Myths of Chinese Engagement in Belarus: No Money Between Friends?
Last Thursday, Chinese workers in the Homel Province of Belarus broke out in a protest over wage arrears. The labour conflict went public and was yet another sign of growing Chinese activity in Belarus. The protest, unusual for Belarus, left an impression locally with one thousand Chinese working to construct a board factory in a Belarusian town with a population of only 20,000 people.
The official version likewise seems to reflect increasing Chinese involvement in Belarus. Symbolically, at the latest military parade held in Belarus, officials drove around limousines gifted to Minsk by the Chinese government.
Belarusian officials and the state media have been talking about a pending influx of Chinese money for years, yet so far Chinese projects in Belarus have failed to leave much of an impression. While the Belarusian leadership considers its relations with China a strategic move, Beijing has little objective interest in Minsk.
Minsk: Waiting for Godot?
Squeezed between Russia and the West, the current Belarusian leadership as far back as the mid-1990s decided to develop a third strategic direction for its foreign policy – improved relations with Communist China. While Minsk has generally tried to develop relations with what at times seems like every potential partner in the developing world, it has done so mainly in an opportunistic manner.
Minsk has tried to lure in Chinese investment for strategic reasons Read more
Not so with Beijing. In the political arena, Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government has dropped contact with Taiwan and even issued regular statements denoting its political support for China. The Belarusian head of state has never hidden his belief in a future where China would become even more powerful and change the balance of power in the world. He looks onto a future where not Russia but China becomes a safeguard against Western pressure.
Economically, Minsk has tried to lure in Chinese investment for strategic reasons. Thus, Minsk has allegedly fought to convince China to participate in the privatisation of Belaruskali, the national potash company. Belarus has also pursued military industrial cooperation with China, even reportedly signing agreements that would see them co-design missile systems. The first results of this deal – the multiple rocket launcher Palanez system – was already put on display in Minsk this May.
Microwaves and Chassis for Chinese Missiles
China's presence in the Belarusian economy is visible but remains rather limited. The major projects include manufacturing home appliances such as microwaves at “Midea-Haryzont”, a project which opened its doors in 2008 and a much much publicised project in the automotive industry. In 2011, the Belarusian Ministry of Industry signed a contract with Chinese company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group to produce Geely cars just outside of Minsk, with the Belarusian side holding a controlling share in the BelGee joint venture.
Cooperation in the military industrial domain has shown somewhat contradictory results. In 1997, the Minsk Tractor Factory (MZKT) and Hubei Sanjiang Space Wanshan Special Vehicle Co. established a joint venture in China to manufacture heavy-duty trucks and chassis. Sometime in the late 2000s this enterprise was apparently shut down. The reasons for its closure are not clear according to military analyst Alyaksandr Alesin who was referring to unspecified sources that stated that the Chinese were attempting to copy the Belarusian-produced parts, make them on their own, and finally get rid of the Belarusians altogether.
In 2009, the same partners established a joint venture in Belarus with a more limited profile: manufacturing hydromechanical transmissions for trucks and tractors. Its official initial capital was $22.2m with each partner controlling equal shares.
The Belarus-Chinese Industrial Park
Arguably, the most strategically important company among all Chinese firms in Belarus is the Huawei Technology company. It founded a subsidiary enterprise in Belarus back in 2007 and has since conquered 50% of the Belarusian telecommunication market with annual receipts exceeding $100m. That Huawei enjoys good standing in Belarus can easily be determined by just taking a look at its deputy general director Kiryl Rudy, who in 2013 became Lukashenka's advisor on economic issues.
the park so far failed to bring really innovative production lines to Belarus Read more
Likely in an attempt to give new impetus to bilateral relations, Belarusian officials launched their next project, one with serious ambitions. In 2010, the Belarusian Ministry of Economy and the Chinese Engineering Corporation CAMC agreed to create a Chinese-Belarusian Industrial Park in Belarus. One of the initiators of the project, Kiryl Rudy, declared in 2014 that, “the Park should function like an incubator to help create and grow new industries in the country, which will quickly develop and gradually replace old branches”.
Though the park has attracted some promising residents (like the Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE) Minsk still faces the arduous task of establishing it properly. As such, the government has adopted a catch-all strategy and, recently invited several Pakistani garment and textile firms to the Park. While the clothing and textile industry can hardly qualify in Belarus as “new industries", this approach suggests that the park so far failed to bring really innovative production lines to Belarus.
Direct Investment from China: Less Than 1% of the Total
The rest of the “Chinese” projects are much smaller. Among them – the reconstruction of a provincial textile factory, the construction of a residential area in a suburb of Minsk, or the construction of Hotel Beijing, which was completed in 2014.
Siarhei Sidorski openly criticised the quality of Chinese equipment being bought on Chinese loans Read more
Belarusian officials rarely criticise the meagre results of the country's cooperation with China. However, last year then Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich, speaking to the China Daily, emphasised that despite many rounds of talks on strategic partnership, little has thus far materialised. He noted that out of $50bn of foreign direct investments which Belarus had attracted so far, only $195m came from China.
For the sake of comparison, over 2005-2010 Chinese direct investment in Hungary (comparable to Belarus in the size of its population) attracted $466m. On the other hand, Myasnikovich's predecessor as Prime Minister, Siarhei Sidorski openly criticised the quality of Chinese equipment being bought on Chinese loans.
Tactically, Minsk can benefit from its partnership with Beijing, as for example in the case of MZKT which resisted a Russian takeover by using its cooperation with China as leverage. Still, strategically, ts orientation towards China so far displayed limited results.
Demonstrative political support for Beijing cannot be a substitute for a state policy that creates the necessary conditions for modernising the economy. It requires modern infrastructure, efficient state institutions and a strong legal framework.
Chinese Workers Protests, Election Observation, Protestant Priests – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Over 200 workers from China march nearly 30 km from Dobrush to Homel in a protest against delayed wages. Competitiveness of Belarus and national identity of Belarusians discussed in Minsk. Belarusian-language advertising festival "Adnak" completed in Minsk.
Human rights organisations announce the start of election observation campaign. Freelance journalists and protestant priests under pressure in Belarus.
Civil society activities
Conditions and Ways to Improve the Competitiveness of Belarus conference took place on June 25, in Minsk. This is the 3rd economic conference, organised by the For Freedom Movement within the campaign People's Program. Based on the discussion's results the participants came to the conclusion that Belarus has a chance to get to the World Competitiveness Index. The People Program is public and will be offered to the candidates for the upcoming presidential election.
Defend What is Yours: Cultural Activism and Belarusian National Identity roundtable was held on June 25, in Minsk. Organised by the Assembly of NGOs, the event gathered together 20 leaders of cultural NGOs and representatives of Belarusian culture and art. Based on the results of the discussion, recommendations for the Belarusian civil sector, cultural initiatives and national culture patrons will be published. In a longer run, it is planned to develop cultural strategy, which will be available to all activists and civil society bodies.
The 6th annual Festival of Belarusian Advertising and Communications ADNAK summed up the development of Belarusian-language advertising for a year and awarded winners. The final ceremony was held on 2 July in Minsk. The festival brought together advertisers and professionals in communication to enlarge the expansion of the Belarusian-language advertising. Grand Prix and 12 diplomas went to the creative platform Art-Siadziba that introduced a fashion on vyshymaiki (embroidery shirts) and other products with national symbols.
National Platform keeps going. On 25 June, in Minsk, a EaP CS Forum Belarusian National Platform (NP) conducted its regular conference aimed to sum up the key results of its activity, re-elect a Steering Committee and decide whether NP should exist in general. As a result, the vast majority of NP members voted for keeping it alive; the Steering Committee has been upgraded significantly with a new Head Sviatlana Karaliova (Belarusian Association of Working Women).
Minsk Third Age University sums up results. On 24 June in Minsk, the project Third Age University: New Opportunities for Social Inclusion summed up key results for 2-year activity. The educational project for the elderly Minskers covered more than two thousand people of 60+ years old who got new knowledge, expanded their social contacts and feel active members of society. The project implementer is the Belarusian Association of Social Workers.
Campaign to save a city water-green diameter launched in Minsk. The Minsk water-green diameter includes 18 parks and 650 acres of landscaped grounds, which recently are at the risk of new construction. Green Network together with Urban Forester initiative and other CSOs are launching an information campaign to save this Minsk sight. The campaign plans to use a number of tools, like a series of interviews with experts and VIPs, a competition of Minskers’ photo stories, an interactive map, and performances.
IV Forum of Belarusian environmental NGOs will take place on 24-26 July in Minsk and bring together representatives of environmental organisations and initiatives, independent experts, international environmental organisations, ministries, schools and universities, churches and the media. The Forum is held once in 2 years, and serves as a platform for communication among environmental organisations in Belarus. The Organising Committee includes APB BirdLife Belarus, Green Network, etc.
Election Observation Campaigns
Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Human Rights Center Viasna launch a public campaign on observation. The campaign Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections is independent and politically unbiased and aims to carry out observation of the presidential elections in Belarus in October 2015, to assess the electoral process and observance of human rights in the course of their conduct from the viewpoint of Belarusian electoral legislation and international standards of free and democratic elections.
The initiative Right of Choice 2015 launches a campaign on elections observation. The initiative consists of eight political parties, movements and independent trade unions, including Hramada, Belarusian Christian Democracy, Govori Pravdu and For Freedom movements, Belarusian Popular Front, etc. The campaign aims to prevent violations of the law at all stages of the presidential election campaign in Belarus. The campaign includes actors that have expressed support for a potential candidate Tatyana Karatkevich.
Interaction between State and Civil Society
Chinese workers protest in Belarus. On 2 July the Chinese workers who are employed in the construction of a paper factory in Dobrush (Homel oblast) left their jobs and walked to Homel, attempting later to move to Minsk. The workers protested against the delay of wages by a Chinese contractor. No police force was used and the workers were shuttled back to Dobrush after a conversation with the Chinese Ambassador.
Persecution of freelance journalists – $7,067 for state budget. Since the beginning of 2015, there were 21 administrative cases against freelance journalists who faced charges for “Illegal production and/or distribution of media products.” The total amount of fines for the first half-year amounted to 108 million Belarusian rubles ($7,067), which is already two times the amount of fines for the entire 2014.
Homel priests threatened with criminal charges under Article 193.1. The house of Siarhei Nikalayenka, pastor of the Homel-based religious community ‘Church of God Transfiguration’, as well as the apartment of his deputy Aliaksandr Chuyeu, has been searched by police officers. The raid reportedly dealt with the preliminary investigation of the criminal case under Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code (activities on behalf of unregistered organisation).
BHC success at Constitutional Court. On 2 July the Constitutional Court of Belarus ruled on an appeal submitted by the Belarus Helsinki Committee (BHC) regarding the right of witnesses in criminal trials to legal counsel. BHC challenged the lack of provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code that would require law enforcement agencies to allow legal representation of witnesses in criminal proceedings.
The first meeting of the Public Council for Belarusians living abroad at the Foreign Ministry of Belarus will be conducted on 1 July. The meeting, headed by Minister Vladimir Makei is expected to engage 32 representatives of associations of Belarusians abroad from 18 countries, as well as representatives of the Belarusian government, CSOs and mass media. The MFA website does not specify the names of CSOs that will participate in the Council.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.