Lukashenka meets oppositional editor, neutral coverage of protests, Russian pressure – Belarus state press digest
A palpable liberalisation is evident in the Belarusian state press with regard to politics and the economy in a context of threatening moves from Russia.
A major official newspaper writes about an opposition-led protest in a neutral tone for the first time in decades. Lukashenka meets with the chief editor of the oppositional newspaper Narodnaja Volia.
Russia instals a border with Belarus after 20 years of free movement. Belarusian food producers see 'irreversible losses' because of Russia’s restrictions.
This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.
Politics and security
Mass protests in Minsk call for abolition of the 'parasite tax'. An unsanctioned protest by Belarusians demanding that Decree No. 3 be abolished was held in Minsk, writes Belarus Segodnia. Participants gathered on Kastryčnickaja Square and marched along Independence Avenue to the headquarters of the Tax Ministry, where they made their demands known to the authorities. The march ended with the burning of tax notices. No incidents took place during the protest.
Belarus Segodnia republished this news from the state-funded Belta news agency, making the story the first time in decades that a major official newspaper writes about an opposition-led protest in a neutral tone. Other official publications stayed silent about both the protests in Minsk and the ones which followed in the regions two days later.
Lukashenka meets with chief editor of oppositional newspaper Narodnaja Volia. An hour and a half long tete-a-tete took place in the Palace of Independence in Minsk, reports Belarus Segodnia. Iosif Siaredzič, chief editor of Narodnaja Volia, asked Lukashenka for a personal audience during a recent 'Big talk with the president'; Lukashenka replied positively and the meeting occurred shortly thereafter. Ahead of the talk, Lukashenka stated that he was ready to discuss any issue but counted on unbiased coverage of the talk in the media.
Siaredzič chose not to reveal the details of the talk. However, he did explain that he was satisfied, as the talk appeared to be open and sincere. 'The president is worried about the developments in Belarus. Today we should all think of how to prevent any disasters from shattering our country,” Siaredzič said.
Russia reinstates border with Belarus after 20 years of free movement. On 7 February, FSB-introduced regulations regarding the Belarusian-Russian border zone came into effect, writes Narodnaja Hazieta. Over the past 20 years, citizens of Belarus and Russia have been able to visit each other without border checks. However, the risk of terrorism and the growth of migration have pushed Russia to re-establish the border, according to Russian officials. The Russian side regularly detained persons banned from entering the country on the border with Belarus.
Citizens of Belarus will only need a valid passport to enter Russia. The border zone now has a special status, and Belarusians who wander into Russian territory while searching for mushrooms, which often happens, could be detained and asked to show their documents. Meanwhile, citizens of Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic countries, and Poland, who frequently enter Russia via Belarus, will have to change their routes, as they can now only enter via international checkpoints in Latvia, Ukraine, or through airports.
The state to reduce control over business. The government is drafting a law which will make doing business in Belarus easier, Respublika informs. This move followed Lukashenka's demand that the authorities stop endless inspections of small and medium businesses. 'The focus should be on the outcome, not on the inspection as such. If the company is working and paying taxes, leave the people alone, let them do business,' the Belarusian leader said.
Newly opened companies will enjoy the absence of any inspections during a period of five years. Currently, the excessive number of procedures and requirements from the state remain one of the major obstacles hampering the development of entrepreneurship. While some people do not even dare to start their own business, others work illegal to avoid state control and over-regulation.
Belarusian food producers see 'irreversible losses' because of Russian restrictions. Belarusian exports are being banned as relations with the Russian food control agency rapidly deteriorate, reports Sielskaja Hazieta. In January, the agency labelled 40 food items 'suspicious', and recently introduced additional restrictions aiming to mitigate the 'risk of African swine fever'. Russia claims that it has detected swine fever on the border with Belarus several times in 2014-2017, while inside Russia 250,000 pigs have been killed because of a pandemic in 2016.
Belarusian experts claim that the quality of local meat and dairy fully meet Customs Union standards. Belarusian food exports to Russia amounted to $2bn in 2016, going mainly to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Some foodstuffs bring even more profit than oil production exports. Without the Russian market, however, Belarusian producers face 'huge and irreversible losses'.
Belarus starts production of 3D printers. Respublika writes that the technology park of the Belarusian National Technical University has started production of 3D printers to be used for industrial and food purposes. The technopark plans to produce 50 printers a day by 2018. The producers plan to instal printers in most Belarusian plants as well as schools. One Belarusian printer now costs around $1,000. Future plans include the creation of an 8-metre tall 3D printer for constructing buildings. The university is currently developing concrete that can be used for this purpose.
Discussion surrounding the International Congress of Belarusian Studies emerges in a national newspaper. Belarus Segodnia publishes a letter from Andrej Kazakievič, director of the Political Sphere Institute and head of the organising committee of the International Congress of Belarusian Studies. Kazakievič's letter was response to an article by the newspaper's columnist Andrej Mukavozčyk, who accused the Congress of leeching funds from the EU and attempting to influence public opinion in the interest of foreign parties.
Kazakievič replied that the Congress is a unique event where researchers from Belarus and all over the world present a diversity of opinions without censorship. Inside Belarus, dozens of conferences of state institutions with participation of top officials are also held annually with the support of Western donors. In this regard, the Congress is hardly different from any other international conference, including official Belarusian ones, which also seek foreign financing.
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.
Chechens struggle to enter the EU through Belarus
Since late summer 2016, a small-scale refugee crisis has been unfolding at the Belarusian-Polish border near Brest, as several thousand Chechen refugees attempt to make their way into Poland.
They are mainly seeking political asylum in the EU, claiming that they are persecuted by the repressive regime in Chechnya. However, the majority fail to convince Polish border guards to allow them to enter the country as refugees. Nevertheless, many Chechen families refuse to give up and are biding their time in Brest, adamantly re-attempting to cross the border every day.
Migrants and refugees have usually entered Belarus through the open border with Russia. If Belarus signs the Readmission Agreement with the EU, it will be forced to deal with illegal migrants and unsuccessful asylum seekers should Poland send them back under the terms of the agreement.
Fleeing feuds and persecution
The number of Chechen refugees in the EU rose in 2013, when according to Eurostat more than 40,000 Chechens applied for asylum. At that time, they did not have trouble receiving visas and travelling to Germany via Poland. However, as the refugee crisis in Southern Europe intensified in 2015, Germany forced Chechens to return to Poland, where refugee camps soon filled up.
As a result, the Polish government stopped accepting refugees into the country, claiming that there is currently no war in Russia. However, this has not discouraged the streams of people fleeing Kadyrov's regime in Chechnya. Chechen cab drivers now even offer a fixed price for the itinerary Grozny-Brest: about €160 per person.
According to human rights activists, those fleeing Chechnya include opponents of the regime and their relatives, torture victims, people fleeing local blood feuds, women and children under the threat of persecution, and would-be conscripts who refuse to fight in Syria or Donbass.
The exact number of prospective refugees remains difficult to estimate. In 2015, Polish border services blocked 53,000 entries to Poland, while in 2016 the number grew to 118,000. However, these statistics only indicate the number of failed attempts to cross the border.
As Russian citizens, Chechens are allowed to stay in Belarus for up to 90 days. However, their ultimate goal is the EU, as Belarus has never been an attractive destination for migrants. The majority of Chechens do not consider the country safe, fearing its open border with Russia. What's more, not a single Russian citizen has ever been granted asylum in Belarus.
By late summer 2016, between 1,000 and 3,000 Russian citizens from Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus were stuck in Brest, seeking asylum in the EU as political refugees. Every day, hundreds boarded the Brest-Terespol regional train in the hopes of obtaining refugee status in Poland.
However, only one or two families have been successful so far. All others return to Brest, only to repeat the attempt the next day. By winter, the number of asylum seekers had gone down, but many Chechens still remain in Brest.
Human rights activists from the Belarusian NGO Human Constanta note that Polish border control treats refugees with contempt, accusing them of being economic migrants or terrorists. Officers often spend less than a minute with potential refugees and force them to board the return train before they can even plead their case.
During the summer of 2016, entire Chechen families were living at the railway station in Brest. Those courageous enough to remain in Brest for winter moved to overcrowded rental apartments in the vicinity of the station, from where they would continue to try their luck until money ran out. Every attempt to cross the border by train costs a family about €50, including tickets and daily expenses.
The Belarusian Ministry of the Interior does not see significant problems with the refugee situation. The summary report for 2016 described the migration situation in Belarus as 'stable and controlled.' At the same time, it acknowledged the fact that illegal migrants were using Belarus as a transit country on their way to the EU.
Popular reactions to the Chechen presence in Brest range from callous to business-like. As the Chechens' only goal is getting into Poland, locals do not see them as competition. Brest landlords also profit from signing daily leases to rent apartments and rooms to Chechen families.
In protest against the arbitrariness of the Polish border patrol vis a vis the Chechens camping in Brest, in August 2016 Human Constanta set up a special mission in the city. Volunteers collected donations for the children and provided legal aid to the refugees, drawing attention of the media and international organisations to the plight of the Chechen refugees.
Together with Polish NGOs, Belarusian volunteers collected over 20,000 signatures in support of the Chechen refugees. They demanded that Poland fulfil its international obligations to guarantee the rights of refugees. However, civil society has had only partial success. Arbitrariness at the border continues, and those without a valid Schengen visa can only hope that one day their daily commute between Brest and Terespol will be successful.
The long story of the Readmission Agreement
In February 2017, the Polish Ministry of the Interior and Administration announced changes in regulations concerning admittance of refugees. New regulations would simplify deportation process and create a legal basis for denying entry to potential refugees.
According to dziennik.pl, Poland would like to cooperate with Belarus in order to create special facilities for the refugees on Belarusian territory. Thus, asylum seekers could await decisions on their applications from outside of Poland.
In January 2017, the EU promised to fund construction of facilities for migrants in Belarus within the framework of the EU-Belarus Mobility Partnership Programme. This would help Belarus cope with illegal migration and support its commitment towards signing the Readmission Agreement.
This agreement would facilitate deportation of individuals who had entered the EU illegally from Belarus. The Belarusian side has signalled that it is ready to sign. Nevertheless, it continues to hesitate, hoping to convince the EU to allow for a transitional period before full implementation of the agreement.
The signing of the agreement is a crucial precondition to simplify visa regulations for Belarusian citizens. However, it would also mean that Belarus would need to deal with unsuccessful illegal migrants to the EU, instead of simply observing their attempts to cross the border into Poland and ignoring their plight.