Most Popular Articles on Belarus Digest in 2013
In 2013 Belarus Digest published over 250 articles. We selected top ten most viewed articles published this year.
Since 22 August 2013 all foreigners can get Belarusian visas through the Minsk National Airport just after their arrival. However, these and other measures to relax the visa regime on the eve of the 2014 Ice Hockey World Cup still remain incomplete. They leave a number of obstacles on the path to simplifying travel to Belarus and from Belarus which includes low number of no visa treaties with other countries and high visa costs.
Moreover, the government does not want to address the painful issue of the simplification of the visa regime with the EU for purely political reasons. Visa liberalisation will lead to potentially unpleasant consequences for Belarusian authorities such as brain drain and the impossibility to prohibit undesirable Western politicians and activists from entering Belarus.
Large parts of Belarus and the Belarusian capital Minsk have spent this weekend under exceptional circumstances. The cyclone Javier has paralysed large parts of the country for almost two days. While similar weather conditions in the USA would make it to the top news in Europe, there has been no mentioning of the storm in Belarus in Western media.
It started as simple snow fall on Friday morning, but approximately 20 cm of snow fell in the following 24 hours. The wind was 22 metres per second according to the Belarusian hydro-meteorological centre. Sight was limited to 100 metres in the Minsk region on Friday afternoon because of the heavy snow falls. Although the country is used to severe winters and well equipped to deal with large amount of snow, public life has come to a halt at this weekend.
On weekends, Vilnius looks like a Belarusian city. Cars with Belarusian registration plates, crowds of Belarusians carrying shopping bags, even bus schedules to Belarus from big shopping centres. In 2012, according to the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism, 400,000 Belarusian guests visited Lithuania. In politics, Lithuania maintains a critical position against Lukashenka's regime. A significant number of offices of foreign foundations and organisations which work with Belarusian civil society are located in Vilnius.
Lithuania, somewhat paradoxically, remains one of the few countries which profits from Belarus' isolation. Thanks to the protectionist practises of the Belarusian regime, it has become much cheaper for Belarusians to pay for visas and transportation expenses, and to buy many goods in Lithuania, than at home.
The planned Belarusian-Russian joint military drill, “West 2013”, has stirred up NATO member countries. The armed forces of both countries will hold the drill in the autumn, while some Polish and Lithuanian politicians have already discussed the threat of war.
Alexander Lukashenka said on 21 February that “Belarus and Russia are not going to threaten anyone”. This time he is telling the truth. A war in the centre of Europe remains beyond contemporary perception of reality, while the mentioned military drills seem to be an attempt to satisfy Russia’s imperial complex. The Belarusian regime uses intensive military cooperation as a pretext for getting more financial aid from the Kremlin.
The European Humanities University, also known as Belarus's university in exile, is struggling to find its identity. It is torn apart between being the Belarusian university in exile and a "normal" European university based in Lithuania. Some say, it has lost its Belarusian character and gave up on its original mission. Others say that moving away from the Belarusian language and Belarus-focused curriculum is a sign of a truly international university, which the EHU should be.
If the EHU is to remain loyal to its original mission as a Belarusian university, it should seriously think about offering what is not available in Belarus or at Western universities. In addition to greater academic freedom (which some say exists in Belarus too), it should keep Belarus-focused courses and language at the forefront of its activities.
Last week, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu discussed with Alexander Lukashenka establishment of a Russian air force base in Belarus. A few days later, Lukashenka dismissed the claims that Russia will have a military base in Belarus. The news came as media of neighbouring countries continue to discuss the significance ofBelarus-Russian military drill West-2013 (Zapad-2013) scheduled for autumn.
Belarusian and Russian officials insist that the West-2013 drill does not threaten anyone, and remind that last year NATO conducted a dozen of drills of different scales in neighbouring countries. Despite various speculations in Belarusian and Western media, little evidence exists to support that is Belarus threatening anyone military, together with Russia or on its own.
Belarusian Minister for Education Siarhei Maskevich on 28 January 2013 expressed his hope that students will convert the Belarusian science "into the main factor of socio-economic and mental development of the country". But does the government really foster the progress of students' education in Belarus?
The lack of academic freedoms, mandatory and old-fashioned study plans have become the main defects of the Belarusian higher education. While government makes certain steps to approach these issues, the progress is rather slow.
The Minister of Education Syarhei Maskevich announced on 3 May 2013 that "Belarusian universities enjoy a high level of autonomy". Considering the fact that Belarus remains the only European state outside of Bologna process precisely because of its lack of academic freedoms, top Belarusian officials may not be completely honest.
However, many myths about Belarusian higher education exist in foreigners’ minds as well. For example, the government neither owns all the universities, nor educates people free of charge. Political expulsions happen only very rarely and usually students can travel abroad without any problems.
On 20 August, a special police unit arrested two employees of the famous Shangri La Сasino. Investigators suspect them of organising a prostitution services to the casinos' VIP clients. A similar case happened in 2012, when employees of the elite entertainment centre Dankoff Club were arrested on the same accusations and soon the owner himself also appeared in jail.
Belarusian authorities officially consider prostitution a blatantly illegal activity. Yet despite the high capacity of the state, they are still unable to do away with the problem. The reason may be quite simple: such networks could exist under the "roof" of high officials who have direct or indirect interest in this business.
On 2 March, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies presented a report on geopolitical preferences of Belarusians. The media paid little attention to the document presented by an influential Belarusian think-tank, although the conclusions of this report could be important for Belarus.
Despite the crisis in Europe, the regime’s anti-European propaganda and the EU’s weak informational policy inside Belarus, the number of Belarusian euro-enthusiasts continues to grow, slowly, but still. At present moment, 17 % Belarusians consistently support the idea of European integration. Moreover, if we held a referendum on Belarus’ joining the EU tomorrow, 38,2% Belarusians would have said “yes”.
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Belarus Foreign Policy in 2013: All Quiet on the Western Front
On 27 December, Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makei held an event with journalists, diplomats and analysts to reflect on a controversial year for Belarus' foreign policy.
Though Belarus was tough in the potash war, this conflict exposed the weaknesses of Lukashenka's regime and its dependence on Russia. Belarus still has not resumed shipments of fertilisers at previous levels. At the same time, Russia has relocated several fighter jets in Belarus and is pushing hard for the sale of Belarusian enterprises.
The authorities have failed to obtain a considerable sum of money from the European Union in exchange for the release of political prisoners, so the Belarus-EU remain in limbo. Trade between the partners shrunk, and the negotiations on visa liberalisation are still waiting to begin.
The authorities made progress in establishing relations with developing countries such as China or Azerbaijan, but the usefulness of these relations remains vague. However, the authorities will try to develop a new vector and diminish its dependence on the West and the East without hesitation.
Relations with Russia: One Step Backwards, Two Steps Forwards
The potash war has become the most controversial event in Belarusian-Russian relations in recent history. The collapse of the Belarusian Potash Company, and subsequent arrest and criminal proceedings against Uralkali's CEO Baumgertner received coverage in most Western specialised media.
However, this war does not provide a realistic picture of relations between the countries. This year, with the exception of the conflict surrounding Belaruskali and Uralkali, the Belarusian authorities continued to drift into the arms of the Kremlin. One example of these growing ties was Russian Su-27P fighters being relocated to an airfield in Baranavichy and starting active combat duty on Belarusian soil. Although the officials have criticised Eurasian integration it seems that they are reluctant to oppose it and will deepen their ties until Russia decides to close the gas and oil valves.
Moreover, Russia continues to support the Belarusian economy and even promises to provide new loans. Through an agreement reached between the parties, Moscow will provide Belarus with oil, but only in the first half of 2014. However, Russia requires implementation of several integration projects and at least the partial sale of the Minsk Automobile Plant, Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant and HrodnaAzot, a Belarusian chemical enterprise. Should Belarus refuse to to do, it is likely that the Kremlin will limit its supply of oil in order to put pressure the Belarusian authorities.
Preserving the nation's independence remains the main task of the Belarusian authorities in the relations with the Kremlin, as the political, economic, military dependence of Belarus on Russia this year has further increased. The Russian leadership is looking down at Lukashenka's regime and gradually is achieving the transformation of the Belarusian authorities into their vassals.
All Quiet on the Western Front
This year could have become a breakthrough year in relations between Belarus and the EU. Belarusian diplomats held numerous meetings with Western diplomats trying to find an opportunity for dialogue. Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makei and his deputy, Elena Kupchyna, have been in Vilnius, Brussels and Paris, while Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich visited Lithuania.
The European Union was, for its part, more inclined towards carrying out a dialogue than Belarus was. Western diplomats invited the Belarusian authorities to the Eastern Partnership summit, but Lukashenka’s regime remains reluctant to release political prisoners. Prisoners of conscience remain a stumbling block for mutual relations. Lukashenka`s regime expects a more generous financial offer from the EU, which would help to counterbalance Russian influence.
Belarusian trade with the EU countries has decreased compared to the previous year by about a quarter. Over 10 months in 2013 Belarusian exports to the EU shrunk by 42.7%. This is due, in large part, to a reduction in the export of solvents.
Readiness to start negotiations on visa liberalisation remains the only positive statement by Belarus. However, the authorities may delay the process. Lukashenka`s regime will use these negotiations to show Belarusian people that it has legitimacy at the international level.
Hope on the Multiple-Vector Policy
Belarusian foreign policy did a great job establishing new connections. Alexander Lukashenka personally visited China, Singapore, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Ukraine. Moreover, many of the leaders of the Third World countries as Bolivia or Vietnam flew to Minsk.
Lukashenka's regime reasonably established relations with developing countries, however, these visits have born little fruit. For example, relations with China, raised this year to a level of strategic value, though these new ties work primarily for the benefit of China, not Belarus. For example, Chinese loans are packaged to other deals that benefit China and have led to an increase in external debt.
Earlier this year, Hugo Chavez died, sparking fears that crisis awaits Belarusian-Venezuelan relations. In fact, this is precisely what happened. Trade turnover between two countries dropped significantly: in 2012 it was nearly $ 600m, in the first half of 2013 it was only $ 68.9m.
Relations with Ukraine remain difficult for both parties. On the one hand, the countries face constantly increasing trade, Lukashenka seemed to support Ukraine's signing of the Agreement of the Association with the European Union. On the other hand, the countries often carry out trade wars against each other with petroleum, milk of alcohol products.
Belarus and Ukraine try to limit supplies of these products from each other in order to increase the consumption of their own products. After Ukraine turning its back on the EU, both countries became competitors for Russian money, which means that Belarus stands to lose its position as the last bastion of Russia in Europe — a position which helps them to get money from the Kremlin.
Contact with the countries such as Azerbaijan and Indonesia can be important for for Minsk Automobile Plant or Belarus Automobile Plant. However, in and of themselves, they do not make a difference to the overall foreign policy of Belarus.
Next year, the Belarusian authorities will open new diplomatic missions in nine countries such as Qatar and Mexico. Lukashenka's regime relies on the development of relations with other vectors, except the West and Russia. The proposals thus far from these new vectors have done the regime much good. As Lukashenka famously said in 2009 that Belarus “need to go to other places, where no one knows us and they are waiting for us.”