Between new democratic and old autocratic friends – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

In October, the European Union formally invited Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka to attend the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on 24 November. However, up until now, Belarus-Europe contacts remain scarce even at the ministerial level. Romania’s Teodor Meleșcanu has been the first EU foreign minister to visit Minsk since mid-July.

In recent weeks, Belarus’s foreign ministry continued to build bridges with Europe, mostly through the mechanisms of joint trade commissions and parliamentary diplomacy. Meanwhile, Alexander Lukashenka reaffirmed the importance of close personal relationships, meeting with his autocratic friends from Venezuela, Uzbekistan and the UAE. However, doubts remain about the ultimate efficiency of his efforts.

An EU foreign minister in Minsk

On 9–10 November, Romania’s foreign minister Teodor Meleșcanu paid an official visit to Belarus. He held talks with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei and met with Prime Minister Andrei Kabiakou. The visit ended a nearly four-month-long hiatus of EU foreign ministers’ trips to Minsk.

The foreign ministers of Belarus and Romania discussed a wide range of bilateral issues and prospects for cooperation between Belarus and the European Union. Both sides agreed that Romania has played an important role in strengthening the upward trend in Belarus–EU relations in recent years.

Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei greets his Romanian counterpart, Teodor Meleșcanu. Photo: mfa.gov.by

Kabiakou and Meleșcanu talked about possible cooperation in IT, healthcare and agriculture, as well as joint manufacturing of auto components, furniture, clothing, textiles, and building materials in Belarus. The head of the Belarusian government actively “sold” Belarus’s role as a launchpad into the Eurasian Economic Union markets (full members include Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia) to the Romanian diplomat.

Trade turnover between Belarus and Romania fell steadily from 2012 to 2015. The two countries reversed this negative trend last year. In January–August 2017, goods exchanged grew by a respectable 25 per cent with the balance in favour of Belarus.

Teodor Meleșcanu, who is also a Romanian senator, met with the heads of both chambers of the Belarusian parliament, Mikhail Miasnikovich and Uladzimir Andrejchanka. The minister assured them of “[Romania’s] intention to develop relations with Belarusian MPs.” In fact, the two parliaments have already exchanged visits at the working level, once in April 2016 and then again this November.

Ostracism of Belarus’s parliament: A thing of the past

In recent weeks, Romania was not the only European country eager to bond with Belarus’s rubber-stamp parliament. MPs from a few other EU countries readily posed for photos with their Belarusian hand-picked “colleagues.”

In late September, two Belgian MPs, both members of a Flemish nationalist party, visited Minsk as representatives of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an organisation that works to promote democracy and inter-parliamentary dialogue. They had meetings in the Belarusian parliament and at the foreign ministry.

Interestingly, Belarusian government media reported the name of only one visiting MP, Yoleen Van Camp, and never mentioned her companion, Senator Pol Van den Driessche, president of Belgium’s group in the IPU. Perhaps, the silence can be explained by the fact that, in his home country, the senator was a target of numerous accusations of sexual harassment.

On 30–31 September, two Belarusian MPs visited Tallinn at the invitation of the Rijgikogu, the Estonian parliament. There, they met with Een Eesmaa, the vice-speaker of the parliament. Jüri Ratas, Prime-Minister of Estonia, received the delegation and gave them a tour of his official residence.

The Belarusian foreign ministry has been investing a lot of effort in the legitimisation of the Belarusian legislature. On 26 October, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Dapkiunas spoke at a workshop held in the Belarusian parliament, which focused on pressing issues of foreign policy and trade. The heads of parliamentary working groups on cooperation with foreign parliaments were the target audience of this event.

Rich enough to help out an old friend?

President Lukashenka received his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro on 5 October. The Bolivarian leader made a stopover in Minsk en route from Moscow to Ankara, looking for economic and geopolitical support wherever he can get it.

Relations between Belarus and Venezuela reached their peak in the last years of Hugo Chavez’s rule. Exorbitant oil prices ensured the well-being of the Venezuelan economy. Belarus launched several major construction and joint manufacturing projects in Venezuela. In 2010, the Belarusian exports to this country surpassed $300m.

Nicolas Maduro and Alexander Lukashenka plant a tree. Photo: president.gov.by

Bilateral trade has been in free-fall since 2013, plummeting to a rather dismal $2m for 2016. Most joint projects were suspended or shut down. Venezuela owes $113m to a Belarusian construction company. However, for political reasons, despite debts some construction projects are still underway.

During his meeting with Lukashenka, Maduro claimed the moment was right for relaunching joint projects. He called for renewing agreements in the field of industry and agriculture. Maduro wants his Belarusian friends to believe that Venezuela is now “at a good point for economic recovery and growth.” However, some experts claim that the country is heading to bankruptcy.

Lukashenka predictably pledged that “Venezuelans can always count on the support of friendly Belarus.” Officials of the two countries will soon meet to draw a plan of specific measures to restore economic relations. However, Belarus hardly intends resuming the implementation of joint projects and massive deliveries of goods to sisterly Venezuela without upfront payments or sound financial guarantees.

A working holiday in the sun-drenched Emirates

Alexander Lukashenka spent two weeks, from 25 October to 6 November, in the United Arab Emirates. Lukashenka’s press service announced his “working visit” to this Middle Eastern monarchy. They also reported the President’s intention to stay as a guest there “for a couple of days” at the invitation of his Emirati hosts.

The only working element of the Belarusian leader’s visit to the UAE was a short meeting with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. Viktor Lukashenka, the President’s eldest son and his national security adviser, accompanied his father to this meeting—a clear sign that arms sales remained among priority topics under discussion.

Despite Lukashenka’s efforts to boost economic cooperation with this rich Arab country, trade figures remain modest. The turnover between Belarus and the UAE attained $29.7m in 2015 and $37.9m in 2016—a far cry from the target figure of $500m set three years ago.

It is true that turnover reached a new high in January–August 2017, increasing by a factor of 2.8 times. However, this spectacular result is due chiefly to $20m delivery of BelAZ trucks to the UAE.

During his “working holiday” in the Emirates, Lukashenka also met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who happened to be making a working visit to the country. The Belarusian leader might take lessons from Poroshenko on how to build successful relations with Middle Eastern regimes. Ukraine’s trade with the UAE in 2016 was nine times greater than Belarus’s, reaching $341m. The Ukrainian leader also secured a deal on a visa-free regime between the two countries.

Belarus’s willingness to work pragmatically with any international partner has failed to produce noticeable economic benefits. These efforts need to be supplemented by the resolute modernisation of the national economy. Modernisation remains very difficult without full normalisation of relations with the West, which, in its turn, is impossible without serious democratisation efforts.




Honouring translators, protecting the Soviet version of history – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

In May, Minsk continued its policy of following in Moscow’s footsteps by exploiting World War II for political purposes. On Victory Day, Belarusian diplomats made statements about alleged ‘attempts to falsify history’. Foreign minister Vladimir Makei invited diplomats posted in Minsk to a controversial historical site featuring a monument to Joseph Stalin.

The United Nations supported a Belarusian initiative to honour professional translators and interpreters. This move may also have practical benefits for the country, which has a strong academic tradition in training professional translators. The medical documents translation services can also prove to be helpful for other translation needs.

Belarusian diplomats held largely mid-level discussions on trade and political relations with their counterparts from a dozen countries. The only scheduled top-level visit to Minsk failed to materialise when Estonia’s foreign minister postponed his trip indefinitely.

Protecting the Soviet interpretation of history

In the first half of May, Belarusian diplomats focused on events commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is commonly known in the post-Soviet space). To this day, Victory Day celebrations are the Belarusian diplomatic service’s largest public relations campaign.

Belarusian diplomatic missions participated in wreath-laying ceremonies, commemorative meetings, concerts, exhibitions, and other events in forty countries alongside their counterparts from Russia and certain other CIS countries as well as local officials.

On 5 May, the permanent missions of Belarus and Russia to the United Nations organised a commemorative ceremony in New York dedicated to the 72nd anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. Tellingly, diplomats from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine refused to join other post-Soviet countries in the ceremony. They object to the use of the historical event as a tool for achieving modern political goals.

A day earlier, the delegation of Belarus to the OSCE made a statement dedicated to Victory Day on behalf of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The statement spoke strongly but vaguely against ‘attempts to falsify the history of the war and erase the tragic lessons of history from our memories’. Thus, Belarus once against sided with Russia, which uses such accusations to carry out political attacks against its neighbours, including Ukraine and the Baltic States.

On 8 May, Vladimir Makei invited the heads of diplomatic missions posted to Belarus to accompany him for a visit to Stalin’s Line. However, this ‘historical and cultural complex’ just outside Minsk has virtually no relation to the struggle of Belarusians against Nazi occupation.

Makei’s choice of venue is dubious. Belarus has many genuine historical sites and WWII memorials worth visiting for remembrance. However, Stalin’s Line features a monument to Stalin – the butcher responsible for the death and repression of hundreds of thousands of people in Belarus, including most of the country’s elite.

Belarus’s implicit support for the Soviet interpretation of the historical events of the mid 20th century will hardly serve to strengthen its ties with its non-Russian neighbours or improve relations with the Western world.

An uncontroversial initiative succeeds

On 24 May, Belarus’s permanent mission to the United Nations brought to fruition a new multilateral initiative on honouring professional translation ‘as a trade and an art’. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the role of professional translation in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding, and development.

Twenty-seven nations co-sponsored the document, which Belarus initiated and drafted together with Azerbaijan. The resolution declared 30 September International Translation Day.

Unlike certain other Belarusian initiatives, such as on protecting the traditional family, this idea met with no resistance from other members of the UN. The particular attention Belarus pays to this profession is no coincidence. Many senior Belarusian diplomats, including the country’s ambassador to the UN Andrei Dapkiunas, who introduced the resolution, hold their first and sometimes only academic degree in professional translation.

Many Belarusians work as translators or interpreters in the Russian section of the UN translation service. The Belarusian State Linguistic University signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations on training candidates for competitive language examinations.

Belarus intends to further develop this idea by initiating an international instrument that would enhance the legal protection of translators and interpreters in situations of armed conflict and post-conflict peace-building.

A multi-directional approach to boosting trade

As the summer holidays approach, the Belarusian foreign ministry is intensifying its political and trade consultations with countries from different regions of the world. However, the only top-level foreign dignitary to visit Belarus in May was the outgoing Serbian president.

Belarusian officials received officials from Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Egypt in Minsk on 10, 18, and 25 May respectively for meetings of bilateral trade and economic commissions. They also met in the same format with Czech officials in Prague on 16-17 May.

Belarusian exports to the Czech Republic, Tajikistan, and Egypt dropped dramatically in 2016 compared to 2015. However, this trend was partially reversed in January-March 2017, when Belarus’s deliveries to Egypt and Tajikistan increased manifold (4.2 and 2.4 times against the same period of 2016). Exports to the Czech Republic have continued to decline.

In relations with Turkmenistan, the Belarusian government is sticking to its declared goal of a $500m turnover, encouraged by a modest recovery in 2016 (up to $120.6m). Belarus is now pitching diesel trains, railway cars, and lifts to Turkmenistan. While the two countries have problems with currency conversion in reciprocal payments, Belarus is considering buying cotton under barter arrangements.

Also in May, Belarus held consultations on the deputy-foreign-minister level with Pakistan and Turkmenistan in Minsk, Croatia in Zagreb, and Greece in Athens. Working-level contacts took place in Minsk with Finnish and Australian diplomats. The negotiating partners focused on trade and investment issues as well as cooperation in international organisations.

The Belarusian foreign ministry had also announced a working visit to Minsk by Sven Mikser, Estonia’s foreign minister, on 23 May. The Estonian diplomat was due to meet with his Belarusian counterpart as well as unnamed ‘leaders of the government and the parliament of the Republic of Belarus’.

However, the visit was postponed indefinitely without much fuss. The press service of Estonia’s foreign ministry explained the cancellation by blaming ‘schedule changes in Belarus’. Interestingly, Vladimir Makei was in Minsk on 23 May.

In the summer months, Belarus is expected to focus more on multilateral diplomacy as it prepares to host a Minsk meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Central European Initiative.




No compromise between Belarus and Lithuania on Astraviec NPP

On 15 November, Lithuanian Energy Minister Rokas Masiulis presented his country's new energy strategy. Although it is not stated directly, the strategy strongly implies that Lithuania will not buy electricity from the Belarusian nuclear power plant, which will begin operating in 2019.

In recent years, the issue of the Belarusian NPP has stifled bilateral relations and it seems that a compromise remains beyond the pale of possibility. Lithuania exaggerates the lack of transparency surrounding the Nuclear Power Plant's construction. It also sees the NPP as an obstacle to its goal of connecting with electricity transmission grids in Western Europe.

A nuclear power plant provokes strong feelings

Several years ago, Lithuania looked to be a major advocate for dialogue with the Belarusian authorities. Even in 2013, when sanctions were still in place, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich visited a Belarusian-Lithuanian economic forum in Lithuania. Moreover, although few remember it, at the same time the Lithuanian MEP Justas Paleckis had prepared a report encouraging dialogue between Belarus and the EU.

But it now seems that Lithuania has made a U-turn. Despite the thaw in Belarusian-European relations, Belarus and Lithuania have yet to warm up to each other. For example, Minsk is now more likely to host Polish official delegations, which had previously been known for their tough attitude towards Alexander Lukashenka, than Lithuanian ones.

Lithuanian politicians are spending their time creating an international coalition against the Belarusian nuclear power plant. In doing so, they aim to ban the purchase of electricity from the plant to the European Union. The station, which Belarus began to build 55 km from Vilnius in 2013, has become a major stumbling block for bilateral relations.

So far, the only result of Lithuanian diplomacy are reflected in the words of Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who recently declared that 'in Astraviec, there is clearly a problem if all the costs, including environmental costs and risks, are not internalised into the price scheme. In that case Europe should not accept such energy on its market.'

Meanwhile, Poland, the beneficiary of a long standing offer to purchase electricity from the Astraviec NPP, has kept silent, as have other European Union countries. On 23 September, the State Secretary of Latvian MFA Andrejs Pildegovičs told the TUT.by news portal that Latvia sees 'The NPP's construction as a sovereign right of the Belarusian government', and he 'will not judge, condemn or question the reasonableness of the project.'

Why does Lithuania dislike the Belarusian power plant?

Most Lithuanian politicians stress that the safety of the construction is dubious. This is actually true, taking into the account the poor reputation of Belarusian official transparency. On 10 July, the reactor casing, weighing over 330 tonnes, fell to the ground from a height of two to four metres. The wider public became aware of this disaster only on 25 July thanks to pressure from public opinion.

So far, the construction site has seen about 10 incidents, leaving three workers dead. This came to light thanks to pressure from the Lithuanian MFA. As Deputy Energy Minister of Belarus Mikhail Mihadziuk stated in September, 'this is an acceptable figure given that the construction site employs more than five thousand people.'

Moreover, the Lithuanian government emphasises the proximity of the Belarusian nuclear power plant to its border – should there be an accident, Lithuania would have to evacuate Vilnius.

However, Lithuanian authorities are exaggerating some issues. Despite the Belarusian regime's problems with transparency, the government has proved willing to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In October, the IAEA mission spent 12 days in Belarus, eventually concluding that 'Belarus is committed to nuclear safety'. Previously, while visiting Belarus in April, IAEA Director Yukiya Amano had stated that 'Belarus is one of the most advanced nuclear newcomer countries.'

No compromise?

The Lithuanian authorities dislike the Belarusian NPP not only for safety reasons, but also because it undermines Lithuania's energy strategy, which aims to 'connect the Lithuanian power transmission system (jointly with the Latvian and Estonian systems) to the grids of Europe for synchronous operation by 2025.' So far, Lithuania remains strongly connected to the electricity transmission grids in Belarus and Russia, a dependence it wants to overcome.

Lithuanian officials see NPP construction as a Russian project aimed at preventing that. On 15 November, Lithuanian Minister of Energy Rokas Masiulis said in a statement introducing a new strategy that 'the state will not be safe until the power transmission system affects managers sitting in Moscow.' One month earlier, at the Lithuanian Energy Conference, Masiulis had announced that 'if Belarus proceeds with the Astraviec Nuclear Plant, we will put electricity links with Belarus out of operation'.

The Energy Strategy of Lithuania seems likely to come to fruition, despite the fact that the IAEA praised the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, and the Belarusian authorities have begun to behave more transparently and responsibly. On 16 November, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka announced that Belarus would postpone launching the nuclear plant due to security concerns.

It seems that Lithuania's approach to the Belarusian nuclear power plant is already a foregone conclusion. The issue has become so politicised that Lithuanian politicians are even competing to speak against the NPP in Astraviec more sharply. Recently, Vytautas Landsbergis, one of the best-known Lithuanian politicians, called the construction of the NPP an atomic bomb against Vilnius.

The Union of Peasants and Greens, which won the elections in Lithuania last month, seems to see Astraviec in a similar way. Its politicians spoke out against the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus even before their election. Compromise, it seems, may prove impossible.




Why Does Europe Engage with Belarus’s Rubber Stamp Parliament?

On 2 – 4 August, Ryszard Terlecki, vice-speaker of the Polish Sejm, led the highest-level parliamentary delegation of an EU country to Minsk in twenty years.

This visit is emblematic of the increasingly common nature of inter-parliamentary contacts between Belarus and Europe. The marginalised Belarusian parliament has been slowly gaining international recognition.

Will this trend help to promote democracy in Belarus and foster bilateral ties with the West?

Belarus's parliament ostracised and ignored

The programme of the Polish members of parliament included meetings with government officials, members of the opposition, activists from the Polish minority, and business executives.

However, two meetings stood out especially. On the first day of the visit, the delegation met with Uladzimir Andrejchanka and Mikhail Miasnikovich, the speakers of the lower and upper chambers of the Belarusian parliament.

Belarusian members of parliament can hardly boast extensive international contacts. Since November 1996, when Alexander Lukashenka hand-picked members of the national assembly for a reformatted legislature following a questionable constitutional reform, the Belarusian parliament has lost its international recognition.

Initially, Western democracies refused to recognise this newly formed entity.

In 1997, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA OSCE) reaffirmed the status of the last democratically elected parliament as the only legitimate parliament of Belarus. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe suspended Belarus’s special guest status.

Things began to ease up in 2000, after most opposition groups boycotted elections to the lower chamber of the parliament. The OSCE’s mission concluded that the elections had failed to meet international standards.

However, the fact that the parliament was (at least, formally) elected and not appointed allowed the National Assembly to reclaim its representation in the PA OSCE. It may also have helped that a few figures critical of the authorities secured seats in the new legislature.

The executive branch remedied this omission after the following elections in 2004. Since then, not a single Belarusian parliamentarian has ever opposed Lukashenka’s policies. Belarus remains the only country in Europe with no opposition represented in parliament.

Over the last twenty years, the international contacts of Belarusian MPs remained limited mostly to their colleagues in Russia, the CIS and developing countries. Belarusian legislators had reason to speak with their European counterparts mainly on the sidelines of inter-parliamentary events.

The National Assembly has not signed an agreement on inter-parliamentary cooperation with a parliament of any European country outside the CIS. It has established working groups on cooperation with fourteen EU countries but they have mostly remained inactive.

During the first nine months of 2015, the Belarusian parliament exchanged visits with their colleagues in Slovakia (in May and September) and received a delegation from Spain (in September).

An end to isolation

Things began to change rapidly in October 2015, when the EU decided to suspend its sanctions against Belarus following the peaceful presidential elections and release of political prisoners.

Formally, the sanctions never prohibited inter-parliamentarian contacts. Only two members of parliament were on the sanctions list due to their activities under previous positions. However, several national parliaments apparently perceived the removal of the sanctions as an encouragement to reengage with Belarus in all areas, including inter-parliamentary relations.

In October 2015 – July 2016, the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament received parliamentary delegations from seven EU countries (Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia (twice), Hungary, and Romania) and Japan.

Most of the delegations were headed by chairpersons of groups advocating friendship with Belarus in their respective parliaments, the others were headed by heads of foreign relations committees.

Austria sent Karlheinz Kopf, the second president of the national parliament’s lower chamber, to engage the Belarusian parliament. Eager to promote Austria’s business interests in Belarus, Kopf discussed inter-parliamentary cooperation with Andrejchanka and congratulated Lukashenka on a “convincing victory” two days after the flawed presidential elections.

Deputy speaker Viktar Huminski led Belarusian parliamentarians during visits to Prague in March and Warsaw in April. A lower-level team went to Riga in May to discuss cooperation on security matters.

Former Soviet satellites from Eastern and Central Europe (along with business-minded Austria) may have fewer compunctions about dealing with Belarus's rubber stamp parliament. “Old Europe,” on the other hand, has so far displayed greater reticence in engaging with the Belarusian legislature.

However, there are always footloose parliamentarians who pursue their own agenda. A good example of such a maverick is Thierry Mariani, a French MP who found “nothing abnormal” as an observer at the October 2015 presidential elections in Belarus.

On 7 – 8 July, Mariani brought his pro-Russian colleague, Nicolas Dhuicq, the new head of the France – Belarus parliamentary friendship group, to Minsk. The parliamentarians were received in both chambers of the Belarusian parliament and the Belarusian foreign ministry.

Why is Europe legitimising an impotent parliament?

The eagerness of several European national legislatures to re-establish contacts with the Belarusian parliament seems to lack a logical explanation, and no convincing attempt to provide one has been made so far.

Europe’s recent tactics of greater engagement with Belarusian officials by encouraging dialogue and cooperation with their Western colleagues may indeed be effective in certain situations. They may help those involved in different levels of government to better understand the modus operandi of democratic societies, thus encouraging them to apply certain best practises to their daily work.

However, the same can hardly be said of the Belarusian legislature. Even if one puts aside the question of its legitimacy (which one should not), the real role of the current Belarusian parliament in society should not be ignored.

Legislators appointed by Lukashenka have no say in either domestic or foreign policy. Their true purpose is to rubber-stamp the decisions drafted by the executive branch.

Not a single parliamentarian has criticised Lukashenka

Belarusian MPs have initiated only a handful of laws over the last twenty years. In recent years, the parliament has not blocked a single draft law submitted by the government. Members of parliament have always been eager to approve any initiative or appointment coming from the president.

Not a single member of parliament has ever publicly criticised Lukashenka. Some mild criticism of the government or local authorities has been tolerated, but only if it fits with Lukashenka's position.

The government’s appointees in the parliament also lack any serious lobbying power in the country. Most of them are political has-beens at the end of their carriers or mid-level local officials who have few prospects of taking positions of responsibility in the executive branch.

The increased contacts of European parliamentarians with their Belarusian “counterparts” have no positive impact on development of democracy in Belarus or promoting the national interests of the EU countries concerned. Meanwhile, such collaboration helps strengthen the international position of the Belarusian government.




Astraviec Nuclear Plant: a Poison for Belarus-Lithuania Relations?

In the recent months, the issue of the nuclear power plant (NPP) that Belarus is building near its border with Lithuania has been dominating bilateral relations. Lithuanian politicians are seeking to block potential exports of electric energy from Belarus.

Vilnius is worried about environmental and safety issues. Minsk sees economic and political motives behind Lithuania's claims. Domestic policy considerations in Lithuania also play a role.

Can Lithuania’s rhetoric and actions seriously harm the two country's economic and political ties?

A pan-European campaign against the Astraviec NPP

On 12 May, the Lithuanian parliament adopted a resolution calling the government to take all necessary diplomatic, legal and technical measures to halt the construction of the NPP in Astraviec. MPs want the government to prohibit Belarus from selling electric energy produced at the NPP to Lithuania as well as from using the country’s energy system and its spare capacity.

The Lithuanian legislator can hardly complain about the lack of interest to this issue in the executive branch. On 26 April, Lithuania’s Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius used the anniversary of Chernobyl to demand Belarus “to ensure that safety of the NPP, being built just 50 kilometres from Vilnius, be provided in strict compliance with all international requirements and recommendations”.

Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė claimed on 22 February that safety of the Astraviec NPP should be of concern to the entire European Union.

Indeed, Lithuania launched a pan-European campaign against the Belarusian NPP. In December 2015, Rokas Masiulis, the country’s energy minister, wrote to his colleagues in neighbouring countries urging them not to buy electric energy, which will be produced by the NPPs now under construction in Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad region.

Estonia and Latvia halfheartedly supported Lithuania’s initiative. However, Finland refused to join in the boycott. Poland hid behind a soft diplomatic formula affirming that “energy from unsafe NPPs should not get on the market”.

Lithuanian leaders have been seeking support well beyond the immediate neighbourhood. On 20 April, President Dalia Grybauskaitė discussed safety of the future Belarusian NPP with German chancellor Angela Merkel.

On 11 May, Algirdas Butkevičius announced his intention to discuss the Astraviec NPP with Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission. Earlier, he claimed to have the full support of Norway in this issue.

Belarus insists on its openness to dialogue

Lithuania claims that Belarus has violated its obligations under the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (the Espoo Convention). Indeed, in March 2014, the Implementation Committee found Belarus to be in non-compliance with its obligations under four articles of the Convention.

The Belarusian government maintains that it has since remedied the situation. In June 2013, Belarus submitted the final environmental impact assessment (EIA) report to Lithuania. (The Lithuanian side claims that the report was Google-translated into Lithuanian).

According to the Belarusian authorities, Lithuania failed to respond to their numerous offers to organise consultations with the public on the EIA report. Belarus then organised such public hearings in Astraviec, provided free visas and translation into Lithuanian, and invited Lithuanian journalists, representatives of civil society and officials to attend.

Minsk proposed Vilnius to create a joint body for the post-project analysis of the Astraviec NPP. It also offered to implement a joint project of the system of radiation monitoring of nuclear facilities located near the border.

According to Belarus Digest's sources, Belarusian officials claim that Lithuania has been manipulating the Espoo Convention to slow down or block activities in Belarus, which it finds undesirable for economic or political reasons. They worry that Vilnius may seek to take advantage of the Western countries' majority in the convention to pass the needed decisions.

Belarus' Deputy Energy Minister, Mikhail Mikhadziuk affirmed in a recent interview to Lithuanian media that Lithuania has been "avoiding dialogue" by consistently ignoring Belarus' attempts to establish proper channels of communication and resolve disagreements through debate. In 2010 – 2014, Belarusian government agencies sent ten written replies to their Lithuanian colleagues. Since 2011, the Belarusian government invited the Lithuanian authorities on ten occasions – once at the prime minister level – to hold expert consultations on the Astraviec NPP.

Belarus has been resisting the Lithuanian offer to establish an expert body to resolve the existing disagreements claiming that the two countries have yet not exhausted the possibilities offered by bilateral consultations.

Belarus doubts Lithuania’s motives in the NPP issue

The Lithuanian authorities maintain that their only concern over the Astraviec’s project remains the lack of safety and a negative environmental impact.

Indeed, the Astraviec NPP is being built by a Russian contractor, using Russian technology, equipment and a Russian loan. Persistent mistrust in Russian technology and safe implementation of the project by corruption-ridden contractors, which prevails in the post-Soviet space, fuels these doubts well. A recent incident at the construction site, which the Belarusian authorities chose initially to silence and even deny, only reinforced these fears.

Another reason for concern is the authoritarian nature of the Belarusian regime. The authorities failed to have a proper public debate in Belarus before taking the final decision on the project. Some fear that in absence of an independent regulator, government agencies and constructors may disregard potential shortcomings of the project to comply with Lukashenka’s instructions.

In their turn, the Belarusian authorities are convinced that the Lithuanian authorities pursue their economic and political interests under the guise of safety concerns.

Indeed, the Astraviec NPP makes the planned Visaginas NPP in Lithuania redundant. The Baltic countries have been discussing the idea of building a new NPP on the site of the closed Ignalina NPP since 2006 but few practical steps were made. Some experts see this project, which was put on hold for many years, as effectively dead.

Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė's recent statement seems to confirm the theory of economic motives behind Lithuania’s opposition to Belarus’ project. On 22 February, she insisted that “the Astraviec NPP should not create any further obstacles neither for production of electric energy in the country nor for improving the efficiency of consumption or the synchronisation of the Baltic countries with power transmission lines of continental Europe."

Domestic policy considerations are also playing an important role in the debate. The forthcoming October 2016 parliamentary elections make the politicians from all parties to play stronger hand in "defending national interests." Even Rokas Masiulis, the Energy Minister, an opponent of the Astraviec project, called the activities of most ardent critics a “pre-election political manoeuvring”.

The Belarusian authorities are clearly concerned with the campaign launched by Lithuania against the NPP project, especially the calls for boycott of potential energy exports. However, even if this initiative enjoys wider support in the EU, it is unlikely to halt the construction of the NPP.

Belarus currently covers a significant part of its needs in electric energy by imports. The Astraviec NPP will serve to satisfy the domestic consumption. It will also allow to reduce imports of natural gas from Russia.

Some Lithuanian politician understand the importance of not overplaying the boycott card. Gediminas Kirkilas, the deputy speaker of the parliament and former prime minister of Lithuania, believes that Lithuania can now only mitigate the effects of Belarus’ decision. “Besides Astraviec, there are relations with Belarus, transit via Lithuania, the Klaipeda port”, he reminds.

Indeed, the Lithuanian authorities are hardly willing to jeopardise the numerous benefits of a wide web of trade ties between the two countries. For Lithuania, a face-saving compromising could involve much stricter environmental safety procedures and a mutually profitable arrangement for energy trade.




Freedom Day, Arbitrary Detentions and Travel Bans – Belarus Politics Digest

Although Belarusian authorities permitted and did not interfere with the annual Freedom Day opposition rally in the centre of Minsk, the pressure against opposition activists is increasing. Multiple detentions leading to short-term prison terms are now coupled with restrictions on travelling abroad for pro-democracy activists. The life of political prisoner Siarhey Kavalyou who has been on a long hunger strike is in danger. 

Pro-democratic supporters mark BNR anniversary with demonstration. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people took part in a “Dzen Voli” (Freedom Day) demonstration that was held in Minsk on March 25 to mark 94 years since the proclamation of the 1918 Belarusian National Republic (BNR). No arrests were reported during the demonstration, which had been sanctioned by the Minsk City Executive Committee. According to witnesses, police acted politely.

100 detained in benefit concert over drug suspicion. On March 24, around a hundred people have been reportedly detained during a concert in support of the “Food Not Bombs” international campaign held in Minsk MTZ Palace of Culture that evening. As a result, 9 people were sentenced to administrative arrests for a period of 2 to 3 days, 7 people – to fines. In this regard Belarusian human rights activists, on the initiative of the Legal Transformation Centre, signed an appeal to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Non-political expulsion. A journalist Ales Gorski investigates a case of dismissal of a civil activist Nasta Shuleyka from the Belarusian State University. He cites the words of the former student who agrees with the decision of the administration and claims that she was expelled for very valid reasons – a lot of missing of lectures and the "non-admission" to the exam session. Belarusian and international press extensively wrote that her dismissal was political.

Two more independent journalists warned by prosecutor. BAJ members Alina Radachynskaya and Volha Chaychyts were officially summoned to the prosecutor’s office of Minsk on the morning of March 28. The journalists are accused of collaboration with “Belsat” TV-channel and warn against work for independent mass media in Belarus without accreditation. In 2012 already 8 warnings have been issued to independent journalists. 

Ivashkevich warned for sanctions call. Belarusian opposition politician Viktar Ivashkevich has been warned against the actions that may be aimed at “undermining the state sovereignty”. The warning to the politician was issued in the Prosecutor General's Office on March 27.

Political prisoners

Hunger strike caused irreversible damage to Kavalenka's health? Referring to Syarhey Kavalenka's lawyer, who met with the client on March 29, the activist's wife has sounded an alarm over the rapidly deteriorating health of the imprisoned opposition activist, saying that his lengthy hunger strike has already caused "irreversible" damage to his internal organs.

"Young Front" members sentenced to long terms of arrest. On March 11, "Young Front" activists were tried at the Leninski District Court of Minsk. Dzmitry Kramianetski, Mikhail Muski, Uladzimir Yaromenka and Raman Vasiljieu were given 15 days of administrative arrest, though they had already spent three days in a detention centre. So, each of them was given 18 days of arrest. The activists were tried for an action near the MFA headquarters. Anonymous people threw toilet paper at the building to show their protest against the agency's pro-Russian policies and expelling foreign diplomats from Belarus.

Syarhey Kavalenka set to continue his hunger strike until he is released. The wife of Syarhey Kavelenka has filed a fresh appeal with the Prosecutor General’s Office, asking it to replace the opposition activist’s prison term with a non-custodial sentence. Alena Kavalenka submitted the appeal after meeting with her husband at Detention Centre No.1 in Minsk on March 12. According to the wife, Syarhey Kavelenka is set to continue the hunger strike.

Travel Ban

Three key opposition politicians sentenced to fines. Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civil Party; Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the "Spravedlivy Mir (Just World) and Alyaksandr Atroshchankaw, a member of European Belarus, who were arrested and taken off a Moscow-bound train by police early on March 28 were sentenced to fines on March 29. They had planned to travel from Moscow to Brussels for meetings with European Commission representatives before they were arrested in Orsha on their way to the Russian capital.

Lukashenka promises to maximally expand travel-banned listAlexander Lukashenka has declared that the country has a list of the travel banned opposition activists, which is not operating to its maximum though. Lukashenka added that it was decided to prevent the opposition of Belarus from leaving the country because they had contributed to the introduction of sanctions by Western countries against the official Minsk.

Currently there are evidence about nearly a dozen Belarusian opposition politicians, civil society activists and independent journalists have been denied permission to cross the Belarusian border, including former parliament speaker Stanislav Shushkevich, the United Civic Party Chairman Anatol Lebedka, BAJ Chairwoman Zhanna Litvina, Belarusian Helsinki Committee Chairman Aleh Hulak and others.

Travel ban for civil society activists. Starting from the early March, nearly a dozen (so far confirmed) Belarusian opposition politicians, civil society activists and independent journalists have been denied permission to cross the Belarusian border without being given an explanation. Among them there are human rights defender Valentin Stefanovich, Platforma Chairman Andrei Bandarenka, Nasha Niva Editor-in-Chief Andrey Dynko, and over then other people.Although authorities deny the existence of a no-exit blacklist, activists say the exit denials appear to be a response to the EU's sanctions against individuals in the regime of Lukashenka.

Former director of IBB Astrid Sahm denied entry to Belarus. On March 18, the former German director of the IBB “Johannes Rau” in Minsk, Astrid Sahm was not allowed to enter Belarus. Sahm had a Belarusian visa and flew to Minsk on the affairs of the charity NGO "Hope". Rainer Lindner, Head of the German-Belarus Society condemned in the denial in a public statement.

International

Fule launches dialogue with Belarusian society. On March 29, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule launched the European Dialogue on Modernisation with Belarusian society at a meeting in Brussels with representatives of Belarusian civil society and political opposition. This follows the conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Council last week welcoming the idea of launching such a dialogue with the Belarusian society.

European Parliament adopted resolution on Belarus. On March 29, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Belarus at the meeting in Brussels. The full document is published on the site of the European Parliament (see part 2, pp.28-32). The resolution condemns "the deteriorating situation as regards human rights and fundamental freedoms, combined with the lack of deep democratic and economic reforms in Belarus, and will continue to oppose the repression of the regime’s opponents."

Estonia allocated €100 thousand to Belarusian civil society. The Estonian Foreign Ministry has allocated €100 thousand to support civil society in Belarus. According to ambassador of Estonia to Belarus Jaak Lensment, this amount is pretty small, but can do many useful things when used properly.

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