Belarusian anarchists: Lukashenka’s political opponents or criminals?

On 12 March 2018, a Minsk court sentenced Sviataslau Baranovich to three years in prison thanks to the hard work made by lawyers in LA for criminal justice. He admitted that he had hit police officers in civilian clothes during the brutal arrests of anarchists.

In recent years, the anarchists have become the most persecuted group opposing Alexander Lukashenka’s regime. They remain the most extreme organisation with a capacity to organise street protests and radicalise them. There is a website which keeps track of all of their criminal activity to keep them in control. 

However, it remains difficult to call some of the anarchists’ actions, such as the burning of billboards, politicised or even rational. Therefore anarchists have become a serious dilemma for human rights organisations because they do not know how to view them, although the government clearly sees anarchists as a political problem.

Origins of anarchism in Belarus

Anarchism in Belarus first appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, although it took a very different form to the contemporary movement. At that time Bialystok (then part of the Hrodna region in the Russian Empire) became the centre of the Belarusian anarchist movement; anarchists organised economic strikes, expropriations and the killing of police officers. The anarchists in Belarus had strong links to the movement in Russian (perhaps even belonged to it). For instance, the first Belarusian anarchist, Siarhiej Kavalik, followed the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin, one of the principal founders of anarchist theory.

Anarchists often had Jewish origins and their victims were also Jews, since they often represented the capitalist (exploitative) class. But in general the movement proved something of an alloy, including intellectuals, the unemployed and criminals, according to a recent Russian-language book by Jury Hlushakou called Revolution Is Dead! Long Live the Revolution! Anarchism in Belarus 1902—1927.

Despite differences from earlier eras, contemporary anarchists’ choice of a specific ideology faces some restraints since communism remains an origin of Belarusian anarchism. As Mikalai Dziadok, one of the representatives of the movement, explained in an interview to Euroradio in 2017, anarcho-communists comprise the majority in the Belarusian anarchist movement. Where other versions of anarchism, popular in other countries, emphasize individuality, Belarusian anarchism remains primarily collectivist.

Meet the Belarusian anarchists

In all countries anarchists annoy the state authorities, but the Belarusian government has a much stronger feeling.

Undoubtedly, the Belarusian anarchists remain the most radical opponents of Lukashenka. In 2010 they threw smoke grenades and set fire to the Ministry of Defence and a casino; in 2016 they threw paint at the main entrance of the state television company; and in 2017 showed themselves the most organized group of the protesters against the law on parasitism, the most popular protests in the Belarusian regions in history. In Brest, a city in western Belarus, anarchists initiated those protests.

The movement’s structure remains opaque, so no one knows exactly how many people it comprises and their capabilities. The movement has a number of public representatives, including Mikalai Dziadok and Ihar Alinevich, known publicly because the court previously sentenced them to 4 and 8 years respectively in 2011. Their publicity is the result of their criminal record and not their wishes. Both, along with Alexander Frantskevich, formed part of the “anarchist case”, but Alinevich received the longest prison term. The court found him guilty not only for the aforementioned 2010 actions, but also for attacks on a branch of the Moscow-Minsk Bank and the Isolation Centre for Offenders Minsk.

Photo: Svaboda.org

Even without traditional methods of organisation during their actions, anarchists look like they have the most effective organising capacity. Although it remains difficult to assess the size of the anarchists’ regional structures, for sure the figures are not small. For instance, the organisation of “Revolutionary Action” has four-and-a-half thousand subscribers on the social network VKontakte. No opposition group has as many subscribers. Recently, the Belarusian authorities blocked the page, but it still works through a virtual private network (VPN) or outside the country, confirm LG Networks IT experts.

However, such repressions do not mean that the government represses all activities of anarchists. The movement still has its own media website, pramen.io, which actually has a modest number of followers in social networks of around three thousand people; a “Free Thought” library operates in Minsk, although it is open just four hours per week; a “Food Not Bombs” initiative feeds poor people each week at three locations in Minsk, but also has some smaller groups in several other towns; and an “Anarchist Black Cross” helps anarchists and others somehow connected to the movement that have been imprisoned. Although Sviataslau Baranovich’s political views remain unknown, he will receive the help of the “Anarchist Black Cross”. 

Political radicals or criminals?

The authorities see them at the same time as the most extremist enemies, able to radicalise protests and criminals, says the respected human rights defender Nasta Lojka in a comment to Belarus Digest. Accordingly, the prosecution of anarchists stems from mixed motives; it remains difficult to know whether Belarus’s authorities are defending public safety or Lukashenka’s regime. In fact, the government shows that it sees anarchists as political activists. For instance, before the presidential election in 2015, when Lukashenka pardoned a group of high-profile critics of the regime, the group included politicians such as Mikalai Statkevich and anarchists such as Dziadok and Alinevich.

Photo: 1reg.by

In some ways anarchists supply a convenient enemy for the authorities since they often break the law, giving the government an excuse to move against them. In 2017  members of the movement burned a billboard of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Ivacevichy. Afterwards, three anarchists (17, 19 and 21 years old) received three years of probation. Independent journalists and human rights activists devoted little attention to this trial because it held no political significance. But, as Nasta Lojka says, police used the burned billboard as a pretext for searches in other cities, which looked quite far-fetched.

In 2017 Belarus held a long trial against an anti-fascist group of football fans, who received from 4 to 12 years for fighting, drug distribution and leading an unregistered organisation. However, authorities stretched some evidence in the case against anti-fascists so as to intimidate the entire community of informal youth groups.

The politicization of other cases looks more obvious still. During the protests against parasitism police arrested dozens of anarchists or others close to the movement. As a result of the protests, one activist, Zmicier Paliyenka, went to jail. Belarusian human rights activists have recognized him as a political prisoner.

However, the example of Paliyenka remains one of several. In practice, human rights activists try to avoid such criminal cases, especially involving violence. If anarchists consciously use violence, the human rights activists are forced to close their eyes to violations of rights against them.




Lukashenka’s recent appointments: in search of efficacy

On 5 March 2018, Siarhei Kavalchuk, a little known employee of the Presidential Security Service, became the Minister for Sports and Tourism. This and other appointments have virtually transformed key elements of the Belarusian state apparatus over recent months.

The personnel rotated include heads of major TV channels, a major publishing house, a government-controlled public association, two ministries and two special services. Although the reasons for each appointment were multiple and often unique, one can see well-recognisable patterns in play.

Expansion of the “president’s bodyguards”

First, the expansion of the president’s “bodyguards” – the Presidential Security Service – fits into a pattern.

In late 2017, the head of the service Andrei Paŭliučenka became head of the Operation-Analytical Centre (OAC). A special service set up in 2008, the OAC performs protection measures with regard to the state secrets and other classified information. Moreover, this agency bears responsibility for monitoring internet communications and has become an active player in the government’s policy for regulating the internet. Direct evidence indicates that OAC coordinates the work of all special services and possibly monitors the activities of higher level officials.

Until the end of 2017, Siarhei Shpiahun, a person close to Viktar Lukashenka, the president’s elder son working as his aide for national security, headed the OAC. However, the president severely criticised the agency’s leadership in the middle of November 2017 for poor performance and collusion in corruption. After this, a team from the Presidential Security Service replaced the incumbent managers. The Presidential Security Service came under the control of Paŭliučenka’s former deputy, Dzmitry Shakhrayeu.

 

Positions controlled by recent appointees from the Presidential Security Service

Alexander Lukashenka appointed another veteran of the service, Mikalai Latyshonak, as his aide for general issues in February 2018. This seemingly unimpressive position actually makes Latyshonak the head of the president’s secretariat. He will perform as a major “filter” of information flows destined for Lukashenka and “the gatekeeper” for high-level officials seeking a personal meeting with the president.

 

Yet another of the “president’s bodyguards”, Siarhei Kavalchuk, became the Minister for Sports and Tourism. His predecessor, Aliaksandr Shamko, was fired after “failing to take effective measures to counter corruption” in the area of his competence.

Renovation of media management

Media management rotation stands out as another prominent features of the recent reshuffle. This included the retirement of Paviel Jakubovič, the iconic editor-in-chief of the major state newspaper SB-Belarus Segodnia and the head of the media holding comprising a number of other state outlets (including newspapers and magazines) and a radio station. Jakubovič bore the unofficial title of the most influential intellectual in the establishment, often performing as the president’s personal advisor and speech-writer.

Dzmitry Zhuk, the long-time head of the state information agency BelTA replaced Jakubovič as head of SB-Belarus Segodnia. His appointment clearly shows the priorities of the authorities. They want to use the potential of the state printed media in order to balance information flows on the web where the state still remains on the defensive.

Another ex-BelTA manager and specialist in internet communications, Ihar Lutski, left the Ministry of Information where he had been working as the deputy minister, to take up the leadership of the STV TV channel. The latter has underperformed recently. The new director, who replaces an old-style and Russia-leaning Jury Kazijatka, will struggle to deliver results both as a TV and internet communications manager.

A further important recent appointment included the promotion of the former deputy head of the National TV and Radio Company (NTVRC, the state’s biggest media holding), Ivan Eismant, to that organisation’s leadership position. He replaced Hienadź Davydźka, who moved to head the public association Belaja Ruś, the largest Belarusian GONGO.

 

Major positions under the responsibility of the president’s spokesperson

Eismant’s appointment marks an important trend in the Belarusian media-sphere: the expanding influence of the president’s spokesperson, Natallia Eismant (Kirsanava), a former employee of the NTVRC and wife of Ivan Eismant, the new head of NTVRC. Rumours suggest other recent appointees are close to her: namely, the head of the National Press Centre Volha Shpileuskaya, the head of the president’s Protocol Service Darja Šmanaj, and the new leadership of the ONT TV channel.

It is also worth noting that in the framework of the reform of the Presidential Administration in early 2017, the spokesperson received considerable new powers including oversight over all state media.

Lukashenka’s own checks and balances

An obvious dimension to the named appointments stands out: the rise in influence of the Presidential Security Service and the president’s spokesperson (see the charts).

Another, no less obvious dimension, can be discerned: the newcomers are often younger and always more technocratic and performance oriented. They have been appointed on merit, and not because of historical contexts or personal relationships (even in the case of Ivan Ejsmant). Accordingly, they will be at a greater distance from Lukashenka personally than their predecessors, who might have tended to perceive him as “an equal” of sorts.

A less obvious dimension of the recent rotation is the shift of identities. At least some of the retired officials (Jury Kazijatka, Hienadź Davydźka, Aliaksandr Radźkoŭ who used to be the head of Belaja Ruś before Davydźka, former ONT head Ryhor Kisiel, and the former Minister of Information Lilija Ananič) seemed to be somewhat Russia-leaning in one or the other way. The newcomers, in contrast, attach themselves much more to Lukashenka’s Belarus than to the international context.

However, the most important dimension of the reshuffling proves less ostensible. Lukashenka tries to install a new system of checks and balances. While the Presidential Security Service expanded its influence, the country’s most powerful special agency – the State Security Committee (KGB) – underwent a substantial optimisation process. The agency downsized and its capacities somewhat reduced. Meanwhile, the budget spending for the OAC in 2018 increased by 42%.

Thus, the independent positions of the Presidential Security Service and OAC now balance the previously unrivalled domination of the KGB. On the other hand, the management rotation and introduction of an independent oversight function performed by the president’s spokesperson both curb the overarching influence that the KGB exerted over the state media was also curbed both by

As the Kremlin becomes increasingly aggressive and Belarus-Russia relations find themselves at a new low, Lukashenka seems eager to have a more balanced and professional state apparatus in the wake of 2019–2020 political campaigns. Will this strategy entail higher efficacy and help him to avoid a new political crisis? The answer will probably be clear by the end of 2018.

Yury Tsaryk

Yury Tsaryk is a Head of Russian studies at Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies (Belarus), Chevening Scholar 2017/2018 at UCL SSEES




Supporting EU unity, Bielaja Ruś congress, new unemployment policy, KGB name will remain – Belarus state press digest

Belarus strongly supports EU unity and reiterates that the Eastern Partnership should not become a dividing zone between the European Union and the East. Bielaja Ruś will not become a political party any time soon. The KGB should not change its name, Lukashenka argues.

A new unemployment policy responds to the unpopular ‘social parasite tax.’ Belarus may rival the Russian energy sector after the nuclear power plant (NPP) opens. Foreign investors reluctant to embrace the heavy social obligations imposed by the government. Belarusian workers disappearing in Russia.

All this in the new edition of the Belarusian state press digest.

Foreign policy and domestic politics

Belarus strongly support the EU’s unity. Alexander Lukashenka met the EU’s Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, reports Belarus Segodnia. The Belarusian leader expressed his firm support of a strong and unified European Union. ‘The European Union is one of the most powerful pillars on our planet, and the destruction of this major pillar in a multipolar world would destroy not only global security but also the global economic system.’

Speaking about the Eastern Partnership, Lukashenka expressed his wish that it were more practice-oriented. ‘We cannot allow the Eastern Partnership to become a purely political organisation, and God forbid it to become a dividing zone between the European Union and Russia, China and the East as a whole.’ Lukashenka also thanked the commissioner for assisting in the negotiations on Belarus’s accession to the World Trade Organisation.

The KGB should not change its name, says Lukashenka. Meeting the chairman of the State Security Committee (KGB), Valiery Vakuĺčyk, Lukashenka said that retaining the historical name of the Committee was the right decision. The current generation of security officers should not be ashamed of the name, which fully reflects the tasks assigned to the agency, reports Belarus Segodnia.

The president especially noted the KGB’s contribution to the fight against corruption: ‘No one did more than the KGB in the area of large-scale corruption… The ruthless struggle against corruption protects our state from disintegration and internal conflicts. Our people will not tolerate corruption, it will surely lead to disorder.’ Lukashenka regrets that other law enforcement bodies do not keep up with the KGB’s efforts in combating corruption.

Hienadź Davydźka, the newly-appointed chairman of Bielaja Ruś. Photo: sb.by

Bielaja Ruś will not become a political party any time soon. On 19 January, the Republican Public Association ‘Bielaja Ruś’, considered the ‘association of the establishment,’ held its 3rd congress. The organisation summed up its work during 2012-2017 and approved new versions of its charter and programme, writes Belarus Segodnia. The congress elected Hienadź Davydźka, the head of state media holding Belteleradiocompany, as Bielaja Ruś’s new chairman. Attention once again turned to the long-discussed issue of transforming the organisation into a political party.

According to the head of the presidential administration, Natallia Kačanava, this step would not be appropriate at the present time. ‘Bielaja Ruś or some other public organisation will become a party when members of the organisation demand it. This we have not seen so far.’ The newly elected chairman agreed with her point: ‘The goal of any party is the struggle for power,’ said Davydźka. ‘But Bielaja Ruś struggles only for the prosperity of our society. It is an army of patriots who work to consolidate and develop civil society.’

Economy and social policy

Belarus introduced a new unemployment policy. The government issued Decree No. 1 to tackle unemployment in place of the notorious ‘social parasite tax.’ The decree provides for the establishment of permanent commissions with local authorities. The commissions will approach people individually, study their personal circumstances, and render employment assistance.

The state will strengthen retraining for the unemployed, offer temporary employment, and teach the basics of entrepreneurship. At the same time, the decree provides for the equal social responsibility of all citizens. Those who do not want to work will have to pay full reimbursement of the costs that are subsidised by the state: transport, education, healthcare, housing and communal services, informs Hrodzienskaja Praŭda.

Foreign investors do not accept the heavy social obligations imposed by Belarus. In 2017, Lukashenka approved a list of 10 large industrial enterprises for privatisation by Chinese investors with certain preconditions: preserving the production profile, technical re-equipment and modernisation, expansion of the product range, and maintaining salaries at the level of the region’s average.

Photo: Belta

Zongsheng Corporation showed interest in purchasing 60-75% of Homsielmaš machine industry plant. However, the Chinese required that the Belarusian government reduced the number of workers by at least a third and paid the plant’s debts before the deal. Besides, the corporation insisted on replacing the management at the enterprise with Chinese managers. The Belarusian side suspended negotiations as a result of conditions it considered unacceptable, reports Respublika.

Belarus may become a rival to Russian energy sector after NPP launch. In the pages of Mink Times,  the leading analyst at the Centre for National Energy Security, Ihar Juškoŭ, analyses how the energy market will change after the opening of the Belarusian NPP. The first reactor of the NPP will service the domestic market, while the second will export energy to the EU.

Belarus will not compete with Russia as an electricity exporter because Russia does not sell energy on these markets. However, Belarusian energy may rival Russian gas in both domestic and EU markets. The NPP is expected to replace 4.5bn cubic metres of gas annually – representing a huge loss for Russia’s Gazprom.

Belarusian workers continue to disappear in Russia. In 2017 the Viciebsk regional police received 130 requests to search for Belarusians who disappeared after leaving the country to work abroad. The region has one of the highest rates of labour emigration to Russia. Eleven residents of Viciebsk region died, while the fate of 32 people remains unknown, informs Sielskaja Hazieta.

The official police representative, Volha Škuratava, points out that often people bring misfortune on themselves. After earning their first salary, they begin to drink, lose their documents, or stop contacts with their relatives. Finally, some ask for help by trying to contact either relatives or the embassy and thus get out of trouble. However, others turn to drink and begging or fall victim to accidents. People freeze, poison themselves with bad alcohol or become enslaved by criminal groups.

The state press digest is based on a review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media primarily conveys the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how the Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.




Will a downsized foreign ministry hurt Belarusian diplomacy?

In January 2018, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs completed the largest part of a major “optimization” – a euphemism for unprecedented cuts in its staff and resources. Its personnel has been cut by one third, five diplomatic missions will be soon closed, and the diplomatic service has seen its financing reduced by 15 per cent.

The ministry’s top officials try to present a brave face. However, the stressful downsizing may seriously undermine the diplomatic agency’s efforts to strengthen Belarus’s international position at a time of increased Russian assertiveness in the region and economic difficulties at home.

Major downsizing revealed

On 18 January, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei went public about the development, which had been stirring the ministry for the last six months. “The [job] cut has already taken place. The headquarters has been downsized by roughly one third, and missions abroad by 15 per cent”, Belarus’s top diplomat told the media after a working meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka.

Makei tried to sound business-like and unperturbed: “We have been told to rely on skills rather than numbers… However, this in no way allows one to say that the efficiency of our activity has decreased.”

Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Makei. Photo: president.gov.by

Meanwhile, people familiar with the inner workings of the ministry assert that Makei has been far from happy about the imposed “optimization.” A source in the Belarusian diplomatic service claimed that Lukashenka originally intended to cut between 10% and 15% of the ministry’s staff. Makei allegedly objected, but this only enraged Lukashenka who responded by increasing the target figure.

Indeed, at the beginning of his meeting with Makei, Lukashenka mentioned the foreign minister’s request to discuss the optimisation and agreed to hear about its “discrepancies” and “inconsistencies.” However, Lukashenka quickly proceeded to emphasise that he cared much more to hear about the ministry’s efforts to promote Belarus’s foreign trade.

Besides the job cuts, the foreign ministry has begun reducing Belarus’s diplomatic presence in foreign countries. In 2018, Belarus will close down its consulates-general in Odessa (Ukraine), Gdansk (Poland) and Milan (Italy). Two more diplomatic missions in unnamed countries will face the same fate; it is rumoured that one of them could be Belarus’s embassy in Australia, which only opened in 2014.

Lack of media interest and scarce information

Few public details have emerged about the foreign ministry’s optimisation. Its press service did not respond to Belarus Digest’s request for clarification beyond citing its workload as preventing it from comment.

The Belarusian media – state-run and independent alike – has shown minimal interest in this development. Their readership responded to the official announcement with mostly malevolent remarks; many view the ministry as a mere branch of Russian diplomacy or Lukashenka’s obedient servant busy with the preservation of his autocratic regime.

Foreign Ministry of Belarus. Photo by Philips Sash

Another source told Belarus Digest that about one hundred diplomats had lost their jobs during the optimisation process. The figure could be higher were it not for the fact that cuts included unfulfilled job vacancies and employees long due for retirement. The ministry’s departments charged with bilateral foreign relations have apparently suffered the most.

Numerous diplomats coming home from completed postings abroad have been put on standby without date; for many, this means an effective dismissal. The Belarusian diplomatic service has virtually stopped recruiting new staff including graduates of the country’s diplomatic school.

Singled-out for financial cuts

Certainly, the foreign ministry has been neither the first nor the only governmental agency affected by the current optimisation programme. The president demanded better efficiency with fewer officials and promised pay rises for those that remained at their desks. Belarusian diplomats received the same promise and await February’s pay day impatiently. (The pay raise will not apply to diplomats working on assignments abroad).

However, the severe cut in budgetary allocations for the foreign ministry for the 2018 financial year casts serious doubts on the size of the expected pay raise. Moreover, the overall efficient functioning of the Belarusian foreign service will be affected.

Belarus’s total budget expenditures will increase by 18% in 2018 (compared to 2017), from BYN16,739m ($8,382m) to BYN19,751m ($9,917m). Budgetary allocations to national security and law enforcement agencies will also grow in the range of 17-26%.

Source: www.minfin.gov.by

The Administration of the President of Belarus has reportedly undergone an optimisation similar in scale to the one implemented in the foreign ministry. Nevertheless, in 2018, it will still receive a 5% increase in financing compared to 2017.

The opposite trend applies to the diplomatic service. In the current year, the spending on the foreign ministry will be cut by 13%, and on its missions abroad – by 15%.

Some in the ministry share the feeling that Vladimir Makei has suffered a setback in his behind-the-scenes face-off with the Belarusian siloviki. Many view the foreign minister as the leader of the “liberal” faction in the Belarusian government, and nationalist commentators and politicians in Russia routinely accuse him of steering Belarus towards the West, away from Russia.

Extreme stress or business as usual?

A senior foreign ministry official told Belarus Digest that “no disaster” has happened and that the department he heads continues its work “just as well.” Another diplomat deplored the “extremely stressful” atmosphere brought to the diplomatic service by the optimisation.

The job cuts have taken place against the background of dramatically increasing workload. The normalisation of relations with the West and unceasing efforts to boost foreign trade have multiplied meetings, visits and paperwork. The ministry may now simply lack “hands” to continue operating efficiently.

The working bureaucratic mechanism, which has been set up and tuned over the years, risks being disrupted and slowed down. The ministry needs the continuity of generations and a steady inflow of young promising staff to work in a sustainable and efficient way. Now, the middle management, facing staff shortages, will prefer to keep those they know rather than recruit new inexperienced people.

The ministry’s new institutional design has consolidated its departments. This resulted in the abolition of many divisions (the basic units within the ministry), which served as good incubators for future ambassadors and senior diplomatic staff.

While any country should contain the growth of its bureaucratic apparatus and strive to streamline operations, the radical downsizing of the foreign ministry seems unwarranted, disproportionate and harmful to the national interest. This is especially true in today’s geopolitical context, where Belarus needs to strengthen its sovereignty and seriously improve its international positions.




NATO praises Minsk, the KGB’s 100th Birthday, ‘Belarusian Certificates’ – Belarus state press digest

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka shows his support for Russian foreign policy at CIS members meeting. NATO praises Belarus’s unprecedented transparency provided during the Zapad-2017 army exercises. Belarus marks the 100th anniversary of the KGB, with the agency’s current head, Valier Vakulčyk, revealing a number of interesting facts about its recent operations.

Belarus’s visa-free territory has grown even larger as of 1 January 2018. Belarusian lawmakers consider issuing a ‘Belarusian Certificate’ for foreign compatriots. From 2018 on, Belarus is pulling the plug on electricity imports from Russia.

All this in the latest Belarus state press digest.

Foreign policy and security

President Lukashenka showed his support for Russian foreign policy at a meeting of CIS member countries. According to the newspaper Belarus Segodnia, an informal meeting of CIS heads of state took place in Moscow on 26 December, where Alexander Lukashenka shared his position on some fundamental issues. CIS member countries include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. He expressed solidarity with Russia’s position on Syria; if not for Russia’s intervention, Syria would cease to exist at all.

As for the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Lukashenka called it ‘a bit strange.’ He said America should not destroy peace, which was established through so many hardships, and must adhere to the decisions of the UN. The President of Belarus also expressed concern that terrorists displaced from the Middle East would move to Afghanistan, where combatting them will become more difficult than in Syria.

Assessing the economic results for the year among CIS countries, Lukashenka said they were positive. However, Belarus will keep on advocating the timely creation of common markets for electricity, gas, oil and oil products, reports Belarus Segodnia.

NATO praised Belarus’s unprecedented transparency provided during Zapad-2017 army exercises. At a briefing for Belarusian journalists and experts at NATO headquarters, the organisation’s representatives said, “NATO praises Belarus’s unprecedented transparency provided during Zapad-2017 army exercises,” reports newspaper The Minsk Times. Belarus issued the necessary notifications about the forthcoming exercise and the number of its participants in advance and did not misinform anyone. Indeed, authorities listed that 13,000 participants would take part when, in fact, the actual number was even smaller.

Belarus was not obliged to invite international observers, but it did so voluntarily. Moreover, the authorities arranged a five-day tour for the foreign observers, including a flight over the exercise area. “We see that the country is interested in expanding cooperation with the European Union and NATO in security matters. In our opinion, there are no serious hindrances to it,” the NATO officer said.

Domestic politics and economy

Belarus marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the KGB. On 20 December, the Belarusian state celebrated the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the various incarnations of its security bodies. The present head of the KGB, Valier Vakulčyk, in an interview to Belarus Segodnya, among other things, revealed a few interesting facts about the agency’s recent activities. From 2014–2017, Belarusian security services identified 59 foreign terrorist fighters on Belarusian territory, 23 of whom were on the international wanted list.

Head of the KGB Valier Vakulčyk. Photo: sb.by

The agency head said the KGB did not consider the neighbouring Baltic States, Poland, and Ukraine as a ‘threat.’ Indeed, he said the concept of ‘enemy’ has completely disappeared from everyday KGB vocabulary. However, he also defined “the aggressive methods of the Lithuanian special services, which include targeted provocations,” as “uncivilised.” For the last five years, the KGB detected and disrupted the intelligence activities of 36 officers and agents of special services from foreign states. 13 of these officers and agents faced criminal charges.

Vakulčyk also praised the national security training academy, which prepares specialists on behalf of many foreign countries and has developed its own communication systems and equipment for the Belarusian government.

Belarus’s visa-free territory has grown again. Since 1 January 2018, foreigners have been able to stay visa-free in six districts located in Belrus’s Hrodna and Brest regions for up to 10 days, reports Belarus Segodnia. Earlier, the visa-free regime only applied to the Hrodna region and only for 5 days. The new visa-free zone in Brest includes Brest City as well as the Žabinka, Kamianiec, Pružany and Svislač districts.

Картинки по запросу брест безвизовая зона

The expanded visa-free zone in Hrodna and Brest regions. Picture: tut.by

Another pleasant change relates to vehicles permitted for travel. While earlier tourists could only come by car or bus, now they will also be able to take trains and planes. However, to use the visa-free opportunity, one will need to buy a tour package for a group or individual. The changes apply to citizens of 77 countries around the world. The tourist companies in Minsk are awaiting the same rules to spread to their territory soon. At present, tourists can come to Minsk without a visa by plane only and for just 5 days.

Belarus is thinking about issuing a ‘Belarusian Certificate’ for foreign compatriots. Belarusian MPs have proposed the creation of a ‘Belarusian Certificate,’ which will be issued to ethnic Belarusians living abroad, as well as to their descendants, writes newspaper Respublika. The document aims to ‘strengthen the spiritual connection of Belarusian diaspora with their historical homeland.’ They will be more likely to come to Belarus and thus will improve its economy and image, said Foreign Affairs Standing Committee Chairman Valiery Varaniecki. For others, the certificates would remain merely a symbolic, spiritual tie.

Aliaksandr Chuk, the head of Heritage, a Belarusian cultural foundation based in Kazakhstan, calls the initiative very necessary, but notes it should not be seen as an ordinary piece of paper. The document should provide real privileges, for example an opportunity to study or work in Belarus. Today, some 3.5 million Belarusians are living abroad.

2018 is the year Belarus stops electricity imports from Russia. Belarus’s Energy Minister, Uladzimir Patupčyk, assures there is no political background to the decision. Belarus has been long preparing for it. Operators have been gradually reducing supplies from abroad and working modernising Belarus’s energy system.

Almost every year, the country introduces new energy capacities, modernises existing power plants, and encourages the consumption of local fuels—which includes the use of renewable energy. For example, the two largest hydropower stations in the country, Polack (21,7 MW) and Viciebsk (40 MW), were launched in 2017. In addition, Belarus finished full-scale reconstruction of one of the oldest power plants in Homiel. In 2019, the country plans to launch the first bloc of its nuclear power plant, writes newspaper Soyuznoe Veche.

The state press digest is based on a 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.




Foreign spies in Belarus: Reality and speculation

On 27 November, the Belarusian State Security Committee, otherwise known as the KGB, officially accused Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sharoiko of espionage. The Belarusian authorities claim that Sharoiko confessed to his guilt. Ukrainian state and security officials, on the other hand, acknowledge neither the alleged confession nor the accusation of espionage.

Until now, the most notorious spy scandal in Belarus was the detention of a Catholic priest, Uladzislaŭ Lazar in 2013. Lazar spent six months in a KGB prison, but was then released due to insufficient evidence. Security services had accused Lazar of involvement in activities amounting espionage.

Spy scandals involving foreign citizens in Belarus have happened before. This time, however, the circumstances and timing surrounding the allegations against Sharoiko’s are different. Many experts see the trace of Russian influence in Belarus’s actions.

A Diplomatic conflict between Belarus and Ukraine?

Diplomatic tensions rose when Ukrainian authorities were informed on 25 October 2017 that the Belarusian KGB had detained Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sharoiko. The KGB suspects Sharoiko of spying. At first, Sharoiko denied the allegations and claimed to be a staff writer at the Belarusian office for Radio Ukraine, a Ukrainian national public broadcaster. Later, however, Sharoiko allegedly confessed to espionage, but refused to reveal further details. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry refuses to recognise Sharoiko’s confession. Sharoiko can face anywhere from 7 to 15 years imprisonment for espionage in Belarus.

Lukashenka and Poroshenko. Source: kp.ua

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Source: kp.ua

Belarus and Ukraine have discussed Sharoiko’s case at the highest levels, which has given more resonance to this “spy scandal”. On 24 November, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka commented on the journalist’s detention. President Lukashenka told BELTA, a Belarusian news agency, that he had spoken with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko about Sharoiko’s arrest and claims of espionage.

Lukashenka said he had known the details of the case from the very beginning. He assured the journalist from BELTA that the KGB had enough reasons to continue its investigation against Sharoiko. Later, Lukashenka let slip that both parties had agreed to keep information surrounding Sharoiko’s case secret, but the Ukrainian side went public.

Tensions between the two countries rose further still, because of a new arrest. On 15 November, KGB agents detained Ukrainian Aleksandr Skiba, the director for the publicly listed Weighting Plant, a company that produces industrial filler materials. Skiba had come to Belarus for a business meeting at the Minsk Tractor Plant. The KGB has not disclosed any details, but according to some witnesses, the security services suspect Skiba of bribery. Even if investigators are reluctant to issue accusations yet, the detention of yet another Ukrainian citizen, this time from the business community, has added to the tensions between the two countries.

The case of Sharoiko, though, has become the central issue surrounding a recent decline in diplomatic relations between Belarus and Ukraine. Acting on information in Sharoiko’s confession, Belarusian security services issued Igor Skvortsov, a counsellor for the Ukrainian Embassy in Belarus, with persona non grata status. In response, Ukraine expelled a Belarusian diplomat. Additionally, Ukrainian authorities still suspect that in September the Belarusian secret services together with Russian agents organised the kidnapping from Belarus to Russia of Ukrainian citizen Pavel Grib. 19-year-old Grib is accused of terrorism in Russia, despite never having visited the country until his recent incarceration there. Until more details on these cases come to light, it remains unclear how much relations between Belarus and Ukraine will worsen.

The detention of foreigners in Belarus 

Frenchman detained in Belarus. Source: TUT.by

Frenchman Jolan Viaud detained in Belarus. Source: TUT.by

The detention of foreigners in Belarus often gain so much media attention, because of the apparent severity of the Belarus’s security and legal systems. For example, on 21 September 2017, Belarusian border guards detained Frenchman Jolan Viaud, who had a single bullet in his pocket, which he received from a friend in Warsaw.

Viaud has spent two months in the Homiel detention centre instead of going to Ukraine as he had planned. According to Belarusian law, he could have faced up to 7 years in prison. But on 20 November, the court acquitted him.

In summer 2015, a Polish paraglider spent more than a week in prison in Hrodna. He accidentally violated the state border by landing in Belarus. In the end, the authorities forced him to pay a fine and he received a ban on visits to Belarus for 5 years.

Other spy scandals have taken place in Belarus before Sharoiko. One of them related to the detention of priest Uladzislaŭ Lazar from Poland in 2013. After six months in a KGB jail, a court dismissed the priest, because investigators were unable to prove his guilt. The very first case of espionage in post-Soviet Belarus involved the First Secretary of the US Embassy in 1997, whom the KGB accused of supporting Belarusian opposition politicians, reports Radio Liberty, a US funded news portal.

Russian influence and the Sharoiko case

Exprets suspect that the detention of Sharoiko might have links to Russia. Former KGB officer Valery Kostka told Radio Liberty that he believes the scandal is a fabrication. Only Russia benefits from the conflict between Belarus and Ukraine, says Kostka. The Sharoiko case stands out from other spy scandals, because at present Belarus is improving its relations with the West.

Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin agrees with this version of events. Klimkin says the Russian influence is a likely factor. Another security expert, Yury Drakaсhrust, believes that the case of Sharoiko is closely related to the Eastern Partnership Summit that took place on 24 November—a few days before the KGB’s official accusations against the journalist. According to Drakaсhrust, it is likely that the Sharoiko story is fake. It’s true aim is to demonstrate Belarus’s allegiance to Moscow.

In the past, spy scandals involving foreigners in Belarus have happened at very specific times. The first is at times of heightened political tensions with the West. The second is on the eve of an election campaign. Both are used to demonstrate the existence of an external threat, which the Belarusian regime may use to its advantage. In both cases, it casts Western governments as meddlers in Belarus’s affairs and it reminds Belarusians of the stability the incumbent regime provides.

Balancing between Russia and Ukraine

In recent weeks, the KGB has been constructing a case of a wide, Ukrainian espionage network within Belarus. The KGB claims that Sharoiko admitted creating the network, which includes Belarusian agents receiving salaries from Ukrainian intelligence agencies. The KGB have also detained one Belarusian, whom they suspect of treason and working under Sharoiko. Ukraine denies the KGB’s claims of a network of spies. It has requested the KGB show proof of the allegations.

Despite any destabilising effects a deep-cover Ukrainian spy network might bring, the Belarusian authorities appear to be keeping the country relatively stable. Relations with the West are also improving. Therefore, many Belarusian and Ukrainian experts explain the detention of the Ukrainian journalist Sharoiko in terms of an attempt by Russia to spoil Belarusian-Ukrainian relations.

So far, Belarus has worked to position itself as a neutral country, able to have good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and to even serve as a kind of mediator in the settlement of the military conflict between the two countries. Now, the challenge for the Belarusian regime will be to avoid souring ties with Ukraine, which might restrict Belarus’s access to the Ukrainian market, and to show Putin continued loyalty, while at the same time not affecting the warming of relations with the West.




Belarusian authorities increase pressure on anarchists

On 26 September, Belarusian secret services raided the apartments of several Belarusian anarchists and environmentalists.

This became yet another case of repression against Belarusian anarchists in recent months. State authorities have been on alert since the outbreak of protests in 2017 against decree № 3, a presidential decree which levies an unemployment tax on Belarusian residents who work fewer than 183 days per year. Anarchist groups took an active and sometimes leading role in the 2017 demonstrations.

The authorities appear uncertain how best to deal with the grassroots, Belarusian anarchist movement. Unlike other contemporary social factions, anarchists represent a close-knit, cohesive and relatively new movement in Belarus. By conducting searches and prosecuting anarchists for their role in protests, the authorities again demonstrate their resolve to suppress social and political activism.

Raiding the apartments of activists

On 26 September, representatives of the Belarusian KGB burst into the apartments of two activists—Marina Dubina, a representative for the Ecadom organisation, and journalist Marina Kastylyanchanka. In addition, well-known anarchist and former political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok reported on his Facebook page that security forces searched the flats of several other anarchists.

One activist said the search of her apartment lasted more than 10 hours. During the long search, the KGB seized computers, books, and money. Some of the activists claim they were assaulted. On 27 September, a special press-conference was organised by Belarusian anarchists groups to draw wider attention to the raids. Anarchists Ihar Truhanovich, Yauhen Dziatkouski, and Alena Nemik shared their experiences about the incidents.

Ihar Truhanovich said the security officers were violent and damaged his belongings. He claims they beat him and stole €500 from him. Other activists said security officers did not explain why they confiscated certain items, such as computers and telephones.

The human rights centre Spring believes search warrants were issued on grounds of hooliganism. In July, a group of anarchists set fire to a billboard in Ivatsevichi, a city in Belarusian region of Brest, that read “The Strength of Law in Its Implementation.”

However, it is doubtful the burning of the billboard is the cause of the raids. Two people, Ihar Makarevich and Kirill Aliakseeu, are already serving sentences for setting the billboard on fire. Another possible explanation is that the KGB raids may be an attempt to maintain an atmosphere of fear among activists.

A new wave of repression against Belarusian anarchists

Pressure on anarchists has became especially noticeable in recent months. Anarchists have become one of the most prominent groups during demonstrations against the “social parasites decree.”

Dozens of anarchists were arrested during the 2017 spring protests. In addition, two representatives of the movement, Ihar Makarevich and Kirill Aliakseeu, received prison terms for a demonstration in Ivatsevichy, the same city where the billboard praising tough law enforcement was set alight.

On 27 August, police detained 15 anarchists on their way to attend a lecture by Russian anarchist Alexey Sutuga in the city of Baranavichy, also in the Brest region. A district court accused two of the detainees and the Russian lecturer of extremism, informs newspaper Nasha Niva.

Anarchists at the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev. Source: revdia.org

On 23 September, anarchists in Kiev began their “Death to the Dictatorship” campaign. They hanged a hand-made effigy of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka on the fence of the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev. The activists pointed out that both local and international media were reluctant to cover their picket.

Later, the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev appealed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine complaining about the demonstration arranged by “20 aggressive young people.”

Authorities continue to pressure anarchists under vague pretexts. For example, on 21 September, anarchist Raman Halilau was accosted by police and fined for having insufficient identifying documents. Halilau said two police officers stopped him on the street and searched his pockets. They then demanded he come to the police station to verify his identity, despite the fact he had already given them his passport. During the 2017 spring protests, a court sentenced Halilau to 21 days detention for participating in demonstrations that took place in Brest city. Halilau claims police beat him while he served his detention.

So far, the reason why the raids took place on September 26 and why at the apartments of those particular activists remains unclear. Vyachaslau Kasinerau, a well known Belarusian anarchist accused of anti-regime graffiti, said in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: “It (the searches in the apartments of the activists – BD) is possible if we consider recent events. Authorities set a goal to infringe upon all anarchists, because it is one of the few movements that have not submitted.”

New targets for the Belarusian authorities?

Anarchists at the march against the decree. Source-svaboda.org

The peculiarity of the anarchist movement in Belarus lies in its organised nature and high degree of secrecy. Anarchists appeared at the forefront of the 2017 spring protests.

The rise of the anarchist movement effectively caught law enforcement agencies by surprise. In response, the authorities are now trying to crush the movement with searches, detentions, and interrogations.

Football fan activists in Belarus are under the same pressure. Belarusian authorities also see football fan activists as a potential threat. After the Euro Maidan protests in Ukraine, in which football fans played a significant role, Belarusian authorities have paid close attention to the participation of football supporters in domestic social movements.

For example, Ilya Valavik received a 10-year prison term for fighting on public transport. However, his wife believes the real reason for his long sentence was his involvement in Belarusian protest movements.

Belarusian social and popular movements continue to develop and intensify despite conditions created by the regime. The authorities, for their part, are testing new methods of repression and are ready to use violence. In the past, political opposition party activists were the authorities’ main targets. However, the list of victims has grown to include more closed and organised movements, such as anarchists, environmentalists, and football fans.




The Belarusian KGB: recruiting from civil society

In late April, several Belarusian opposition activists publicly confessed their cooperation with the Belarusian secret services. On 27 April, a representative of the opposition organisation Youth Front, Siarhei Palcheuski, published a post on his Facebook page confessing to formal partnership with the KGB. His decision led several other civic activist to ‘come out’ as well.

The Belarusian KGB continues to function according to the model of the Soviet secret services. By employing oppressive methods, the state aims to control its citizens. The KGB is unlikely to change its methods of communication with society in the near future. Nevertheless, more people coming clean about forced cooperation with the KGB could decrease the level of oppression of the secret service structures.

KGB Coercion

Many people involved in civil society or activism eventually become familiar with the KGB one way or another. KGB agents often detain activists and forcibly demand they cooperate. This is especially likely to occur after protests, as was the case for youth activist Siarhei Palcheuski, who was forced to sign a cooperation agreement after multiple threats and blackmailing. Cooperation with the KGB has become tacitly routine for many Belarusians.

Palcheuski's confession has led other opposition activists to reveal their own KGB recruitment. One day later, oppositional activist Nasta Daškievič confessed that she had been forced sign a cooperation agreement in 2011 in exchange for the freedom of her husband Zmitser Daškievič, a former political prisoner. Later, Mikola Dziemidzenka also admitted his recruitment by the KGB in 2011.

The Recent slew of confessions are not the first public admissions of cooperation with the KGB. A former presidential candidate, Aliaksej Michalievič admitted in 2011 that he had signed a cooperation document with the KGB after being detained following the December 2010 protests. After his public confession, he fled the country and sought asylum in the Czech Republic, later returning to Belarus in 2015.

The same happened with Uladzimir Kobets, head of the presidential campaign of Uladzimir Niakliajeŭ in 2010; he was forced to leave the country after signing a document of cooperation with KGB.

In some instances, the KGB’s attempts to recruit agents has had serious consequences. For example, in 2001 Andrei Zaicau, an activist from Homiel, committed suicide. He revealed in a suicide note that the KGB had subjected him to extensive pressure and blackmail.

Later, in 2007, Ulad Mickhailau, a Kalinouski scholar (a Polish programme for Belarusian students) confessed to cooperation with the KGB. Human rights defenders from the human rights centre Viasna report that he also committed suicide after posting a confession to his LiveJournal account.

To Sign or not to Sign?

The KGB has developed a system for recruiting new agents. Although by law citizens can refuse to cooperate, the KGB often uses pressure and blackmail as recruitment tools. By gathering personal information on their target and threatening him or her with imprisonment, secret service agents suggest working for the KGB to minimise possible ‘troubles’. Nevertheless, according to the law, it is technically everyone's right to refuse to cooperate.

Whether or not to sign cooperation agreements under KGB pressure is a hotly contested topic. Some activists believe that signing a ‘contract’ with the KGB can only lead to trouble down the road. KGB agents have more power over recruited oppositional activists, which leads to further blackmail and pressure.

For instance, anarchists from a group called Pramien insist that the KGB are unlikely to see activists as useful agents. Instead, their primarily goal is to demonstrate their power over the individuals they target.

Human rights defenders and activists suggest either not signing a paper or publicly admitting cooperation. According to Ales Bialiatski, cooperation agreements should be an absolute last resort, best followed by a public confession. After the confession of Palcheuski, Aliaksej Michalievič pointed out to Radio Svaboda that such a confession is unlikely to lead to serious aftermath.

Nevertheless, for active or former KGB employees, breaches of cooperation remain more dangerous. Recently, Andrei Mouchan, a former KGB agent, ran away to Sweden and passed secret KGB documents to Swedish Radio (Sveriges Radio). According to him, after breaching his contract in 2012, the KGB hunted him down and even resorted to force. Currently, Swedish Radio is attempting to obtain more information on the documents, which revealed an illegal oil transportation scheme covered up by the KGB and the deputy Prime-Minister Uladzimir Siamaška.

The KGB’s Communication Model

Recruitment by secret services is characteristic of not only Belarus, but many other authoritarian regimes. The KGB was a part of everyday life throughout the USSR and other former communist countries. In Poland, for instance, when new politicians were screened following the fall of the communist regime, many oppositional activists confessed their cooperation with secret services.

Until today, heated debates surround the case of Lech Wałęsa, a Polish anti-communist activist who allegedly cooperated with the secret services. It is quite possible that disclosures about Belarusian activists could emerge eventually as well.

Secret services aim to fully control activists in Belarus. Besides civic and oppositional leaders, the KGB tries to recruit young Belarusian students who study with the Kalinouski programme or at the independent Belarusian university in exile, the European Humanities University.

Members of the Belarusian opposition often accuse one another of cooperation with the KGB as a "last resort" argument. Usually such allegations come with no evidence.

For instance, Andrej Dzmitryjeŭ, leader of the Tell the Truth campaign (Havary Praŭdu) fell victim to such accusations by other oppositional figures. Recently, another conflict emerged between the Belarusian House in Warsaw and the independent news portal Charter97. On 2 May, the Belarusian House in Warsaw demanded that Charter97 vacate its premises provided by the Belarusian House. Soon after, Natallia Radzina, the editor in chief of Charter97, accused the Belarusian House in Warsaw of cooperation with the KGB.

The Belarusian KGB actively employs all possible resources to prevent undesirable activism. By detaining and recruiting oppositional leaders, the secret services ensure their control over civic activism in Belarus. Recently, the KGB has also been harassing top Belarusian businessmen who allegedly represent a major threat to the state. In obtaining such 'human resources', the KGB claims to decrease the levels of corruption and illegal trafficking, and possibly reveal the machinations of foreign intelligence services.




Was the White Legion really planning an armed attack?

On 11 April, the official Belarusian media launched a massive propaganda campaign. They aimed at revealing the alleged plans of a group called White Legion to destabilise the country and overthrow the government. The White Legion is a patriotic sports and military-style organisation which ceased to exist in the early 2000s.

At the moment, 35 people remain under investigation on charges of organising mass riots and creating an illegal armed group. However, independent experts have revealed numerous facts that prove the official evidence false.

The authorities seem to have reanimated the White Legion to create a fabricated threat and discredit the wave of protests sparked by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The authorities are also attempting to sell the threat of a Maidan scenario, complete with anti-Russian armed groups, to the Kremlin.

A secret organisation with terrorist plans uncovered

On 11 April, Belarus Segodnia, the largest official newspaper in Belarus, published a lead article describing a 'journalist investigation' of the preparation of mass riots set for 25 March, 'Freedom Day' in Belarus. According to the article, 35 people are currently under investigation. 17 detainees have already been charged, while the rest remain suspects.

20 people also face charges on another criminal case – creation of an illegal armed group. This is unprecedented in Belarusian history. The newspaper gave a detailed report on the White Legion group, including their training and plans for 25 March, along with evidence from the investigation.

The piece explains that although the White Legion was officially dissolved in the early 2000s, this was really a cover for a more elaborate conspiracy and an attempt to outwit security services. The group supposedly preserved its links and continued training, avoiding publicity and oppositional communities.

According to the investigation, the group also took part in the Ukrainian Maidan and the following military conflict in Eastern Ukraine to gain experience. The article maintained that White Legion fighters were preparing to topple the political regime in Belarus and using patriotic training as a cover. They possessed illegal weapons and had assembled a cachet of iron rods to attack the police. According to the state media, the White Legion was closely associated with former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkievič, and backed his political endeavours.

Security services revealed to the main state-run daily newspaper Belarus Segodnia that they had received information about the planned mass riots on 25 March from a German woman with Belarusian roots, called Frau A. She heard about the plot from a friend acquainted with Belarusian oppositional activists in Poland. She immediately rushed to the Belarusian embassy in Germany to write a letter to the President Lukashenka, asking him to take immediate action.

On 12 April, an even harsher propaganda film, 'White Legion with Black Souls' was aired on the TV channel Belarus 1. The film accused the White Legion of Nazism, links with the Islamic State, plans to commit terror attacks in the Moscow metro, training children to become suicide bombers, and similar ludicrous claims. Moreover, the film cast Belarusian singer Anatoli Jarmolenka and actor Uladzimir Hasciuchin as 'experts'. Observers were quick to characterise the film as very poor-quality propaganda.

How true is the official version?

Even without the accusations of White Legion links to ISIS and Nazism, the investigation's 'evidence' appears mostly false. Belsat published an article which analysed photos of the weapon cache and concluded that they were either replicas of real arms or legally-sold airguns and airsoft guns.

Siarhiej Čyslaŭ, former head of the White Legion, who has been living in Ukraine over the last years, denies the article's accusations. In an interview with Euroradio, he stated that he would be honoured to be responsible for the creation of a deeply secret organisation, but in really the group had ceased all activity long ago. It was simply impossible to function legally in Belarus.

People close to former White Legion members informed the newspaper Naša Niva that although the organisation ceased to exist ages ago, its former associates still retain links and engage in training and cultural activities, including youth education in a Patriot Club near Babrujsk. They also admitted that they were ready to become the backbone of a volunteer battalion in case of Russian aggression, but had no plans for toppling the Lukashenka regime.

Mikalaj Statkievič also called the article a lie – he was not acquainted with any of the detainees, and the last time he met Čyslaŭ was ten years ago. Many other facts also prove the criminal cases to be a politically-motivated fabrication. For instance, Frau A., who speaks Russian with a strong accent in the propaganda film aired on the Belarusian television, somehow managed to write a letter without a single typo and used technical phrases commonly found only within security agencies.

Pro-Russian organisations not perceived as a threat

With exception of a single case when Russian nationalist publicists from the news website Regnum were arrested in December 2016, most pro-Russian groups face no serious pressure in Belarus.

Various Belarusian pro-Russian Cossack groups perform openly on a much larger scale the same activities of which  the Patriot Club and former White Legion are accused. They regularly conduct military drills with replica guns, train children, and cooperate with their Russian colleagues, who took an active part in the war in Eastern Ukraine on the pro-Russian side.

What's more, real pro-Russian combatants of Belarusian origin who fought in Ukraine freely visit Belarus and face only 'preventive talks' with security officers. Many of them admit in interviews that Belarusian siloviki sympathise with them and 'express support', as they have maintained close cooperation with Russian security and military forces since Soviet times.

Let's invent a threat as a distraction from the economic crisis

The case of the White Legion seems to aim at discrediting the wave of protests triggered by the ‘social parasite’ tax. The majority of the population is experiencing economic hardship and is losing faith in the government. The authorities are trying to destroy any group which could even theoretically be capable of organising resistance.

As Siarhiej Čyslaŭ puts it, it is important for the authorities that protestors be framed as fighters and terrorists, rather than political prisoners, thus avoiding new confrontation with the West.

The West, frightened by the Ukraine crisis, fears similar developments in Belarus and is inclined to trust the Belarusian government. At the same time, the authorities are trying to represent the crackdown on 25 March as an operation to save citizens from a terror attack.

Finally, the authorities are also apparently attempting to sell the threat of Maidan and anti-Russian armed groups to the Kremlin in order to achieve better oil and gas prices and other subsidies.

The White Legion case shows that in a difficult situation, the authorities prefer to rely on brutal force and illegal methods rather than open dialogue with the opposition and civil society. However, by destroying patriotic communities, they make themselves  and the Belarusian statehood even more vulnerable to threats from Russia.




Belarus authorities uncover a ‘putsch’ to deter mass protests

On 22 March, Alexander Lukashenka revealed an extraordinary discovery – the authorities had arrested armed fighters who were planning to overthrow the government on 25 March, the day when the Belarusian opposition traditionally celebrates Freedom Day with mass rallies.

The fighters allegedly had training camps inside Belarus and in neighbouring countries. The official media also reported on a series of related incidents, such as gunmen in a car attempting to force their way through a border checkpoint in Ukraine. This all comes in a context of mass arrests of oppositional activists protesting the ‘social parasites decree’.

While some observers claim that the threats were fabrications from a pro-Russian party within the Belarusian security services and Lukashenka had been a victim of disinformation, others say he is simply wary of mass protests and is using the tale to justify renewed repression.

Meanwhile, external actors – namely the West and Russia – are silently observing the developments, waiting to see what happens on 25 March.

All of a sudden, armed fighters inside Belarus

Everything started on 19 March when someone hacked the Facebook account of Miraslaŭ Lazoŭski, the former leader of youth patriotic organisation Biely Liehijon (White Legion), and posted a call 'to take arms and show the authorities who is the real boss in the country. Our friends from Russia and Ukraine have already arrived'.

The next day, the official media reported that a car of armed men in possession of an explosive had attempted to break through a Belarusian border checkpoint from Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities responded that no such car had crossed the Ukrainian border. On 21 March, Lukashenka announced another 'sensation' – the authorities had arrested dozens of fighters who were training in camps inside Belarus, as well as Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland.

On 21-22 March, the KGB arrested at least 17 people, some of whom were serving in Belarusian security bodies while participating in the military and nationally-oriented Patriot Club based in Babrujsk. The club has existed since 2003. Notably, not only was it officially registered, it also had a 'curator' from the security apparatus. Currently the detainees are charged with 'training, preparing or financing mass riots'. The KGB has not revealed any details but says it will 'soon make them available'.

Siarhiej Čyslaŭ, a former leader of Biely Liehijon, informed Euroradio that security services had filmed 'Patriot's' entire summer camp in 2016. Apparently, the authorities planned to use these materials in case of emergency to fabricate compromising evidence on the opposition.

These accusations come just at the right time – 250 people have so far been arrested around Belarus, including many oppositional leaders and activists, following protests against the ‘social parasite tax’.

Who initiated the crackdown?

It beggars belief that these Ukrainian fighters and military camps have anything to do with reality. However, opinions vary as to the initiators and motives of this provocation.

Some experts, such as Jury Caryk from the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, believe this drastic method of protest deterrence was launched by a pro-Russian group from within the Belarusian security forces. According to this version, siloviki gave Lukashenka false reports on extremist groups who were planning to turn protests violent and provoke a Belarusian Maidan.

Others, such as Aliaksandr Fiaduta, the former head of the information office of the Presidential Administration, argue that Lukashenka is not so stupid as to trust his appointees' every word and would have verified the information from various sources.

The crackdown resulted from Lukashenka’s own fears of growing protests coupled with economic pressure from Russia and the West’s reluctance to offer unconditional financial support. Belarusian authorities cannot find any way of pacifying growing social discontent, and have thus returned to their favourite tool – repression of the political opposition.

The opposition's plans and the people’s mood ahead of 25 March

Opposition leaders, as usual, had been disputing the details of the march for a long time, but finally agreed that it should start at 14:00 near the Akademija Navuk metro station and move along Niezaliežnasci Avenue to Kastryčnickaja Square. Mikalaj Statkievič insisted that the march should proceed further to Niezaliežnasci Square, taking all responsibility for the march upon himself.

Many people in Belarus seem to be frightened by the authorities' coming crackdown on 25 March. Popular blogger Anton Matoĺka asked his readership on Facebook why they do not plan to join the protests on 26 March; many admitted that they are afraid of being beaten, arrested or losing their jobs. Others stated that they consider oppositional leaders generally untrustworthy and incapable of organising a safe protest. Nevertheless, many activists are ready to join the Freedom Day celebration and say no to repression.

Meanwhile, the authorities use a variety of tricks to reduce the number of potential protesters on Freedom Day. Many schools and companies are organising compulsory events at the same time as the protests.

The pro-government Federation of Trade Unions has invited citizens to come together and clean up Kurapaty – the location of mass executions during the Stalin regime, which was also the subject of a recent protest action. Moreover, the authorities have permitted Freedom Day meetings in regional centres around Belarus – apparently to prevent locals from joining the main action in Minsk.

The reaction abroad: still watching and waiting

Russia seems to be biding its time and observing from the side, at least publicly. It has not made any statements regarding the protests or repressions. Notably, a Belarusian delegation is currently in Moscow for another round of negotiations on oil and gas agreements, over which the sides have failed to reach an agreement for over a year now.

The authorities' return to mass repression of the opposition has provoked a muted reaction from Western democracies. An EU external action spokesman released a careful statement demanding that 'Recently detained peaceful protesters, including journalists covering the events, be immediately released.' Obviously, the EU is reluctant to revert to confrontation mode with Minsk after several years of normalisation.

However, if repressions continue, the West will be pressured to take a clear position. Russia, it seems, would be happy to see a renewed cooling cycle between Belarus and the EU, which would probably result in more influence over the country from the Kremlin and broader support for Russia’s foreign policy on behalf of Belarus.

According to Kamil Kłysiński from the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies, a window of opportunity still remains, and European diplomats hope that a sane approach to foreign and domestic policy will prevail in Belarus.

This might yet prove to be the case – with the bulk of opposition leadership and activists in jail, the authorities can let the crowd march freely on 25 March and release activists shortly after. However, if a feeling of insecurity persists within the leadership, Belarus may see a backslide to December 2010-style crackdowns with many sad consequences.




Kurapaty memorial in danger: business versus historical memory

On 24 February 2017, Siarhej Palčeuski chained himself to a truck to protest the construction of a business centre in the vicinity of Kurapaty – a commemoration site for the victims of the 1930s Soviet repressions. Palčeuski's great-grandfather was among the thousands of Belarusians who disappeared in 1937.

In 2014, the Belarusian authorities re-drew the boundaries of the protected area surrounding Kurapaty to accommodate several construction projects. Belarusian civil society and oppositional activists argue that the state is thinking only of profit, disregarding transparency, public discussion, and proper historical research.

When the construction of a business centre in the contested area began in February 2017, protests flared up immediately. Local residents and civil society activists confronted workers on the site, setting up a 24/7 watch to protect the memorial.

The modern history of Kurapaty

Kurapaty is the site of NKVD-led mass shootings in a forest on the outskirts of Minsk, where thousands of Belarusians perished as a result of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s. Belarusian society learned the truth only in 1988, after Zianon Pazniak and Yauhen Šmyhaliou published the article 'Kurapaty – the Road of Death.' It sparked the first anti-Soviet mass demonstration in Belarusian modern history.

Kurapaty continue to feature prominently in Belarusian national discourse – every year the traditional Dziady demonstrations head there to commemorate the victims. However, Belarus has yet to recognise the true scope of the Soviet-era crimes.

Even though the authorities of independent Belarus granted the status of memorial site to Kurapaty as early as 1993, its history remains under-researched. The current political regime is reluctant to discuss Stalinist repressions. The school curriculum does not focus on the Great Terror at all, while historians are still denied full access to relevant archives to reveal the whole truth of the Kurapaty tragedy.

Thus, the exact number of victims remains unknown. Historians estimate that anywhere between 40,000 and 250,000 were killed there. Due to the lack of proper archaeological excavations, it is equally hard to determine the boundaries of the mass shooting and burial site.

Construction vs. memory

The current construction controversy surrounding Kurapaty is not the first of this kind: 15 years ago, opposition activists held a 24/7 watch of Kurapaty in a tent camp for 8 months. From September 2001 to June 2002, they protested against the ring road project, which was to cut right through the memorial site. They erected wooden crosses to mark the site and eventually managed to divert the highway away from Kurapaty.

The site continues to suffer from vandalism, while the authorities remain indifferent, consistently trying to extract profit by selling adjacent land plots. For instance, in 2012, Minsk city authorities approved the construction of an entertainment centre bearing an insulting name, “Bulbash-Hall” ("Bulbash" is an epithet for Belarusians), in the protected area of the memorial site.

As the controversy over the inappropriate project was intensifying, the Ministry of Culture started re-drawing the boundaries of the protected area around Kurapaty, cutting it down from 100 to 50 metres. It ignored criticism from historians and civil society and proceeded with the construction of the entertainment centre. However, even though the project was completed in 2015, it remains closed.

Kurapaty 2017: the fight continues

The current conflict in Kurapaty originates in 2013, when Minsk authorities auctioned the land plot in question. At that time, it was still located within the boundaries of the protected area of the memorial site. Any construction required consultations with the Ministry of Culture, as well as the public, but this did not take place.

The person in charge of the construction company, Ihar Aniščanka, is one of the most successful Belarusian real estate moguls. In a comment to Radio Svaboda, he claimed that his company was acting according to the laws and permits granted by city authorities.

Construction commenced on 17 February. When local residents raised the alarm after seeing the workers, leader of the Young Front Zmicier Daškevič launched a campaign to protect Kurapaty from a new incursion. However, on the night of 23 February, a group of 15 masked individuals attacked the tent camp, harming one of the activists, Ales Kirkevič. Tensions resumed again on 24 February, when another group dressed in black provoked a fight with the activists.

So far, the Young Front activists enjoy support from local residents, civil society groups, the Belarusian Christian Democrats, the United Civil Party, and the movement For Freedom. A leader of Tell the Truth, Andrej Dzmitryeu, supported the campaign for Kurapaty, yet hesitated to confirm his party's active participation. Belarusian social-democrats remained aloof, claiming they were not invited.

Confrontation or dialogue?

The head of the Belarusian Voluntary Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments, Anton Astapovič, noted that business centre construction violates the law 'On the Protection of Historical and Cultural Heritage.' Astapovič has already sent complaints to the KGB and the Main Construction Expertise Agency. He questioned the legitimacy of the current project, suspecting corruption.

The Roman-Catholic archbishop Tadevuš Kandrusevič also made a statement on the current conflict over Kurapaty, commenting that the roots of the controversy lie in the lack of sufficient research and a clear delineation of the burial boundaries. He called for an open dialogue between officials, local residents, and civil society to avoid further escalation.

Independent researchers and civil society activists have been leading the way for greater public awareness of Kurapaty. On 22 February 2017, in the midst of the newest construction conflict near the memorial, the civil society initiative Experts for the Protection of Kurapaty opened an exhibition entitled 'The Truth About Kurapaty' in Minsk. A follow-up to the first such exhibition in 2015, it showcases rare oral history testimonies and focuses on identifying victims and perpetrators.

It is up to the authorities to de-escalate the unfolding tensions surrounding Kurapaty. Incidentally, on 24 February, the major official newspaper Belarus Segodnia held a round-table discussion on the need to turn it into a national memorial, dedicated to the victims of Soviet repressions. The outcome of the current construction controversy will prove whether these debates represent serious intentions or yet more empty promises.




Belarus Cracks Down on Pro-Ukraine Donbass Fighters

On 18 April the Belarusian authorities launched the trial of Taras Avataraŭ, a fighter from the Right Sector battalion who participated in the Ukraine conflict.

Earlier this month they introduced amendments to legislation which allow prison sentences for those fighting in foreign conflicts for ideological, not just mercenary, reasons.

However, the government seems to be taking a rather unbalanced approach, repressing only supporters of the Ukrainian side. By doing so Minsk risks creating a strong pro-Russian force inside the country, capable of overthrowing disobedient President Alexander Lukashenka at the Kremlin's order.

Authorities introduce anti-extremist policies

On 4 April the Belarusian parliament approved amendments to the law “On counteracting extremism” proposed by the KGB, Belarus' state security agency. The amendments introduce criminal liability for extremism, which previously was only an administrative offence. The law will target individuals who “create an extremist group, or head it or its branches”. It will punish those convicted with extremist activity with three to seven years in prison, and in case of a repeated offence six to ten years.

Not long before the amendments were introduced, police started a raid against football ultras and radical supporters of the Ukrainian side in the Donbass conflict.

Before 2014 Belarusian ultras rarely expressed political attitudes. However, since Euromaidan and the start of the Ukrainian conflict they have repeatedly declared support for Ukraine.

The police feel that youngsters from ultras groups, who have been inspired by the example of Ukrainian protesters at Maidan, are one of the major groups capable of actually carrying out and supporting street protests in Belarus.

Anonymous ultras told Novy Čas newspaper that the football fan movement in Belarus has been practically destroyed in recent years, regardless of the ideological views of particular firms. The police search ultras' homes and question their relatives about connections between those fighting in Ukraine and and ultras based in Belarus.

Fighting for ideas will become a crime

The same parliamentary session also approved amendments to the law on “Incitement to action against external security, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security”. They introduce liability for fighting in foreign conflicts without mercenary intentions. Now Belarus citizens fighting for ideological reasons will face up to five years in prison if convicted.

Previously the Criminal Code contained only punishment for mercenary activity, as well as recruitment, training, financing and using of mercenary. However, the authorities faced difficulties when charging Belarusian fighters in Ukraine. Police could not gather proof of their receiving remuneration for the service.

On 25 March senior police official Mikalaj Karpiankoŭ revealed to Zviazda newspaper that the police had already filed criminal cases against 135 Belarusians fighting abroad. The police gather intelligence on Belarusians in Ukraine from various sources and also undoubtedly receive information from their Russian colleagues.

The Belarusian authorities seriously fear trained fighters returning home. They could become a dangerous element in the opposition to Lukashenka’s rule. As the economic situation in Belarus gets worse and poverty among the population grows, the risk of internal instability is becoming even higher.

The first trials take place

This April the Belarusian authorities are holding the trial of Taras Avataraŭ, allegedly a fighter from Right Sector, a radical nationalist Ukrainian organisation. He was detained in November 2015 at Minsk railway station in possession of a gun and a self-made grenade. He had a document which confirmed his participation in the Ukraine conflict in the Right Sector battalion, but the organisation has denied these allegations.

In the middle of April police detained another fighter nicknamed “Terror Machine”, this time allegedly from the pro-Ukrainian Azov battalion, on charges of hooliganism dating back to 2013 and alleged mercenary. Although both fighters are charged with crimes other than mercenary, the authorities will also investigate their involvement in the conflict.

Meanwhile, cases of combatants fighting for the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk being on trial remain unknown in Belarus. Only one person from that side of the conflict has been detained, in January 2016, and that was on other charges; he only later revealed his participation in the conflict.

A number of DNR fighters freely gave interviews to Belarusian and Russian media while staying in Belarus and apparently did not fear persecution.

Pro-Russian fighters to remain free?

Independent commentators claim that this is the result of close relations between pro-Russian fighters and the Belarusian security forces, with the support of Russia. For example, a number of pro-Russian combatants revealed that they had previously served in an elite special force group in Marjina Horka. Many of the Belarusian security structures sympathise with Russia and its policy in Ukraine, as they have maintained close cooperation with Russian security and military forces since Soviet times.

An anonymous DNR fighter from Mahilioŭ in an interview with gazeta.ru said that he got involved in the conflict through Russia-backed Belarusian cossacks when he worked in an Orthodox patriotic club.

Many from Eastern Belarus had a similar path. Since the start of Euromaidan pro-Russian groups have become more active in Belarus. They train youth in the ideology of the "Russian World" and maintain close links with the Russian military.

If the Belarusian authorities have indeed decided to tolerate pro-Russian fighters to please Russia, they risk seeing what they fear most coming true. Trained combatants who respect the Russian world more than Belarus independence would probably take Russia's side in case of intervention in Belarus. Meanwhile, pro-Ukraine fighters who value Belarusian independence are mostly taken for radical opposition and repressed. This is obviously a very short-sighted view.

But the Belarusian authorities should also pay serious attention to the reasons why Belarusians go to fight for breakaway republics.

As one Belarusian DNR fighter put it in an interview with the Russian Planet website:

We went there neither for ideas nor for money. People going to war were those who could not realise themselves here (in Belarus). Their future was to become alcoholics, marry ugly women and give birth to children who would face the same fate. None of the Belarusians I met there came from Minsk, because people from the capital have a different mentality and opportunities.

This vivid citation points to the deep social problems that lead Belarusians from the periphery to leave their homes and head for war. Desperate from unemployment, with no hope for a better life and heated with aggressive Russian propaganda, they become easy prey for Russia’s military plans.

Through turning a blind eye to pro-Russian groups in Belarus, failing to counterbalance the Russian media and maintaining a poor regional policy, the authorities have generated a threat that they apparently refuse to deal with. However, it may become a fatal mistake one day.




Milking Oligarchs, Political Modernisation, MSQRD – State Press Digest

Economic difficulties push Belarusian authorities to extraordinary ways of gathering revenues. They continue arrests of top businessmen, regardless of their position in Lukashenka's apparatus, on tax evasion charges, allegedly waiting for a big payoff.

In domestic politics, the authorities try to modernise Belarus' political system and raise the role of loyal political parties and associations without introducing major changes to the authoritarian model.

Belarusian programmers sell MSQRD, an IT startup, to Facebook. All of these and more in this edition of State Press Digest.

Politics

KGB head Vakuĺčyk: there are no sacrosanct people in Belarus. Belarus Segodnya publishes comments made by Belarusian KGB head Valier Vakuĺčyk on the recent arrest of Belarus' top businessman Jury Čyž, as well as other high-rank businessmen detained earlier this year. In addition, to Vakuĺčyk's explanation around the ambiguous tactics used to evade taxes, he also provided some additional details on the subject.

Vakuĺčyk said that he personally took decision to arrest Čyž, since he is not on the staff list of the president and does not need a sanction for arrest. “If I let him go, I would be responsible for that and could appear in his shoes now. There are no sacrosanct people in Belarus, and some wrongly think that appearing on a photo with the president or playing hockey with him gives them immunity”, Vakuĺčyk said.

The authorities want loyal political parties to build in the political system. Belarus Segodnya highlights the meeting of deputy head of Presidential Administration Ihar Buzoŭski with the leadership of pro-government political parties and civil associations ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for this autumn.

“Political parties need to show concrete positive actions aimed at building civil society, economic and social development, and this concerns not only electoral campaign period”, the official said. He added that political parties and civil associations can become effective sites for public dialogue, channels of public opinion and developers of policy proposals.

Pro-government political parties have become passive since the 1990's, because the centralised political system of Belarus does not accept multiple political actors. Apparently, the authorities try to modernise the system and invent new functions for the half-dead loyal political parties.

Eurasian integration

Post-Soviet space needs reindustrialisation and a new integration idea. Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), newspaper Soyuz. Belarus-Russia interviews Russian political scientist, of Belarusian origin, Kiryl Koktyš on the future of post-Soviet integration. According to the expert, previous relations across the post-Soviet space were built around “oil rivers” and participation of former Soviet countries in the trade of Russian hydrocarbons. Today, the countries need to introduce a new model, based on production rather than export of natural resources.

The old concept of an Eurasian Union is dead and the new one has not yet emerged. Designed as a replica of the European Union, it failed to implement free movement of people, capital, goods and services, and after sanctions war demonstrated a complete failure. However, the post-Soviet leadership cannot offer a new idea of integration and each country has its own interests towards Russia.

Economy

Russia aims to boost gas transit via Belarus. Russian gas giant Gazprom has developed an extensive investment programme for Belarus, reports Soyuznoye Veche. It will invest $2,5bn in modernising the Belarusian system of gas transport with one billion of the sum going towards underground gas storage. Moscow is also contemplating the creation of a new pipeline Yamal-Europe-2 from Russia to Central Europe via Belarus.

Kremlin plans to stop transit via Ukraine after 2019, and Belarus is considered a more reliable partner for transiting Russian hydrocarbons. However, Poland, backed by the EU and US, is blocking Moscow's plan for pipeline expansion. Therefore, the future of boosting Belarusian transit capacities remains unclear.

Belarus works on diversification of food export. According to Seĺskaja Hazieta, by 2020 the government plans to split the food export to 30%-30%-30% for the Eurasian Union, the EU and third world countries. Diversification of export becomes a crucial task for food producers in Belarus, as the Russian market, which currently absorbs 94% of Belarus food production, will be gradually contracting. Until 2020 Russia plans to reach around 90% of self-sufficiency in food according to its security doctrine. Yet by now only 2 of 46 diary companies of Belarus managed to enter the market of the non-Eurasian Union countries.

As for the EU market, only 10 Belarusian companies have certificates for selling their products in Europe. The trade with the EU is complicated due to the European protectionist agricultural policy which contains high import tariffs. Moreover, due to economic crisis Belarusian food export in 2015 fell by 26% compared to 2014.

Business

Facebook buys successful Belarusian startup MSQRD. Mobile application for making selfies with masks of celebrities, superheroes and animals emerged only four month ago and has already reached over 15 million downloads. The unique technology seemed so promising that Mark Zuckerberg decide to purchase the startup, writes Soyuznoe Veche. The exact price remains a secret, but is estimated at $100-150m.

MSQRD founder Jaŭhien Neŭhień says that they created the technology over three days and were surprised by its popularity. Shortly after, numerous media celebrities started to post selfies with MSQRD and it rapidly spread around the world. The application became another IT breakthrough from Belarus, following World of Tanks, Viber, and maps.me.

Social

Released gangsters try to revive the old order. A few recent criminal cases of debt extortion reminded Belarus of the 1990's, when the criminal world thrived here, writes Narodnaja Hazieta. In the beginning of the 2000's the authorities implemented a vast crackdown on criminal mobs, and those convicted have been released recently and are trying to revive the old order. Homiel police official Andrej Zajac explained that most former gangsters after spending a decade in prison do not want to work legally and seek criminal sources of income.

However, they find it difficult to work in the new situation, because law enforcement works more effectively than it did in the 1990's-2000's. They try to engage in extortion racket of drug dealers or simply go to Russia where they find more opportunities for this activity. “This is the result of many years of tough work, and if not properly controlled, the gangsters can regain power within a year”, the official said.

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.




Belarusian Government: Strong on the Opposition, Weak on the Shadow Economy

The Belarusian government plans to step up its campaign against the shadow economy. In January 2016, new amendments to the Tax Code will come into force which introduce harsher punishments against illicit business. Last month, President Alexander Lukashenka demanded that Valery Vakulchyk, the head of the KGB, suppress illegal economic activities.

Belarus' shadow economy has been an elephant in the room for many years. Restaurants do not document all of their employees wages. Shops sell goods without receipts. State organs have for a long time closed their eyes to this, apparently fearing that more law enforcement would cause political repercussions.

State of Denial

The government downplays the problem of the shadow economy. This spring, the Tax Ministry announced that the share of the shadow economy accounts for only about 11% of national GDP. Two years ago the same ministry told that it accounts for 8-10%.

Yet a mid-level National Bank official, Lyudmila Stefanovich speaking at a conference in Minsk in May stated that, “the share of shadow economy in Belarus is very big. According to research results, it is about 35% of GDP.”

Indeed, in spring 2015, the IPM Research Centre conducted a survey asking small and medium enterprises whether some of their activities existed in some areas of the shadow economic. 35% of respondents dared to admit that there were such elements.

Some experts believe that the share may be even higher. In 2010 the World Bank published a study on the shadow economy which assessed its share in Belarus in 2007 at 43.3% of the GDP. Among Belarus's neighbours only Ukraine fared worse with 46.8%. The situation in the national economy has failed to substantially change since 2010.

Promises Instead of Documents

Tax evasion in legally registered private businesses is commonplace. The author recently visited the city of Maladzechna near Minsk and was impressed that very few private businesses even in respectable looking large trade centres, such as Troyka and Modul bothered giving receipts for bought goods.

The vendors promised to accept returns if customers found deficiencies. They had no concerns about possible undercover tax officers, although they hardly pay taxes for the goods sold. On top of this they probably pay somebody in order to be allowed to work so.

Last year, state agencies resorted to a new form of control by assessing the whole income of a vendor by measuring his income over a short time and then appropriately multiplying it. Tax officials conducted 80 raids using this method, and found irregularities in 70% of business entities.

Another sphere of tax evasion involves accommodation rent by private landlords, as well as renting premises to be used for commercial and manufacturing purposes. Houses and flats are often rented in Belarus without registering a contract with the authorities. In May, the real estate web-site Pro-n.by estimated that every second flat (i.e., more than 46,000) is rented in Minsk illegally.

Even production lines (for instance tile production) and workshops visibly consuming electricity and water have for years functioned without proper registration. Last year, the tax authorities conducted around 2,600 raids on premises which were suspected to be rented illegally. Almost in all cases it turned out to be the case, as more than 2,500 persons were found to rent property without paying the necessary tax.

Illegal car repair workshops, which have many customers, work on unregistered premises without encountering problems with the police or tax authorities. For instance, in Maladzechna local authorities do not care much about such illegal workshops. Meanwhile, because of this unfair and illegal competition legally registered workshops who pay taxes and social insurance have to reduce personnel and then close down.

Officials of the Tax Ministry articulated the problem of car repair workshops in the early 2010s and promised to take measures. Little has changed since then, thousands of these workshops seem to continue work throughout the country and government agencies no longer speak of the problem anymore.

Belarusian Laissez-Faire

The government apparently avoids antagonising private entrepreneurs engaged in illegal practises. The chairman of State Control Committee, the key control agency, Leanid Anfimau in September announced that the number of raids conducted by the Committee since 2000 decreased tenfold, from 14,000 to 1,500 last year.

Certainly, dubious business practises in Belarus involve much more than hiding income. Violations of labour law stand out as another common practice. Even a fashionable restaurant in the prestigious Niamiha neighbourhood of Minsk belonging to a known Russian businessman pays half of the employees wages “in envelopes,” its personnel told Belarus Digest. Therefore it avoids paying more taxes and social insurance for them, effectively cutting their future pensions.

It is easy to spot these violations as a minor cook gets officially just $250 per month. Without additional payment he would be unable to work. Yet no state agency has an interest in the situation because a raid on this business will bring the state agencies up against an owner who is well connected with the Belarusian regime.

And you do not need to be so influential to be able to break the law without punishment. Even low-level administrators of discount chains have no fear to say those willing to work as merchandisers that if employed they will be prohibited, for instance, to take any sickness leave for the child. This violates Belarusian law, yet the practise has functioned for years without causing the interest of state agencies.

The Belarusian Government: Strong Yet Weak

The Belarusian state faces a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, it controls the political life of the country, including election results. On the other hand, it fails to suppress the shadow economy. The size of the latter remains relatively stable. Moreover, the government displays little willingness to challenge the illegal economy.

For a good reason. It could not do anything about it. Analysing the problems encountered by new independent countries Samuel Huntington once wrote, “there is a failure to recognise that most countries are suffering from an absence of power in their political systems.”

The behaviour of the Belarusian government illustrates the point. State authorities fear the consequences if they touch illegal deals. So far, the Belarusian private sector has refused to finance the political opposition to the Belarusian leadership. The state effectively buys political silence by tolerating not just informal economic schemes but also outright illegal businesses.

The Belarusian state remains narrowly focused on political control. It achieved sophistication in preventing social and political unrest or doctoring election results. Yet its taxation organs let a large shadow economy thrive which seriously undermines honest competition, labour law, taxation and pension systems.




Belarusian Authorities Step Up Pressure On Anarchists

While European and American officials are visiting Minsk and discussing easing sanctions on Belarusian officials, the KGB is preparing for this year's presidential election.

In recent months the police have stepped up pressure on civic activists and anarchists to avoid protests spilling out onto Minsk's pristine streets during the upcoming election campaign.

Over the first two months of 2015 the police imprisoned around 20 activists for short terms between 5-25 days. Following this, on 26 February the trial in Mahileǔ extended anarchist Mikalai Dzyadok's prison sentence for ​another year. This happened just a few days before his planned release.

Mikalai Dziadok is on a list of six Belarusian political prisoners that the Minsk-based human rights group “Viasna” have made public. Four of the six political prisoners, including Dziadok, have declared themselves to be anarchists. They were sentenced to prison in 2010 and 2011 after several attacks on the Russian embassy in Minsk and a KGB office in the city of Babruisk.

The Case of the Anarchists

The heavy-handed suppression of peaceful social and political activism in the 2000s pushed the next generation of anarchists to become much more radical in their tactics. This shift can be seen in the a handful of symbolic attacks on state institution buildings and a casino over 2009-2010 by local Minsk activists.

According to the web page of Revolutionary Action – an Belarusian anarchist organisation – these attacks designed to avoid harming anyone, and were rather a part of a strategy to draw society's attention to social issues, such as military conscription, abuse of power by the police and other issues.

The KGB arrested a number of radical youngsters after an attack on the Russian Embassy in Minsk. On 31 August 2010 an unidentified individual threw a Molotov cocktail at the Russian diplomatic mission in the capital. A virtually unknown anarchist group “Friends of Freedom” claimed responsibility for the attack and declared that the attack was an act of solidarity with anarchists detained in Russia.

A fair share of commentators in the media have since expressed their doubts that the Minsk anarchists were really involved in the incident and regarded the attack as a provocation.

In autumn 2010 the police detained and interrogated around 50 activists as part of the so-called "Anarchist Case". Some of the activists fled abroad. Yet, on 28 November 2010, the secret police in Moscow captured and delivered to a KGB prison in Minsk one of the accused activists, Ihar Alinievich.

The court sentenced Ihar Alinievich to 8 years in a high-security prison colony, while another individual, Mikalai Dziadok, got 4.5 years and three more anarchists were sent to prison for 1.5 – 4 years. None of them confessed to the embassy attack.

During the investigation anarchists from all over the world demonstrated their solidarity through local protests. One of the most radical protests took place in Babruisk. On the night of 17 October local anarchists attacked a KGB office by setting fire to the entrance of the building. As a result three young activists were sentenced to 7 years in prison a piece.

On the Way to Magadan

These court rulings have completely dismantled the local anarchist movement. Still, their repression has attracted the attention of the Belarusian public. They have even classified these symbolic attacks on buildings as mere misdemeanours, not felonies.

Many people learned about the state's pressure on the activists from the book “On the Way to Magadan” – that anarchist Ihar Alinievich wrote in a KGB prison. The book portrays everyday life in a KGB prison situated in the very centre of Minsk. It documents the torture of political activists that were detained following the 2010 president election:

The next morning the torture continued. They pulled me aside on the way back from the bathroom. This time the masked faces gathered together, four or five. They blocked my way and ordered me to bow my head. I refused. After a couple of blows, there was still no reaction. They make me spread out against the wall…

Latest Wave of Repression

Anarchist groups have been largely inactive over the past couple of years, limiting their public activism to graffiti and 5-10 minute long pickets of the police for the continued repression of the left. Over the first two month of 2015, the police imprisoned around 20 activists for span of between 5-25 days on various charges.

On 10 January in Minsk, riot police assaulted a local punk-concert. Several dozens youngsters were detained. Two of them were put in jail for 10 days for resisting arrest.

Officially, the riot police were on a narcotics raid. Later on, however, the police arrested and locked up several activists for a few days that came to the prison in order to pick up their peers who had been arrested at the concert.

Finally, on 26 February a Mahileǔ court extended the year prison term of Mikalai Dzyadok by an entire year just several days before his planned release. According to the authorities, Dziadok systematically violated prison rules by wearing sweatpants instead of the official prison robe and for walking around his cell after lights out.

Commentators on social media and anarchist forums link this wave of repression with the upcoming president elections scheduled to take place this year. They assert that the authorities are afraid that the anarchists will organise protests in opposition to the elections. Despite the state's fears, anarchists clearly do not have the numbers or support to mobilise thousands people to take to the streets.

Tatsiana Chyzhova – a research fellow at Institute of Political Science “Political Sphere” based in Minsk and Vilnius claims that “despite the fact that the anarchists recently engaged in protest activities, the movement is in ruins. At best, they bring together around a hundred followers of anarchist subculture [at any given time]”.

By intimidating social activists and radical leftists, the secret police are looking to quell any protest during the election campaign. Moreover, by extending Mikalai Dziadok's prison term, the authorities are showing that they do not care how the EU will react, as they are concerned with more important issues than anarchists trapped in Belarusian prisons.