Belarus-Russian military exercises: the story still not over?

On 28 September, the last train filled with Russian troops that had participated in the West-2017 military exercises reportedly left Belarus. Some hours later, however, CommanderinChief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Viktor Muzhenko disputed the news. He claimed only a few Russian military units had returned to their garrisons in Russia, and the rest of Russian troops had, in fact, stayed in Belarus.

Muzhenko’s claims follow a string of other accusations and speculations over possible covert aspects to the Belarus-Russian military drills that made up West-2017. Minsk and Moscow have held the “West” military drills regularly since 2009. Each time the exercises are held, they cause observers to speculate about the hidden, aggressive intentions behind the war games.

This year Minsk tried its best to open up the drills to counter negative publicity. Yet, it found this task immensely difficult.

Moscow presents an exaggerated picture, and opponents are eager to accept it

IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a review that covers security issues, published contrasting statistics on the number of Russian troops involved in the West-2017 military exercises. On 28 September, the review wrote that “estimates ranged from Russia’s official number of 13,000 to more than 100,000.” Huge differences in troop-number estimates among analysts—even after the drills finished—point to a lack of evidencebased expertise on the matter.

To escape that problem, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly announced the main issue was not to ascertain the exact number of Russian troops involved. The weekly cited a NATO source as saying “it was the force posture and the quality of the troops that matter.”

Of course, confusion about the West-2017 exercises also stems from the Kremlin’s behaviour. Moscow lost no opportunity to exaggerate the scale of the exercises and to make matters ambiguous.

Image: mil.ru

While Minsk firmly insisted the exercises are limited to a separatist conflict scenario—meant to resemble conflicts in Kosovo and Ukraine’s Donbas region—on Belarusian territory, Russian military officials have been ambiguously promising to hold military exercises “from sea to sea.” That is, Moscow tried to link the West-2017 exercises with its other military training activities, some as far away as the Arctic.

Minsk attempted to dispel Moscow’s hints and ambiguities. All the same, many foreign media outlets, politicians and pundits seemed eager to accept Russia’s more threatening portrayal of the exercises. The Kremlin appears to have succeeded in representing West-2017 as an effective, Russian show of force.

The Russian military tasked its psychological warfare division with making the drills appear large-scale. The following two cases discussed below illustrate Russian efforts at sowing confusion over Russian troop numbers.

The first case dates to the end of last year. In an unprecedented move, Russia’s defence ministry published information on the 4,162 train cars it allegedly ordered for transporting Russian troops to Belarus and back. Writing in Defense One, a defence analysis website, Finnish military expert Jyri Raitasalo pointed out, “With one Excel spreadsheet made public in late 2016, the West has been made to guess [at the number of troops to be on-board] for eight months.”

The second case relates to a 14 February news publication on the arrival of Russian First Tank Army units to Belarus. The news caught Minsk by surprise. In a matter of hours, Belarusian military officials dismissed that information. No additional tank units had arrived. Moscow, however, chose to keep the news published on official military websites. The aim appears again to be to spread uncertainty.

Nowhere to hide

Image: mil.ru

Meanwhile, Minsk and Moscow can hardly conceal their massive military preparations from Western eyes. First, Western satellites can observe any location in Eastern Europe. Indeed, last year the Belling Cat website authors used satellite imagery to reveal the withdrawal of Russian aircraft which had been temporally based in Belarus.

Second, regional and Western countries—both members and non-members of NATO—conduct surveillance flights over Belarusian and Russian territory according to quotas determined by the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies. In exchange, Belarus and Russia—the two countries form one single group under that Treaty—conduct flights over these countries’ territories.

Information collected in these flights is fed into a unified data-bank. About three dozen NATO member countries and states aspiring to join the alliance can together conduct more flights and collect more information on the military capacities of Belarus and Russia than vice versa. Indeed, before the beginning of the West-2017 military exercises, on 4–8 September, the US and Ukraine conducted a surveillance flight over Belarus and Russia.

That is, Western and regional countries may have doubts about some minor details of the joint Belarus-Russian exercises, but not about their main features. It is logical to assume that intelligence agencies know exactly whether 13,000 or 100,000 participated in the drills, as such things cannot remain concealed under these circumstances.

Fog of verbal war

The many opportunities that regional and Western countries had to study the exercises make many statements about the drills by foreign politicians and media look odd. Though Belarus and Russia regularly conduct “West” military exercises causing some negative reactions, this year Minsk faced an unprecedented flurry of negative media coverage, both at regional and global levels.

Lithuanian president Grybauskaite even used an opportunity to address the UN General Assembly on 19 September to lash out at this year’s “West” exercise as a threat to international security. In addition, she also cited the Belarusian-built Astraviets nuclear power plant as a weapon from the “Kremlin’s arsenal.”

Bloomberg, a business news agency, went as far as to warn on 15 September, “If war breaks out with the West, it’s most likely to start in ‘Veyshnoria’ [the fictitious name Belarus’s General Staff gave the enemy zone in the West-2017 exercises].”

Presentation of the scenario of the drills. Image: nn.by

Often, foreign media, politicians and analysts denied any active role for Belarus in the exercises. A case in point is provided by the BBC’s media coverage. At least, on the first day of West-2017, the BBC World Service described the drills in its news summary as “Russian” exercises conducted in Belarus.

Even in the cases where Western media mentions Belarus, Russia is discussed first. Never mind the greatest number of troops involved were Belarusian—according to Minsk, more than 7,000 Belarusians trained together with less than 3,000 Russians. Moreover, the drills were concentrated on Belarusian territory and planning corresponded to standard training scenarios designed and used by the Belarusian military for several years.

Minsk has responded to all the negative coverage and statements in a restrained manner. For instance, reacting to Ukrainian accusations of Russian troops staying in Belarus after the exercise, Moscow mocked Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief as ‘professionally incompetent’ and elaborated on ‘degradation’ of Ukrainian General Staff. On the contrary, Minsk merely repeated that Russian troops had left.

In sum, the West-2017 exercises illustrate two key points. First, Minsk reluctantly joins in any show of power staged by Moscow. For the most part, Minsk can hold its ground when the Kremlin pushes for more aggressive displays of military strength. Indeed, none of this is new. Minsk has defended its position on other major joint defence projects with Russia, such as over the establishment of the Single Air Defence System or the Russian airbase in Belarus.

The second point demonstrated by the West-2017 exercises is that it’s really a moot point whether Western or regional states understand Minsk’s policy. Foreign media coverage of the exercises show that Moscow’s opponents feel somewhat comfortable both with Russia’s exaggerated claims and with the illusions Russia paints of controlling Belarus. The statements of top officials from Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania in particular demonstrate this attitude.




Redrawing the geopolitical map: Belarus and its neighbours connect the Black and Baltic seas

Belarus and Poland are advancing a project to connect the Black and Baltic Seas via the E40 waterway. The 2,000 km-long waterway will run through rivers and canals in Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland and provide better access to seaports for landlocked Belarus.

Having already conducted a feasibility study, the participating countries are now considering ways to finance the project before making their final decision.

However, in July, several environmental organisations and public associations launched a campaign against the E40 waterway. About two dozen organisations from Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine signed a petition to halt the project.

If anything can ensure the sovereignty of Belarus and its neighbours, it is such projects which modify the political geography of the region. Unfortunately, many experts and politicians in the region do not seem to understand this matter.

Is the project really as large as it seems?

Linking up the Black and Baltic Seas, the proposed E40 route also connects many of the region’s major cities: Brest and Pinsk in Belarus, Gdańsk and Warsaw in Poland, and Kyiv and Kherson in Ukraine. The designers of the E40 project emphasise that their intention is to restore a previously existing waterway to move both people and cargo. In most parts of the waterway, ships are navigating even today.

The Polish leg of the project will require the most work, while Belarus has only to partially streamline the Prypiats’ River, construct seven locks, and build several other hydro-technical facilities.

Map of the proposed E40 waterway. Image: e40restoration.eu

The Polish Maritime Institute in Gdańsk carried out a feasibility study on the project with EU support. According to the institute, construction of facilities on the Prypiats’, i.e., the Belarusian part of the undertaking, would cost $150m. In comparison, about 12bn euros is to be spent on construction of the Polish part of the route.

Criticism from activists

On 19 July, certain environmentalists and economists expressed their concerns over Е40 during a press conference in Minsk. Ales’ Herasimenka, the press secretary of the Business Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers, criticised the project for the high investment risks it carries and the negative consequences for the Belarusian economy.

According to him, internal waterways are generally less efficient than automotive and rail transport in terms of rapidness, necessity of reloading cargo, and seasonal limitations. Therefore, according to Herasimenka: ‘We believe that government and institutional investors should come to terms with the decline of the role of inland water transport. … Waterways were relevant at the beginning of civilisation.’

However, such cursory dismissal of inland water transport is misjudged. In other European countries, this form of infrastructure shows no obvious signs of decline. Between 1990 and 2015, despite some ups and downs, the cargo volume of German inland water transport remained more or less static, at slightly more than 220m tons.

Likewise, some types of cargo, especially liquid bulk and dry bulk cargo, can be profitably transported through inland waterways, despite the limitations on speed. Several major firms in southern Belarus could take advantage of the waterway to transport large volumes of cargo. The Mikashevichy-based firm Hranit has been using the Prypiats to transport its granite for many years. Likewise, the Mazyr oil refinery or the Salihorskbased potash company Belaruskali could transport their products using water transport.

Tourism cannot replace trade

Image: Nasha Niva

Environmentalists insist that the project could have grave consequences for the local bird population, including several vulnerable species. Moreover, they claim it could potentially destroy the unique wetlands ecosystem.

However, the project does not envision any direct destruction of the wetlands. Moreover, nature in the area is not pristine anyway. In the 20th century, most swamps were drained in southern Belarus, and intensive economic activity altered the region significantly.

What’s more, the local environment is transforming because of global climate change. The water level in southern Belarusian rivers has been low for several years. Last year, because of the low water level in the Prypiats’, navigation on the river stopped much earlier than usual: by the beginning of autumn. On the other hand, because of rising temperatures and earlier springs, last year the company Belarusian Riverine Steamships started navigation on the Prypiats’ a month earlier than normal, in March.

One critic of the project, a representative of the Polish organisation Ratujmy Rzeki, Przemyslaw Nawrocki, urges Belarus to develop tourism along the Prypiats’. However, despite the beautiful landscapes along the river, the tourism industry is unlikely to be able to compete with the income brought by the E40. Belarus is simply too poor to leave the region undeveloped to satisfy environmental activists.

The waterway as a political game-changer

The E40 project also has political significance. ‘Death of Palissie [the name of the region in the Pripyats River Basin] or an alliance against Russia?’ exclaimed the US-financed and administered Radio Liberty, writing about the project on 24 July.

Meanwhile, the Belarusian government is negotiating a waterway which would help it use Polish and Ukrainian ports at the time when the Kremlin is urging Minsk to reroute its cargo away from Latvian and Lithuanian ports towards Russian Baltic ports. Minsk is not only resisting Moscow’s plans in this area, it even wants to make more intensive use of ports in countries Moscow considers unfriendly.

Map of the Baltic ports used by Belarus. Image: Tut.by

However, this concerns more than just Russia. Minsk is increasingly interested in the Polish port of Gdańsk and various Ukrainian ports because of very probable problems with using the Lithuanian port of Klaipėda

The Lithuanian government has become unfriendly towards Minsk in recent years because of Belarus’s decision to build a nuclear power plant near the Lithuanian border. Moreover, on 14 July, the Klaipėda City council voted to expand the city at the expense of its port – a priority destination for maritime export of Belarusian products. Belarus had invested in the Klaipėda port and there was long-standing bilateral cooperation on using the port for Belarusian foreign trade. This decision of local authorities dissmisses the plans of the port administration to construct a new deep-water port for ocean-going ships a dream for Belarusian exporters.

In sum, projects like E40 alter the geopolitics of the region, opening it up and providing it with further and better connections to the sea. Belarus cannot change its location, but it can develop its infrastructure in a way which mitigates its disadvantage as a landlocked country. Minsk can diversify its exports and reduce its dependence on Russia; it can also better integrate with its neighbours and the EU.

The environmental and economic arguments against the project are unconvincing, at least as far as Belarus is concerned. To survive, Belarus must reach the sea; the E40 is one way to do this.




Belarus’s plan to import Iranian and Azerbaijani oil: how serious is Minsk?

On 3 April, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka succeeded in securing concessions from Vladimir Putin following a year-long oil and gas dispute between the two countries. In order to reach a deal, Minsk put the idea of buying oil from non-Russian sources back on the table.

On 15 February, the news source Reuters reported an oil deal between Belarus and Iran. It involved 80,000 tones of Iranian oil which were indeed delivered on 24 March to the Ukrainian port of Odessa for subsequent transport to Belarus.

Over the past decade, Minsk has already gained more experience than its neighbours in securing alternative oil sources; it has been able to secure both Venezuelan and Azerbaijani oil before. Although the deals were short-lived, the Kremlin's reaction to these manoeuvres proves that it takes the Belarusian government's efforts seriously.

Oil from non-Russian sources: Has Minsk reported only a fraction of its imports?

Both Belarus and Iran released minimal information regarding their February oil deal. All publications made reference to Reuters, adding only cursory commentary. Even the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), the seller of the oil, based its press release on the Reuters report.

This is in line with the policy of the Belarusian government to shun publicity in its efforts at diversification. According to Reuters, in 2016 Belarus imported a total of 560,000 tones of Azerbaijani oil, but these deliveries stopped in January 2017. Only a handful of these deliveries – just 84,000 tones – were reported in the media before Reuters published its report on 15 February.

Poland's shadow

Remarkably, it was Beloil Polska, the Polish subsidiary of the Belarusian Oil Company Belarusneft, which closed the deal on the Belarusian side. On 20 February, Polish security and energy expert Piotr Maciążek wrote a piece for the well-informed Energetyka24 web outlet suggesting that Belarus was buying Iranian oil with Polish assistance.

He argued that Belarus's deal with Iran on oil delivery could have been linked to another deal regarding Iranian oil supplies to Poland. To conclude its agreement agreement with Tehran, Minsk may even have used the direct support of Warsaw, which is rapidly developing relations with Iran. The fact that the very same NIOC press release about the oil deal with Belarus made reference to an Iranian oil delivery to Poland supports this hypothesis.

There are good reasons to believe that Minsk's move to buy Iranian oil is politically motived by the need to counter Russian pressure. After all, Minsk reportedly purchased only 80,000 tones from Iran, and the deal was completed as a spot transaction; it involved no longer-term commitments.

Most commentators also believe that this oil is to be transported by rail; if Minsk planned to import larger volumes of Iranian oil on a more regular basis, it would make more sense to use Ukrainian pipelines.

However, two facts indicate that Belarus most likely plans to import oil via Ukrainian pipelines in the future. In November 2016, Ukrainian minister for regional development Hennadi Zubko reported that Ukraine would possibly be transporting Azerbaijani and Iranian oil to Belarusian refineries. Moreover, on 21 March, the Ukrainian pipeline operator Ukrtransnafta announced the re-opening of an oil pipeline between Belarus and Ukraine.

Belarus's former plan to import a third of its oil from non-Russian sources

By buying oil from Iran and Azerbaijan, Minsk is reacting to the Kremlin's attempts to impose its own terms of economic cooperation and integration on Belarus. After the beginning of the latest gas dispute between Minsk and Moscow, in 2016 the Kremlin reduced its oil exports to Belarus from the formerly agreed 24m tones to 18m tones.

Oil refinement and sales of reprocessed oil products constitute a major source of income for the Belarusian government, so the reduction of supplies dealt a blow to the financial situation in Minsk.

On 3 April, Belarusian Economy Minister Uladzimir Zinouski directly linked the contraction of the Belarusian GDP in January-March to the reduction of Russian oil imports. Belarusian refineries received less oil, and thus produced less oil products for export.

This, however, is not a new problem for the Belarusian leadership. In 2010, Minsk faced similar problems securing enough Russian oil on favourable terms, so Lukashenka made an oil deal with Venezuela. Belarus, however, is a landlocked country dependent on its neighbours – primarily the Baltic states and Ukraine – for access to the sea, by which the oil must be transported.

In July 2010, the Belarusian government signed an agreement with Ukraine on use of the Odessa-Brody pipeline to transport oil from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa to Belarus. Minsk guaranteed it would pump through Ukrainian pipelines at least 4m tones yearly in 2011-2012, and even hinted at the possible extension of the agreement after 2012, with the oil volume increasing to 8m tones.

At the same time, Minsk was negotiating with the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda over the possible transport of 2m tones of non-Russian oil yearly on a long-term basis. There were similar negotiations with Latvia and Estonia. Oil deliveries also took place via the three Baltic states subsequently.

As long as Belarus planned on buying Venezuelan oil, schemes involving millions of tones seemed fanciful. Very soon, however, Lukashenka managed to convince Azerbaijan to join the Belarusian-Venezuelan oil deal through swap contracts. Thus, in place of direct deliveries from Venezuela, since 2011 Belarus has been receiving Azerbaijani oil.

Under these circumstances, receiving 4m tones a year seemed like less of a fantastic target, although in total Minsk received only one million tones via the Ukrainian pipeline in 2011– about five per cent of what it needed.

How Lukashenka prevailed over the Kremlin

Naturally, Moscow was irked by Minsk's plans, which were becoming reality. In the end, however, the Kremlin's hands were tied and it eventually gave in: by the end of 2011, Minsk had succeeded in getting Russian companies to sign oil agreements more or less on the terms the Belarusian government had wished. Belarus then stopped importing non-Russian oil until 2016.

This history certainly raises questions about the seriousness of Minsk's intentions to diversify its energy sources. This is as true now as it was in the early 2010s. Nevertheless, the scale of the commitments and risks the Belarusian government was prepared to take vis-a-vis Moscow and Kyiv in 2011 in order to import non-Russian oil proves that Minsk is ready and willing to diversify should Russia prove intractable.

At present, Minsk's moves towards diversifying its energy sources seem more modest. But they could turn out to be larger than currently thought: some deliveries could remain unreported, as the post factum revealed data about the volumes of 2016 imports of Azerbaijani oil prove. Last but not least, in either scenario Moscow has capitulated: the Kremlin seems to be taking Minsk's diversification efforts seriously.

 




Chechens struggle to enter the EU through Belarus

Since late summer 2016, a small-scale refugee crisis has been unfolding at the Belarusian-Polish border near Brest, as several thousand Chechen refugees attempt to make their way into Poland.

They are mainly seeking political asylum in the EU, claiming that they are persecuted by the repressive regime in Chechnya. However, the majority fail to convince Polish border guards to allow them to enter the country as refugees. Nevertheless, many Chechen families refuse to give up and are biding their time in Brest, adamantly re-attempting to cross the border every day.

Migrants and refugees have usually entered Belarus through the open border with Russia. If Belarus signs the Readmission Agreement with the EU, it will be forced to deal with illegal migrants and unsuccessful asylum seekers should Poland send them back under the terms of the agreement.

Fleeing feuds and persecution

The number of Chechen refugees in the EU rose in 2013, when according to Eurostat more than 40,000 Chechens applied for asylum. At that time, they did not have trouble receiving visas and travelling to Germany via Poland. However, as the refugee crisis in Southern Europe intensified in 2015, Germany forced Chechens to return to Poland, where refugee camps soon filled up.

As a result, the Polish government stopped accepting refugees into the country, claiming that there is currently no war in Russia. However, this has not discouraged the streams of people fleeing Kadyrov's regime in Chechnya. Chechen cab drivers now even offer a fixed price for the itinerary Grozny-Brest: about €160 per person.

According to human rights activists, those fleeing Chechnya include opponents of the regime and their relatives, torture victims, people fleeing local blood feuds, women and children under the threat of persecution, and would-be conscripts who refuse to fight in Syria or Donbass.

The exact number of prospective refugees remains difficult to estimate. In 2015, Polish border services blocked 53,000 entries to Poland, while in 2016 the number grew to 118,000. However, these statistics only indicate the number of failed attempts to cross the border.

As Russian citizens, Chechens are allowed to stay in Belarus for up to 90 days. However, their ultimate goal is the EU, as Belarus has never been an attractive destination for migrants. The majority of Chechens do not consider the country safe, fearing its open border with Russia. What's more, not a single Russian citizen has ever been granted asylum in Belarus.

#InvisibleRefugees

By late summer 2016, between 1,000 and 3,000 Russian citizens from Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus were stuck in Brest, seeking asylum in the EU as political refugees. Every day, hundreds boarded the Brest-Terespol regional train in the hopes of obtaining refugee status in Poland.

However, only one or two families have been successful so far. All others return to Brest, only to repeat the attempt the next day. By winter, the number of asylum seekers had gone down, but many Chechens still remain in Brest.

Human rights activists from the Belarusian NGO Human Constanta note that Polish border control treats refugees with contempt, accusing them of being economic migrants or terrorists. Officers often spend less than a minute with potential refugees and force them to board the return train before they can even plead their case.

During the summer of 2016, entire Chechen families were living at the railway station in Brest. Those courageous enough to remain in Brest for winter moved to overcrowded rental apartments in the vicinity of the station, from where they would continue to try their luck until money ran out. Every attempt to cross the border by train costs a family about €50, including tickets and daily expenses.

The Belarusian Ministry of the Interior does not see significant problems with the refugee situation. The summary report for 2016 described the migration situation in Belarus as 'stable and controlled.' At the same time, it acknowledged the fact that illegal migrants were using Belarus as a transit country on their way to the EU.

Popular reactions to the Chechen presence in Brest range from callous to business-like. As the Chechens' only goal is getting into Poland, locals do not see them as competition. Brest landlords also profit from signing daily leases to rent apartments and rooms to Chechen families.

In protest against the arbitrariness of the Polish border patrol vis a vis the Chechens camping in Brest, in August 2016 Human Constanta set up a special mission in the city. Volunteers collected donations for the children and provided legal aid to the refugees, drawing attention of the media and international organisations to the plight of the Chechen refugees.

Together with Polish NGOs, Belarusian volunteers collected over 20,000 signatures in support of the Chechen refugees. They demanded that Poland fulfil its international obligations to guarantee the rights of refugees. However, civil society has had only partial success. Arbitrariness at the border continues, and those without a valid Schengen visa can only hope that one day their daily commute between Brest and Terespol will be successful.

The long story of the Readmission Agreement

In February 2017, the Polish Ministry of the Interior and Administration announced changes in regulations concerning admittance of refugees. New regulations would simplify deportation process and create a legal basis for denying entry to potential refugees.

According to dziennik.pl, Poland would like to cooperate with Belarus in order to create special facilities for the refugees on Belarusian territory. Thus, asylum seekers could await decisions on their applications from outside of Poland.

In January 2017, the EU promised to fund construction of facilities for migrants in Belarus within the framework of the EU-Belarus Mobility Partnership Programme. This would help Belarus cope with illegal migration and support its commitment towards signing the Readmission Agreement.

This agreement would facilitate deportation of individuals who had entered the EU illegally from Belarus. The Belarusian side has signalled that it is ready to sign. Nevertheless, it continues to hesitate, hoping to convince the EU to allow for a transitional period before full implementation of the agreement.

The signing of the agreement is a crucial precondition to simplify visa regulations for Belarusian citizens. However, it would also mean that Belarus would need to deal with unsuccessful illegal migrants to the EU, instead of simply observing their attempts to cross the border into Poland and ignoring their plight.




Belarus prepares to expand its visa-free zone

In October-December 2016, almost 2,000 tourists took advantage of new visa-free regulations to visit Hrodna Region. In response to the increasing amount of foreign tourists, Hrodna Region has started working on two important initiatives: visa-free railway voyages and launching low-cost flights to Hrodna airport.

However, making railway services and the Hrodna airport accessible visa-free will not attract many more tourists if more tourist services are not first developed. Extension of the visa-free territory to the whole of Belarus and investment in the development of services would significantly improve the popularity of Belarus for tourists.

Two months visa-free

On 26 October, Belarus announced visa-free entry for tourists. According to presidential decree 318: 'Concerning the introduction of visa-free entry and departure for foreigners', tourists can stay up to 5 days on the territory of Hrodna Region

From 26 October to 26 December, almost 2,000 foreign nationals visited the visa-free territory. The majority of tourists (1,358 people) were Lithuanians, followed by Poles (795). Belarus has also attracted tourists from Germany, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, as well the USA and even Africa.

Aleh Andreychyk, Head of the regional Sport and Tourism Management committee, told Belta that the Old Town, zoo, farmsteads, and night clubs proved the most popular destinations for tourists. Although many tourists highlighted the cheap prices, the insufficient amount of English spoken in services became an important issue.

Opinions on visa-free regulation

In December, Hrodna.life conducted series of interviews with tourists who had came to Belarus according to the visa-free regime. A Spanish family which had recently visited Hrodna noted that Belarus should work more on its image and marketing if it wants to attract more tourists to the country, which remains unknown and under-discovered for many foreigners.

Another traveller from Brazil noted that Belarus is far from the typical Soviet country due to its architecture and developed technologies. Michal Sikorski, a Polish blogger, visited Hrodna and posted a video report. Michal called upon Belarusians to preserve their uniqueness and highlighted the architecture of Hrodna, as well as its night clubs.

Local activists from Hrodna have also noted the significant increase in tourists over the last two months. Yauhen Skarabutan told Radyjo Racyja that these are only the first steps on the way to a visa-free regime between Belarus and the EU.

The next step for visa-free regulation

The Head of Hrodna Region executive committee, Uladzimir Kraucou, reported that due to the increasing amount of tourists, the visa-free zone needs to be extended. Although this might sound as if the authorities are suggesting enlarging the visa-free zone, amendments to the law really only entail expanding visa-free access to railway and flights.

For now, it is only possible to enter Belarus visa-free by car or bus. Visa-free trains from Poland to Belarus would attract more tourists. When travelling by car, visitors have to purchase insurance and spend an unpredictable amount of time on the border. Train travel would remove these arguments.

Authorities in Hrodna Region suggest making the recently launched train route Hrodna – Białystok – Warszawa – Kraków visa-free.

Moreover, Hrodna Region is proposing to launch low-cost routes to Hrodna airport and include the airport in its visa-free zone. Today, the airport is very small and underdeveloped, with only several routes. Low-cost flights from the EU would require investment in airport equipment and better transportation with easy access to town.

The last proposal is still being discussed. Authorities suggest creating a new border checkpoint at 'Safieva – Lipchany'. Hrodna Region authorities note that they are working actively on extending visa-free regulation. Nevertheless, these proposals, even if quickly implemented, are insufficient for making tourism to Belarus truly popular.

Small steps, small achievements

So far, Belarus has taken small steps to liberalise its visa regime. The number of tourists to Belarus has significantly decreased since 2010. Introducing visa-free entrance to one of the Belarusian regions two months ago was the first attempt to open up the country. However, learning from the experience of neighbouring countries could help improve the model for developing local tourism.

For instance, Podlaskie region has created a centre for promotion of the region. The centre actively participates in campaigns aimed at attracting tourists to the region, primarily from Belarus. Recently, at the centre's initiative, the Bialystok Opera sold tickets to Belarusians in exchange for free visas. Creating such a centre in Hrodna could develop new methods of attracting tourists to the region.

The minor extensions suggested by Hrodna authorities have so far been ineffective in changing Belarus’s image and popularity among foreign tourists. Introducing low-cost flights to Hrodna will be unlikely to encourage many more tourists to visit Belarus until the airport is better-equipped and connected to the town. The low level of English knowledge, reflected in the lack of English or Latin writing in public spaces will create an additional obstacle for tourists.

Bialystok, the closest Polish town across the border with similar population, has 18 hotels on Booking.com. Hrodna only has five

Extending the visa-free territory to the whole of Belarus would be much more effective. A recent example of successful visa liberalisation is Kazakhstan, where visas are no loner required for citizens of 37 developed countries for up to 30 days. The country aims to create a large international financial centre and receive direct investments from states such as Austria, Canada, and Sweden. Such a measure in Belarus would make the country more popular in the West. The increased degree of openness brought about by a visa-free regime could only be beneficial economically, socially, and culturally.

However, amending visa regulations will not attract a large amount of tourists unless services are developed first. At the moment, it would be savvy for Belarus to invest in the tourism sphere, at least in Hrodna Region. For comparison, Bialystok, the closest Polish town across the border with more or less the same population, has 18 hotels. Meanwhile, according to Booking.com Hrodna only has five. More hotels and hostels, along with better food and entertainment services, would encourage foreigners to visit Belarus more than once.

All that said, the successful introduction of the visa-free zone in Hrodna Region and the possible extensions to regulations still point to the intention of the country to open up and improve relations with the EU. The next logical step for Belarus could be the ratification of the cross-border movement agreement, which Poland and Lithuania have already approved, and cancellation of visas for developed countries, as in Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.




Education event in Minsk, call for London conference, Belsat, Astraviec NPP – Ostrogorski Centre digest

In December, analysts of the Ostrogorski Centre discussed Belarus' vote at the UN General Assembly, ongoing tension between Belarus and Lithuania over the Astraviec NPP, and the situation of Belsat TV.

On 13 December the Ostrogorski Centre and the Embassies of the Netherlands and Poland organised a conference on education as a human right in Minsk.

The Ostrogorski Centre, the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum announced a Call for Papers for the conference ‘Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century’.

The 4th Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish Conference: Education As A Human Right

On 13 December 2016 Minsk hosted the 4th Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish Conference. This year, the topic was: 'Education as a Human Right: Modernising Higher Education to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century'. The conference was organised by the Ostrogorski Centre in cooperation with the Embassies of the Netherlands and Poland.

As with other conferences co-organised by the Ostrogorski Centre, it brought together people with different views and backgrounds to engage in respectful dialogue. The speakers included representatives of educational institutions from the Netherlands, Poland, and Belarus, as well as Belarusian government agencies and NGOs.

The event focused on three key topics: the challenges of Belarus's accession to the European Higher Education Area, improving business education, and making education more accessible through distance education.

Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century: a Call for Papers

The Ostrogorski Centre, the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies (UCL SSEES), and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum is calling for proposals from established academics and doctoral researchers for individual papers and panel discussions on various aspects of contemporary Belarusian studies.

The conference will take place on 25 February 2017, at UCL SSEES. On 27 February, a special event will be hosted by the British Library organised in cooperation with the National Library of Belarus and the Belarusian Embassy in London to celebrate the anniversary of Skaryna’s Bible.

The 2017 conference will coincide with the 500th anniversary of the first Bible written in old Belarusian. Francis Skaryna’s translation of the Bible, published in Prague in 1517-1519, was the first printed book in the whole of Eastern and Southern Europe and carries immense significance for Belarusian identity. Submissions devoted to Skaryna’s legacy are particularly welcome this year.

Submissions are requested by 10 January 2017, more information can be found here.

Analytics

A Belarus Digest editorial argues that supporting Belsat is in the real interest of Warsaw and Minsk. The Polish Foreign Ministry has recently announced that it is considering closing down Belsat, the only Belarusian language channel available online and via satellite across central Europe. Without the active pro-democracy and pro-independence minority in Belarus, which is sustained partially by Belsat, the prospect of Belarus being entirely swallowed up by the Russian world could become even more real.

Ryhor Astapienia discusses whether Belarus can punish Lithuania for its position on the Astraviec NPP. Belarusian officials have hinted several times that Lithuania benefits significantly from the transit of Belarusian goods, so the Lithuanian government should soften its position on Astraviec. Nevertheless, it seems that Belarus will continue to use Lithuania as a transit country – this remains an economically expedient option. Nevertheless, it will also try to diversify supplies.

Igar Gubarevich analyses Belarus's vote at the UN General Assembly. It shows that Minsk pursues a much more independent foreign policy than most observers believe. The positions of Minsk and Moscow differ in almost a quarter of all issues. At the same time, the Belarusian government does not cross certain red lines defined by the Kremlin. The Belarusian delegation would never vote for a resolution condemning the Russian government.

Comments in the media

Igar Gubarevich analyses the three main obstacles to Belarusian-Polish relations improving on Polish radio: delay of local border traffic, the schism of the Polish minority in Belarus, and the Card of the Pole.

Also on Polish radio, Ryhor Astapenia comments on the revival of Polish-Belarusian relations. According to Ryhor, a dominant view in Belarus, Russia, and Poland is that through rapprochement with Poland, Minsk is trying to strengthen its western flank in foreign policy. In doing so, Belarus wants to demonstrate independence in decision-making.

On Polish radio, Igar Gubarevich analyses the visit of a high-level EU delegation to Minsk. According to Igar, the two sides currently maintain a comprehensive institutional dialogue, but true normalisation of relations has yet to occur, as evidenced by the lack of highest-level visits. At the moment, Belarus and the EU are seeking points of contact, putting aside issues of human rights and democracy.

Siarhei Bohdan discusses Belarus's border policy on Polish radio. The situation on the southern border of Belarus remains at risk of arms penetration and crime, but in two or three years the entire southern border will be closed with the help of EU funds. Meanwhile, Russia closed its border with Belarus for citizens of third countries for purely political reasons, as a punishment for Belarus, Siarhei argues.

Belarus Profile

The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following people: Valier Malaška, Natallia Nikandrava, Dzmitry Krupski, Aliaksandr Makajeŭ, Uladzimir Karahin, Vasiĺ Hierasimaŭ, Anatoĺ Isačenka, Andrej Žyškievič, Andrej Dzierach, Voĺha Ščerbina,

We have also updated the profiles of Ihar Karpienka, Aliena Kupčyna, Aliaksandr Kosiniec, Vadzim Hihin, Aliaksandr Milinkievič, Aliaksandr Lahviniec, Anatoĺ Husaraŭ, Lieanid Šeniec, Eduard Paĺčys, Ivan Liemiašeŭski, Viktar Ščaćko, Natallia Kačanava, Maksim Ryžankoŭ, Kanstancin Martyniecki, Juryj Čyž.

Belarus policy

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

Andrei Yahorau, Aliona Zuikova. The role and place of civil society in the system of donor aid for Belarus (2006-2014). CET, 2016.

Aliaksandr Chubryk. KEF-2016 "Reforms for engaging growth": key findings and recommendations. IPM Research Centre, 2016.

Dzmitry Kruk, Katsiaryna Barnukova. The anatomy of recession in Belarus. BEROC, 2016.

Alena Artsiomenka. Factors of reproductive choice of Belarusians. BISS, 2016.

Uladzimir Akulich, Yulia Yafimnenka, Viktoryia Smalenskaya, Uladzislau Ramaniuk, Alieś Aliachnovič, Sierž Naŭrodski, Katsiaryna Alieksiatovich, Yaraslau Mialhui. The seventh issue of the Macroeconomic Review of Belarus (January-September 2016). CASE Belarus, 2016.

Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by completing this form.

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 Studies, BelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.




US investments, arrest of anti-Belarusian journalists, corruption – Belarus state press digest

Belarus aims to expand its cooperation with Malaysia and hosts another high-level visit from Poland. The Belarusian delegation visits the US to discuss economic cooperation and investment with state agencies and corporations.

The authorities arrest three Belarus-based journalists from the Russian media on charges of propagating extremism. The KGB discloses large-scale corruption schemes within the state procurement system.

This and more in the new edition of Belarusian state press digest.

Foreign policy

Belarus expands its cooperation with Malaysia. Zviazda reports on Lukashenka’s meeting with Speaker of the House of Representatives of Malaysia Pandikaram Amines Mulia. The Belarusian leader stated that Belarus is interested in developing relations with Malaysia 'because it does not attach conditions to relations as some other countries do. Belarus will likewise refrain from putting forward any conditions'.

Lukashenka also stressed the need to increase trade between the two countries and develop inter-parliamentary political cooperation. During the meeting, the representatives of Belarus and Malaysia discussed possible cooperation in high-tech, industry, tourism, and education. Lukashenka also announced his intention to pay an official visit to Malaysia.

Another high-level official visit from Poland. Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Stanislaw Karczewski, the Marshal of the Polish Senate, conducted negotiations in Minsk. The Minsk Times reports that Karczewski emphasised that Belarus is a place of stability and security in Eastern Europe, although some countries have previously overlooked it. The officials discussed the importance of shared history, and agreed that political interaction should follow the business interests of the countries.

Specifically, the parties agreed on the importance of trade intensification. The senator also visited the Council of the Republic, where the two sides signed an agreement on education. Michail Miasnikovič, the Chairman of the Council, noted that the successful cooperation between the Belarusian and Polish parliaments this year will have a positive impact on the Belarusian parliament’s contacts with other parliaments across the EU.

Security

The authorities arrest three Russian media contributors based in Belarus for 'incitement of racial, ethnic, religious, or other social hatred or discord.' Zviazda reported that the three writers worked for the Russian publications REGNUM, LENTA.RU, and Eurasіa Daіly. The Investigative Committee analysed 500 materials and found elements of extremism in 120 of them, according to Belarusian Minister of Information Lilija Ananič.

Ananič said that the publications question the sovereignty of Belarus, and were insulting to the authorities, nation, history, language, and culture of Belarus. They repeatedly claimed that 'Belarus is moving to the West' and that 'the Belarusian government conducts anti-Russian policies'.

Belarusian authorities had earlier sent requests to explain the situation to the Russian Ministry of Communications and the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications. Russian officials replied that these publications 'are produced by marginalised authors and in no way represent the position of the Russian leadership, which consistently strives to deepen Russian-Belarusian cooperation'. The readers and authors of such articles are obviously trying to sow discord between Belarus and Russia, Ananič concluded.

The State Security Committee (KGB) of Belarus uncovers a large-scale bribery scheme. The company BelABM, which specialises in IT and business process automation, organised a corruption scheme involving government officials, reports Belarus Segodnia. The scheme was uncovered on 15 December when the CEO of BelABM Dzmitry Ronin gave a bribe of $20,000 to the manager of the Social Protection Fund of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, Liudmila Bačyla. In doing so, Ronin intended to secure his company’s win of a state procurement tender.

On the same day, the KGB detained Alieh Vieramiejčyk, the chairman of the non-bank financial institution Single Settlement and Information Space. They also detained representatives of the National Bank Anatol Maroz and Kaciaryna Paŭloŭskaja on the same charges: corruption deals with BelABM in the area of state procurement.

Economy

A Belarusian delegation visits the United States to discuss investments and loans. On 6-10 December a Belarusian economic delegation visited Washington at the invitation of the Congress of the United States, writes Zviazda. The delegation included deputy head of the Presidential Administration Mikalaj Snapkoŭ, head of the Ideology Department of the Presidential Administration Usievalad Jančeŭski, and representatives of the National Bank, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Economy, and other ministries.

The Belarusian delegation held talks in a number of key US governmental agencies: the State Department, the Department of Commerce, the Office of the US Trade Representative, the Federal Communications Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

The delegation held working meetings with the leadership of the Emerging Market Private Equity Association and the US corporations Microsoft, AGCO, Case New Holland, and others. The sides discussed investment projects to be implemented in Belarus. The delegation also held talks with Deputy Managing Director of the IMF Mitsuhiro Furusawa concerning preparation of the IMF programme for Belarus.

Mahilioŭ introduces the first 2nd generation energy-efficient apartment complex in Belarus. As Mahilioŭskija Viedamasci notes, the building heats water with solar power as well as wastewater, while air can be heated with a special conditioning system. This allows savings of up to 40% for water and 60% for apartment heating.

The house was designed by Belarusians specialists with financial support from UNDP and the Global Ecological Fund. Funding from international organisations totalled $1mn, or 15 per cent of construction costs. The apartment complex will soon house 160 large families.

Other

Belarus and Poland negotiate the development of the Augustow Canal. The first meeting of a joint working group of the authorities of Hrodna region in Belarus and Podlasie voivodeship of Poland took place in Bialystok, writes Hrodzienskaja Praŭda. The group discussed the development of Augustow Canal, which shares a border legacy with Belarus and Poland. They discussed simplifications of cross border movement of tourists and joint technical regulation of the canal's operations.

The group considered the possibility of allowing water vessels to move between the Polish town of Augustow via the canal and the Nioman river in Belarus. The sides agreed to jointly promote the tourist potential of the Augustow Canal and exchange information and provide media support to each other.

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




Belarus neutrality, border with Russia, visa-free zones, Belarus-Poland relations – Ostrogorski Centre digest

In November the Ostrogorski Centre released the first major publication on neutrality in Belarusian foreign and national security policy.

In their articles, analysts from The Centre discussed unresolved issues in Polish-Belarusian relations, border control policies and institutions, and the authorities' new policies on visa-free zones.

The Ostrogorski Centre commented extensively in the Belarusian and Polish media on many issues including the causes of the November protests in Pakistan, Belarus's vote on the Crimean resolution at the UN General Assembly, and the reluctant revival of the Belarusian language in the education system.

Analytics

Igar Gubarevich analyses recent encouraging trends in relations between Belarus and Poland, as well as several unresolved issues that hamper their full normalisation: local border traffic, the Pole's card, and the divided Union of Poles in Belarus.

Poland’s conservative government has recently shown greater independence from Brussels on many policy issues. They have also visibly reduced their support for the Belarusian opposition, to the latter's great chagrin. This has led to tacit approbation from Lukashenka’s government. However, the primary sources of conflict in the two countries’ relations remain of a purely bilateral nature.

Siarhei Bohdan argues that Belarus still struggles with the development of adequate border control agencies, as their dependence on foreign aid, as well as allegations of corruption, reveal. If Belarus succeeds in sealing off its border with Ukraine, its Russian border will be the only one to remain open.

However, despite decades of integration, the status of this border remains precarious. In mid-September, the Kremlin closed its border with Belarus for third-nation nationals without any prior notice – thus ruining Minsk's plans of becoming a transit country.

Vadzim Smok discusses a recently introduced visa-free area in the Hrodna region on the border with Poland and Lithuania. It became the second visa-free zone in Belarus after the national park Bielaviežskaja Pušča opened up in 2015.

New analytic paper: 'Elements of neutrality in Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy'

The Ostrogorski Centre releases the first major publication on neutrality in Belarusian foreign and national security policy. Its authors are Siarhei Bohdan and Gumer Isaev.

Belarus has moved closer towards authentic neutrality over the past decade. For a long time, Minsk's position has been misinterpreted as opportunism with regards to Moscow and the West. Yet by the mid-2010s, signs of neutrality coalesced into a reliable element of Belarusian foreign and national security policy.

This naturally leads one to question whether neutrality is a viable option for the Belarusian state. So far, Moscow has accepted this, but other countries are refusing to take it seriously. However, this may be the only way for Belarus to survive as a state under the current circumstances.

Conference on education as a human right

On 13 December the Ostrogorski Centre organises the conference: 'Education as a human right: modernising higher education to meet the challenges of the 21st century' in cooperation with the newly opened Embassy Office of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Belarus.

This event will provide an opportunity to constructively discuss different approaches to the challenge of transforming education systems in a specialist round table format. It will also highlight specific solutions which could been applied successfully in other countries. The conference will include three panels:

  • Panel 1. Belarus's accession to the European Higher Education Area: challenges to entering the European educational space
  • Panel 2. Business education in Belarus: enhancing market transition and economic reforms
  • Panel 3. Distance education in Belarus: towards an inclusive educational environment

Comments in the media

Siarhei Bohdan discusses the causes of the November protests in Pakistan on the news portal TUT.by. According to Siarhei, the protests were caused not so much by the recently-exposed offshore companies of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as by a whole range of problems in the country. Moreover, the army seems to stand behind the protests, as it opposes Sharif's policy towards the radical groups it controls.

Ryhor Astapenia appears on the 'Hot Comment' programme on Belsat TV to discuss developments in Belarusian-Russian relations. Despite constant energy and trade wars, Belarus does not intent to abandon Russian integration projects completely. However, the expert argues that the two countries will gradually begin to drift further apart.

Igar Gubarevich comments on the normalisation of relations between Minsk and Warsaw for Polish radio. The dialogue between the parties is now taking place at a high level, which has not been the case for years. However, a number of bilateral issues of a political nature, as well as the position of Russia and the EU, will constrain further development of the dialogue, according to the expert.

'Tell the Truth' campaign refers to Siarhei Bogdan's analytical paper: 'Elements of neutrality in Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy'. According to campaign leader Andrej Dzmitryjeŭ, 'Tell the Truth' sees this study as a theoretical basis for the campaign's foreign policy vision.

Igar Gubarevich comments on Belarus voting for the Crimean resolution at the UN General Assembly for Radio Racyja. Igar explains that Belarus has long opposed the consideration of country resolutions at the UN General Assembly and proposes to address these issues in the Human Rights Committee. Belarus used this approach in order to avoid voting against the Crimean resolution as such.

On Polish radio, Ryhor Astapenia discusses the 'reluctant' revival of the Belarusian language in the education system. After the Ukrainian conflict, the government realised the need to for patriotism to unite various parts of the population and strengthen the sovereignty of the country. Moreover, the Belarusian language has ceased to be the political issue that it had been for Aliaksandr Lukashenka in the 1990s.

Belsat TV publishes a video interview with Siarhei Bohdan on the model of Belarusian of neutrality. According to Siarhei, Belarus can learn from the example of Finland: first of all, Belarus needs to make clear to Moscow that it will not diverge from the path of neutrality, even in return for cheap oil and gas; second, Belarus should declare non-alignment and guarantee Russia that NATO aircraft will not fly over Belarus.

Belaruspolicy

​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 completing this form.

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 Studies, BelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.




Belarus struggles to control its borders

On 13 October Belarusian border guards received EU-funded special equipment worth €2.5m. This will help Minsk control the Ukrainian border. There is an element of irony in this: although it works to remove borders within the EU, Brussels is helping to construct them in the rest of Europe.

If Belarus succeeds in sealing off its border with Ukraine, its Russian border will be the only one to remain open. However, despite decades of integration, the status of this border is precarious. In mid-September, the Kremlin closed its border with Belarus for third-nation nationals without any prior notice – thus ruining Minsk's plans of becoming a transit country.

Belarus still has serious problems with the development of adequate border control agencies, as their dependence on foreign aid, as well as allegations of corruption, reveal.

Why is the EU giving millions to Minsk?

In order to provide the Belarusian border patrol with what it need to control its border, the EU is funding a project called “Strengthening surveillance and bilateral coordination capacity along the common border between Belarus and Ukraine” (SURCAP), implemented by of the International Organisation for Migration.

The EU launched SURCAP in 2012 after a period of disruption in relations with Belarus following the 2010 presidential election in the country. In November 2012, Lukashenka even hinted that without such EU assistance, Minsk would no longer be able to control illegal migration to the EU.

Was averting such a threat the reason Brussels initiated the SURCAP project? This is unlikely. By the time the Belarusian president had articulated this threat, SURCAP was already a done deal. Moreover, such declarations have never been particularly alarming, given the fact that illegal migration from Belarus to the EU has always been relatively insignificant.

Brussels probably intended to help Ukraine establish control over its borders and thus move it further towards eligibility for EU membership. The Belarus-Ukrainian border has for years been an issue which Minsk links to Ukraine's need to settle its debts with Belarus.

For the first phase of the project the EU allocated €1.3m to Belarus in 2012-2014. In the second phase (2014-2016) funding doubled to €2.68m. Thanks to these funds, Belarusian border guards received SUVs, swamp buggies, speed boats and motor boats, quadracycles, motorcycles, and other equipment. This collaboration proves that the interests of Brussels and Minsk coincide in this area and that the Belarusian government is not averse to working with the West on issues of national security.

The empire strikes back

Although problems with the Ukrainian border are being solved, Minsk is unexpectedly encountering problems from the east. At some point in mid-September, Russia – without any prior announcement – closed its 1,230-km long border with Belarus for all third-country nationals.

They can now cross the Belarus-Russian border in just one place: the southernmost part of Belarus where the borders of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine intersect. This came as an unpleasant surprise for Belarus as many foreigners are accustomed to entering Russia via Belarus.

For many years, persons banned by Russia from entering its territory could circumvent this by first coming to Belarus and then heading to Russia. Minsk and Moscow also failed to coordinate their visa policies, and kept their own lists of unwanted persons and citizens not allowed to go abroad.

As a result, for many years citizens of Belarus and Russia, as well as of third countries, used the Belarus-Russian border to enter or escape the two countries. The Kremlin put up with this despite the fact that Russia's borders have become increasingly closed since the mid-2000s.

So why did Moscow decide to close the border with Belarus now? There are good reasons to believe that this was a reprimand for Minsk. In July, Reuters reported a roughly 40 per cent decrease in Russia's oil supplies to Belarus as a punishment for Minsk's overly friendly gestures toward the West: the Kremlin has many other tools to put pressure on Minsk.

Another detail seems to prove that this is the real reason for the border closure rather than, for example, a response to the smuggling of sanctioned goods to Russia via Belarus. Russia continues to let cargo trucks cross the border unimpeded; only the movement of individuals is controlled.

Large-scale smuggling

The Belarusian border control system struggles with a number of internal problems as well. On 26 July, President Lukashenka publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with the work of the State Border Committee. He emphasised that it was already the third time in 2016 that he had addressed the activities of border control agencies saying that they cause “not worry but deep unhappiness.”

Although he did not elaborate further, corruption and large-scale smuggling might be what Lukashenka had in mind. There are more and more examples of this. Thus, on 21 October Polish customs officials discovered 356,000 packets of cigarettes smuggled from Belarus in a cargo train. If sold at market price in the EU, they would cost $1.2m. In Belarus that quantity could cost as little as $72,000.

This is not the first time Polish authorities have apprehended this sort of illegal cargo; the problem has existed since the early 2010s. For instance, in July Polish authorities in Terespol confiscated two loads of cigarettes smuggled from Belarus ​in cargo trains with a total market value of more than $1.2m. Evidently, somebody is reaping huge profits. More conspicuously, it is impossible to smuggle such large quantities of cigarettes in this way without the collusion of border control officials.

Problems despite investment

Such problems present a paradox. The social prestige of border control agencies is high: even Lukashenka's sons have served on the border.​

In material terms, Belarusian border control agencies belong to the most prestigious and developed government agencies in the country. Unlike other security agencies, they regularly receive up-to-date equipment. This comes not only in the form of foreign technical aid: in the late 2000s, the Belarusian government even purchased four French helicopters Ecureuil АS 355 NP for border guards. This was an unprecedented deal, as Minsk usually procures sophisticated hardware for its security agencies only from Russia.

Nevertheless, the Belarusian government struggles to maintain control over its hundreds of kilometres of borders. Over the past two decades it had to start patrolling borders which had not previously existed – with the exception of the Belarus-Polish border inherited from Soviet times.

In addition, Minsk has made efforts to avoid the harsh border control measures of Soviet times, when 30-km border zones, a highly militarised system, the subordination of border guards to the KGB, etc. were the norm. The Belarusian government has succeeded in overcoming many of these residues of the past. Constructing a more efficient system takes time as well as trial and error.




Oil and gas dispute settled, projects with Poland, Chechen refugees – state press digest

Belarus establishes closer political and economic links with Asian countries hoping to boost exports. Lukashenka urges CSTO members to elaborate a new development strategy and attain recognition from global players.

The Belarusian Parliament ratifies the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Belarus emerges successful in the long-standing oil and gas dispute with Russia. The number of Chechen refugees trying to reach the EU via Brest is increasing.

This and more in the new edition of State Press Digest.

Politics

Belarus sees Asian countries as important partners. Viačaslaŭ Jaraševič, head of the Finance Department at Minsk International University MITSO, wrote about the recent rapprochement between Belarus and Asian Countries in Narodnaja Hazieta. Over the last year, the Belarusian president visited many Asian countries including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, China, Turkey, Vietnam and others.

Viačaslaŭ Jaraševič argues that Lukashenka is establishing new links that will prove useful for the Belarusian trade sector in the future. He notes that many countries in Asia are beneficial partners for Belarus. The distance between Belarus and Asia does not create obstacles in trade relations as maritime transportation prices have been decreasing every year.

Lukashenka urges CSTO to work on further progress. On 14 October the President of Belarus delivered a speech at a session of the Collective Security Council in Yerevan. He raised the issue of the CSTO’s image. Lukashenka asserted that NATO does not consider CSTO a full-fledged organisation, reports Belarus Segodnya.

Lukashenka said that NATO does not consider CSTO a full-fledged organisation

Lukashenka also urged the CSTO to work towards achieving the status of a recognised organisation. He encouraged representatives of CSTO member states to develop organisation at a higher level. He underlined the necessity of attracting experienced and qualified experts from different countries, including Russia, in order to improve and optimise the functioning of the CSTO.

The Belarusian Parliament ratifies the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. In October 2015 Belarus became a signatory member of the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. A year later, on 3 October, the Parliament ratified the Convention. In recent years, the Belarusian government has been adjusting its laws in accordance with the Convention, writes Belarus Segodnya. The document entering into force means that Belarus is ready to make a commitment to comply with all terms of the Convention.

However, non-governmental organisations point to the failure of Belarus to comply with one of the most important terms of the Convention – unmediated participation of people with disabilities in the development of policies that concern them. This fact hampers the progress of Belarus in the framework of the convention.

Economy

Russia and Belarus resolve the issue of oil and gas supplies. An agreement on supplies of Russian oil and gas products through the territory of Belarus came into force on 12 October. The Belarusian and Russian Prime ministers, Andrej Kabiakoŭ and Dmitry Medvedev, have recently confirmed new terms of the agreement. According to the document, Belarus will pay the same price for Russian gas as last year.

However, due to the policy of inter-budgetary compensation, the final price for Belarus will decrease. In 2017 the price of Russian gas for Belarus will be about $100 per thousand cubic metres, writes Zviazda. The oil and gas debate started in the middle of 2016 when Russia announced a double increase of tariffs for gas for Belarus.

Hrodna region strengthens partnership with the border regions of Poland. Belarus and Poland are planning to establish a regular boat route on the Augustow Canal. In addition, Hrodna region and Poland have discussed implementing around 20 projects in the field of tourism and sports, writes Hrodzienskaja Praŭda. The parties plan to realise these projects in the framework of the "Poland-Belarus-Ukraine 2014-2020" programme.

One of these projects involves the purchase of a vessel which will purify and deepen the Augustow Canal. Representatives from the Belarusian side propose restoring two historic castles in Hrodna region. It is not clear yet which of these projects will be implemented, but the parties are now actively hammering out the details.

Society

17-year-old attempts a massacre in one a Minsk shopping mall. A teenager began a chain saw massacre at the Europe Mall. He killed one woman and wounded several people. The suspect, according to Belarus Segodnya, suffered from a mental disorder. During interrogation, the teenager admitted that he had been planning the massacre for a long time.

He initially intended to commit the crime at the university where he studied. The suspect explained that he felt hatred towards all mankind, struggled with depression, and wanted to be killed during the arrest. It is also known that the suspect lived alone and was antisocial. Students and teachers of the university characterised him as distant.

More refugees from Chechnya arrive in Belarus. Refugees from Chechnya are attempting to reach Poland via Belarus, claiming that they want to escape the Putin and Kadyrov regime. From 2000 to 2016 the number of Chechen refugees hosted by Poland increased to almost 80,000. Poland received the largest number of asylum applications from residents of Chechnya in 2013.

A correspondent at the newspaper Zarya connects this fact to the adoption of a German law equating refugees’ benefits with unemployment benefits. According to the law, the benefits amount to 2000 euros and are paid over the course of one and half years. In Poland, benefits come to only 1,000 zloty (€230) during the first year. For this reason, most refugees from Chechnya are trying to get to countries such as Germany, Austria, Denmark, and others.

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




Renaissance of Political Parties, Eurasian Currency, Palanez Rocket Launchers – State Press Digest

Political parties see a renaissance during the ongoing parliamentary campaign, as 64% of all candidates are party affiliated. However, society still has only a vague understanding of the role parties play in the Belarusian political system.

The Polish vice speaker emphasises a need for closer cooperation between Belarus and Poland in order to maintain security at the EU border. The Belarusian army receives the newest Belarus-produced multiple rocket launch system, Palanez, capable of simultaneously striking up to eight targets at a distance of 50 to 200 kilometres.

Experts at the Eurasian Development Bank: Belarus would benefit the most from a single currency. This and more in the new edition of State Press Digest.

Parliamentary elections 2016

Political parties see revival in the parliamentary election campaign. The electoral commission registered 521 candidate for September parliamentary elections, reports Belarus Segodnia. They will compete for 110 seats in the House of Representatives. 93 were denied registration and 16 cancelled their applications.

Political parties saw a renaissance, with 64% of all candidates party affiliated, and 176 candidates representing oppositional political parties: United Civil Party, Belarusian Popular Front, Green Party, Belarusian Left Party, and Social Democrats. Candidates can now fund campaigns out of their own pocket and accept donations from individuals and companies.

Political parties will get more seats in the new parliament. Zviazda publishes an interview with political expert Piotra Piatroŭski on political parties' activity in the ongoing parliamentary campaign. This year the number of candidates running exceeds last year's by 136 people. This is due to changes in electoral law, which allowed political parties more opportunities to nominate candidates. Civil associations now also have the right to nominate candidates.

However, society still has only a vague understanding of the role of parties in the Belarusian political system. Parties suffer from personnel shortages and sometimes cannot even complete necessary documents. Piatroŭski accuses oppositional political parties supported by western governments of radicalism and inability to produce sound programmes. He predicts that the number of political parties in the new parliament will increase, yet not significantly.

Foreign policy

Poland deepens cooperation with Belarus. Vice-speaker of the Polish Parliament Ryszard Terlecki gave an interview to Belarus Segodnia.

Poland has decided to strengthen relations with Belarus under the auspices of the EU general policy of engagement. This became possible after the visit of Polish foreign minister to Minsk in March 2016.

As a country located at the EU’s eastern border, it is in Poland's interests to cooperate with the EU's neighbours in order to maintain security.

The EU is interested in Belarus’ participation in resolving the Ukraine crisis and the migration crisis, although the latter is less relevant to Eastern Europe.

Currently, Poland and other EU countries are acting as observers of Belarus's parliamentary election; they expect them to be transparent and fair.

Eurasian Union seeks partnership with Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. This June, for the first time, a high level delegation from Belarus participated in the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as an observer. Lukashenka then emphasised that cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union should become a priority for the SCO and a new continental partnership may emerge. Souyznoe Veche provides the thoughts of a number of Russian experts on the issue.

The Chinese project New Silk Road, which will go through Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus, will bring vast investments in the transport and construction sectors. However, while Russia seeks to replace damaged links with the EU and US with China, the latter shows no interest in helping and primarily focuses on the western agenda and its own interests.

Security, economy and society

Belarus arms itself with home-produced multiple rocket launchers Palanez. The Belarusian army has never boasted such modern and powerful weapons, writes Belarus Segodnia.

After 1,5 years of tests, it received the newest Belarus-produced multiple rocket launch system, capable of simultaneously striking up to eight targets at a distance of 50 to 200 kilometres. The six Palanez launchers are now in the hand of the 336th Asipovičy reactive artillery brigade.

According to First Deputy Minister of Defence Alieh Bielakonieŭ, the manufacture of the new weapons is an element of strategic deterrence. To develop its armed forces, a country can either increase their size or change their composition by strengthening them with unique weapons such as Palanez. Belarus chose the second option, which makes creation of local armed groups around Belarus’s borders impossible.

Belarus would benefit most from a single currency in the EEU. Experts at the Eurasian Development Bank announced that according to their estimates, Belarus would receive the greatest benefit in the Eurasian Economic Union if a single currency is introduced. In the long term, membership in the currency union could lead to additional GDP growth of 15% for Armenia, 30% for Belarus, and 10% for Kyrgyzstan, writes Souyz.

The political decision to establish a monetary union has not been taken, as integration is not obligatory for the countries without the necessary macroeconomic and structural conditions. Currently, the economies of the union are insufficiently integrated, with the exception of Belarus and Russia. Another constraint for the currency union is the high dollarisation of their economies as a result of high inflation. Preparing for transition to a single currency could take from 7 to 10 years if the countries abide by their commitments.

Belarusian youth discuss politics through BRSM projects. Andrej Beliakoŭ, head of the pro-government Belarusian Republican Youth Union, spoke on the recent activity of the organisation and modern youth for Znamia Yunosti. The Open Dialogue project started as a site where young people of varying political persuasions could present their ideas to decision makers through discussion and dialogue. Within two years it became immensely popular and is now seen as a form of upbringing for youth.

The organisation has also been developing volunteer movements and has implemented many patriotic projects. Contrary to popular belief, BRSM polls show that the majority of youth demonstrate an interest in politics. Beliakoŭ claims that young Belarusians are pragmatic and would rather work to achieve results than wait for benefits from others.

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




The First Ostrogorski Forum, Seminar at BSU, Belarus-Poland Relations – Ostrogorski Centre Digest

This summer Ostrogorski Centre analysts have analysed developments in Belarus-Poland relations, life of regional media and the case of a new potential political prisoner. The Centre also published a major study of Belarus-Russia relations after the Ukraine conflict.

In July the Centre held the first Ostrogorski Forum, a conference on foreign policy and security in Minsk which featured video-recorded debates of experts with different views.

The centre also organised a seminar on Higher and Non-Formal Education in cooperation with the School of Business and Management of Technology of the Belarusian State University.

Ostrogorski Forum

On 29 June the Ostrogorski Centre held the first Ostrogorski Forum, a conference on foreign policy and security in Drazdy Club, Minsk. This year's conference theme was 'Inertia, strengthening neutrality or change the foreign policy orientation? Foreign policy Belarus at the present stage'.

The conference programme featured prominent Belarusian experts, both pro-government and independent, as well as academics from state universities and government officials.The programme included researchers from the Ostrogorski Centre, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, the "Political Sphere" institute, the Centre for European Studies and the Belarusian Analytical Workroom presented their papers on foreign relations and security.

The conference featured five studies conducted in spring 2016 with grant support from the Mott Foundation and Pontis Foundation and implemented jointly with Ostrogorski Centre.

The speakers discussed the issues of Belarusian soft power in the region, Belarusian-Russian relations after the conflict in Ukraine, foreign policy of Belarus in the context of the CIS, the potential of Belarusian neutrality and the geopolitical orientation of Belarusians.

The conference is expected to become an annual event to promote professional and respectful dialogue between experts with different political views. Videos of all conference sections (mostly in Belarusian) are available online.

Seminar on Higher and Non-Formal Education

On 30 June the Ostrogorski Centre and School of Business and Management of Technology of Belarusian State University jointly organised a seminar in Minsk on higher and non-formal education in Belarus.

The seminar featured three presentations of studies, conducted by the Ostrogorski Centre (Revisiting non-formal education in Belarus), the Centre for European Studies (Problems of modernisation of higher education in Belarus: social sciences and humanities) and School of Business and Management of Technology of BSU (Conditioning factors of entrepreneurial activity Belarusian students).

Analytics

On 1 August, the Ostrogorski Centre published a new analytical paper "Belarus-Russia Relations after the Ukraine Conflict" by Ryhor Astapenia and Dzmitry Balkunets. The research is available in three languages: English, Belarusian and Russian.

Ryhor Astapenia argues that Poland will be improving its links with official Minsk at the expense of opposition groups. Poland has recently been reducing its level of support for pro-democracy groups and is trying to improve relations with the Belarusian authorities.

However, the changes in Polish policy cannot be explained only by attempts to improve relations with Belarusian authorities. The lack of chances for democratic changes as well as brutal repression reduces interest in Belarus among many foreign donors, including Polish ones.

Vadzim Smok analyses the case of Eduard Paĺčys, who is undergoing criminal investigation for creating a website which allegedly contained radical ideas. A new political prisoner is in the interests of neither the European Union nor the Belarusian government, as a warming of relations continues to be important for the bilateral agenda. However, Belarusian authorities may use the case of Eduard Paĺčys to demonstrate that any activity inspiring national conflict, including anti-Russian discourse, will be stopped immediately.

Ryhor Astapenia discusses the problems of regional newspapers in Belarus, which continue to suffer due to repression and the poor economic conditions of recent years. Nearly all of them currently lack funds, forcing talented journalists out of regional publications. The West have done much to support the regional press, but could do more to train media managers and put pressure on the Belarusian government to include independent newspapers into public distribution network.

In July the Ostrogorski Centre successfully completed the project producing eight research papers in the areas of foreign policy, security and education of Belarus. The project was supported by the grant from the Mott Foundation and implemented in cooperation with the Pontis Foundation. Please find a publication of paper abstracts here.

Comments in the media

Analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre Ryhor Astapenia explains on Polish Radio what to expext during coming visit of the Turkish president to Belarus. While earlier Turkey needed Belarus as a medium in economic relations with Russia, particularly in tourism, now this role of Belarus diminishes as Russia and Turkey lower the heat in bilateral relations.

Yaraslau Kryvoi in the Interview of the Week on Radio Liberty speaks on attempts of Belarusian civil society to influence policies of Belarusian authorities, conference Ostrogorski Forum and the consequences of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.

Ryhor Astapenia argues that Belarus is seeing an economic revolution. What is the nature of this revolution? How stable will the new Belarusian ruble be? Will the authorities legalise Pahonia following the popularity of national ornaments? Listen to the analysis of these and other topics in the "Political mirror" programme on the Polish Radio.

Vadzim Smok takes part in consultations with a group of advisers to the Board of Directors of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. Advisers are visiting Belarus to gain a better understanding of Belarus and the bank’s operations. During their stay they will meet experts, municipal authorities as well as local and foreign investors.

Belarus Policy

The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the 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 completing this form.

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 Studies, BelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.




Ignore OSCE, Private Farming, Cooperation with Poland – State Press Digest

A Polish expert advises Belarus to ignore OSCE recommendations, as they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the modern political context. Belarus's new military doctrine shifts its focus from external threats to preventing regime change due to provoked internal conflicts.

President Lukashenka suggests engaging private farmers to save unprofitable collective farms. UNDP and Coca-Cola help Belarus restore one of the largest bogs in Europe. Belarus and Poland agree to increase academic exchange. This and more in the new edition of the State Press Digest.

Politics

Belarus should ignore OSCE recommendations – Polish expert. Belarus Segodnia published a comment from Marcin Domagala, director of European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis in Warsaw, who critisized the OSCE recommendations for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Belarus. According to him, the OSCE’s main goal is promotion of the Western European political system. The popularity of this system peaked 20-30 years ago, but European societies are now facing transformations and are focusing on local traditions.

However, the OSCE continues to promote its values and ignores traditions of other countries. The expert sees intolerance of other political systems as a major problem in Europe. The new context requires new modes of cooperation, in which partners change independently rather than forcing each other to adopt certain models. Finally, Domagala advises Belarus to ignore OSCE recommendations.

The new military doctrine focuses on internal threats and defence sector. On 20 July Aliaksandr Lukashenka ratified a new Belarusian military doctrine, reports Soyuznoye Veche. Belarusian authorities claim that it is of a defensive nature as they do not consider any state an enemy. The new doctrine introduces a number of new terms including: military threat, local war, illegal armed group, defence sector of the economy, strategic deterrence and others.

While Belarus faces no direct military threat at the moment, the document does mention other types of threats, such as colour revolutions or international terrorism. The doctrine shifts its focus from external threats to internal ones, and emphasises the prevention of regime change due to provoked internal conflicts. It also highlights the role of the economy in the country's military capabilities as well as the need for a modern high-tech defence industry.

Economy

Lukashenka suggests relying on private farmers. Belarus Segodnia highlighted Lukashenka’a visit to the private farm ‘Cna Ecoproducts’. He praised farm owner Uladzimir Adamovič for turning two state farms with huge debt into successful companies. The Belarusian leader noted that state agricultural managers fail to make 25-30% of enterprises profitable, and private farmers can help save them.

“Without a good manager a company will never succeed. Give me a hundred such revolutionaries and we will build a new Belarus. There are good farmers in Belarus, and they should make use of the land”, Lukashenka said. From 1995 to 2015 the total area of privately farmed land increased three times to 187,000 hectares, with an average farm size of 75 hectares. However, private farmers produce only 1,5% of Belarus’ agricultural output, as the government invests heavily in collective state farms while private farmers receive little if any support.

Europe’s major bog restored in Belarus. Scientists from the Institute of Experimental Botany at the National Academy of Sciences have conducted a study and estimate that the economic potential of the Yelnya bog could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. However, as Respublika writes, it first needs to restore the damaged hydrological balance. Yelnya is one of the largest bogs in Europe with a territory of 23 hectares.

The bog contains 450 million cubic metres of drinking water and plays a major role in the local environment. In the 1930s local farmers started to drain it for agricultural purposes, but the resulting dry peat became a constant source of fires. In 2002 more than half of the area of Yelnya burned. However, the situation began to improve after UNDP introduced a programme to restore the bog with support of the Coca-Cola foundation.

Students of professional technical schools lack practical skills. Belarus has inherited the Soviet system of professional technical schools, which aimed to provide professional training as an alternative to theoretical university training. However, Belarusian youth increasingly prefer university education, resulting in a lack of blue collar workers in the economy, writes Narodnaja Hazieta.

Yet the schools’ curriculum contains an excessive number of general subjects that take up too much of students’ time. Technologies change rapidly and schools lack the funds to replace and update equipment. Teachers also need constant re-training, as they have little contact with functioning industries.

Society

Belarusian children swallow recently introduced coins. While banks, shops, and the general population were apparently prepared for the introduction of new money, parents seem to have had more problems. Since 1 July the coins, which appeared in Belarus for the first time since the dissolution of the USSR, became a threat to kids and a challenge for doctors. Around 30 children a day have been visiting hospitals to have coins extracted. Today’s parents grew up in a Belarus without coins and did not even think that they could pose such a threat.

Belarus signs a new agreement on academic exchange with Poland. It includes not only exchange but also internships for both students and teachers, informs Vecherniy Grodno. Belarusians and Poles will have the opportunity to study in Polish and Belarusian universities free of charge and will apply separately from the normal application pool.

A joint meeting of officials from both countries' education ministries will determine the number of students eligible each year. In addition, up to 20 students working on their BA or MA in Belarus will be able to continue their studies in Poland. 10-15 teachers a year will be offered a one month internship.

The agreement also stipulates that both parties will improve the content of school history textbooks. As Belarus and Poland have close historical ties, historians from both countries will jointly work on a correct interpretation of mutual history for textbooks.

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




Threats to Belarus, Ukrainian Border, Cooperation with Kazakhstan – Belarus Security Digest

Minsk wants to maintain its own position in the latest confrontation between NATO and Russia in the region. Various Belarusian officials state that they see no immediate threat to Belarus from NATO, but rather from a possible internal conflict like those that occurred in Ukraine and Arab countries.

The Belarusian government is more preoccupied with bringing the Ukrainian border under control. Minsk is hastily demarcating the border and providing its troops there the best equipment. However, this process has already caused problems on the ground.

Minsk wants no fuss about NATO

Speaking on 7 June at a CIS conference, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka said in response to new NATO forces arriving on the western border of Belarus that “without much fuss we are adopting adequate measures.”

That is exactly the opposite of what the Kremlin would like to see i.e. some form of demonstrative response to NATO. Minsk has already resisted Moscow's plans to move some Russian military units inside Belarus.

NATO deployments, drills and the development of NATO infrastructure along Belarusian borders is “a potential challenge for the Union State of Belarus and Russia.”

Speaking on 3 June to Cuban news agency Prensa Latina​, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Yauhen Shastakou provided more insight into how the Belarusian leadership perceives the growing confrontation in the region. First, Shastakou emphasised that new NATO deployments, drills and the development of NATO infrastructure along Belarusian borders is “a potential challenge for the Union State of Belarus and Russia.” Not a challenge for Belarus alone, in other words, and just a potential, not current problem.

Secondly, he criticised the inclination of all key players on the European continent to increase their military capacities and added: "We do not share the approach based on placing additional foreign military facilities and forces on one's own territory. We believe that such actions weaken the security of a particular state."

Said in the official parlance of the Belarusian government, the message was rather clear: Minsk wants no Russian military bases on its territory and instead is seeking an understanding with its neighbours. Indeed, while accepting the letter of credence from the new Polish ambassador on 6 June, Lukashenka announced that Belarus “shares with Poland the responsibility for security in the region.”

Potential risks according to him stem from so-called hybrid wars that involve foreign forces

Speaking on 7 June at a round table on the new military doctrine organised by the main government media outlet Belarus Segodnya, Aleh Pechan', director of the Military Security Department of the State Secretariat of the Security Council underlined: “There is currently no military threat to Belarus. And we do not forecast its emergence in the foreseeable future.” Potential risks according to him stem from so-called hybrid wars that involve foreign forces provoking internal armed conflict within another country.

This vision combines fears of what has happened to both Ukraine and to Arab countries in recent years. And it is definitely a far cry from Russia's perception of the global confrontation with NATO and US.

Border with Ukraine: still not under control?

Belarus' 1,084km border with Ukraine remains a major concern for Minsk. In a press conference on 26 May Chairman of the State Border Committee Leanid Maltsau admitted that “misunderstandings” were occurring in the course of demarcation of the border with Ukraine.

He specifically referred to the protests by Ukrainian citizens living near the demarcation line in Ukraine's Volyn' province. Minsk is trying to suppress media coverage of any conflict situation that involve Ukraine (for instance, cases of arms smuggling are reported late and probably not in full).

The situation on the border with Ukraine's Volyn province might also be more serious than Maltsau conceded. The Poland-based Radio Racyja reported in early May that “the demarcation [by the Belarusian government] of the Belarus-Ukrainian border in Volyn' province is being blocked by local residents.” Apparently, these protests are linked to the massive illegal extraction of amber in the region which requires large quantities of water from a canal that the Belarusians are going to put behind the border fence.

After Ukrainian villagers threatened to burn down Belarusian construction equipment, the Belarusians halted the demarcation process in February

After Ukrainian villagers threatened to burn down Belarusian construction equipment, the Belarusians halted the demarcation process in February. The conflict remained unresolved in early May at least.

Minsk, concerned about a possible spill-over of violence from the war in Ukraine and weapons smuggling, is silently yet consistently investing in closing the frontier with Ukraine. The official military daily Belorusskaya voennaya gazeta ​on 4 May printed another report revealing details of these efforts.

It described the Border Outpost Svaryn' of the Pinsk Border Brigade which guards the border between Brest province in Belarus and Volyn province in Ukraine. The report admitted that the border outpost “was constructed in summer 2015 in a very short time”, but kept silent on the reasons for this haste.

It also avoided discussing the fact that the Svaryn' outpost guards 40km of the border while in Soviet and post-Soviet security establishments an outpost covers on average just 15-25km. Moreover, these 40km include rough terrain featuring lakes, swamps, and numerous small and large waterways. Smuggling is a tradition in the region.

And there are places on the Ukrainian border where the situation is even worse. For instance, last year the Mazyr Border Brigade guarded 377km of the border, including 48km of waterways with just four outposts, one mobile outpost and two small border posts; that's about 70km per outpost. There is no information on whether the situation has improved this year.

Minsk is struggling to compensate for the scarcity of human resources with equipment.

Minsk is struggling to compensate for the scarcity of human resources with equipment. The official army daily in the article mentioned above boasted of state-of-art electronics, communication equipment and quadracycles. Yet it also revealed that Pinsk Border Brigade has become the first in the country to not only operate surveillance drones but even to deploy in 2015 autogyros to control the border. The Belarusian government even bought Italian Orion autogyros.

Kazakhstan as a new priority

Kazakhstan may become another major post-Soviet partner in the defence sphere, alongside Ukraine. On 25-28 March First Deputy Defence Minister of Kazakhstan Saken Zhasuzakov paid an official visit to Belarus.

Meanwhile, on 2-3 June Belarusian Defence Minister Andrei Raukou paid a working visit to Kazakhstan. As a result of these contacts Belarusian and Kazakhstani firms concluded two major deals. The first concerns sales of Kazakhstani components for Belarusian sight devices; the second provides for repairs to be carried out by Belarusian firms to Kazakhstani Su-25 close air support aircraft.

On 16-20 May a military delegation from the United Arab Emirates came to Belarus. It fits the pattern of Belarusian foreign policy that prioritises cooperation with the bloc of conservative Arab countries in the Middle East. Indeed, on 12 April Raukou also had a formal meeting the Syrian ambassador , and on 27 April he may have met the Iranian Defence Minister. However neither meeting was very substantive.




Freedom of Press, Lennart Meri Conference, Defence Industry – Ostrogorski Centre Digest

Over the last few weeks analysts of the Ostrogorski Centre focused on the treatment of the Chernobyl issue in Belarus' foreign and domestic policies, as 26 April marked the 30th anniversary of the disaster.

They discussed the recent Freedom House report on media freedom worldwide arguing that it wrongly ranked Belarus too low and showed how Belarus' defence industry demonstrated good results even despite Russia’s restrictive measures.

On the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl disaster, Igar Gubarevich discusses the return of Chernobyl issue to the list of Belarus' foreign policy priorities after several years backstage. The treatment of the Chernobyl issue in Belarus’ foreign policy is an example of good-quality diplomacy. When fighting for resources, Belarusian diplomats have learned to adapt their actions and rhetoric to modern trends and the new vocabulary of multilateral relations.

Artyom Shraibman criticises the recent Freedom House global report, which ranked Belarus in the bottom ten countries in the world in terms of media freedom. Belarus provides complicated conditions for journalists’ work, but journalism in Belarus remains a far less dangerous job than in many of the countries ranked more favourably in the report. The expert suggests that engaging more Belarusian experts and revising the questionnaire would help Freedom House fight stereotypes rather than spread them.

Siarhei Bohdan shows how the Belarusian defence industry has succeeded even while Moscow continues its policy of restricting access to Russian markets for Belarusian defence firms. Minsk is responding by cooperating with Ukraine, China and numerous developing countries. The Kremlin is effectively forcing Belarusians to distance themselves from Moscow and build the economic foundations for an independent state.

Comments in the media

Siarhei Bohdan comments for Polish Radio on the possibility for Russia's hybrid intervention in Belarus as a response to NATO activity on its western borders. Experts believe that the Crimean scenario is impossible in Belarus. It is more likely that Russia will be pushing Belarus to establishing military objects on its territory.

Yaraslau Kryvoi at the annual Lennart Meri conference in Tallinn posed a question to the Foreign Minister of Poland Witold Waszczykowski about the changing perception of Belarus in the new Polish Government. According to the minister, there is definitely a new perception of Belarus in Poland because of the new government which tries to open all channels of dialogue with Belarus to keep it as closely as possible to Europe.

Yaraslau Kryvoi comments on the improvements in Freedom House rating for Belarus in 2015. The rating in the field of civil society grew due to the lack of political prisoners, increasing opportunities for civil society to raise funds inside Belarus and peaceful nature of the presidential election. He also explains the situation with the Brexit referendum and how it may affect Belarus to Belsat TV.

Ryhor Astapenia discusses on the Polish Radio the feasibility of the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, chances that authorities will support Belarusian language, why China does not invest in the Chinese-Belarusian Industrial Park and how Belarusians should celebrate V-Day.

Ryhor Astapenia analyses the chances of Belarusian opposition to boost people's support at the time of economic difficulties. To become more popular, the opposition should become a consolidated force, demonstrate interest in the daily life of Belarusians rather than focus on geopolitical questions.

Ryhor Astapenia explains to thinktanks.by why public administration in Belarus in its current form remains disfunctional. On a number of his examples shows that the government is unable to set realistic targets and ensure their implementation. This leads to a drop in public trust in the authorities.

Vadzim Smok explains to Radio Racyja why the Belarusian authorities do not persecute DNR fighters and pro-Russian groups in Belarus. These groups have the support of security forces, the Orthodox Church and the Russian government. In addition, they represent themselves as supporters of Belarusian authorities, although many of them deny the existence of Belarusian nation and statehood.

Siarhei Bohdan talks on Radio Liberty on pro-Azerbaijan position of Minsk in the new escalation of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Lukashenka's visit to Turkey. Analyst sees these action as a continuing attempt to keep Belarus neutral and stick to international law, rather than switch to the side of Russia's enemies.

Ryhor Astapenia comments for Polish Radio on the failure of Belarusian delegation at the new loan negotiations with IMF. Belarusian government does not want to take responsibility and tries to represent reform package as the IMF condition rather than urgent internal need.

Ryhor Astapenia talks on Belsat TV about the upcoming parliamentary elections in Belarus and new elements of the Belarusian electoral legislation. He predicts that Belarusian authorities will allow a relatively free parliamentary campaign to make elections legitimate for external observers, yet vote counting will hardly become transparent.

Belarus Profile

The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following personalities: Anžalika Borys, Andrej Bastuniec, Mikalaj Chaliezin, Jaŭhien Nieŭhień, Viktar Šadurski, Maryna Zahorskaja, Alieh Trusaŭ, Anton Matoĺka, Alieh Hajdukievič, Andrej Stryžak.

We have also updated the profiles of Uladzimir Siamaška, Uladzimir Siańko, Iryna Tačyckaja, Paviel Tapuzidzis, Aliaksandr Fiaduta, Andrej Jelisiejeŭ, Anatoĺ Filonaŭ, Valiery Fraloŭ, Andrej Charkaviec, Aliaksandr Cierachaŭ, Valieryj Capkala, Viktar Ciareščanka, Mikalaj Čarhiniec, Aliaksandr Čubryk.

Belarus Policy

The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the 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 onto the database by completing this form.

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 Studies, BelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.