Lukashenka in Ukraine, Blocking the Internet and Gandalf for President – Western Press Digest
Belarus-Russia tensions continue to grow as the economies of both countries come under more and more stress. Seeking to distance himself from the image of being the Kremlin's vassal, Lukashenka went to Kiev to reaffirm his commitment to help with the peace process in eastern Ukraine.
The 2015 presidential election may be a way off, but civil society is already getting more active. One civil society organisation is proposing a famous mythical character to run for president. Another has drawn the ire of the authorities for distributing ribbons with traditional Belarusian embroidery.
As the Belarusian economy continues to struggle, a recent trip by a western IT journalist encourages people to not judge a book by its cover. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Lukashenka Visits Kiev – The Boston Herald covered the Belarusian head of state's recent visit to Ukraine where he promised to support the peace process in order to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The report blames Ukraine's ex-president Yanukovych's ouster by popular nationwide protest as the reason behind Russia's annexation of Crimea. Lukashenka's visit to Kiev came just before a meeting between Kazakhstani President Nazarbayev's visit. Both presidents attended a meeting of the Belarus-Kazakhstan-Russia Customs Union trade bloc with Putin in Moscow shortly thereafter.
Lukashenka Reshuffles Government – As Russia's economic problems begin to have an impact on Belarus, one of its closest trading partners, change are underway on the home front for the Belarusian head of state. The New York Times reports that as a result of the generally worsening economic situation in the region, Lukashenka has been forced to start to make some changes in hopes of shoring up his political capital during an electon year. While noting increased tensions with Moscow over the past year, the article quoted new Prime Minister Andrejas Kabiakoŭ saying that the government will focus on maintaining Belarusians' standard of living, though did not mention any reforms.
Following Currency Panic, Government Turns Off Internet – The Guardian reports that the Belarusian government moved to shut off its citizens' access to Internet stores and certain news web sites on 19 December in order to stem a growing currency crisis at home. The move is seen as a way to limit Belarusians' ability to make purchases online and deplete their bank accounts while trying to take advantage of disparities in the declining value of the Belarusian rouble and the yet-to-be adjusted prices for goods online and in stores.
A new 30% tax on all goods purchased with a foreign currency was introduce not long before in order to incentivize Belarusians not to purchase new goods and hold onto their savings. The latest move by the government also demands that half of all profits that companies make would have to be converted into Belarusian roubles, an attempt to avoid a hoarding of foreign currency. In reality, however, the new tax is being applied to the next round of imports destined to hit Belarusian store shelves, leading many individuals to buy up as much as possible now while they can stretch the value of the rouble much further. The 30% rate was later reduced to 20% by officials.
Economic Integration Pains – Many former Soviet Union republics are taking stock of the Russian rouble's decline and how Kazakhstan and Belarus, the two other members of the Russian-led Customs Union, are faring as a result. The Wall Street Journal opinion piece warns the West to be weary of Lukashenka, as he is likely hedging his bets on Moscow's recovery. Still it could take advantage of the Belarusian head of state's recent overtures in which he is positioning himself as a peacemaker between Russia and the West. It should not, however, sacrifice its principled approach towards Lukashenka, but instead reassert that he loosens his grip on Belarusian civil society.
Newsweek also covered the growing economic tensions between Belarus and Russia. Lukashenka recently demanded that all trade between the two countries be conducted in a stable foreign currency (dollars or euros) instead of Russian roubles.
Gandalf for President 2015! – An online group with over 50,000 followers, taking cues from the Ukrainian Darth Vader for President campaign, have gotten some attention for their Lord of the Rings wizard-hero Gandalf-inspired 2015 campaign. Unlike their Ukrainian counterparts, they have no official candidate lined up yet, but are rather seeking a local individual with Gandalf-like qualities to run the show from Minsk.
Belarusians Show Their True Colours – A recent campaign by Belarusian activists has people doting ribbons stylised with a traditional Belarusian folk design. RFE/RL reports that the campaign, organised by a civil society group, is tremendously popular online. The colours of the ribbons, red and white, are particularly sensitive in Belarus since they were banned by Lukashenka in the 1990s. Lukashenka also led a movement to change the colours of the nation's flag to its current design, one that harkens back to its soviet-era predecessor. The colours are traditionally seen as symbols of the Belarusian opposition.
The group officially was handing out the ribbons in sport of the Belarusian Day of Embroidery. According to RFE/RL four individuals were arrested for handing out the ribbons by the Minsk police, but were released several hours later after their detention.
Belarusian IT Sector is Impressive – In a blog on the Huffington Post, author Mark Hillary describes his rather surprising first visit to Belarus. Many of Hillary's previously held associations with the eastern european country, based on pre-conceptions of life behind the Iron Curtain, were dismissed as he entered Minsk on a well-paved highway from the airport. Instead of finding something resembling Moscow, the author found something resembling east Berlin – a very European city, by his own estimates.
The point of the author's trip to Minsk was to take a look at its thriving IT sector, one much overlooked by the West. Commenting on Belarus's distinct advantages in the IT sector, Hillary takes note of the generations of tech specialists that work together on a single project. In particular, each individual does not feel pressure to extend their working knowledge into several fields, but can feel comfortable being an expert in one particular area and remain dedicated to it. He goes on to recommend anyone in need of needing IT solutions consider Belarus in the future, as it has much to offer.
Most Read Articles on Belarus Digest in 2014
In 2014 Belarus Digest published over 250 articles. Below we listed top ten most viewed articles published this year. Top three articles deal with Ukraine. Interestingly, the fourth article correctly predicted the currency crises which Belarus is facing now.
1. Belarus Refuses To Support Russia's Invasion of Ukraine. Belarus Refuses To Support Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine. At a meeting of presidents of the Customs Union on 5 March, Putin desperately tried to gain support on for Russia's invasion of Ukraine from his closest allies, Belarus and Kazakstan. All his efforts, it would seem, appear to be in vain, as neither Lukashenka nor Nazarbaev publicly voiced support for Russia's aggression in Crimea. For both individuals, it became a dangerous precedent which showed the true nature of Russian politics in the post-Soviet space.
2. By Winning Crimea, Russia Can Lose Belarus. On 7 March, Ukrainian espreso.tv reported that Belarus refused to send observers to the Crimean referendum. This is not the first time that the Belarusian authorities have disobeyed Russia, because the interests of Minsk and Moscow are in opposition to one another on several key issues. Lukashenka will not support the precedent set by the Kremlin’s invasion of other countries in the name of protecting the interests of its Russian-speaking people. The Belarusian authorities seem reluctant to lose credibility in the eyes of its Baltic neighbours, their main advocates in the West.
3. A Split In The Eurasian Union: Belarus Refuses To Join Russia's Trade War With Ukraine. While Ukraine was preparing to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, Russia was trying to secure the support of Belarus and Kazakhstan in introducing protective measures against Ukrainian goods. Moscow failed to convince its Eurasian partners that Kyiv’s Association Agreement would pose a threat to their economies and had to resort to taking unilateral action for raising customs duties on goods from Ukraine.
4. What To Expect In 2014? – Digest of Belarus Economy. The year 2013 will probably go into the economic history of Belarus as a year when even the government officials acknowledged that the economy was stagnating, and there were no prospects for any quick economic growth in the years to come.The official economic forecast for 2014 contains a modest GDP growth number of 3.3% (compared with 8.5% forecast for 2013), the Belarusian ruble will continue to be devalued (the only question now is how quickly) and despite the promises of Russian loans, Belarus faces the possibility of a 2011-like currency crisis.
5. Why Minsk Is Not Like Other Capitals. It jumps out at you right after you come back from a foreign land: Minsk is not like Vilnius, Warsaw or Prague. Indeed, it is not like anywhere else. And obviously, this concerns not only its "deserted streets" or the perception that there are "a lot of police." At least, it's not all that simple. Let's try and deduce the reasons that make our favourite city exceptional.
6. New UK Visa Procedures Humiliate Belarusians. On 13 June the Visa Section of the British Embassy in Belarus stopped accepting visa applications. A private company Teleperformance Ltd has now assumed responsibility for processing them. This move follows last year's decision by the UK government to close its visa section in Minsk and transfer its functions to Moscow. So far this decision has turned the visa application procedure into chaos and humiliation for visa applicants from Belarus.
7. The Russian Air Force Base In Belarus: Getting The Facts Straight. Last week Chief of the Russian Air Force Viktor Bondarev announced that a Russian airbase would be established in Babruysk in 2016. An article from the Moscow Times on expanding the Russian air force presence abroad, subsequently reprinted in the Guardian, painted a rather dramatic, yet not entirely correct picture. Analysis of recent news on the Russian base in Belarus paints a slightly different picture. Minsk and Moscow gave up plans to put Russian fighter jets next door to NATO member states. Russia will get only one base in Babruysk, and later than it had originally planned.
8. Belarus Bans St. George's Ribbons At V-Day Celebrations. On the May 9th most post-Soviet countries, including Belarus, celebrate Victory Day to commemorate World War II. But unlike in previous years, this time around before May 9th state organisations in Belarus received an unexpected order – replace all V-Day decorations containing the St. George’s ribbon. Originally a Russian Empire military decoration, it was used during World War II in a modified form and since that time all former Soviet Union republics have widely used the symbol in their annual celebrations of Victory Day. However, after the separatist actions in Ukraine, where militants use the ribbon as their identifying colours, it has acquired a negative meaning and became associated with Russian imperialism.
9. Russian Nuclear Weapons In Belarus, An Anti-Nato Military Bloc – Belarus Security Digest. The Kremlin pulls together an anti-NATO bloc. Minsk is trying to be helpful to the West as a source of information about the Kremlin's plan towards Ukraine insofar as Vladimir Putin allows them to. The Russian elite is overtaken by chauvinism and are increasingly losing touch with reality. Belarus and Russia will jointly explore space. The number of those who want to serve in uniform in Belarus is declining steadily. China becomes Belarus' No. 2 military and industrial complex partner.
10. Life In A Belarusian Village – Belarus Photo Digest. Belarus Digest is launching a new series, Belarus Photo Digest, which shows images of different aspects of life in today's Belarus. In the first issue photographer Siarhiej Leskiec documents everyday life in the Belarusian countryside. Only one in four Belarusians lives in rural areas today. And yet, most Belarusians are first-generation city dwellers. This is all the more interesting when considering the fact that only half a century ago, more than two-thirds of the population still lived in villages.