Referendum rejected, black market for alcohol, Lukashenka plants corn – Belarus state press digest

Lukashenka rejected plans for a constitutional referendum. The Operational and Analytical Centre head gives their first ever interview. Lukashenka rode a tractor to plant corn with Moldova’s president Igor Dodon.

Counterfeit alcohol from Russia floods the Belarusian black market. Belarusian exports remains concentrated in very few markets and need diversification. The visa-free regime in Hrodna attracts Poles and Lithuanians.

All this in the latest edition of the Belarus state press digest.

Foreign policy and domestic politics

Lukashenka rejected plans for a constitutional referendum. On 24 April, Alexander Lukashenka delivered his annual state of the nation address to the Belarusian people and the parliament, reports Belarus Segodnia. During the one-and-a-half-hour speech, he discussed a variety of issues, including the rumours about planned changes to the constitution. “If someone thinks that we will change the constitution, and thus create the conditions for a Maidan here, [then they should know that] this will not happen.” The president claimed that the Belarusian opposition does not want to take power because it does not know what to do with it.

However, he also said that he can safely transfer certain presidential powers to other governmental bodies because the system functions well. Lukashenka admitted that Belarus currently fails to use its geographical potential in terms of logistics: people prefer to fly from Kiev, Vilnius, or anywhere other than Belarus. He also confirmed government intentions to establish a special ministry for information technologies soon. “By 2020 Belarus should appear to the world as attractive, comfortable and progressive,” the Belarusian president demanded.

Lukashenka and Moldovan president Igor Dodon rode tractors and planted corn. On 18-19 April, Lukashenka visited Moldova, reports Zviazda. The presidents of Belarus and Moldova attended an exhibition of modern Belarusian agricultural machinery at the Institute of Plant Industry, discussed developing cooperation in this field and then planted a corn field, with the presidents driving their own tractors. Igor Dodon said that most of the wines produced in Moldova go to Belarus.

Given the high popularity of Moldovan wine, Dodon promised to teach Lukashenka how to grow grapes. During the visit, the Government of Belarus and the Moldova-Agroindbank (a commerical bank) signed an agreement on the lending terms for the purchase of Belarusian goods. Moldova’s prime minister, Pavel Filip, remarked that jointly-produced Moldovan-Belarusian trolleybuses will be exported to the EU without customs duties and therefore suggest a promising area for further cooperation.

Картинки по запросу андрей павлюченко оац

Lukashenka presents an award to the head of the Operational and Analytical Centre, Andrej Paŭliučenka Photo: sb.by

The head of the Operational and Analytical Centre (OAC) gave his first interview ever. On the special service’s 10th anniversary, its head Andrej Paŭliučenka furnished Belarus Segodnia with details of work at the centre, created to ensure the protection of information and the development of internet technologies. Paŭliučenka characterised early attacks on Belarusian information systems as disorganised and spontaneous. In recent years, however, hacker teams seem to have one or more coordination centres. These groups try to hack into Belarusian defence systems with geopolitical or mercantile goals.

Turning to internal threats, corruption remains the most serious issue and the OAC particularly deals with combating corruption at the highest levels of power. Paŭliučenka also said that the OAC does not shut down websites as many think. It provides for the stable and reliable operation of networks and databases; the OAC serves as engineer and architect of the national segment of the Internet.

Economy

Counterfeit alcohol from Russia dominates the Belarusian black market. Narodnaja Hazieta investigated the black market for alcohol in Belarus. Black marker dealers sell half a litre of vodka for 1 euro online, while in the stores the same volume costs 3 euros. Five-litre cans of so-called “confectionery brandy” are offered for 12 euros. According to the Central Department for Combating Economic Crime, more than 95% of illegal alcohol products entering Belarus come from Russia. Indeed, large criminal groups run a highly profitable business.

The influx of counterfeit alcohol has even made the traditional moonshine industry less attractive among the population. While in 2011 the police confiscated 111,400 decalitres of moonshine, in 2015 it took away only 69,200 decalitres. Counterfeit alcohol is typically of poor quality and often causes poisoning. According to information provided by the Minsk Regional Department of Internal Affairs, during the first 3 months of 2018 in the Minsk region alone,  61 people died from the consumption of ethyl alcohol or other alcoholic surrogates.

Counterfeit alcohol in a private apartment in Homiel. Photo: sb.by

Belarusian exports remain concentrated on a few markets and needs diversification. In 2017 and early 2018, Belarusian exports saw stable growth for the first time since 2012, according to Zviazda. A favourable situation in the raw materials market and in the markets of Belarus’s major trading partners contributed to this growth. However, geographical diversification for export goods remains lower than the government expects. In January – February 2018, five national markets accounted for almost 71% of Belarusian exports.

However, the share exports to Russia saw a positive trend. In January – February it amounted to 38.2% compared to 45% over the same period last year. Speaking about commodity diversification and the example of exports to the European Union, Prime Minister Andrej Kabiakoŭ noted that Belarusian exports to the EU consist of a narrow range of goods with a significant share of petroleum products (50%). “The high concentration on the market of one or a few countries, or in a narrow range of goods, poses significant risks for our country,” the Kabiakoŭ said.

Tourism

The visa-free regime in Hrodna attracts Poles and Lithuanians. Before the introduction of the visa-free regime in Hrodna city, it received 4,700 tourists per year. Since the introduction of the new visa regime, 52,000 foreigners visited the nearby Augustow Canal alone. According to Respublika, 35-40% of tourists travel only for shopping. Visitors mostly buy goods that cannot be found in their home country: medicine, marshmallows, jellies, kvass, birch sap, linen, jersey and alcohol. Lithuanians show strong interest in the historical sites connected with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the medieval state of Belarusians and Lithuanians.

The head of a Polish tourist company from the city of Bialystok, Eugeniusz Laureniuk, notes that religious tourism in Belarus has become popular with Poles in recent years. Active tourism, especially cycling tours, also remain popular. But the lack of hotels, especially in small towns, presents a serious problem. While Hrodna and Brest more or less cope with accommodating tourists, Lida and Baranavičy, both towns with 100,000 inhabitants have only one hotel each.

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




Belarus’s neighbours: patronising and obliging – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

From January to early February 2016, Belarus and Lithuania drifted further apart as their diplomats exchanged tart-tongued statements over the safety of the Astraviec NPP and Belarus’s sovereignty. Alexander Lukashenka, who remains unwelcome in the EU, travelled to more sympathetic Egypt and Sudan.

The Belarusian authorities continued with their efforts to restore the international legitimacy of the national parliament in both bilateral relations (with Poland’s willing accommodation), and international organisations.

Belarus and Lithuania wrangle over nuclear safety and regional security

Tensions between Belarus and Lithuania over the completion of the Astraviec NPP near their joint border have continued to escalate.

On 4 January, Lithuania’s MFA appointed Darius Degutis as ambassador-at-large for coordination of institutional actions over the NPP. Degutis is seeking the support of other European nations for Lithuania’s ‘logical, healthy call for the construction of the Astraviec NPP to be stopped’.

So far, Lithuania has not been very successful in forming an international coalition to proscribe exports of ‘unsafe energy’ from Belarus. Latvia’s foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics recently stressed that his country was not considering any laws to restrict electricity imports from the Belarusian plant.

On 16-20 January, Belarus hosted the SEED mission from the IAEA, which assessed the sustainability of the Astraviec site and the plant's systems. The mission’s report will be ready within a few months.

Nevertheless, the mission’s format and mandate failed to satisfy Lithuania. On 19 January, the country’s foreign minister Linas Linkevičius accused Belarus of selectively applying nuclear safety standards. Two weeks later, in an interview to a Belarusian online news source, the minister characterised the activities of the Belarusian government in regard to the NPP as a ‘propaganda game’, and resolutely excluded any possibility of compromise on the matter.

The conflict over the Astraviec NPP has also spilled over to other issues. Speaking to Deutsche Welle about the forthcoming Russian-Belarusian joint military exercise Zapad 2017, Linkevičius called Belarus’s sovereignty, or 'what is left of it', into doubt.

This provoked an immediate rebuke from Minsk. A spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Dmitry Mironchik, called the tone of the statement ‘patronising and scornful’ and accused Vilnius of ‘insults and preaching’.

No more obstacles to cooperation with Serbia

On 26-27 January in Minsk, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic held talks with his Belarusian counterpart Andrei Kabiakou. He also met with President Alexander Lukashenka.

The two countries’ bilateral trade had plummeted by nearly 60% last year, marginally exceeding $100m in January – November 2016. Despite the negative trend, Vucic claimed that Belarus and Serbia would still strive to attain a $500m turnover by 2019 – the goal they had set in 2013.

Belarus and Serbia signed bilateral agreements in the fields of economy, health care, tourism, culture, sport, and military-technical cooperation.

If in previous years Serbia had remained formally constrained by EU sanctions against Belarus, which Belgrade had voluntarily agreed to undertake, now the two countries are feeling increasingly free to expand their cooperation in all areas.

The Serbian media widely reported on a military donation from Belarus unveiled by Zoran Djordjevic, Serbia’s defence minister. In 2018, Minsk will give eight MiG-29s fighter aircraft as well as two Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile systems free of cost to Belgrade. Serbia will pay for their overhaul and modernisation in Belarus.

According to Vucic, Lukashenka reassured him that Belarus fully accepts Serbia’s aspiration to become an EU member without seeking to join NATO.

Serbia appreciates Belarus’s unwavering support for its territorial integrity. Indeed, unlike Russia, another friend of Serbia, Belarus has no record of recognising and supporting any breakaway entities.

Belarus’s delegation to PACE showcases pluralism

The Belarusian parliament sent two of its members to the hearings on Belarus held by the Political Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg on 24 January.

Andrei Navumovich was chosen due to his status as the head of the parliament’s working group on the death penalty – a priority topic for the Council of Europe. Hanna Kanapackaja, one of the two opposition-inclined MPs, served as a token of Belarusian democracy and political pluralism.

PACE had stripped Belarus of its special guest status in January 1997 after an undemocratic referendum held by Lukashenka. Since then, PACE has been inviting Belarusian officials to attend its meeting on an ad hoc basis.

Kanapackaja stated in an interview that the Belarusian authorities had no intention of joining the Council of Europe as a member. ‘Their priority is to obtain the status of special guest’, she emphasised.

In Strasbourg, Kanapackaja spoke about the need to hold free and fair elections in Belarus; she also voiced her support for the country's full-fledged membership to the Council of Europe and the abolition of capital punishment.

However, her colleague Navumovich raised doubts about the parliament's readiness to abolish the death penalty, stating that he would like to organise hearings on the issue only in 2018. Without doubt, the Belarusian authorities do not think the time is ripe to play this card in their diplomatic match with Europe.

Poland presses ahead with legitimising Belarus’s parliament

On 30 January – 1 February, the lower house of the Belarusian parliament dispatched a high-level delegation to Warsaw.

The team, which included deputy speaker Balieslau Pishtuk and former ambassador Valery Varanietski, held talks with deputy speaker of the Sejm Ryszard Terlecki and speaker of the senate Stanisław Karczewski. They also met with deputy foreign minister Marek Ziolkowski and other Polish officials.

Belarusian MPs expect a return visit of their Polish colleagues in April to discuss a roadmap for future cooperation.

Poland has de facto recognised the appointed rubber-stamp Belarusian legislature as their peers, i.e. a legitimate and viable parliament. Warsaw leads the process among European nations. According to Varanietski, the parliaments of Slovakia and the Czech Republic will soon follow suit.

No convincing attempt to explain the sudden need to ‘normalise’ this irrelevant entity has been made so far. Ziolkowski, who wrote an extensive article for Rzeczpospolita explaining in detail Poland’s ‘change of heart’ towards the Lukashenka regime, failed to utter a single word on the topic.

Curiously, the press services of both the Polish Sejm and the Senate have not reported on the encounters of their leaders with the Belarusian delegation. It is unclear whether they still feel embarrassed about this partnership or if they do not attach any particular significance to it.

In the near future, Belarus looks set to further improve and intensify ties with most of its partners from Central and Southern Europe. However, the relationship with Lithuania is likely to develop in the opposite direction.




Belarusian diplomacy in 2016 – annual foreign policy digest

In 2016, Belarusian diplomats succeeded in getting rid of most Western sanctions, improving the international legitimacy of the national parliament, regularising dialogue with Europe, and converting Poland from a strong critic into a good partner.

Nevertheless, they failed to make Lukashenka fully presentable to his peers in Europe, alienated Ukraine’s political elite, botched export growth and diversification of the export market, and turned Lithuania from a supporter into a foe.

Belarus Digest offers its summary of Belarusian diplomacy’s achievements and failures over the past year.

A farewell to EU sanctions. In February, Belarusian diplomacy scored a major victory when the European Union ended travel bans and asset freezes against most individuals and all companies from Belarus.

Meanwhile, in the months preceding the final removal of sanctions, the Belarusian authorities failed to systematically improve the human rights, democracy, and the rule of law situation in the country.

Geopolitical considerations played the decisive role in the EU's decision, even if European officials denied it. In the regional security context, Europe decided against rebuking Belarus, which had previously acted as a fairly independent player.

Maintaining an ‘optimistic status quo’ with the US. Unlike Europe, the United States refrained from definitively removing sanctions against Belarus. However, Washington remunerated Minsk for its renunciation of overtly repressive policies by suspending economic sanctions repeatedly.

Belarus and the United States focused their dialogue on regional security issues. They also resumed military cooperation.

President Alexander Lukashenka chose to become personally engaged in these talks. He received several mid-level US envoys without giving diplomatic protocol too much mind.

Similar to Europe, the United States prioritised Belarus’s distancing from Russia’s assertive behaviour in the region over long-time concerns for human rights and democracy. However, the lack of progress in these areas precluded further improvement of bilateral ties.

Mainstreaming dialogue with Europe. In 2016, Belarus developed high-intensity relations with Europe, in both institutional and bilateral dimensions.

Hardly a month went by without high or mid-level EU emissaries coming to Minsk or Belarusian officials visiting Brussels. Belarus and the EU launched a new format for structured dialogue, the Coordination Group.

While high-level bilateral exchanges with many EU countries has become quasi-routine, Belarusian diplomacy remained most successful in strengthening bilateral contacts with Central and South-East European nations, leaving the 'old' Europe behind.

Lukashenka has remained a political outcast in Europe. His only ‘visit to Italy’ in May was a mere face-saving encounter with an Italian ceremonial official on the way to his meeting with the Pope.

Befriending Poland. Regional security considerations and genuine economic interests have encouraged Warsaw to pursue greater engagement with Minsk, putting aside ‘ideological superstitions’.

The two countries managed to re-establish multifaceted interagency contacts, which included long-taboo parliamentary cooperation. However, they stopped short of highest-level meetings. Poland also cut down its support for the opposition in Belarus and considered shutting down Belsat, the only independent Belarusian TV channel, which it supports financially.

It is not clear what Warsaw got in return, besides strengthened economic cooperation and hesitant signs that Belarus is turning away from Russia.

Meanwhile, several unresolved issues, mostly related to ethnic minority rights and trans-border contacts, have hampered a full normalisation of bilateral relations.

Fending off Lithuania’s diatribe. Although Belarusian-Polish relations improved, Belarusian-Lithuanian relations deteriorated. The two countries’ disagreement over the construction of the Belarusian NPP near their shared border caused a crisis.

Lithuania expressed fear about environmental and safety issues. Belarus saw economic and political motives behind Lithuania’s claims.

Vilnius attempted to form an international coalition to block potential exports of electric energy from Belarus. Minsk countered these efforts by pitching cheap energy to Lithuania’s neighbours and gradually increasing transparency around the nuclear project. Bilateral trade and investment cooperation suffered as a result.

Legitimising the puppet parliament. Over the last twenty years, the international contacts of Belarusian MPs has remained largely limited to their Russian counterparts, the CIS, and developing countries. European legislators have overwhelmingly boycotted the rubber-stamp institution, which the executive branch appoints and controls.

In 2016, several Western parliaments apparently took the removal of sanctions as an encouragement to reengage with Belarus in all areas, including inter-parliamentary relations.

Exchanges of parliamentary delegations between Belarus and Europe have become commonplace. The visits of high-level MPs from Poland and Austria were especially instrumental in helping the marginalised Belarusian legislature to gain international recognition.

No convincing attempt to provide an explanation for the sudden need to ‘normalise’ the entity, which has no say in Belarus’s domestic or foreign policy, has been made so far.

Withstanding Russian pressure. In 2016, relations between Belarus and Russia reached their lowest point in years.

The two countries squabbled over a number of unresolved issues in different spheres: oil and gas supplies, market access, exports of Belarusian agricultural and food products to Russia, loans, transit of third-country nationals through the Belarusian-Russian shared border, and more.

Both countries avoided verbalising the intensity of disagreements at the political level. Instead, they took recourse to various ‘soft power’ measures. These included airing propaganda talk shows on Russian TV with speculation about pro-Maidan trends in Belarus; arrests of pro-Russian journalists in Belarus; fomenting fears of a Russian invasion of Belarus; and Lukashenka’s refusal to attend a Eurasian summit in Russia.

Belarus remained dissatisfied with Russia’s reluctance to provide its usual level of economic sponsorship. Russia was unhappy about Belarus’s decreased level of loyalty in foreign policy and security matters.

Disappointing the Ukrainian elite. In 2016, Belarus managed to increase its bilateral trade with Ukraine; this stands in stark contrast to its deteriorating commercial relations with most other countries. The two countries also succeeded in putting an end to a tariff war between them.

However, despite Belarus’s tacit refusal to support Russia in its hybrid war against Ukraine, political relations between Minsk and Kyiv deteriorated.

Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko have not met in a bilateral format since mid-2014. Their agreement to meet in late 2016 failed to materialise after Belarus voted against a UN resolution on human rights in occupied Crimea. This vote angered many among Ukraine’s elite.

Failing to achieve a breakthrough with ‘Distant Arc’ countries. Belarus sought to achieve a more balanced geographical distribution of its exports to decrease the national economy's vulnerability to stress situations in its main markets.

Lukashenka travelled extensively outside Europe and Russia – visiting China, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE. His diplomats also focused mostly on Middle-Eastern and Asian nations.

However, efforts to increase the share of ‘Distant Arc’ countries in Belarus’s trade have largely failed. In January-November 2016, exports to these markets decrease by 12.5%, from $7.13b to $6.24b, and the share in total exports remained at 29%.

Belarus took pride in improving its relations with China from a simple ‘strategic partnership’ to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership featuring mutual trust and win-win cooperation’.

Belarus's excellent political relations with China may serve to counterbalance Russia’s outsized influence on Belarus. However, these relations have failed to provide an immediate economic payoff as Belarusian exports to China in 2016 contracted to their lowest level since 2009.

Faltering at the United Nations. In 2016, Belarusian diplomacy invested much effort in reforming the process of appointment for new UN Secretary Generals. Throughout UN history, its leader has been chosen based on consensus of the Security Council’s permanent members.

Despite some external signs of greater transparency and inclusiveness, Belarus’s reform efforts have largely failed. Even Belarus’s closest ally, Russia, refused to support this initiative.

Minsk stuck to its non-consensual initiative in promoting the traditional family. It also created a group of like-minded middle-income countries, exploring a new way to access UN development assistance.

Belarus’s policy statements at the UN contrasted with its recent pragmatic approach to bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Using strong anti-Western and anti-capitalist rhetoric, they assigned blame for Belarus’s economic, social, and security failures to West-induced ‘global chaos’.

In 2017, Belarusian diplomats will continue to work wonders: developing relations with the West without a hint of meaningful democratic reforms at home; keeping Russia as its closest ally and sponsor without offering the usual degree of loyalty in return; and increasing exports and attracting investments without economic restructuring and reforms.




Belarus and Poland: is the difficult period finally over?

Belarus and Poland are moving closer towards a rapprochement, with Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei paying a working visit to Warsaw on 10 October.

His Polish counterpart, Witold Waszczykowski, seems to have a personal affinity for Makei; Waszczykowski trusts that President Alexander Lukashenka’s intentions to mend bilateral ties between Minsk and Warsaw are sincere.

Publicly, both parties have expressed enthusiasm about the recent improvements in Belarusian – Polish relations. However, the increase in dialogue has so far failed to foster any new breakthrough projects. Many obstacles preventing genuine improvement in bilateral relations remain, such as the treatment of the Polish minority in Belarus.

Is the difficult period finally over?

For most of the past two decades, the relationship between Belarus and Poland has remained strained, regardless of whether the ruling party in Warsaw be Socialists, Liberals or Conservatives. The failure of a short-lived attempt at a thaw in 2010 ended in even deeper animosity between Minsk and Warsaw.

A phone call by then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk to Alexander Lukashenka, placed in the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine, may have served as a turning point in bilateral relations. Around the same time, a working group on trade and investments representing both countries met in Minsk. The group had failed to meet for the five preceding years.

Since then, bilateral dialogue has been developing dynamically and without interruptions. Both Belarus and Poland have regularly hosted visits from ministers, deputy ministers, and high-level officials from different agencies and institutions.

The parties have been actively engaged in discussions on foreign policy and security, trade and investment, infrastructure development and construction, agriculture and forestry, culture and environment, and so on. In July, Belarus and Poland signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in education.

In March 2016, Witold Waszczykowski visited Minsk to meet with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei. President Lukashenka received the Polish official and reassured him that Belarus was prepared for “closest cooperation with Poland”.

In August, Poland made a significant gesture to the Belarusian authorities when Ryszard Terlecki, vice-speaker of the Polish Sejm, came to Minsk to meet with the chairmen of both chambers of the Belarusian rubber-stamp parliament.

The unwarranted recognition of this institution, which plays no role in Belarus’s domestic or foreign policy, can neither promote democracy in Belarus nor have any meaningful impact on bilateral relations by means of inter-parliamentary dialogue. This was merely a favour granted to the Belarusian executive authorities in expectation of later favours in return.

No problems whatsoever in bilateral relations?

During his trip to Warsaw on 10 October, Vladimir Makei held talks with his Polish counterpart. He was also received by Polish president Andrzej Duda.

On the same day, Makei met with Krzysztof Szczerski, a senior official in charge of the president’s foreign policy schedule. The two officials likely discussed the conditions and timing of a meeting between Andrzej Duda and Alexander Lukashenka.

Makei made his introductory remarks in Belarusian – still very rare among top-level Belarusian officials. Warsaw surely noted the fact that Belarus’s foreign minister expressed himself in the language of his country’s titular nation in a foreign capital. The choice to use the Belarusian tongue sent a delicate signal to Polish authorities that they were indeed hosting a representative of an independent nation rather than a Russian satellite.

However, Belarusian and Polish officials have so far failed to announce any major joint projects, initiatives, or breakthrough solutions to unresolved bilateral issues. Very few specifics were provided. At a press briefing after his meeting with Waszczykowski, Makei spoke warmly about the current tone of Belarusian – Polish relations. He went as far as stating that “Belarus and Poland [were] experiencing a historic moment of transition to a new period of bilateral relations”.

In the same statement, Makei did mention certain “remaining problematic issues” before immediately stressing that “[Belarus and Poland] have no problems whatsoever … in our bilateral relations”. A possible interpretation of this contradiction may be that any remaining disagreements are not of a bilateral nature but rather imposed or provoked from the outside, by Brussels, Washington or even Moscow.

Can one expect a breakthrough?

Despite the recent rapprochement, Belarus and Poland have accumulated a number of issues during the previous period of strained and often antagonistic relations. These problems need to be resolved for a full normalisation of bilateral ties.

The current conservative Polish government has been particularly attentive to issues pertaining to national identity, history, and traditions.

Waszczykowski personally asked his Belarusian counterpart to help bring to light the full list of victims of the Katyn massacre, presumably stored in the KGB archives in Minsk. While Makei has indeed brought some historic documents to Warsaw, he maintains that the authorities have failed to find the Katyn list in the Belarusian archives.

The status of Polish Catholic clergy in Belarus also remains a sensitive issue for bilateral relations. In July, the Belarusian agency in charge of religion categorically refused to extend the work permits of three Polish priests serving in Belarusian parishes. The agency reversed its decision a few days later, apparently under pressure from the foreign ministry. However, this situation may reoccur any day.

A source in the foreign ministry has told Belarus Digest about Makei’s plan to reunite the Union of Poles in Belarus, which the government cleaved in two in 2005. The authorities are allegedly proposing to hold a unification congress of the independent, non-registered association recognised by Poland, and the government-controlled union. The goal is to democratically elect new leaders – but the Belarusian government insists on green-lighting the candidatures in advance.

The intention is to heal the sorest point in the two countries’ relations. It is unclear, however, whether activists of the two associations will be ready to work together after years of mutual animosity and mistrust.

In its turn, the Belarusian authorities insist that Poland curtails its support of democratic Belarusian activists. Belarus’s foreign ministry is particularly invested in the closure of the Belsat TV channel, which is broadcasted from Poland and funded by the Polish government.

Incidentally, Waszczykowski is said to be reassessing the need for Belsat. The minister seems to be ready to go as far as shutting the project down completely. This decision would be part of a trend of Poland decreasing its support of Belarusian pro-democracy groups.

The Belarusian ambassador to Poland has lately been a frequent guest in Polish government agencies, where he is hard selling energy from the Astraviec nuclear power plant. So far, Poland has been very careful in its response to this pitch, balancing between its loyalty to Lithuania and the potential commercial benefits.

Regional security considerations and genuine economic interests are encouraging Poland to pursue greater engagement with the Belarusian authorities, putting aside “ideological superstitions” (to use a term coined by Makei in Warsaw).

It remains to be seen to what extent this new attitude will allow Warsaw to look past Minsk’s reluctance to undertake any meaningful step towards political liberalisation, which remains the fundamental condition of Europe’s full-fledged cooperation with Belarus.




Journal of Belarusian Studies 2015: History of the Belarus-Poland-Lithuania Borderland

The 2015 issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies released today is almost entirely about history. It focuses on the Belarusian-Polish-Lithuanian borderland and the period stretching from the uprising of 1863 to the inter-war period of the 20th century when the territory of today’s Belarus was split between the Soviet Union and Poland.

Two longer articles are followed by several essays which resulted from a conference held by the Anglo-Belarusian Society and other London-based organisations at University College London in March 2014.

The issue opens with an analysis of humour as a weapon of the political forces in Eastern Poland, what is now West Belarus, in the interwar period. The article, by Anastasija Astapava from the University of Tartu in Estonia, explains the historical context of the 1920s and how various political groups were struggling for the minds of Belarusians by ridiculing political realities of that time. Rare pictures from interwar periodicals richly illustrate the article.

Felix Ackermann, a DAAD Associate Professor at the European Humanities University in Vilnius, devotes his article to the Lukiškės prison in Vilnius. The prison was a hotbed of political struggle in the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was a place of detention for scores of Belarusians, Lithuanians, Poles and other activists fighting for their causes in multi-ethnic Vilnius at that time. It was the only prison in the Russian Empire to incorporate Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Jewish places of worship at the heart of its infrastructure.

Kastuś Kalinoŭski​ Conference Proceedings

The subsequent four shorter articles resulted from the Kastuś Kalinoŭski and the Nation-Building Process in Belarus conference, which brought together over a dozen of scholars from Belarus, the United Kingdom, Lithuania and Poland. Kastuś Kalinoŭski is a national hero of Belarus who led the 1863–1864 uprising against tsarist Russia.

Aliaksandr Smaliančuk, a Belarusian historian from Hrodna who is currently affiliated with the Polish Academy of Sciences, analyses the research problems which historians face when they tackle the historical role of Kastuś Kalinoŭski in Belarusian nation building. He argues that Kalinoŭski should not be seen as a creator or even a bearer of the Belarusian national idea but instead as a link in the gradual evolution of the Lithuanian idea in the ‘Belarusian direction’.

Dorota Michaluk from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Po- land analyses the Polish-language clandestine press published under the patronage of Kastuś Kalinoŭski around the time of the uprising against the tsarist authorities in 1863–1864. One of her findings is that the periodicals did not promote the idea of separatism of in Lithuania and Belarus but instead called for national unity and the restoration of the whole of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Uladzislaŭ Ivanoŭ from the European Humanities University in Lithuania looks at the role of Belarusian old Believers in the Kalinoŭski uprising. Old believers were a Christian Orthodox sect who refused to accept church reforms in Russia in the 17th century and who after being persecuted settled in the territory of Belarus. The author shows how the old believers tried to reconcile their ‘Russianness’ with their ‘Belarusianness’.

Andruś Unučak, Head of the Department of Belarusian Statehood at the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, focuses on the image of Kalinoŭski in the official discourse of Soviet Belarus. According to the official line of the Belarusian Communist Party, Kalinoŭski supported a federation with Russia while the Belarusian intelligentsia tried to use the image of Kalinoŭski to strengthen Belarusian national consciousness.

Reviews

This issue also includes the transcript of the first Annual London Lecture on Belarusian Studies, which was hosted by the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies of University College London in March 2015. Per Anders Rudling from the University of Lund in Sweden tracks the development of the Belarusian national idea from the 18th century to modern day Belarus.

The issue also includes two book reviews – one by Stephen Hall examining the meaning of Europe for the Belarusian and Ukrainian authorities, and the other by Siarhej Bohdan looking at relations between various ethnic groups in Eastern Poland in the inter-war period, which is now Western Belarus. Brian Bennett, Chairman of the Anglo-Belarusian Society and a former British Ambassador to Belarus prepared an overview of activities of the Anglo-Belarusian Society in 2014.

Fr Alexander Nadson

On 15 April 2015 Fr Alexander Nadson, a spiritual leader of the Belarusian diaspora in the West, a member of the Advisory Board of the Journal of Belarusian Studies and a former chairman of the Anglo-Belarusian Society passed away in London. Fr Alexander left a legacy of not only religious texts and translations but also books and articles on various aspects of Belarusian studies.

Fr Alexander authored the first article in the first issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies on the writings of St. Cyril of Turaŭ in 1965 and since 1973 served on its editorial board. His last article in the Journal was published in 2013. Jim Dingley’s obituary and a bibliography of his works in English concludes this issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies.




Europe Insists on Human Rights Progress, Nuclear Plant Concerns – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

In the first half of November, senior Belarusian diplomats met with their counterparts from Lithuania and France. The meetings focused on economic cooperation. However, Europe has insisted on the need for further progress in the fields of human rights and democracy in Belarus.

Trade, industrial cooperation and investments dominated the agenda of Belarusian Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov’s visit to Pakistan and Turkey, this time without a human rights’ “aftertaste”. Falling export revenues have led to greater personal involvement by the head of government in advancing Belarus's economic interests abroad.

Vilnius Wants Transparency on Astraviec NPP

The suspension of EU sanctions has had no visible effect on the dialogue between Minsk and Vilnius, which continued during the most difficult moments of relations between Belarus and Europe.

On 9–10 November, the bilateral commission on trade and economic cooperation convened in Minsk for its 17th meeting. The delegations led by the economy ministers of the two countries, discussed cooperation in transport, transit, energy, protection of the environment, industry, agriculture and tourism.

On 12 November, Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei received his Lithuanian counterpart Linas Linkevičius. The agenda of their meeting, in addition to the issues discussed by the bilateral commission, included border infrastructure and the relations between Belarus and the European Union.

In a Twitter message after the meeting with Makei, the Lithuanian minister called their talks “candid” and named three areas where irreversible progress was needed: human rights, a visa facilitation agreement and cooperation with the EU. He also underscored the need for transparency on Astraviec NPP.

In fact, the issue of the nuclear facility, which Belarus is building 50 km from Vilnius, may have been the most difficult one at the last talks. Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius told journalists last week that Belarus failed to follow certain international agreements, which provide for an independent environmental assessment of the construction’s impact on neighbouring countries.

Algirdas Butkevičius also strongly denied reports published by Russian media, claiming that Lithuania and Belarus had agreed on the construction of Astraviec NPP. He stressed that “Lithuania [was] not going to adapt any infrastructure to that power plant and [was] not going to buy electricity from Astraviec NPP”.

In Minsk, Belarus and Lithuania agreed to hold an expert meeting in December to discuss Vilnius’ concerns.

Despite a fruitful dialogue on economic and political issues, Belarus and Lithuania do not forget that they belong to two opposing military blocs. On 5 November, Vilnius county court found a former employee of state enterprise Oro Navigacija (Air Navigation) Romualdas Lipskis guilty of spying for Belarus.

This has been the first espionage case that reached the court after the restoration of Lithuania's independence. Romualdas Lipskis was sentenced to three years and three months in a correction facility for having collected information about Lithuanian military and civil facilities.

Kobyakov Visits Pakistan and Turkey

Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov has become actively involved in the country’s diplomatic efforts lately aimed at opening new markets for Belarusian goods.

On 9-11 November, Andrei Kobyakov led a high-powered Belarusian delegation to Pakistan. In Islamabad, he met with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif and spoke at the third Pakistan-Belarus Business and Investment Forum.

The Belarusian prime minister called the existing trade turnover between the two countries ($60 million in 2014) a “statistical margin of error”. He nurtures the ambition of blowing it up to $1 billion dollars in a mid-term perspective. To achieve this target, the parties signed a programme titled “Roadmap for fast-track and middle-track economic cooperation between Pakistan and Belarus”.

Pakistani media announced the signing of 18 bilateral documents (agreements, memoranda of understanding, protocols and programmes) while Kobyakov’s press service speaks of 17 documents. Belarus and Pakistan will focus on industrial cooperation, and agriculture and infrastructure development.

Kobyakov’s press service has also avoided mentioning military cooperation among the topics for discussion, probably not willing to harm Belarus’ relations with India. Meanwhile, the Pakistani press have reported on the discussion of cooperation in defence and defence production, counter-terrorism and narcotics control.

From Islamabad, Andrei Kobyakov flew directly to Istanbul. There, on 12 November, he spoke at the Belarusian Investment Forum. The prime minister announced Belarus’ new export market diversification strategy and called Turkey “a key place, a new springboard” for Belarus.

Andrei Kobyakov met in Istanbul with President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several potential investors. In a similar way to Belarus's cooperation with Pakistan, Minsk places great hopes on setting up local assembly of traditional Belarusian goods, such as tractors, automobiles, road-building and mining machinery, as well as refrigerators with Turkey. In its trade with Turkey, Belarus also wants to achieve the “intermediate” target of $1 billion in turnover by 2016. The current figure stands at about $600 million.

Kupchyna in Paris for UNESCO and Bilateral Talks

Deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna visited Paris on 5 – 6 November to speak on behalf of the delegation of Belarus at the 38th session of the General Conference of UNESCO. She also met with the organisation’s Director-General Irina Bokova.

Kupchyna’s statement in the general debate has been a good sample of a ritual intervention enumerating ‘achievements’ and ‘priorities’ in Belarus’ relations with UNESCO. Recently, Belarus and UNESCO have not implemented any high-profile cooperation projects.

No new sites from Belarus have been inscribed on the World Heritage List since 2005. Besides, there have been no new additions to the tentative list since 2004.

In previous years, lower-level officials represented Belarus at the sessions of UNESCO’s General Conference. It may well be that the main reason for Kupchyna’s visit to Paris was to meet with senior French officials.

Indeed, on 6 November, Alena Kupchyna met with Harlem Désir, Minister of State for European Affairs. The French diplomat, who has maintained regular contact with his Belarusian counterpart, became the first to break the news about the forthcoming suspension of EU sanctions against Belarus.

The press services of both foreign ministries reported about France’s appreciation of the constructive role Belarus had played in helping to find a lasting solution to the Ukrainian crisis as well as the discussion of the development of bilateral economic relations.

However, the Belarusian foreign ministry “forgot” to mention Harlem Désir’s call for Belarus’ efforts with respect to human rights and democratic principles. The Belarusian regime can hardly expect that France and other EU countries will satisfy themselves with the expansion of bilateral trade and Belarus’ “donorship of stability”.




Belarus Engages with the US, Improves Ties with Europe and Post-Soviet Countries – Foreign Policy Digest

Belarusian diplomacy has been shifting the country's relations with the West into high gear seeking to capitalise on Belarus' newfound importance for regional stability.

"The Europeans … are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we're always open to [talking]", President Lukashenka claimed while inspecting a riot police unit on 5 March. And indeed several EU and US delegations have visited Minsk lately.

Belarus also held bilateral consultations with half a dozen European countries last month. However, any tangible result from these talks, besides the obvious thaw in relations, has yet to materialise.

The foreign ministry also held a series of consultations with post-Soviet countries centred mostly on economic relations. However, the failure to unite most of the former USSR republics around a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII has become a telling sign of the group's growing disunity .

Lukashenka Disregards Protocol

On 27 February, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka received Eric Rubin, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. The same day, a US delegation led by Eric Rubin met with Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.

Lukashenka: No stability is possible without the Americans

Even keeping in mind the United States' role in global affairs, meetings at this level represent a baffling imbalance. A deputy assistant secretary is strictly a mid-level position in the State Department, roughly the equivalent to a deputy head of a department in Belarus' foreign ministry.

Lukashenka may simply have been excited at the prospect of improving relations with the West, seeking to get a sense of the ongoing negotiations firsthand.

The US envoy expressed his country's appreciation for the positive role Belarus has played in efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Ukraine. The Belarusian president, as he revealed in his interview to Bloomberg on 31 March, insistently stated during the meeting that "no stability [was] possible in Ukraine without the Americans", so "they must get involved in [the peace] process immediately".

Belarus and the US discussed the possibility for improved cooperation in trade, non-proliferation, and combating human trafficking. Both parties chose to admit existing disagreements in their press statements. Eric Rubin emphasised long-standing US concerns over human rights and democracy.

Belarus – EU: A Bilateral Track

In late February and March, Belarus sustained the intensity of its interactions with European countries seeking to benefit from a marked thaw in relations while also trying to reformat the existing framework of cooperation.

The talks with Europe have developed simultaneously along two tracks: bilateral cooperation with specific EU countries and cooperation with the EU as an institution focusing on the Eastern partnership, a dialogue on modernisation and visa issues.

Two deputy foreign ministers worked on developing closer ties with Lithuania. While Alena Kupchyna focused on discussing Eastern Partnership issues with a Lithuanian delegation in Minsk on 27 February, her colleague Alexander Guryanov went to Vilnius and Klaipeda on 5 and 6 March to look at trade and investment cooperation. Belarus seeks to increase its transit of goods through the Klaipeda seaport, and the Lithuanian authorities are happy to oblige them.

Belarus deftly exploits Hungary's Eastern policy

These very Belarusian diplomats also worked in tandem in building relations with Italy. On 3 March, Alena Kupchyna hosted her Italian counterpart Benedetto Della Vedova for the first bilateral consultations since 2009. Their most important decision was to schedule the first-ever meeting of an intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation in January 2016 in Rome. Alexander Guryanov went to Milan and Rome from 18 – 21 March to prepare for Belarus' participation in Expo 2015 and strengthen cooperation with the Italian Export Credit Agency SACE S.p.A.

The Hungarian Deputy State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Csaba Balogh headed his country's delegation on bilateral consultations in Minsk on 4 – 5 March where he spoke with Alena Kupchyna and Vladimir Makei. Belarusian diplomats have exploited to the utmost of their ability Hungary's Eastern Opening strategy, a policy proclaimed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2010, making this country one of Belarus' closest partners in Europe.

Also in March, Belarusian diplomats held working-level consultations with their European colleagues from Belgium and Poland in Minsk and the Czech Republic in Prague.

Belarus – EU: An Institutional Track

On 9 March, Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna visited Brussels for a fifth round of consultations on modernisation, mapping out the best form of future cooperation. While few details have emerged, human rights may have been in focus.

Oddly formatted EU delegation visits Minsk

Three days later, Belarus and the EU held a third round of talks on visa facilitation and readmission agreements in Minsk. Again, officials from both sides have refrained from leaking much information. Rumor has it that both parties are very likely to ink the agreements at the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga. However, due to technical reasons (e.g. translations into all EU languages, etc.) there is no chance that they will have the documents ready to sign by May.

On 19 March, Alena Kupchyna received a delegation of high-level diplomats from Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. This unusual grouping of diplomats resembled a reconnaissance mission to help the EU understand how far Belarus is ready to go in its relations with Europe in the context of the latest developments in the region. Discussion was confined to the forthcoming summit in Riga.

Post-Soviet Relations: Emphasis on Bilateral Component

Minsk has also focused on strengthening ties with its post-Soviet partners. On 12 March in Tashkent, Belarus and Uzbekistan held the fourth meeting of an intergovernmental commission on bilateral cooperation, with an emphasis on trade.

On 18 – 19 March, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Mikhnevich went to Tbilisi to prepare for Alexander Lukashenka's visit to Georgia. His colleague Alexander Guryanov visited Kyiv on 23 March to discuss how to support trade ties that have suffered as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.

Post-Soviet countries are no longer united on commemorating WWII

Finally, on 10 March, Alexander Lukashenka received Yaqub Eyyubov, the Azerbaijani First Deputy Prime Minister. They focused on investment opportunities. Belarus has a few joint ventures in Azerbaijan, which manufactures trucks, tractors and lifts. However, Minsk is also interested in attracting Azerbaijani capital to Belarus.

Yet, former Soviet Union republics are quickly growing apart. Their common history is increasingly less binding. This year, only eight post-Soviet countries out of fifteen (Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) supported various efforts to commemorate the 70th anniversary of WWII, such as a film screening in New York or a joint statement at the Human Rights Council.

In this shifting reality, Minsk's decision to emphasise a bilateral track in its ties with these post-Soviet countries, which are no longer interested in Moscow-centric relations, should finally pay off.




EHU Rector Selection: Time to Fix Mistakes and Improve Credibility

The “Rector Selection Saga” at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius, the Belarusian university in exile, has been going on for more than half a year. It enters its third season with the Governing Board’s Rector Selection Committee making every mistake in the book – again.

It appears that the current Selection Committee (with no Belarusians on it) has no capacity to legitimise any candidate it would raise, especially after many criticised the process of pushing a hand-picked candidate, Dr. Garry David Pollick.

By 1 March 2015 the Governing Board was expected to recommend a final candidate for the rectorship position to the General Assembly of the Part-Owners (GAPO). This, however, has not happened.

Postponing the process further significantly increases the damage to EHU's credibility just as prime time for student recruitment descends upon the institution. This decision also pushes GAPO to take the initiative into its own hands and act without consent of the Board, for first time in the history of EHU.

Laying Eggs, Executive Style

The current acting rector Dr. Garry David Pollick has incomprehensibly made his way through on to the final rounds of the selection process. He was introduced as a provost and COO of the European Humanities University slightly over a year ago and became EHU Acting Rector in October 2014.

Pollick’s engagement at EHU has been marked by an astonishing rise to the top. But what did this candidate achieve in the year that he has lead EHU? And why does the Selection Committee keep pushing him to the top with such sustained vigour?

The critical point in this whole discussion is how the Belarusian focus of the institution has lately become somewhat of a marginal idea. This problem – probably for the first time in the last 10 years – has finally engaged Belarusian civil society in a discussion of what the role of EHU is in developing the national project for democratic Belarus. Three months ago, 40 leading minds from Belarus and abroad signed in January 2015 an open letter calling to keep the ‘Belarusian heart’ of EHU and not abandon its legacy.

Under Pollick’s leadership, EHU has suffered from the disastrous losses of reputation as well as increased financial losses

Under Pollick’s leadership, EHU has suffered from the disastrous losses of reputation which, among other things, include unnecessary legal disputes over dismissals of former employees and breaches of the EHU Statute by particular administrative bodies of the university.

Dr. Pollick oversaw a hiring process that gave rise to a budget deficit of nearly €1 million (there was no comparable budget deficit before). This caused major donors like the European Commission and Norway to suspend funding, pending a plan to reduce this deficit to a manageable size – a plan they have been waiting to receive from Pollick since last summer.

One of his few accomplishments – a rather self-serving redraft of EHU’s Statute, created a University Council that Dr. Pollick boasted would help make EHU more democratic. According to the Statute, it is supposed to meet every two months. Dr. Pollick has not called a meeting of the Council in months. This is, very likely due to the fact that he decided that he can no longer work there with EHU’s CFO, who was asking uncomfortable questions about a number of financial matters that involve Dr. Pollick.

Lithuania’s Centre for Quality Assessment in Higher Education gave EHU poor marks for strategic management

Not surprisingly, a report released by Lithuania’s Centre for Quality Assessment in Higher Education in early February gives EHU poor marks for strategic management – the area that Dr. Pollick, probably the most expensive education consultant in the whole region, currently supervises. The university spent well over a hundred thousand euros on his compensation rather than on the development of academic programmes or campus renovations over the span of a single year.

Losing the Battle, saving Face

Presumably, the Board will no longer support Pollick, since few Board members are willing to take personal responsibility for choosing a candidate who has almost no support outside the Selection Committee. Unfortunately for EHU, a small group of influential and desperate Board members continue to push Pollick further along the selection process for the university's top post.

According to some sources, last month, in an almost comically desperate effort to shore up their candidate, two individuals from the current EHU governance structures made their way to New York in the hopes of enlisting George Soros in their dubious adventure. Since George Soros is the founder and chairman of Open Society Foundation (one of three Part-Owners of EHU), his opinion on who becomes rector is of crucial importance. No surprise, however, that George Soros refused to support the legitimisation of a shady candidate and insisted on a fair selection process before it is too late.

What else could select members of the Governing Board do further to discredit the current selection process? Arrange a “members only” Board meeting without the presence of student representatives and the EHU Trust Fund Manager (who are usually invited as observers) at Frankfurt Airport to further delay the final decision and keep Pollick on board as the most highly-compensated temporary rector in the history of Lithuania and Belarus for another month or two for the sake of an “exchange of opinions”? Fantastical as it may sound, this is precisely what they did. The airport meeting will take place at the end of March.

The Rule of Law, the Rule of GAPO

If the EHU Board is so misguided as to nominate a candidate who has failed to perform the work for which he was hired, and GAPO to approve this, it will most likely mean a terminal loss of credibility for the European Humanities University as a whole. However, the current degree of dissatisfaction with the selection process may well warrant a negative decision by GAPO, should the Board decide to nominate Pollick.

GAPO, not the Board, officially appoints and dismisses EHU’s Rector and can even dismiss the existing Governing Board

According to the EHU Statute, it is GAPO, not the Board, which officially appoints and dismisses EHU’s Rector and makes all fundamental decisions in the life of the university. GAPO could even dismiss the existing Governing Board, if it so chooses. If they were to reject a Board nominee or fully reboot the selection process, a new page of democratic governance would be opened in the history of EHU. GAPO has never voted against a Board decision before and is likely to act independently for the time in its history.

Such a scenario would become a clear signal to alumni, students, faculty, donors and other stakeholders that GAPO takes seriously their obligation to properly govern and manage a Belarusian academic institution. If GAPO starts anew the search for a rector and dissolves the existing Selection Committee, Belarusians will achieve their first institutional success on the way to real engagement for change and this, in turn, will restore hope for a European future for Belarusian higher education, starting with EHU.

That said, no matter who becomes a finalist at this point, given the existing selection process, without a new, reliable procedure, his or her legitimacy would be very low in many people's eyes. So now the question is not just who and how will actually become the next rector, but also whether the current Governing Board will continue to exist in its present form.

Serge Kharytonau

President of the Alumni Association of the European Humanities University




Belarus Welcomes Top EU Leaders: A Rare Show

The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine agreed to hold peace talks in Minsk on Wednesday, 11 February, in an effort to avert a full-scale war in Ukraine.

The last German and French leaders to visit Minsk were Adolph Hitler in 1941 and Georges Pompidou in 1973. In the twenty years of Alexander Lukashenka's reign in Belarus, only two European leaders (Silvio Berlusconi and Dalia Grybauskaitė) set their foot in Minsk.

As the international community eagerly awaits positive results of the peace talks in Minsk, the Belarusian public is also impatient to see whether Lukashenka will be able to charm his European guests in the year of the presidential election in Belarus.

Unexpected News?

During their phone conference on Sunday, 8 February, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko chose Minsk as a venue of their 'Normandy format' meeting.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was the first to call his Belarusian counterpart in order to confirm Minsk's willingness to host the talks. A few minutes later, Alexander Lukashenka, on a short skiing holiday in Sochi, discussed the subject at a personal meeting with Vladimir Putin:

Do not worry and come. We will organise everything… We will do everything we can here in Belarus to find a way out of the situation [people in Ukraine] have faced.

The meeting in Minsk on 11 February can be canceled at the last moment if the parties' experts fail to agree on a basic framework of the peace deal. Three presidents and a chancellor will not come to the Belarusian capital to inaugurate another failure. In fact, the 'Normandy Four' already abandoned their much-publicised decision to hold a similar meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan on 15 January.

Why Minsk?

Ironically, less than two weeks ago Alexander Lukashenka spoke strongly against the Normandy format. During his 'open dialogue' with the press, he blurted out:

I can't imagine yet any format for negotiations other than Minsk [format]… Most importantly, the proposed [Normandy] format… is to happen at the highest level… They will make general political statements; we heard enough of them.

At that time, Lukashenka was extremely jealous of the negotiating parties' decision to accept President Nazarbayev's invitation and meet in Astana. Evidently, he cannot care less about the format as long as Minsk remains the site and symbol of the peace talks on Ukraine.

Minsk's symbolic significance may have played a role in the decision of the 'Normandy Four'. The agreements based on the Minsk Protocol led to a real and relatively lasting reduction in violence in Eastern Ukraine. These agreements remain a reference point for further talks between the conflicting parties even if Kyiv, Donetsk and Moscow tend to disagree on their interpretation.

Merkel and Hollande understand that Lukashenka will reap the fruit of their visit to Minsk

The logistical and political convenience of Minsk may have mattered more. Minsk is much closer in flight time to Berlin, Kyiv, Moscow and Paris than Astana. Lukashenka's neutrality in the Ukrainian crisis and his genuine willingness to help achieve its speedy resolution also comfort Ukraine and Russia.

Merkel and Hollande may be less happy with Minsk's choice as a venue for talks. They understand that the regime in Belarus will reap the fruit of their visit to the country. However, it looks like that the West is willing to pay this price to reach a peace deal in Ukraine.

Is Lukashenka Happy to Have Guests?

The decision to hold the 'Normandy Four' summit in Minsk suits Lukashenka to perfection, both in his international and domestic agenda.

Domestically, it plays well into his hand on the eve of the presidential election. He is no longer a European pariah. World leaders come to Belarus in recognition of his peace-making efforts and the country's stability and security. Europe needs Minsk to settle conflicts on the continent.

European Troika, Poroshenko and Putin in MinskInternationally, the visit of Merkel and Hollande extends the window of opportunity opened initially by the meeting between the Eurasian "troika", Petro Poroshenko and three EU commissioners held in Minsk on 26 August 2014. This time, the Belarusian president gets direct access to the true European decision-makers.

Alexander Lukashenka has always believed in his personal charisma and ability to make a good impression by his seemingly frank and outspoken nature during personal encounters. However, he rarely got an opportunity to test his "charms" on European leaders.

Any Experience with Visitors from Europe?

Indeed, the regime's disregard for human rights, rule of law and electoral standards has long prevented most European leaders from receiving the Belarusian president in their capitals or travelling to see him in Minsk.

Since 1994, only two EU leaders visited Belarus

Alexander Lukashenka, together with many other officials, are under US and EU travel bans imposed in response to brutal crackdown on the opposition. The only realistic opportunity for him to approach Western leaders has so far been restricted to chance encounters in meeting halls and corridors of the UN, OSCE or other international fora. However, he is a rare guest there as well.

Belarusian diplomats made it their priority to break this self-imposed wall of isolation, so far with very limited success. In twenty years of Lukashenka's reign in Belarus, only two leaders of EU countries made their way to Minsk.

What Brought Berlusconi and Grybauskaitė to Minsk?

Berlusconi in MinskOn 30 November 2009, Silvio Berlusconi, the then Italian prime minister, came to Minsk on a six-hour visit. The Italian leader and his Belarusian host signed a number of bilateral agreements and discussed trade relations and humanitarian cooperation. Alexander Lukashenka was not slack at publicly interpreting Berlusconi's visit as an "eloquent gesture of support to Belarus in the international arena".

Both Italian and Belarusian opposition groups criticised Silvio Berlusconi for his overtures towards the authoritarian regime. One cannot be sure of the criticism' effect on the eccentric Italian politician. Anyway, his promise to lead in person a group of Italian executives to Minsk remained unfulfilled.

Grybauskaite in MinskA year later, on 20 October 2010, President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė made a one-day working trip to Minsk, shortly before the presidential election in Belarus. Her staff explained the visit by the desire to remind her Belarusian counterpart about the importance of free and democratic elections for future relations between Belarus and the EU.

Independent experts believed that two other motives were behind Grybauskaitė's travel to Minsk: promotion of Lithuania's trade and transit interests and an attempt to bring Belarus further away from Russia, as the visit happened in the midst of an information war between Moscow and Minsk.

Outsider in His Own Residence?

For Lukashenka, the meeting of the 'Normandy Four' in Minsk is an excellent opportunity to join in top-level international diplomacy. He can certainly expect having brief bilateral meetings with Merkel and Hollande. Lukashenka may want to use these meetings to strengthen the trend on his "acceptability" in Europe.

However, unlike during the August meeting between the European and Eurasian "troikas", the Belarusian ruler can hardly count on a seat at the negotiation table in his own residence when the 'Normandy Four' will meet. Diplomacy is not where Lukashenka scores. He will have to wait for the meeting's results behind the closed doors, like everybody else.




Why Belarusians Turned to Shopping Abroad

With the economy dominated by the state and its illiberal trade laws, many Belarusians are increasingly taking to shopping abroad; especially when they get coupons from https://www.raise.com/coupons/ebay.

In the the middle of November, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group reported that customers from Belarus ranked fifth in the number of purchases, leaving behind the US and Canada in the online sales on Chinese anti-Valentine’s Day holiday known as “Singles’ Day.”

Meanwhile, shopping tours in neighbouring EU countries remain a favourite weekend trip for many Belarusians. This autumn the sharp decline of the Russian rouble sparked a shopping frenzy, with Belarusians rushing to Russian cities because of the lower prices.

The authorities in Minsk have repeatedly expressed their concerns about its citizens’ shopping habits, which drain Belarus of foreign currency. Belarusians spend nearly $3bn annually abroad and domestic producers continue to lose their local markets.

However, radical restrictive measures to halt the large influx of imports is highly unlikely. The regime needs to maintain its economic contract with the public. Minsk permits people to satisfy their material needs in exchange for political loyalty. Joining the WTO could resolve some of the issues Belarus is facing, but Belarus needs to see a substantial change in relations with the West and economic reforms to obtain membership.

Belarus, an Unexpected Leader in Online Shopping

Singles’ Day in China takes place annually on 11 November. Originally a holiday commemorating unmarried young people, it has since become one of the largest online shopping day in the world. This year, the Alibaba company, one of the most active promoters of the holiday, made $9.3bn in sales – a world record for online shopping. Also, check out misfits market discount code and save some extra money.

Strikingly, Belarusians appeared to be among the most active buyers outside of China, achieving a top 5. Russia led the ratings, followed by Brazil, Israel, Spain, ending with Belarus. Belarusians even outdid the US and Canada during this global shopping frenzy.

The Belarusian state-managed economy still cannot satisfy the consumer aspirations of its citizens. Consumers lack access to world famous brands locally and the seasonal discounts regularly found in market economies. Foreign companies in this sector are only starting to enter the Belarusian market.

Domestic prices remain high, so people prefer to shop in neighbouring EU cities like Vilnius, Bialystok and Warsaw. Recently, Russia also became a popular shopping destination, as the rouble’s devaluation made Russian products more affordable for Belarusians.

Internet usage is fast growing in Belarus. According to research conducted by the Analytic Centre of the Presidential Administration, as of autumn 2014, 62% of Belarusians used the Internet, and around 50% of them were mobile Internet users. Just this June the PayPal online payment service started operating in Belarus, which makes online shopping more accessible to Belarusians.

However, a study by MASMI, a market research company based in the UK, from May 2013 showed that only 20% of Belarus’ urban populace shops online. And only a quarter of them, or 5% of the urban population, made purchases on foreign web sites.

More recent data is unavailable, but it appears that Belarus witnessed a rapid growth in online shopping over the past year. The trend may be here to stay. Threads that discuss online shopping attract the largest readership on onliner.by – the most popular Minsk Internet forum.

The Russian Auto Fever

The recent economic developments in Russian provoked a real pilgrimage of Belarusians to its eastern neighbour to buy up cheap cars and high-tech gadgets. In 2014 the Russian rouble has lost 45% of its value, and this autumn it fell particularly quickly.

However, Russian businesses did not rush to raise prices to the same rate, and Belarusians had a unique opportunity to buy cheap products without visa or customs restrictions. Tourist services, cars and electronics were among the most wanted products according to stories circulating around Belarusian airwaves.

A representative of the Pegas Tourist company based in Russia told TUT.by that, “because of economic downturn many Russians have cancelled their plans to visit resorts this winter, and tourist firms have to offer discounts to attract clients”. This especially concerns distant destinations like Cuba, Mexico, and Thailand. Coupled with devaluation, it has reduced travel prices considerably.

Electronic gadgets also became a hot good for Belarusians in Russia. The difference in prices between buying domestically were offset by travelling to Russian.

The biggest purchasing rush was for automobiles in Russia. The difference in automobile prices in Minsk and Moscow currently vary from thousands to tens of thousands dollars in the case of luxury automobiles.

At the moment, around 250 cars from Russia are registered in Minsk alone and around 500 throughout all of Belarus. Belarusians prefer to buy newer cars, as most of them are no older than 2008.

However, the car rush created a fertile environment for crime in car sales. Belarus’s police force reported that they have uncovered several schemes of legalising the purchase of stolen cars through their registration in Belarus and other related illegal activity. They are currently investigating the history of 110 vehicles to determine their origins.

EU Shopping Concerns

While shopping in the common economic area of Eurasian Union cannot be restricted by any means, the Belarusian government continuously expresses concerns with the EU import that Belarusian shoppers bring home.

In recent years, Lithuania has been the nearest EU shopping destination for Minsk residents, being less than 200 km away. However, currently Lithuania becomes more expensive, as it introduces Euro since 2015. Belarusians continue to visit Vilnius on the weekends, but their interests are shifting from shopping to entertainment – cafes, pubs and concerts.

Meanwhile, shopping crowds have reoriented towards Poland, which is now popular not only among traditional visitors from the border regions, but for people from every corner of Belarus as well. Many companies and individual entrepreneurs offer shopping tours to Bialystok and Warsaw. According to the Polish Statistics Office, in July-September 2013 Belarusians spent $250m in Poland, more than either Russians or Ukrainians.

In September 2013, Aliaksandr Lukashenka made an announcement which gave many Belarusians pause:

[the West] criticises us for being a poor country, but our people send $3bn abroad annually and import goods which we also produce ourselves. So I have already ordered a decree – if you go abroad, you pay a $100 fee and then you are welcome to buy things. [This way] people would go to our shops and buy our refrigerators instead of carrying them from abroad.

So far these measures have not been introduced and are unlikely to be at all.

The economic contract with population means that Belarusians can satisfy their material needs in exchange for political loyalty. However, Belarus remains the only country in the region that has not yet joined the WTO. Its Eurasian Union partners, Russia and Kazakhstan, already enjoy the benefits of it, while Belarus protectionist policies keep domestic prices high.

Effectively, this means that Belarusians will carry on their mass consumerist pilgrimages to the West and East. The Belarusian government needs to intensify its WTO negotiations in order to combat this problem in future, and working on improving political relations with the West could play a major role in this process.




Belarusian Espionage: Abroad and at Home

On 10 November the General Prosecutor’s Office of Lithuania reported that a Vilnius court will try a Lithuanian citizen on espionage charges. The Lithuanian authorities claim that he cooperated with Belarusian security services.

As other cases from recent years prove, Belarusian intelligence is quite interested in its immediate neighbours – Poland and Lithuania. Belarusians usually seek military intelligence and generally probe opportunities to advance Belarusian economic interest in these countries.

Belarus's EU neighbours regard Belarusian intelligence as being, more or less, on par with its Russian counterpart. However, despite close ties since Soviet times and cooperation agreements, Belarusians may have a separate agenda, as Lukashenka's attempts to pursue a more independent foreign policy.

Inside Belarus, recent public spying cases have involved only local citizens. As either Andrej Hajdukoŭ's or priest Uladzislaŭ Lazar's cases show, the authorities can use espionage charges to intimidate the opposition or independent institutions.

A Spy with Belarusian Roots

A former worker of Oro Navigacija, a Lithuanian air traffic control agency, is suspected of committing espionage against Lithuania for Belarus's security services. He may receive up to 15 years in prison as a result. A Vilnius circuit court will hold his trial in January. At the moment the suspect's name remains unknown.

The investigators claims that the suspect secretly photographed documents in his office, including various objects tied to Lithuania's military and civilian infrastructure, and then proceeded to hand them to the General Staff of the Belarusian armed forces. “He gathered and passed on to Belarus information on the Lithuanian armed forces, its state enterprises, objects of strategic importance for national security in Lithuania”, stated a press release from the General Prosecutor's Office.

The Chief of Lithuania's Security Department Gediminas Grina noted that Russia could also use this information, because Belarus and Russia have a military alliance and share intelligence data.

Having Belarusian roots, the suspect visited Belarus a couple of times a year to see his relatives and friends. His two sons have business partners in Russia, and regularly go there on to tend to their affairs. These facts could easily become rounds for Lithuania's own security services to become interested in him.

However, espionage scandals more often than not arise Belarus's other neighbour – Poland. In recent years several incidents have occurred with Belarus citizens being charged with spying.

Belarus Intelligence: Poland in its Sights

The Polish Agency of Internal Security in its annual 2013 report noted that Russian and Belarusian spies have shown the highest level of activity in Poland. Russians are interested mostly in the energy sector, such as liquid gas and nuclear power, as well as EU and NATO's eastern policy.

For Belarus, the report says, Poland is a priority country for intelligence gathering. Belarusian spies search for markets to sell Belarusian goods, firms that can invest in Belarus, possibilities of becoming beneficiaries for EU assistance programmes and assess the nation's military capacity.

In March 2014 the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that the Polish Internal Security Agency detained two Belarus citizens with charges of spying for Russia. One of them, a Military Attache of Belarus in Poland Dzmitry Žukaŭ, took pictures of a NATO training centre in Bydgoszcz. Another Polish newspaper, Gazeta Prawna, added that he sought contacts with veteran societies, retired soldiers, and youth scout groups and often visited their gatherings and events.

A few month before this episode, Polish counter-intelligence detained a Hrodna resident named Jury, who also took pictures of military-related objects.

Another Belarus citizen, known as Aliaksandr, remains in Polish custody for already two years now. He apparently cooperated with officers from the shuttered Polish Military Information Service.

They regarded him as a source in the Belarus security services and paid him $300,000 for his assistance. But a subsequent investigation proved that he was misinforming the Poles and carrying out the orders of his bosses in Minsk.

Spies inside Belarus

In 2011 the Belarusian KGB reported that it had terminated the activity of 23 agents of its foreign security service. However, there was never ever any concrete cases data that appeared in the media. The people whom the authorities publicly charged with espionage or treason were all Belarusian citizens.

In 2012, the Belarusian KGB published information on two Belarus citizens, Aliaksandr Fenzeliaŭ and Jaŭhien Kačura, who were allegedly spying for Lithuania. The KGB detained a Lithuanian intelligence officer and two Belarusians who passed to him secret information about something related to the military. The agency was able to prove their case by gathering information and, later on, the suspects confirmed their guilt during trial. The court found them guilty and imposed a 10 and 8 year sentence on them, respectively.

Another case to surface was that of Andrej Hajdukoŭ, one that appears to be politically motivated. Opposition activist and leader of the youth organisation “Union of Young Intellectuals”, he was detained in Viciebsk by the KGB in November 2012 and faced charges of treason.

When taking a look at the KGB's official position on Hajdukoŭ, his tactics look rather ridiculous in an era of digital technology. For one, he allegedly hid secret information for foreign agents in a mail drop box. Nevertheless, he was tried and sentenced to 1.5 years in prison on a less serious charge – an attempt to establish contacts with a foreign agency, or in his case, with the US embassy.

In July of this year Lukashenka revealed information that one of the officers serving in Belarusian security agency, “was connected to foreign states via a Catholic Church representative. He not only passed information on to them, but alo caused trouble for our people who were working abroad”.

Soon, information appeared that the KGB had arrested the catholic priest Uladzislaŭ Lazar on charges of state treason. After spending half a year under investigation, he was released due to the prosecutor’s inability to prove his case.

As these cases show, the charges mounted against individuals by the Belarusian authorities sometimes appear to be more an issue of exerting political pressure on the opposition or independent institutions (like Catholic Church). Real instances of the apprehension of foreign spies remain unknown to the public, although the KGB continues to boast about its achievements in this arena.

According to the words of Polish and Lithuanian officials, these countries (and perhaps the whole west) regard Belarusian intelligence as being one and the same as Russian intelligence. They continue to work in close cooperation and are committed to sharing any and all needed information. Indeed, such agreements have legally existed since the early 1990s, and these close ties have continued to exist since soviet times, when they were originally established..

However, as the retired KGB lieutenant-colonel Valer Kostka said in an interview to Charter97.org web site, "if there is a common goal, the special services make a deal over it, no matter if it is CIA, Russian FSB or Belarusian KGB. It is a complicated hidden mechanism. If a certain interest exists, Lukashenka will make an agreement with Putin, so Belarusian intelligence will cooperate with Russians, and vice versa".

This means that Belarusian intelligence and special services may have their own agenda separate from Russia's, with which Lukashenka can attempt to pursue a more independent foreign policy.




The Belarusian University in Exile Needs More Than a New Rector

On 30 September, Professor Anatoli Mikhailov left his post as rector and became the president of the European Humanities University (EHU) – a Belarusian university in exile.

Rather than resigning from working for the university, Professor Mikhailov switched over to working full-time as the new president of EHU, a position created especially for him.

Now the EHU is looking for a replacement for Professor​​ Mikhailov​ who has been running the institution since it was founded in 1992.

The next rector will largely determine whether the institution will retain its mission as a Belarus-focused institution or will completely transform and become an regular higher education institution in Lithuania which differs only for targeting Russian-speakers. Some say that it will even determine whether EHU will survive or not.

The new rector will also need to repair EHU’s reputation and make it more transparent not in the least because most of its funding comes from EU taxpayers. The institution has recently dismissed several opposition-minded lecturers, closed a number of Belarus-related programmes, faces a downturn in applications and its finances are looking a little hazy.

Belarusian Mission Lost in Transition?

The new rector will need to work closely with its founding rector Anatoli Mikhailov. He explained the establishment of the new position of President at EHU as a means of supporting the gradual transition of the university's leadership.

The new post appeared only after the EHU approved a new charter earlier this year. One novelty of this new charter was that it dropped the university's mission statement. The very first sentence of the 2011 charter provided that the university was

a non-state institution of higher education based on European values, where university studies prevail, research is performed and the activity of applied science and art is developed for the benefit of Belarusian society and its relationship to the global community. (emphasis added)

The 2014 version simply states that EHU "is a non-state Lithuanian institution of higher education". The revised 2011 charter which mentions the word "Belarus" only three times, a notable reduction when compared to the 11 times of its previous incarnation.

As a special report of Belarus Digest demonstrated, over the last several years EHU has either closed, suspended or downgraded its Belarus-focused or human rights programmes while simultaneously presenting the institution as important for Belarus and the development of human rights within the country. Although EHU representatives have claimed that more than one-third of EHU courses focus on Belarus, it is difficult to verify this information.

New Provost: Hired from Overseas to Oversee Transition

On 1 October, Anatoli Mikhailov​, in an interview with Radio Liberty, said that the arrival of David Pollick from North America sped up his own resignation. Some sources interviewed by Belarus Digest who wished to remain anonymous believe that the current management of the university wants him to become the next rector.

Pollick's grandparents hail from Belarus, but he does not speak either Belarusian or Russian. He appears to have the support of the Governing Board, but many fear that should he be appointed, the university would drift even further from its original Belarus-centred mission.

Since March 2014, Pollick has served as EHU’s provost. Previously he ran several small universities in the United States. According to Forbes, he was among the best paid rectors in the United States in 2010. The New York Times wrote that his current salary at EHU is $150,000 per year. Sources close to the EHU administration suggest that Pollick's total compensation package is double this sum.

When asked about the provost's salary by Lithuanian journalists from 15min.lt the university's refusal to give any details about remuneration puzzled them:

This kind of answer from the institution is puzzling because EHU lives almost solely on donor funding and it should therefore not be such a secretive post. Not only can the university, that moved to Vilnius in 2004, use its premises free of charge, but it has up until now been almost totally propped up on funds from different Western countries.

The EHU already has a significant gap in its budget, which begs the question of whether or not the university can really afford it. In the least, this puts the provost under a considerable amount of pressure to deliver results, in particular to bring in new funding.

Belarus Digest asked David Pollick whether he was proud of any of particular achievements as provost at EHU, whether he managed to bring in new funding and why EHU’s budget and why his own salary were not transparent. Pollick explained that he has spent over half a year at EHU primarily becoming acquainted with the university. He added that:

The salaries paid to senior administrators must be competitive, and the committee recruited from a pool of leaders who have worked at similar institutions in other parts of the world. EHU's faculty salaries are also competitive now for the region from which they are drawn.

Pool of Candidates

After Mikhailov's resignation, discussions about alternative candidates began to circulate.

A community of EHU students on the VK.com, a Russian-language analogue of Facebook, organised a poll on who should become the next rector of EHU. 160 people took part in the poll. Andrej Laŭruchin, one of the leaders of the opposition-minded EHU Senate​ came first with 15.6% of the votes, followed by Grigory Minenkov, an associate of Anatoli Mikhailov, who received 13.1%. Finally, David Pollick and EHU Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs Aliaksandr Kaŭbaska both received 9.4% of the votes, placing them both in the top 5.

Who should be the next rector of EHU?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Conceivable candidates from outside EHU could include Aliaksadr Milinkevich and Aliaksandr Kazulin – former presidential candidates with backgrounds in higher education. Both are known in Europe which could help them raise funds.

Belarusians also have a large number of academics who teach at leading Western universities. Several people in Belarus run smaller educational initiatives, like Uladzimir Mackievich from the Flying University or Paviel Daniejka of the IPM Business School.

The Selection Process

The real selection process will be far less transparent than an online vote.

According to EHU's charter the body that will actually select the rector is the General Assembly of the Part-Owners. It includes the Institute for International Education (Lithuania), the Open Society Foundations (United States), and the Eurasia Foundation (United States). Insiders say that the EHU Governing Board, which consists primarily of Western academics, unofficially has a major stake in making a decision on who will be the next rector.

To clarify the selection process, Belarus Digest asked the EHU administration several questions: does the General Assembly of the Part-Owners include only these three organisations; what is the Institute for International Education; and how will the assembly take into account the interests of civil society organisations and donors?

EHU's communications manager Gintare Kavaliunaite-Amelyushkina responded to these questions without really responding directly to them:

The EHU Governing Board has set up a Search Committee to be responsible for the open competition for the position of Rector. Very shortly, a description of the post and requisite qualifications will be published internationally and on the university’s website together with details of the process and timetable for the open competition. Interviews will be held in Vilnius in mid-December 2014. The Governing Board hopes to be in a position to recommend selected candidates to the General Assembly of the Part-Owners for a final decision by March 1, 2015.

Who Could Secure the Future of EHU?

An ideal candidate should have a good understanding of Belarus, be an experienced manager and someone whom academics, students and the university's supporters would respect. He would need to motivate EHU's staff to be more diligent and responsible in their work.

Most urgently, they will need to deal with the serious financial problems facing the university. Even today sources close to the EHU administration say that the EHU's budget gap is almost a million EUR this year – that is around 15% of the current budget.

According to its founding rector Anatoli Mikhailov, student fees cover only 14% of EHU's expenses, which speaks to the fact that the university badly needs Western support. It appears to be rather obvious that if EHU continues to move away from its Belarus-focused mission, donors will be less willing to support it. They would rather fund a Belarusian university in exile than simply an ordinary private Lithuanian university.

From the time that its exile in Lithuania began, EHU has been an important symbol, concrete evidence that the West can support and sustain an institution which provides a liberal education tailored to Belarusian students – something which is difficult, if not impossible, for them to gain at home.

All engaged stakeholders should realise that this symbol may soon disappear if the current issues continue and a major donor pulls out. As a first step, for the university to survive and prosper, it needs to have an open and transparent process for selecting its rector.

The decision-makers should seriously take into account not only the views of EHU's private owners but also of its donors, most of whom are funded by EU taxpayers.

Finally, the selection process needs to take into consideration the interests of Belarusian civil society, which, at least in the previous version of EHU's charter, was supposed to be the main beneficiary of the Belarusian university in exile.




Belarusian Students Unite in Lithuania

Belarusian youth studying abroad have three days left to send their applications to participate in the annual Rally of the United Students of Belarus, which will take place in Lithuania on 1-5 October 2014.

Young people studying abroad and in Belarus will meet for the eighth time to exchange contact information and share their academic and personal experiences.

Since 2007 the project has become the largest group of alumni of young Belarusians living abroad. The rally offers a chance for informal and formal ideas to be presented about the future of Belarus.

During recent years, Belarus has become a country of young emigrants and this trend is set to continue. The United Students of Belarus link these people together and can play a big role in the future of the country, including potential future changes in the political establishment.

The Vilnius-based Eastern European Studies Centre, based in Vilnius, serves as an organiser of the event.

Need for a Common Platform

It would be fair to call Belarus a country of emigrant students. Belarusians have a university in exile – European Humanities University, and a large number of scholarship programmes exclusively for Belarusians that help they study abroad.

The Kalinowski Scholarship and the ​​European Scholarship Scheme for Young Belarusians remain the most prevalent in terms of the size of their programmes. The first programme offers education for youth that have dealt with repression, while the other is for all Belarusians. Moreover, thousands of Belarusian students receive education through smaller schemes, college scholarships, or pay their own way.

The number of Belarusian students abroad, by all indicators, will only increase in coming years. According to a survey by the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, only 13.7% of young Belarusians do not want to leave the country to study or work. Many remain reluctant to return to Belarus as they do not see any prospects for themselves.

This is why the United Students of Belarus remains the only inclusive platform for Belarusian students and graduates abroad. Besides USB Rallies, alumni of Kalinowski Scholarship or graduates of British universities organise meetings now and then, but these events lack regular gatherings and remain rather exclusive events.

In comparison, Ukraine has dozens of such associations of professionals who have been educated in the West. Ukrainians usually integrate into clubs of university graduates, like the Harvard Club of Ukraine or the Association of Fellows, or as alumni of the Fulbright programme.

Today, these clubs have become the core of the Professional Government initiative involved in the replacement of corrupt officials with young Ukrainian experts. It is possible that the United Students of Belarus will once play a role in building a new government in the country.

Origins of the Initiative

The first Rally of the United Students of Belarus took place in 2007 and tried to support the emergence of an informal network of the country`s future leaders. The rally played a large role insofar as it helped maintain connections between Belarusians stranded abroad after the wave of repression in 2006. After the presidential elections, the authorities expelled hundreds of students from universities.

The project has become the most extensive network of young Belarusians who live both in Belarus and abroad. Belarusian students from over 15 countries participate in the project and every year about 50-60 people come to the rally to share their ideas and network.

USB participant Zhenia Tsikhanovich admits that ‘in the course of just one Rally people build a new network of Belarusians throughout whole Europe and the US’.

Since 2007, about 300 Belarusians have attended the rally, and some people try to attend the event every year. The author of this text met the editor of Belarus Digest during the 2012 USB gathering.

The Rally brings together two worlds of Belarusians – those who remain in country and those who have emigrated. It is noteworthy that the students abroad and those residing in Belarus lack a single major organisation or association that can bring them together. The United Students of Belarus fills this gap.

The event program combines work and fun in the form of the intellectual debate or concerts by popular Belarusian groups. Each rally has its own theme. Organisers and the USB Community devoted the 2014 Rally to the development and promotion of multicultural dialogue and the maturation of Belarusian identity.

The USB has a good reputation not only among young Belarusians. Representatives of the Lithuanian authorities, Western diplomats located in Vilnius and NGO staff attend rallies to share their views on the future of Belarus with young leaders of the country.

Aivaras Žukauskas, coordinator of Rally 2014 said that besides opening ceremony with high-profile officials, one seminar about constructing of an image will be conducted by well-versed diplomat.

Room for Growth

Belarus has long been affected not only by the lack of formalised structures of students and graduates, but also bringing together new generations of Belarusian emigres.

Last year USB participants launched a new organisationthe Global Belarusian Leaders. The organisation is going to recruit new members from among young and perspective Belarusian professionals from all over the world.

However, this organisation, as is often true of most emigre organisations, has failed to remain active over a long period of time. The GBL is just one example of the new ideas popping up within Belarusian civil society, but still faces the typical problems associated with the Belarusian community.

For one, new emigre organisations tend to become too politicised, as they usually unite around a particular political group. Such structures fail to attract a large number of people. Traditional emigre communities appear to be too old-fashioned, so they cannot offer new emigres incentives to build networks.

Therefore the United Students of Belarus has set before itself the serious task of inventing new fresh ideas that will connect Belarusians from the world over.




Belarus Seeks to Host Ukraine Talks, Liberalise Visa Regimes, Reform EaP – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

President Alexander Lukashenka instructed his ambassadors to prepare to withstand and counter soft-power pressure from global players, a category that implicitly includes Russia.

Meanwhile, Minsk is getting ready to host talks between the parties in conflict in the Ukrainian crisis.

At a meeting in Brussels, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei proposed to include Russia in the Eastern Partnership's (EaP) events and activities so that Moscow had a say in European integration matters. Belarus also sought to make foreign travel easier for its own citizens.

Minsk to Host Talks on Ukraine

On 29 July, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked his Belarusian counterpart to host talks between a tripartite contact group on Ukraine. Lukashenka did not hesitate to agree.

Ukraine wants its former president Leonid Kuchma, Russia's ambassador to Kyiv Mikhail Zurabov and a representative from the OSCE to discuss the release of hostages and secure access for international investigators to the MH17 crash site.

Several reports suggested that pro-Russian separatists may participate in the meeting in Minsk. Lukashenka's office said in its initial communiqué that 'all parties concerned' would be involved in talks.

Belarus' special relationship with both the Russian and Ukrainian authorities makes Minsk a perfect venue for such talks. However, at this stage Belarus' role will be limited to a strictly technical one.

Lukashenka refrains from posing as an unsolicited intermediary in the negotiations, which have only the faintest chances of producing a major breakthrough.

Senior Diplomats Getting Trained

Belarusian ambassadors and senior consular officers from around the world gathered in Minsk on 10 – 18 July for their regular mid-summer meeting. This training event takes place annually after Belarus' ambassadors host Nation Day receptions in their respective countries of accreditation.

Opening the event, Vladimir Makei stressed that while its programme covered the widest possible range of topics, including politics, history, culture, sports and the media, “the main emphasis was placed on economic issues”.

Indeed, the Belarusian ambassadors at this point remain little more than sales reps with diplomatic passports. The lectures and practical events focused almost exclusively on how to promote Belarusian exports and attract foreign investment to the country.

The diplomats mostly met with people from government agencies in charge of the real economy, but also representatives from major export-oriented companies.

Ambassadors were also brought together to discuss trade and investment issues at a meeting with First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka held on 14 July.

Lukashenka Concerned about New Threats

The training event culminated into an unexpected meeting with Alexander Lukashenka on 17 July. The last time the president received the ambassadors was five years ago. The latest international developments, unfolding right in the neighbouring Ukraine, naturally warranted calling such a high level meeting.

Lukashenka refrained from designating the West as the only threat to Belarusian sovereignty

Unlike most of his statements from years' past, Lukashenka refrained from designating the West as the only threat to Belarusian sovereignty. He claimed that “so-called 'soft power' would be used to furthest extent possible all around the perimeter of our borders”, unambiguously establishing Russia as one of the 'global players' Belarus has to deal with.

The president seemed to hear his envoys’ complaints about the inefficiency of export-promoting efforts taken by domestic manufacturers. As a result, he ordered a thorough overhaul of Belarusian exporters' trading and dealer networks. Lukashenka also called for highly qualified professionals who speak foreign languages fluently to head the sales departments of major exporters.

Despite these proposals and a slight shift in his rhetoric, Lukashenka still holds the ambassadors personally responsible for achieving the targeted figures in foreign trade and investment in the countries where they serve.

Europe Remains in Focus

Belarus wants to grow its cooperation with Europe in a large number of potential domains, with a particular emphasis on trade, investment and technology transfers, but with no real changes in its domestic policies.

The need for closer relations has gained substantial importance as of late in view of the geopolitical revolution in the region provoked by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. However, the Belarusian authorities are well aware of Europe's reciprocal interest in having Belarus be an independent player.

As Lukashenka stressed during his meeting with Vladimir Makei on 28 July, “the European Union, as well as the US, has begun talking to Belarus — albeit through clenched teeth”.

Earlier in July, Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna went to Brussels to attend a second round of consultations on modernisation. This dialogue is primarily aimed at mapping out the best form of future cooperation between Belarus and the EU.

However, despite the visible intensification of the working-level dialogue, the regime is not yet ready to take major steps that would lead to full normalisation of relations.

Seeking to Reformat the Eastern Partnership

Belarus recently began to show more interest in developing cooperation with Europe within the framework of the Eastern Partnership (EaP).

This initiative is bound to undergo serious changes after three out of six partner countries – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – signed association agreements with the EU.

Even Edgars Rinkēvičs, the Foreign Minister of Latvia, who will host the EaP summit next year, stressed the need for a more individualised approach towards EaP partners during his recent visit to Kyiv.

The Belarusian diplomats began actively promoting the ‘reformatting’ of the EaP during an informal meeting of the Visegrád Group and EaP countries in Budapest in April 2014. Belarus hopes to transform the EaP into an initiative which would help it to achieve development goals without making many concessions in democratisation or human rights issues.

Makei also spoke in favour of engaging Russia in the EaP's activities in order to avoid creating new dividing lines in the region

Vladimir Makei had these very interests in mind when he attended the EaP foreign ministers' meeting on 22 July in Brussels. The foreign minister stressed the need for greater differentiation in the relations between the EU and its partner countries, ones that would take into account their specific needs, interests and integration aspirations.

Makei also spoke in favour of engaging Russia in the EaP's activities in order to avoid creating new dividing lines in the region. This may well be Belarus’ own idea, meant to appease eventual Russian fears over Belarus’ rapprochement with Europe.

It could also be an initiative promoted at Russia’s instigation. In any case, this proposition has slim chances to materialise into something substantial in the current context.

Talking to Its EU Neighbours

Vladimir Makei discussed his position on the reformation of the EaP with Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius during the latter’s working visit to Minsk on 24 and 25 July. Despite EU sanctions, Lithuania finds it appropriate to maintain regular dialogue with its southern neighbour on the ministerial level.

Linkevičius met with Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich and held extensive negotiations with Makei. The two countries focused on trade, investments, transport and transit, as well as border infrastructure and visa issues. They also discussed regional security matters in view of the situation around Ukraine.

Belarus also held a series of working-level bilateral consultations with Poland on political, trade, consular and trans-border cooperation issues in July.

Progress Made with Visa Issues

Lately, the Belarusian foreign ministry has been hard at work on bringing about the liberalisation or abolition of visa regimes with several foreign countries.

In his interview with the Belarusian TV channel STV, Foreign Minister Makei said that such negotiations were under way with about fifteen countries.

Over the past months, Belarusian citizens have gained the right to travel without visas to Turkey, Mongolia and Ecuador.

In July, Belarus and the US agreed to mutually lower their visa fees to $160. Talks on visa abolition with Israel are progressing well and could result in an agreement in the near future.

At the same time, Belarusian diplomats are much less optimistic about prospects with regards to visa regime liberalisation with the Schengen countries. The negotiations have so far failed to progress beyond an exchange of views on the two parties’ respective initial offers.

Currently, Belarusians can travel without visas only to 22 countries. Ten of them are post-Soviet states.




Belarus in World Rankings: Strong Potential, Weak Performance

The most well-known international indexes show that Belarus is maintaining the potential of its people, although its governance, economy, political and economic freedoms remain at a very low level.

Belarus has had a rather good showing in the UNDP Human Development Index, the Legatum Prosperity Index and the Ease of Doing Business Index.

But the results of Economic Freedom Index, Press Freedom Index, Freedom House Index, Global Peace Index, Corruption Perception Index and Sovereign Credit Rating are nothing short of disastrous. In some of them, Belarus finds itself in close company with Third World countries.

Compared to other countries in the region, Belarus usually finds itself ranked above Ukraine or Russia, but lower than Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Below, we compare Belarus' current standing in the world rankings with those of 2010, when Belarus Digest first collected all available ranking data in one article.

Rankings in Which Belarus Had a Good Showing

According to the UNDP Human Development Index, Belarus is a country that enjoys a high level of human development. Belarus occupies the 50th place, with Croatia ranking 47 and recognised as a country with a very high level of development.

This index takes into account life expectancy, education level, and GDP. Belarus looks better than Russia (55th place) and Ukraine (78th position), but is worse off than Poland (39th), Lithuania (41st), and Latvia (44th). Notably, Belarus has actually improved its position since 2010.

The Legatum Prosperity Index, which measures wellbeing and satisfaction with one's life, ranked Belarus 58th while placing Russia at 61st, Ukraine at 64th, Lithuania at 43rd, Latvia at 48th and Poland, with the highest score in the sample, at 34th. All of these countries belong to a single group consisting of nations ranked in an upper-middle range. The Index demonstrates that Belarus has great educational and social capital, while its overall governance and economy are still in bad shape. According to these results, Belarus has moved up in the rankings since 2010.

Belarus occupies the 63rd place in the Ease of Doing Business Index. World Bank Group admits that people can easily start a business, register property or enforce contracts in Belarus, however it remains difficult to pay taxes or obtain a credit. As is in the case of the Human Development Index, Belarus is doing better than Russia and Ukraine, but worse that its neighbours from the European Union. Belarus has worsened its position since 2010.

Rankings in Which Belarus did not Fair Well

According to the Economic Freedom Index, Belarus remains a country with a mostly unfree economy and finds itself in the rankings inbetween Nepal and Ethiopia.

Belarus has severe issues with the rule of law, as well as monetary, investment, and financial freedoms. The Heritage Foundation and the The Wall Street Journal placed Belarus at 150th and Ukraine at 155th, both abysmally low rankings when it comes to overal economic freedom.

All the rest of Belarus’ neighbours appear to have more economic freedom. When compared to the results from previous ratings, Belarus has more or less retained its previous position in the index, acquiring only a few more points. In 2010, Belarus sat at 48.7 and was able to climb slightly up to 50.1 in 2014.

According to Freedom House's criteria, Belarus is an unfree country. Russia has approximately the same ranking, while Ukraine appears to be partly free. According to the 'Freedom in the World 2014' report, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia are free countries. Belarus retained its previous position and has the same freedom rating as China.

Reporters without Borders show that freedom of the press in Belarus (157th place) is on a par with that in Swaziland (156th position) and Pakistan (158th rank). Ukraine occupies the 127th slot and the Russian Federation comes in at 148th place. While Belarus has improved its position since 2010, its EU-member neighbours make its ranking look all the more deplorable as Poland achieved 19th place in the rankings, and Lithuania and Latvia placed 32nd and 37th, respectively.

The Institute for Economics and Peace, one of the Economist's analytical centres, measures the peacefulness of 162 countries. Its Global Peace Index is utilises three main criteria: the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic or international conflict, and the degree of a nation's militarisation. Again, here Belarus has gained some ground since 2010. In the global standings, Belarus found itself ranked 92nd, routinely doing better than either Russia or Ukraine, but worse than its neighbours from the European Union.

Transparency International regularly evaluates countries' perception of the level of corruption and this time around Belarus found itself ranked 123rd, the same as the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Togo.

According to expert estimates, Belarus has improved its position since 2010 and remains less corrupt than Russia (127th position) and Ukraine (144th position), but performs poorly when compared to Poland (38th), Lithuania (43th), and Latvia (49th).

Sovereign credit rating is considered by foreign investors an assessment of the investments made in the economy of a particular country. Standard & Poor's assessed Belarus’ local currency rating, foreign currency rating, transferability and convertability to all be a B-. Unfortunately, in this index, Belarus has seen its position to have fallen considerably since 2010.

Where Belarus Gains and Losses

When Compared to 2010, Belarus improved its position in the Human Development Index, Legatum Prosperity Index, Press Freedom Index, Global Peace Index and Perception of Corruption Index. This is evidence that quality of life remains one of the primary tasks that the authorities work on, as they see economic stability as a means to legitimise their rule.

Belarus retained its previous position in the Economic Freedom Index and Freedom House Index, which shows that Lukashenka's regime is still opposed to political and economic freedom.

Belarus’ position in the Ease of Doing Business Index and Sovereign credit rating has worsened since 2010 for a number of reasons. Namely, the authorities have failed to implement a successful economic growth policy and do not see business development as a way out of their ongoing economic crisis.

It should be noted that despite these positive indictators in some of the indexes, Belarus’ ascent in the rankings in some studies may also be linked to the worsening of other countries’ positions, or to changes in research methodology. The same logic may apply to the worsening of some of Belarus’ positions.

At any rate, the rankings show that Belarus has great potential, but in the end continues to suffer from inefficient governance.