Poroshenko and Lukashenka: Will the Ukrainian President Defend Belarus in the West?
On 26 May the future President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko stated that Belarus and his country can cooperate to help Lukashenka take steps towards establishing a democracy. Poroshenko also said that Lukashenka could consider him a friend, and their countries share common interests.
The president-elect of Ukraine knows Belarus better than any other ruler in Europe except, of course, Putin. Poroshenko was one of the main advocates of improving relations between Belarus and the West during the reign of Orange Revolution president Viktor Yushchenko. He also solved several economic issues between the two countries during his time in office on Yanukovych’s team as the Minister of Economy and previously had business interests in Belarus.
The election of a new president in Ukraine gives both sides hope for the restoration of trade relations between the two countries to previous levels. However, it remains unlikely that Ukraine will become an example for democratic transition for Belarusians. Ukraine brings up feelings of fear, not admiration, among many Belarusians.
Deepening cooperation between the countries may worsen the relations between Minsk and Moscow, but improve the image of Lukashenka’s regime ties with the West. Still, it seems highly unlikely that Poroshenko will once more champion Belarus’ case with the West.
On 25 May Petro Poroshenko stated that he has maintained friendly relations with Alexander Lukashenka. From his years of service in the government, Poroshenko has gotten to know the Belarusian political class quite well. Moreover, their cooperation has brought about many benefits for both countries both economically and politically.
Poroshenko visited Minsk in 2009 as Ukraine's foreign minister, when the Ukrainian authorities were advocating for a dialogue between the European Union and Lukashenka’s regime. Lukashenka's visit to Kyiv, the only one during the reign of Yushchenko, was the apparent result of these negotiations. At that time the Belarusian authorities considered their improved relations with Ukraine as part and parcel of normalising relations with the West.
Poroshenko has also worked with Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich and his deputy Uladzimir Semashka. As a result of the negotiations between the parties, both countries removed restrictions on the import of meat, dairy products and beer.
the president-elect of Ukraine often visited Belarus promoting the interests of his machine construction and confectionery companies Read more
Moreover, the president-elect of Ukraine often visited Belarus promoting the interests of his machine construction and confectionery companies. Poroshenko's Roshen holds a commanding position on the Belarusian chocolate market.
Poroshenko worked on both Yushchenko's and Yanukovych's teams, so he has seen Belarus from different perspectives. Most Ukrainians, and Poroshenko as well, feel grateful for Lukashenka’s support and opposition to the country’s federalisation, the most important demand of Kremlin's policy towards Kyiv since the interim government took over. Thus, the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations have plenty of room for improvement.
How the Ukrainian Elections Can Affect Belarus
Ukraine's pro-European choice remains unlikely to become an example of change for Belarusian society. Economically and socially Ukraine remains behind Belarus and the war in the east of the country will destabilise it for a long time. According to the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political studies April study, 70% of Belarusians do not want such a transition to occur in Belarus.
If Poroshenko’s team stabilises the country and improves the welfare of Ukraine, Belarusians may begin to view these changes more favourably. Ukraine has already shown its willingness to change for better. For example, the levels of transparency and voter engagement during the Ukrainian elections were themselves something that Belarusians would find enviable.
Belarusians perceive the world through the lens of Russian TV Read more
However, even with the possible success of Ukraine, Belarusians perceive the world through the lens of Russia. A restricted-access sociological study to which the author has access to shows that programme 'News of the Week with Dmitry Kisilev' remains the most popular informational television programme of its kind in Belarus.
This Russian television program has become one of the main mouthpieces of the Russian information war against Ukraine. At the same time, the authorities cut Ukrainian TV from cable packages in some Belarusian cities. In May Brest was hit, a city in the west of Belarus that has a large Ukrainian minority.
While these elections hardly affect Belarusian society, the Belarusian authorities expect improvements in the realm of economic cooperation. Indeed, it is the main reason why they want to see the situation in Ukraine stabilise as soon as possible. On 26 May even the Belarusian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on twitter about the Ukrainian elections under the hashtag #UnitedforUkraine (a hashtag created by the U.S. State Department).
The crisis in Ukraine has already affected the Belarusian economy. Ukraine remains the second largest trading partner of Belarus. However, for the first quarter of 2014, when compared with the first quarter of 2013, Belarusian exports to Ukraine declined by more than 5%, while imports from Ukraine dropped by 30%. Shares of US-Belarusian IT corporation EPAM Systems fell by a third due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Will Poroshenko Become Belarus’ Advocate in the EU?
Belarusian-Ukrainian cooperation can greatly influence Belarus-Russia and Belarus-EU relations.
While the Kremlin remains reluctant to state as much, but it seems worried that Lukashenka supports the new Ukrainian authorities and opposes the decentralisation of its southern neighbour. If the Kremlin chooses to take a rough approach in its relations with Ukraine, a strengthening of Belarusian-Ukrainian relations could become a big irritant for Moscow.
Lukashenka-Poroshenko relations can soften the image of the Belarusian authorities in the West Read more
Simultaneously, Lukashenka-Poroshenko relations can soften the image of the Belarusian authorities in the West. Already many European politicians have stated their appreciation of Belarus’ policy towards Ukraine. The head of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry Lynas Linkyavichus said that the "statements of the Belarusian leadership are very independent".
On 26 May, the future president of Ukraine declared the necessity of reviving the Eastern Partnership, which "can be a major motivation behind the development of democracy in Belarus." Poroshenko also hopes "to cooperate with Belarus for democratic change".
These statements should not be exaggerated. The Belarusian authorities thoroughly know that to normalise relations with the EU they have to release all political prisoners. Naturally, this does not require any participation of the Ukrainian authorities.
Ukraine also has too many problems of its own at the moment, so it remains unlikely that they will have the time to promote the interests of Belarus in the West. But at least the Belarusian authorities have found an ally, one which the West is listening carefully to.
The article has been written in the framework of the project "Election observation: theory and practice" upon the results of the Belarusian observation mission in Ukraine. The material is a part of the analytical document about the election in Ukraine which will be published soon.
Study Abroad for Belarusians: a One-Way Ticket?
Students across the world dream about studying abroad, and Belarusians are no exception. The Europe Day Education Fair, organised by the EU Delegation in Minsk on 22 May, gathered a large enthusiastic crowd.
The fair attracted so much attention in part because international education remains out of the reach of the majority of Belarusian students. Challenges that European students never worry about, such as obtaining a visa, financing their education, or even academic preparation, force many young people to stay at home.
In the long run, this growing body of well-educated and open-minded citizens could bring about positive social change in Belarus. Whether this actually happens depends on how many students participate in international exchanges and how many intend on returning home.
When only a very small number of students, those with exceptional credentials and sky-high ambitions, are able to obtain international scholarships, study abroad may become a one-way ticket. A greater availability of short-term academic exchanges may, on the other hand, contribute to promoting a greater number of well-educated and interculturally competent citizens who live and work in Belarus.
Expanding Opportunities to Study Abroad
According to UNESCO, the number of students who study abroad is growing by about 12% each year. Belarusians became a part of this global trend only in the mid-2000s. Since 2007, the number of Belarusians studying abroad has hovered around 30,000, facilitated by the growth in programmes that provide funding and help with visa applications. These include the Erasmus programme, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Muskie Graduate Fellowship, and others.
Erasmus is perhaps the most popular European student exchange program. In 2014, all existing EU programmes in the fields of education, training, and youth were combined into Erasmus+.
The expanded programme will provide opportunities for over 4 million Europeans to study, train and volunteer abroad for a period of at least three months to an academic year. Of these only around 200 scholarships will become available in 2012-2016 for Belarus, a country with over 450 thousand students.
Poland offers more accessible opportunities to study abroad. Around 4,000 Belarusian citizens currently attend Polish and English language programmes.
Because the Polish government funds education only in Polish and only for students who have the Pole Card (Karta Polaka), most of them pay for their own education. A limited number of scholarships exist. For example, Kalinowski scholarship targets ambitious Belarusian pro-democracy activists.
Not surprisingly, the scholarship has fallen out of favour with the Belarusian regime, which complicates the return of the scholarship's recipients to Belarus.
The US State Department also offers academic exchange programmes to Belarusian applicants, including a four-week Youth Leadership Program and a semester-long Global Undergraduate Exchange Program. Belarusian students can also apply for the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program to obtain a Master’s degree in the United States.
Unfortunately, Belarus, along with Uzbekistan, no longer participates in the Future Leaders Exchange Program, which targeted high school students. All US State Department programmes include provisions that require students to return home for a minimum of two years.
Russia imposes perhaps the fewest barriers for Belarusian students. Not only do most Belarusians speak Russian at home, but they can also compete in the same category as the Russian applicants when applying to Russian universities. Upon admission, Belarusians are entitled to a stipend and living accommodations on par with their Russian peers.
Obtaining a Schengen or US visa and financing education in the West at times present insurmountable difficulties, given the disparities in income between western countries and Belarus. An even greater challenge, however, is obtaining a degree that would qualify Belarusian applicants for education abroad.
The Belarusian education system falls short of the Bologna standards, with the absence of academic freedom being the most important shortcoming. Belarus failed to join the Bologna process, a system designed to ensure that higher education standards are roughly equivalent and help to promote freedom of movement within Europe. This ‘Bologna isolation’ has prevented many young generations of Belarusians from participating in European student exchange programmes.
Belarus Becomes a Magnet for Turkmen Students
Despite the shortcomings of the Belarusian educational system, Belarus has itself become a popular destination for international students. By 2013, the number of foreign nationals attending Belarusian universities and colleges had reached 14,000.
Belarus hosts students from about 88 countries. Two thirds come from post-Soviet states, roughly one third – from Asia. Europe accounts for a mere 1.5% of students. In the 2012/2013 academic year, citizens of Turkmenistan accounted for 53% of the total number of international students in Belarus.
Most international students attend the Belarusian State University, Belarusian State Medical University or Belarusian National Technical University. For a long time, medicine and pharmacy (22.6%) were the most popular programmes among international students in Belarus. Now other programmes are catching up.
On rare occasion, Belarus hosts US students. For example, a few years ago the University at Albany offered a service-learning course in Belarus focused on the impact of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. The students stayed in hotels and with host families in Belarus and were involved in the preservation of a neglected Jewish cemetery. Speaking Belarusian or Russian was not required to join the course.
Far-reaching Consequences for Academic Mobility
As a growing number of Belarusians travel abroad, analysts fear brain drain. Studying abroad increases the likelihood of subsequent employment and residence in a foreign country. Students from a country with numerous socioeconomic and political problems such as Belarus may be especially prone to seek emigration.
According to the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs, however, most Belarusian students return home upon completion of their studies. Employment and residency barriers in western Europe may explain a high rate of return. Numbers could be even lower if the Belarusian government creates favourable employment opportunities for Belarusians with international educational experience.
A study funded by America’s National Science Foundation concluded that only 32% of Mexicans with US PhDs still live in the US five years after graduation. With appropriate policies in place, even the best and the brightest may want to return.
Students who do return upon completion of their study contribute to the economic and political development of their home country. The Belarusian economy desperately needs well-trained professionals proficient in a foreign language, as only 5% of Belarusian citizens are proficient in English, according to the Belarusian state statistical agency Belstat.
Even fewer young specialists possess the necessary intercultural competence or care about international politics. In the long run, the growing share of well-educated and well-travelled citizens with ties to democratic countries could foster positive social change in Belarus.