Minsk Forum 2014 Brings the Spirit of Discussion Back to Minsk
On 1-2 December the international conference “Regional Stability and Modernization: Challenges and Opportunities for EU-Belarus Relations” took place in Vilnius and Minsk.
For the first time since the crackdown on the mass protest against the presidential election results in December 2010, the German-Belarusian Society organised an event in Minsk.
The conference produced a list of concrete policy recommendations and, more importantly, helped to bring the forgotten spirit of constructive discussion back to Belarus. For a country where stakeholders are not used to talking to each other this presents a more crucial value than the conference’s formal outcomes.
The Legendary Minsk Forum
In 1997, the German-Belarusian Society in cooperation with the Minsk-based Analytical Centre Strategy launched a conference that soon transformed into something unique for Belarus. Once a year the Minsk Forum gathered together almost every major Belarusian political and civil society actor as well as stakeholders in Belarus-EU relations. The forum’s venue managed to host over 300 hundred people for two or three days of tense, open discussions.
It was the only event of its kind in Belarus. Only there could one observe such unusual scenes for the Belarusian political reality as, for example, a leader of the opposition and former presidential contender talking to the head of the Presidential Administration.
In 2010, the last such forum took place. The brutal events that followed the presidential elections of 2010 and the imprisonment of a number of opposition activists brought the Minsk Forum to a halt. The German political foundations, which used to sponsor it, declared that they would not do so long as political prisoners remained behind bars. Against the background of deteriorating EU-Belarus relations, the forum was cancelled in 2011 and did not take place in 2012.
In 2013, however, the Minsk Forum was reincarnated in the form of a conference in Vilnius. For two days the leaders of the Belarusian opposition and NGO community discussed ways to improve the relations between Belarus and the West with diplomats, politicians and experts from the EU. They do so without any representatives from the Belarusian authorities present.
Finally, this year a partial return of the Minsk Forum to its original venue unfolded. The German-Belarusian Society in partnership with the East European Studies Centre (Vilnius), Analytical Centre Strategy (Minsk) and the Centre for Analytical Initiatives of the Liberal Club (Minsk) organised a two day cross-border conference: the first day took place in Vilnius and the second one in Minsk.
Challenges and Opportunities
This time the Belarusian authorities did not accept an invitation at a political level but delegated a number of diplomats to participate in the conference’s expert roundtables. This itself can already be seen as a small step forward.
During the two days the discussions focused on the regional challenges that Belarus and the EU face in the context of the Ukraine crisis and opportunities in their bilateral relations.
The ambassador of Germany to Belarus Wolfram Maas spoke of the necessity of reevaluating the way certain things are perceived in the EU’s policy towards Belarus. For example, he proposed to look at the Bologna process as an opportunity for young Belarusians rather than as a gesture to the Belarusian government. At the same time, he asked not to touch “the ties between the sanctions and the political prisoners” in the ongoing debates about ways ahead in EU-Belarus relations.
Balazs Jarabik, Pact Belarus project director and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, opined that the current EU-Belarus dialogue looks better than the one in 2008-2010: “in those years we were declaring a dialogue, now we are doing it”.
Valery Karbalevich of the Analytical Centre Strategy reminded about the escalation of tensions between Russia and the West, particularly militarily, as a factor in EU-Belarus relations: “against a backdrop of this increasing escalation, Belarus might find itself impotent in the face of Russian pressure”.
Ambassador of Lithuania Evaldas Ignatavicius argued that the existing Eastern Partnership (EaP) format was not sufficient for further progress in the region in general and in the relations with Belarus in particular. He suggested that more regional horizontal activities be developed. For instance, new cross-border projects between Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states.
Ambassador Dirk Schuebel, head of the EaP-bilateral division at the European External Action Service, offered some details of the present-day dialogue with Belarus. According to him, the EU welcomed a number of decisions that the Belarusian government took over the last year. These positive developments included the release of the human rights defender Ales Bialiatski, the start of the visa negotiations and its independent position on the developments in Ukraine, as well as President Lukashenka’s positive statements on Moldova’s Association Agreement with the EU.
He expressed appreciation for Belarus’s active participation in the EaP’s multilateral track and said that the EU was also ready to increase the number of its activities with Belarus and in Belarus. In Schuebel’s words, “it is too early to talk about a window of opportunity before the next presidential elections, but the EU should not miss an opportunity when it arrives”.
Process Over Outcome
After the conference, the organisers disseminated the conference notes that include eleven recommendations to policy-makers in the EU and Belarus:
- to redefine the EaP towards a more bilateral approach;
- to consider trilateral formats (EU-Belarus-Russia) for discussing neighbourhood issues, such as energy, trade, logistics, etc.;
- to advance regional cross-border cooperation between Belarus and the neighbouring EU states;
- to review sanctions against Belarus as soon as the government makes constructive steps towards meeting the EU's expectations;
- to enhance the role of Minsk as a “new Geneva”;
- to promote European/international standards in Belarus by accepting the country to the Bologna Process and the WTO;
- to place more emphasis on economic reforms in Belarus;
- to encourage the EBRD and European Investment Bank to finance more EU-Belarus business projects;
- to speed up the visa negotiations;
- to support the strengthening of Belarus’s statehood and national identity;
- to look for ways to facilitate better cooperation between the EU and Eurasian Economic Union.
However, the recommendations were in a way secondary to the fact that the event was able to take place only after three years of the Minsk Forum’s suspension. Still, for Belarus even such a tiny, and not particularly successful, attempt to gather various actors and stakeholders in one room is an important step forward.
In a country where people do not talk a lot to each other about numerous internal and external challenges and ways to meet them, any such attempt serves a better cause than meaningless confrontation.
The smartest thing that the Belarusian government can do at this point is to invite the German-Belarusian Society to hold a full-fledged Minsk Forum next year. And if it really wants to build on its "new Geneva" momentum such fora should become almost a daily routine.
Why Belarusians Turned to Shopping Abroad
With the economy dominated by the state and its illiberal trade laws, many Belarusians are increasingly taking to shopping abroad.
In the the middle of November, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group reported that customers from Belarus ranked fifth in the number of purchases, leaving behind the US and Canada in the online sales on Chinese anti-Valentine's Day holiday known as "Singles’ Day."
Meanwhile, shopping tours in neighbouring EU countries remain a favourite weekend trip for many Belarusians. This autumn the sharp decline of the Russian rouble sparked a shopping frenzy, with Belarusians rushing to Russian cities because of the lower prices.
The authorities in Minsk have repeatedly expressed their concerns about its citizens' shopping habits, which drain Belarus of foreign currency. Belarusians spend nearly $3bn annually abroad and domestic producers continue to lose their local markets.
However, radical restrictive measures to halt the large influx of imports is highly unlikely. The regime needs to maintain its economic contract with the public. Minsk permits people to satisfy their material needs in exchange for political loyalty. Joining the WTO could resolve some of the issues Belarus is facing, but Belarus needs to see a substantial change in relations with the West and economic reforms to obtain membership.
Belarus, an Unexpected Leader in Online Shopping
Singles’ Day in China takes place annually on 11 November. Originally a holiday commemorating unmarried young people, it has since become one of the largest online shopping day in the world. This year, the Alibaba company, one of the most active promoters of the holiday, made $9.3bn in sales – a world record for online shopping.
Strikingly, Belarusians appeared to be among the most active buyers outside of China, achieving a top 5. Russia led the ratings, followed by Brazil, Israel, Spain, ending with Belarus. Belarusians even outdid the US and Canada during this global shopping frenzy.
The Belarusian state-managed economy still cannot satisfy the consumer aspirations of its citizens. Consumers lack access to world famous brands locally and the seasonal discounts regularly found in market economies. Foreign companies in this sector are only starting to enter the Belarusian market.
Domestic prices remain high, so people prefer to shop in neighbouring EU cities like Vilnius, Bialystok and Warsaw. Recently, Russia also became a popular shopping destination, as the rouble's devaluation made Russian products more affordable for Belarusians.
Internet usage is fast growing in Belarus. According to research conducted by the Analytic Centre of the Presidential Administration, as of autumn 2014, 62% of Belarusians used the Internet, and around 50% of them were mobile Internet users. Just this June the PayPal online payment service started operating in Belarus, which makes online shopping more accessible to Belarusians.
However, a study by MASMI, a market research company based in the UK, from May 2013 showed that only 20% of Belarus' urban populace shops online. And only a quarter of them, or 5% of the urban population, made purchases on foreign web sites.
More recent data is unavailable, but it appears that Belarus witnessed a rapid growth in online shopping over the past year. The trend may be here to stay. Threads that discuss online shopping attract the largest readership on onliner.by – the most popular Minsk Internet forum.
The Russian Auto Fever
The recent economic developments in Russian provoked a real pilgrimage of Belarusians to its eastern neighbour to buy up cheap cars and high-tech gadgets. In 2014 the Russian rouble has lost 45% of its value, and this autumn it fell particularly quickly.
However, Russian businesses did not rush to raise prices to the same rate, and Belarusians had a unique opportunity to buy cheap products without visa or customs restrictions. Tourist services, cars and electronics were among the most wanted products according to stories circulating around Belarusian airwaves.
A representative of the Pegas Tourist company based in Russia told TUT.by that, "because of economic downturn many Russians have cancelled their plans to visit resorts this winter, and tourist firms have to offer discounts to attract clients". This especially concerns distant destinations like Cuba, Mexico, and Thailand. Coupled with devaluation, it has reduced travel prices considerably.
Electronic gadgets also became a hot good for Belarusians in Russia. The difference in prices between buying domestically were offset by travelling to Russian.
The biggest purchasing rush was for automobiles in Russia. The difference in automobile prices in Minsk and Moscow currently vary from thousands to tens of thousands dollars in the case of luxury automobiles.
At the moment, around 250 cars from Russia are registered in Minsk alone and around 500 throughout all of Belarus. Belarusians prefer to buy newer cars, as most of them are no older than 2008.
However, the car rush created a fertile environment for crime in car sales. Belarus's police force reported that they have uncovered several schemes of legalising the purchase of stolen cars through their registration in Belarus and other related illegal activity. They are currently investigating the history of 110 vehicles to determine their origins.
EU Shopping Concerns
While shopping in the common economic area of Eurasian Union cannot be restricted by any means, the Belarusian government continuously expresses concerns with the EU import that Belarusian shoppers bring home.
In recent years, Lithuania has been the nearest EU shopping destination for Minsk residents, being less than 200 km away. However, currently Lithuania becomes more expensive, as it introduces Euro since 2015. Belarusians continue to visit Vilnius on the weekends, but their interests are shifting from shopping to entertainment – cafes, pubs and concerts.
Meanwhile, shopping crowds have reoriented towards Poland, which is now popular not only among traditional visitors from the border regions, but for people from every corner of Belarus as well. Many companies and individual entrepreneurs offer shopping tours to Bialystok and Warsaw. According to the Polish Statistics Office, in July-September 2013 Belarusians spent $250m in Poland, more than either Russians or Ukrainians.
In September 2013, Aliaksandr Lukashenka made an announcement which gave many Belarusians pause:
[the West] criticises us for being a poor country, but our people send $3bn abroad annually and import goods which we also produce ourselves. So I have already ordered a decree – if you go abroad, you pay a $100 fee and then you are welcome to buy things. [This way] people would go to our shops and buy our refrigerators instead of carrying them from abroad.
So far these measures have not been introduced and are unlikely to be at all.
The economic contract with population means that Belarusians can satisfy their material needs in exchange for political loyalty. However, Belarus remains the only country in the region that has not yet joined the WTO. Its Eurasian Union partners, Russia and Kazakhstan, already enjoy the benefits of it, while Belarus protectionist policies keep domestic prices high.
Effectively, this means that Belarusians will carry on their mass consumerist pilgrimages to the West and East. The Belarusian government needs to intensify its WTO negotiations in order to combat this problem in future, and working on improving political relations with the West could play a major role in this process.