Opposition Critisized, New Money, Boosting Exports – State Press Digest
In the beginning of July state newspapers discuss the parliamentary election campaign, the re-denomination of the Belarusian currency and measures by the government to overcome economic difficulties.
Official ideologists criticise the opposition for its inability to hold a proper election campaign. Aliaksandr Lukashenka demonstrates desire to revive relations with the US. Belarus lops four zeros off its currency and introduces coins.
The government helps small and medium enterprises boost exports and removes restriction on travelling to the EU by car. This and more in the new edition of the state press digest.
Belarusian opposition is unable to lead an electoral campaign. Belarus Segodnia publishes a video of a round table hosted by the official news agency, BELTA, featuring high-rank Belarusian ideologists. They argued that changes in electoral legislation provide more opportunities for political parties and civil associations, but claimed that the parties showed week activity during the formation of regional and district level electoral commissions. The participants criticised opposition activists for making provocative claims in the media stating that authorities did not allow them access to commissions.
Deputy Chairman of Minsk City Executive Committee Ihar Karpienka stated that “any political force should meet people and seek support from them. A part of our civil society thinks that a trip to Brussels or Washington and a speech is enough to get people's support. But when electoral campaign starts, these politicians try to blame the government for their failure."
U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Scott Rauland ends his mission in Minsk. “I am pleased to meet you, but I am not pleased to see you leaving”, Lukashenka said to the diplomat. In the past two years political contacts between Minsk and Washington witnessed steady growth, writes Belarus Segodnia. Representatives of the US State Department, Congress, and the Ministry of Defence visited Belarus. In September 2015 Lukashenka met Barack Obama at the UN Summit on Sustainable Development in New York.
During the meeting Lukashenka promised that “We will solve any problems, if the United States only wishes it. We have very close cooperation with Russia, China, India, but we have no commitments with them that could harm development of relations with the US. Without normalisation of relations with the United States, we can not have a full-fledged foreign policy”. The diplomat replied that Washington is ready to cooperate further and values Belarusian independence above all.
Belarus has new money, introduces coins. On 1 July Belarus held the third re-denomination of the rouble in its sovereign history, writes Narodnaja Hazieta. This re-denomination was notable for the fact that the largest-yet amount of zeros was lopped off, allowing the value of the ruble to approach that of world currencies. 1 US dollar is now worth 2 rubles; previously it was worth 20,000. Moreover, Belarus introduced coins for the first time in history.
The process of designing new banknotes started back in 2008 and they were printed in 2009. However, because of the world economic crisis, authorities postponed re-denomination until 2016. Belarusians will be using both types of money until 2017, and they will be able to change old money in banks until 2021. Starting on 1 January 2022 the old banknotes will become invalid.
Unemployment in Belarus decreases. The economy is experiencing revival and Belarusian companies currently provide around 35,000 jobs, reports Zviazda. Whereas last year the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection registered 1,7 unemployed people per every vacancy, this year the rate has decreased to 1.5. The Ministry expects unemployment rates to fall to 2% by the end of 2016. (It must be noted that Belarus is using an unusual methodology to monitor unemployment)
In January-May 204,000 people were underemployed, while in the same period of 2015 the figure was 12% higher. According to an estimation of staff overage in 3,000 state companies, 4.3% of employees are at risk of being laid off at the moment. At the same time, in January-March 16,000 new jobs were created in Belarus, 9,000 of which appeared in newly created companies mostly in the service sector and the IT sphere.
The government plans to boost exports of Belarusian SME. The socio-economic development programme for 2016-2020 provides for the establishment of specialised agencies that will promote exports of small and medium-sized enterprises, informs Respublika. One such structure – the Chamber of Exporters – has recently started operating. Its creation followed the cooperation agreement between the Foreign Ministry and the Republican Confederation of Entrepreneurship.
One of the long term programmes of the Chamber will be the 'Belarus offers' trade fair, which has already started working in Moscow. The Confederation received a 60,000m2 space there on preferential terms until 2025. The fair will serve as a venue for deals, as well as a platform for development of dealer and supply chains. It aims to promote the Belarusian SME exports and will involve around 1,000 firms.
The government removes the ban on travel to the EU by car. Effective 1 September Belarus abolished the restriction on export of fuel to the EU for private cars, writes Belarus Segodnia. The government introduced this restriction in 2011 in order to reduce queues at border checkpoints and stop the massive fuel drain. One car could go to the EU only once in eight days, otherwise the driver had to pay a fuel duty.
Belarusian oil monopoly Belnaftachim welcomed the decision and expects a growth in fuel sales in the border regions. According to deputy prime-minister Uladzimir Siamaška, the government removed this limit because the Mazyr and Naftan refineries now have the capacities to produce more fuel. He added that the government will not raise fuel prises for consumers.
'I see' project checks rural children's eyesight. The Belarusian Children's Fund and the company Velcom have implement a charity project called "I see!" with the support of Mahilioŭ Regional Executive Committee, reports Holas Radzimy. The project is aimed at diagnosis and provision of eye care for children in rural areas. Unlike their peers in the city, children from rural areas have few opportunities to regularly visit ophthalmologists.
The organisers of the project purchased modern mobile diagnostic equipment, paid for the work of specialists, and covered travel costs and other expenses. In spring 2016 a total of 4880 children were examined in 8 districts of the Mahilioŭ region, and 29% turned out to have eye problems. In September the organisers will begin the second stage of the project and check another 10,000 children in the Mahilioŭ region.
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.
John Silver: A New Political Prisoner in Belarus?
In June the Investigatory Committee of Belarus confirmed that Eduard Paĺčys, the editor of the website 1863x.com, was extradited from Russia and is undergoing criminal investigation.
The website was known for its critical position towards Russian and Belarusian authorities, and its author had remained anonymous until his arrest.
Political activists have already recognised him as a political prisoner, while human rights groups are waiting for more evidence.
A new political prisoner is in the interests of neither the European Union nor the Belarusian government, as a warming of relations continues to be important for the bilateral agenda. However, Belarusian authorities may use the case of Eduard Paĺčys to demonstrate that any activity inspiring national conflict, including anti-Russian discourse, will be stopped immediately.
1863x.com as a reaction to Russian aggression
The website 1863x.com first appeared about two years ago at the start of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. It became known for for publishing political texts, often with acute criticism of Belarusian and Russian authorities. The editor of the website remained strictly anonymous and worked under the pseudonym John Silver.
In November 2015 John Silver announced that half a year ago special police had detained him and he was sent to mental hospital for a month. At the same time, the authorities initiated two criminal investigations against him, and in October 2015 he decided to leave Belarus.
The story of the arrest
On 25 January 2016, 1863x.com announced that John Silver had been arrested in Russia. Since that day the website has ceased updates. The Russian nationalist resource “Sputnik i pogrom” later published an article alleging that John Silver was kept in Bryansk Prison, his real name was Eduard Paĺčšys and he originated from the western Belarusian city of Lida. He attempted to obtain political asylum in Ukraine, but later decided to go to Russia, where he was detained while crossing the Russia-Ukraine border.
On 22 June the head of the Investigative Committee of Belarus Ivan Naskievič confirmed that John Silver had been extradited to Belarus and indeed appeared to be Eduard Paĺčys. The authorities charged Eduard with two criminal offences: inciting hatred on grounds of race, nationality, religion, language, or other social affiliation, and manufacturing and distributing pornographic materials.
Editor of Naša Niva newspaper Andrej Dyńko argues that the Eduard's publications only contained criticism of Russian aggression in Ukraine. As for pornographic materials, Eduard's girlfriend later revealed that someone had indeed sent him such materials. However, they depicted an insult to Belarusian nationality and national symbols, so Eduard decided to publish a critical article about this “art." These became the grounds for accusations.
Will Paĺčys become a new political prisoner?
On 23 June around 50 political activists held a peaceful demonstration in which they sent postcards to Eduard at the central post office in Minsk. According to Zmicier Daškievič, a former leader of oppositional organisation Youth Front, people in the street were reluctant to take part in the demonstration as they did not know who Eduard Paĺčys was.
Political activists including Mikalaj Statkievič, representatives from Belarusian Christian Democracy, Youth Front, and others consider Eduard a new political prisoner and are calling on international actors to recognise him as such and assist in his immediate release. However, human rights activists have yet to publish any statements on this case and are awaiting more information.
As human rights activist Valiancin Stefanovič explained to Naviny.by, the publications need to be analysed by specialists to understand whether authorities are persecuting Eduard for expressing his views or if he really was inciting hatred.
Is Russia Involved?
Some experts claim that the authorities initiated the case against Eduard to demonstrate loyalty to Russia: harsh critics of Putin are not tolerated in Belarus. However, expert at Belarus Security Blog Andrej Parotnikaŭ stated to the news agency BelaPAN that “there are a lot of critics of the Kremlin in Belarus, including famous journalists, but they do not face any pressure”. Instead, he sees anonymous criticism of Belarusian authorities as a more likely reason for his arrest.
Indeed, Belarusian authorities barely tolerate any participation in anti-governmental actions, as they established full control over the opposition long ago. Anonymous activists with radical ideas immediately become a target for special services. Cases of repression against anarchists and football ultras amply demonstrates this. On the other hand, Russian could have possibly facilitated a criminal case against Eduard simply by pointing out the significance of this case for bilateral relations.
Belarusian authorities, it seems, try to prevent anyone from playing the "Russian card" and giving Russia grounds for accusing Belarus of Russophobia and nationalism. They may use Eduard's case as a warning to those considering organising political actions.
Foreign governments and human rights groups have so far remained silent on this case and are apparently waiting for more information and evidence. However, the appearance of a new political prisoner looks highly undesirable for both the Belarusian government and the the EU .
No one wants political prisoners in Belarus
Belarusian authorities hope to hold a smooth electoral campaign with a democratic facade and thus facilitate further rapprochement with the west without any real political change. This will require absence of repression of the opposition, a free electoral campaign, cosmetic improvements in electoral law, and most importantly, absence of political prisoners.
The issue of political prisoners has long been the greatest obstacle for unfreezing Belarus-EU relations. The release of the last of them in August 2015, along with peaceful presidential elections, led to the lifting of EU sanctions against Belarus and a warming of relations. The authorities will hardly risk putting another person in jail for political reasons and must have solid evidence of his guilt to present to the west.
The EU also has no desire to initiate another round of sanctions against Belarus due to an aggravation of the human rights situation in the country. Every rapprochement in bilateral relations is a long and tiresome process, and the massive EU decision-making machine hardly wishes to start this cycle over again. The fact that regional security is a new European priority makes any conflict with bordering states undesirable, and Europe tends to wait for clear facts before formulating any critical statements on Belarus.
Belarusian authorities are unlikely to sentence Eduard Paĺčys to a serious prison term and he may end up with a fine or suspended sentence. The European Union has no appetite for escalating the tension either. However, the case of John Silver will become a warning sign for those intending to take radical action in Belarus: any activism involving the Russia-Ukraine conflict will be punished severely.