2018 EaP Summit, October Economic Forum, limits to Belarus’s sovereignty – digest of Belarusian analytics

Jury Drakachrust ponders upon reasons and consequences of the invitation of Aliaksandr Lukashenka to attend the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on 24 November, while Dzianis Mieljancoŭ analyses benefits of the Summit for Lukashenka.

Belarus Security Blog argues that Belarus is working hard to establish itself as an independent actor in regional security matters, despite sсepticism from the West and Ukraine.

IPM Research Centre assures that despite the fact that the authorities ceased negotiations with the IMF, they did not stop the reforms.

Belarus in Focus experts observe that before the local election campaign, the Belarusian authorities are becoming more sensitive to local civic initiatives and opinions of the expert community about the information policy and national security issues.

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

2018 EaP Summit

Lukashenka Receives an Invitation to Brussels – Grigory Ioffe analyses the media reaction to the fact that Brussels extended an invitation to Alexander Lukashenka to participate in the 25 November summit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP). The experts believe that in any case, there is a chance the EU initiative may start a new chapter in Europe’s relationship with Belarus.

 Lukashenka, For the First Time, Formally Invited to the EaP Summit – Sources report, that the EU extended a formal invitation to Aliaksandr Lukashenka to attend the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on 24 November. Jury Drakachrust ponders upon reasons and consequences of the invitation, while Dzianis Mieljancoŭ analyses benefits of the Summit for Lukashenka. TUT.by interviews experts to identify scenarios of Lukashenka’s participation in Brussels.

Minsk Dialogue: Prospects of EaP Ahead of the Brussels Summit – Minsk Dialogue presents a report based on an expert discussion before the Future of Eastern Partnership conference that took place on 7 September 2017. The report provides an overview of the history of EaP, analyses positions of key stakeholders and provides for scenarios of EaP future and its meaning for Belarus.

Security

Minsk Is Trying to Establish Itself as an Equal Subject in Security Matters – Belarus Security Blog argues that Belarus is working hard to establish itself as an independent actor in regional security matters, despite scepticism from the West and Ukraine. Strengthening of security-related ties with China is deemed to be evidence of that.

Картинки по запросу парад независимости минск 2017

Photo: tut.by

Zapad 2017: Did Belarus Lose the Information War? – Dzianis Mieljancoŭ, Minsk Dialogue, analyses the materials of the Western media and debunks the assertion of some Belarusian analysts and journalists about the ‘lost information war’. In particular, a statement that Belarus’ participation in joint military exercises with Russia had a negative impact on the international image of Belarus is not supported by the facts.

What Are the Limits to Belarus’s Sovereignty? – Grigory Ioffe sums up a wide-ranging debate about the nature and geopolitical realities of Belarusian statehood and independence inspired by the joint Russian-Belarusian Zapad 2017 war games. The analyst also mentions two facts – the Catholic conference in Minsk and registration of the Albaruthenia University office – that seemingly extend the limits of Belarus’s sovereignty.

Economy

“Because I Decided So.” Rules Underlying the Decisions in the Belarusian Economy – Kiryl Rudy, former assistant to the president for Economic Affairs, explains what social characteristics can change the rules of behavior in the economy, form a community, a risk appetite, long-term planning, switch on rational laws and lead the economy to a global highway of ‘one hundred years growth’. The article is timed to KEF 2017.

Towards the ‘Minsk Consensus’: Some Personal Reflections – Ben Slay, UNDP senior advisor, considers what the ‘Minsk Consensus’ is (or might be), and how it may be of broader use. Namely, rather than laying claims to overarching development paradigms or one-size-fits-all solutions, Belarus’s experience points to the need for pragmatic combinations of private- and public-sector governance reforms.

Unexpected Growth, Unsold Reforms and Optimism in Belarusian – Aliaksandr Čubryk, IPM Research Centre, suggests some statements on the eve of the Kastryčnicki/October Economic Forum, KEF 2017, which was held on 2-3 November in Minsk. The expert, in particular, assures that despite the fact that the authorities ceased negotiations with the IMF, they did not stop the reforms.

Belarusian Economic Review, Q2 2017 – Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Centre (BEROC) rolls out fresh quarterly economic review. In particular, consumption continues to grow; import surpasses export; monetary policy stimulates; real exchange rate reached 5-year minimum; real salaries slowly grow while available income continues to shrink.

Wargaming workers in Minsk. Photo: New York Times

How Europe’s Last Dictatorship Became a Tech Hub – Ivan Nechepurenko, The New York Times, studies the growing trend of turning Belarus into a tech hub. More than 30,000 tech specialists now work in Minsk, many of them creating mobile apps that are used by more than a billion people in 193 countries. Lukashenka began to believe that the tech industry could become a magic wand to help him end the country’s chronic dependency on Russia.

Civil society

Andrej Jahoraŭ: Belarus Leads an Authoritarian Revenge in the Region – There is a clear crisis of democracy, while human rights in Belarus are in a blockade. At the same time, the European-Belarusian relations are now enveloped in a continuous mythology, according to the director of the Centre for European Transformation, Andrej Jahoraŭ. The analyst is confident that in its current state the civil society cannot influence the EU policy.

Civil Society Has Bearing On Agenda of Belarusian Authorities – Belarus in Focus considers a case of a public campaign that has raised the attention to the situation around the death of a conscript soldier in the army. The experts conclude that civic initiatives, through social networks and the Internet, are beginning to outstrip state ideologists with traditional media and have a greater impact on public opinion.

Impact of Civic Initiatives on Local Agendas and Cultural Information Policy Has Increased – Belarus in Focus experts observe that before the local election campaign, the Belarusian authorities are becoming more sensitive to local civic initiatives and opinions of the expert community about the information policy and national security issues. Although, the authorities’ decisions are likely to remain half-hearted and criticised by civil society representatives.

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.




Forsaking Private Korzhych: how hazing kills Belarusian soldiers

On 3 October 2017, a soldier from a military base located in Pechy, a town northeast of Minsk, died. The day after, fellow servicemen found Aleksandr Korzhych, a 21-year-old Belarusian, lynched in a noose made from trouser material. His wrists were tied with shoelaces and a sleeveless shirt covered his head and face. The public, along with Korzhych’s parents, believe Korzhych had been the victim of bullying and murder.

In the days following the discovery of the soldier’s body, more than 10 thousand Belarusians signed a petition calling for an official investigation and for the dismissal of the Minister of Defence, Andrei Raukou.

Public solidarity has forced the authorities, who initially insisted the soldier’s death had been suicide, to change their position on the issue. They are now promising a thorough investigation.

These unhappy events have demonstrated, once again, Belarusian authorities seem only respond to pressure. However, they still try to maintain a balance between displays of power and attempts to soothe public opinion.

What happened in Pechy?

On 4 October, military personnel found Korzhych’s body in the basement of an army base in the town of Pechy. The first investigative committee decided the cause of death was suicide by hanging. Korzhych’s parents claim their son’s body was heavily bruised and showed signs of beatings.

Alexandr Korzhych. Source: svaboda.org

Aleksandr’s parents believed their son was murdered. They sent photos of their son’s body to Radio Liberty, where traces of trauma and violence were clearly visible.

It emerged that the soldier’s whereabouts from 26 September to 3 October were unknown. These facts, among others,  prompted Aleksandr’s parents to demand a fair investigation.

Some facts indicate that Korzhych became the victim of extortion. Aleksandr himself admitted to his parents he had to pay €7 a-day to stop other soldiers from beating and bullying him.

Along with the money, which he asked his parents to send, his expensive phone also disappeared. Korzhych complained the hazing and extortion originated from the base’s commanding officers. Evidence has recently emerged that an officer at the base had withdrawn money from Korzhych’s bank card.

A strong public reaction to hazing

As more details of Korzhych’s death came to light, many citizens actively expressed their outrage. More than 10 thousand signatures were collected calling for the resignation of Defence Minister Andrei Raukou. Shortly after, the webpage collecting the signatures was shutdown at the request of the Defence Ministry. The petition, officials complained, was an attempt to discredit the Ministry of Defence.

The Defence Ministry then took the time to send letters to those who had signed the petition, asking them to confirm whether they had, indeed, signed it. On 26 October, The ministry issued an official statement in reaction to numerous electronic appeals, while at the same time ignoring the demands for Raukou’s resignation.

Ivan Shyla during his military service. Source: nn.by

Some well-known young Belarusians, such as Frantsishak Viachorka and Ivan Shyla, shared their military service experiences on their Facebook pages.

Despite the buzz around the death of Korzhych, his ordeal does not appear to be the first of its kind. In March, Private Arciom Baysciuk apparently committed suicide after complaining to his family of extreme hazing and bullying. An investigation into his death has produced few results.

Baysciuk’s parents suspect their son’s death was closely linked to hazing. Human rights activists believe a culture of hazing remains the most negative aspect of the Belarusian military.

The authorities remain reluctant to take real responsibility

At first, the authorities were slow to react. On 12 October, the Defence Ministry promised an investigation into the death of Korzhych and punishment for the perpetrators. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka gave his condolences to Korzhych’s family ten days after the soldier’s death. So far, five officers, including the army base’s head, have been suspended. In addition, the investigative committee has initiated eight criminal cases against sergeants at the base. After this slew of indictments, the authorities’ response seems somewhat overzealous.

However, the Defence Ministry’s and investigative committee’s reactions are arguably defensive in nature. On 5 October, they called the soldier’s untimely death “a suicide.” As more facts emerged and the public became incredulous, the cause of death switched to acts of hazing and bullying. Indeed, the government fired several high-ranking officials at the military base without any investigation. By 25 October, as the public’s attention appeared to be starting to shift, the investigative committee stated that besides the lacerations from the noose, Korzhych’s bruises appeared after his death. This appears to be a stratagem to calm the public, rather than an effort to solve a case. 

Photo by Siarhei Hudzilin who served in Barysau. Source: nn.by

Belarusian authorities tend to respond to public concern when it touches upon sensitive issues, especially if it involves many people connected to the state. For example, when the Kurapaty campaign was accompanied by protests and online-petitions, it pushed the authorities to cancel the construction project atop the historical site. And again, it was the protests of angry Belarusians that caused the suspension of the hated unemployment tax.

While the authorities may be willing to compromise on socio-economic issues, they continue to violate the rights citizens in other areas. Recently, authorities have put pressure on anarchists.

On 31 October 2017, the KGB, Belarus’s national intelligence agency, arrested activist Mikalai Statkevich for the sixth time this year. His arrest comes a week after his participation in street protests against Belarusian social and economic policies. At the demonstrations, the hazing of Belarusian soldiers became one of the central issues raised. It appears involvement in politics is still the most arrestable offence for a Belarusian citizen.

What kind of future for the Belarusian army?

Military service remains compulsory for young Belarusians. However, because of the frequent cases of physical and psychological abuse, many young men shun military service. The case of Private Korzhych has added resonance to this point.

Circumstances around Korzhych’s death have forced both the Belarusian president and the Defence Ministry to react. However, the authorities’ tradition of offering a few conciliatory words are not enough this time around. Belarusian human rights groups, the media, and local activists are keeping the public’s attention focused on the issue.

Even under an authoritarian regime, the government still finds it necessary to respond to the appeals of more than 10 thousand Belarusians.

Officials have already taken a few steps to respond to public concerns about hazing, for example reopening the investigation and firing army commanders. However, this merely appears to be an attempt to deflect public anger and attention away from the root causes and existing problems surrounding arm hazings. A substantive change to the conditions of military service would likely demand constant pressure from civil society, until the authorities feel pressure to react.




Hazing in the Belarusian army

On 31 March, Arciom Basciuk, a soldier in the Belarusian army, committed suicide because of hazing. Less than a year earlier, another soldier shot himself during a military exercise for the same reason. Psychological pressure and the hierarchical structure of the Belarusian military means that runaways are commonplace, as are complaints, lawsuits, and sometimes even suicides.

If official statistics are to be believed, fewer and fewer soldiers have been filing complaints about obligatory military duty since 1994. However, human rights activists claim that this data has been falsified, and hazing remains an important issue in their campaigns. Compulsory military duty has become an instrument of the state to neutralise political activists. In order to combat hazing, the state must first admit there is a problem and make concerted efforts to monitor and reform the military system.

The Tradition of Hazing

Hazing, meaning a violation of soldiers' rights by other soldiers, is a widespread phenomenon in many Post-Soviet militaries. Although military duty is supposed to be served on equal terms for every soldier, hierarchies within its internal structure persist. These hierarchies comprise three levels: ‘dziady’ (grandpas), ‘čarpaki'’ (dippers), and 'slany' (elephants). The longer a soldier serves, the further he rises in the system, eventually becoming a ‘dzied’ (grandpa).

In Belarus, hazing remains pervasive. According to an interview with a soldier in the independent newspaper Nasha Niva in early April, those lower down in the hierarchy are expected to serve 'their superiors' by buying them food or drinks. Additionally, rookies have few rights when it comes to services such as mobile calls. Reportedly, those higher up receive benefits such as longer travels home from the army administration, which keeps silent about the rampant inequality.

Statistics suggest that hazing has become less of a problem since 1994: in 2014 the Ministry of Defence concluded that hazing had diminished from 11 cases per 1,000 soldiers in 1994 to 1.6 in 2014. Nevertheless, official statistics consistently ignore instances of suicide and runaways, only mentioning occasional violations of army statutes, reports Idea. According to human rights centre Viasna, hazing remains the most serious problem in the Belarusian army.

Hazing in Belarusian Army

Hazing often has severe repercussions on soldiers' mental and physical health. One example is that of Andrei Andryjanau, who was completely healthy when he started his military service in 2015. However, after three months, doctors diagnosed him with cancer and Andryjanau died several months later. His mother insists that her son's death was caused by hazing.

In order to avoid hazing, many soldiers resort to running away from military facilities illegally. One such case occurred in February of this year, when two friends from Brest Region left their post without permission. After hiding from the administration, they finally arrived home, claiming they were forced to escape because of violence and money extortion by ‘dziady’. Similar instances are reported every year.

The most serious hazing practises can lead to death. In 2008, one Valery Shkuta began his military service near the town of Zaslaul; less than a year later he was beaten to death. The army administration, however, initially called it ‘an accident’. Nevertheless, in December 2009, eight former soldiers received prison sentences for the lethal beating of the young man. The investigation revealed that Shkuta was beaten because he refused to bring tools to soldiers higher up on the pecking order.

Suicides because of hazing happen rarely but are nonetheless systematic. Artsiom Bastsiuk bid his final farewell to his parents on 30 March and committed a suicide a day later. According to his parents, the hazing he experienced while serving in Barysau had involved severe psychological pressure and blackmail. Before his suicide, Bastsiuk informed his parents that higher-ups pushed rookies to buy or bring them food and do hundreds of push-ups a night. The Ministry of Defence refuses to comment on the instance, and the investigative committee has failed to initiate a case.

Is There a Way to Stop Hazing?

Some soldiers attempt to combat hazing by filing lawsuits. The best known example of this was in 2013, when 20-year old Akim Benesh accused a fellow soldier of assault. Although the case started out as a ‘fight against hazing’, it ended with a criminal case against Benesh himself. The court eventually decided to drop the case, and the investigative committee stopped its investigating and did not attempt to punish the offender.

Human rights defenders campaign actively against hazing and compulsory military duty. In 2016, the human-rights centre Viasna initiated a campaign in Homiel called ‘Stop arbitrariness in the army – protest against hazing!’. The campaign's messages mainly related to the authorities' turning a blind eye to hazing. Sadly, the campaign activists were unable to effect much change as they could not persuade the government to face facts.

The army has also become a political instrument to prevent activism. In 2012, a Swedish advertising company dropped teddy bears on Belarusian territory from an airplane with slogans demanding greater freedom of speech in Belarus. Later, Belarusian photographer and activist Anton Suryapin published photos of the incident. The KGB detained him and searched his apartment.

After his release ten days later, Suryapin was conscripted in the army. Many political activists continue to receive letters of conscription and lose access to political or civic life. The authorities employed a similar strategy when they conscripted youth activist Francišak Viačorka, who had previously received an exemption from military duty.

Hazing is also characteristic of neighbouring countries. For instance, in 2016 Ukrainian courts presided over 49 suits related to hazing. Meanwhile, the Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu reported that in 2016 hazing had decreased by 34%. However, in comparison with Russia and Ukraine, Belarusian hazing garners much less attention.

In Ukraine, human-rights activists created a 'Committee of Soldiers' Mothers' to monitor and report violations of soldiers' rights. Similarly, the Russian 'Union of Soldiers' Mothers' is highly active and boasts many regional offices. In January 2016, the union also unveiled a mobile app for victims of hazing. Unfortunately, there are no similarly well-organised groups defending soldiers' rights in Belarus.

Although hazing practises in Belarus have been on the decrease, the phenomenon continues to have serious repercussions. Soldiers still resort to bullying and follow hazing traditions. Nevertheless, authorities tend to cover up cases of hazing and rarely report instances.

To overcome hazing, the Belarusian army is in dire need of reforms aimed at making military structures more transparent. An important step would be the creation of a military police force or monitoring agency to address violations of soldiers' rights.