New Orthodox Patriarch, The Future of the Customs Union, New Year Wishes – Belarus State TV Digest
The Eurovision Song Contest became the number one event in terms of the frequency of its coverage on Belarusian state Channel 1.
Belarusian state journalists also afforded viewers a lot of coverage on integration with the Customs Union and other Eurasian structures.
The appointment of patriarch Pavel, the new head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, attracted less attention on state TV than in the independent media. State TV journalists presented the new patriarch enthusiastically and emphasised that this choice would strengthen the spiritual roots of Belarus.
State TV also proudly reported on the launching of three new logistic centres on the Belarus border with Lithuania and Poland. The centres are supposed to significantly cut border queues with their streamlined services.
A new Orthodox patriarch will protect the spiritual legacy of Rus. Belarusian state TV enthusiastically reported the first service in Minsk of the newly elected head of the Orthodox Church. The journalist pointed out that both previous patriarch, Filaret, and the new one know each well.
The previous work of Patriarch Pavel has been of an international character, TV proudly noted. He was last in Belarus in 2013 as a participant in a conference on the original baptism of Rus and its impact on the nations of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The news segment added that the selection of the new patriarch is of a somewhat prophetic nature. “The destiny of the Orthodox Church in Belarus is in the hands of the new patriarch Pavel”, the journalist commented.
In the words of Lukashenka, the Orthodox Church's “constructive position allows the citizens of our countries to preserve their loyalty to the true historical roots and protect the proper legacy of our ancestors". He also emphasised that the Orthodox Church supports the integration processes that are taking place in the post-Soviet space.
Authorities officially congratulated the newly patriarch Pavel. In his open letter, Lukashenka underscores the role of the Orthodox Church in Belarus. He made mention that the mutual relations between the Orthodox Church and the state remain that of a partnership. Both parties will continue to conduct a constructive dialogue aimed at solving important social issues facing Belarus today.
New Year wishes to Belarusians. As is tradition on New Year's Eve, the Belarusian head of state gives a short speech on national television. The Belarusian audience were told about the state's successful activities in helping to stimulate positive demographic trends and building new homes. He went on at great length about the motherland, being able breathe freely and being the master of one’s own life.
According to Lukashenka, the construction of a power plant in Astraviec, and also the high volume of Belarusian exports proved that the state has accomplished many of the goals it set for itself over the past year. Furthermore, 2013 was year in which Belarus witnessed a noticeable increase in the number of marriages and births.
Development of the country in 2014. Belarusian state TV briefly reported that Lukashenka had signed off on several documents related to the nation's plans for development in 2014. On the agenda appeared several items including increasing GDP by 3.3%, attracting more foreign direct investment in Belarus, and the state's continued support for housing construction.
Minsk has become an important political actor. State TV commented upon the Belarus' holding of the presidency in the Commonwealth of Independent States. During its presidency the parties initiated and agreed upon 70 new projects, as the anchor proudly pointed out. Minsk has become known as a city where some of the world's top leaders make serious decisions. “Will Ukraine be able to fulfil its duty when it takes over the presidency?”, the state TV news anchor asked. Kiev’s rapprochement with the EU could disturb its performance in the organisation.
Logistic centres on Belarus' borders. Belarus' does not sufficiently use its transit potential, state TV notes. The Belarusian authorities will support trade through three new logistic centres on its borders with Poland and Lithuania. This unique project will cut the traffic on its borders by up to 30%. The pricetag for the investment was 800bn BYR. Despite its high cost, the news underscored the fact that experts have also praised the project for its ability to better utilise the transit capacity of Belarus.
New currency in Euro-sceptic Latvia. Beginning 1 January 2013 Latvia will officially be using the Euro as its own currency, becoming the 18th EU country to do so. Belarusian State TV notes that according to experts many Latvians remained rather sceptical about joining the European Union. The main reason being that “many people still remember that some EU-member states using the Euro were forced to ask for financial support after the crisis in 2009”, as the anchor explained.
“Unpleasant Christmas gift for the European Union”. State TV reports that the international rating agency, Standard & Poor’s, has decreased the long-term credit rating of the European Union, having ranked its short-term credit rating as “stable”. They noted that, “the locomotives of the EU, such as Germany and France,” could easily achieve a high ranking on their own. However, the EU as a single entity with all of its 28 member states is not able to perform well economically.
Putin, Lukashenka and Nazarbaev discuss the future of the Eurasian Union. Channel 1 also provided extensive coverage to the “productive meeting” of the leaders of the Eurasian Union's three member states, an event which took place in Moscow. Nikolai Azarov, the Prime Minister of Ukraine, as well as the president of Kyrgyzstan also participated in the event. “They reached a mutual understanding practically on all issues [discussed]”, journalist commented. The officials also discussed a road map for Armenia and its membership in the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Community.
In its coverage, state TV emphasised the significance of the previous summit in Minsk. The heads of states addressed a number of issues relating to the process of integration. The countries removed nearly all barriers in their markets and two more countries, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, have since expressed their interest in participating in the integration project.
State TV showed Lukashenka’s elevated position at the Moscow’s meeting. The Belurasian ruler emphasised his support for the idea of integration and, at the same time, in rather harsh words, he named and criticised certain areas that need to be improved upon. He mentioned the need to clarify issues surrounding the union's formal hierarchy, its relation to each nation's domestic laws and establishing guidelines for holding positions its governing organs.
It was also reported that the Customs Union has already brought in money into each of the three member nation's economies at a time when when the world’s economy suffering. In the words of Presidend of Kazakhstan Nazarbaev the Eurasian Union is not a restoration of the Soviet Union, but is rather a project of innovation. “We are moving forward, not backwards.”
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). 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 On the Russian Energy Needle
This year, Russia agreed to supply Belarus with discounted oil only for the next six months, rather than for the whole year.
The size and conditions for further shipments will depend on Belarus’ participation in specific integration projects and the sale of several companies to Russia. All of this shows how the Kremlin uses Belarus' energy dependence to get what it wants.
Energy remains an area in which Russia has a very strong position in Belarus. Russia dominates the nation's gas infrastructure, oversees the work of its oil refineries and has significant influence on its electrical industry.
Although the building of a nuclear power plant looks economically beneficial, Russia`s control over the project, combined with Belarus' doubtful ability to repay the accompanying $9bn loan, raises many questions.
Currently, Russia is not using all of its energy potential to blackmail Belarus. Kremlin has possibilities to bankrupt not only individual Belarusian enterprises, but also the entire country. The Russian energy needle will remain a significant factor in the geopolitical choice of Belarus today and even after Lukashenka`s reign.
Russia almost completely controls the gas infrastructure of Belarus. Gazprom is the sole supplier of gas to Belarus, a Russian monopoly has controlled the Yamal transit pipeline since its inception, and after the acquisition of Beltransgaz, Gazprom owns almost all the pipeline in Belarus. Beltopgas, a small state-owned enterprise, which is primarily engaged in the production of peat, remains in charge of small gas supplies.
Gas trunklines in Republic of Belarus
Although Gazprom became a monopoly in Belarus, it is not pushing prices higher. Belarus receives natural gas cheaper than any other country in Europe. In 2014 Belarus pays only $ 167 per thousand m3.
Russia at present does not use its full control over the gas infrastructure for political or economic blackmail, although it remains possible in the future. Under the current conditions, Gazprom can arbitrarily change the prices, which could force some enterprises to go bankrupt or perhaps even the whole country. The Russian monopoly has its finger on the gas artery of Belarus and at any moment can click on it to implement Russian interests in Belarus.
Sources: Official documents and mass media publications
Gazprom remains the pioneer of Russian big business in Belarus. The Russian monopoly has been steadily upgrading the Belarusian gas transportation system, investing in the banking sector, raising the salaries of Belarusian employees. The corporation conveys a simple message from the Russian government to Belarusian society: selling Belarusian enterprises leads to better welfare.
Black Gold Influence
Belarus' dependence on Russia in the oil industry remains less significant that in case of natural gas. Although Russia is the only supplier of oil to Belarus right now, the oil infrastructure belongs predominantly to Belarus. As in the case of gas, Russia decides how much and at what price to deliver raw materials to Belarus depending on the state of their relations.
The Belarusian state independently controls the Navapolatsk refinery and has a majority stake in a refinery in Mazyr. Russian company Slavneft, controlled by GazpromNeft and Rosneft, owns 42.58% of the shares of the Mazyr refinery. Part of the Druzhba pipeline, which goes through the territory of Belarus, remains under control of the Belarusian authorities.
Annually, Russia delivers enormous volumes of oil to Belarus. In the first half of 2014, Russia will supply 11.5 million tonnes of crude oil to Belarusian refineries. At the moment the parties have not announced the price of oil, but certainly this price will be sufficient to ensure the functioning of the most profitable Belarusian companies in 2013 – Mazyr and Navapolatsk plants.
The Kremlin wants to achieve the same position in the oil industry as in gas – to take control of the entire oil infrastructure of Belarus. It is a rather straightforward position to hold as only Russian shipments to Belarusian refineries remain economically meaningful. In 2010-2012 Belarus bought oil from Venezuela, though it was not very economically feasible nor did it make economic sense, even though it became a big challenge for Russia.
Small Opportunities for Energy Independence
In 2010, the period of dialogue with the West and during its strained relations with Russia, the Belarusian authorities adopted a strategy for developing the energy potential of the Republic of Belarus. This strategy aimed at modernising the antiquated energy sector and diversify its energy supply away from Russia. However, the strategy proved to lack any economic commonsense, and therefore the authorities refused to implement it.
Belarus has several wind turbines and 49 hydropower plants throughout the country, but they do not play a significant role in the energy security of Belarus. Belarusian officials do not know how to talk to businessmen and this further increases Belarusian dependence on Russia.
German firm Enertrag planned to build a wind energy park near Minsk Park, an investment that would have been about € 360 million. When the firm had already spent about € 300 thousand, authorities abandoned the project, justifying backing out due to the potential barriers of a military radar that was located nearby.
Belarus has the necessary infrastructure to provide itself with electric power. However, Belarus creates electrical energy primarily by burning gas. This means that in this area Belarus' opportunities to achieve greater energy independence remain quite feeble.
Belarus imports a small portion of its electricity from Russia and other countries. In a bizarre incident, in 2009 the Russian authorities claimed that the unauthorised transit of the electricity produced in third-party countries for Belarus was going through the territory of Russia. Unfortunately, the Kremlin did not disclose any of the details of these cases and no more information has been made public.
Constructing a nuclear reactor using Russian specialists on Russian money still cannot help provide energy to all of Belarus, but at the moment remains the only chance Belarus has to diversify its energy supplies.
At the same time the results of the agreements signed by Russia and Belarus gave the Kremlin control over the export of energy created in the Astraviets Nuclear Power Plant. Energoconnect, the Belarusian-Russian joint venture, oversees the export of Belarusian electricity. Although the Belarusian economy remains interested in the construction of the nuclear power plant, the authorities still face a problem with repaying a $ 9bn loan that it has received from Russia for the construction of the plant.
The absence of energy independence has left Belarus in limbo. Even if pro-Western politicians come to power, they will be forced to reckon with their dependence on Russia in such a sensitive area as energy. There is no doubt that in case of the elites’ desire to bring Belarus closer to the EU, Russia will fully use its energy potential for blackmail. Belarus will have serious problems getting off of Russia's energy needle.