Belarus and Moldova: cooperation despite opposing geopolitical orientations

On 6-7 May, Moldova’s Prime Minister Pavel Filip held a supercharged working visit to Belarus, meeting with the country’s top officials, kicking off several events, and discussing a wide range of issues, from trade to culture.

Despite serious recent setbacks in bilateral trade, Moldova remains an important economic partner for Belarus in the post-Soviet space. Unlike Russia, Belarus has no problem with Moldova's geopolitical orientation towards Europe, instead trying to use this factor to its advantage.

Will the recent election of the pro-Russian politician Igor Dodon to the Moldovan presidency affect the two countries’ economic cooperation?

Welcoming another advocate for Belarus in Europe

Pavel Filip received a warm welcome from President Alexander Lukashenka in Minsk. The Belarusian leader thanked ‘brotherly Moldova’ for explaining to ‘some zealous politicians in Europe what Belarus is and what our policy is’. Lukashenka promised to keep Belarus’s market open to products from Moldova, provided they adhere to high-quality standards.

Belarusian and Moldovan officials discussed trade and economic cooperation in detail during the 18th meeting of the joint intergovernmental commission. Filip also attended the BELAGRO agricultural trade show in Minsk. Twenty-two companies from Moldova promoted their wine, fruit, and vegetables at a 100-sq.m. stand dedicated to Moldova and sponsored by the Belarusian government.

The Moldovan Prime Minister also held a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart Andrei Kabiakou; they emphasised cooperation in the spheres of building and road construction, agriculture, and industrial assembly. The two officials also kicked off the Days of Moldovan Culture in Belarus.

Belarus does not object to Moldova’s European choice

Despite their relatively strong economic ties and shared history in the Soviet Union, there have been relatively few high-level contacts between the two countries’ executive authorities since their independence. Alexander Lukashenka visited Chisinau in August 1995 and received his Moldovan counterpart Petru Lucinschi in Minsk in June 2000.

Later, after two visits to Minsk by former Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev in August 2001 and October 2005, there was a nine-year hiatus in high-level interaction, not counting irregular meetings on the sidelines of CIS summits. Finally, Lukashenka returned to Chisinau in September 2014 followed by Andrei Kabiakou in October 2016. Nicolae Timofti, the then Moldovan President, paid an official visit to Belarus in July 2015.

Interestingly, this reinvigoration of high-level contacts between Belarus and Moldova is happening against a backdrop of worsening relations between Chisinau and Moscow. In 2013-2014, Russia, unhappy with Moldova’s decision to enter into an association agreement with the European Union, introduced a ban on imports of Moldovan wine, fruit, and fruit and vegetable preserves.

In 2014 in Chisinau, Lukashenka reassured the Moldovan public that the signing and ratification of the association agreement would not affect the latter's relations with Belarus: ‘Don't dramatise… We need to create new forms and look for new ways of cooperating’.

Indeed, Belarus opened its market to Moldovan food products. Thus, in 2014, the imports of apples from Moldova to Belarus increased more than eleven-fold compared to 2013: from 5,600 to 63,900 tonnes. A large part of these Moldovan apples surely found their way to the forbidden Russian market. Total imports from Moldova to Belarus subsequently grew dramatically: from $91.8m to $149.6m.

‘During a gruelling time for us, Belarus has extended a helping hand in a very open, sincere, and friendly manner, for example, a few years ago, when we had some problems with some markets in CIS countries. We will not forget it’, Pavel Filip said about that period at his recent meeting with Lukashenka.

Will the golden age in trade return?

The golden age for trade between Belarus and Moldova lasted several years during the early 2010s and reached its peak in 2014. Last year, the turnover returned to its 2007 level. In 2016, Belarusian exports to Moldova reached their lowest point in the last decade.

The turnover continued to fall in the first quarter of 2017, contracting by 35% to the same period of the previous year. However, Belarusian officials are encouraged by increasing exports (up by 52%).

Belarus exports several dozen product groups to Moldova: petroleum and chemical products, tractors, motor vehicles, ceramic tiles, and glass fibre dominate exports. Imports are essentially limited to fruit and vegetables (fresh and preserved), wine, and spirits.

Petroleum products amounted to over half of Belarusian exports to Moldova in the peak years of 2013-2014. However, the abrupt drop in supply in 2015 upset bilateral trade. Nevertheless, it is fair to note that the sales decrease affected most product groups including tractors, the second-largest export group in trade with Moldova.

Currently, eighty-seven companies operate in Moldova with the participation of Belarusian capital, including flagship projects of knockdown assembly plants of Belarusian trolleybuses and tractors. Now, the Belarusian government is hoping to launch a knockdown assembly plant of Belarusian MAZ buses in Chisinau in late 2017.

Will Lukashenka’s fan in Moldova help to increase bilateral trade?

Igor Dodon, the recently elected Moldovan president who sympathises with Russia, has an affection for Lukashenka. He called the latter ‘an example for [Moldova] … in preserv[ing] all the best things from the USSR’. ‘The economy works like a clock, and there is a rigid vertical of power [in Belarus]’, Dodon said in an interview to Deutsche Welle.

Belarus supported Dodon’s application for observer status at the Eurasian Economic Union, which was approved by the member states in April 2017. The head of Moldova’s executive branch, Pavel Filip, seems to harbour no grudge against the Belarusian government for having supported this initiative, which he called ‘a symbolic gesture’ with no legal consequences.

Lukashenka and Dodon met in Bishek, Kyrgyzstan on 14 April, on the sidelines of the Eurasian Economic Council. According to Dodon, Lukashenka advised him to hold a referendum on introducing a presidential republic in Moldova to give the country's leader more power, according to the examples of Russia and Belarus.

Dodon also announced in April that he would soon come to Belarus on Lukashenka’s invitation. The visit is tentatively scheduled for 13-14 July.

Dodon’s activities as the new President of Moldova have apparently failed to affect Belarusian-Moldovan relations in any way, be it positive or negative. Dodon has little real power in the parliamentary republic, and Belarus prefers to work with those in charge.

Even if he succeeds in bringing Moldova back to the ‘Russian world’, it would hardly help to strengthen Belarus’s economic position in Moldova. Thus, despite its apparent fondness for rhetoric about integration and Soviet nostalgia, Belarus remains quite pragmatic in its economic dealings.




Belarus has obtained gas and oil concessions from Russia: but what did Russia get in exchange?

After a meeting with Alexander Lukashenka on 3 April in Saint Petersburg, Vladimir Putin announced that all oil and gas issues between the two countries had been resolved.

The media in Belarus reported on the Kremlin's concessions extensively. However, what Minsk will provide in return remains unclear. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka provided a clue when he said that the summit dealt more with security than with energy issues.

Moscow indeed wants closer collaboration with Minsk in the realms of security and foreign policy. On 31 March, before the summit, Russia's Security Council held a meeting on Russian-Belarusian relations. The two governments clearly chose to resolve the issues critical to each of them: Russian gas and oil supplies for Minsk, Belarusian security and foreign policy cooperation for Moscow.

Nevertheless, numerous other issues continue to undermine relations with Russia. Now, even leading experts in the Belarusian government doubt the utility of Moscow-led Eurasian integration in its current form.

Horse trading between Minsk and Moscow

Assessments of the results of the Petersburg summit differed starkly among Belarusian and Russian media sources and analysts. For instance, the Russian liberal daily Kommersant argued that Moscow had ceded almost every possible position, and implied that Lukashenka came out on top. Meanwhile, many Belarusian analysts, such as Dzyanis Melyantsou, insisted that Minsk must have given something valuable to Moscow in exchange.

The media reported extensively on what the Kremlin agreed to give to Minsk: Russia will offer Belarus a discount on gas beginning in 2018 and resume petroleum supplies to Belarus at previous volumes.

However, a clue to what Minsk agreed to in exchange was provided by Lukashenka himself when he announced that national security issues were the most important subject of discussion at the summit.

Why now?

Although this solution to the dispute had already been voiced last summer, it was only now that Russian leadership made the proposal. Two major international developments are likely to have influenced Putin's move.

The first is the geopolitical situation in the region. With Russia's hopes that Trump would be more acquiescent dashed and tensions in Eastern European as high as ever, Moscow needs a less recalcitrant Minsk to deal with numerous urgent problems.

In particular, Moscow needs Minsk to host a massive military power show, the military exercise West-2017. So far, Belarusian officials have downplayed the confrontational aspects of the exercise, emphasising the necessity of transparency. Minsk is extremely averse to further challenging Russia's opponents in this way.

Second, Moscow would probably like to put a stop to Minsk's latest attempt to bring non-Russian oil to the region through a regional cooperation scheme. Minsk has already succeeded in quietly bringing in Azerbaijani oil, and has recently started to purchase Iranian oil as well. In both endeavours it collaborated with Ukraine; in the latter it may even have had the help of Poland. The current Russian leadership has bones to pick with both these countries.

However problematic the results of these efforts may seem at the moment, they are not hopeless. The efficiency of such oil schemes could increase if Belarus succeeds in making its diversification attempts a collective project undertaken together with other countries of the region. Minsk understands this: its deals with Ukraine and contacts with other countries prove it.

Moreover, as Lukashenka revealed in an interview on Mir TV on 7 April, the Belarusian government was preparing to import non-Russian petroleum within the country as well:

We will soon complete the modernisation of our refineries … As soon as this is finished, the output of white oil products at our refineries will reach 95%, so the problem of petroleum [imports] will disappear by itself. We will be able to buy oil from anywhere, recycle it within the country, and make appropriate profits. The Russians also realise this.

Belarusian officials doubt the value of Eurasian integration

The most recent oil and gas dispute between the two countries lasted more than a year. Over the course of the feud, the Belarusian government took several eyebrow-raising demarches: Lukashenka refused to participate in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) summits in December, and Belarus would not sign the Customs Code of the EAEU last year.

The director of the government-affiliated Economy Institute of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, Valery Belski, harshly criticised Eurasian integration in an article written on 13 March for the largest Belarusian internet portal Tut.by. As he proclaimed, 'the value of the Eurasian Union for Belarus decreases if the prices for energy resources are not made closer [to domestic Russian prices]'.

This sentiment neatly encapsulates the conclusions the Belarusian government is drawing from its dispute with the Kremlin. For instance, Belarusian prime minister Andrei Kabyakou on 7 March emphasised that the difference in natural gas prices paid in Belarus and Russia had grown from 38% in early 2014 to 110% in 2016.

This makes Belarusian enterprises less competitive, as their products become more expensive than Russian ones. And that, of course, contradicts the agreements on Eurasian integration.

Disputes between Minsk and Moscow increase

The gas dispute also brought other matters of contention to the forefront: reduced oil supplies, disputes over Belarusian food exports, Russia's border checks with Belarus, replacement of Belarusian details in Russian industrial products, limiting access of Belarusian firms to Russian defence programmes, etc all hinder bilateral relations. Many of these problems have been festering for years.

What's more, Minsk points out that many of these issues are of a political rather than economic nature. Agricultural exports to Russia is a case in point. In November 2016, Rosselkhoznadzor, the Russian government agency which oversees agriculture, announced that it had discovered bacteria in meat imported from the Belarusian Vitsebsk Broiler Poultry Factory. It promptly banned all products from the firm on the Russian market.

In February 2017, however, Rossekhoznadzor allowed products from the same Vitsebsk firm to be presented at the Prodexpo-2017 exhibition in Moscow and awarded them prizes for high quality. Nevertheless, Rosselkhoznadzor refused to remove restrictions on Vitsebsk poultry products in Russia.

Similar problems exist elsewhere. As anonymous representatives of the Belarusian defence industries commented to Kommersant daily, 'in spite of all agreements, we remain strangers in the Russian state defence order. And the state defence order in Russia includes many categories of products: from table lamps and fabrics to trolleybuses.'

In short, Belarusian-Russian relations suffer from more fundamental problems than simply trade disputes between close allies. At the Saint Petersburg summit, the two governments resolved the most urgent issues in the energy and security spheres. However, numerous other problems persist, despite long years of declared integration. For this, the political attitudes of the Kremlin bare much of the blame. New disputes between Minsk and Moscow are sure to arise in the future.




Lukashenka and Putin, justifying repression, EEU economy back on track – Belarus state press digest

Lukashenka and Putin agreed to resolve all critical problems in bilateral relations, including the oil and gas dispute. Belarus realises its largest ever investment project abroad – a potash plant in Turkmenistan.

The official media resoundingly condemns protests against the 'social parasite tax'. Lukashenka approves the creation of a public security monitoring system in Belarus.

The number of young men attempting to avoid military conscription in Mahilioŭ Region increases. Belarus tractor manufacturers continue to face difficulties. The Eurasian Economic Union recovers from economic recession.

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

Foreign policy

Lukashenka and Putin agree to resolve all critical problems in bilateral relations. The leaders of the two countries met in St. Petersburg on 3 April, writes Zviazda. According to Putin, both sides agreed to settle the oil and gas dispute within 10 days. They have been able to reach a compromise and are offering mutual concessions for the 2017-2019 period. Russia has also agreed to refinance Belarus's existing debt to the Russian Federation, promising to re-examine the ban on Belarusian food exports to Russia. Lukashenka, however, informed the public that: 'we did not start talks with oil and gas issues. The main focus was the security of our states… We agreed on cooperation in security'.

Belarus completes its largest investment project abroad. Lukashenka visited Turkmenistan on 30 March for the inauguration of the Garlyk mining and processing plant, which will produce potash fertiliser. The project was fully realised by Belarusian specialists and became the largest project of its kind ever completed abroad by Belarus. According to Lukashenka, Belarus has demonstrated to the world that it can do anything; this is because Belarus has not squandered the powerful scientific and technological potential it inherited from the USSR. The plant is expected to produce 1.5m tonnes of potash annually and become one of the world’s largest exporters.

Domestic politics and security

Major media holding Belarus Segodnia published a variety of material criticising the activities of the opposition during the 'social parasite tax' protests and Freedom Day celebration on 25 March. It wrote that the demonstrations were illegal and Minsk residents should not get caught up in provocation; Belarusians should instead attend other cultural and sporting events held on the same day.

The newspaper published numerous 'letters to the editor' condemning the protests

The journalists emphasised the professionalism of riot police and accused the organisers of the demonstrations of fabricating footage for the world media rather than discussing public problems. The newspaper published numerous 'letters to the editor' condemning the protests. It also interviewed several refugees from the Donbass residing in Belarus, who argued that Belarusians should value the peace and stability in their country and not engage in protests.

There will be no colour revolution in Belarus. Colour revolutions stem from foreign interference in the form of various non-governmental foundations and non-profit organisations, writes Narodnaja Hazieta. In such countries, governments themselves were highly dependent on foreign aid. In Belarus, however, the situation is fundamentally different. The democratically elected president was quick to restrict the operations of such organisations.

The state has also managed to maintain control of the media and humanitarian sectors from the get go. A whole generation of Belarusians has been raised in a country without a massive influx of imported political values. The established social contract between the state and society has created a powerful social base which supports the authorities. The Belarusian economy, although experiencing transitional difficulties, can hardly be called weak, due to its industrial giants and booming IT sector.

Lukashenka approves the creation of a public security monitoring system in Belarus. Such systems operate in many countries, where they have already proved their effectiveness, writes Belarus Segodnia. The introduction of automated processes of threat detection and data analysis will significantly increase the level of public security. In addition, the system will go a long ways towards reducing the amount of workers and resources involved in relevant areas, thus optimising the structure of state bodies. According to Interior Minister Ihar Šunievič, video surveillance will be installed in 2,000-4,000 places within a year or two. For private businesses and citizens, this will certainly not be an imposition, but rather an opportunity.

Number of young men attempting to dodge the draft grows in Mahilioŭ Region. According to the regional prosecutor's office, this trend can be explained by inadequate military and patriotic education for youth, reports Belarus Segodnia.

Some districts provide such education on paper only. Others do not organise meetings between military officers and young people at all, and schoolchildren never visit military bases. Many schools lack the facilities for pre-army training, such as shooting ranges, training camps, arms models, and more. On top of that, police and military conscription offices often fail to pursue conscripts who do not declare themselves following personal notification, and military bodies do not cooperate enough with the police.

Economy

Belarus tractor producers continue to face difficulties. Despite the fact that the Belarusian tractor giant MTZ held 80% of the Russia market in 2012, in 2016 it only managed to retain around 40%, reports Sielskaja Hazieta. Since 2013, Russian producers have developed rapidly, tripling production by 2016.

For this reason, Belarus is trying to mitigate its dependence on the Russian market – an endeavour president Alexander Lukashenka is personally involved in. For example, after his visit to Pakistan in 2016, the country purchased 25% more Belarusian tractors than it had in 2015. Despite these difficulties, MTZ hopes to increase sales and has recently presented its products in the UK.

Eurasian Economic Union recovers from economic recession. Zviazda interviewed the Minister for Integration and Macroeconomics of the Eurasian Economic Commission, Tatiana Volovaya. In 2016 the GDP of the EEU decreased by only 0.1% – much better than the 2.3% drop in 2015. Moreover, the GDPs of Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have grown.

Trade within the EEU has grown since January 2016 and was 38% higher in January 2017. The Eurasian Economic Commission predicts 0.9% growth in the EEU in 2017. It expects the positive trend to continue in 2018-2019. As for Belarus, it shows the highest potential in metallurgy, machine building, the chemical industry, and logistical services.

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.




Will the Kremlin topple Lukashenka?

On 20 January, Alexander Lukashenka described the reactions of Russian officials to the introduction of the new five-day visa-free regime in Belarus as 'groans and wails.'

Recently, rhetoric surrounding Russian-Belarusian relations has become so sharp that some journalists and analysts believe the Kremlin plans to overthrow Aliaksandr Lukashenka or occupy Belarus.

However, off and on conflict remains a fixture of Belarusian-Russian relations. Despite belligerent grumbling, Lukashenka mostly upholds the Kremlin's interests, promoting cooperation between the two countries.

Would the Kremlin replace Lukashenka and occupy Belarus?

In recent months, people of different political views and backgrounds have begun to voice concerns that the Kremlin plans to replace Lukashenka.

On 4 January, the chief editor of the Belarusian oppositional news source Charter 97 Natallia Radzina stated that 'Russia is currently conducting an operation to depose Lukashenka.' Her colleague Dzmitry Bandarenka had spoken about the existence of documents that prove the existence of a plan to replace Lukashenka a few days earlier.

Meanwhile, on 11 January analysts Arsen Sivitski and Yuri Tsarik, who have warmer attitudes towards the Belarusian authorities, published a report claiming that Russia is considering occupying Belarus. Their conclusion was based on information regarding the Russian Ministry of Defence's plans to send four thousand railway carriages to Belarus next year, which is 83 times more than in 2016.

Although these two claims are coming from very different ideological backgrounds, both sides believe the Kremlin is angry because of Belarus's refusal to support the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine as well as its resistance towards the idea of a Russian base on its territory. Moreover, they believe the Kremlin is angry enough to attempt to get rid of Lukashenka. However, Russia has little chance of replacing the Belarusian president: unlike Ukraine, Belarus has stable public institutions.

Relations in conflict

These speculations do indeed seem to hold water given the present condition of Belarusian-Russian relations. Lately, it seems that Belarus and Russia are butting heads on just about every issue.

On 20 January, Lukashenka publicly responded to the criticism Russian officials, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, regarding the introduction of a visa-free regime in Belarus. The Russian government sees this new policy as a threat to its security and hinted that Belarus should create a single visa space with Russia, instead of taking such steps on its own. However, according to Lukashenka, 'they should accept this calmly and focus on their own work.'

One month prior, on 26 December 2016, Lukashenka ignored the summit of the Eurasian Economic Union, where Union heads of state signed the Customs Code, which members had discussed for three years. Although the code was signed by all other members on 26 December, the president of Belarus only agreed to approve it two days later on condition of further negotiations.

It is no secret that the Belarusian authorities are hindering the Eurasian integration project because of the oil and gas conflict between Minsk and Moscow, which has now dragged on for more than a year. Minsk demands a reduction in the price of gas while Russia seeks to make Belarus pay back their debt for previous deliveries, now amounting to $400 m. In order to encourage Minsk to pay, Moscow plans to reduce its supply of oil to Belarus by 12%, according to claims by Russian business newspaper Kommersant from 9 January.

On 26 December, Uladzimir Andreichanka, the head of the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament, stated in Moscow that 'the situation at the Belarusian-Russian border goes beyond the contractual framework and common sense.' In mid-September, the Kremlin closed its border with Belarus for third-country nationals without any prior notice – thus ruining Minsk's plans of becoming a transit country.

Belarus's list of grievances is quite long: Belarusian officials periodically complain about Russia implementing protectionist measures, or that the Russian media and commentators are portraying Belarus in a bad light. On 22 December, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry even recalled a Russian diplomat to protest statements by the head of the Russian Strategic Research Institute questioning Belarusian sovereignty.

Moscow and Minsk fluctuate between love and war

If the present misunderstandings between the two countries were a reason to overthrow Lukashenka or occupy Belarus, the Kremlin would have already done so dozens of times, as the countries have already been through many similar conflicts. But despite all the animosity between Lukashenka and Putin, the Belarusian leader remains simply a difficult ally for the Kremlin – not an enemy.

Belarus-Russia relations after the Ukraine conflict​ Moscow will keep Minsk in its sphere of influence for a long time, given the great political and economic significance that Belarus has for Russia. ​

Even given the conflict in Ukraine, the Belarusian government is less pro-Ukrainian than it lets on. According to information published by Radio Liberty on 4 January, a Belarusian militant fighting against Ukraine in Donbass, who has killed dozens of Ukrainians, freely visits Belarus. The KGB has invited him for talks, but has not opened a criminal case. Previously, Belarusian KGB officials stated that they would prosecute Belarusians who join the fight in Ukraine, on either the Ukrainian or the Russian side. However, evidence shows that the Belarusian authorities remain reluctant to initiate criminal cases.

Although Belarus's rejection of a Russian military base on its territory was certainly painful for the Kremlin, Belarus managed recover from the conflict by announcing the launch of an Integrated Regional Antiaircraft Defense System. Belarusian diplomats have repeatedly refused to support a UN resolution that would have condemned Russia's actions in Ukraine.

Although the Belarusian authorities are making small steps towards promoting their own culture, which Russian nationalists seem so afraid of, Russian culture and media still dominate in Belarus. When Russian television broadcasts reports about a possible re-orientation of Belarus to the West, Belarusian authorities do not block them. Even the recent arrests of several Belarusophobic authors seem relatively insignificant compared to Kazakhstan, where the authorities have consistently been condemning pro-Russian activists for several years now.

Neither does Belarus intend to undermine Eurasian economic integration, as Belarus needs this market to sell its own manufacture goods, while Western countries remain primarily interested in Belarusian petrol. Minsk is slowing down Eurasian integration to gain concessions from the Russian side, as the Belarusian economic system exists thanks to Russian energy 'subsidies'.

This new iteration of the off and on Belarus-Russia conflict is hardly unique, albeit with one exception. Russia has started to count money and seems reluctant to give Belarus handouts, demanding more loyalty from Belarus. However, this is a far cry from replacing Lukashenka or occupying Belarus.




Belarusians in the Forbes rating, no autonomy for the Belarus Orthodox Church – Belarus state press digest

Minsk views a normalisation of relations with the EU as being in its national interest. The Russian World cannot be a political factor in Belarus, according to the Metropolitan of the Belarusian Orthodox Church.

The economic recession has reached its lowest point, and in 2018 the Belarusian economy will once a gain experience growth. Russian economic policies towards Belarus are creating obstacles for Eurasian integration. Several Belarusian IT entrepreneurs appeared in the '30 under 30' Forbes rating.

The city of Hrodna sees a rise in the tourism sector as a result of the new visa-free regime. The government reduces the cost of visas to Belarus.

All this and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.

Politics and foreign policy

Minsk seeks to build bridges between regional actors. Narodnaja Hazieta publishes an interview with Andrej Rusakovič, chairman of the Centre for Foreign Policy and Security Studies, on the dynamics of Belarus-EU relations in 2016.

Consistent normalisation of relations with the EU is in the national interest of Belarus, as this enhances economic development and strengthens Belarus's global position. The fact that Belarus currently holds the Presidency in the Central European Initiative and the 2017 OSCE Parliamentary Session is to be held in Minsk means that the EU has recognised Belarus's achievements in shaping a stable and lasting security system in the region.

Belarus's geopolitical position makes it dependent on EU-Russia relations. Therefore, Minsk seeks to build bridges between various European associations and institutions in spite of the historical, economic and cultural differences between the countries of the region.

The Russian World cannot be a political factor in Belarus. Belarus Segodnia discusses the recent comments of Metropolitan Pavel of the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the arrest of several pro-Russian journalists. The Metropolitan spoke of the 'Russian World' not as a political factor, but as a cultural and spiritual space. The newspaper adds that today some adherents to this idea propagate the armed defence of all those who identify as Russian but live outside Russia.

people with Russian roots work everywhere in Belarus, from road workers to the head of the Council of Ministers. 

The author argues that this idea has no potential in Belarus, since people with Russian roots work everywhere in the country, ranging from road workers to the head of the Council of Ministers. The newspaper stresses that incitement of ethnic hatred is a crime, and the arrest of pro-Russian journalists should not be considered a restriction of free speech, as some media debates suggest.

Economy

Economic recession hits bottom, 2018 will see growth. Respublika discusses the prospects for the Belarusian economy in 2017. In a recently published macroeconomics review, Sberbank of Russia noted that the economic recession in Belarus is grinding to a halt; this has been the case for three consecutive months now. According to a World Bank report, 2017 will still be uneasy for Belarus, but the worst of the recession has already passed and 2018 will see visible growth.

The government points to the 11% inflation rate as its main success in 2016, and hopes to drive it below 10% in 2017. It foresees a 1.7% GDP growth for 2017. Major growth factors will include global oil prices and the state of economy of Russia, Belarus's dominant trade partner. A forecast of the Russian economy predicts zero growth, so Belarus can hardly expect anything better, the newspaper concludes.

Russian economic policies towards Belarus create obstacles to Eurasian integration. Negotiations on supplies of Russian gas to Belarus lasted for almost a year, writes Narodnaja Hazieta. Back in spring, falling oil prices and a significant devaluation of the Russian ruble made Minsk claim $73 dollars per thousand cubic metres as a fair price for Russian gas.

However, Russia continued to demand $132 and went on to cut oil supplies to Belarus to be extra persuasive, which immediately affected Belarusian budget revenues. Such behaviour contradicts the basic principles of the Eurasian Union, which promise equal prices and conditions for all members.

A food safety conflict came as another serious blow to bilateral relations. At the moment, the Russian food control agency Rosselkhoznadzor has placed limits on exports from 20 Belarusian agricultural enterprises to the Russian market. The author concludes that a union does not make sense if it fails to meet the interests of all parties.

Belarusian IT entrepreneurs appear in the Forbes '30 under 30' rating. Jaŭhien Nieŭhień and Siarhiej Hančar made it into the Forbes '30 under 30' ranking, which lists 600 of the brightest young entrepreneurs, breakout talents, and agents of change in 20 different sectors. The two Belarusian were included in the Consumer Technologies category, reports Belarus Segodnia.

According to the magazine, 'When Facebook wanted to catch up with Snapchat, it turned to two entrepreneurs from Belarus. Nieŭhień and Hančar built MSQRD, an app which adds crazy filters to selfies. After the app caught on in the U.S., Facebook bought MSQRD for an undisclosed amount in March 2016. Since then, both co-founders have been working for Facebook in London'.

Tourism and visas

The city of Hrodna sees a rise in the tourism sector thanks to the new visa-free regime. The visa-free regime in Hrodna Region has been in effect for two months now. Around 2,200 tourists have already taken advantage of the opportunity to visit Belarus over this period. In the end of 2016, the Hrodna City Executive Committee met to discuss what has already been done and how to attract more foreigners, writes Hrodzienskaja Praŭda.

The recently created website www.grodnovisafree.by informs potential travellers about border crossing procedures and the tourist attractions in the region. The authorities have already installed signs on the boundaries of the visa-free zone and modified the working hours of museums, currency exchanges, and other tourist spots. They also drafted a schedule of events for 2017, which includes more than three hundred festivals, celebrations and other brand activities.

Meanwhile, tourist companies and attractions are hurrying to translate their facilities into foreign languages and introduce wifi networks.

The government reduces the cost of visas to Belarus. On 1 January 2017 Belarus introduced new consular fees for issuing visas, writes Belarus Segodnia. Now, individual visas will cost €60, regardless of the number of entries, while a group visa will cost only €10 per person.

Previously, foreign visitors had to pay €150 for D-type visa, €120 for a multiple C visa, and €60 for a one-time visa. Citizens of Poland and Lithuania could acquire visas for half the price: €25 and €60 respectively. According to new regulations they will also enjoy lower rates than other countries, while citizens of Japan and Serbia will be completely exempt from consular fees.

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.




Protectionism in EEU, New Ministry, Organised Crime – State Press Digest

In the first half of June, official newspapers in Belarus focused mostly on economic affairs.

Belarus-Russian cooperation within the Eurasian Economic Union continues to suffer from protectionism and exemptions in trade and prices, particularly in hydrocarbons.

Belarus will establish the Ministry of Antitrust Regulation and Trade to manage the growing liberalisation of the national economy. Belarus presents its armoured vehicle at the international arms exhibition.

Belarusian schoolchildren will be offered extracurricular programming courses, introduced to enhance national potential in the IT sector. Organised crime groups become more active as the region experiences instability. This and more in the new edition of State Press Digest.

Belarus-Russia

Eurasian Economic Union suffers from protectionism. Minsk hosted the Third Forum of Belarusian and Russian Regions under the auspices of Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin. As Belarus Segodnya noted, despite the social and humanitarian theme of the forum the presidents talked mostly about economic matters.

Lukashenka emphasised that the countries need to develop a single industrial policy and remove all barriers in bilateral trade; at the moment the EEU states often employ protectionism as anti-crisis strategy. In response Putin only answered that “Russia is interested in increasing food imports from Belarus”.

Russia is reluctant to cut gas price for Belarus. The newspaper Respublika criticises the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom for its persistent reluctance to reduce current gas prices. A previous attempt by Belarus to negotiate the issue with Gazprom at a recent EEU summit failed. Despite the common EEU market, trade within the union involves a number of exemptions.

Trade in hydrocarbons remains most sensitive for Belarus, which remains heavily dependent on Russian energy resources. The newspaper claims that in this way Gazprom is trying to raise funds for its major project – a gas pipe to China, as Europe increasingly diversifies its supplies to avoid dependence on Russia.

Economy

Belarus will establish a Ministry of Antitrust Regulation and Trade. The main reason for this change is liberalisation of economy, according to Minister of Trade Uladzimir Kaltovič, quoted in Zviazda. He specifically mentions the removal of price regulation implemented this January. As free competition on the market increases, the risk of emerging trusts grows.

The current governmental body in this area, as well as its policies, lags behind Belarus's partners in the Eurasian Economic Union. The Ministry will be restructured according to new functions, and local trade inspections will be united with antitrust agencies. Moreover, the Ministry plans to update and specify the antitrust law.

Switzerland will invest in Belarusian agriculture. Head of Hrodna region Uladzimir Kraŭcoŭ and Head of Embassy Subdivision of the Swiss Confederation in Minsk Pascal Aebischer met to discuss cooperation between the region and Switzerland, Hrodzienskaja Praŭda reports.

Swiss investors will allocate $4m to a farm with 12,000 pigs in Ščučyn district and $7m to a dairy farm in Smarhoń district. Pascal Ebischer has been visiting Belarusian regions this year to study their business potential. In an overview of bilateral cooperation, the diplomat mentioned that at the moment around 30 Swiss companies operate in Belarus, and trade turnover reached $3m in 2015. 20 Swiss citizens live in Belarus and a few hundred Belarusians study in Switzerland.

Security

Belarus presents its own light-armoured vehicle V-1. Two Belarusian enterprises took part it the international exhibition of arms Eurosatory-2016 with 1,500 defenсe companies from 57 countries participating, writes Belarus SegodniaFor the first time, the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant publicly presented a model of light-armoured vehicle V-1 (Volat).

It is designed for transportation of troops as well as fighting in urban and rural areas and mountainous and impassable territories. The manufacturers took into account the experience of recent local conflicts and anti-terrorist operations, where mines and improvised explosive devices posed particular danger. Therefore, V-1 is heavily mine-protected and has a V-shaped bottom which allows it to dissipate the energy of explosions.

Social

Schoolchildren in Belarus will be offered extracurricular programming courses. In the new school year Belarusian schools will introduce Scratch – an object-oriented visual programming language, designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology to teach children programming and algorithmic thinking. Schoolchildren will have the opportunity to study physics, mathematics, geography, biology, and even literature with the help of Scratch, writes Znamia Yunosti.

To date, Belarusians are learning the basics of programming later than their European peers, but now the situation is changing. The project will be jointly implemented by the Ministry of Education and High Technologies Park. Six IT companies have already tested it on their employees' children and achieved good results, the newspaper reports.

Helpline for children stopped work due to financial reasons. The national helpline for children and teenagers has not been operating for a few months now, Belarus Segodnia reports. In 2011 the international NGO ‘Understanding’ purchased equipment and established a helpline in the National Centre for Mental Health. The line received around 3,660 calls since its installation and succeeded in preventing 8 suicide attempts and dozens of violent acts annually.

The line stopped because of lack of funds to pay full-time staff, as the doctors of the Centre had to reply to calls during their working hours. The project needs $30,000 a year and ‘Understanding’ leader Andrej Machańko hopes that soon it will resume its work with the help of private charity donations.

Organised criminal groups become more active in environment of regional instability. Chief of the Department of Combating Organised Crime and Corruption of the Interior Ministry, Mikalaj Karpiankoŭ, revealed to Specnaz certain trends of organised crime development in the post-Soviet space and Belarus.

Organised criminal groups unite to become transnational, while professional thieves engage in business and some businessmen become closer to criminals. Some wealthy bosses use money and connexions to try to secure protection within the government. What's more, in recent years Russian gangs have become more active in attempts to increase influence on Belarusian criminal affairs. So far Belarus has been famous as a country with a highly repressive approach towards the so-called thieves in law – the higher strata of criminal bosses in the former USSR space.

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.




Reinforcing the “Remote Arc”, Working Hard at the UN – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

In April, Belarus and Europe continued re-establishing contact at different levels. Belarus welcomed the Bulgarian foreign minister and senior diplomats from Sweden and Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the institutional level, Minsk and Brussels inaugurated their new dialogue format, the Coordination Group.

Belarus’ economic interests prompted the government to call for stronger relations with the “Remote Arc” countries, in particular, Nigeria and Ghana. In New York, foreign minister Vladimir Makei focused on social issues and development agenda.

Belarus – Europe: the bilateral dimension

On 10-12 April, Bulgarian foreign minister Daniel Mitov paid a working visit to Minsk and met his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei. Mitov stressed Bulgaria’s willingness to contribute to improving Belarus-EU relations but emphasised the need for respect of human rights in Belarus.

Mitov came to Belarus not only in his national capacity but also as the current chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. Minsk is interested in greater involvement of Belarusian parliamentarians in the work of this organisation. In this context, Mitov met Vladimir Andreichenko, the chairman of the lower house of the Belarusian parliament.

Belarus and Sweden continued to strengthen their bilateral ties, which are now close to full normalisation after the teddy bear airdrop incident in 2012. On 31 March-1 April, state secretary for foreign affairs Annika Söder met Vladimir Makei and his deputy Alena Kupchyna in Minsk. It was the first visit of a Swedish official to Belarus at such a level for 25 years. Söder also met Belarusian opposition leaders.

On 22 April, Belarus and Bosnia and Herzegovina held their first political consultations at the deputy foreign minister level since 2007.

In Minsk, Alena Kupchyna and Josip Brkić focused on further development of the two countries’ trade relations. Belarus and Bosnia and Herzegovina have so far been unable to establish the bilateral trade commission provided for in their trade agreement of 2004.

The parties also discussed regional cooperation, as Bosnia and Herzegovina holds the presidency of the Central European Initiative (CEI) in 2015. Belarus recently downgraded the level of its participation in this regional forum despite the fact that most of the Belarusian government’s sympathisers in Europe (such as Austria, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia etc.) also participate in the CEI.

Belarus – Europe: the institutional dimension

In Brussels on 6-7 April, Belarus and the European Union launched a new format of bilateral dialogue, the EU-Belarus Coordination Group. This informal negotiation platform emerged as a follow-up to the Interim Phase on modernisation issues. Alena Kupchyna and Deputy Secretary General for the External Action Service Helga Schmid headed the respective delegations.

Belarus and the EU identified eleven priorities for the dialogue, with trade, investment, environment and infrastructure dominating the agenda. However, the parties have also been discussing the establishment of a national institute for human rights in Belarus. The EU will sponsor a workshop on this issue in Minsk later this year.

Representatives of Belarusian civil society participated in one session of the coordination group and were able to comment on the dialogue’s priorities. Belarus’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs validated each candidature.

The Konrad Adenauer Foundation financed a trip of a team of Belarusian officials and experts to Brussels on 18-21 April. They discussed security and defence issues with officials from NATO, the European Parliament and the European External Action Service as well as think tanks.

Makei works hard in New York

On 20-22 April, Makei was in New York on an extremely tight schedule. There, he signed the Paris Climate Agreement on behalf of Belarus and spoke at the United Nations' special high-level events on sustainable development goals and drug trafficking.

The minister opened a photo exhibition at the UN headquarters dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. He also met his counterparts from Argentina, Costa Rica, Singapore and Tajikistan as well as high UN officials.

Finally, Makei participated in the first-ever high-level meeting of the Eastern European Group (EEG). Belarus chairs the group in April. The uniqueness of the EEG is that it assembles the countries which belong to competing economic and military blocs in Europe.

Normally, the EEG’s role has been limited to deciding on the distribution of seats at various UN bodies and performing other procedural functions at the organisation. Lately, Belarus has been working on uniting the EEG’s members behind the common agenda of UN reform and strengthening the group’s role and visibility at the UN.

In recent years, Belarusian diplomats have successfully moved from a reactive response to the UN agenda set by others to identifying and pursuing the country’s priorities in multilateral diplomacy.

Reinforcing the “Remote Arc”

Deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov made a tour in Western Africa, visiting Nigeria on 4-5 April and Ghana on 6-7 April.

The political consultations between the foreign ministries were held both in Abudja and Accra. However, trade relations and academic training of African students in Belarus remain at the top of Belarus’ agenda in its relations with Nigeria and Ghana.

Rybakov came to Africa accompanied by Belarusian manufacturers of agricultural and transport machinery. Minsk is seeking to develop local assembly of its tractors in Nigeria and trucks in Ghana.

On 14 April, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka, on the sidelines of the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, met the leaders of Afghanistan, Indonesia, Qatar and Pakistan, with trade and manufacturing cooperation the focus of the discussions.

On 21-24 April, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, visited Minsk. She met Prime Minister Andrei Kobiakov and first deputy foreign minister Alexander Mikhnevich.

Belarus has rather a limited diplomatic presence in Africa. Cooperation with the African Union may help to enter the African markets and participate in pan-African economic and technical cooperation programmes.

In late April, Belarusian officials also discussed the development of trade relations with Sudan in Minsk and Qatar in Doha in the format of the bilateral cooperation commissions.

Lukashenka recently instructed his government and Belarusian diplomats on the need to achieve a new balance in Belarusian exports. They should be equally distributed – one third each – among the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the EU and other countries, including the so called “Remote Arc” countries (Africa, Asia and Latin America).

Currently, the share of the EEU in Belarusian exports stands at over 42 per cent, with the EU at 32 per cent. This means that the share of the “Remote Arc” will have to grow significantly at the expense of Russia and other EEU members.




Belarus between EU and EEU, New Opposition Strategy – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

Over the past month analysts discussed continuing rapprochement of Belarus with the West and potential Russia’s responses to it. Meanwhile, influenced by Russian propaganda, Belarusians favour Eurasian integration over European, although official Minsk finds its result unsatisfactory.

Belarusian opposition changes its strategy in relations with the authorities and plans to push them to negotiations with backing of mass street pressure. However, a Ukrainian sociologist predicts that democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years and conditions for a Maidan do not exist there. This and more in the new Digest of Belarusian Analytics.

Foreign policy

Belarus in the EAEC: a Year Later (Disappointing Results and Doubtful Prospects) – This report was presented in Minsk on March 22, by the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The report is devoted to the analysis of the first year of existence of the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) for Belarus. Among the key findings is that Minsk had great expectations from this association, but now finds it unsatisfactory.

Europe’s Last Dictator Comes in From the ColdArtyom Shraibman, for Carnegie Moscow Center, notices that Lukashenka’s fortunes have changed. Once known as “Europe’s last dictator,” he has won friends in Europe, while antagonizing his traditional ally, Russia. It’s a situation that has left the Kremlin in a difficult position: should it punish Belarus for its pro-Western tendencies? Or should it continue to prop up the Belarusian economy rather than risk further unrest in the region?

Belarus-Ukraine Relations Beyond Media HeadlinesYauheni Preiherman, in Eurasia Daily Monitor, notices that media narratives often distort the reality of Belarus-Ukraine relations. Some observers explain this by the absence of a “strategic vision for a long-term relationship”. The author sees this a typical feature of inter-state relations in the post-Soviet space, where politics is mainly about tactics, and fighting protectionist trade wars is part of the political culture.

Politics

Belarusian Opposition Comes Up With New Strategy: Negotiations With Authorities Due to Protest Pressure – Politicians and leaders of the mass protests discuss the lessons of "The Square-2006". The new strategy is likely to depart from the revolutionary approach to power change and focus on evolutionary approach, by changing relations between the authorities and the opposition through negotiations, backed by mass street pressure.

Ukrainian Sociologist: Maidan will not be in Minsk – Democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years. This will happen only when society is ready for this. Artificial imposition of liberal values does not work, as well as there are no political or social preconditions for Maidan of the Kyiv scenario in Minsk, according to Ukrainian sociologist, Professor Eduard Afonin.

Public opinion polls

Majority of Belarusians want to keep death penalty. According to the March national poll conducted by IISEPS, 51.5% of Belarusians do not agree with the idea to abolish the death penalty; opposite opinion is shared by 36.4%. Women are less in favor of abolition of the death penalty than men – respectively 55.3% and 46.9%. Belarus is the only country in Europe and on the post-soviet space, which still applies the death penalty.

Belarus Between EU and EEU. Nation-Wide Poll – The ODB Brussels commissioned a survey about perceptions, preferences, and values Belarusians attribute to the European Union (EU) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). According to the study, Belarusians have a high-level understanding and appreciation of the EU, a clear opinion that the EU and EEU are competitors while public reasoning is currently swayed in favor of economic cooperation with the EEU.

Peculiarities of Public Opinion in BelarusGrigory Ioffe overviews the key results of a fresh national poll by IISEPS and an alarming reaction of official sociologists to the results, namely, the decline in Alexander Lukashenka’s electoral rating. Siarhei Nikalyuk, an associate of IISEPS, suggests that independent sociologists who are de facto allowed to work in Belarus are playing the role that jesters did in medieval Europe. After all, only a jester was allowed to speak the truth to the monarch, who actually appreciated that.

Other

Advocacy Sector in Belarus: CSO Experience – The study analyses the actual practices of advocacy in Belarus for the recent five years. The researchers see the key factor of success/failure of any campaign in its capacity for politicisation, i.e. whether authorities perceive a campaign political or not. The study was commissioned by OEEC in a series of sectoral studies aimed at summarising data on the development of specific sectors of civil society in Belarus. The presentation was held on March 24.

How to Make Minsk a Cycling City? – Pavel Harbunou, the Minsk Bicycle Society, shares the results of an annual monitoring on bicycle traffic on the Minsk streets, which shows that the number of cyclists has increased significantly in the city. The activists tells what can be done to make Minsk comfortable for all road users. Namely, the Bicycle Society launches a new campaign Street Bike Supervisor aimed to provide a regular feedback on the conditions of Minsk streets.

Ghetto for Each. Why Minsk Art Spaces Live Separately From Each OtherBelarusian Journal online describes the existing art spaces in Minsk, both mainstream and alternative. While a growing number of cultural spaces is a positive sign, it is too early to talk about the impact of these spaces for culture in general. It is more a question of the formation of separate subcultural groups, the original "ghetto" that arise, rather against the wishes of the state.​

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.




Gas Rebate, New Silk Road, Treasure Hunting – Belarus State Press Digest

The Belarusian authorities are putting all their energy into combating the deepening economic crisis.

They have released corrupt officials sentenced to prison terms and appointed them to manage bankrupt state enterprises. The government is seeking solutions to the problem of the growing black market for alcohol, which brings huge losses to a lucrative state-owned business.

Externally, the authorities are negotiating a new gas rebate from Russia and trying to find a place for Belarus in the Chinese New Silk Road project.

All of this and more in the latest edition of State Press Digest.

Politics

Lukashenka appoints officials charged with corruption to manage desperate enterprises. Belarus Segodnya discusses Lukashenka's recent decision to release corrupt officials from prison and appoint them to head up and save desperate state enterprises. The newspaper says that a state manager who committed an offence should not be lost from society. The author draws comparisons with the Stalin era, when repressed officials were given a chance to prove their devotion to the state.

These officials’ experience and skills can be used for the benefit of the people. The author also gives a few counter arguments: not all offenders receive this chance, it can damage the fight against corruption, it can be an example of corrupt ties within the elite, and become good material for the opposition to criticise the authorities.

Belarus wants to a place on China’s New Silk Road. Belarus Segodnya quotes Lukashenka’s interview with China Central Television. “We expect the most serious investments here in Belarus, we need to create companies that will produce a new generation of commodities. Belarus is well suited for this purpose – it has an extensive infrastructure and can transport goods in all directions, to the EU and the Eurasian Union. The project is open for investors from all over the world, and it is not built against somebody's interests. The project should unite economies and trade, and later also cultures and people”. Belarus is attempting to find its niche in the New Silk Road projects and is currently developing an industrial park called Great Stone jointly with China.

Belarus condemns commemoration of Polish fighters guilty of the genocide of ethnic Belarusians. Respublika criticises the decision of the Polish authorities to allow a nationalist march in borderland Hajnaŭka which has a significant Belarusian population. The march commemorated the Polish fighters who struggled with the establishment of communist rule in Poland after World War II.

Many of their activities were aimed at ethnic Belarusians who were regarded as supporters of communism. A squad under command of Romuald “Bury” Rais committed mass killing of the local Orthodox population in 1945-1948.

The paper says that Poland has the right to interpret history and form its own state ideology, but glorification of mass killing is unacceptable and the Belarusian authorities should support the local Belarusian minority to preserve its traditions and identity.

Economy

Minsk wants a rebate on Russian gas price. Soyuznoye Veche reports on the negotiations between Belarus and Russia on the gas price discount. At the moment Belarus enjoys the lowest gas price among all importers of this Russian resource, but Minsk expects yet another rebate of $10 per 1,000m3.

Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamaška says that a new discount will help to reduce tariffs on energy for the production sector of the Belarusian economy. At the moment Belarusian producers work in unequal conditions with their Russian counterparts, and hence cannot compete on the single market of the Eurasian Economic Union.

The authorities fight with the shadow alcohol market. The number of offences related to illegal alcohol trafficking increased 4.5 times in 2015, Respublika reports. In total police confiscated around 700,000 litres of illicit alcohol. However, this represents only a small part of the market, which the Ministry of the Interior estimates to total 50m litres. Virtually all traffic comes to Belarus from Russia, as the countries have no customs control between them.

The author claims that recent measures to restrict alcohol consumption have only driven it underground. To tackle the problem, he suggests removing restrictions and cutting the price in order to minimise the price gap between legal and illegal alcohol. He also speaks in favour of the internet trade in alcohol – a step which the Ministry of the Interior recently called a “diabolical idea”.

Society

Women dominate in the state bureaucracy, but only at mid and low levels. Zviazda newspaper publishes statistics on Belarusian women dedicated to International Women’s Day. Women make up 53.5 per cent of Belarus' population, and 78 per cent of women live in urban areas, with an average age of 42 years. 23 per cent of them work in industry, 18 per cent in education, 14 per cent in trade, 13 per cent in healthcare and social services, and 8 per cent in agriculture and forestry.

30 per cent of women have higher education and 42 per cent professional education. 35 per cent of females are unemployed, and they earn 23 per cent less than males on average. Women occupy 30 per cent of seats in parliament, 56 per cent in local executive and self-government bodies and account for 70 per cent of all civil servants.

Culture

A new presidential edict outlaws treasure hunting. Narodnaya Gazeta discusses illegal treasure hunting and the new edict No. 485 targeting this problem. The edict bans unsanctioned searching for, selling and buying of archaeological objects.

Earlier the police only showed interest in those digging up old weapons and ammunition. According to the law on protection of cultural heritage, the finder of treasure gets only 25 per cent of its value, the rest going to the state.

Archaeologist from national academy of sciences Vadzim Košman says the edict should have been introduced 15 years ago. During this period many high-tech devices appeared on the market and a great deal of treasure was dug up, before disappearing.

When looking through internet forums dedicated to treasure hunting, Košman is often shocked by the unique findings which may be forever lost from science. However, many amateurs say the edict is unfair. It should punish vandals who destroy burials, and not people walking in the fields with metal detectors.

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 Struggles to Reduce Energy Dependence on Russia

At the end of 2015 Belarus published a new energy security concept according to which it remains a country with a critical level of energy dependence.

90 per cent of Belarusian energy imports come from a single supplier – Russia. Moreover, a third of export revenue is traditionally generated by refining Russian oil.

The authorities prefer to retain the status-quo as an easier and conflictless strategy, but the need to strengthen statehood will sooner or later require a solution to this deep problem.

Dramatic energy dependence on Russia

As the newly published Concept notes, Belarus has a critical level of dependence in most aspects of its energy security. Currently, 90 per cent of imports of all energy resources come from Russia. Moreover, Russian natural gas accounts for 90 per cent of heat and electric energy production.

The growth of energy independence and diversification of suppliers should become a strategic goal for the government in the coming years. The new Concept sets concrete goals up until 2035. Belarus plans to reduce the share of Russia in its energy imports from 90 per cent to 70 per cent. Most strikingly, the government plans to reduce the share of gas in production of electric and heat energy from the current 90 per cent to 50 per cent.

Another related problem the authorities will have to deal with is high energy consumption in the economy. The heavy industries built in the USSR consume huge amounts of energy, and many of them work on decades-old, outdated technologies.

For example, Hrodna Azot, a chemical industry enterprise, consumes 10 per cent of all imported gas. Apart from high energy consumption, these demand large state subsidies and demonstrate low economic efficiency. Reform of these industrial giants would resolve a whole bunch of problems, but the government seems unwilling to do that due to high social costs.

Belarusian citizens will also have to change their energy usage habits. The population has for a long time enjoyed discounted prices on public utilities for home use, including energy, as a part of the government's social policy.

While an average Pole or Lithuanian has to pay $160-170 for communal services, Belarusians currently pay only around $40. This has caused much criticism from market reform advocates and international creditors of Belarus. Finally, the government has agreed to reform this sector and citizens are seeing their bills grow constantly.

Petroeconomy and the EEU market

In the last decade oil products have accounted for a third of Belarusian exports and brought in up to $16bn of revenue annually. Together with potash, oil products filled the Belarusian budget, allowing the government to keep a tight grip on the economy without introducing reforms, and preserving the loyalty of citizens.

Russia, of course, remains the cheapest and most profitable option for Belarusian oil refineries located in Mazyr and Navapolack. At times of economic tension, Belarus has in the past attempted to threaten Russia with turning to alternative sources of oil. In 2010-2011 Minsk shipped oil from Venezuela and Azerbaijana decision that had no economic grounds but brought political results eventually, as Russia returned to more favourable contract terms with Belarus.

However, the Belarusian oil business now faces a number of challenges. Belarus as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) remains in an unfavourable position as regards oil consumption. The single market of energy resources in the EEU will come into force only in 2025, a condition that Russia insists on and Belarus strongly opposes.

More fundamentally though, the sector itself presents a bigger problem for Belarus. Reliance on Russian oil as a major export commodity means backwardness in other sectors, dependence on oil price jumps and of course the supplier. The current drop in oil prices and subsequent economic decline present a good lesson for the Belarusian leadership, but will they learn from it?

Will nuclear power plant increase energy independence?

In the early 2010s a new nuclear power plant (NPP) was proclaimed as the hope of the Belarusian energy sector. It is intended to cover a quarter of the country's energy needs, with its first reactor to be launched in 2018.

However, the case for energy independence in this instance looks doubtful, as Russia remains the key actor at all stages of the project's implementation. Russia provides its design, supplies its most important components, as well as the nuclear fuel. Finally, the whole project is financed by a $10bn Russian loan.

An expert from the Institute of Energy at the National Academy of Sciences who wanted to remain anonymous told Belarus Digest that Belarus can in fact purchase uranium elsewhere, but the issue of utilisation of exhausted fuel will remain nevertheless.

Besides, the NPP is located only 55km away from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. This poses a number of other security threats which the Belarusian authorities prefer not to talk about. Lithuanian officials and NGOs have been criticising Belarus since the project's inception, saying that Belarusians have not properly assessed the environmental impact of the NPP and do not want their neighbours to get involved.

Belarusians never witnessed a real public debate on the NPP, rather ridiculous for a nation that suffered dramatically from the Chernobyl disaster. Yet the plant may in the end prove to be the lesser of two evils compared to gas and oil dependence.

Can Belarus become energy independent?

Belarus remains trapped in energy dependence primarily because of the inertia of its leadership, who are scared to change the status-quo and implement sector reforms. High revenues from oil could be used to develop alternative and local energy resources, which Belarus uses to a minor extent. Belarus has natural resources which have fine energy potential: rivers, woods, swamps and biomass.

Energy efficiency, which the authorities like to talk about but fail to introduce, should become a technical standard in all spheres, from construction and transport to agriculture.

Alternative and green energy is the area where the European Union has vast experience and will be eager to assist in both expertise and financing. For example, the EU has allocated €8m for local development projects in 2014-2017, where energy is a priority area. Belarus could receive many more funds for green energy were it to demonstrate real interest in cooperation in this area.

Large enterprises with old energy-consuming technologies should be reformed and replaced by an economy based on small and medium business, the service sector and IT. In the long run, this would not only reduce energy consumption, but would also change the structure of budget revenues and dependence on oil refineries.

Energy efficiency, which the authorities like to talk about but fail to introduce, should become a technical standard in all spheres, from construction and transport to agriculture.

Last but not least, Belarusians should learn how to save energy – something they had no need to know about in the state-run economy. Raising energy prices to market levels should be accompanied by comprehensive education programmes to teach the population how to live in a new energy reality.




What Is at Stake in the Small Traders Protests?

On 1 January 2016, a new edict came into force in Belarus demanding that small traders who sell imported goods must provide details of their origin.

The edict was based on laws for small traders introduced by the Eurasian Customs Union that came into effect in January 2013. As a result, most outlets selling light industrial goods have closed.

The traders held an “anti-crisis forum” at the Hotel Belarus’ on January 11, but to date the government has refused to rectify the situation. Moreover, the impasse seems likely to continue at least until the convocation of the next Business Forum on January 25.

While the difficulties for such forms of business in Belarus date back more than a decade, the current conflict represents the most serious dilemma to date for both the authorities and small traders.

Traders' response to decree 222

The bill requests that traders selling imported goods — mostly from Russia — must provide certificates indicating their origin. Traditionally, Russian exporters have either declined to provide such information or fabricated it. The government’s stated goal to procure transparency in trade masks a larger concern that cheap imported goods undermine the sale of Belarusian products. In turn, the traders insist that the quality of local manufacturing is both inferior to and more expensive than imports.

The mass desertion of their market stalls clearly surprised the authorities, and the Ministry of Trade acknowledged that 68% of outlets had remained closed, which it attributed in official parlance to the holiday season. Yet according to the head of the business association Perspektyva, Anatol Šumchanka, 90% of traders nationwide abandoned their businesses during the holiday season, which is normally their peak period for sales.

The president of Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, made reference to the stoppage of sales on January 14 at a meeting related to the protection of the state border. He noted that advance warning of the decree was given last year to self-employed small traders and commented that he was puzzled by recent events.

Decree 222, he added, constitutes the first step in trade transparency, thus implying that more measures would follow. For the president, the struggles of the state sector in the current dire economic climate remain the priority and thus traders must sell homemade products.

The anti-crisis forum

An estimated 1,500 small traders attended the anti-crisis forum held at the Hotel Belarus, with a further 800 gathering outside in the foyer. Šumchanka addressed the assembled and complained about the lack of prior consultation of the new decree. He stressed that traders do not oppose the certification of goods, but the authorities introduced the laws without consultation.

Šumchanka cited a former judge of the Constitutional Court, Michail Pastuchoŭ, who analysed Edict 222 and reached the conclusion that the document illegally restricted the rights of citizens. Šumchanka​ proposed the gathering of 50,000 signatures to introduce a new law into Parliament on behalf of the traders to create more favourable conditions for small businesses.

Perhaps unsurprisingly some participants wanted more direct action and in the foyer Minsk trader Aliaksandr Makajeŭ called for a mass protest at October Square on January 16.

Notably also, former presidential candidate Taссiana Karatkievič attended the forum, as did two (invited) officials from the government, Andrej Miaškoŭ (Ministry of Trade) and Valery Chomčanka (Ministry of Economy).

Šumchanka​, however, who highlighted the campaign on his Facebook page (Anatoliy Shumchenko), responded angrily to what he perceived as the attempt to politicise the protests and commented that radical actions would not bring the desired results. At the same time, Miaškoŭ​ provided an overt warning that traders would be held responsible for “violating established working hours” should they fail to report to work the next day. The vast majority ignored the threat.

Could the protest widen?

Šumchanka referred to political activists as “scum” and “provocateurs” who should hold their own events, but some political activists perceived the dispute as a potential for more coordinated anti-government actions, perhaps based on Šumchanka’s own estimate that the new decree encompasses potentially not merely 37,000 individual traders, but also over 120,000 businesses operating in shopping centres and as private companies.

The gathering at the Hotel Belarus also comprised delegates from all parts of the country, indicating the breadth of the protests. The leader of Perspektyva believes that the government logically must come to an agreement with traders who have no alternative but to oppose a law that undermines their very livelihood.

Opposition leader Mikalaj Statkievič provided an interview to Belsat TV on the same day as the Anti-Crisis Forum. He made it clear that if the authorities failed to respond to demands of ‘democrats’ for electoral reform, they should be prepared to gather “in the Square” in order to “maintain dignity” and demonstrate their willingness to fight for their rights.

Street actions, in his view, remain the sole mechanism to influence the authorities. He revealed that he is preparing a group of 150-200 committed and “courageous” people who are prepared to lead street rallies. The call for confrontation contrasted with the milder approach of Šumchanka​, who although equally dismissive of the government’s responses to date, still holds out the hope of reaching agreement.

A time for compromise?

The dispute between the government and small traders carries potential for broader protests, especially given the dilemmas of large companies who are cutting the workforce and dealing with high costs of imported materials.

Moreover, an immediate solution appears unlikely as the suppliers of the imported goods refuse to provide documentation of their origin. Such trade originated in Soviet times and constitutes an essential mechanism for supply of consumer products in a command economy. And while the majority of small traders in Minsk on January 11 seek economic rather than political solutions — such as a change of government — their frustration is evident.

Belarus can ill afford a sustained mass protest given the forecasted sluggish GDP growth of 0.3% in 2016 — a prediction itself based on a highly implausible oil price of US$50 per barrel. A wise government would consider a compromise solution.

David R. Marples

David R. Marples is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta




Successful Foreign Policy, EEU Decline, Cross-Border Projects – State Press Digest

According to Belarusian state-controlled press, 2015 was a successful year for Belarusian foreign policy, as the country strengthened its position in international affairs and relations with key western actors.

The national budget for 2016 reflects the impact of the ongoing economic crisis and will see the government support only the most vulnerable categories of society, siloviki in particular.

Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) trade continues to fall because of the regional economic crisis and protectionist policies of the bloc's members. Belarus is gradually abolishing subsidies in the energy sector as part of market reforms.

The regions of Belarus are actively engaging in cross-border cooperation projects financed by the EU. All of this and more is discussed in the latest edition of State Press Digest.

Government considers 2015 foreign policy a success

In 2015 Belarus led a successful foreign policy. Belarus Segodnya presents the annual Review of the Foreign Policy Outcomes and Activities of the Foreign Ministry. During presidential elections, which the Ministry sees as the main event, it managed to organise constructive cooperation with international observers. These observers' reports had a significant impact on further positive development of relations with foreign, and especially western, partners.

In 2015 Belarus made a significant contribution to de-escalation of the Ukraine conflict and maintenance of stability in the region. Belarus also continues to promote the concept of “integration of integration” – convergence of the European and Eurasian integration programmes. However, the review regrets that the key problem within the EEU – trade exemptions and protectionism – has not been overcome.

Eurasian Economic Union demonstrates trade decline

The new budget will prioritise financial support for police and army personnel. Narodnaja Hazieta publishes an interview with MP and member of the standing committee on budget and finance of the Belarusian parliament Valier Baradzienia. According to the official, the fast economic growth of previous years is over, Belarus is losing markets and its GDP is falling, leading to a budget deficit.

The authorities will cut expenses, but this will not apply to social commitments such as education and healthcare. Salary growth can be expected in the public sector, but it will vary according to each sphere. Teachers may receive additional income from private tutoring and healthcare workers can offer paid services to citizens, while such possibilities are not open to police and army personnel. The state is therefore obliged to protect them, the MP said.

Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) demonstrates decline in mutual trade. In 2015 trade within the EEU decreased by 25 per cent, writes Sielskaya Gazieta. However, trade within the union has in fact been falling ever since the launch of its predecessor, the Customs Union, in 2011. Stumbling oil prices and sanctions against Russia are only part of the problem. Members of the union continue to put national economic interest above the integration ideal and retain protectionist policies.

In the last year bans on imports of certain categories of goods became standard practice for EEU members. For Belarus this concerns primarily food products, which Russia constantly claims do not meet EEU standards. Moreover, Kazakhstan's accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) further limits Belarus' export possibilities to the EEU.

Belarus plans to completely abolish cross-subsidies to the energy sector by 2018. Today enterprises in fact pay for a large part of the population's energy consumption, Zviazda newspaper reports. Belarusians pay 72 per cent of electricity costs, 55 per cent of gas costs and only 17 per cent of heating costs. These subsidies have been a part of the state's social policy throughout independence and received much criticism from Belarus' international creditors who promote market reforms.

The estates of noblemen of Hrodna region are sold off to investors. The 18th century estate of the Umiastoŭskija noble family located in Iŭje district has been sold at auction to a Jordan businessman for $55,000, Respublika newspaper reports. According to the auction conditions, the investor has promised to restore the buildings to their original form and turn them into a hotel and a restaurant.

The estate until the auction belonged to a local collective farm and is in a dire state. The authorities have no funds for restoration of architectural heritage, and many similar estates are slowly crumble as a result. Twelve estates in Hrodna region acquired new owners in recent years, but some of them are in no hurry to carry out restoration works and the government even plans to take some of the estates back.

Belarus engages in cross-border projects with the EU

Hrodna region actively participates in EU cross-border cooperation projects. The local authorities of Hrodna region have prepared around 50 projects for EU-financed cross border cooperation programmes with Poland-Belarus-Ukraine and Latvia-Lithuania-Belarus, Hrodzienskaja Praŭda reports. The projects mostly concern healthcare, education and culture.

The programmes require partnership from both sides of the border, and half of the projects already have foreign partners. To present the other half for potential partners, the authorities plan to organise a forum in Bialystok. The Poland-Belarus-Ukraine programe for 2016-2020 will allocate about €180m for cross-border cooperation projects.

Belarusians will not have to take Russian language exams to receive work permits for Russia. As Soyuz newspaper reports,the Russian State Duma passed a law exempting Belarusians from the obligation to confirm their command of the Russian language and knowledge of Russian history and law as a requirement for obtaining a residence or work permit. The norm became effective in Russia on 1 January 2015 and concerned all foreign citizens, including Belarusians.

The regulation caused much opposition in Belarus, where Russian is one of the two official languages and in fact dominates all spheres of life. The problem was widely discussed, and Lukashenka personally lobbied on it during his visit to Russia in December, ultimately receiving approval from Putin.

The State Digest 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 refuses to support Russia over Crimea issue at the UN

Efforts of the Belarusian diplomacy at the main part of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly at the end of 2015 brought mixed results. Alexander Lukashenka’s statements during the high-level segments of the session went largely unnoticed.

Belarusian diplomats did rather well on the issues of human trafficking and international cooperation in recovery of the areas affected by Chernobyl. Anxious to maintain good working relations with the IAEA, Belarus even refused to support Russia's protest over the status of Crimea.

But Belarus’ desperate fight against international human rights criticism had no immediate effect. The country's efforts to secure an observer status for the Eurasian Economic Union at the UN failed so far.

Fighting UN human rights procedures

At this session, Belarus came close to declaring an all-out war to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). It has been using all means available to force it into abandoning the practice of special procedures and country-specific resolutions.

Belarus became a target of a country-specific procedure in 2012. Then, the HRC established the mandate of a special rapporteur on Belarus and appointed Miklós Haraszti to this position. Ever since, Belarusian authorities have refused to recognise this mandate and stubbornly ignored Haraszti’s attempts to establish communication with the Belarusian government.

Minsk is no longer eager to cooperate with the HRC's thematic procedures. Michel Forst, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, named Belarus among the states, which failed to respond to his repeated requests for a country visit.

Belarus: a UN body is used for settling political scores

At this session, Belarus strongly defended its “fellows in misery” and voted against the UN resolutions on human rights situation in North Korea, Iran and Syria. The Belarusian delegation maintained that the country-specific mechanisms enabled the “states with the resources to do so” to legitimise their own unilateral measures.

The Belarusian delegation insisted on several occasions that the Human Rights Council was becoming a platform for “settling political scores” and the setting of standards not agreed upon internationally.

This conviction led Belarus to requesting a vote on a resolution on the report of the Human Rights Council. In its vote against the resolution, Belarus was seconded only by Israel, which disagrees with the HRC’s treatment of the issue of Palestinians' rights.

Capitalising on the fight against human trafficking

Belarus successfully introduced a resolution on improving the coordination of efforts against trafficking in persons. The resolution adopted by consensus has decided to convene a high-level meeting on this topic at the 72nd session of the General Assembly in 2017, immediately after the general debate.

Alexander Lukashenka will most likely go to New York on this occasion to score points on his diplomats’ most successful international initiative.

Indeed, this Belarusian undertaking enjoys strong support even from the countries, which criticise Belarus on other issues, such as the United States. The representative of Luxembourg, who spoke on behalf of the EU, welcomed the introduction of the resolution by Belarus, as well as its readiness to take views into account during the negotiation process.

Belarus also succeeded in getting itself re-elected to the UN Commission on International Trade Law for another six-year term beginning 27 June 2016.

Rekindling the topic of Chernobyl

After the Belarusian authorities took a political decision in 2006 to build a nuclear power plant in the country, the Chernobyl disaster moved down on Belarus’ foreign policy agenda.

Nevertheless, Belarus is determined to use the 30th anniversary of this nuclear accident in 2016 to secure further international assistance for the long-term recovery of the affected areas.

On 7 – 10 December, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov visited the UN headquarters. There he met a number of high UN officials to discuss two priority Chernobyl-related events.

On 26 April 2016, the General Assembly will held a special commemorative meeting, initiated in 2013 jointly by Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, in observance of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe.

More importantly, in April 2016, Belarus will host a high-level international conference dedicated to the forthcoming anniversary. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other high officials may come to Minsk to attend this event.

The Belarusian authorities expect the conference to help shaping the new strategic plan on Chernobyl issues for the period after 2016, when the current policy framework will expire.

Belarus fails to support Russia in its fight on Crimea issue

Anxious to maintain good relations with the UN agency involved in the post-Chernobyl assistance, Belarus even refused to support Russia in its demarche against the report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by the General Assembly. Russia requested a vote on the resolution, which was always adopted by consensus, because the report of the IAEA spoke of Crimea as “occupied territory”.

Russia and nine other countries abstained during the voting. However, Belarus refused to join them. A representative of Russia’s closest ally stated after the vote that his country had endorsed the resolution since it supported the IAEA’s activities and its annual report.

Seeking international recognition of the Eurasian Integration

The Belarusian diplomacy tried hard to play the card of the country’s presidency in the newly-born Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in 2015 to strengthen Belarus’ international status. The foreign ministry regarded the acquisition by the EAEU of the observer status in the UN General Assembly as a major point in this strategy. Getting the status was also one of Belarus' declared priorities for the 70th session.

This initiative, which Belarus’ delegation tabled at the UN on 19 October, went astray from the start, when Georgia and Azerbaijan opposed it. The two countries used this opportunity to remind the fellow UN member states about their grievances in the bilateral relations with Russia and Armenia respectively.

EAEU's observer status falls a prey to bilateral grievances of ex-USSR countries

The consultations on the EAEU observer status, which went on an almost daily basis, failed to forge a consensus. On 20 November, Azerbaijan reiterated its opposition to this decision noting that its objection was in regards to the presence of Armenia as member. Two countries are at odds over the status of Nagorno-Karabach.

The delegation of Turkey backed up Azerbaijan’s position saying that, as the EAEU’s founding document was long and had many addenda and protocols, Turkey required more time to examine it.

As the delegation of Belarus was loath to initiate a vote on the draft resolution, the Legal Committee agreed to defer a decision on the request for the observer status to the next UNGA session. Belarus thus failed to secure this status for the EAEU during its presidency in the organisation.

The 70th UNGA session clearly demonstrated that, in order to succeed in multilateral diplomacy, Belarus needs to move further away from the Russian world and embrace constructive cooperation with Western democracies.




Belarus and the Declining Eurasian Economic Union

The first year of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has highlighted how differently Russia and Belarus see this integration project.

While Russia tries to create something resembling for the external audience the European Union and for the internal audience Soviet Union, Belarus has failed to gain additional benefits from the project. Reduction of a large number of trade tariff exemptions has been slow and Belarus’ trade within members of the EEU fell by a third.

On 24 November, the Russian newspaper Kommersant wrote that the Eurasian Economic Union may soon abolish duty-free export of cars produced on the territory of the EEU. This will hit Belarus the most and may undermine the whole idea of the existing assembly lines of Geely, Peugeot and Citroen cars in the country.

Union for Russia’s Ambitions?

The first year of the Eurasian Economic Union showed that Russia wanted to make the project look like the European Union. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan became members alongside Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. The EEU has signed a mutual free trade agreement with Vietanam, and according to Putin’s article published on 17 November on the web site of Chinese news agency Xinhua, currently about 40 countries are considering having an FTA with the Eurasian Economic Union.

Some ideas look EU-inspired, such as the desire to abolish roaming within the EEU and working on a common identity. At the beginning of the year, the Speaker of the Higher Chamber of Russia’s Parliament, Valentina Matvienko highlighted the need to "strengthen information work to grip the masses with Eurasian ideas."

But it seems that only Russia thinks about the Union in this way. Belarus looks at it differently.

So Little of the Economy and So Much of Politics

The first year of the Eurasian Economic Union brought poor economic results for Belarus. Moreover, falling oil prices and declining Russian economy has hit the integration project hard.

In the first six months of 2015 the trade between Belarus and other EEU countries was $2.5 billion less than in the first half of 2014. This means that Belarusian trade with the Eurasian Economic Union dropped by a third this year. According to data of the Eurasian Economic Commission, only Belarus and Armenia experienced a similar decline.

The year 2015 failed to bring trade liberalisation. This may sound weird for Belarus, as the country usually sticks to protectionist policies, but Belarus actively promotes the removal of restrictions on trade between EEU member countries.

Belarus tries to reach out to important markets such as gas and oil. However Russia plans to liberalise them at last, but only in 2025. This will allow other countries' companies to buy Russian resources under the same conditions as Russian companies.

During 2015, it seems all Belarusian top officials advocated the reduction of restrictions. On 12 July, Uladzimir Makei, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, complained that "the EEU should not be a toy" hinting that the Kremlin sees the union this way. According to Andrei Kabiakou, the Prime Minister of Belarus, the list of exemptions in mutual trade began to increase in February 2015.

The greatest problem of the Eurasian Economic Union has little to do with the economy, at least in terms of what people usually understand as the economy. Trade wars, despite previous agreements, have continued. The Eurasian Economic Union began its life against the background of the Belarus-Russia food war. Throughout the year, the conflict flared up when Russia accused Belarus of re-exporting Western products. Therefore Russia banned the import of goods and reinstalled customs checks at the Belarusian-Russian border.

Continued trade wars indicate that the Kremlin perceives the EEU as a political project. Moreover, now almost every issue has become politicised.

On 24 November, the Russian newspaper Kommersant published an article according to which Kazakhstan and Russia propose to remove preferences for foreign car manufacturers who assemble cars in the Eurasian Economic Union. If that happens, foreign companies could stop the assembly of Geely, Peugeot and Citroen in Belarus. This summer Belarus signed a contract with General Motors, which could also be reviewed if the EEU cancels the free zone benefits.

In December, the heads of the Eurasian Economic Union may make a decision on removing the trade preferences. It seems that all countries except Belarus support this move.

The Two Inertias of Eurasian Integration

Despite the fact that Belarus in many respects appears no closer to the other countries of the EEU this year, the Eurasian Economic Commission, the technical body of the Union, made a few steps forward in integration. In September, the Commission announced that it had adopted a number of agreements on the energy, agricultural and infrastructure sectors. The next year the liberalisation of the drug market should occur, and in 2017 there will be a common foreign exchange market.

However, political inertia remains dominant, which causes disintegration. Russia perceives the EEU as a political project promoting their own hegemony. Therefore many other countries fear Eurasian integration.

Moreover, some countries remain reluctant to see the Eurasian Economic Union as only an integration project in itself. On 24 November, Kazakhstan completed the ratification of documents related to accession to the World Trade Organisation. A significant portion of tariffs agreed between Kazakhstan and the WTO appeared lower than those adopted in the EEU.

Moreover, the economic decline, particularly in Russia, undermines incentives of countries to integrate further. Under such conditions the first year of Belarus membership in the Eurasian Economic Union has shown rather poor results. Eurasian integration remains more about hype than substance.




Belarusian Satellite, Multiple Rocket Launchers, Nuclear Plant – State Press Digest

Belarus leaders develop closer defence industry cooperation with China and do not want a Russian airbase on their territory.

Although Belarus has no alternative to integration with Russia in the foresee​able future, the two countries different economic models and the ideas vacuum in Eurasian integration make integration with Russia a challenging undertaking. In 2017 Belarus will launch a satellite and in 2018 the first block of a nuclear power plant will start operating near the Lithuanian border.

Refugees from Syria, Ukraine and other countries seek shelter in Belarus. The disabled have difficulties with accessing the entertainment places. All of this and more in this edition of State Press Digest.

Lukashenka inspects the production of multiple rocket launchers. Belarus Segodnia highlights the visit of Lukashenka to the defence industry plant in Dziaržynsk to check the development of the Palanez launcher. Belarusian specialists claim this is one of the most modern and powerful rocket systems in the world. Moreover, Belarus soon hopes to start the autonomous production of rocket engines. Belarus has been developing Palanez with Chinese assistance after Russia refused to transfer to Belarus a similar defence system.

Now, as Russia is pushing for an airbase in Belarus, Lukashenka tries to find more arguments to impede this initiative: “We have an exclusive defensive strategy, and it means that it should be able to cause unacceptable losses to the enemy. What is an airbase today? The jets will be shot down at the very beginning of the conflict. But this (Palanez) is a supermodern machine”, Lukashenka said during the visit.

Union of Belarus and Russia has no alternative. Soyuz newspaper gives an interview with Moscow-based political scientist of Belarusian origin Kiryl Koktyš on the future of Belarusian and Russia integration. Although the post-Soviet states have developed a number of integration projects like the CIS and the Eurasian Economic Union, the Union State of Belarus and Russia remains the most successful project in the social sphere. It gives both state's citizens equal rights in property, education and healthcare.

However, the expert notes that the economic models of Belarus and Russia, state capitalism and liberal capitalism respectively, are barely compatible for deeper integration. The EEU, initially a liberal economic model, cannot currently be implemented because of Western sanctions. It needs state protection and will likely be based on Belarusian experience of economic management in future. Yet at the moment a union economic ideology is absent.

Speaking of the removal of sanctions from Belarus​'s political leadership, Kiryl Koktyš opined that it will not bring a close association between Belarus and the EU. Europe and the West in general are not ready to pay for loss of values, as the Ukrainian case demonstrated perfectly. So Belarus will remain in Russian orbit without any major shifts.

Nuclear power plant to start in 2018. Belarus Magazine publishes a report from the construction site of the nuclear power plant near Astraviec town on the border with Lithuania. Currently around 4000 workers are involved in the construction and next year 8000 will be working there. The first power block of the plant will be launched in 2018. The project proposes a threefold growth of the town's population to 35,000 until 2020.

Thanks to the nuclear plant Belarus will reduce its gas consumption by 5 bn cubic metres annually, and thus will strengthen energy independence. However, state journalists always forget to mention that the plant is built using Russian technologies and will generate energy from Russian uranium, so dependence will continue.

Belarus will launch its spacecraft in 2017. Soyuz newspaper writes on the meeting of CIS representatives on space cooperation which took place in Minsk. Currently, Belarusian academics in cooperation with Russian corporation Roskosmos are developing a satellite. It will become the first model of the Belarus-Russia space group. It is designed to pick up the sounds of earth from a distance and is expected to be launched in 2017. Roskosmos head Igor Komarov emphasised that the Belarusian hitech plants Integral and Peleng remain strategic suppliers of Russian space industry.

Disabled people cannot enter nightclubs in Belarus. Belarus Segodnya writes about the problems of disabled people who have restricted access to places of entertainment. The newspaper provides a number of life stories of people who could not get into night clubs. The security teams of the clubs blamed suggest strange reasons for not admitting the potential disabled clients, saying that they are “unable to provide sufficient safety to the disabled” or “ they look unwell”. Human rights activist Siarhei Drazdoŭski says that ethics of treating the disabled is unknown among most public and private actors in Belarus.

Homiel centre of adaptation and rehabilitation accepts refugees. Belarus Magazine tells the stories of families from various countries who chose Belarus as a refuge to escape conflicts in their homelands. Homiel region bordering Ukraine is usually the first destination for Ukrainians from the Donbas. The Belarusian authorities usually offer them work in agriculture where Belarus has a drastic shortage of workers. Meanwhile, Belarus also accepted 14 Syrians and around 100 more applied for refuge. According to the joint project with the United Nations, the government provides them with new flats, monthly financial help and adaptation services.

Top businessman and senator from Hrodna arrested. Vecherniy Grodno newspaper writes about the arrest of one of the biggest businessmen from Hrodna​, Andrej Paŭloŭski. According to the KGB he evaded taxes of up to $8,2m in recent years. With companies from 8 other countries he organised a grey scheme of import and selling agricultural products. Andrej Paŭloŭski was the second most influential businessman in Hrodna region and also a member of the Council of Republic, the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament, since 2012. During the last year and a half he became the third senator to be deprived of parliamentary privilege on the grounds of criminal persecution.

The State Digest 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.