Protests in Ukraine, Investment from Iran, Presidency in the CIS – Belarus State TV Digest
Over the last two weeks Belarusian state Channel 1 has regularly covered the protests taking place in the eastern regions of Ukraine. It also commented upon the economic repercussions of the crisis for ordinary Ukrainians and an increase in living costs.
Lukashenka visited a few state enterprises. In one of them he met with happy workers who thanked him for their favourable workplace conditions. At another company, things took a different turn and he reprimanded the management.
Minsk will be taking over the presidency of the Commonwealth of Independent States, after Kyiv rejected to chair the organisation.
The Belarusian Leader Visits a Well-managed State Company. State TV covered Lukashenka’s visit to several state enterprises, including one that is famous ‘Sluck belts’. In its nearly 20 minutes of coverage, state TV showed how the factory is the inheritor of the cultural legacy of Sluck belts which were famous throughout Europe. The head of state expressed his enthusiasm and support for the revival of manufacturing these traditional belts and other similar initiatives.
A state TV reporter also went into great detail explaining the technology of how the belts are produced. Later, the head of state met with some women working in the factory. They were thankful for having such good working conditions, and also for the prevailing peace in the country.
The report's narrator emphasised that Lukashenka has changed his plans at the last minute and decided to visit also another company. On his way there, he spoke with people who were gathered on the street. They asked him for increased wages. The general atmosphere was from this segment appeared to be generally positive, and the Belarusian leader was in his element, joking with the crowd.
And Reprimands for Bad Management. The head of state visited another state enterprise, this time a meat-processing plant. From the outset, the footage on state TV showed a dirty and neglected enterprise. According to the narrating reporter, the absence of strong leadership was the reason for the plant's desperate appearance. Lukashenka immediately dismissed the director of the enterprise and ordered to improve things by 1 September. The managers will be held legal responsible for the negligence of the enterprise, the report concluded.
Belarus Encourages More Investment from Iran. Lukashenka met with Ali Larijani, the chairman of the Iranian parliament. The report emphasised that both countries had maintained close economic ties and their friendly relations. The coverage notes that Iranian companies have invested over $700m in Belarus.
In the past the countries planned to carry out a joint oil and gas production project as well as a facility for processing Iranian diamonds. However, in 2013 the USA and EU imposed tough sanctions against Iran, and Minsk and Tehran were forced to cease their work these projects as a result.
The Belarusian leader was actively trying to persuade Ali Larijani that investing in Belarus would bring Iran significant financial gains. Tehran could demonstrate to everyone that the country ‘exists, but also will persist for a long time, and to make it worse for our enemy, it will be flourishing,’ he said.
Lukashenka Praised the State's Official Trade Unions. Lukashenka met with the head of the pro-government (state-run) trade unions, Leanid Kozik. They discussed the level of preparedness of their sanatoriums for their potential foreign and Belarusian guests who will soon be arriving to watch the Ice Hockey World championship. Lukashenka commented that these places would also serve the Belarusian public once the championship is over.
Kozik also reported on the state of the nation's trade unions and commented that the situation remained ‘normal and there is nothing to be worried about.’ Albeit there being 23,000 organisations associated with the official trade unions, he confirmed that he was well aware of what people were saying and what they wanted.
Lukashenka also thanked the trade unions for their ‘calm, quiet and unobtrusive work organising the local elections.’ A number of trade unions’ activists not only sat in on the electoral commissions throughout the country, but also were elected to the local government bodies.
The Collective Security Treaty Organisation Discusses Regional and International Security. One of the main topics remained Syria and Ukraine. The coverage relayed that the CSTO urges Kyiv to curb the activity of radicals and disarm illegal military units. The CTSO believes that the situation in Ukraine should be settled in compliance with its Constitution.
Kyiv Should Deal with Its Problems on its Own. Nikolay Bardiuzha, general secretary of the CSTO, said that international organisations, such as his own and the EU, should not interfere in the internal affairs of Ukraine. ‘The very people of Ukraine themselves should be the ones to work out a position towards for settlement of their problems,’ Bardiuzha emphasised.
Minsk to Take Over Presiding CIS after Kyiv's Rejection. The coverage points out that Belarus ‘was always an active participant in [many] integration processes and advocated for the preservation of Commonwealth of Independent States.’ And while Minsk has quickly reacted, it has done so 'with understanding' with regards to Kyiv's decision. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, thanked their ‘Belarusian partners’ for their decision.
While presiding over the organisation, Minsk wants to focus on security issues. So far, state TV reports, the members of the CIS having been arguing for the immediate stabilisation of the situation in Ukraine and continuation of a multilateral dialogue.
‘Conflict in Ukraine Concerns the International Community’. The opponents of the new authorities in Kyiv continue their protests in a few Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk. The protesters reject the legitimacy of the authorities in Kyiv. According to a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative, the extremist ‘Right Sector’ has also entered Ukraine's eastern regions. That information, however, remains unconfirmed – the report notes.
Members of the Ukrainian Parliament argued over the official status of Russian language. The Communists advocated for elevating its status to that of a second state language, whereas the nationalists from Svaboda disagreed with their proposal. ‘The political and social crisis in Ukraine seriously concerns the world community,’ the reporting journalist concludes, while not delving into more details.
Costs of the Political Crisis. Beginning 1 April Ukraine will pay up to 80% more for gas. Thus, Kyiv is planning to negotiate its current contract with Gazprom. The report also discusses the ongoing protests in Ukraine's eastern regions. However, the tone of the protesters has softened, they note. An atmosphere of unease also remains in the western regions of Ukraine. In Lviv, protesters seized the office building of the general prosecutor and demanded his dismissal.
Kyiv: Massive Military Costs and No Perspective for NATO Membership. Despite its economic difficulties, the Ukrainian authorities will not cut back on its military expenses. Kyiv has planned eight joint military drills with NATO. The coverage also made mention of a statement by Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish Minister for Foreign Affairs, that NATO is not even considering Ukraine's membership in the military alliance.
Meanwhile, Brussels is reviewing possibly imposing further sanctions against Moscow for its annexation of Crimea.
Recently the Russian Ministry of Defence has opened up its archives and published on its web site documents on the activity of Ukrainian nationalists in western Ukraine during World War II. The documents show the development of a nationalist movement in the country, but also its relation to the Nazis and its part in repression aimed against peaceful people.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). 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.
Belarusian Vacationers Will Avoid Crimea This Summer
On 9-12 April an exhibition called Holiday 2014 took place in Minsk. Unlike in previous years, people do not appear to be particulary interested in purchasing what are usually popular offers for getaways to Crimea.
In the past, almost half a million Belarusian tourists annually travelled to Crimea fort the summer holidays. This tradition began back in the Soviet Union and continued on afterwards due to the low prices found in Ukraine, the absence of a language barrier and a visa-free regime.
But the recent developments in Ukraine have destroyed the plans of many Belarusians for this summer.
Problems with transportation and the peninsula's insecurity have forced Belarusians to seek out other Black Sea resorts, primarily in Bulgaria and Turkey. Many who cannot afford to travel to these more expensive destinations will stay at their dachas and villages this summer.
A Famous USSR Resort
According to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea statistics, from 2009 to 2013 the number of Belarusian tourists in the Crimea grew twofold. Tourist companies report that in 2013 around 400,000 Belarusians visited Crimea. Belarus took third place, after Ukraine and Russia respectively, with regard to the number of tourists who spent time on the Black Sea peninsula.
Crimea traditionally played the role of a USSR-wide resort, with people from all parts of the union go thing during the holiday season. A true Soviet brand, after the USSR collapsed, it remained among the top destinations for many from post-Soviet countries. With no language barrier or visa regime, thousands of Belarusians have travelled to Crimea each year to enjoy a little rest and relaxation. Even people with modest wages were able to afford a stay, and as such, Crimea has long served as a popular and affordable option.
But the recent developments in Ukraine have Belarusians changing their summer plans. A storm of negative stories on Ukraine in the Russian media tell people that tourists are robbed and their cars are being stolen. Belarusians worry that their favourite destination has become a dangerous place and now they have to think about finding another place to spend their summer vacation. As a result, tourists are returning their pre-paid tourist packages and are demanding their money back.
Instability Scares Belarusians
On 9-12 April Minsk hosted an exhibition called Holiday 2014. In the past, trips to Crimea were at a part of the main showcase. Yet this time few Crimea offers from Belarusian companies appeared at the exhibition. As representatives of these companies have explained, they simply cannot guarantee the safety of their clients due to the instability in Ukraine. Lacking a stable and legitimate authority and law enforcement institutions, Ukraine has become too dangerous to travel around.
Belarusian aircraft company Belavia cancelled its only flight to Crimea. Read more
It remains unclear whether people will be able to get to Crimea via Ukraine. The Belarusian aircraft company Belavia recently cancelled its only flight to Crimea. Furthermore, beginning 27 May the national Belarusian railroad company will stop selling tickets on Belarusian trains to Ukraine.
This is, in part, a result of the the Crimean government not synchronising the peninsula's train schedule with the national Ukrainian railroad system, with the latter being required to stop all trains in its network to be able to update the schedule and bring them in sync. Since this was not Belarus' initiative, no one can predict the time of its the two countries renewing their ties, an issue which is problematic for Belarusian tourists looking to get away from home this summer. Another alternative is to go through Russia, but to do so, one will need additional time and money.
Not only are trips to Ukraine suffering from the unfolding crisis. Trips for children to Bulgaria, which usually necessitates travel through Ukraine, are at risk of falling apart as well. Parents are setting terms with tourism companies as well: either they make a detour around Ukraine or they will refuse to pay for the trip. The companies are going to be forced to help their clients acquire Polish visas in case the situation in Ukraine will not improve.
As Siarhej Dalhanaŭ, director of the Dolsan company, says, “We have become hostages of the information war. The president says that we remain friends with Ukraine, but people come home and turn on Russian TV. If we do not persuade the tourists now, they will never come back.” Indeed, Russian propaganda depicts Ukraine as a place where rule of law does not exist anymore and everything is descending into chaos. If you go Ukraine, "Banderite extremists" and the "Right Sector" will certainly stop and rob you on the road. And many Belarusians believe this.
However, Vadzim Karamzin, an official at the Ministry of Tourism and Sports is not too concerned about the current trends developing in the tourist industry. He thinks that Belarusians will prefer the resorts of Bulgaria and Krasnodar Krai of Russia over their traditional Ukrainian destinations.
Ukraine Trying Not to Lose Tourists
For Ukrainians though, especially in the seaside regions, tourism accounts for a large portion of their revenues and people are not so inclined to just sit back and watch their livelihood be forsaken so easily. On 11 April the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk gave a press conference on tourism and travel in Ukraine during the coming summer season. Ambassador Mikhail Ezhel urged the audience not to believe the Russian TV and Internet tales that portray Ukraine as being lawless and dangerous.
Ukraine cannot guarantee the safety of Belarusians in the Crimea, but suggests that Belarusians visit other seaside regions on Ukraine's mainland, like in Kherson, Berdyansk and Odessa, or enjoy other resorts like those found in the Carpathian mountains. Moreover, Belarusians will be able to benefit from Ukrainian holidays also because of Ukraine's ongoing currency devaluation.
Representatives of the Ukrainian tourist business have also visited Belarus in order to persuade Belarusians that Ukraine remains safe. Read more
Representatives of Ukrainian tourist business have also visited Belarus in order to persuade Belarusians that Ukraine remains safe. They even announced a plan to organise a tour around Ukraine for Belarusian companies to show them that Ukraine presents no danger to tourists.
However, the Chair of Republican Union of Tourist Organisations of Belarus Valiancin Cechmeister predicts that this season Belarusians are not only likely to not visit Crimea, but Ukraine in general because of the nation's instability and unrest. This has also been confirmed by a spike in demand for trips to Bulgaria and Lithuania, according an interview with Cechmeister on Deutsche Welle Radio.
The European Alternative
Last week around 40 Lithuanian tourist companies came to Belarus to present their products, and the Ambassador of Lithuania himself took part in the presentation. He told the audience that the number of Lithuanian visas issued in 2013 grew by 20% to 232,000. 420,000 tourists from Belarus visited Lithuania in 2013, and each tourist spent €150 on average during their stay.
In recent years Lithuania and Belarus have been developing a railroad project to reduce the travel time between Minsk and Vilnius. What was a 4 hour journey previously now takes only 2.30 – and the authorities are hoping to get that down to 2 hours.
This year Latvia also expects more tourists from Belarus, due to several factors – the Crimean crisis, Latvia's similar climate and its close proximity. The Latvian State Agency of Tourism noted in its development reports that in 2013 the inflow of Belarusian tourists to Latvia increased by 37% compared to 2012.
However, the Baltic Sea and its climate cannot compare with the much warmer Black Sea, so many Belarusians will look for sunny beaches in Bulgaria and Turkey. But these resorts are more expensive and will hardly satisfy almost half a million Belarusians who are used to spending their summer holidays in Crimea.
Tourist companies accept that cheap Crimean offers can hardly be replaced by other destinations. Even Belarusian health resorts are more costly. For a family of three, for example, 10 days in Crimea this August would have cost around $1,000, while in Bulgaria and Lithuania Belarusians will have to pay $2,000 and even more in Turkey.
It is beginning to look like many Belarusians will remain on their dachas and parent’s villages in Belarus this summer.