Referendum rejected, black market for alcohol, Lukashenka plants corn – Belarus state press digest
Lukashenka rejected plans for a constitutional referendum. The Operational and Analytical Centre head gives their first ever interview. Lukashenka rode a tractor to plant corn with Moldova’s president Igor Dodon.
Counterfeit alcohol from Russia floods the Belarusian black market. Belarusian exports remains concentrated in very few markets and need diversification. The visa-free regime in Hrodna attracts Poles and Lithuanians.
All this in the latest edition of the Belarus state press digest.
Foreign policy and domestic politics
Lukashenka rejected plans for a constitutional referendum. On 24 April, Alexander Lukashenka delivered his annual state of the nation address to the Belarusian people and the parliament, reports Belarus Segodnia. During the one-and-a-half-hour speech, he discussed a variety of issues, including the rumours about planned changes to the constitution. “If someone thinks that we will change the constitution, and thus create the conditions for a Maidan here, [then they should know that] this will not happen.” The president claimed that the Belarusian opposition does not want to take power because it does not know what to do with it.
However, he also said that he can safely transfer certain presidential powers to other governmental bodies because the system functions well. Lukashenka admitted that Belarus currently fails to use its geographical potential in terms of logistics: people prefer to fly from Kiev, Vilnius, or anywhere other than Belarus. He also confirmed government intentions to establish a special ministry for information technologies soon. “By 2020 Belarus should appear to the world as attractive, comfortable and progressive,” the Belarusian president demanded.
Lukashenka and Moldovan president Igor Dodon rode tractors and planted corn. On 18-19 April, Lukashenka visited Moldova, reports Zviazda. The presidents of Belarus and Moldova attended an exhibition of modern Belarusian agricultural machinery at the Institute of Plant Industry, discussed developing cooperation in this field and then planted a corn field, with the presidents driving their own tractors. Igor Dodon said that most of the wines produced in Moldova go to Belarus.
Given the high popularity of Moldovan wine, Dodon promised to teach Lukashenka how to grow grapes. During the visit, the Government of Belarus and the Moldova-Agroindbank (a commerical bank) signed an agreement on the lending terms for the purchase of Belarusian goods. Moldova’s prime minister, Pavel Filip, remarked that jointly-produced Moldovan-Belarusian trolleybuses will be exported to the EU without customs duties and therefore suggest a promising area for further cooperation.
The head of the Operational and Analytical Centre (OAC) gave his first interview ever. On the special service’s 10th anniversary, its head Andrej Paŭliučenka furnished Belarus Segodnia with details of work at the centre, created to ensure the protection of information and the development of internet technologies. Paŭliučenka characterised early attacks on Belarusian information systems as disorganised and spontaneous. In recent years, however, hacker teams seem to have one or more coordination centres. These groups try to hack into Belarusian defence systems with geopolitical or mercantile goals.
Turning to internal threats, corruption remains the most serious issue and the OAC particularly deals with combating corruption at the highest levels of power. Paŭliučenka also said that the OAC does not shut down websites as many think. It provides for the stable and reliable operation of networks and databases; the OAC serves as engineer and architect of the national segment of the Internet.
Counterfeit alcohol from Russia dominates the Belarusian black market. Narodnaja Hazieta investigated the black market for alcohol in Belarus. Black marker dealers sell half a litre of vodka for 1 euro online, while in the stores the same volume costs 3 euros. Five-litre cans of so-called “confectionery brandy” are offered for 12 euros. According to the Central Department for Combating Economic Crime, more than 95% of illegal alcohol products entering Belarus come from Russia. Indeed, large criminal groups run a highly profitable business.
The influx of counterfeit alcohol has even made the traditional moonshine industry less attractive among the population. While in 2011 the police confiscated 111,400 decalitres of moonshine, in 2015 it took away only 69,200 decalitres. Counterfeit alcohol is typically of poor quality and often causes poisoning. According to information provided by the Minsk Regional Department of Internal Affairs, during the first 3 months of 2018 in the Minsk region alone, 61 people died from the consumption of ethyl alcohol or other alcoholic surrogates.
Belarusian exports remain concentrated on a few markets and needs diversification. In 2017 and early 2018, Belarusian exports saw stable growth for the first time since 2012, according to Zviazda. A favourable situation in the raw materials market and in the markets of Belarus’s major trading partners contributed to this growth. However, geographical diversification for export goods remains lower than the government expects. In January – February 2018, five national markets accounted for almost 71% of Belarusian exports.
However, the share exports to Russia saw a positive trend. In January – February it amounted to 38.2% compared to 45% over the same period last year. Speaking about commodity diversification and the example of exports to the European Union, Prime Minister Andrej Kabiakoŭ noted that Belarusian exports to the EU consist of a narrow range of goods with a significant share of petroleum products (50%). “The high concentration on the market of one or a few countries, or in a narrow range of goods, poses significant risks for our country,” the Kabiakoŭ said.
The visa-free regime in Hrodna attracts Poles and Lithuanians. Before the introduction of the visa-free regime in Hrodna city, it received 4,700 tourists per year. Since the introduction of the new visa regime, 52,000 foreigners visited the nearby Augustow Canal alone. According to Respublika, 35-40% of tourists travel only for shopping. Visitors mostly buy goods that cannot be found in their home country: medicine, marshmallows, jellies, kvass, birch sap, linen, jersey and alcohol. Lithuanians show strong interest in the historical sites connected with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the medieval state of Belarusians and Lithuanians.
The head of a Polish tourist company from the city of Bialystok, Eugeniusz Laureniuk, notes that religious tourism in Belarus has become popular with Poles in recent years. Active tourism, especially cycling tours, also remain popular. But the lack of hotels, especially in small towns, presents a serious problem. While Hrodna and Brest more or less cope with accommodating tourists, Lida and Baranavičy, both towns with 100,000 inhabitants have only one hotel each.
The state press digest is based on the 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.
BNR centenary, Zombie Ideas, Alexievich crowdfunding – Belarus civil society digest
BNR centenary marked by an impressive assembly in Minsk and other cities of Belarus and abroad. New Ideas Center launches the Zombie Ideas project to “bury” outdated concepts. Dzeja offers lectures on EU integration.
Largest crowdfunding campaign in Belarus: over $105K raised from corporate and private contributors to publish Svetlana Alexievich’s 5-volume edition.
School of Inclusive Barista graduates first class. Volunteers translate Civil Law Code into the Belarusian language. Belarus Free Theatre wins Havel Prize.
II March Meetings – largest civic activism forum in Belarus – will take place in Minsk on April 20-21: feel free to register and spread the word.
This and more in the new edition of Belarus civil society digest.
Expert events and political leadership
New Ideas Centre launches Zombie Ideas project. The project consists of a series of meetings where the experts will examine and bury ideas, which Belarus inherited from the Soviet Union or the traditional society. The first debate is devoted to Soviet education and will take place in Minsk, on 24 April.
New Leadership for Eastern Europe project aims to expand the Belarusian and Ukrainian network of leaders to support democratic changes in these countries. The project will select 30 participants who will take part in a conference and training for trainers. Deadline for applications is 20 April. Belarusian organiser is the Institute for Development and Social Market.
IPM Research Centre is looking for KEF regional partners. The call aims to increase the capacity of Belarusian CSOs in promoting responsible economic policy at the local level. Six CSOs will be selected to conduct researches, conferences, and seminars in the regions within the framework of Kastryčnicki Economic Forum with the budget of $10K euros. Deadline for applications is 16 April.
Public lectures on EU integration processes and institutions are offered by Dzeja initiative. The lecturer is Alieś Lahviniec. The course is taught since 2006 and aims to provide a detailed picture of the EU integration processes and the basic policies. The programme includes debates and discussion of topical issues of European integration with the participation of Belarusian and foreign experts.
National University registered in Belarus. It is named in honour of the Belarusian national poet Nil Hilievič. Education will be delivered fully in Belarusian. The former head of the Belarusian Language Society Alieh Trusaŭ is nominated for the rector position. $7-8 million is required for the university to start a full-fledged activity.
National and cultural initiatives
Belarusians donate 5 times more than needed for Alexievich’s edition. The crowdfunding campaign aimed at publishing Nobel laureate in Literature Svetlana Alexievich’s five-volume edition in Belarusian without censorship has raised over $105K instead of planned $20K. There are 7 days until the end of the campaign. The campaign has become the biggest crowdfunding action in Belarus.
BNR centenary marked by an impressive rally in Minsk. The centenary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR) was marked on 25 March by a large-scale rally full of festive spirit in front of the Opera Theater in downtown Minsk. The rally was attended by a crowd estimated from 5,000 to 50,000. Organised by civil society and political parties and supported via crowdfunding, the festive events also took place in other cities of Belarus and abroad.
Belarusian-language Civil Code released. This became possible due to the efforts of 70 translators volunteers who for 1,5 months worked on the translation of 600 pages of the Civil Code. So far Belarus has had one of the basic laws only in Russian. Now the text of the Code will be submitted to the Ministry of Justice for approval as an official translation.
Belarus Free Theatre won Havel Prize. The prize celebrates those who, with bravery and ingenuity, unmask the lie of dictatorship by living in truth. “Belarus Free Theatre defies oppression in its proud celebration of free speech and the arts, bravely defending civil liberties in a Soviet-ruled state,” said Havel Prize Committee Chairman. The awarding ceremony will be held during the 2018 Oslo Freedom Forum on 30 May.
First graduates of the School of Inclusive Barista. In Lida town, five persons in wheelchairs passed an exam for the barista certificate. School of Inclusive Barista is organised in Belarus for the first time. During 2018, the classes will be held in four other cities of Hrodna region. The project is implemented under the Learning to Act program supported by the European Union and DVV International.
A new stage of the information campaign on de-institutionalisation is announced by the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The new stage aims to influence the opinion and knowledge of Belarusians on a way of a tolerant and positive attitude towards people with mental disabilities. The campaign includes such tools as a thematic video, a mini-grant competition, and a summing up conference in May.
Camp for active rehabilitation is organised by the Republican Association of Wheelchair Users on 14-26 July, in Minsk. The programme provides for sports, competitions, lectures on legislation, healthy lifestyle, history of the Paralympic movement, as well as intensive networking.
II March Meetings Civil Society Forum to take place on 20-21 April, in Minsk. Sakavitskiya Sustrechy/ March Meetings is a civic activism fest and the largest platform for sharing experiences and establishing the dialogue between the active citizens. The Forum will be held for the second time and focus on the demonstration and celebration of civic activism diversity in Belarus. Registration is open until 15 April.
EaP Civil Society Hackathon will take place on 1-3 June, in Minsk and bring together about 60 civil society activists, IT professionals and web-designers from six Eastern Partnership countries. For three days, experts will work together on ICT tools and solutions that would enable CSOs and activists better serve the needs of their communities, and help citizens participate in decision-making. Registration is open.
#30 days of biking starts on 1 April in Minsk. On the same day, the action will start around the world and requires riding a bicycle only during all April. A Belarusian organiser, Minsk Bicycle Society, believes that the action is an excellent motivation for those who want to quickly get in shape after the cold season. Participation is free. To date, over 800 participants have already registered to participate the action.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.