Lukashenka Remains Close To His People, Jobs for Ukrainian Refugees – Belarus State TV Digest
Over the past week, state TV Channel 1 covered Alexander Lukashenka’s visits to state enterprises in the regional cities of Salihorsk and Barysau.
In their coverage, state TV journalists reported on the excellent personal connection the head of state had with ordinary Belarusians. They presented him as a politician who has always remained close to peoples’ problems and is keen to discuss of any controversial issues at any given moment.
Coverage also touched upon recent developments in Ukraine and the growing number of refugees that the conflict in the east is creating. According to their coverage, Ukraine may go bankrupt in two years time. In this edition of our Belarus State TV digest we summarise these and other stories grabbing the headlines in Belarus.
A Cease-fire in Donetsk and Lugansk. According to Russia, the recent death of two of its reporters was a violation of the cease-fire in Ukraine. State-run Channel 1 showed Sergey Naryshkin, a speaker of the Russian Duma, demanding not only a genuine investigation of the tragic events, but that those responsible should be brought to justice for the death of the reporters.
Still, the overall number of casualties from the anti-terrorist campaign remains unclear. Although the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence speaks about 147 soldiers died during the action, Jani Megazzeni from the United Nations stated that since the beginning of the anti-terrorist campaign, 386 people had lost their lives in Ukraine due to the conflict.
Ukrainian Economy Barely Hanging On? Standard & Poor’s, the credit rating agency, gave a pessimistic forecast for Kyiv for the coming years. The country may even officially become bankrupt. Another problem facing the country is the growing number of refugees who are fleeing eastern Ukraine and seeking to settle elsewhere.
State TV also commented on a recent remark made by Anders Fog Rasmussen, the head of NATO, on the involvement of Russian special services (the FSB) in providing financial support to European ecological organisations which advocate against the extraction of shale gas. Greenpeace, the world's largest environmental activist organisation, reacted with irony to these insinuations, according to the report.
Lukashenka Mingles with Ordinary Belarusians. A dialogue with simple workers remained an inherent part of any visit of the Belarusian leader to the state company, states the reporter. This time the head of state visited the Belaruskali company in Salihorsk. He spoke with the workers, a majority of whom were upset by the scandal that erupted between Russia and Belarus that involved Belaruskali.
Lukashenka had previously come to the company back during his presidential campaigns in the 1990s. “That was a difficult meeting, I can recall it until now. And then I had promised you that if I were to become president, though I did not believe that I could have become the president then (…), I reassured you that I would have never sell off the interests of the miners”, Lukashenka stated.
The Belarusian leader reassured the crowd that he “would not forgive theft and appeasement” from the company's management.
In the coverage of the meeting, the video carefully depicts the Belarusian audience closely paying to attention to every word Lukashenka spoke. Several times throughout the report, the narrating journalist points out how strong the line of direct communication is between the head of state and regular Belarusians.
Belaruskali: Of Strategic Importance to the Belarusian Economy. “The potash industry is always receives special attention from the President", states the narrating reporter.
He pointed out that Belaruskali had overcome last year's crisis and remained a worldwide leader in potash production. The problems that the state company faced were due to the jealousy of other companies. What then propped up Belaruskali during the crisis then was not only the state, but also “new technologies, and the great reputation of the company".
Lukashenka reassured his audience that everything associated with the company's future is seen as part of Belarus' national interests. During the meeting he demonstrated his interest in all of the technology used for mining, state TV boasts.
The Authorities Once More Focusing on Ordinary Belarusians. The Belarusian head of state also visited another state enterprise, this time in Barysau. The meeting was broadly covered, and once more pointed out the excellent level of communication that the Belarusian leader and ordinary Belarusians enjoyed.
Workers asked Lukashenka a few questions, including a few about Ukraine and changes in the pension system. Throughout the meeting the Belarusian leader was joking around, but drew himself back whenever a topic demanded a more serious demeanour. People appeared be happy to hear him share his thoughts and seemed satisfied with his responses. The head of state also mentioned that his priority remained maintaining a society where “a woman can safely go for a walk with her baby in a stroller”, an oft repeated phrase.
Work for Ukrainian refugees? – When posed a question by a member of the audience about the possibility of employing Ukrainian refugees, Lukashenka stated “we should not close the doors on them”. In his opinion Belarus should help the refugees, particularly because many of them have Belarusian roots. “We are ready to let them in, but in an organised manner. The country has a workforce deficit”, he asserted, alluding to the possibility of having Ukrainians come to work in Belarus.
Raising the Pension Age? – Another member of the audience asked what was to become of the pension age. “I think it will be raised”, he replied. In his words, Belarus is the only country in the region left that has not changed its pension system. Even Russia has already been working on this issue. The head of state explained that raising the age is due to Belarus' negative demographic tendencies. Belarusian women should give birth to more children, say at least three in a family. This, he said, would resolve the demographic problem and the issues facing any potential state pension age reform.
Belarusian Pensioners to Remain the Youngest in the World. The Belarusian Minister of Labour and Social Protection, Marjana Ščotkina, assured Belarusians that it would not increase the state pension age. The report goes on to state, “as the minister noted, all of the necessary conditions have been set up for a person to stay interested continuing on with their professional activity after they have reached retirement age”.
“Regardless of the difficulties this year, the major financial document of the state (budget) has maintained its social orientation”, she added.
Checking in with the State Committee for Forensic Investigations. Andrej Švied, Chairman of the State Committee for Forensic Investigations, answered dozens of questions from ordinary Belarusians. Although the Belarusian leader established the Committee only a year ago, it has already brought several about benefits to the state. This benefits include 50bn BYR in savings, but the utilisation of more advanced techniques for fighting corruption in the country.
In the future, a suspected criminal presumed guilty of corruption will have to pay for their own defence, comments the report, a move that would significantly relief stress on the state budget.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). 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.
Belarus-West Rapprochement Coming? Political Prisoner Bialiacki Released
On 21 June, the Belarusian authorities unexpectedly released one of its most prominent political prisoners, the head of the Viasna Human Rights Centre, Alieś Bialiacki. The EU, US, UN and OSCE welcomed the release as a positive step and called upon Minsk to release its remaining political prisoners.
The Belarusian authorities do not recognise that there is any political prisoner problem in Belarus, calling them criminals have earned their sentence for breaking the law. However, in previous years they have demonstrated their readiness to free people in exchange for improved relations with the West or in an attempt deal with Russian pressure.
Currently, another cycle of rapprochement is unfolding at a time when a major regional crisis has developed in Ukraine and Belarus itself is trapped in the Eurasian Economic Union. More prisoners are likely to be freed soon if the West demonstrates a more assertive positive response.
An Unexpected Freedom
Bialiacki is not only the head of Minsk-based Viasna Human Rights Centre, but also a vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights. He was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison in November 2011 on tax evasion charges and spent almost three years in jail. The case became an international scandal after the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice which leaked information on Lithuania-based bank accounts of Belarusian NGOs and the opposition.
As the authorities made the reception of foreign aid inside Belarus virtually impossible by legal means, most organisations use foreign banks to run their organisations. Bialiacki's Viasna was one such example.
The Lithuanian Ministry said it did not anticipate the Belarusian authorities' reaction and stopped cooperating with them once their intentions started to become clear, but it was too late as the Belarusian authorities had already initiated proceedings against Bialiacki.
Shortly after his release Alieś gave a press-conference. Speaking to the media, he said he was surprised to be released on 21 June. Administration of prison showed no signs of being ready to release him and, moreover, considered him a troublemaker.
Other inmates were permitted only restricted contacts with him due to his political prisoner status and they were punished for any of their transgressions. “People were afraid of me”, Bialiacki said. He also informed the media that he was not going to leave Belarus and felt comfortable here. He will continue with this human rights activism in Belarus and internationally, but has no intentions of running for the presidency in 2015.
Belarus Denies That Political Prisoners Exist
On 21 June the United States and European Union called the release of Alieś Bialiacki a positive development and called for the release of all other remaining political prisoners. The OSCE Working Group on Belarus and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus also welcomed the release of Bialiacki.
According to Viasna, there are currently 5 political prisoners in Belarus Read more
According to Viasna, there are currently 5 political prisoners in Belarus: former candidate for president Mikalaj Statkievič, Malady Front activist Eduard Lobaŭ, anarchist activists Mikalaj Dziadok and Ihar Alinievič, and opposition activist Vasil Parfiankoŭ.
Two more inmates, Jaŭhien Vaśkovič and Arciom Prakapenka, who are also anarchists and attacked the Babrujsk KGB office with Molotov cocktails in 2010, are considered as “offenders, who were tried with violations" and received excessive punishment. Many of the activists imprisoner found themselves in jail after 2010 protests, while the anarchists conducted their activity separately from the opposition and have no ties with them.
The Belarusian authorities, however, do not recognise the existence of political prisoners. In a recent interview with the BelaPAN news agency the Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makej explained that Belarus views what are being called 'political prisoners' as criminals who committed crimes and thus are receiving the appropriate punishment for their crimes.
He also called the EU's approach towards the political prisoner issue in Belarus “hypocritical”, since Europe regards eastern Ukraine militants as terrorists, but here in Belarus persons who throw Molotov cocktails (i.e. the anarchists) are seen as political prisoners.
To release them, Makej said, a legal procedure should be carried out – prisoners should submit a written appeal for pardon which the authorities should, in turn, consider. “I think it is proper that the state does not bargain with the West over these people”, the minister said. Lukashenka also stresses that submission of a pardon appeal is a must for release. On 23 March Lukashenka repeated again that “If I have a pardon appeal – they will have my signature. Otherwise nothing will help. This is my principle approach.”
However, he has demonstrated that sometimes he can decide to pardon a prisoner without an appeal, depending on their particular offence. In January, he ordered officials to determine whether or not it was true that civil activists had paid off the full sum of Bialiacki’s unpaid tax. He called it a “serious argument” and stated that “politics is not the case here”.
The Belarusian Geopolitical Pendulum Swings Again
The problem of political prisoners remains the main obstacle for reestablishing EU-Belarus cooperation. EU leaders repeatedly stress that the release of political prisoners should be the first step in the process of normalising relations.
Political prisoners are like hostages whom the regime trades in order to improve relations with the West Read more
For Belarus, political prisoners are like hostages whom the regime trades in order to improve relations with the West. Usually prisoners are taken in during post-election cycles, when election fraud can cause large scale protests.
After the Eastern Partnership summit in November 2013, Belarus and the EU have gradually shown signs of mutual interest in improving their relations with one another. Rapprochement is unfolding against a background of an unabating Ukraine crisis and the Belarus' reluctance to support Russian aggression.
Belarus also ceded to Russia's conditions in the Eurasian Economic Union and seeks to achieve some balance in this uneasy situation. The regime is again using the “prisoner's card” for the purposes of its geopolitical games. But the fate of the remaining political prisoners remains unclear.
If Europe will respond with a friendly, but concrete, gesture of good will such as lifting sanctions, or make another beneficial offer to Minsk, their release would appear to be very likely. Still, they should not expect that any profound process of democratisation or regime change will follow, as the current regional crisis demands regime stability to resist Russian pressure.
But any improvement in Belarus-West relations will bring benefits for regular people who can enjoy the fruits of EU support at a local level and the effects of visa liberalisation. Most importantly, the country as a whole needs to strike a geopolitical balance to ensure its sovereignty, and rapprochement with the West remains the only option available to them at the moment.