Lukashenka’s State of the Nation Address: Top 5 Messages
On 22 April President Lukashenka delivered his annual address to the nation and parliament. The “phantom” of Ukraine stood behind almost every part of his speech. During his annual address, Lukashenka made some impressive, even revolutionary, statements.
He called on Belarusians to unite in the face of external threats and demanded the punishment of those who speculate on the rights of Russians in Belarus. He devoted most of his time to discussing corruption and suggested economic reforms as a means of taming corruption and improving the nation's economic performance.
In closing out his address, Lukashenka declared a rather tough position on the ongoing Eurasian integration project.
Uniting the Nation
Aliaksandr Lukashenka began his annual address in quite an alarming way. He called on the nation to unite in protecting its independence in the face of instability in Eastern Europe.
“I am addressing you in difficult times. The surrounding states have gone into motion: Ukraine is boiling, the Russian Federation is trying to elevate its overall historical status. State borders are being shifted in front of our eyes. […] We must defend our most precious value – the independence of Belarus”, said Lukashenka.
He added that Belarus remains calm and uninvolved in any external conflicts. However, “we have reasons to worry”. He did not specify those reasons but offered three components for preserving the country’s independence:
- the nation should stay united;
- it should learn lessons from its own and others’ mistakes;
- it should have a clear vision of a future that will unite the young and the old.
The proposal to affirm national unity sounded most unusual. Lukashenka, of course, never argued for a national split but his policies regularly exclude any kind of compromise with the opposition. This time, however, he emphasised the need for a dialogue that will help them to avoid radicalism and a societal rift.
With an obvious reference to the Ukrainian crisis, he added: “society has to demonstrate tolerance towards a diversity of opinions and intolerance to any revolutions. We are tolerant of any opposition as long as it is constructive”.
Russians’ Rights in Belarus and the Russian Language
Continuing to draw parallels with the situation in Ukraine, Lukashenka commented on “some speculations” about the violation of the rights of Russians in Belarus. He called it complete nonsense stating that Belarusians have the same blood as Russians, which, in his opinion, makes any discrimination impossible.
Lukashenka warned Russia against "privatising" the Russian language Read more
The president also claimed that no other country in the world demonstrates such a caring attitude to the Russian language and the Russian culture at large as Belarus does. He even warned Russia against "privatising" the Russian language” as, in his view, “it is ours as well”.
In a slightly contrasting manner, he then stated that “we are neither pro-Russian, nor pro-Ukrainian, nor pro-Polish – we are Belarusian”. He added that Belarusians would live on their own territory and would decide for themselves what unions to enter.
Finally, Lukashenka demanded that law-enforcement agencies “immediately eradicate any speculation about violations of Russians’ rights in Belarus”.
The issue of corruption occupied a central place in the address. The amount of time that Aliaksandr Lukashenka devoted to it suggests that he is learning his lessons from the Ukrainian crisis, which, in his words, happened because of the corrupt Yanukovych government.
Lukashenka several times emphasised that the levels of corruption in the two countries are incomparable and that the Belarusian authorities have very harsh anti-corruption policies. To demonstrate this, he spent about half an hour discussing recent stories of high-ranking bureaucrats being arrested on corruption charges.
After that, the president offered three very progressive recipes against corruption that independent experts had been discussing for many years.
First, he suggested that the functions of the state, including the law-enforcement bodies, be limited. Second, he stressed the need to live within one's means: the less subsidies and public financial assistance government-owned companies receive, the more it helps to fight corruption. Here Lukashenka even promised to depart from his long-standing policy of so-called state paternalism. Third, the president spoke of raising the status of civil service and, in particular, increasing salaries there so as to minimise the incentives for taking bribes.
New Belarusian Economy
The economic part of the address offered some rather revolutionary ideas.
Lukashenka stated that he viewed his choice of socio-economic model in the 1990s as neither a mistake nor a great success. In his opinion, the country did not have any other alternative at that time.
It sounded like an excuse for the fact that the Belarusian economic model is turning less competitive and lagging behind the economies of other East European countries that went through reforms in the 1990s and 2000s.
Then Lukashenka started talking about a new Belarusian economy: “It is high time we enhanced our economic policy, in a quiet and evolutionary way but without delays or hesitation”. He suggested three targets:
- Development of the internal market: about 70% of the economy depends on foreign trade, which, according to Lukashenka, makes the country too vulnerable to external shocks.
- Improvement of the system of governance: the state should not support inefficient companies.
- Stimulation of competition: like a real free marketeer, Lukashenka concluded that competition works as the main engine of economic growth.
These points do not necessarily indicate that Aliaksandr Lukashenka has changed his old anti-market beliefs. Some clarifications that he provided even seem to imply quite the contrary: for example, the internal market idea most likely originated from a desire to curb imports. However, the very fact that during his address he extensively employed a free market rhetoric is itself of interest.
Before the Q&A session President Lukashenka limited the issue of Eurasian integration to a few formal remarks. But when an MP asked him about the prospects for the Belarusian economy after the launch of the Eurasian Economic Union in January 2015 Lukashenka made quite a strong statement.
He said that he would sign the founding treaty only after the removal of all limitations and exemptions from the free trade regime was concluded: “if you want to sign the treaty on the economic union today and lift these limitations in 15 years, as Putin suggests, then we will sign the treaty in 15 years”.
He reminded Belarusians that Russia had promised to resolve these issues but then changed its position, which excludes any possibility of a real union emerging. In Lukashenka’s view, after the failures of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Union State of Belarus and Russia, the people want real progress. “If we want to totally embarrass ourselves then let’s not sign it”, he added.
This straight statement suggests that the summit of the Eurasian troika in Minsk on 29 April will see some really tough negotiations.
To sum it all up, Lukashenka tackled many issues in his annual address. They varied from serious and highly relevant to sometimes humorous. He even lectured the nation on recipes for a healthy diet. And judging by the discussion visible in social media, the president’s recommendation not to eat potatoes with meat (and eat potatoes with fish instead) resonated the most among the population.
Perhaps, this is due to the humorous and generally positive connotation of the recommendation. The rest of the speech appeared to be too alarming.
Hockey Championship in Belarus: Breaking the Ice with the World
Yesterday Aliaksandr Lukashenka asked officials to make sure that foreign journalists would face no restrictions on media coverage of the Ice hockey World Championship in May.
Next month Minsk will host a major international sports event for the first time in the history of independent Belarus. It represents a great chance for Belarus to open up to the world despite some logistical drawbacks and controversies over human rights violations in the country.
Belarusian society should use the event to establish new international contacts and relaunch a dialogue with Western countries to strengthen its independence and promote the country's socio-economic modernisation.
Construction Hurdles and Accommodation Problems
As the championship is fast approaching, Belarusian citizens and international observers question the readiness of the Belarusian authorities and the methods of their preparation for the event. They point to the last-minute rush to complete the construction of hotels which may result in the absence of the necessary equipment or lead to mistakes with the buildings' construction similar to the notorious Sochi dual toilets.
The construction work being done for the championship is almost complete, despite the criticism surrounding the possible use of involuntary labour. The authorities finished the reconstruction of the Minsk-2 International Airport, brought the new ice hockey Chyzhouka-Arena for 9,500 spectators into operating condition as well as 13 new hotels that are ready to host about 3,500 guests. The last construction project, the Beijing Hotel, will be operating at the beginning of May.
Nevertheless, tourist agents expect issues with the number of available hotel rooms. Rental prices are likely to skyrocket due to the deficit. Citizens have already expressed their willingness to lease apartments for an average price of about $100 a day which is equivalent to a fifth of an average monthly salary.
Belarusian border authorities are operating on a visa free regime from 25 April to 31 May Read more
The Challenge of Intercultural Communication
The Belarusian border authorities are operating on a visa free regime from 25 April to 31 May for all those who have a passport and a valid ticket for the tournament. According to the latest estimates, nearly 70,000 international tourists are headed to Minsk from more than 50 countries, including 33,000 people from the EU. The largest groups are coming from Russia, Latvia, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
In addition, about a thousand journalists have applied for official accreditation, though only 400 of them will be able to get it and cover the hockey games in line with the IIHF’s quota. At first the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wanted to restrict accredited journalists in their right to cover non-hockey related topics. However, in the end, they agreed to allow for non-restricted coverage after several Finnish media outlets such as YLE and Helsingin Sanomat protested the proposed restrictions.
This will probably be the most massive inflow of foreigners into Belarus since 1991 Read more
This will probably be the most massive inflow of foreigners into Belarus since 1991 and it is likely to produce an intense period of information exchange. Many natives of Belarus will be able to make friends with visitors from Western countries, breaking the monopoly of state-run TV channels on information about how people live outside Belarusian borders. Both Belarusians and foreigners may even disprove many stereotypes about each other.
The championship may spark an interest in Belarusians to learn foreign languages to communicate better, but at the moment the situation is far from perfect. Official statistics say that only about 5% of Belarusians (approx. 500,000 people) can speak English, but in practise far fewer people are able to speak it fluently.
This is why foreigners may struggle to get assistance from local people if they need help. The organisers have sent at least 500 policemen to intensive English courses and they plan to deploy more than 1,000 volunteers in the city centre to resolve the issue.
However, foreign guests are still likely to face this problem whether they decide to spend time outside the city centre or enjoy the Belarusian countryside. Visitors may also be shocked by the lack of politeness and respect for personal space in public transportation and the service industry, but the organisers have promised to take preventive measures.
Boycott vs. Engagement: Opposing Views
Critics of holding the championship games in Belarus, such as activists of the campaign Don’t Play with the Dictator (Ostgruppen), argue that the event strengthens the authoritarian tendencies already at play in the country and legitimises Aliaksandr Lukashenka abroad. The Belarus Free Theatre holds the same view. These groups called upon the IIHF and national federations to change the event's location to force the Belarusian president to improve the human rights situation in the country and amnesty all individuals identified as political prisoners.
Another segment of Belarusian civil society, represented by such people as the rock musician Lyavon Volski and the journalist Viktar Martsinovich, considers the tournament to be a good idea. They think it will bring some change to a very isolated society. A small example – the Minsk underground has begun to use English for making public announcements.
Whatever position one holds, it is evident that Minsk now faces a boom in its service industry. Businessmen are opening new quality hotels, hostels and cafes almost every week and the authorities are improving the state's infrastructure.
As for Belarus in general, it will attract a lot of attention in the coming weeks that can result in a higher long-term interest in developments within the country. It is better for civil society and the political opposition to use this media attention for the spread of valuable information, rather than to ignore the event altogether.
A Chance to Open Up the Country
The hockey championship in Minsk is a great chance for Belarus to open up to the world Read more
The hockey championship in Minsk is a great chance for Belarus to open up to the world and make a positive impression upon it. For example, Belarus was in the top-5 Google search queries in the United States when the Belarusian athlete Darya Domracheva won her third Olympic gold medal in Sochi.
To make the most of this opportunity, Belarus needs to release those people who are considered political prisoners by the EU and international NGOs. This would make Belarusian society freer and would foster its creative potential to facilitate the modernisation of the economy.
It would also be an excellent basis to renew more active relations with the EU and the US. These are necessary moves to re-balance Belarusian foreign policy and strengthen its position to negotiate with Russia on a number of issues, including oil and gas supplies.
The Crimean crisis has shown that non-NATO countries in Eastern Europe may face significant challenges to their security and independence. A well-developed national identity, strong international reputation and plenty of allies are necessary to survive the current period of regional instability.
George is a graduate of the London School of Economics where he studied under the OESS scholarship financed by the European Commission.