Lukashenka meets oppositional editor, neutral coverage of protests, Russian pressure – Belarus state press digest

A palpable liberalisation is evident in the Belarusian state press with regard to politics and the economy in a context of threatening moves from Russia.

A major official newspaper writes about an opposition-led protest in a neutral tone for the first time in decades. Lukashenka meets with the chief editor of the oppositional newspaper Narodnaja Volia.

Russia instals a border with Belarus after 20 years of free movement. Belarusian food producers see 'irreversible losses' because of Russia’s restrictions.

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

Politics and security

Mass protests in Minsk call for abolition of the 'parasite tax'. An unsanctioned protest by Belarusians demanding that Decree No. 3 be abolished was held in Minsk, writes Belarus Segodnia. Participants gathered on Kastryčnickaja Square and marched along Independence Avenue to the headquarters of the Tax Ministry, where they made their demands known to the authorities. The march ended with the burning of tax notices. No incidents took place during the protest.

Belarus Segodnia republished this news from the state-funded Belta news agency, making the story the first time in decades that a major official newspaper writes about an opposition-led protest in a neutral tone. Other official publications stayed silent about both the protests in Minsk and the ones which followed in the regions two days later.

Lukashenka meets with chief editor of oppositional newspaper Narodnaja Volia. An hour and a half long tete-a-tete took place in the Palace of Independence in Minsk, reports Belarus Segodnia. Iosif Siaredzič, chief editor of Narodnaja Volia, asked Lukashenka for a personal audience during a recent 'Big talk with the president'; Lukashenka replied positively and the meeting occurred shortly thereafter. Ahead of the talk, Lukashenka stated that he was ready to discuss any issue but counted on unbiased coverage of the talk in the media.

Siaredzič chose not to reveal the details of the talk. However, he did explain that he was satisfied, as the talk appeared to be open and sincere. 'The president is worried about the developments in Belarus. Today we should all think of how to prevent any disasters from shattering our country,” Siaredzič said.

Russia reinstates border with Belarus after 20 years of free movement. On 7 February, FSB-introduced regulations regarding the Belarusian-Russian border zone came into effect, writes Narodnaja Hazieta. Over the past 20 years, citizens of Belarus and Russia have been able to visit each other without border checks. However, the risk of terrorism and the growth of migration have pushed Russia to re-establish the border, according to Russian officials. The Russian side regularly detained persons banned from entering the country on the border with Belarus.

Citizens of Belarus will only need a valid passport to enter Russia. The border zone now has a special status, and Belarusians who wander into Russian territory while searching for mushrooms, which often happens, could be detained and asked to show their documents. Meanwhile, citizens of Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic countries, and Poland, who frequently enter Russia via Belarus, will have to change their routes, as they can now only enter via international checkpoints in Latvia, Ukraine, or through airports.

Economy

The state to reduce control over business. The government is drafting a law which will make doing business in Belarus easier, Respublika informs. This move followed Lukashenka's demand that the authorities stop endless inspections of small and medium businesses. 'The focus should be on the outcome, not on the inspection as such. If the company is working and paying taxes, leave the people alone, let them do business,' the Belarusian leader said.

Newly opened companies will enjoy the absence of any inspections during a period of five years. Currently, the excessive number of procedures and requirements from the state remain one of the major obstacles hampering the development of entrepreneurship. While some people do not even dare to start their own business, others work illegal to avoid state control and over-regulation.

Belarusian food producers see 'irreversible losses' because of Russian restrictions. Belarusian exports are being banned as relations with the Russian food control agency rapidly deteriorate, reports Sielskaja Hazieta. In January, the agency labelled 40 food items 'suspicious', and recently introduced additional restrictions aiming to mitigate the 'risk of African swine fever'. Russia claims that it has detected swine fever on the border with Belarus several times in 2014-2017, while inside Russia 250,000 pigs have been killed because of a pandemic in 2016.

Belarusian experts claim that the quality of local meat and dairy fully meet Customs Union standards. Belarusian food exports to Russia amounted to $2bn in 2016, going mainly to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Some foodstuffs bring even more profit than oil production exports. Without the Russian market, however, Belarusian producers face 'huge and irreversible losses'.

Belarus starts production of 3D printers. Respublika writes that the technology park of the Belarusian National Technical University has started production of 3D printers to be used for industrial and food purposes. The technopark plans to produce 50 printers a day by 2018. The producers plan to instal printers in most Belarusian plants as well as schools. One Belarusian printer now costs around $1,000. Future plans include the creation of an 8-metre tall 3D printer for constructing buildings. The university is currently developing concrete that can be used for this purpose.

Society

Discussion surrounding the International Congress of Belarusian Studies emerges in a national newspaper. Belarus Segodnia publishes a letter from Andrej Kazakievič, director of the Political Sphere Institute and head of the organising committee of the International Congress of Belarusian Studies. Kazakievič's letter was response to an article by the newspaper's columnist Andrej Mukavozčyk, who accused the Congress of leeching funds from the EU and attempting to influence public opinion in the interest of foreign parties.

Kazakievič replied that the Congress is a unique event where researchers from Belarus and all over the world present a diversity of opinions without censorship. Inside Belarus, dozens of conferences of state institutions with participation of top officials are also held annually with the support of Western donors. In this regard, the Congress is hardly different from any other international conference, including official Belarusian ones, which also seek foreign financing.

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.




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.