Milking Oligarchs, Political Modernisation, MSQRD – State Press Digest
Economic difficulties push Belarusian authorities to extraordinary ways of gathering revenues. They continue arrests of top businessmen, regardless of their position in Lukashenka's apparatus, on tax evasion charges, allegedly waiting for a big payoff.
In domestic politics, the authorities try to modernise Belarus' political system and raise the role of loyal political parties and associations without introducing major changes to the authoritarian model.
Belarusian programmers sell MSQRD, an IT startup, to Facebook. All of these and more in this edition of State Press Digest.
KGB head Vakuĺčyk: there are no sacrosanct people in Belarus. Belarus Segodnya publishes comments made by Belarusian KGB head Valier Vakuĺčyk on the recent arrest of Belarus' top businessman Jury Čyž, as well as other high-rank businessmen detained earlier this year. In addition, to Vakuĺčyk's explanation around the ambiguous tactics used to evade taxes, he also provided some additional details on the subject.
Vakuĺčyk said that he personally took decision to arrest Čyž, since he is not on the staff list of the president and does not need a sanction for arrest. “If I let him go, I would be responsible for that and could appear in his shoes now. There are no sacrosanct people in Belarus, and some wrongly think that appearing on a photo with the president or playing hockey with him gives them immunity”, Vakuĺčyk said.
The authorities want loyal political parties to build in the political system. Belarus Segodnya highlights the meeting of deputy head of Presidential Administration Ihar Buzoŭski with the leadership of pro-government political parties and civil associations ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for this autumn.
“Political parties need to show concrete positive actions aimed at building civil society, economic and social development, and this concerns not only electoral campaign period”, the official said. He added that political parties and civil associations can become effective sites for public dialogue, channels of public opinion and developers of policy proposals.
Pro-government political parties have become passive since the 1990's, because the centralised political system of Belarus does not accept multiple political actors. Apparently, the authorities try to modernise the system and invent new functions for the half-dead loyal political parties.
Post-Soviet space needs reindustrialisation and a new integration idea. Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), newspaper Soyuz. Belarus-Russia interviews Russian political scientist, of Belarusian origin, Kiryl Koktyš on the future of post-Soviet integration. According to the expert, previous relations across the post-Soviet space were built around “oil rivers” and participation of former Soviet countries in the trade of Russian hydrocarbons. Today, the countries need to introduce a new model, based on production rather than export of natural resources.
The old concept of an Eurasian Union is dead and the new one has not yet emerged. Designed as a replica of the European Union, it failed to implement free movement of people, capital, goods and services, and after sanctions war demonstrated a complete failure. However, the post-Soviet leadership cannot offer a new idea of integration and each country has its own interests towards Russia.
Russia aims to boost gas transit via Belarus. Russian gas giant Gazprom has developed an extensive investment programme for Belarus, reports Soyuznoye Veche. It will invest $2,5bn in modernising the Belarusian system of gas transport with one billion of the sum going towards underground gas storage. Moscow is also contemplating the creation of a new pipeline Yamal-Europe-2 from Russia to Central Europe via Belarus.
Kremlin plans to stop transit via Ukraine after 2019, and Belarus is considered a more reliable partner for transiting Russian hydrocarbons. However, Poland, backed by the EU and US, is blocking Moscow's plan for pipeline expansion. Therefore, the future of boosting Belarusian transit capacities remains unclear.
Belarus works on diversification of food export. According to Seĺskaja Hazieta, by 2020 the government plans to split the food export to 30%-30%-30% for the Eurasian Union, the EU and third world countries. Diversification of export becomes a crucial task for food producers in Belarus, as the Russian market, which currently absorbs 94% of Belarus food production, will be gradually contracting. Until 2020 Russia plans to reach around 90% of self-sufficiency in food according to its security doctrine. Yet by now only 2 of 46 diary companies of Belarus managed to enter the market of the non-Eurasian Union countries.
As for the EU market, only 10 Belarusian companies have certificates for selling their products in Europe. The trade with the EU is complicated due to the European protectionist agricultural policy which contains high import tariffs. Moreover, due to economic crisis Belarusian food export in 2015 fell by 26% compared to 2014.
Facebook buys successful Belarusian startup MSQRD. Mobile application for making selfies with masks of celebrities, superheroes and animals emerged only four month ago and has already reached over 15 million downloads. The unique technology seemed so promising that Mark Zuckerberg decide to purchase the startup, writes Soyuznoe Veche. The exact price remains a secret, but is estimated at $100-150m.
MSQRD founder Jaŭhien Neŭhień says that they created the technology over three days and were surprised by its popularity. Shortly after, numerous media celebrities started to post selfies with MSQRD and it rapidly spread around the world. The application became another IT breakthrough from Belarus, following World of Tanks, Viber, and maps.me.
Released gangsters try to revive the old order. A few recent criminal cases of debt extortion reminded Belarus of the 1990's, when the criminal world thrived here, writes Narodnaja Hazieta. In the beginning of the 2000's the authorities implemented a vast crackdown on criminal mobs, and those convicted have been released recently and are trying to revive the old order. Homiel police official Andrej Zajac explained that most former gangsters after spending a decade in prison do not want to work legally and seek criminal sources of income.
However, they find it difficult to work in the new situation, because law enforcement works more effectively than it did in the 1990's-2000's. They try to engage in extortion racket of drug dealers or simply go to Russia where they find more opportunities for this activity. “This is the result of many years of tough work, and if not properly controlled, the gangsters can regain power within a year”, the official said.
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.
Belarus and Poland Determined to Improve Relations
On 22-23 March, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski visited Belarus, as he explained, to normalise relations "without any pre-conditions". Prior to Waszczykowski's visit, Alexander Lukashenka had not yet confirmed whether he would meet with the Polish minister.
Despite the friendly atmosphere, the visit showed that the two countries still disagree on many issues, such as a small cross-border movements and human rights. It remains unlikely that significant changes will happen in these areas. However, both countries want to agree to disagree and make steps towards better relations.
The first visit to Minsk in years
The last visit of a Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs to Belarus took place in 2010, when Radoslaw Sikorski together with Guido Westerwelle visited Minsk just before the elections. During this period, Western ministers offered €3 bn in aid to the Belarusian economy, if Alexander Lukashenka would hold free elections. After the brutal dispersal, however, of demonstrators in the voting night, the temperature of relations sharply dropped.
On 22-23 March, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland Witold Waszczykowski came to Belarus to help foster better relations between the countries by meeting his Belarusian counterpart Uladzimir Makei and the Belarusian state leader Alexander Lukashenka.
It was unclear whether Waszczykowski would have a meeting with Alexander Lukashenka. At that time, the Belarusian state leader had a meeting with the Georgian Prime Minister.
Talking points: is there any room for improvements?
Belarusian-Polish negotiations dealt with a variety of topics, but it seems that none of them will see a significant progress in the near future.
Small border traffic. In 2010, Belarus and Poland signed a local border traffic agreement providing that the residents of the border regions will visit the neighbouring country without a visa, but with a special certificate. Until now, Belarusian authorities have yet to ratify the agreement.
Minsk primarily fears that more Belarusians will go to Poland for cheaper groceries further weakening the Belarusian economy. In 2016, Leanid Maltsau, head of the State Border Committee, stated that the "increased flow of people would paralyse the border."
In response, Waszczykowski brought to Belarus a project to increase transmission capacity of the Belarusian-Polish border. If Poland finds funds for modernisation of border crossings, Minsk officials will without reluctance accept it. But the introduction of local border traffic will still remain undesirable for economic reasons. Currently, small border traffic works with Latvia, with which Belarus has only a 172 km border, so not so many people can enjoy it.
Visa liberalisation. With the lack of negotiations on facilitation of visas between Belarusian authorities and the EU, Poland offers a reduction in visa prices from €60 to €35, an increase in the number of visa centres and expansion of biometric passports among Belarusians. In 2016, Poland has opened eight visa centres in Belarus, providing a glimpse into the steps Belarusian authorities are willing to take in allowing visa centers to grow in Belarus.
Economic cooperation. In 2015, trade in goods between Belarus and Poland dropped significantly despite the fact that Belarus re-exports Polish fruits and vegetables to Russia where European products remain under sanctions.
This summer Mateusz Morawiecki, Polish Deputy Prime Minister responsible for economic development, plans to come to Belarus. It seems, that during his visit, a Belarusian-Polish commission on economic cooperation will meet to find ways to increase trade between the two countries. Currently, Belarusian authorities send invitations to Polish businessmen to visit Belarus and invest in the country.
However, the prospects for the development of economic relations appear limited. The question is not only in the economic and political unattractiveness of Belarus, but the difficulties in dealing with Minsk officials. So far, Poland has failed to get permission of imports of pork. In 2014, Belarus forbid the importation of pork due to an African plague while still protecting the market from cheap Polish competitors.
Multilateral cooperation and security. During the visit, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that "Poland may become a mediator in the cooperation between Belarus and the EU." But, it seems, that for the first time Waszczykowski stated that Belarus and Poland might participate together in the New Silk Road, an infrastructure project currently being developed by China to connect the transport systems of Eurasia.
Belarus already has good political relations and an opened credit line from China, but still fails to propose projects that would be interesting for the Chinese. In the case of cooperation with the EU, Belarus has rather limited desires and remains primarily focused on economic support.
Press releases after the meeting recall that Belarus and Poland also have raised security issues. Although both countries want to increase security in the region, they see different means to do so. Although Belarus refuses to host Russian military bases in Belarus, Poland is trying to increase NATO's presence in their country. This only increases the desire of Russia to have greater military capability in Belarus.
Human Rights and the Polish minority in Belarus. This issue still remains as a point of contention between both countries as Belarus continues to persecute its Polish minority. The Independent Union of Poles in Belarus lacks official registration and access to offices, which were bought partly by Polish money. At the same time, Polish authorities continue to support the independent media in Belarus and civil society such as Belsat TV. It seems that both sides remain reluctant to make concessions on this issue.
Making baby steps towards each other
Waszczykowski’s visit suggests that the old policies between Belarus and Poland will continue to hinder relations between the two countries. Moreover, Poland no longer sees political actors in Belarus, who can change the regime.
In 2015, the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), a Polish influential think tank, published a commentary that the Belarusian opposition fails “even to demonstrate to society that it could provide a genuine alternative to the present government”. Therefore, Poland keeps supporting Belarusian independent media, but limits contacts with the political opposition.
Belarus also needs Poland, as Foreign Minister of Belarus Uladzimir Makei expressed during the 22 March, "to diversify foreign relations." It appears that later this year, Makei will visit Warsaw.
Poland remains one of the avenues for Belarusian companies to enter the European market. On 21 March, Minsk Automobile Factory’s (MAZ) production opened in the Polish city of Plonsk. Also, Belarus remains interested in investments from Poland. For instance, Polish Ideabank remains one of the few foreign banks (not including Russian ones), working in Belarus.
Although the interests of the countries may be different today, both require a mode of cooperation for future relations.