Oil from Azerbaijan, defence cooperation with Latvia – Belarus state press digest
The EU expresses concern over the status of the death penalty in Belarus. Slovakia and Belarus aim for broader cooperation. Aliaksandr Lukashenka pursues an oil partnership with Azerbaijan. Belarus and Latvia conclude agreements in the defence sphere.
A delegation of the Belarusian Ministry of Education investigates the educational systems of Baltic and Scandinavian countries. Lukashenka announced amendments to the ‘social parasitism’ law. Viciebsk becomes the fifth Belarusian city to join the 'Inclusive Belarus' campaign.
This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.
The high representative of the EU warns Minsk about human rights situation. Federica Mogherini mentioned two recent cases of capital punishment and encouraged Belarus to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty, writes Belarus Segodnya. The Constitutional Court, however, responded that by preserving the death penalty Belarus guarantees safety for its citizens.
The statement of the Court also points to the exclusiveness of the death penalty. Belarus Segodnya reported that since the beginning of 2016 four people have been sentenced to death. The cases leading to capital punishment this year involved rape, murders, or theft. The newspaper points out that Belarusians voted to legalise the death penalty in the Referendum of 1996.
Belarus and Slovakia broaden cooperation. On 25 November Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico visited Belarus and met with Aliaksandr Lukashenka. The parties discussed bilateral and Belarus-EU relations. The Belarusian president highlighted the important role of Slovakia in Belarus-EU relations, reports The Minsk Times.
Fico and Lukashenka agreed to broaden cooperation in the medical, wood processing, and defence spheres. Fico expressed support for the socially-oriented policy of the Belarusian authorities and voiced his plan to return key privatised assets in Slovakia to state control. The Slovak Prime Minister also advised wider promotion of Belarus to European tourists.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka pursues oil partnership with Baku. Ilham Aliyev and Aliaksandr Lukashenka discussed bilateral cooperation in trade, agricultural, and culture. The two presidents aim to increase bilateral trade turnout to $700m by the end of next year, reports Belarus Segodnya. Lukashenka expressed his interest in establishing a long-term partnership with the Azerbaijani oil industry. As a result, Aliyev and Lukashenka signed several documents on bilateral cooperation. The president of Azerbaijan awarded Lukashenka the Heydar Aliyev medal.
Belarus and Latvia expand cooperation in defence. Belarusian Minister of Defence Andrej Raŭkoŭ has recently visited Latvia, writes Belarus Segodnya. Raŭkoŭ held talks with the Latvian Minister of Defence and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The agreement signed during the negotiations will facilitate cooperation in the spheres of security and defence, air space and arms control, and environmental protection. Athletic and cultural events for Belarusian and Latvian military forces will also be organised. The Belarusian delegation also visited the Latvian National Defence Academy.
Belarus creates the first project office for export development. The office will work towards the improvement of the financial and legal base for foreign trade between Belarus, Russia, and other states. Zviazda reports that Deputy Prime Minister Vasiĺ Maciušeŭski will lead the office. Experts from the National Bank, Finance Ministry, Ministry of Economy, Foreign Affairs Ministry, and other agencies will be involved in its work. The office will produce ideas for increasing the turnover of Belarus and Russia and expanding export to markets of third countries.
Belarus postpones taxing 'social parasites'. The government is currently amending the presidential decree on social parasitism signed in April 2015. Belarus Segodnya cites a representative of the Ministry of Taxes and Duties: ‘By the end of the year the Ministry will clarify information regarding citizens included in the taxation database’.
According to the changes, alternative military servicemen, national sports team members, and citizens with difficult financial situations will be excluded from the list. By now, more than 73,000 citizens received notifications on paying the tax. As of 1 November 2016, 9,500 Belarusians already paid a ‘social parasite’ tax.
Belarusian Ministry of Education studies the educational systems of the Baltic and Scandinavian countries. During their trip, a delegation of the Belarusian Education Ministry visited Vilnius, Tallinn, Helsinki, Tampere, and Goteborg, writes Hrodzienskaja Praŭda.
The Belarusian delegation met with the head of the Professional Education Department of Lithuania and the Director of National Qualifications of Estonia. In Tallinn, the delegation investigated the facilities and training programme of the Centre for Vocational Education in Estonia. They discussed hands-on learning, the labour market and employment of graduates, assessment of labour market needs, modernisation of qualifications and professions, and modern technological methods of education.
In Tampere, Finland, Belarusian representatives visited the Tredu Vocational College and discussed its structure, funding, management of educational institutions, and methods for improving quality of education. Finally, the delegation visited a vocational skills championship called Euroskills in Goteborg, Sweden.
Viciebsk joined the regional campaign 'Inclusive Belarus'. Aimed at sustainable development, the UN regional project promotes equality rights regardless of physical ability, age, ethnicity, and gender. All Belarusian regional centres except Minsk have already hosted 'Inclusive Belarus' events, Vitebskie Vesti reports. The event in Viciebsk included a movie screening, concerts, and an exhibition of handmade souvenirs from social care centres.
During the event, representatives from the local media, the Ministry of Information, and NGOs participated in a press-club 'barrier-free environment' which discussed the role of media in shaping the image of people with disabilities. Permanent UNDP representative Sanaka Samarasinha, the US chargé d'affaires in Belarus, and other diplomats also attended the event.
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.
Can Belarus punish Lithuania for its position on the Astraviec NPP?
On 7 December, the head of the Russian Railways stated that his company can provide a large enough discount to Belarusian companies to allow them to cease transporting cargo through the Baltic States. At the same time, Latvian officials continue to pitch their ports to the Belarusian government.
So far, Belarus primarily uses Lithuanian ports, but Russia and Latvia may take advantage of the cooling relations between Minsk and Vilnius – connected with Lithuania's criticism of the Belarusian nuclear power plant – to promote their interests.
Belarusian officials have hinted several times that Lithuania benefits significantly from the transit of Belarusian goods, so the Lithuanian government should soften its position on Astraviec. Nevertheless, it seems that Belarus will continue to use Lithuania as a transit country – as this remains an economically expedient option – but will also try to diversify supplies.
No more love between Minsk and Vilnius
The dynamics of the Belarusian-Lithuanian relationship often differ from the relationship between Belarus and Europe. Even in 1996, when Lukashenka’s regime was still consolidating, Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas met with the Belarusian ruler. In 1997, Lithuania blocked a resolution of the Baltic Assembly criticising the Belarusian authorities for human rights violations.
Lithuanian politicians, such as the president Dalia Grybauskaite, frequently sought to improve relations with Belarusian authorities. This was the case not only during times of Belarusian-European dialogue in 2008-2010, but also following the brutal crack-down on demonstrators in December 2010.
In 2011, the Lithuanian President stated that although the Belarusian opposition keeps asking for more and more money, she cannot heard in their words that Belarusian independence is a priority for them. Later, in 2013, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich visited a Belarusian-Lithuanian economic forum in Klaipeda.
Thus, Belarusian-Lithuanian relations were sometimes warmer than Belarusian-EU relations, and sometimes on the same level. This is no longer the case. Harsh criticism from Lithuania regarding the future Belarusian nuclear power plant, along with statements that the construction of the NPP is like an atomic bomb against Vilnius, raise doubts about whether Belarus and Lithuania can cooperate at all.
Currently, Lithuania is working to create an international coalition to restrict the supply of electricity from Belarus to Europe after the launch of the NPP. On 27 October, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid declared that 'in Astraviec, there is clearly a problem if all the costs, including environmental costs and risks, are not factored into the price scheme. In that case Europe should not accept such energy on its market.'
What Belarus can do
It comes as no surprise that such statements by Lithuanian politicians annoy the Belarusian authorities. Back in May, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei hinted that 'cooperation between the countries remains in Lithuania’s best interests, as the transit of Belarusian goods through Lithuanian ports contributes to the development of the Lithuanian economy.'
According to some media estimates, Belarusian companies account for one third of the capacity of the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda and the transit of Belarusian goods makes up about 2 per cent of Lithuania's GDP.
On 7 December, head of Russian Railways Oleg Belozerov said that his company was prepared to offer a 50 per cent discount to Belarusian refineries for the transportation of their goods. In doing this, the Kremlin means to punish the Baltic countries for their stance on sanctions against Russia; Russian leadership also wants Belarus to take part.
Latvia suffers from Russian foreign policy in this regard, but unlike Lithuania, it has warmer relations with Minsk and may use the cooling between Minsk and Vilnius to its advantage. In September, Uladzimir Makei met in New York with Edgar Rynkevich, the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs; in October, the Latvian Transport Minister Uldis Augulis visited Belarus. In November, the Belarusian Prime Minister met with the Latvian Minister of Economy in Minsk. All these meetings involved discussion of the transit of goods, among other topics.
So far, the results of these negotiations remain unknown, but few will be surprised if they result in greater use of Latvian ports by Belarusian companies. Nevertheless, a complete reorientation of Belarusian goods remains unlikely. Belaruskali, a Belarusian potash producer, owns 30% of Biriu kroviniu terminals (BKT), one of Klaipeda's terminals. Moreover, VKT is currently investing €8 mln in the development of the terminal, indicating that Belarus has no plans to curtail its activities in Lithuania.
As Vytis Jurkonis, a Lithuanian political scientist, told Belarus Digest, 'as long as transit through Lithuania remains economically feasible, the Belarusian authorities will take advantage of it, as they lack the luxury to choose more expensive transit roots'. The problem, however, is that Latvia and Russia appear willing to propose conditions beneficial enough for Belarus to stop relying on Lithuanian ports.
No time for cooperation
The conflict surrounding the nuclear power plant and the possible reorientation of Belarusian goods are not isolated cases. Instead, they reflect a trend in Belarusian-Lithuanian economic cooperation. The Belarusian and Lithuanian authorities seem reluctant to look for opportunities for new joint economic projects.
Trade in goods between the two countries decreased for the fifth year in a row, while imports from Lithuania fell for the fourth consecutive year. During the first 9 months of 2016, the trade turnover fell by almost 20% compared to the same period in 2015, according to the Belarusian Statistical Office.
Investment cooperation became less optimistic than before, and the authorities of both countries are paying less attention to it. If in 2013 and 2014 the prime ministers of both countries attended Belarusian-Lithuanian economic forums, in 2015 and 2016 the level of representation decreased. The Belarusian delegation in 2016 was headed by the Deputy Minister of Economy.
The conflict surrounding the Astraviec NPP became a poison to Belarusian-Lithuanian relations. It seems that as long as Minsk and Vilnius continue to fight about the Belarusian nuclear plant, economic cooperation will not be a priority.