Parliamentary elections, refugee crisis, oil price dispute – Western press digest
This month, the attention of the international media on Belarus largely focused on whether there would be any credible improvements in Belarusian electoral policy during the parliamentary elections.
Despite scepticism regarding how long the thaw between Belarus and the West could really last, Belarusian economic relations with Russia have been strained and confrontational. Meanwhile, the Belarusian nuclear power plant under construction in Astraviec has become a concern not merely to the Lithuanian government but also to the European Commission.
Belarus has appeared in the news this month in the escalating conflict in Syria, the growing migration crisis, and the Paralympic games in Rio de Janeiro. Its unwillingness to gradually adjust to liberal and market economy rhythms, and thereby obtain much-expected loans and credits from foreign investors, has also captured the attention of the international media.
Scepticism towards Belarusian parliamentary elections. Aljazeera and Reuters questioned whether the recent parliamentary elections in Belarus were really fair and free. The election results yet again confirmed that the slight improvements in the election process and campaigns and the ‘appointment’ of two representatives of the political opposition in parliament are nothing but a gesture from the ruling regime signalling its willingness to proceed with the motions of nominally improving cooperation with the West. This cooperation, having little if any effect on the Belarusian political landscape, is therefore of a pragmatic and interest-based nature.
‘Invisible' Belarusian soft power in the Syria humanitarian crisis. The Syrian Arab News Agency reports that 23 tonnes of humanitarian aid were delivered to Aleppo from Belarus. For very good reasons, Belarusian assistance in coping with crises in regions of escalated armed conflicts should be met with appreciation. However, Belarusian generosity seems to have been overshadowed by Russia's military role in the conflict for the international community.
Belarus’s solidarity with Russia at the Paralympic Games in Rio. The Guardian grasps the ambiguous nature of the Belarusian paralympic team's decision to express solidarity with the disqualified Russian team in the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Many actors, including the International Paralympic Committee, considered the gesture nothing but a way to reiterate the undeviating political loyalty of Belarus towards Russia. However, the Belarusian paralympic team renounced any political motives, asserting that their sole motivation was to protest the unjustified restriction against Russian athletes.
Economy and business
Strengthening the outlook of Belarus as a stable and gradually reforming state promises to attract more foreign investments. Global Risk Insights discusses three reasons why Belarus should still be deemed a trustworthy country for foreign investment.
These include: a moderate level of corruption, a promising landscape for starting a business, and a low risk of destabilising socio-political conditions due to possible external or internal turbulence. What still gives rise to concern is the dependence of core large industrial enterprises on government subsidies and the sensitivity of the Belarusian economy to external economies.
Consistent adherence to IMF recommendations will ensure the growth of the Belarusian economy up to 4.5 percent during the 2020-2021 period. Reuters reports on the major conclusions of the IMF’s recent assessment of Belarusian economic development. The IMF recommends that before obtaining a $3 billion loan, Belarusian banks should reduce the number of loans they give to loss-making industries and the government should cut down on subsidies for heavy industry. The IMF assures that steady implementation of market-based reforms will allow the economy to grow more than 2 percent in 2017 succeeded by further gradual growth.
Will another dispute on oil prices hamper Belarus-Russian integration cooperation? The lasting oil price dispute between Belarus and Russia becomes even tenser as Russia decreased its oil supply to Belarus by 22 percent for the third and fourth quarter of the year, reports UAWire. This move follows Russia's refusal to agree on the price proposed by Belarus and is intended to ensure Belarus repays its gas debt to Russia. This has forced Alexander Lukashenka to warn the Kremlin about the potential "optimisation" of Belarus’s participation in integration projects.
Moving closer to a Belarus-China economic partnership? The Xinhua News Agency reports on the readiness of the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, to guarantee more favourable conditions for Chinese companies as they proceed in starting new businesses and investing in local enterprises. Shortly after, Belarus announced an official visit to China at the end of September 2016 to agree on certain investment and trade cooperation projects between the two countries.
Security and defence
Unseen refugee emergency on the Belarus-Polish border. Deutsche Welle draws attention to an escalating local emergency on the border between Poland and Belarus, where a growing number of refugees are trying to flee to the EU in an attempt to escape the atrocities and violence inflicted by the authorities in their home countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
So far, the Belarusian government has not come up with any clear plan to manage the growing flow or provide necessary aid for the refugees stuck in Brest. All the while, Poland continues to hold off considering asylum requests for people entering Poland from Brest, thereby violating international human rights law.
Reliance on the mission of the IAEA in the Astraviec nuclear power plant. The Baltic Times reports on the Lithuanian government's continued anxiety regarding Belarus's capacity to ensure the safe construction and further expansion of its nuclear power plant in Astraviec.
The Lithuanian government insisted that the European Commission give closer scrutiny to the construction process and demand that the Belarusian government provides the exact dates of stress tests. It also suggests that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) send a mission to the plant.
Katsiaryna is an intern at the Ostrogorski Centre. She holds MA in International Relations from Dublin City University and was a Research Fellow of a CAHR Protective Fellowship at the University of York over 2014-2015.
Election coverage, military procurement, relations with diaspora – Ostrogorski Centre digest
Over the last month the Ostrogorski Centre primarily covered and analysed the 2016 parliamentary elections in Belarus. The centre organised live online coverage, published analytical and monitoring materials, took part in observation and commented on the electoral process for Belarusian and foreign media.
Besides the elections, analysts of the Ostrogorski Centre discussed military procurement policies, the appeal of Belarusian universities to foreign students, and trends in the government's interaction with the Belarusian diaspora.
Siarhei Bohdan analyses recent military equipment procurement policies and tries to understand whether Minsk is really overhauling its army in response to new challenges or if it's just a trick to conceal the decline of the Belarusian military due to financial difficulties.
The expert concludes that it would be wrong to describe the current transformation of the Belarusian armed forces as a decline. Minsk is reshaping its army in an organised manner in accordance with its financial resources, e.g., downshifting its air force.
Ryhor Astapenia discusses the prospects for attracting foreign students to Belarusian universities. The Belarusian authorities are relying on the relatively low price of living and for-profit learning from the educational sector, but many issues create serious obstacles, especially for western students.
Belarus should make its education internationally recognised, develop programmes in English and attract lecturers with international teaching experience. It needs to remove unnecessary bureaucracy and train education agencies. Belarusian universities lack influential alumni organisations that can help attract new students, and this should also be addressed.
Igar Gubarevich analyses a recent and noteworthy trend in the government's interaction with Belarusians living abroad. Earlier, outreach remained limited to cultural events or using expatriates as the regime's advocates.
Since recently, the Belarusian authorities have become aware of the role the diaspora can play in promoting the country’s political and economic interests abroad. However, the government’s politically motivated selectivity in choosing its partners and a lack of money to support their ties with Belarus jeopardise this cooperation.
2016 parliamentary elections
On 11 September Belarus Digest provided live online coverage of the parliamentary elections in Belarus: the most important developments as well as reactions to the process and results. The website featured a collection of stories from international and Belarusian media, as well as videos, pictures, and comments from experts.
Development director of the Ostrogorski Centre Ryhor Astapenia took part in election observation at one of the polling stations in Minsk. Ryhor reported a 1,5 times inflated turnout and non-transparent vote counting. The electoral commission members behaved rudely and refused to provide information to Belarusian observers, but became extremely polite and prompt when the OSCE mission came.
Ryhor attempted to organise live video coverage of the vote counting process, which the commission tolerated for a couple of minutes before stripping Ryhor of his accreditation as an observer and driving out of the station.
Belarus Digest published an editorial on the messages the authorities are trying to convey to the West by letting two representatives of the opposition and civil society in the newly-appointed Parliament. These messages are:
1. The authorities will not fundamentally change the election process – it will remain entirely controlled.
2. They are making slow progress towards liberalisation and greater transparency of elections and support for the opposition is low.
3. It is now time to recognise the Parliament of Belarus and accept the leadership of Belarus at a higher level.
Belarus Digest in cooperation with the National Democratic Institute published a series of analytical materials on different stages of the electoral campaign: the parliamentary campaigning period, the early vote period, as well as conduct and outcomes.
Ostrogorski Centre analysts commented on the election process and its results for Belarusian and foreign media.
Foreign Policy magazine quoted Yarik Kryvoi on the ongoing transformation of the Belarusian political and economic model. He thinks that Western officials should be more assertive in developing relationships with a new generation of Belarusian administrators in order to facilitate long-term change.
Ryhor Astapenia discussed the implications of the emergence of an opposition in the Belarusian parliament. According to Ryhor, the new situation will let the opposition change its image of destructive revolutionaries to respectable members of parliament.
Ryhor Astapenia commented on the Western position on the parliamentary elections in Belarus for thinktanks.by. Ryhor believes that the West is ready to buy election results. Visits of European officials, MEPs and Polish deputies on the eve of the elections show that the West is ready to work with the new Belarusian parliament.
Bloomberg quoted Igar Gubarevich on the opposition representatives in the newly elected Belarusian parliament as a part of Lukashenka's game with the West.
Aljazeera quoted Siarhei Bohdan in an article dedicated to the 2016 parliamentary elections in Belarus.
Siarhei Bohdan comments for Radio Racyja on new purchases of the Belarusian armed forces and recent actions in the field of defence. Belarus does not think a large military conflict is possible, but fears a local conflict like in Donbass. Recently it has been taking measures against such a scenario: purchasing weapons, preparing troops, revising army structure, and making orders for R&D.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
- Recommendations on the creation of foreign retraining programme for civil servants. BIPART, 2015.
- Uladzimir Akulich, Uladzimir Valetka, Yulia Yafimnenka, Viktoryia Smalenskaya, Uladzislau Ramaniuk. The fifth issue of the Macroeconomic Review of Belarus in graphs (January-March 2016). CASE Belarus, 2016. CASE Belarus, 2016.
- Ryhor Astapenia. Belarus-Russia relations after the Ukraine conflict. Ostrogorski Centre, 2016.
- Aliaksandr Vashchylka. Consequences of trade wars for Belarus. BEROC, 2016.
- Mariya Akulova. Foreign investment: only loans so far. BEROC, 2016.
Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by completing this form.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.