Oil and gas dispute settled, projects with Poland, Chechen refugees – state press digest
Belarus establishes closer political and economic links with Asian countries hoping to boost exports. Lukashenka urges CSTO members to elaborate a new development strategy and attain recognition from global players.
The Belarusian Parliament ratifies the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Belarus emerges successful in the long-standing oil and gas dispute with Russia. The number of Chechen refugees trying to reach the EU via Brest is increasing.
This and more in the new edition of State Press Digest.
Belarus sees Asian countries as important partners. Viačaslaŭ Jaraševič, head of the Finance Department at Minsk International University MITSO, wrote about the recent rapprochement between Belarus and Asian Countries in Narodnaja Hazieta. Over the last year, the Belarusian president visited many Asian countries including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, China, Turkey, Vietnam and others.
Viačaslaŭ Jaraševič argues that Lukashenka is establishing new links that will prove useful for the Belarusian trade sector in the future. He notes that many countries in Asia are beneficial partners for Belarus. The distance between Belarus and Asia does not create obstacles in trade relations as maritime transportation prices have been decreasing every year.
Lukashenka urges CSTO to work on further progress. On 14 October the President of Belarus delivered a speech at a session of the Collective Security Council in Yerevan. He raised the issue of the CSTO’s image. Lukashenka asserted that NATO does not consider CSTO a full-fledged organisation, reports Belarus Segodnya.
Lukashenka said that NATO does not consider CSTO a full-fledged organisation Read more
Lukashenka also urged the CSTO to work towards achieving the status of a recognised organisation. He encouraged representatives of CSTO member states to develop organisation at a higher level. He underlined the necessity of attracting experienced and qualified experts from different countries, including Russia, in order to improve and optimise the functioning of the CSTO.
The Belarusian Parliament ratifies the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. In October 2015 Belarus became a signatory member of the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. A year later, on 3 October, the Parliament ratified the Convention. In recent years, the Belarusian government has been adjusting its laws in accordance with the Convention, writes Belarus Segodnya. The document entering into force means that Belarus is ready to make a commitment to comply with all terms of the Convention.
However, non-governmental organisations point to the failure of Belarus to comply with one of the most important terms of the Convention – unmediated participation of people with disabilities in the development of policies that concern them. This fact hampers the progress of Belarus in the framework of the convention.
Russia and Belarus resolve the issue of oil and gas supplies. An agreement on supplies of Russian oil and gas products through the territory of Belarus came into force on 12 October. The Belarusian and Russian Prime ministers, Andrej Kabiakoŭ and Dmitry Medvedev, have recently confirmed new terms of the agreement. According to the document, Belarus will pay the same price for Russian gas as last year.
However, due to the policy of inter-budgetary compensation, the final price for Belarus will decrease. In 2017 the price of Russian gas for Belarus will be about $100 per thousand cubic metres, writes Zviazda. The oil and gas debate started in the middle of 2016 when Russia announced a double increase of tariffs for gas for Belarus.
Hrodna region strengthens partnership with the border regions of Poland. Belarus and Poland are planning to establish a regular boat route on the Augustow Canal. In addition, Hrodna region and Poland have discussed implementing around 20 projects in the field of tourism and sports, writes Hrodzienskaja Praŭda. The parties plan to realise these projects in the framework of the "Poland-Belarus-Ukraine 2014-2020" programme.
One of these projects involves the purchase of a vessel which will purify and deepen the Augustow Canal. Representatives from the Belarusian side propose restoring two historic castles in Hrodna region. It is not clear yet which of these projects will be implemented, but the parties are now actively hammering out the details.
17-year-old attempts a massacre in one a Minsk shopping mall. A teenager began a chain saw massacre at the Europe Mall. He killed one woman and wounded several people. The suspect, according to Belarus Segodnya, suffered from a mental disorder. During interrogation, the teenager admitted that he had been planning the massacre for a long time.
He initially intended to commit the crime at the university where he studied. The suspect explained that he felt hatred towards all mankind, struggled with depression, and wanted to be killed during the arrest. It is also known that the suspect lived alone and was antisocial. Students and teachers of the university characterised him as distant.
More refugees from Chechnya arrive in Belarus. Refugees from Chechnya are attempting to reach Poland via Belarus, claiming that they want to escape the Putin and Kadyrov regime. From 2000 to 2016 the number of Chechen refugees hosted by Poland increased to almost 80,000. Poland received the largest number of asylum applications from residents of Chechnya in 2013.
A correspondent at the newspaper Zarya connects this fact to the adoption of a German law equating refugees’ benefits with unemployment benefits. According to the law, the benefits amount to 2000 euros and are paid over the course of one and half years. In Poland, benefits come to only 1,000 zloty (€230) during the first year. For this reason, most refugees from Chechnya are trying to get to countries such as Germany, Austria, Denmark, and others.
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.
Will Minsk revive the “post-Soviet NATO” at the behest of the Kremlin?
On 14 October, Belarus became the chair of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Taking over the chairmanship, Alexander Lukashenka stated that the CSTO needs to become “serious” in order to force the West to finally recognise the Russian-dominated organisation.
On the surface, Lukashenka promises to help bring about Moscow's dream of making the CSTO “a post-Soviet NATO.” This militant rhetoric seems to confirm the opinion of Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevičius that Belarus functions as "one whole” with Russia.
The facts of Belarusian membership to the CSTO, however, point to a different reality. The CSTO never mattered very much to Minsk, and probably matters even less now. Unfortunately, the Belarusian government has trouble convincing its neighbours that it is not playing Putin's game.
Lukashenka and the CSTO
At the recent CSTO summit in Yerevan, Lukashenka criticised the CSTO for its passivity, and demanded more ambitious plans. Not a single one of his counterparts supported this line however, giving the impression of a one man show.
This was not the first time Lukashenka lashed out at the CSTO. For instance, in an April 2015 meeting he insisted to the CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha that the Organisation “should not become another phantom.” In May 2013, Lukashenka refused to attend an informal CSTO summit in Bishkek.
Despite this criticism, the Belarusian government has done little to strengthen the CSTO. For instance, this year Minsk renewed its prohibition on deployment of Belarusian troops abroad in its national military doctrine.
Minsk preferred the CSTO as it was before 2009, i.e., a political project without military obligations. In 2009, it established the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces. These have never been deployed – despite the existence of certain situations in which they could hypothetically have been. In 2011, the Belarusian leader proposed using the CSTO Collective forces to quell “Arab spring” style uprisings in post-Soviet nations. Nothing came of it.
After a couple of years, Minsk began to fear Moscow, with its concept of Russkiy Mir (the Russian World: where Moscow insists on its right to maintain its interests), no less than Western-backed colour revolutions. And although Lukashenka speaks of strengthening the CSTO, Minsk now has few reasons to really want this.
Two reasons for Minsk not to strengthen the CSTO
At present, the CSTO effectively plays two roles. Belarus is not happy with either of them. Firstly, it facilitates links between post-Soviet countries and guarantees favourable conditions in purchasing weapons from Russia.
Yet most relations between post-Soviet nations already develop on a bilateral basis. As a result, Belarus boasts more military cooperation with certain non-CSTO members (like Azerbaijan or Ukraine) than with some of its CSTO partners.
Moreover, Russian arms supplies have proven scarce and linked with undesirable conditions from Russia. Thus, Minsk had to wrangle significantly to obtain Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile systems, as Moscow was apparently trying to make their delivery contingent upon Belarus agreeing to host a Russian air base.
The second role of the CSTO concerns Moscow's use of the organisation to make some of its unilateral operations seem multilateral, and thus less intrusive. For instance, the Russian base in Kyrgyzstan is formally linked to the CSTO.
Had Belarus not refused to host the Russian air base last year, the Kremlin might have tried similar tactics on Minsk: making its unilateral project “quasi-multilateral" . Experts hinted at this probability after the Kremlin's plan for a Russian base in Belarus failed. Alyaksandr Shpakouski, a political analyst known for his access to Belarusian government sources, then claimed that if Moscow and Minsk were to return to the idea of the Russian air base, it would no longer be a “Russian airbase” but rather some other arrangement – such as a base linked to the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
The Kremlin could easily make use of the proven method of putting a military facility under the auspices of the CSTO. This is one more reason for the Belarusian government to keep the organisation at arm's length, lest Moscow take advantage of it to insert its troops inside the country.
Few have noticed Minsk's independent policy…
Politicians and the media frequently cite Belarusian membership in the CSTO, along with similar arrangements with Russia, as evidence that the emerging Belarusian neutrality is nothing more than an illusion. In recent months, several government officials in neighbouring countries repeatedly dismissed Minsk's attempts to not take sides.
For example, Lithuanian foreign minister Linkevičius, speaking at NATO's Warsaw summit on 8 July, insisted that “Belarus should be perceived as one whole with Russia. Belarus has made its own decisions on several isolated issues, yet our perception has not changed.”
On 19 August, Commander of the Ukrainian Navy Ihor Voronchenko issued a gloomy warning to the Belarusian government. According to him, “Everything is clear with Belarus. Lukashenka tries to satisfy all sides. But such games end badly. If he allows Russian [to enter Ukraine] via Belarus, he will pay dearly.” He further implied that Belarus cooperates with Russia in its attempt to surround Ukraine.
Given the efforts Belarusian officials have undertaken to emphasise the country's refusal to support the Kremlin's policies on Ukraine, this means Minsk has achieved little in persuading its neighbours of its independent foreign policy.
… except Moscow
The Belarusian government keeps trying. Its officials – ranging from the president to deputy foreign ministers and ambassadors – incessantly reiterate that they do not consider the additional NATO troops deployed in the region a threat to Belarus.
They are also seeking more channels to get their message through. On 20 September Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei met with the US deputy assistant secretary of defence Michael Carpenter. The Foreign Ministry reported that they discussed the facilitation of “direct dialogue between military agencies of the two countries.”
On 11-13 October Minsk hosted Ukrainian inspectors, who visited one of the most combat-ready units of the Belarusian army, the 38th Air Assault Brigade, on the Ukrainian border in Brest. The inspectors also verified an unspecified region of Belarus and confirmed the absence of un-notified military activities.
Unlike certain NATO countries and Ukraine, Russia does notice such gestures and reacts accordingly. The Moscow-based daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote about the direct link between the recent dispute between Minsk and Moscow over natural gas payments and Moscow's statement that “Belarusian leadership has stopped calling NATO a monster to intimidate the local population.”
To sum up, the moribund CSTO, like similar organisations, provides Minsk with an opportunity to demonstrate that it cares about Russian sensitivities without making much sacrifice. However, these manoeuvres do cause some Western and neighbouring countries to dismiss the autonomy of Belarus's foreign policy. In doing so, they miss the substance of Belarusian policy by paying too much attention to loud words.