound and outbound tourism in 2010 by countries, percent of total
Source: National statistical committee of the Republic of Belarus
Poland-Belarus border crossings are a manifest illustration of the negative consequences of visa regime between Belarus and EU countries. Belarusians cross the Polish border nearly as often as Ukrainians do, as the graphs show below.
At the same time, the number of travels of Poles across the Belarusian border is many times lower than in Ukrainian case. As we can see, between 2002 and 2008, Poles’ crossings of the Ukrainian border increased more than five times.
In 2007, the share of Poland’s citizens that crossed Poland-Belarus border was only 13%, while it reached 48% for Poland-Ukraine border.
The striking difference in the crossings of the border with Belarus and Ukraine by Poland’s citizens is the result of visa regime in the former and absence of visa requirements for short-term trips in the latter. It also is worth keeping in mind that the crossings of Poland-Ukraine border further intensified with the launch of the local border traffic regime in mid-2009.
Graphs: Number of Poland-Belarus and Poland-Ukraine border crossings, 1990-2008
Source: Polish Border Guard. Note: The absolute majority of the crossings under the “Foreigners” category means Belarusians or Ukranians correspondingly, with some share of other nationals in transit.
Tourism Brands Plans Frustrated
Belarus is a promising place for development of several kinds of inbound tourism. First, it has transit tourism potential because many Russian citizens travel to the European Union by bus. Second, Belarus has much to offer in recreational tourism with its good quality-price ratio to offer. Third, Belarus can develop rural tourism and thematic tours development across the places of Jewish, Polish and Lithuanian heritage.
The state tourism program required regional executive committees to develop tourist brands for each of the 118 Belarus’s districts, 6 regions and the capital by the first half of 2011. In fact, as late as by half-2012 a winner of a tender to develop the city brand for Minsk was announced. The Britain-based company INSTID was awarded a contract to create a logo and the signature style of Belarusian capital by the end of the year. No news about regional brands so far.
The state program also aims at setting up tourist information centers abroad to complement the only centre of this kind in Warsaw. Besides a need to develop informative work, there is much to do about tourism infrastructure inside the country. Belarus has only a handful of good camping sites and hostels. If you decide to visit one of them, you should check out this online catalogue with camping gears.
So far, the government appears not to be serious about visa facilitation for EU citizens. Belarus has not yet replied to the invitation to launch negotiations on visa facilitation that European Commission sent in June 2011. Official Minsk is allegedly suspicious of the readmission agreement with the EU that is linked to the visa facilitation negotiations.
In the absence of visa facilitation, Belarus adopts measures that only partly improve business climate for tourism industry. The recent example of such include the July presidential decree that introduces preferential tax system for the tourist companies and widens the list of tourist services that are granted VAT exemption.
Andrei is an analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies in Minsk.