Summary of the 6th Annual ‘Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century’ Conference

On the 18-19 February 2021 the 6th Annual ‘Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century’ conference gathered participants from various countries of Europe and North America to present and discuss academic research related to Belarus.

The University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum co-organised this year’s conference.

It welcomed 25 scholars who presented their research on Belarus with particular focus on the 2020-21 protests.

Opening Remarks

Professor Yarik Kryvoi, the Ostrogorski Centre, thanked the speakers for their contribution towards the demystification of Belarusian politics. Uprisings have never resulted in regime change in the history of Belarus. The unprecedented Belarusian protests of 2020-21 show that the potential for political change is unlikely to be lost.

Dr Andrew Wilson, the University College London SSEES, equally recognized the importance of research on the political history of Belarus. Dr Wilson announced the possible addition of an individual course on Belarusian history at the SSEES.

The Origins of the 2020 Uprising in Belarus

In his keynote speech Professor David Marples, University of Alberta, addressed the “question of when”. His view is that political change will occur when Alexander Lukashenka leaves office.

Both the myth of the Great Patriotic War and the appropriation of the Stalinist legacy serve to solidify the foundation of the authoritarian regime in Belarus. The lack of efficient response to the Covid-19 epidemic shows how a mantra of ignorance is strength also pervades the present.

The unprecedented size of protests in Minsk on the 23 August 2020 marked a turning point. Professor David Marples disagrees with Belarusian sociologist Oleg Manaev’s opinion that little has changed. The Belarus of Lukashenka is not there to stay for too long. Rural support has corroded, the Parasite Law has broken the state-worker social contract and Lukashenka has failed to offer economic change. Most importantly, an unprecedentedly large, dissatisfied population continue to protest in the cities of Belarus. It is demographically diverse and continually growing.

Political change will occur, but can only occur without Lukashenka. Ultimately, the economic situation will decide whether this will happen by decision or by force. For the dissidents it is a question of time, for the regime a question of fear and survival.

Lukashenka’s Ivory Tower at Home

The first panel of the day chaired by Prof Andrew Wilson from UCL focused on state media use. Dr Stephen Hall, University of Cambridge, used a collection of interviews to explain why Lukashenka has failed to understand his people. Policy briefs by the State Security Committee effectively cater to his own narrative. Lukashenka has built himself an ivory tower.

Andrei Kalavur, Masaryk University, presented on the state media campaign during the elections. Lukashenka’s lack of understanding of the power of non-state digital media meant that he never changed his campaign. In the lead-up to the 2020 elections Natallia Eismant, his press secretary, repeated the same “information dramaturgy”. The aim was the manufacture of crisis to promote the need for a strongman. Once more state press demonised the opposition, once more it warned of impeding external threats. It nothing but fatigued the Belarusian people.

Dr Nataliia Steblyna, Vasyl Stus Donetsk National University, analysed state media discourse. She compiled state media sources from 2005-2019 to create indices. These showed a significant increase in the representation of political actors and in political emotions. She also spotted a gap in digital coverage from 2005-2008. Only after 2008 did the state begin to disseminate its discourse digitally. The delayed response made possible the spread of network communities with alternative agendas. The internet became the adversary of the state.

Potemkin Village Abroad

A focus on foreign relations matched the domestic focus. Yahor Azarkevich, University of Glasgow, compared the foreign policy operational codes of Alexander Lukashenka and Donald Trump.

He compiled sources from 2010-2020 through the Verbs in Context System. Similar to Dr Steblyna’s research, he concluded that Lukashenka’s foreign policy discourse remains relatively stable.

Dr Sándor Földvári, Debrecen University, addressed the recurrent topic of Belarus’ foreign policy of drift. Although economically dependent on Russia, if Orban’s Hungary can exist in the EU then so could Belarus. The panel discussion spotted a lack of literature on the question of EU investment in Belarus. Dr Földvari encourages further research on this topic.

The presentation of Ekaterina Pierson-Lyzhina, Université libre de Bruxelles, discussed the multi-vector foreign policy of Belarus. This policy consists of a strategy of economic dependence on Russia and soft power rhetoric with the EU. The doors of the EU are now closing, however. Opportunism can only work for so long.

The Opposition

Dr Volha Charnysh from Massachusetts Institute of Technology chaired the final panel focused on the identity of resistance.

Dr Sasha Razor presented an incredibly engaging visual presentation on articulations of national identity through protest art. The medium of embroidery, by artists like Rufina Bazlova, shows that protesters have chosen white-red-white as their symbol. The red thread which weaves through all protest art is the binding call for a democratic end to violence.

Aliaksandr Kazakou, an independent researcher from Belarus, reengaged Professor Marples’ point on state appropriation of the Soviet period. Protesters carefully dodge everything which makes up the inherently repressive state discourse. Their national identity formation stands in antithesis to state discourse.

Lastly, Dr Joanna Getka presented on the visual contra-propaganda of the protest. Behind its playful and mocking nature lies rapid self-organisation and civil solidarity.

The first day closed with a vibrant discussion between panellists and attendees as to what, if not solely the slightly restrictive passport, constitutes Belarusian identity. The second day shifted the focus from contemporary political developments to the history, society and culture of Belarus.

Belarusian Historical Memory

The next chapter focused on Belarusian historical memory and was chaired by Dr Alena Marková from Charles University.

Dr Aleksandra Pomiecko, University of Manitoba, opened with a study of the Sluck insurrection of 1920, the first national uprising. Soviet historiography had wrongly discarded the insurrectionists as solely counter-revolutionary in aspiration.

The Belarusian state neither approved nor disapproved the Soviet narrative. Today, protesters view Sluck as an example of individuals fighting for their national belief.

But national identity is not majoritarian. Professor Boris Czerny, the University of Caen, has studied the Jewish population of Brest-Litovsk in 1915-18. An investigation rich in primary sources recounted the identity struggle of a population trapped between two occupying forces and a diktat treaty. Professor Czerny emphasised that 1916, the Jewish population trapped in war, necessitates a connection to 1942, its genocide.

Maryna Laurynovich, Charles University, concluded with a chronological study of Piotr Masherau, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Byelorussia. Previously, the figure of Masherau had personified the state’s founding myth. Then it steadily fell into the ash heap of history.

The Formation of a National Identity?

The second panel of the day focused on social history and chaired by Dr Peter Braga from UCL.

Dr Alena Marková, Charles University, agreed that Belarusian national identity has always formed under the auspices of the Soviet past. Identity formed after the state. The 1990 Law on Language saw letters of support in Belarusian, but also in Russian.

Mark Cinkevich, an independent researcher from Belarus, presented on the formation of state identity. To Miss Woolley’s question of whether Soviet history has swallowed up Belarusian history this presentation too answered with a resounding yes. Belarusian society never came to terms with its Soviet past because instead of de-Stalinization the state reappropriated the Soviet legacy.

Lizaveta Dubinka-Hushcha’s research at the Copenhagen Business School usually involves the international relations of Denmark. It was the intriguing story of the Cross of Dagmar which inspired a research detour on St Sophia of Polotsk. Based on consultations with Belarusian goldsmiths and her academic research she confirmed the high probability that the cross of Dagamar originated from Belarus.

Symbols of Belarusian Culture

Dr Karalina Matskievich from the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum chaired the final panel. It focused on cultural history.

Vitali Byl, University of Greifswald, presented on Ruthenian witchdoctors in the Lithuanian witch-hunt. Until the Catholic Church started to persecute witchdoctors their healing practices had symbolised folk culture.

Dr Simon Lewis, University of Bremen, spoke about poetry and music in the contemporary culture of the protests. In an expression of national solidarity poets have become leaders. At the end of the presentation, he recited The Stone of Fear, a poem by Julia Cimafiejeva on the suffocating fear of repression passed down from generation to generation.

A.M. LaVey, University of Rhode Island, showed how Belarusian textiles constitute national identity. Mr LaVey emphasised Dr Razor’s argument that embroidery and protest dovetail. Belarusian textiles developed from a utilitarian object into a political symbol. Meanwhile, national costume transformed into a state symbol. It is state resentment which gives potential to symbols of protest.

Concluding Remarks

The University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum kindly thank the speakers. Many presenters will have the opportunity to turn their research into a journal article published in The Journal of Belarusian Studies.

Daniel Szöke

Videos of each conference panel are available here




Freedom day, escalation with Russia, and the ‘Ministry of Truth’ – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

Despite Lukashenka’s declarations on closer integration with Russia, long-term trends show that Belarus is gradually distancing itself from Russia. OSCE representative visits Minsk. Belarus seeks warmer relations with NATO.

Belarus’s self-awareness is on the rise. Belarusian authorities show tolerance to the Freedom day concert, yet demolish crosses at Kurapaty. Nobel Prize laureate Sviatlana Alexievich condemns the authorities over the Kurapaty crosses demolishing.

Russia will provide Belarus with a state loan of $600 million. Benefits for IT sector work grow, yet IMF and World Bank worsened Belarus GDP growth forecast for 2019.

Foreign Policy

Belarus: The State in the Middle – Gabriella Gricius, Global Security Review, argues how long Belarus can continue to balance between East and West. For two decades, Belarus has played a game of “Monkey in the Middle.” Amidst increasing tensions between Russia and the West, however, it remains to be seen how much longer it can continue to do so.

OSCE Special Representative: Fighting Against Fakes, One Cannot Create a “Ministry of Truth” – The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir visited Minsk on March 18-20 and met both state and independent media, as well as MFA and the Ministry of Information. In his interview to TUT.by, Harlem Désir tells if the OSCE can influence the Belarusian authorities and how to deal with fake news without restricting freedom of speech.

Belarus-Russia: Is a New Alliance Model Possible? – Dzianis Melyantsov and Yauheny Preiherman, the Minsk Dialogue expert initiative, do not believe that the recent Russo-Belarusian conflicts are just an ordinary allied routine. In fact, today Minsk and Moscow are arguing about the basics of their relationship: what format of the Union State, which this year marks its 20th anniversary should be.

Will Russia try to occupy Belarus? – Ryhor Astapenia, at The Washington Post, tells four things you need to know about the two nations’ falling out. In brief, a closer look at the evidence suggests that the chances of Putin governing Belarus are slim. While Alexander Lukashenka may publicly say that the two countries may integrate more, long-term trends show that Belarus is gradually distancing itself from Russia.

Security

Escalation After Tea. Why Minsk Noisily Quarreled With the Russian Ambassador – Artiom Shraibman, at Carnegie Moscow Center, assumes that heated rhetoric between the Russian ambassador and official Minsk is a symptom of deeper processes in the mutual relations. Both sides feel that they have come to some historical threshold. The old format of friendship has been exhausted so much that there is nothing to risk with.

Foreign Minister Makei Source: Belarus’s Foreign Ministry Press Service

Not an Enemy: Belarus Seeks Warmer Relations With NATO – Arseny Sivitsky observes that Belarus wants to expand constructive dialogue with NATO. However, further development of cooperation is limited by institutional and ideological constraints, which include the lack of necessary NATO framework agreements, false perceptions in the West of Belarus as a political-military appendage of Russia and concerns over the lack of progress in democratic reforms.

About the Information Security Concept of Belarus – Belarus Security Blog analyzes the Information Security Concept adopted in March 2019. In general, the concept itself is a positive trend in the work of the authorities in the information sphere, but it is aimed at ensuring the information security of the authorities, but not the people. Also, experts doubt that all the concept’s provisions will be fully implemented in practice.

National Identity

Freedom Day: Metamorphosis of Power and Opposition – Considering this year Freedom Day, Artiom Shraibman sees that the authorities and the opposition change their attitude to one of the main annual events of Belarusian politics. So, the authorities show their tolerance to concerts in authorized and fenced squares. The opposition has been divided into a “new” of young bloggers and activists, and a “political” of traditional opposition structures

Words Matter: Belarus’s Self-Awareness on the Rise Analyzing the recent exchange between Mikhail Babich, Russia’s ambassador to Minsk, and the Belarusian MFA, Grigory Ioffe believes that public remarks made in recent weeks have arguably contributed to Belarusians’ self-awareness and national consolidation at least as much, if not more than, all of the persistent political chatter of the last quarter century.

Sviatlana Alexievich: This is a Reference Point In Our History – Commenting the demolition of crosses in Kurapaty, Nobel laureate in literature Svetlana Alexievich admits that even she, accustomed to conflict with the authorities, was shocked. The writer is confident that even this case doesn’t lead to revolution and mass protest, there will be a notch in the mass memory about that day when the power has passed some new line.

Economy

Economic authorities propose changes in the stock and securities market to give a boost to regional development. The Finance Ministry proposes to abandon the preemptive right of executive committees to acquire shares, which has a restraining effect on investments in the regions. In addition, economic authorities envisage reducing the state’s share in joint-stock companies. 

Russia will provide Belarus with a state loan of $600 million. The funds will be used to refinance payments to repay the previous loans. By the end of April, Minsk can also receive the 7th tranche of $200 million from the Eurasian Foundation for Stabilization and Development (EFSD). The total EFSD loan of $2 billion is provided to support the reform program in Belarus.

Sviatlana Alexievich. Source: tut.by

Benefits for IT sector work. In 2018, the total tax payments of Hi-Tech Park’s companies and their employees have amounted to almost $280 million. This is $7 thousand per employee, which exceeds the tax payments of the average employee in the Belarusian economy almost 5 times. This is a finding of the review prepared by the IPM Research Center.

IMF and World Bank worsened Belarus GDP growth forecast for 2019. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has revised downward its forecasts for the economic growth in Belarus in 2019 from 3.1% year-on-year to 1.8%. The World Bank also revised the nation’s GDP growth from 2.7% to 2.2% in 2019 and said that the economic growth would depend on the results of Minsk’s talks with Russia on compensation for the so-called ‘tax manoeuvre’ in the oil sector.

Other

Belarus criticized for poor anti-corruption standards. The Council of Europe, in an unprecedented move, has publicly declared Belarus’ failure in anti-corruption standards adopted in European countries. Twenty of 24 recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) “have remained outstanding”.

ICNL releases report on restrictions on higher education. The report seeks to understand the ways in which governments are repressing university autonomy and closing academic space. Belarus is mentioned in relation to forced membership in the government-controlled youth organization, the pressure on students for their socio-political activity, etc.

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.




Information security, oiling Belarus-Russia relationship, Lukashenka’s sixth term – Digest of Belarusian analytics

While Belarus hedges carefully between East and West, Minsk and Brussels both claim they are eager to deepen ties. Lukashenka and  Putin meet for the fourth time over the course of two months. Arguments about oil and gas prices have become a recurring feature of the Belarus-Russia relationship.

Experts see the major threats in 2019 in Russo-Belarusian security relations that are likely to remain the least prone to conflicts. EAST Research Center proposes implementing security measures to strengthen the information security of Belarus. Minsk’s muddled media clampdown could jeopardize the warming of relations with the West.

Lukashenka plans to run for the sixth term in 2020 and might change the constitution. Belarus’ bold attempt to attract foreign investors in IT sector gets restricted by the country’s autocratic regime. Since 1994, the proportion of Belarusian-language education has been shrinking at all levels.

Foreign Policy

How Close Can Belarus And EU Really Get? – This week senior EU official, the Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources Gunther Oettinger visited Minsk and met Alexander Lukashenka (as well as civic activists). Minsk and Brussels both claim they are eager to deepen ties, but the pace of rapprochement is slow. TUT.by political editor Artyom Shraibman analyzes what realistically can be achieved in Belarus-EU relations.

Belarus Finds its Foreign Policy Stride – Yauheni Preiherman, Minsk Dialogue, emphasizes that Belarus hedges carefully between East and West, like a hedgehog and a fox all at once. Over the next five years, the country must ensure that it becomes part and parcel of the mental (strategic) maps of both the West and Russia and specifically as a principal stakeholder in Eastern European stability.

Cautious Optimism in Belarus’s Growing Geopolitical Leverage – Grigory Ioffe continues to overview alarmist pronouncements regarding Belarus. In particular, he refers to an interview of NATO former secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen who predicted that unless Belarus launches “reforms leading to democracy and freedom” it would fall victim to war and annexation by Russia.

Belarus-Russia Relations

A Brotherly Takeover: Could Russia Annex Belarus? – Artyom Shraibman, writing for Carnegie Moscow Center, comments an opinion that the Kremlin’s recent demand to integrate with Belarus further would be an opportunity for Putin to remain in office after 2024. But the journalist believes that if Putin wishes to remain president after 2024, annexing Belarus is rife with unpredictable risks. A better option would simply be to amend the Russian Constitution.

Belarus’ Balancing Act – David A. Wemer, Atlantic Council, comments a speech of deputy minister of foreign affairs for Belarus, Oleg Kravchenko at the Atlantic Council on January 30. In brief, Belarus is attempting a delicate diplomatic dance as it attempts to thaw its relationship with the West while preserving its longstanding relationship with Russia.

State Secretary of the Belarusian Security Council Stanislav Zas (on the right) and Deputy State Secretary of the Security Council Vladimir Archakov discuss information security. Source: belta.by

Oiling the Wheels of Belarus-Russia Relations – Arguments about oil and gas prices have become a recurring feature of the Belarusian and Russian relationship. Paul Hansbury, at New Eastern Europe, explains whether this year’s discord is different from earlier bouts, and there is any merit to the speculation of potential changes to the Union State agreement between the two countries.

Alleviating Tensions Between Russia and Belarus: Two Paradigms – Grigory Ioffe analyzes debates on Russian-Belarusian tensions around the so-called oil tax manoeuvre and notes that they fall into two main categories: 1) ones carefully trying to examine the core of the issue and 2) politicized speculators. And in the new year, this latter group has remained vocal.

Security

Review 2018: Security Situation In Belarus Remained Stable – Belarus Security Blog sums up the national security “results” of 2018. In particular, there was no qualitative change in the security situation in Belarus; it should be regarded as stable. The experts see the major threats in 2019 in Russo-Belarusian security relations that are likely to remain the least prone to conflicts.

Seven Specific Measures to Strengthen the Information Security of Belarus – EAST Research Center offers the following measures: increasing the diversity of media sources considering the predominance of Russian content; promoting the Belarusian national identity and culture; the creation of attractive conditions for private investors in the media market; the development of media literacy, etc.

Beyond Lies: A New Stage in the Belarus-Russia Information War – In February, Alexander Lukashenka and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, met for the fourth time over the course of two months. Grigory Ioffe believes that at least in one respect, the new stage of Russian-Belarusian tensions is qualitatively different from previous stages: Lukashenka markedly preoccupied with information security.

Civil Society

Is Lukashenka Preparing to Hand Over Power? – The political editor of TUT.BY Artyom Shraibman breaks down key political developments in and around Belarus to help make sense of them. During his recent Big Talk on March 1, Alexander Lukashenka said that he plans to run for the sixth term in 2020. What does it mean in terms of his political future? To change the constitution.

A session of Belarus’ Security Council on 12 March. Source: belta.by

Shhh! Belarus Wants You to Think It’s Turning Over a New Leaf – Amy Mackinnon, Foreign Policy, believes that Minsk’s muddled media clampdown could jeopardize warming of relations with the West. Thus, an ongoing criminal case against the editor in chief of the country’s most widely read news site [Maryna Zolotova, TUT.by] has called into question whether Minsk is committed to reforms that are more than just cosmetic.

Belarusian Language In 1918-2018. Education and the Press – Andrei Rasinski, BISS, releases a comprehensive study on the Belarusian language situation over a hundred years. Since 1994, the proportion of Belarusian-language education has been shrinking at all levels. From 1995 to 2018, the number of Belarusian urban preschoolers decreased from 68.9% to 2.3%, while the number of students studying in Belarusian in universities decreased by 103 times, and now this is 291 students.

Economy

Economic Values of Belarusians In 2018 – Daria Urban, IPM Research Center, releases a full report on the analysis of the economic values of the Belarusians, based on a national survey’s data. The report covers such issues as the attitude of the population to wealth, the level of state paternalism, the level of public expectations from the state, and others. The work was prepared in the framework of the Kastryčnicki Economic Forum (KEF).

Sixteen results of 2018 – Strategy analytical centre and Mises Center sum up the last year’s socio-economic development of Belarus in 16 nominations. In particular, 2018 was a year of intensifying talk about the problems in the economy, rather than taking adequate and professional measures to solve them. The country continued to work in the mode of Marxist-Leninist patterns and nomenclature Robin Hoods – at the expense of taxpayers.

Will Belarus’ IT Strategy Loosen Russia’s Tightening Grip? – Tatsiana Kulakevich, writing for The Globe Post, believes that Belarus’ bold attempt to attract foreign investors and loosening its dependence from Russia by experimenting with its IT sector is restricted by the country’s personalistic autocratic regime, where the state controls most of the economy, the courts, and the media.

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.




Lukashenka meets Americans, Belarusians give up on state benefits – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

Belarus’s geopolitical importance grows amid the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Alexander Lukashenka meets American analysts in Minsk.

Eurasian Development Bank warns Belarus of risks. Belarusians no longer expect free benefits from the government. Belarus climbs up to the 37th position in Doing Business.

PACE calls on Belarus not to issue Astravets NPP license. The number of women involved in the Belarusian IT sphere has increased by 2.5 times. Belarus ranked 38th in World Ranking of English Proficiency.

This and more in the new digest of Belarusian analytics.

Politics

The autocephaly of Ukrainian Orthodox Church Spotlights Belarus’s Growing Geopolitical Importance – Grigory Ioffe notes that the latest Belarusian-Russian summit in Mahileu and the issue of Orthodox disunion together ended up spotlighting the further growth of Belarus’s geopolitical significance. The crisis and war in Ukraine had started that trend as early as 2014, leading to the promotion of Minsk as a venue for truce talks.

Partnership priorities between Belarus and EU may be signed before the yearend. This became known after the meeting of EaP foreign ministers and the EU in Luxembourg, on October 15. Belarusian MFA Head Vladimir Makei notes, “unfortunately, our partners have recently added a number of additional provisions we have to study. I think we will elaborate a position on it very soon.”

Lukashenka Meets American Analysts – Grigory Ioffe analyses the media reaction on November visit to Minsk of a group of US foreign policy analysts. But still, despite the noticeable improvement in relations with the West, Lukashenka decided against travelling to Paris to attend the celebration of the end of WW I. The analyst explains this referring to journalist Alexander Klaskouski: ‘Lukashenka prefers to enter Europe on a white horse, not to get lost in the crowd’.

Economics

Reforms needed: Eurasian Development Bank warns Belarus of risks. The unbalanced growth of salaries and the instability of its payment balance are major threats to Belarus’ economy. The EDB expert group visited Minsk on October 2-5 with a monitoring mission on amending the government’s reform program, necessary to be fulfilled for the final, seventh EFSD tranche of the credit.

Belarusians No Longer Expect Free Benefits From Government – Alexander Chubrik, IPM Research Center, talks about the results of a recent study on the values of the Belarusian society. In particular, Belarusians believe that the main task of the state is ‘to give an opportunity to earn money’. Ten years ago, such a request came only from the business. Now this answer overtakes even the provision of quality medical care, pensions, and protection against crime.

kef 2018

KEF 2018 Conference in Minsk. Source: tut.by

Belarus climbs up to the 37th position in Doing Business, according to the World Bank 2019 report. Compared to last year, Belarus has risen one place to rank 37th out of 190 economies. The country summary contains a brief description of reform: Belarus made starting a business easier by abolishing the requirement to register the book of Registry of Inspections and made dealing with construction permits easier.

KEF Results: Less Desire to Talk about Reform – In November, the 6th Kastryčnicki Economic Forum (KEFBelarus in a Brave New World was held in Minsk. This event traditionally gathers the most influential officials, businessmen, experts, and journalists. Economist Sergei Chaly sums up the KEF-2018 results and explains why there is less and less need and desire to talk about reforms.

Security

PACE calls on Belarus not to issue Ostrovets NPP license. The parliamentarians urged the authorities of Belarus not to issue an operating license for the Ostrovets nuclear power plant until it meets certain international safety standards. PACE voted for the resolution in Strasbourg, on October 11.

The Munich Security Conference (MSC) hosted its 2018 Core Group Meeting in Minsk, on October 31 and November 1. The event brought together senior government officials and representatives from international organisations, including Belarus’ president, OSCE Secretary General, EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and more.

Monitoring of the Situation in the Field of Economic Security of Belarus. October 2018 – Belarus Security Blog’s monthly monitoring indicates that the deterioration in the currency and deposit markets, caused by the September devaluation of the ruble and faster growth of population incomes, may force the authorities to adopt a policy of tightening monetary policy. This can create problems to achieve the planned GDP growth in 2019.

Belarusian army among 25 most powerful in Europe, according to the Business Insider’s latest ranking. Russia has the most powerful army in Europe, followed by France, Britain, and Turkey. Belarus was ranked 17th: the total number of active-duty and reserve military personnel in Belarus exceeds 400,000.

Information Technology

Belarus, Ukraine And Russia: Time To Revisit Their Tech? – Ilya Abugov, Crypto Briefing, notes that the Eastern European region has its share of unique problems, but even so, the blockchain scene in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia has been significantly overlooked. At this point, it is not about finding a diamond in the rough, but rather finding the entrance to the mine.

Belarusian IT: More females employed. New tendencies have appeared in the Belarusian IT sphere over the last 10 years, according to the annual research of the portal Dev.by. The number of women involved in the IT sphere has increased by 2.5 times. Females make up 1/5 of all IT specialists in the country.

Women in Belarusian IT

Belarusian IT specialists attending the first Women IT Week. Source: https://bel.biz/heroes/witw/

Belarus industrial park can help boost GDP, EBRD-supported reports find. The analytical work has helped the Bank open up more policy dialogue with the Belarusian authorities on their plans for the development of a market-oriented economy in general and the Great Stone Industrial Park in particular.

Other

Best In Travel 2019: Belarus in Top 10 countries. Lonely Planet team announced its picks for the hottest travel destinations for 2019. Belarus is tipped to be big next year. The Best in Travel 2019 book credits the country for being open to new travellers on the back of relaxed visa requirements.

Belarus ranked 38th in World Ranking of English Proficiency. This is the first time Belarus appeared on the annual EF English Proficiency Index (EPI) published for the eighth consecutive year. The 2018 survey took into account 1.3 million non-native English speakers, across 88 countries. Belarusians speak better English than their neighbours in the East and South: Russia occupies the 42nd place and Ukraine – 43rd.

KEF poll: 85.6% of Belarusians ready to fight for their country in time of war. This is data of the survey about the values of the Belarusians conducted within the framework of KEF in May-June 2018. Thus, 86.1% of respondents call the Belarusian language ‘an important part of the culture, and it should be preserved’; 85.8% say that they are proud of Belarus.

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.




LPG export growth and a war on network fakes – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

Belarus turns into a huge exporter of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to neighbouring Ukraine and Poland. Belarus’ economic authorities have managed to obtain a credit for business confidence.

The prosecutor’s office intensively detects violations in the Belarusian army. Belarusian authorities declare a war on network fakes. Minsk Dialogue Forum becomes the first attempt to identify the fundamental gaps in the regional security architecture.

The visit of Russia’s entire leadership fails to result in significant outcomes. 77% of Belarusians have either a positive or a neutral image of the EU. Contemporary Belarus bears less and less resemblance to the persistent but worn narratives about the country.

This and more in the new digest of Belarusian analytics.

Economy

Never Mind the Oysters, Belarus Grows Into Big LPG Exporter – Damir Khalmetov, Reuters, notes that Russian tensions with Ukraine and the West help Minsk work with Moscow and European states, gaining additional profit as a trade mediator and a way to gain access to the Eurasian Economic Union. This year Belarus also turned into a huge exporter of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to neighbouring Ukraine and Poland.

Trust as Driver of Economic Growth: Guidance – Alexander Chubrik, IPM Research Center, notes that in recent years, Belarus’ economic authorities have managed to obtain a credit for business confidence. The important task now is to strengthen this trust that will help mobilize domestic investment and create new jobs in the private sector. It is also important for the state to focus on institutional reforms.

Security

The situation in the Field of National Security and Defense of Belarus. May 2018 – Monthly monitoring of Belarus Security Blog draws attention to the intensity of the prosecutor’s office in detecting violations in the army. The fact of the publication of offence cases can be regarded as an extreme concern of Lukashenka personally to the state of legality in the troops.

Uladzimir Vladimir Makei Minsk Dialogue

Uladzimir Makei welcomes the participants of Minsk Dialogue. Source: tvr.by

Authorities Declared War On Network Fakes. And Armed By Them – Artiom Shraibman, TUT.by argues about a suggestion of the Belarusian general prosecutor to punish not only for libel and insults but also for distributing “unreliable information”. The problem is not in good intentions of the Belarusian authorities: Belarusian practice shows that almost any sharp criticism in the officials’ address could be considered as “unreliable information”.

Belarus, the Borderlands and the U.S.-Russia Standoff – Eugene Chausovsky, Senior Eurasia Analyst at Stratfor, highlights that like other states in the European borderlands, Belarus will continue to seek to take advantage of the Russia-West standoff to meet its strategic interests. These countries will be unable to escape their geopolitical vulnerabilities because their fates are shaped by the larger powers surrounding them.

Minsk Dialogue Forum: Why This Is Important – Denis Melyantsov, one of the organizers of the Minsk Dialogue Forum, explains why the forum has become a landmark event for Belarus. Organized by an independent expert initiative, the forum gathered half a thousand leading analysts, provided a space for Alexander Lukashenka’s speech, and became the first attempt in such a representative circle to identify the fundamental gaps in the regional security architecture.

Relations with Russia

Russia’s Entire Leadership Team Visits Minsk – Grigory Ioffe overviews the media reaction on the visit to Belarus a team of top-level Russian guests, including President, Prime Minister and the heads of both chambers of the Russian parliament on June 19. The author summarizes that the last Lukashenka-Putin summit did not result in any sensational outcomes.

July 3rd Parade is Fraught with Consequences for Minsk – The participation of foreign servicemen in the parade in Minsk on July 3rd is fraught with new complications in military-political relations between Belarus and her neighbours. In particular, this year’s event was attended by the ceremonial squad from Russian Pskov that participated in the aggression against Ukraine.

Russian military

Russian paratroopers take part in the Belarusian military parade on 3 July 2018. Source: onliner.by

Under Lukashenka, There is No and Can Not be a Pro-Russian Opposition in Belarus – Political observer Artiom Shraibman reflects whether it is possible to combine national interests and integration commitments of Belarus and Russia, says that Russia can rely less and less on Belarus in foreign policy, and believes that the West does not intend to overthrow the existing Minsk regime.

Relations with the EU

EU Neighbours East’s Annual Survey: Belarus (3rd Wave) – The opinion polls are carried out in the six EU’s Eastern Partner countries to investigate the opinion and the level of awareness about the EU and the EU cooperation. 77% of Belarusians have either a positive or a neutral image of the EU, with only 18% negative; 47% trust the EU, exactly the same number as those who trust the Eurasian Economic Union (47%).

Relations with the EU: Agenda, Problems, and Solutions. Parameters of ‘Critical Interaction’ – Dzianis Melyantsov notes that Belarus’ relations with the European Union (the second trade and economic partner after Russia) are controversial. On the one hand, there is a steady growth in trade, but on the other – an absence of a legal basis and a delay in negotiations on a number of important agreements.

Other

How Belarusian Cities Can Present Themselves At the International Level – Marina Borisova, Interakcia Foundation, presents a kit of international cooperation opportunities for Belarusian cities. The author notes that some barriers to international cooperation like language handicap can be overcome with the help of CSOs. As a rule, CSOs are more aware of such opportunities.

Clichés Clashing With Real Life in Belarus – Grigory Ioffe believes that contemporary Belarus bears less and less resemblance to the persistent but worn narratives about this country. Based on the recent developments like a public discussion around a rainbow gay pride flag at the UK Embassy in Minsk, the author concludes that staying away from habitual clichés continues to be the best prescription for foreign policymakers.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent analytics on Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




Constitutional referendum, organised crime, internet control – Belarus state press digest

The Central Election Commission head says the government can prepare a referendum in Belarus in 70 days with extra-budgetary funds. Alexander Lukashenka reveals he has “a large number of issues to discuss with the European Union.” The government amends legislation to increase control of internet media.

The police fight organised crime and war mercenaries. Belarus carries out an emergency check after the Kemerovo fire. Belarusian citizens buy more flats in Moscow than citizens from any other CIS member.

This and more in the latest Belarus state press digest.

Foreign policy  and domestic politics

The government can prepare a referendum in Belarus in 70 days with extra-budgetary funds. The head of the Central Electoral Commission, Lidzija Jarmošyna, informed that a referendum, the plans on which were recently revealed, can be arranged within 70 days.

The Central Electoral Commission organises a national referendum because most sections of the constitution can only be changed in this way. However, Jarmošyna did not specify what constitutional changes the authorities will propose, and said that the Constitutional Court will largely deal with the issue.

Moreover, it will be organised with extra-budgetary funds; companies and individuals will transfer money to the Central Electoral Commission’s account. It will cost three-to-four times less than elections because the budget only covers leaflet printing and one week’s work by the election commissions, writes Zviazda.

Lukashenka accumulated a large number of issues to discuss with the European Union. Zviazda reports that during his visit to Georgia on 22 March, the Belarusian president gave an interview to the Georgian television. Responding to a question about why he did not attend the summit of the Eastern Partnership in Brussels late last year, Lukashenka said that foreign minister Makiej was better prepared for the event’s agenda. However, in future, the president also plans to visit an EU summit since he has “a lot of proposals and issues that should be discussed with the EU.”

Фото: пресс-служба президента Беларуси

Lukashenka with the Georgian president. Photo: tut.by

Asked what he would demand from the EU, Lukashenka responded: “I do not have any claims. I just want that Europe respects us and understand the value of Belarus.” At the same time, he urged the EU not to “teach” Belarus democracy: “We see a democratic Georgia, a democratic Europe, all the pros and cons of the model. But we have our own national peculiarities.”

Belarus amended legislation to increase control over internet media. Belarus Segodnia interviewed information minister Aliaksandr Karliukievič on legal amendments designed to regulate the internet in Belarus. The amendments impose on owners of online media outlets responsibility for any information posted. The minister argues that this will make the internet safer for children.

The law introduces the term “web resource” to refer to internet media which, after voluntarily state registration, will be able to employ journalists and claim the same rights as traditional media. Their obligations will include banning the dissemination of restricted information, materials containing obscene words and expressions, false information that could harm the state or public interests, and information discrediting the honour, dignity and business reputation of individuals and legal entities.

The new law contains one particularly controversial aspect. It introduces mandatory authentication of users who post any information on the internet, including comments. The minister, however, claims that the identification procedure primarily protects the owners of internet resources, who risk being prosecuted should they publish illegal content.

Security

Belarus carries out an emergency check following the Kemerovo fire. The Belarusian authorities launched an emergency check of all buildings that serve large crowds of people after a fire in the Russian city Kemerovo left dozens of people dead. President Lukashenka demanded that the interior minister, Ihar Šunievič, “severely punishes” any flaws that could lead to similar consequences.

In Minsk alone, emergency services checked 103 places and launched preventive measures without imposing penalties in a further 84. As a result, the authorities fined 30 heads of organisations residing in the checked buildings and 13 officials, and launched administrative proceedings against 87 people according to Respublika.

The Belarusian police fight organised crime and war mercenaries. Specnaz magazine interviews the head of the Central Department for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption, Mikalaj Karpiankoŭ, on the agency’s 27th birthday.

In recent years, grey schemes involving goods subject to import bans in Russia because of sanctions proliferated among Russian dealers. They bring goods from Europe to Belarus, change the labels and documentation, and move them on to Russia as legal imports. Other Russian criminals present themselves as logistics company managers and offer services to Belarusian businesses. They take the goods on false invoices and then vanish into the expanses of Russia.

As for criminal gangs, about 700 members and leaders of organised groups remain under monitoring on the territory of Belarus, especially in the prison system. Karpiankoŭ’s department takes measures to prevent the penetration of crime bosses from Russia and Ukraine and thwart their efforts to settle down and invest their money in Belarus. Another recent direction of the department’s work is dealing with Belarusian mercenaries in the war in eastern Ukraine. The agency currently is checking 734 Belarusian citizens and non-citizens for involvement in the conflict. Of these, 188 were recognised as such, and the agency initiated ten criminal cases in 2017.

Economy

Belarusians buy more flats in Moscow than any other CIS citizens. The Minsk Times quotes a study by the Est-a-Tet investment and property company on apartment purchases in Moscow by CIS citizens. Belarusians appeared the keenest buyers of Moscow flats, accounting for 42.5% of all deals. Residents of Minsk and Brest, aged 35-40, featured most prominently accounting for 25 per cent of such cases taking out mortgages in Russia.

Photo: sb.by

In total, residents of CIS states account for around 1 per cent of buyers. Belarusians take the lead, followed by Ukrainians (23.75%) and Kazakhs (13.75%). Belarusians receive assistance from banks which give mortgages on almost the same terms as for Russian citizens. For example, if residents from other CIS states want to buy property in Moscow, they face complex procedures and much red tape, and therefore prefer to rent. Belarusians don’t face such problems.

Agriculture should be a business, not a social project. During the national seminar on the development of rural areas and improving the efficiency of the agricultural industry, Lukashenka stated that at the present level of technology and discipline of production state agricultural companies can increase the output by one-and-a-half times.

As he said, “Food is politics, both domestic and foreign. The state of the agricultural sector shapes the well-being and stability of the country. This is the most important factor of our independence.” However, problems in agriculture remain widespread. The prosecutor general and head of the State Control Committee reported cases of falsification, theft, corruption and underperformance, writes Belarus Segodnia.

The state press digest is based on a review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media primarily convey 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.




Helsinki-2 prospects, Regnum trial, cryptocurrencies, civic nationalism – digest of Belarusian analytics

EU support in Belarus reaches record-breaking €29m annually, of which a vast majority of funds goes to the state, according to the New Ideas Centre. Yauhen Preiherman talks about the prospects of a new Helsinki-2 process. Aliaksandr Klaskoŭski analyses the results of the visit to Belarus of the European Commissioner Johannes Hahn.

Artyom Shraibman examines the Regnum case. Keir Giles identifies lessons of September 2017’s Russian-Belarusian Zapad military exercise. Tatsiana Kulakevich explains why authoritarian Belarus liberalises cryptocurrencies.

This and more in the new edition of the digest of Belarusian analytics.

Foreign policy

How Much We Have And How Much We Can Have from EU – Anton Radniankou, New Ideas Centre, analysing the grants and politics, concludes that the EU is working on the “Europeanisation” of Belarus through the involvement of the elites in the joint projects, but not putting an ultimatum regarding human rights. Thus, the growth of donor support reached record-breaking €29m per year, and the vast majority of funds goes to the state.

European Security Requires a New Helsinki Process (re-posted by Sovetskaya Belorussiya newspaper) – Analyst Yauhen Preiherman talks about the prospects of the initiative to launch a new European Helsinki-2 negotiation process. He tells about the Minsk Dialogue expert initiative, which monitors the pain points in the security system, and, most importantly, creates the institutional capacity that will help solve the existing problems.

Why Lukashenka Wants a Strong European Union? – Aliaksandr Klaskoŭski analyses the results of the visit to Belarus of the European Commissioner Johannes Hahn. Namely, Alexander Lukashenka has shown himself to be a greater supporter of a strong EU, than other EU politicians. However, the journalist believes that the Belarusian regime is far from the European values; it just needs space for manoeuvre.

Security

Toward a 'healthy' nationalism. BISS research on the national identity policy The 'soft Belarusianisation' that is currently underway in Belarus is the result of the convergence of actions of three types of actors: social activists, business and the Belarusian authorities.

Russia Hit Multiple Targets with Zapad-2017 – Keir Giles, at Carnegie Endowment, identifies lessons of September 2017’s Russian-Belarusian Zapad military exercise. The analyst sees the real value of Zapad-2017 in understanding how Russia is considering responding to perceptions of threat. Critically, this includes recognising the vulnerability of its relationship with Belarus, which remains one of the many potential triggers for offensive action by Russia.

The Case of Pro-Russian Publicists. Five Conclusions Before the Verdict – On 2 February, a verdict will be rendered in the case of the authors of Regnum, accused in anti-Belarusian propaganda. Artyom Shraibman, TUT.by, believes that this is one of the most important political trials of recent years. The Belarusian authorities seem to have learned to see the threats to national security; however, they still have troubles with a proportionate and relevant response.

Economy

Why Would Authoritarian Belarus Liberalise Cryptocurrencies? – Tatsiana Kulakevich, The Washington Post, explains a decree adopted in December in Belarus to legalise cryptocurrency transactions. The author notes that if Belarus’s bold experiment with cryptocurrency takes off, there may be greater demand for legal and financial reform from other sectors – and this could weaken the authoritarian regime.

Economic Outlook. Third Quarter 2017 – According to the quarterly BEROC’s overview, growth slowdown signals are amplified; the consumption growth is subsiding; the growing return on capital can revive investment demand; the inflation is drifting to the price stability zone; the public debt structure is changing, and real wages are growing, but the real well-being is stagnating.

Civil society

The role of labour in the penitentiary system of Belarus. The paper proposes to study the role of labour in the law enforcement system of Belarus taking into consideration its three functions: prevention, correction and reintegration.

Annual Review 2017: Civil Society and Political Parties Moved Beyond the Oppositional Agenda – According to Belarus in Focus’ review, civil society and the opposition attempted to use the window of opportunity and engage new supporters among those discontent with the state’s socio-economic policy. Yet civil society and the opposition have not formed a critical mass of active supporters of change to promote systemic reforms.

Belarus: Paradoxes of National Memory and Freedom of Speech – Grigory Ioffe overviews the preparations by both the opposition and authorities to the centennial of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) proclaimed on 25 March 1918. The analyst notes that civic nationalism as a platform for broad-based consensus about Belarus’s statehood has a minimal confrontational potential.

Belarus Policy

Toward a ‘healthy’ nationalism. BISS research on the national identity policy. The ‘soft Belarusianisation’ that is currently underway in Belarus is the result of the convergence of actions of three types of actors: social activists, business and the Belarusian authorities. The motives of each of them may be different, but they all add up to the same effect. The Russia-Ukraine conflict accelerated, but not generated, Belarusianisation.

Preconditions for this process had emerged over the previous decade, and the government began to appeal to national values in 2011-2012. President Lukashenka is personally interested in having the idea of independence of Belarus become the main imperative for every citizen, especially for officials. Loyalty to Belarus is a necessary condition, though not sufficient one, for loyalty to his regime.

The role of labour in the penitentiary system of Belarus. The presented report aims to describe the existing penitentiary system in Belarus in terms of its labour component. Labor is at the heart of the penal system of the Republic of Belarus. The authors propose to study the role of labour in the law enforcement system of Belarus taking into consideration its three functions: prevention, correction and reintegration.

The report assesses the nature and parameters of the labour market in the penitentiary system, examines the importance of the employment after the release of a prisoner and before entering the correctional facility.

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.




Supporting EU unity, Bielaja Ruś congress, new unemployment policy, KGB name will remain – Belarus state press digest

Belarus strongly supports EU unity and reiterates that the Eastern Partnership should not become a dividing zone between the European Union and the East. Bielaja Ruś will not become a political party any time soon. The KGB should not change its name, Lukashenka argues.

A new unemployment policy responds to the unpopular ‘social parasite tax.’ Belarus may rival the Russian energy sector after the nuclear power plant (NPP) opens. Foreign investors reluctant to embrace the heavy social obligations imposed by the government. Belarusian workers disappearing in Russia.

All this in the new edition of the Belarusian state press digest.

Foreign policy and domestic politics

Belarus strongly support the EU’s unity. Alexander Lukashenka met the EU’s Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, reports Belarus Segodnia. The Belarusian leader expressed his firm support of a strong and unified European Union. ‘The European Union is one of the most powerful pillars on our planet, and the destruction of this major pillar in a multipolar world would destroy not only global security but also the global economic system.’

Speaking about the Eastern Partnership, Lukashenka expressed his wish that it were more practice-oriented. ‘We cannot allow the Eastern Partnership to become a purely political organisation, and God forbid it to become a dividing zone between the European Union and Russia, China and the East as a whole.’ Lukashenka also thanked the commissioner for assisting in the negotiations on Belarus’s accession to the World Trade Organisation.

The KGB should not change its name, says Lukashenka. Meeting the chairman of the State Security Committee (KGB), Valiery Vakuĺčyk, Lukashenka said that retaining the historical name of the Committee was the right decision. The current generation of security officers should not be ashamed of the name, which fully reflects the tasks assigned to the agency, reports Belarus Segodnia.

The president especially noted the KGB’s contribution to the fight against corruption: ‘No one did more than the KGB in the area of large-scale corruption… The ruthless struggle against corruption protects our state from disintegration and internal conflicts. Our people will not tolerate corruption, it will surely lead to disorder.’ Lukashenka regrets that other law enforcement bodies do not keep up with the KGB’s efforts in combating corruption.

Hienadź Davydźka, the newly-appointed chairman of Bielaja Ruś. Photo: sb.by

Bielaja Ruś will not become a political party any time soon. On 19 January, the Republican Public Association ‘Bielaja Ruś’, considered the ‘association of the establishment,’ held its 3rd congress. The organisation summed up its work during 2012-2017 and approved new versions of its charter and programme, writes Belarus Segodnia. The congress elected Hienadź Davydźka, the head of state media holding Belteleradiocompany, as Bielaja Ruś’s new chairman. Attention once again turned to the long-discussed issue of transforming the organisation into a political party.

According to the head of the presidential administration, Natallia Kačanava, this step would not be appropriate at the present time. ‘Bielaja Ruś or some other public organisation will become a party when members of the organisation demand it. This we have not seen so far.’ The newly elected chairman agreed with her point: ‘The goal of any party is the struggle for power,’ said Davydźka. ‘But Bielaja Ruś struggles only for the prosperity of our society. It is an army of patriots who work to consolidate and develop civil society.’

Economy and social policy

Belarus introduced a new unemployment policy. The government issued Decree No. 1 to tackle unemployment in place of the notorious ‘social parasite tax.’ The decree provides for the establishment of permanent commissions with local authorities. The commissions will approach people individually, study their personal circumstances, and render employment assistance.

The state will strengthen retraining for the unemployed, offer temporary employment, and teach the basics of entrepreneurship. At the same time, the decree provides for the equal social responsibility of all citizens. Those who do not want to work will have to pay full reimbursement of the costs that are subsidised by the state: transport, education, healthcare, housing and communal services, informs Hrodzienskaja Praŭda.

Foreign investors do not accept the heavy social obligations imposed by Belarus. In 2017, Lukashenka approved a list of 10 large industrial enterprises for privatisation by Chinese investors with certain preconditions: preserving the production profile, technical re-equipment and modernisation, expansion of the product range, and maintaining salaries at the level of the region’s average.

Photo: Belta

Zongsheng Corporation showed interest in purchasing 60-75% of Homsielmaš machine industry plant. However, the Chinese required that the Belarusian government reduced the number of workers by at least a third and paid the plant’s debts before the deal. Besides, the corporation insisted on replacing the management at the enterprise with Chinese managers. The Belarusian side suspended negotiations as a result of conditions it considered unacceptable, reports Respublika.

Belarus may become a rival to Russian energy sector after NPP launch. In the pages of Mink Times,  the leading analyst at the Centre for National Energy Security, Ihar Juškoŭ, analyses how the energy market will change after the opening of the Belarusian NPP. The first reactor of the NPP will service the domestic market, while the second will export energy to the EU.

Belarus will not compete with Russia as an electricity exporter because Russia does not sell energy on these markets. However, Belarusian energy may rival Russian gas in both domestic and EU markets. The NPP is expected to replace 4.5bn cubic metres of gas annually – representing a huge loss for Russia’s Gazprom.

Belarusian workers continue to disappear in Russia. In 2017 the Viciebsk regional police received 130 requests to search for Belarusians who disappeared after leaving the country to work abroad. The region has one of the highest rates of labour emigration to Russia. Eleven residents of Viciebsk region died, while the fate of 32 people remains unknown, informs Sielskaja Hazieta.

The official police representative, Volha Škuratava, points out that often people bring misfortune on themselves. After earning their first salary, they begin to drink, lose their documents, or stop contacts with their relatives. Finally, some ask for help by trying to contact either relatives or the embassy and thus get out of trouble. However, others turn to drink and begging or fall victim to accidents. People freeze, poison themselves with bad alcohol or become enslaved by criminal groups.

The state press digest is based on a review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media primarily conveys the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how the Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.




West 2017 in focus, London Conference on Belarusian Studies, human rights dialogue – Ostrogorski Centre digest

In August and September, Ostrogorski Centre analysts analysed developments around West 2017 military drill, progress in the Belarus-EU dialogue on human rights and increase in poverty in recent years as well as the government’s response to it.

The Centre announced call for proposals The Third Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies, which will be held on 23–24 March 2018 at University College London.

We have also added new profiles to belarusprofile.com and new policy papers to Belaruspolicy.com databases.

Analytics

Siarhei Bohdan demonstrates how approaches to West 2017 military drill varied in Belarus and Russia. The Belarusian government struggled to reassure its neighbours, who continued to express concerns about the drills. Lukashenka himself repeatedly visited Ukraine to persuade Kyiv of Belarus’s peaceful intentions.

In contrast, the Kremlin craved an intimidating military show. Thus, Minsk and Moscow were jointly holding an exercise which both countries saw in very different ways. It is unsurprising that their policy regarding West 2017 was vastly different.

Ryhor Astapenia discusses the growth of poverty in Belarus in recent years and the government’s response to it. One of Lukashenka’s greatest achievements in Belarusian society has been his fight against poverty. However, poverty is once again on the rise.

The main reason people end up below the poverty line is the loss of employment, as the state fails to provide any meaningful help for the unemployed. It seems that poverty is doomed to continue spreading, as the authorities see no way out of the crisis other than shifting the country’s economic woes onto the backs of the poor.

Igar Gubarevich analyses the development of the Belarus-EU dialogue on human rights. Belarus hopes to put human rights issues on the back burner in its relationship with the West. At the same time, the country’s authorities understand that avoiding any discussion of this subject could hamper the modest rapprochement between the two parties.

Meanwhile, the West continues to put pressure on Belarus in international human rights bodies, in particular the UN Human Rights Council. Only time will tell which of the two policies – dialogue or critical monitoring – will prove more effective in instigating democratic change in Belarus.

The Third Annual London Conference ‘Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century’

The Second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies, 25 February 2017. Photo: Yaraslau Kryvoi

The Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century Conference Committee, the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum invite proposals from established academics and doctoral researchers for individual papers and panel discussions on contemporary Belarusian studies. The conference is a multidisciplinary forum for Belarusian studies in the West.

Proposals will be considered on any subject matter pertaining to Belarus. This year, however, proposals relating to human rights, social media, education, the history of the Belarusian People’s Republic, Belarusian history and culture and sociology are particularly encouraged. A selection of peer-reviewed papers will be published in the Journal of Belarusian Studies in 2018.

As in previous years, in addition to the conference, which will be held 23–24 March 2018 at University College London, several other Belarus-related events will take place in London. The 2018 conference will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic, the first modern attempt of Belarusian statehood, as well as the 10th anniversary of Belarus Digest.

To submit a paper or panel proposal, please complete an online registration form  by 15 December 2017. Successful candidates will be notified by 5 January 2018. The working language of the conference is English.

There is a £10GPB registration fee associated with the conference. You may pay the fee at the door or pay online (see the registration form for details). If a speaker or delegate is unable to pay the registration fee, the organisers can grant them a waiver. Please email belauk2018@gmail.com to ask for a fee waiver.

The organisers can provide non-UK based applicants with invitation letters for visas.

For any questions, please contact either Stephen Hall or Peter Braga at belauk2018@gmail.com.

Conference co-chairs: Professor Andrew Wilson and Professor Yarik Kryvoi

Comments in the media

Ryhor Astapenia on Polish Radio discusses the hype around the West 2017 drills, the future of mass youth political organisations, and the possibility of political and social protests this autumn.

Siarhei Bohdan on Polish Radio explains why Belarus refused to transport oil products via Russian ports even at a 50% discount. Russian ports require longer delivery time; Belarus has experience in the Baltic countries and invested in their infrastructure; in addition, it is one of the channels of cooperation with the European Union.

Pubic discussions on Asmaloŭka area. Photo: euroradio.fm

Alesia Rudnik on Polish radio discusses the effectiveness of civil campaigns in Belarus on the example of Asmaloŭka area protection. This became not the only success story of local activists, but usually victory is possible only if the project is not essential for the authorities. In most cases, civil campaigns fail.

Siarhei Bohdan on Polish Radio discusses the role of Russia and China in the development of the Belarusian defense industry. Last year Belarus exported arms worth $1 billion. This achievement is the result of complicated partnerships with major players. Russian support of Minsk in the defense industry is limited and expensive, therefore Minsk had to to seek an alternative and develop cooperation with China.

Belarus Profile

The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following people: Alieh Dvihalioŭ, Jury Šuliejka, Mikalaj Korbut, Vitaĺ Paŭlaŭ,  Uladzimir Karpiak, Andrej Dapkiunas, Alieh Dziarnovič, Valieryja Kasciuhova, Piotr Rudkoŭski, Natallia Vasilievič.

We have also updated the profiles of Siarhiej Hurulioŭ, Anatoĺ Isačenka, Ivonka Survila, Paviel Uciupin, Anatoĺ Kapski, Victor Prokopenia, Aliaksandr Pazniak, Jury Chaščavacki, Siarhiej Čaly, Kanstancin Šabieka, Aliaksandr Šamko, Aliaksandr Šumilin, Uladzimir Šymaŭ, Aliaksiej Jahoraŭ, Aliaksandr Jarašenka.

 

Belarus Policy

The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update its database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:

Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by emailing us.

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 StudiesBelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.




Zapad on Belarus’s mind: 7th Belarus Reality Check Non-Paper

The European Union’s ‘critical engagement’ policy has contributed to attitude change by the Government of Belarus as well as procedural improvements. However, as the March 2017 crackdown on peaceful protesters suggests, there are no substantial political changes in Belarus.

Some positive steps taken by Belarus in the recent past – release of the remaining political prisoners and peaceful presidential elections, for example – have created an opportunity for EU-Belarus relations to further develop. Western insistence on democratic norms, practical incentives, focus on building trust and widening dialogue matter around human rights issue has led to the last detainees of the crackdown on peaceful protesters in March 2017 released before OSCE Parliamentary Assembly held in Minsk in July
2017. In the context of the Ukraine crisis, both Minsk and Brussels are fine with the gradual widening of contacts and dialogue.

Although Russia has been reducing the level of its subsidies, it maintains a strategic stake. Minsk has a degree of independence regarding the Ukraine crisis, while its structural dependence on Russia also serves as a deterrence. Moscow provided a much-needed bailout this year in form of a loan as well as energy agreements favourable to Belarus.

Status quo and conservative policy principles continue to have the upper hand in Belarus. Despite the March protest against the so-called social parasite tax, the opposition remains fragmented. It was unable to utilise the general dissatisfaction caused by several years of recession to increase its popular base.

Meanwhile the role of private sector has been constantly growing. Despite lack of structural reforms, Belarus managed to climb to 37th place in the Doing Business Survey. But the potential of the current recovery is limited. To meet its ambitious modernisation goals, Minsk will need external financing. This leads back to structural reforms.

Belarus assistance to regulate the Donbas conflict has been welcomed. Nevertheless, future dynamics of the relations with the West will mostly remain conditional around human rights issues. During Zapad 2017 Minsk will aim to meet two objectives simultaneously: to continue building trust with the West, while continuing to closely cooperate and appease Russia. Minsk thinks it has no other realistic geopolitical choice.

The EU and Belarus: less alien

Relations between the European Union and Belarus are driven by the “only possible policy” within the framework of domestic factors and region’s geopolitics. Brussels’ critical engagement has created opportunities for Minsk to change attitudes by raising sensitive issues hoping that it will lead to policy (legislation) change in human rights, political freedoms and rule of law in the longer run.

Belarus’s gradual opening towards the West is a careful balancing act; performed while keeping an eye on Minsk’s interest of strategic engagement with Russia. Minsk’s expectation is that the West would accept its current form of government, allowing Belarus greater room for (economic) maneuvering. In the context of Ukraine crisis, neither Minsk nor Brussels wants a U-turn.

Фото пресс-службы МИД Беларуси

Belarus foreign minister Uladzimir Makiej visiting Poland, 12 April 2017. Photo: Belarus MFA

The EU’s objective of the dialogue is building contacts and trust, particularly getting Belarus closer to ‘European identity’, i.e. values and standards. Out of the 29 points included in the 2015 EU document on how to improve relations with Belarus, around half have been fulfilled according to independent analysts. EU financial assistance remains modest compared to the region: EUR 29 million
was released in 2016, similarly in 2017. Total indicative amount of assistance for 2014-2017 is EUR 89 million.

The EU-Belarus relations were shaken by the protests against the so-called social parasite tax and the crackdown on peaceful protesters. Although the police intervention was brutal, all those detained were released, the last one before the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly held in Minsk in July 2017.

The EU’s red line towards Minsk – no political prisoners1 – has not been crossed. Compare to 2010 post elections crackdown, Minsk (through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) has kept a constant dialogue with the EU, including addressing human rights concerns. Direct European engagement with Belarusian law enforcement structures may have also played a role. At the very least, Belarusian officials’ willingness to listen to European human rights-related concerns was cited as a positive change by European diplomats.

Track Record of EU’s Critical Engagement:

  • Increased contacts level between Western institutions and the Government of Belarus.
  • Visa free regime by Belarus (up to five days).
  • Arms embargo and restrictions to some individuals extended by the EC.
  • Three rounds of EU – Belarus human rights dialogue.
  • Widening sectoral dialogue between European institutions and the Government of Belarus.  EU-Belarus Coordination Group set up.
  • Contacts with parliament established.
  • Negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission agreements continue. Education efforts for state officials.
  • Improved state-civil society relations, ‘Tell the Truth’ political movement registered.

The EU’s current policy towards Belarus is challenged by the domestic political opposition, what used to keep a certain ‘monopoly’ on contacts with Western institutions for a long time. Lithuania is trying to mobilise the EU to stop the Astraviec nuclear power plant built by Belarus with Russia’s Rosatom near the Lithuanian border, in a close proximity of the capital city of Vilnius. To mitigate the challenge, Minsk has showed some efforts, for example agreed to an EU stress test, yet to be completed according to EU
standards.

Belarus’ politics: soft dissatisfaction

The so-called ‘social parasite tax’, requiring unemployed citizens (around 470,000 citizens) to pay EUR 230 annual tax triggered protests across the country. Although the number of protesters was not high, up to 3,000 people demonstrated in Minsk on 17 February 2017. Despite Lukashenka suspending the law, protests continued to spread to various cities through March. Grassroots opposition activists were the core organisers in the regions. The protests also tapped into a general dissatisfaction with the economy, frustration about the decree as well as the government’s handling of the issue.

The events culminated on 25 March 2017 with the traditional ‘Freedom Day’ protest rally in Minsk, Brest, and Hrodna. The authorities, after the organisers refused to hold the rally at an authorised place, used riot police to disperse around 3,000 protesters detaining hundreds including pensioners standing by and journalists covering the rally. Regional rallies were sanctioned, and were held without complications. Analysts suggested that Lukashenka’s social contract has been shifting from social welfare towards
providing security.

Protests in February and March may have also been used by the government to show strength and determination (at home, vis-à-vis the West and Russia) to counter ‘hybrid’ threats and not allowing a Ukraine-type of conflict to arise. Criminal charges against the so-called White Legion, which were later dropped, at least suggested such a consideration from the law enforcement agencies.

One of the participants pointed out that looking from a historical perspective, the March demonstrations attracted several thousand people, in contrast to the 100,000 people who protested against economic and social decline in early 1990s. Election-related protests called by the opposition and civil society actors in 2006 and 2010 brought up to 30,000 to the streets.

Protests against 'social parasite tax' in spring 2017. Photo: gazeta.ru

Protests against ‘social parasite tax’ in spring 2017. Photo: gazeta.ru

The government is also capitalising on infightings among opposition leaders. Belarus’s opposition has never been a cohesive unit. Long ranging Western expectations about unified opposition fractions challenging the Lukashenka regime has created a certain ‘political show’. Opposition leaders are willing to play the unity card before elections to gain Western support, but the underlining differences between the parties and the competition among their leaders to become the main opposition challenger during elections always trumped over cooperation.

In addition, civil society organisations no longer have ‘regime change’ as a key purpose, and their relations with the opposition have note been much of a priority. Similarly, there are multiple interests and disputes within the government. These include reformers and law enforcement (or siloviki) tug of war, wherein the lines of interests are often blurred. The current conflict within the government is between the new generation of lawmakers and the ‘conservative  elements’. The president needs to demonstrate decisive actions: the crackdown on peaceful protesters was not dictated by an obvious risk, but he needed to show he was in charge.

Incentives for political reforms are still weaker than old (policy) stereotypes. Priority is to fill state coffers, and one of the ways to do so is by harassing large local businesses companies and businessmen. Reformers within the government are few and far between, dependence on Russia remains a limitation in considering reforms. Although Moscow is bailing Belarus out on a much lower scale, it is enough to keep its structural dependence.

Radical forms of protests from opposition, or the fabrication of those, also help maintain the status quo, siloviki’s influence and a conservative policy line. Reformers face a lack of legitimacy and lack of financing (both internal and external), which are main obstacles in their efforts. As the failed negotiations with the IMF suggested, reformers have to work hard to convince the conservative institutions, while in the end the president makes the final call about key steps.

Economy: slow motion

Belarus is out of recession but its growth is modest at 1.1% YOY. To compare, growth rate was averaging 9.9% per annum between 2004 and 2008, having fallen to -0.5% between 2012 and 2016. Such growth and convergence in the past were driven mostly by investment boom funded with direct and indirect state support. Growing external imbalances were financed via external borrowing, which led to debt accumulation and growing costs of its servicing: last year Belarusian government spent about 7% of GDP
for this purpose.

Key factors behind the current recovery are non-energy related exports increasing by 10%–20% YOY in real terms due to real depreciation of Belarusian ruble, Russia’s economic recovery, and gradual recovery of domestic consumption and investment. Export of potash is growing, and exports of oil refinery products are about to recover due to the resolution of the recent energy conflict between Belarus and Russia.

However, potential of the current recovery is limited as the Belarusian economic model that operated at the expense of Russian energy subsidies and debt accumulation has exhausted its possibilities. The government is very cautious in terms of reforming the current economic model. Minsk exited from the negotiations with the IMF, while announcing further modernisation of its key manufacturing
enterprises and an ambition to make Belarus an IT country.

Belarus Hi-Tech Park

Authorities succeeded in stabilising the exchange rate (National Bank) and achieving fiscal consolidation (Ministry of Finance). As a result, inflation and interest rates have gone down, and Belarus managed to close its external financial gap due to a new loan from Russia and a drawdown of deposits. Savings declined by almost $1bn in the last 18 months, standing at $6,8bn – the lowest since 2013.

The share of the private sector in the Belarusian economy increased considerably in the last ten years. The share of employment at enterprises with 100% state ownership fell from 51.2% in 2006 to 40.2% in 2016, but market capitalisation remains low. Total number of traded domestic companies in 2016 in Belarus was 194 with total capitalisation of $5.3bln or 11.2% of the country’s GDP. Out of this, 57% was generated by Belarusbank (the largest state-owned bank).

As domestic savings are historically smaller than investments, external funding is of key importance. However, the volume of FDI has been at $1.3-1.5bn per year (mainly in the form of reinvested earnings) without significant changes in recent years, while at least three times more would be needed for economic development.

The IMF can “easily” reach a common ground regarding economic reforms with the government, but it has been difficult to reach the final agreement with the president. Main IMF requirements are state enterprise re-structuring and increasing utility bills. The Eurasian Development Bank’s requirement of reforms in the state sector, including privatisation, is not applied consistently.

Regional security: mitigating risks

Belarus’s neighbors are getting anxious when their largest neighbor flexes its muscles. In reality though, military exercises – at least from 1981- have been about Moscow (previously the USSR) establishing ‘coercive credibility’ with the United States. In some analysts view this strategy is effective due to ‘help’ of the alarmist voices coming from neighbors and amplified by Western military institutions and media. A deeper look at the issues around Zapad-2017 military exercise does not match the concerns. The Suwalki gap is a hypothesis for a case of a full-scale war given that Russia has an enclave in Kaliningrad. An invitation for 80 international military observers is an attempt to ease the geopolitical tension in the region, a policy that Minsk has been pursuing since the Ukrainian crisis.

The high number of rail transport wagons, which has been the original cause of concern, has been explained as including all military transport between the two countries for the entire year of 2017. These numbers are not particularly high compared to 2009 or 2013 exercises. Russia is not bringing offensive (modern) equipment; what an invasion would require.

The total number of soldiers involved is difficult to estimate. The official figures submitted by Russia and Belarus total 12,700 troops, with 10,200 soldiers expected on Belarusian territory including 7,200 from Belarus and 3,000 Russian soldiers along with 680 pieces of equipment. NATO member states suspect that Russia manipulates troop numbers to avoid transparency under the OSCE`s Vienna document, according to which nations conducting exercises involving more than 13,000 troops must notify other countries in
advance and invite observers.

Western estimates are up to 100,000 soldiers. The difference may come from Western observers counting the National Guard and other paramilitary forces as well as forces that belong to Russia’s Western Military District (not participating directly, but being on alert). Either way, no evidence to support such high estimate has been made public.

Concerns have been voiced that in the past military exercise led to the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and of Ukraine in 2014. At the same time Kavkaz 2008, the exercise held just before the Russia-Georgia war, showed that any ‘surprise attack’ would come only after the exercise, utilising the West’s notoriously short attention span.

As the Polish OSW’s analysis suggested, Zapad-2017 is at ‘the core of the information war between Russia and NATO’. Some think Russia’s goal to show a ‘larger-than-life military power’ has been achieved, with some help from the West.

What increasingly matters for Belarus’ Western neighbours is that after the Ukrainian crisis, Minsk has not entertained the idea of joining NATO or the EU. Instead, the Government of Belarus pursued a policy of integration with Russia. Belarus is a not an integrated part of Russia’s military security, but Moscow’s objective is to make the two militaries as close as possible. For example, using Zapad-2017 Russia is likely to use aircraft deployments close to its neighbours’ airspace.

Russia does not need to occupy Belarus as long as Minsk honours, at least rhetorically, its obligations. Occupying Belarus would bring the Eurasian Union to an end, and would keep increased level of Western sanctions on Russia indefinitely.

Belarus has maintained a degree of independence from Russia regarding the Ukraine crisis. The recently updated military doctrine of Belarus includes hybrid warfare among military threats, while ‘the plural wording clearly indicates that Minsk is also concerned about Russia’s growing military might, and not only about NATO’.

Lukashenka has gained leverage by establishing himself as Russia’s most loyal partner, utilising it mainly in form of ‘forced’ subsidies. But the time of high level Russian subsidies is over. Minsk will try further building trust with the West, and continuing to work with and appease Russia, as its only ally.

The pdf version of this non-paper is available here.

The 7th Belarus Reality Check took place on 21 June 2017 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Organised by the Eastern Europe Studies Centre (EESC) with the support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, USAID through Pact and Forum Syd, and together with programmatic contributions from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the event gathered leading Belarusian and international experts and practitioners to discuss the latest political, economic and security developments in Belarus and to provide evidence-based analysis and balanced policy advice. This non-paper is the result of the meeting and further research. Since 2012, the Eastern Partnership Reality Check meetings were held under Lithuanian and Latvian EU presidencies. Other non-papers about Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine are available at EESC website.




West 2017, Belarus-China, Mahilioŭ region study – digest of Belarusian analytics

Belarus in Focus: Minsk will show a lot but not everything in West 2017 military drills. Yauheni Preiherman analyses strategic advances and economic hopes of Belarus-China relations. Grigory Ioffe: Belarus’s independent voice is growing louder.

IPM Research Center’s macroeconomic forecast for Belarus: recovery will continue, but its pace is slow. Fresh CSO Sustainability Index report: Belarus remains among the countries with impeded sustainability of CSO sector. MASMI pollster: Over 60% of Belarusian cities’ inhabitants deal with charity.

This and more in the new edition of the digest of Belarusian analytics.

Foreign policy and security

Russia-West Balancing Act Grows Ever More Wobbly in Belarus – The New York Times writes that over two decades, Aliaksandr Lukashenka has perfected the art of playing Russia and the West against each other. But with major Russian military exercises scheduled for September in Belarus, opposition leaders, analysts, and even the American military fear that Mr. Lukashenka’s tightrope act may be coming to a close.

 How Minsk Should Operate to Preserve Foreign Policy Stability? – Valeriya Kostyugova, Nashe Mnenie, notes that a set of recent trends in the regional policy, as well as the exhaustion of the Belarusian economic model forced Minsk to seek more foreign policy stability. Normalisation of relations with the West is a natural part of the strategy; rationalisation of relations with Russia is another essential part.

“West-2017”: Minsk Will Show a Lot But Not Everything – According to Belarus in Focus, Minsk is eager to make the September ‘West 2017’ Russian-Belarusian military exercise transparent as a manifestation of its ability to pursue an independent security policy in the region, which often goes unnoticed by the West and Ukraine, who expect from the Belarusian authorities more than they can afford.

Strategic Advances and Economic Hopes of Belarus-China Relations – Yauheni Preiherman believes that relations with China can be seen as another example of the logic of strategic hedging in Belarus’s foreign policy. In a nutshell, it aims to minimise security risks, maximise economic opportunities, and diversify its strategic options. Moreover, China can be instrumental in advancing Minsk’s relations with third countries.

Corporate interaction in the area of fight against corruption and tax evasion in the construction sector This study provides a detailed analysis of tax evasion and corruption in the construction sector in Belarus, Latvia and Finland

Situation in the Field of National Security and Defense of Belarus. June 2017 – According to the Belarus Security Blog’s monthly monitoring, June was marked with a number of events within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The experts note that because of different standards in the CSTO countries, the creation of a unified system of military equipment and weapons seems to be a complex and long process.

Toward a More Belarusian Belarus – Grigory Ioffe analyses recent developments in Belarus and reflection of media on them concludes that Belarus’s independent voice is growing louder. He gives such examples like the high-ranking Belarusian official speech at the US embassy’s reception on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, or the PA OSCE session in Minsk.

Economy and social policy

BEROC’s Economic Outlook. First Quarter 2017. In 2017 Q1 the economy grew modestly, which contradicted to the bulk of forecasts and expectations. In comparison to the 2016 Q1, output grew by 0.3%. But structural weaknesses still overburden the economy.

Macroeconomic Forecast for Belarus – The IPM Research Center’s regular issue contains a forecast of the main macroeconomic indicators for 2017 and 2018 and analysis of their sensitivity to different scenario assumptions. Namely, the recovery will continue, but its pace is slow and depends on the consistency of domestic macroeconomic policies, implementation of the agreements on crude oil imports from Russia, and the pace of recovery in Russia.

Sociological Study of Mahilioŭ Residents – An analytical paper presents the results of a survey conducted in the spring of 2017 on topical issues of the Belarusian regional centre Mahilioŭ. The study focuses on assessment of the citizens’ well being, the level of satisfaction with various sectors of urban life, etc. In particular, Mahilioŭ residents call inflation the most urgent issue; musical fests are the most requested among cultural events.

Civil society

Assessment of the effect of the programme Leadership in Local Communities The report contains a description of the programme, methodology and results of the assessment, as well as conclusions and recommendations

Belarus Is Among Countries With Impeded Sustainability of CSO Sector – According to the 2016 CSO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, Belarus has improved its score by 0.1 and reached 5.5. However, along with Azerbaijan (5.9) it has the worst rate among the countries of the region. The USAID’s CSOSI has been conducted since 1997. The presentation of Belarus CSOSI was on 15 August  by ACT NGO and gathered over 90 people.

Development of Environmental Friendliness in Belarus in 1990-2015 – The study is commissioned by the Environmental Solutions Center. For Belarus, this is the first attempt to collect and describe how the sphere developed. The study presents the results of sociological surveys that illustrate the actual attitude of people towards environmental issues. Namely, every fourth Belarusian thinks that she/he cares about the environment, and every fourth thinks on the contrary.

Belarus Policy

Corporate interaction in the area of fight against corruption and tax evasion in the construction sector. This study provides a detailed analysis of tax evasion and corruption in the construction sector in Belarus, Latvia and Finland. The report is based on a survey of construction companies and a study of worldwide experience. In order to understand the real situation in the sphere of shadow operations of the construction sector, the study identifies specific problems in the field of public procurement, taxation and employment in the countries studied. The conclusion of the paper provides recommendations on combating corruption and tax evasion in the construction sector of Belarus, Latvia and Finland.

Assessment of the effect of the programme Leadership in Local Communities. The programme ‘Leadership in Local Communities’ is implemented by the educational institution Office of European Expertise and Communications in partnership with the international organisation Pact since 2014. 49 people from 43 local communities of Belarus were trained in the programme. In the process of implementation, local leaders identified 142 local problems, engaged more than 4,600 people in solving them, managed to solve more than 90 local problems and continue to work with the remaining problems. 86% of those who participated in the program continue to work actively in their local communities. The report contains a description of the programme, methodology and results of the assessment, as well as conclusions and recommendations.

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.




Why do the authorities persecute independent trade unions?

On 2 August, the Department of Financial Investigations detained the leaders of the Radio Electronic Industry Trade Union, filing a criminal case on tax evasion charges.

The few independent trade unions which have survived decades of restrictive policies in Belarus remain a strong oppositional force in the country.

As active participants in the mass protests against the social parasite law in Spring 2017, union leaders likely became targets of the authorities’ preventive action to deter future demonstrations. However, the police force asserts that all charges are of a purely economic nature to avoid criticism from western governments and international organisations.

A crackdown on independent trade unions

On 2 August, the Department of Financial Investigations arrested the head of the Radio Electronic Industry Trade Union (REP), Hienadź Fiadynič, and his deputy, head of Minsk the office Ihar Komlik, on tax evasion charges. The financial police also confiscated hard disks and paper documents from the organisation.

On the same day, searches took place at the offices of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union in Salihorsk, the heart of Belarusian potash industry. The apartments of activists linked with the movement were also searched, and the financial police have interrogated many trade union leaders. Fiadynič and other activists were released following the interrogation, but Komlik remains in custody.

The police claim that REP leaders opened bank accounts abroad, where they accumulated ‘hundreds of thousands dollars’ from foreign donors, even though they had no license from the National Bank of Belarus to open a foreign account. Allegedly, they were trying to obscure their financial deals and evade taxes at home. REP activists deny all accusations and claim that the account mentioned by the police was closed in 2011.

Фото взято с сайта: belnp.org

The office of REP after a police search. Photo: tut.by

Leaders of the Belarusian opposition gathered shortly after the events to discuss a possible response and called on Belarusians and the international community to support a campaign of solidarity with independent trade unions. In the resolution’s own words:

‘We call upon the representatives of the international community to immediately put the release of political prisoners and the complete cessation of political repressions in Belarus as a condition for dialogue with the Lukashenka regime’.

However, the head of the Department of Financial Investigations, Ihar Maršalaŭ, argues that ‘this case has no political background. We are doing our usual job of uncovering tax evaders’.

The history of free trade unions in Belarus

Under the Soviet system, trade union were the ‘social pillars’ of the state. Nevertheless, they had no real power and served as an instrument of the Communist party. After the dissolution of the USSR, numerous independent trade unions and associations emerged in Belarus. However, there was a split regarding support for the Lukashenka regime following his 1994 election. Only after 2001 did the authorities manage to wrest control of the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions (FPB) and purge it of oppositional elements. The authorities continue to persecute the most vocal unions.

As a result, the oppositional trade unions formed an alternative association: the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions. Over the past two decades, independent trade unions have faced constant pressure and struggle to meet bureaucratic requirements such as registration and legal address. Union members often face restrictions and punishments at their place of work. As a result, membership to independent trade unions has dropped to around 10,000, while the official FPB boasts 4 million members.

Despite formal membership numbers, FPB can hardly be regarded as a protector of workers’ interests. Governed by the political leadership of the country, it never challenges official policies. In contrast, independent trade unions actively struggle against violations of labour rights and criticise the government, for which they are hated by both enterprise bosses and the political leadership.

International actors frequently point to violations of labour rights in Belarus. For example, the persecution of independent trade unions has led to the exclusion of Belarus from the EU Generalised System of Preferences, resulting in hundreds of millions dollars of loss since 2006.

A strong organisational force with links to citizens

Following the arrest of the REP activists, human rights groups immediately recognised them as political prisoners. This differs from the White Legion case, when two dozen people were detained on charges of creating an illegal armed group. Activists were hesitant to step in because of the presence of weapons and other evidence. Valiancin Stefanovič, an activist for the human rights group Viasna, explains that this time, the state has clearly violated the right to free association, because trade unions cannot freely receive foreign aid in Belarus. For years, the authorities consciously complicated the process of receiving foreign aid for civil society, viewing it as support for political enemies and interference in the politics of a sovereign state.

Demonstration of independent trade unions in Minsk. Photo: spring96.org

Most commentators agree that it was REP’s active participation in the spring protests against the social parasite decree that has led to the organisation’s repression. The union gathered 45,000 signatures demanding the abolition of the decree and offered legal consultations to people who planned to contest their obligation to pay the tax.

REP also provides legal assistance for citizens on a daily basis and constitute one of the few real forces that actively works with the people. What’s more, many activists in the union participate in the Belarusian National Congress, headed by oppositional hardliner and former political prisoner Mikalaj Statkievič.  It seems that in the wake of the events of spring 2017, and fearing another wave of social unrest in the future, the authorities have decided to weaken potentially powerful actors.

Repressions without political prisoners?

Many noticed that the case of REP resembles the case of Alieś Bialiacki, who was arrested on the same charges in 2011 after the government of Lithuania handed over information on Viasna’s bank accounts to the Belarusian authorities. He spent three years in prison and was released in 2014 as part of the Belarus-EU rapprochement process. However, unlike seven years ago, it seems that this time around there will be no political prisoners.

The Belarusian authorities have drawn very clear lessons from their experience with the West. Imprisonment of political activists causes outrage, while criminal persecution without imprisonment earns a far more muted response. At the same time, it effectively decreases the power of the opposition.

The fact that those arrested during the White Legion case have all been released despite the fact that a criminal investigation continues confirms this assumption. The authorities are learning how to justify repressions with purely security (in White Legion case) or economic (in the case of trade unions) evidence, in order to avoid politicisation and criticism from western countries.




Belarus finally reaps tangible benefits from its neutrality policy

On 18-19 July, Belarus officially welcomed a delegation from the European parliament along with the Latvian foreign minister, who spoke up for Belarus’s policy of neutrality. These developments are signs that Belarus’s rapprochement with the EU and other Western structures continues.

The annual session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk on 5-7 July was a milestone in this process. Indeed, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka commented that just three years ago he could not imagine a session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk.

The Belarusian government is finally reaping the rewards of its pursuit of neutrality between Russia and its opponents. Although this position has caused consternation in the Russian political establishment, Minsk has so far succeeded in minimising the damage.

No more questions for Belarus?

In a recent interview with the Spanish daily El Pais, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei announced that his country is now in ‘a qualitatively different situation.’ In particular, he noted: ‘Our independence has been strengthened as a result of our efforts in developing relations … with our European and North American partners.’

Thus, it seems that Belarusian leadership perceives the recent OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk as a success.

The Belarusian authorities wish to build on this triumph: at the event’s opening meeting on 5 July, Lukashenka presented an ambitious idea for holding a major international conference aimed at achieving a détente between ‘Euroatlantic’ and ‘Eurasian’ countries – promoting trust, security, and peace, a so-called ‘Helsinki-2’.

Minsk also has several other achievements under its belt vis–à–vis relations with the EU and European structures. On 19 July, after meeting his Belarusian counterpart, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs announced that Riga no longer had any questions for Minsk concerning the forthcoming West-2017 military exercise.

Rinkēvičs noted that while Latvia is a NATO member and Belarus is participating in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Riga ‘is respecting the choice of [its] neighbours in the field of security.’ At a press conference, Rinkēvičs agreed that Belarus-EU relations in recent years have become more rational and constructive.

Andrejs Mamikins. Image: euroradio.fmOn 18 July in Minsk, for the first time in fourteen years, there was an official meeting between the deputies of the lower chamber of the Belarusian Parliament and members of the European Parliament (EP).

Andrejs Mamikins, an EP member who attended the meeting, described the discussions there as ‘fierce’ but ‘completely friendly and sincere’ on Facebook. The first time in recent years that an EP delegation came to Minsk was in June 2015, but this did not constitute an official meeting.

On the following day, the head of the EU delegation, Bogdan Zdrojewski, underlined that the meeting would not be considered official recognition for the Belarusian parliamentarians as ‘democratically elected’. Nevertheless, he believes it necessary to resume dialogue with Belarus. Moreover, the EP is studying possible ways to invite Belarusian parliamentarians to Euronest Parliamentary Assembly events.

Dzyanis Melyantsou, a senior analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, commented that ‘The Belarusian parliament is recognised by the EP. Security matters.’

Ambiguous statements about Russia

Meanwhile, Belarusian government officials made ambiguous statements regarding relations with Russia. On 12 July, Lukashenka characterised the recent meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Belarus and Russia as unprecedentedly open, sincere, and fruitful. With regard to the prospects of the Union State, he added: ‘To be honest, today there is no reason to be too optimistic. But after all […] the process has started.’

The statement is remarkably not only because of the president’s reservations regarding Belarus-Russia integration. Lukashenka was quoting a well-known Russian phrase coined by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘the process has started’ [protses poshol]. Since Gorbachev used it to comment on developments which later turned out to be out of his control, the phrase in this context has an ironic undertone.

Speaking on 1 July at an official meeting dedicated to Independence Day, Lukashenka also stated that ‘Not everything always goes smoothly in our relations with brotherly Russia.’ Moments later, he went as far as to compare Belarusian-Russian relations with Belarus’s relations with China, saying, ‘It’s just luck that we have established such friendly relations with this great empire … They are practically at the level of our relations with Russia.’

Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei made similar comments: in an interview with El Pais, he criticised the deployment of NATO troops in the region. However, he also mentioned how Minsk refused to host a Russian air base.

We are categorically against the deployment of a NATO contingent in the Baltic countries and Poland because this forces the other party to respond and contributes to an escalation… a new [Russian] foreign military base in Belarus does not make sense, because modern armaments allow Russia to react equally rapidly from its own territory.

‘A second Ukraine’

Minsk’s rapprochement with the EU and Ukraine and its ambiguous attitude towards Russia are causing a reaction in the pro-Kremlin Russian media. One article, entitled ‘The EU’s “Eastern Partnership” Threatens to Turn Belarus Into a “Second Ukraine,’” published on 9 July by Russia’s government-affiliated Sputnik media in English, is a case in point.

The author of this warning to Minsk was Vladimir Lepekhin, a former Russian politician turned political analyst. This is clearly more than his own personal opinion, as the text has been distributed by major Kremlin-affiliated media outlets worldwide. Before it was published by Sputnik in English, the article appeared in Russian on another Kremlin-affiliated website: the news agency RIA Novosti. This pedigree of the Lepekhin’s text made it another obvious black spot sent to Minsk.

Image: mzv.czLepekhin urged Minsk to struggle against ‘the forces of globalism, which can be characterised as modern-day fascism … For many years, Belarus had held out as being among the countries which were most resistant to these forces’ siren call.’

Among the projects pursued by these forces, according to the Russian commentator, is the EU Eastern Partnership programme. Lepekhin also voiced concern over Belarus’s participation in the programme: ‘The transformation of Minsk, following Kiev, into an instrument of anti-Russian forces – this is the real goal of the Eastern Partnership.’

Likewise, Moscow’s steps in the security field show that the Kremlin puts little trust in its Belarusian ally. In his interview for El Pais, Belarusian foreign minister Makei complained that Russia and pro-Russian Donbas entities had also rejected Minsk’s offer to deploy Belarusian forces to enforce control on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

In April, Russia also chose to promote an Armenian rather than a Belarusian as the new CSTO Secretary General, after it finally decided to replace Russian general Nikolay Bordyuzha. Bordyuzha had run this largely symbolic organisation, dominated by Russia, since its establishment 14 years ago.

Thus, because of the changed security situation in the region, Minsk has adjusted its external relations to place more of an emphasis on neutrality. For the same reason, it has succeeded in improving its relations with Western and regional countries. At the same time, the Belarusian government continued to assure the Kremlin of its Russia-friendly policies.

Combining these policies is a difficult task, as the regular outcries from Russia prove. Nevertheless, recent developments show that Minsk is already benefiting from this stance without encountering serious consequences. In other words, Belarus can continue to pursue neutrality.




Belarus-Russia-EU triangle, Belarusian Yearbook 2016, Population 50+, corruption survey – digest of Belarusian analytics

Eugene Rumor, Carnegie Endowment, argues that post-2014 Belarus is a less reliable satellite for Russia and the West should calibrate its policy accordingly. Grigory Ioffe breaks down recent harsh statements by Dalia Grybauskaitė and Svetlana Aleksievich.

OSW: energy dispute between Minsk and Moscow is not completely resolved. Yauheni Preiherman believes that Belarus’ foreign policy cannot be grasped by the classic bandwagoning-balancing dichotomy.

IPM fresh survey: one third of Belarusian private businesses consider corruption widespread. CET presents an analytical overview that summarises data of sociological and sectoral studies of 2014-2017 related to the Belarusian CSOs.

This and more in the new edition of the digest of Belarusian analytics

EU-Belarus relations

Words matter: Belarus and its Western neighbors – Grigory Ioffe analyses recent harsh public statements made by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė and Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Aleksievich. The author concludes that the government in Minsk has a better understanding than some of its Western neighbours that ongoing frustrations and regional grievances are perpetual nuisances in the overall European tug of war between the major global centres of power.

EU should put pressure on Belarus nuclear project – EUobserver argues that the Astraviec Nuclear Power Plant, built and financed by Russia, disregards international safety standards as it is so close to the population centre. Moreover, poor safety has already led to at least six incidents and several deaths at the construction site.

Toward a new European Union strategy for Belarus – Complications have tensed the relationship between the EU and Belarus, with some arguing for continued engagement with the autocratic regime of Alexander Lukashenka, and others calling for a return to isolation and excluding Belarus from the Eastern Partnership. E-International Relations argue that clarity about the end goal is critical for framing EU strategy towards the country.

Belarus-Russia

Belarus’s asymmetric relations with Russia: the case of strategic hedging? – In his paper, Yauheni Preiherman argues that Belarus’ foreign policy cannot be grasped by the classic bandwagoning-balancing dichotomy. Under the conditions of deeply embedded geostrategic asymmetries and with a view to bypassing structural restrictions of its foreign policy, Belarus pursues strategic hedging, in particular in its relations with Russia.

Case of Amriev: Minsk has discredited itself in eyes of international community – Belarus in Focus experts, following the Murad Amriev extradition, note that Belarusian authorities are attempting to demonstrate to the Kremlin their reliability as a partner in sensitive issues. However, what seems quite reasonable in Minsk, may negatively affect the country’s reputation in the outer world.

Belarus: with friends like these… – Carnegie Endowment notes that since the breakdown of the post-Cold War security order and the rise in tensions between NATO and Russia, Belarus has occupied a prominent place as the critical territory between Russia and NATO. Although Russia has a strong influence in the region, its grip is less certain than often assumed.

The story that never ends. New stages in the energy dispute between Russia and Belarus – According to OSW experts, over the past few years, the situation in the area of energy cooperation of Russia and Belarus has become strained; Russia desires to optimise on their support for Belarus and the escalating recession in Belarus has forced them to apply for even more subsidies.

Domestic politics

Belarusian Yearbook 2016 – This is an annual comprehensive analysis of the key developments and current status of the main sectors of the state and society in 2016. Three processes determined the political agenda last year – the presidential election, normalisation of Belarus’s relations with the West, and the economic recession. The presentation of the Yearbook was held in Minsk, on 23 June.

Population 50+ in Belarus: the experience of using the instruments of social harmonisation in the EU The working paper analyses the demographic situation in Belarus and assesses the risks for the 50+ group to fall into the poverty line, become unemployed and the influence of age on alcohol consumption

Belarus’s quest for self-identity aided by outside actors – Grigory Ioffe discusses the events that prove that a clear identity for Belarus as a nation is on its way to realisation. The Tell the Truth campaign was officially registered after 7 attempts. A debate over the Belarusian language has resumed. Lastly, Belarus came under renewed attacks by voices in both Russia and the West, but Belarus was able to perceive themselves as a unique and confident nation.

Lukashenka reformed the political system so that nothing changes. Journalist Paŭliuk Bykoŭski argues that modernisation of the Belarusian political system is not present, although some micro-movements may be seen. There is a debate over whether or not any new political systems will arise.

Andrej Vardamacki: media situation may change within a month – In mid-May, the Belarusian Analytical Workshop presented the results of the latest national poll. Andrej Vardamacki tells Thinktanks.by what is behind a sensational surge of confidence to non-state media (from 19.4% in February to 30.4% in April), explains what topics journalists should cover and what geopolitical infantilism is.

How to reform Belarus' regions. IdeaBy expert community has launched a landing to cover a topic dedicated to the situation in the Belarus' regions. The website collects actual data and analytics on the topic.

A third of the businessmen surveyed consider corruption widespread in Belarus. The IPM Research Center commissioned a survey devoted to the state of the business climate in the country. Among over 400 enterprises interviewed, 22.6% of the respondents indicated widespread corruption in the country and 8.1% – pervasive corruption.

Belarus Policy

Belarus’ civil society: current status and conditions of development An analytical overview that summarises data of sociological and sectoral studies of 2014-2017 related to the Belarusian CSOs 

Belarus’ civil society: current status and conditions of development – Centre for European Transformation (CET) presents an analytical overview that summarises data of sociological and sectoral studies of 2014-2017 related to the Belarusian CSOs. The study covers such issues as statistics of CSOs, areas of activity, geographical distribution, public participation, as well as certain political, legal and financial conditions.

Population 50+ in Belarus: the experience of using the instruments of social harmonisation in the EU – The first part of the working paper describes the demographic changes and challenges in the world, sets basic indicators reflecting ageing of the population, as well as it reviews relevant literature available for Belarus. The second part analyses the demographic situation in Belarus and assesses the risks for the 50+ group to fall into the poverty line, become unemployed and the influence of age on alcohol consumption.

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.




Live: Ostrogorski Forum 2017. Belarus in the new environment: challenges to foreign policy, security, and identity after 2014

On 19 June 2017 the Ostrogorski Centre is holding a conference on the challenges to the Belarusian political and economic model in the new international environment, possible ways to prevent further deterioration and find solutions to major problems. The issue will be considered in the three aspects: foreign policy, security and identity.

The conference promotes the development of professional and respectful dialogue between experts with different political views. Each panel includes experts from both pro-government and independent community with journalists of leading Belarusian mass media as moderators.

The conference offers live broadcast. Videos from the conference will be spread among the stakeholders, including state bodies, media, and civil society organisations.

Agenda of the 2017 Ostrogorski Forum:

Panel 1. Normalisation of relations between Belarus and the West after 2010: problems and results

Speakers:

Valier Karbalievič, Analytical centre 'Strategy'

Andrej Liachovič, Centre for Political Analysis

Siarhiej Kizima, Academy of Public Administration under the President of Belarus

Panel 2. National security and defence policy of Belarus in the conditions of economic crisis and rising international tension: achievements and failures

Speakers:

Aliaksandr Špakoŭski, "Cytadel" project

Dzianis Mieljancoŭ, Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (tbc)

Aliaksandr Hielahajeŭ, independent military analyst

Panel 3. The official policy of identity after 2014: was there a ‘soft Belarusianisation'?

Speakers:

Vadzim Mažejka, Liberal Club

Andrej Dyńko, Naša Niva newspaper

Piotra Piatroŭski, Nomos Centre

#Ostrogorski Forum