Referendum rejected, black market for alcohol, Lukashenka plants corn – Belarus state press digest
Lukashenka rejected plans for a constitutional referendum. The Operational and Analytical Centre head gives their first ever interview. Lukashenka rode a tractor to plant corn with Moldova’s president Igor Dodon.
Counterfeit alcohol from Russia floods the Belarusian black market. Belarusian exports remains concentrated in very few markets and need diversification. The visa-free regime in Hrodna attracts Poles and Lithuanians.
All this in the latest edition of the Belarus state press digest.
Foreign policy and domestic politics
Lukashenka rejected plans for a constitutional referendum. On 24 April, Alexander Lukashenka delivered his annual state of the nation address to the Belarusian people and the parliament, reports Belarus Segodnia. During the one-and-a-half-hour speech, he discussed a variety of issues, including the rumours about planned changes to the constitution. “If someone thinks that we will change the constitution, and thus create the conditions for a Maidan here, [then they should know that] this will not happen.” The president claimed that the Belarusian opposition does not want to take power because it does not know what to do with it.
However, he also said that he can safely transfer certain presidential powers to other governmental bodies because the system functions well. Lukashenka admitted that Belarus currently fails to use its geographical potential in terms of logistics: people prefer to fly from Kiev, Vilnius, or anywhere other than Belarus. He also confirmed government intentions to establish a special ministry for information technologies soon. “By 2020 Belarus should appear to the world as attractive, comfortable and progressive,” the Belarusian president demanded.
Lukashenka and Moldovan president Igor Dodon rode tractors and planted corn. On 18-19 April, Lukashenka visited Moldova, reports Zviazda. The presidents of Belarus and Moldova attended an exhibition of modern Belarusian agricultural machinery at the Institute of Plant Industry, discussed developing cooperation in this field and then planted a corn field, with the presidents driving their own tractors. Igor Dodon said that most of the wines produced in Moldova go to Belarus.
Given the high popularity of Moldovan wine, Dodon promised to teach Lukashenka how to grow grapes. During the visit, the Government of Belarus and the Moldova-Agroindbank (a commerical bank) signed an agreement on the lending terms for the purchase of Belarusian goods. Moldova’s prime minister, Pavel Filip, remarked that jointly-produced Moldovan-Belarusian trolleybuses will be exported to the EU without customs duties and therefore suggest a promising area for further cooperation.
The head of the Operational and Analytical Centre (OAC) gave his first interview ever. On the special service’s 10th anniversary, its head Andrej Paŭliučenka furnished Belarus Segodnia with details of work at the centre, created to ensure the protection of information and the development of internet technologies. Paŭliučenka characterised early attacks on Belarusian information systems as disorganised and spontaneous. In recent years, however, hacker teams seem to have one or more coordination centres. These groups try to hack into Belarusian defence systems with geopolitical or mercantile goals.
Turning to internal threats, corruption remains the most serious issue and the OAC particularly deals with combating corruption at the highest levels of power. Paŭliučenka also said that the OAC does not shut down websites as many think. It provides for the stable and reliable operation of networks and databases; the OAC serves as engineer and architect of the national segment of the Internet.
Counterfeit alcohol from Russia dominates the Belarusian black market. Narodnaja Hazieta investigated the black market for alcohol in Belarus. Black marker dealers sell half a litre of vodka for 1 euro online, while in the stores the same volume costs 3 euros. Five-litre cans of so-called “confectionery brandy” are offered for 12 euros. According to the Central Department for Combating Economic Crime, more than 95% of illegal alcohol products entering Belarus come from Russia. Indeed, large criminal groups run a highly profitable business.
The influx of counterfeit alcohol has even made the traditional moonshine industry less attractive among the population. While in 2011 the police confiscated 111,400 decalitres of moonshine, in 2015 it took away only 69,200 decalitres. Counterfeit alcohol is typically of poor quality and often causes poisoning. According to information provided by the Minsk Regional Department of Internal Affairs, during the first 3 months of 2018 in the Minsk region alone, 61 people died from the consumption of ethyl alcohol or other alcoholic surrogates.
Belarusian exports remain concentrated on a few markets and needs diversification. In 2017 and early 2018, Belarusian exports saw stable growth for the first time since 2012, according to Zviazda. A favourable situation in the raw materials market and in the markets of Belarus’s major trading partners contributed to this growth. However, geographical diversification for export goods remains lower than the government expects. In January – February 2018, five national markets accounted for almost 71% of Belarusian exports.
However, the share exports to Russia saw a positive trend. In January – February it amounted to 38.2% compared to 45% over the same period last year. Speaking about commodity diversification and the example of exports to the European Union, Prime Minister Andrej Kabiakoŭ noted that Belarusian exports to the EU consist of a narrow range of goods with a significant share of petroleum products (50%). “The high concentration on the market of one or a few countries, or in a narrow range of goods, poses significant risks for our country,” the Kabiakoŭ said.
The visa-free regime in Hrodna attracts Poles and Lithuanians. Before the introduction of the visa-free regime in Hrodna city, it received 4,700 tourists per year. Since the introduction of the new visa regime, 52,000 foreigners visited the nearby Augustow Canal alone. According to Respublika, 35-40% of tourists travel only for shopping. Visitors mostly buy goods that cannot be found in their home country: medicine, marshmallows, jellies, kvass, birch sap, linen, jersey and alcohol. Lithuanians show strong interest in the historical sites connected with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the medieval state of Belarusians and Lithuanians.
The head of a Polish tourist company from the city of Bialystok, Eugeniusz Laureniuk, notes that religious tourism in Belarus has become popular with Poles in recent years. Active tourism, especially cycling tours, also remain popular. But the lack of hotels, especially in small towns, presents a serious problem. While Hrodna and Brest more or less cope with accommodating tourists, Lida and Baranavičy, both towns with 100,000 inhabitants have only one hotel each.
The state press digest is based on the 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.