Peaceful Elections as a Foreign Policy Tool
In October, the Belarusian foreign ministry worked hard to use the presidential elections as a tool to strengthen the positive trend in relations between Belarus and the West. Foreign minister Vladimir Makei managed not to miss this second chance, after the failure of a similar attempt in 2010.
Belarusian diplomats contacted the domestic opposition through different channels to dissuade it from possible street protests. They also used hand-picked “independent” observers to create a positive image of the elections.
The peaceful elections allowed Europe to decide on the suspension of sanctions against the regime. However, the EU can reimpose them at any moment should Lukashenka abandon his rapprochement policy.
Talking to the Opposition and Hand-Picking Observers
Belarusian diplomats focused on securing a positive image of the elections in the international media and public opinion. They also sought to prevent any incidents that would jeopardise the progress already achieved in Belarus’ relations with Europe.
Domestically, Vladimir Makei and other high-ranked diplomats worked to convey a message to opposition leaders in Belarus that Russia might use eventual street protests to stage provocation aimed at sabotaging the positive trends in Belarus’ relations with the West. They did it mostly through Western envoys in Minsk.
Internationally, the Belarusian embassies worked with the usual sympathisers of the Belarusian regime to engage them as “independent” observers or members of the European observation missions at the presidential elections. These are people who are ready to support the regime with positive testimonies, either out of their sincere sympathy for Belarus or in pursuit of lucrative business opportunities in the country.
“Nothing Abnormal” at Polling Stations
The Belarusian government has often sponsored, fully or partially, the trips of many hand-picked “observers” to Minsk. Many of them, like Mikhail Morgulis, President of the Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation (US), are regulars at presidential elections in Belarus. Unlike the European observation missions, Morgulis and his collaborators tend to praise the elections as “free and fair” .
Thierry Mariani, a French MP, came to Minsk as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) delegation. This former minister, known for his pro-Russian stance, visited fourteen polling stations in Minsk and found “good organisation" and “nothing abnormal” there. However, he took no apparent interest in the vote counting process and early voting, which drew the most criticism from others.
Belarusian diplomats also remained in good working contact with the observation missions of the European institutions. Despite the critical conclusions of their joint report, the ministry refrained this time from criticising them as biased and even avoided commenting on them altogether. Lidia Yermoshina, head of the central election commission, went as far as thanking the mission for its objectivity.
Getting the Sanctions Suspended
Rumours about the imminent recall of the sanctions against high-ranking officials and companies circulated well before the elections. They became almost a certainty after Lukashenka released all the political prisoners in September.
The EU will first renew the sanctions and then suspend them Read more
The European Union virtually confirmed the veracity of these rumours on 12 October, when the European observation missions made public their preliminary conclusions. Harlem Désir, France’s minister for European affairs, announced the decision to suspend the sanctions for the next four months. He made this announcement when answering a question from a reporter after an EU meeting in Luxembourg.
The format of the announcement mattered in this case. Belarus was not on this meeting’s official agenda. The EU intends to formally review and action upon the issue of sanctions before they expire on 31 October. In such circumstances, the news could have come from an “anonymous source” or even been postponed altogether under the premise that the observers’ final conclusions needed to be studied first.
However, Belarus needed a prompt quasi-official confirmation that the EU would stick to its part of the step-by-step arrangement. In its turn, Brussels wanted to reassure Minsk on the eve of Lukashenka’s meeting with Vladimir Putin. Thus, they chose as a messenger the French minister who met with deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna in May 2015 and is familiar with the situation in Belarus.
Low-Key but Positive Reaction
On 15 October, Dmitri Mironchik, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, refused to comment on this announcement but reiterated Belarus’ position on the “inefficiency and futility” of anti-Belarus sanctions. He pointed out that the ministry expected their “complete abolition… as soon as possible”.
Lukashenka: "The sanctions have been lifted. Get moving!" Read more
Four days later, his boss Vladimir Makei was more outspoken in his reaction. In an interview with a Belarusian TV station, he labelled as “positive” the emergence of such statements. The foreign minister also expressed his understanding of the fact that the sanctions would not be lifted immediately, blaming it on the EU bureaucratic mechanism.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka sees the repeal of sanctions as a fait accompli. “The sanctions have been lifted. Get moving!”, he told his ministers at a meeting on 20 October in Minsk, prompting them to expand Belarusian exports.
Announcing the suspension of sanctions, the French minister stressed that they “can be reimposed immediately if this is justified”. In fact, the EU will first renew the sanctions and then immediately suspend them.
The definitive lifting of sanctions would mean that the reasons for their introduction no longer apply, which is untrue. Also, it would make their reimposition quite difficult if Belarus lapses into its old ways of serious human rights abuse. The suspension of sanctions will allow the European Union to have Belarus on the ropes, stimulating the government into taking further steps towards the political liberalisation.
Belarus and Europe are now at the very beginning of a complex diplomatic play, trying to squeeze as many concessions from each other without giving ground on matters of principle.
Europe will demand more democratic reforms culminating in free and fair parliamentary elections next year and will be ready to provide economic assistance in return. Belarus will seek economic benefits as a payment for its role as a "donor of security" in the region and try to avoid meaningful political liberalisation.
Starting with the release of political prisoners, Belarus added the "peaceful elections" and minor electoral improvements to the package to obtain a serious concession from the EU. This is a culmination of the rapprochement, which began after the Russian annexation of Crimea.
The next big test for the step-by-step strategy will be in early 2016 when the EU and Belarus will negotiate the full abrogation, or at least further suspension, of the sanctions.
Critisism of Russia, Alexievich, Belarusians in Antarctica – State Press Digest
Belarus Digest launches a regular series of publications reviewing Belarusian state newspapers.
In the first publication of the series, Belarus has taken further steps to confirm its independence vis-a-vis Russia. Pro-government experts in Minsk have criticised the Russian elite for increased nationalism.
This rhetoric sees Belarus as an integral part of the Russian space. At the same time, a pro-Russian journalist stated that Svetlana Alexievich got her Nobel prize due to the support of the West for her anti-Putin rhetoric.
Belarus has expanded its presence globally. Minsk hosts a high level meeting of the International Electrotechnical Commission. his organisation gathers leading businesses and experts in this sphere. The first Belarusian station in Antarctica will be constructed by 2016 and provided Belarus with access to this Continent. It will allow Belarus to engage in scientific research.
At Lake Baikal there remains a Belarusian village, which while thousands of kilometres from Belarus still retains Belarus's unique culture. All of this and more in this edition of State Press Digest.
Pro-government experts criticise Russia. Belarus Segodnya, the largest national newspaper, analyses pro-government experts’ comments on the development of Belarus after the 2015 presidential elections and how the international political and economic situation impacts Belarus.
Director of the Centre for European Integration Jury Šaŭcoŭ argues that because of the new geopolitical situation the West stopped supporting 'radical nationalists' in Belarus. The EU realised that a strong authoritative regime in Belarus curbs radical and destructive forces. He thinks that the Ukrainian scenario is impossible under these circumstances, and moreover, Belarus is a bridge between the two poles of Europe and Russia.
The West rejected colour revolutions as a means of regime change, but still wants Belarus to establish western standards of political and social order Read more
The analyst at the pro-government Cytadel think-tank Aliaksandr Špakoŭski also says that the West has changed its strategy in Belarus. The West rejected colour revolutions as a means of regime change, but still wants Belarus to establish western standards of political and social order. The West will seek to achieve this through engagement with Belarusian society and the political leadership. it will try to integrate Belarus into its sphere of influence. However, Špakoŭski also accuses Russia of a growing nationalist hostility towards Belarus and its position on Ukraine. He argues that Belarus should preserve armed neutrality towards both conflicting neighbours.
Acording to Ihar Marzaliuk, MP and a famous historian, Belarus will never be a satellite of Russia, although Russia was and currently remains a strategic partner of Belarus. “We are interested in integration with Russia economically, socially and militarily, but this should be a union of equal sovereign states,” the expert says.
Authorities organise youth debates. The newspaper Žyccio Prydźvinnia reports on the youth project Open Debates. This was organised by the Ideology Department of Viciebsk district executive, the Belaja Ruś and BRSM GoNGOs and government-controlled trade unions before the elections. Schoolchildren, students and soldiers were divided into teams to debate political issues.
The organisers say they want to develop political and civil culture among Belarusian youth. They want to teach them to promote their views and see elections as a mechanism of influencing the government. The main reason behind it was perhaps to secure a high turnout among the young, but the authorities apparently started to understand the importance of civil discussion.
Nobel prize for Russophobia? In the article “Was the Nobel prize awarded to the right person?” Soyuznoe Veche, the newspaper of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Belarus-Russia Union, takes a critical stance towards Svetlana Alexievich's Nobel prize. According to the article's author, the West wants to hurt Russia.
By awarding the prize before the presidential elections it aimed to help the Belarusian opposition. These are the opponents of Belarus-Russia Union State and so it was an attack on Russia too. The author concludes that the politicisation of the award will hang over the writer for the rest of her life despite the fine quality of her work. Meanwhile, Vecherniy Brest (Evening Brest) reports that Alexievich's books are practically absent in Brest's bookstores. However, after the news on the award people immediately rushed to buy her books.
Belarusians in Antarctica. Soyuznoe Veche continues with a piece about the construction of the first Belarusian station in the Antarctic. The station is due to be constructed at the start of 2016. It will be transported to the South Pole on a Russian ship and will be placed on the spot called Hara Viačerniaja (Evening Mountain). The Head of the National Centre for Polar Studies, Alieh Snycin, says that building Belarus's own station is a matter of national prestige.
Importantly, to receive the status of a participant of the international agreement on the Antarctic, Belarus has to fulfil a number of conditions. One of them is the building of a station. Antarctica contains huge reserves of hydrocarbons and other treasures, which Belarus hopes to get a piece of.
High Level Meeting of Electronic Experts in Minsk. On 5-16 October Minsk hosted the 79th General Meeting of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in Minsk with 1,500 delegates. This was reported by Zviazda daily. The IEC is a worldwide noncommercial organisation which produces international standards for the free movement of electronic goods.
The meeting also serves as a major business forum in the field, which gathers representatives of leading companies in electronics, IT, and energy. For Belarus it became a rare opportunity to demonstrate its potential for investments, improve its image abroad and promote Belarusian production.
Belarusian traditions in Eastern Siberia. Holas Radzimy newspaper writes about the Dažynki harvest festival in the village Turheneŭka located in the Irkutsk region of Russian Siberia, near Lake Baikal. Although the region is largely inhabitated by ethnic Buryats, this Belarusian vilage, which was founded in 1909, is similar to other settlements near Lake Baikal, which exist even today.
Local Belarusians preserve their traditions and rites. The villagers perform traditional folk songs and dances. A group of producers for the Belarusian ONT TV channel visited the festival to as a part of a series filming people who retain their identity far away from Bealrus. According to the 2010 Russian census, currently about 8,000 Belarusians live in the Irkutsk region.
Alternative cinema comes to Minsk. Zviazda newspaper is advertising the film festival Bulbamovie ('Potato-movie'), which will be held in Warsaw, Cracow and for the first time in Minsk. The fact that the festival is advertised in the state press and will be held in Minsk looks at the vert least unusual.
The festival has long been working as a free site for alternative Belarusian cinema with movies often critical to Belarus's political reality. The state has a monopoly on film production and during Lukashenka's rule the state cinema has largely made films based on Soviet patriotism and World War II episodes.
The State Digest 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.