Realists winning, Russian factor poll, Belarusisation increased – digest of Belarusian analytics

Only 5% of Belarusians want Belarus to become a part of Russia according to the fresh polling data by the Belarusian Analytical Workshop.

Chris Miller sees Moscow’s plans to make Belarus a cornerstone of its Eurasian integration project as unsuccessful.

Grigory Ioffe argues that realists winning the tug of war with idealists, both in the Belarusian government and in the opposition.

The opposition is split on street protests tactics. Belarusization has not ended and even increased, argues Alieh Trusaŭ.

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

Belarus-Russia relations and Eurasian integration

Belarus: Sitting on Two Chairs Is What the Doctor Ordered – Grigory Ioffe considers Belarus’ sitting-on-two-chairs foreign policy. The expert believes that there is no mischief, just a genuine desire to sustain itself as an independent state in a problematic neighbourhood known as the historical ‘bloodlands’.

Realists Winning Tug of War Over Belarus – Grigory Ioffe observes the ascending realism in Belarus in the growing understanding domestically that a) so-called Eurasian integration is no universal master key, but rejecting it altogether is harmful and unrealistic; and b) improving relations with both the EU and the US is vital because the sources of technological progress and healthy economic strategies are in the West.

Only 5% of Belarusians want Belarus to become a part of Russia. However, the Russian factor of impact on Belarus remains: 63% of the Belarusians positively assess the annexation of Crimea; the influence of Russian media on residents of Belarus is 60%. The fresh polling data by the Belarusian Analytical Workshop were announced at the round table, organised by the Minsk Dialogue expert initiative.

Belarus and the Failure of the Russian World – Chris Miller sees Moscow’s plans to make Belarus a cornerstone of its Eurasian integration project as unsuccessful. Given its culture, history, and economy, no country is a more natural member of the ‘Russian world’ than Belarus. But over the past two years, no country has done more to demonstrate the weakness of Russian efforts to reestablish hegemony in the post-Soviet space.

Spring 2017 mass protests

The Opposition Is Arguing About Street Tactics – Naviny.by analyses two current tactics of street activities of the Belarusian opposition – sanctioned and unauthorised actions – and concludes: in fact, there is no single solution. If, as a result of proper use of a particular political situation, the action turns out to be really mass, then, regardless of its status, it would become an important event on the political scene.

Situation in the Field of National Security and Defence of Belarus. March 2017 – According to the monthly Belarus Security Blog, the most important event in March was a wave of repression by the authorities, which was characterised by extreme chaos. The Belarusian leader managed to choose the worst from all bad decisions in the field of domestic policy. It jeopardised the prospects for Belarus’ relations with the West.

How Belarusians will rhyme 'Lukashenka, go away!' Next Time? – Naviny.by discuss the situation when Belarus authorities have managed to decrease a wave of street protests, but they do not have a program to make the population’s life normal. Moreover, now the government itself, with its unsuccessful absurd decisions becomes 'the main factor of destabilisation.'

Other

Belarusian Courts Don’t Speak In Belarusian On the Internet – Legal Transformation Centre Lawtrend releases a study, which highlights the current judiciary state and problems of communication of activities on its websites and outlines the possible ways to improve the situation. The researchers hope that the Supreme Court, that is to become a common portal for the entire judicial system, will take into account the study’s recommendations.

Freedom Of Association And Legal Conditions For Non-Commercial Organisations in Belarus in 2016 – Legal Transformation Centre and Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs release an annual review which highlights the most important trends and developments related to the public associations and other forms of civil society in Belarus in 2016. Namely, the authors notice a trend of switching of CSOs to fundraise money inside the country.

Popular Myths About the Belarusian Economy – Grigory Ioffe analyses some common stereotypes of the Belarusian economy. For example, it is true that Belarusian state-run enterprises produce a larger fraction of the country’s gross domestic product compared to its post-Soviet neighbours. However, Belarus significantly outperforms Russia and Ukraine on social indicators such as morbidity, mortality and social infrastructure.

Belarusisation Has Not Ended and Even IncreasedAlieh Trusaŭ, Chairperson of the Society of Belarusian language believes that dispersal of Belarusian protests in February and March did not affect Belarusisation – on the contrary, it started to grow: a Belarusian-language band presented the country at the Eurovision Song Contest, the number of hours in the Belarusian in school increased etc.

Belarus policy

Public procurement from a single source in Belarus: analysis and recommendations The paper explores legal regulation of procurement from one source and procedures for their conduct, official statistics on public procurement..

Public procurement from a single source in Belarus: analysis and recommendations. The paper explores legal regulation of procurement from one source and procedures for their conduct, official statistics on public procurement, official information on procurement from a single source and public discussion of the issue. Since procurement from one source is one of the procedures of public procurement, the scope of this research includes legal regulation common for all procedures.

During the analysis of the data the authors also focused on the interrelation of procurement issues from one source with other issues of legal regulation, including antitrust regulation, protection and development of market competition, antidumping policy during tenders and other.

Monetary policy and financial stability in Belarus: current statе, challenges and prospects. This work is devoted to the current state of monetary policy and banking sector of Belarus. The paper shows that in the 4th quarter of 2016 – 1 quarter of 2017 significant changes in the monetary environment took place, the most important of which is the convergence of inflation expectations with actual inflation. Along with this favourable trend, a number of problems of the banking sector continue growing and threatening financial stability. Among them are bad debts and a systemic excess of liquidity in the banking system.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




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

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

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

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

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

Politics and security

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economy

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

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

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

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

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

Society

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

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

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




Belarus between EU and EEU, New Opposition Strategy – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

Over the past month analysts discussed continuing rapprochement of Belarus with the West and potential Russia’s responses to it. Meanwhile, influenced by Russian propaganda, Belarusians favour Eurasian integration over European, although official Minsk finds its result unsatisfactory.

Belarusian opposition changes its strategy in relations with the authorities and plans to push them to negotiations with backing of mass street pressure. However, a Ukrainian sociologist predicts that democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years and conditions for a Maidan do not exist there. This and more in the new Digest of Belarusian Analytics.

Foreign policy

Belarus in the EAEC: a Year Later (Disappointing Results and Doubtful Prospects) – This report was presented in Minsk on March 22, by the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The report is devoted to the analysis of the first year of existence of the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) for Belarus. Among the key findings is that Minsk had great expectations from this association, but now finds it unsatisfactory.

Europe’s Last Dictator Comes in From the ColdArtyom Shraibman, for Carnegie Moscow Center, notices that Lukashenka’s fortunes have changed. Once known as “Europe’s last dictator,” he has won friends in Europe, while antagonizing his traditional ally, Russia. It’s a situation that has left the Kremlin in a difficult position: should it punish Belarus for its pro-Western tendencies? Or should it continue to prop up the Belarusian economy rather than risk further unrest in the region?

Belarus-Ukraine Relations Beyond Media HeadlinesYauheni Preiherman, in Eurasia Daily Monitor, notices that media narratives often distort the reality of Belarus-Ukraine relations. Some observers explain this by the absence of a “strategic vision for a long-term relationship”. The author sees this a typical feature of inter-state relations in the post-Soviet space, where politics is mainly about tactics, and fighting protectionist trade wars is part of the political culture.

Politics

Belarusian Opposition Comes Up With New Strategy: Negotiations With Authorities Due to Protest Pressure – Politicians and leaders of the mass protests discuss the lessons of "The Square-2006". The new strategy is likely to depart from the revolutionary approach to power change and focus on evolutionary approach, by changing relations between the authorities and the opposition through negotiations, backed by mass street pressure.

Ukrainian Sociologist: Maidan will not be in Minsk – Democracy in Belarus will come not earlier than in 50 years. This will happen only when society is ready for this. Artificial imposition of liberal values does not work, as well as there are no political or social preconditions for Maidan of the Kyiv scenario in Minsk, according to Ukrainian sociologist, Professor Eduard Afonin.

Public opinion polls

Majority of Belarusians want to keep death penalty. According to the March national poll conducted by IISEPS, 51.5% of Belarusians do not agree with the idea to abolish the death penalty; opposite opinion is shared by 36.4%. Women are less in favor of abolition of the death penalty than men – respectively 55.3% and 46.9%. Belarus is the only country in Europe and on the post-soviet space, which still applies the death penalty.

Belarus Between EU and EEU. Nation-Wide Poll – The ODB Brussels commissioned a survey about perceptions, preferences, and values Belarusians attribute to the European Union (EU) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). According to the study, Belarusians have a high-level understanding and appreciation of the EU, a clear opinion that the EU and EEU are competitors while public reasoning is currently swayed in favor of economic cooperation with the EEU.

Peculiarities of Public Opinion in BelarusGrigory Ioffe overviews the key results of a fresh national poll by IISEPS and an alarming reaction of official sociologists to the results, namely, the decline in Alexander Lukashenka’s electoral rating. Siarhei Nikalyuk, an associate of IISEPS, suggests that independent sociologists who are de facto allowed to work in Belarus are playing the role that jesters did in medieval Europe. After all, only a jester was allowed to speak the truth to the monarch, who actually appreciated that.

Other

Advocacy Sector in Belarus: CSO Experience – The study analyses the actual practices of advocacy in Belarus for the recent five years. The researchers see the key factor of success/failure of any campaign in its capacity for politicisation, i.e. whether authorities perceive a campaign political or not. The study was commissioned by OEEC in a series of sectoral studies aimed at summarising data on the development of specific sectors of civil society in Belarus. The presentation was held on March 24.

How to Make Minsk a Cycling City? – Pavel Harbunou, the Minsk Bicycle Society, shares the results of an annual monitoring on bicycle traffic on the Minsk streets, which shows that the number of cyclists has increased significantly in the city. The activists tells what can be done to make Minsk comfortable for all road users. Namely, the Bicycle Society launches a new campaign Street Bike Supervisor aimed to provide a regular feedback on the conditions of Minsk streets.

Ghetto for Each. Why Minsk Art Spaces Live Separately From Each OtherBelarusian Journal online describes the existing art spaces in Minsk, both mainstream and alternative. While a growing number of cultural spaces is a positive sign, it is too early to talk about the impact of these spaces for culture in general. It is more a question of the formation of separate subcultural groups, the original "ghetto" that arise, rather against the wishes of the state.​

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




Mass Protests, Media Activism, Expert Club – Civil Society Digest

Stallholders gather outside Tax Ministry's to demand abolition of new rules – no breakthrough though. Authorities suspend criminal case against former presidential candidate Alieś Michalievič.

Press Club Belarus holds official opening ceremony in Minsk. Decree 98 will not affect calls inside Skype and Viber. BISS and Press Club launch Analytical Club governed by Chatham House rules. Liberal Club held a round table devoted to the reform of the pension system in Belarus.

Mass protests

Freedom Day opposition action is held in Minsk on March 25. Minsk authorities allowed to conduct the march. The Belarusian democratic community celebrates Freedom Day (March 25) every year. The independence of the Belarusian People’s Republic was announced on this day in 1918. This is considered to be the most important date in the modern Belarusian statehood.

Court tried to convict Uladzimir Mackievič for participating in a rally, who, meanwhile was outside Belarus. The philosopher Uladzimir Mackievič presented the plane tickets and a stamp in the passport, which confirm that on the day of the rally he was in Warsaw, though the riot police, who were testifying in court claimed to have seen Mackievič​ at the demonstration. The Central district court of Minsk sent the case for additional investigation.

Minsk court considering 17 cases of protesters during one day. On March 24, judges of Centralny district court of Minsk considered 17 administrative cases opened against a number of participants in unsanctioned protest rallies, which were held by Belarusian entrepreneurs in February and March. Almost all protesters were punished by fines up to 50 base units (around $520).

Minsk Spring – 20 years. The history of street protests in Belarus. The webportal TUT.by in its infographics traces the history of the Belarusian notable protests since the late 1980s. Minsk Spring 1996 took place on the eve of the signing of the integration agreements with Russia and raised the largest protest activity in Belarus when the number of participants reached 30-60 thousand people.

Criminal case against Michalievič suspended. However, the case can be reopened any time. Alieś Michalievič, as well as other presidential candidates, was arrested on December 20, 2010, on charges of organising “mass disorders”. After 4-year political asylum in the Czech Republic, he returned to Belarus in September 2015.

Media activism

Press Club Belarus opened up officially in Minsk. The opening ceremony on March 15 was attended by more than 60 guests, including Jaroslaw Wlodarczyk, General Secretary of the International Association of Press Clubs. Press Club Belarus’ headquarters are now located on Viery Charužaj str. 3/601. This week, the new space hosts a meeting and a master class of Tatsiana Repkova from Slovakia, founder of Media Managers Club.

Calls inside Skype and Viber not affected by decree 98. The Operational and Analytical Centre has published answers to questions about the effect of the new Decree 98 "On Improving the Transmission of Electronic Messages." It became clear that the calls between subscribers of programmes like Skype and Viber are not covered by the ban. The same is true about CLIR, anonymisers and VPN. The main purpose of the decree is to fight with the gray traffic.

MediaBarCamp 2016. On May 26-29, Lithuania will host MediaBarCamp, a unique international non-conference on New Media and media activism. The main purpose of the MediaBarCamp is to stimulate New Media projects development in Belarus. Organised by Swedish International Liberal Centre (SILC), the non-conference is conducted to arrange coordination between existing projects and to establish new contacts. Participation is free of charge.

The first issue of the newsletter 55+News dedicated to the upcoming conference on ageing. The newsletter aims to exchange experience and best practices between organizations and enthusiasts on improving the quality of life of seniors in Belarus and other countries. The first issue is dedicated to the International conference that is to be held on April 8-9 by Practical Competences Studio (Golden Age University) and Vzaimoponimaniye NGO with the support of USAID, UNFPA, The Foundation «Remembrance, Responsibility and Future» and DVV International.​

Expert meetings

Expert-analytical club launched in Minsk. The first meeting was devoted to the Belarusian-Russian relations and organised by BISS and Press Club Belarus. The Club is regulated by Chatham House rules – all information articulated at an event can be used without any personification. The meeting was attended by independent experts, journalists, representatives of state bodies and Embassies. It is planned that the Club's meetings will take place on a monthly basis.

Liberal Club held a round table devoted to the reform of the pension system in Belarus. The meeting on March 16 aimed to discuss the changes in the Belarusian pension system that anyway have to happen in the coming years. The experts were Anton Boltačka, Liberal Club, Kaciaryna Barnukova, BEROC, as well as economist Uladzimir Paplyka who presented his vision of the pension reform in the country.

Year in the Bologna Process: What do Belarusians think? The next debate in the series What Do Belarusians Think? will take place on March 28, in the Minsk Gallery TUT.BY. The discussion is organised by the Office for European Expertise and Communications (OEEC) and dedicated to the quality of higher education in Belarus and the role of students in university governance. The live broadcast will be available.

Reforms Review

Economic preferences of Belarusians under the economic crisis have changed slightly. According to the IISEPS March national poll, the crisis in the country is recognized by 87.8% of Belarusians, but the collapse of the Belarusian model – only 24%. The crisis has not led to a reassessment of the economic ideas of Belarusians – In particular, they do not lose their trust in the effectiveness of state property.

What reforms the Belarusian authorities will hold in exchange for a Eurasian credit. On March 28, the Eurasian Fund for Stabilisation and Development (EFSD) approved the provision of a new loan of $2 billion to Belarus. Director of the EFSD Project Group on financial loans, Alisher Mirzoyev explains what reforms the loan is intended to support in Belarusian economy.

IBRD loan agreement to improve public finance management in Belarus signed. A $10 million loan agreement between Belarus and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) was signed in Minsk on April 1. The loan has been provided to increase the effectiveness and transparency of public finance management in Belarus in line with a government-approved strategy.

Lukashenka: No need of reforms in education, we must improve what we have. According to the Belarus' president, "we got good education system since the Soviet times. We transformed it, returned to it several times, to write new textbooks, etc."

Strategy of reforming of state organizations will be ready by September 1. By an order of the Belarus’ Prime Minister, an inter-departmental coordination group on the reform of public administration and management of state assets has been established. The group should draft a related comprehensive strategy by September 1.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




Belarus Reality Check, Life After Sanctions – Digest Of Belarusian Analytics

Over the last weeks Belarusian analysts widely discussed the removal of EU sanctions and possible scenarios of further rapprochement, as well as benefits for Belarus. The surveys demonstrate that Belarus citizens became worse off, yet they are not going to channel the falling incomes into mass protests.

Green activists reveal that funding of EU-Belarus projects remains barely transparent. Belarus ranks 127th in the 2015 Democracy Index out of 167 examined states and territories. This and more in the new Digest of Belarusian Analytics.

6th Belarus Reality Check took place on February 25, in Vilnius and gathered Belarusian and international analysts, diplomats and development practitioners for an evidence-based review of the situation in Belarus. The topics raised were Belarus' economy and the processes of reforms; Belarus security and foreign relations, and Belarus-Western relation in light of Ukrainian crisis. Please check out the program of the event. A non-paper will be published based on the results of the meeting.

Belarus without sanctions

Amplituda. Life After Sanctions: How To Negotiate With Europe? – A new release of the TUT.by program discusses if the EU hastened with lifting the sanctions, who will determine the road map of rapprochement, which proposals can make Belarus to the EU and vise versa, which recent numerous bilateral meetings are the most significant. The speakers are Denis Melyantsou, BISS and Yauheni Preiherman, Liberal Club.

Belarus Without Sanctions: What Now?Artyom Shraibman, Belarus Digest, notices that with the sanctions removed, Belarus can now hope for increased financial support from Brussels. Still, the new phase of relations is a positive development. In the end, Belarus will need a foreign helping hand to launch reforms and drag itself out of the crisis. For the sake of the country’s future and independence, this hand would be better coming from the West.

EU Lifts Most Sanctions Against Belarus Despite Human Rights Concerns – The Guardian highlights that decision to lift sanctions against 170 people including president Alexander Lukashenka prompts widespread criticism. The EU’s view of progress in Minsk stands in stark contrast to the concerns about political repression and human rights abuses.

Why Sanctions Against Belarus Could Not StandGrigory Ioffe analyzes the reaction of the Belarusian and Russian media on the removal of the sanctions on Belarus by the EU. The expert concludes that while the lifting of sanctions has manifested an overdue change in the Western policy vis-à-vis Belarus, it effectively posed more questions than it addressed.

Economic situation in Belarus

Fresh Charka&Shkvarka Index. BIPART Research Center and the KostUrada project released a Charka&Shkvarka Index (Shot & Bacon) for 4th quarter of 2015. The Index is calculated quarterly on the basis of price of 100 grams of pork and 100 grams of vodka. In the 4th quarter of 2015, the Index has risen by 1.6% – now the average Belarusian can afford 321 Charka&Shkvarka per month, which is equivalent to 32.1 kg of pork and 32.1 liters of vodka.

Belarusians Live Worse, But do Not Intend to Protest – According to a survey conducted by Vardomatsky laboratory in late December 2015, the nation's economic self-perception was worse in 2015 than during the previous year. At the same time, the growth of protest mood is not observed. The geopolitical orientation of Belarusians is characterized by the pro-Russian dominance throughout the year and a sharp rise in recent months (2/3 of the population).

REFORUM. Improving the Competitiveness of Belarus: What the State Development Programs Miss – The study conducted in the framework of REFORUM project identifies gaps in the state programs, the elimination of which would improve the competitiveness of Belarus. So far Belarus has not included either in the WEF ranking or any other rating, evaluating the competitiveness of countries, because the experts distrust to the Belarusian official statistics.

Foreign and security policy

Belarus Prepares to Adopt New Military DoctrineYauheni Preiherman, Eurasia Daily Monitor, notices that in recent months, military affairs have featured high on the political and media agendas in Belarus. The analyst believes that this should not be interpreted in terms of Belarus being afraid specifically of a Donbas-type scenario or of increased military activity along NATO’s eastern flank. But this is generally a logical reaction of a small sovereign state to the multiple security challenges it faces on different levels.

Civil society

Freedom of Associations and Legal Conditions for Non-Profit Organizations in Belarus – Legal Transformation Center and Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs released the monitoring of the Belarusian non-profit sector for 2015. Major changes of the last year affecting the interests of NGOs concerned legal regulations of foreign funding. At the same time, all pre-existing legal restrictions and enforcement practices regarding all aspects of the NGOs establishment and operation remained unchanged.

Amplituda. Around What Authorities, Opposition and the Society Can Unite in Belarus (Video) – In TUT.by studio, political analyst Alexander Klaskouski and BPF leader Alexei Yanukevich discuss the recent protests of entrepreneurs. They raise such issues as fears of entrepreneurs to cooperate with politicians; who should set an example of the integration; why politicians united before; what challenges can shift to integration with pro-government structures.

Where the European Money Goes – WildLife.by journalists decided to get acquainted with organizations that have received grants under the project "Facilitating the transition of Belarus to the green economy", funded by the EU and implemented by the UNDP. Using the information from open sources, the journalists could not find a half of the grantees.

International rankings

Belarus ranks 127th in the Democracy Index. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Belarus 127th in the 2015 Democracy Index out of 167 examined states and territories. The Index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Ukraine is ranked 88th while Russia is 132nd. Compared to last year, Belarus dropped two positions.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




#DanceForReforms, Jails Monitoring, Websites Warned – Belarus Civil Society Digest

StudWatch initiative launches a #DanceForReforms flashmob. Viasna publishes a report on monitoring detention facilities in Belarus. 106 new NGOs were registered in 2015. Three Belarusian crowdfunding platforms collect nearly $140K of local funds in 2015. Belarus in Focus announces winners of its annual international journalism competition. Lawtrend presents infographics of 48 government websites.

Ministry of Interior confirms "no detention, fines later” as new tactic on protest rallies. Two independent websites receive warnings from the Information Ministry. Belarusian Christian Democracy Party denied registration for the sixth time. Since the presidential elections fines for civic activists and journalists grow, but arrests drop to zero.

Civil society initiatives

StudWatch launches a flashmob #danceForReforms. StudWatch initiative is a number of student CSOs that united to jointly uphold the quality of higher education and achieve true student self-government. The initiative calls on students who are dissatisfied with the status quo in Belarusian higher education, to take part in the flashmob – to dance on the background of the university, record a video and post it in social networks with the hashtag #danceForReforms.

Mova Nanova announces a new flash mob. On the eve of Mother Language Day, people confess, why they do not speak Belarusian, creating posters with their photos. Among the advanced reasons are fear of making mistakes, lack of Belarusian-language environment, laziness. Mova Nanova/Language Anew is free courses of Belarusian language held in 10 cities over the country.​

Reports and statistics

Viasna publishes report on monitoring places of detention in Belarus. The Human Rights Center Viasna has analyzed the situation in places of detention in Belarus and prepared a report on the results of monitoring in 2015. The report states that the situation in places of detention did not considerably change last year and describes cases of violating human rights, using or encouraging cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Statistics on the registration of NGOs. In 2015, 106 new NGOs were registered in Belarus, which increased the number of registered organizations by 2.7% compared to 2014. Thus, now in Belarus there are 2,665 registered NGOs, 34 unions (associations) of NGOs, 164 foundations, and 7 republican state-public associations.

More than 3 billion rubles collected at Belarusian crowdfunding platforms in 2015. They are MaeSens.by, Ulej.by and Talaka.by. The total amount is around $140K (on the recent exchange rate). According to Ulej.by, the average donation is $23-25. People respond more actively on social projects like support to children, disabled, inclusive education systems, and animals.

"Executive Authority Online" infographics. Lawtrend presents the results of a recent study of 48 official websites in a format of interactive infographics. The infographics reflects changes of the official websites since 2013, when for the first time Lawtrend conducted monitoring of the official resources of national executive authorities (general rating, accessibility for the blind, the changes for two years, etc.).

Fines grow, arrests not applied. According to the Human Rights Centre Viasna andBAJ, since the presidential elections to present (October 2015-February 2016), about 90 administrative cases were initiated against civic activists and journalists. More than a half of cases ended up with fines for a total amount of Br320 million (around $17K); no administrative arrests followed. To compare with the same period a year ago (October 2014-February2015) – 70 administrative cases, Br120 million (around $8K) of fines and 151 days of administrative arrests. Also, then six political prisoners remained behind bars.

Other events

Tell the Truth holds fifth founding congress. On February 21, the civil campaign Tell the Truth! held the fifth founding congress to apply for registration of the association. It was attended by 70 delegates from all regions of the country. Tell the Truth! has been trying to get an official registration since 2011, to no avail. On February 25, the campaign celebrates its sixth anniversary.

Belarus in Focus announces winners of the fifth edition of its annual international journalism competition for authors writing about Belarus. This year, the competition received 71 articles by 59 authors from 16 countries. The jury has decided to assign 4 prizes to professional journalists and 1 prize to the beginner. The winners will be awarded at the award-giving ceremony in Minsk in the end of April.

Interaction between state and civil society

Entrepreneurs’ protests continue. On February 28, several hundred of private entrepreneurs gathered in Minsk October Square, trying to make the government abolish decree #222. No one was detained. Anatoli Shumchanka, the leader of the Perspektyva, and Mikalai Statkevich, ex-political prisoner announce an Entrepreneurs Marchunder the same slogans for March 14.

Interior minister explains why police go easy on opposition rallies. Recently, the police stopped dispersing mass rallies and detaining their participants – now they draw protocols and impose fines. Thus, the Belarusian police found a new suitable algorithm for responding to opposition rallies, which satisfied both the authorities and the West. The monthly Human Rights Monitoring for February confirms that all unauthorized peaceful assemblies within a month passed without the intervention of law enforcement authorities.

Two websites warned by the Information Ministry. Two independent websites, of Nasha Niva newspaper nn.by and Ezhednevnik ej.by received written warnings from the Ministry of Information. The chairperson of BAJ Andrei Bastunets underlines that a warning is not a preventive measure, but a sanction – two warnings can result in a closure of the mass media.

Belarusian Christian Democracy Party failed to register for the sixth time. The Ministry of Justice has found ‘rude violations of the legislation of Belarus’ in the statutes. The last constituent assembly of the BCD was held in December 2015.

BAJ leader takes part in Editors’ Club. The program Editors’ Club is broadcast on the Belarusian State Television Company and gathers for a discussion chief editors of state-run editions. After the appeal of key independent media, the Club invited Andrei Bastunets, head of Belarusian Association of Journalists, to the program on February 25.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




What Is at Stake in the Small Traders Protests?

On 1 January 2016, a new edict came into force in Belarus demanding that small traders who sell imported goods must provide details of their origin.

The edict was based on laws for small traders introduced by the Eurasian Customs Union that came into effect in January 2013. As a result, most outlets selling light industrial goods have closed.

The traders held an “anti-crisis forum” at the Hotel Belarus’ on January 11, but to date the government has refused to rectify the situation. Moreover, the impasse seems likely to continue at least until the convocation of the next Business Forum on January 25.

While the difficulties for such forms of business in Belarus date back more than a decade, the current conflict represents the most serious dilemma to date for both the authorities and small traders.

Traders' response to decree 222

The bill requests that traders selling imported goods — mostly from Russia — must provide certificates indicating their origin. Traditionally, Russian exporters have either declined to provide such information or fabricated it. The government’s stated goal to procure transparency in trade masks a larger concern that cheap imported goods undermine the sale of Belarusian products. In turn, the traders insist that the quality of local manufacturing is both inferior to and more expensive than imports.

The mass desertion of their market stalls clearly surprised the authorities, and the Ministry of Trade acknowledged that 68% of outlets had remained closed, which it attributed in official parlance to the holiday season. Yet according to the head of the business association Perspektyva, Anatol Šumchanka, 90% of traders nationwide abandoned their businesses during the holiday season, which is normally their peak period for sales.

The president of Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, made reference to the stoppage of sales on January 14 at a meeting related to the protection of the state border. He noted that advance warning of the decree was given last year to self-employed small traders and commented that he was puzzled by recent events.

Decree 222, he added, constitutes the first step in trade transparency, thus implying that more measures would follow. For the president, the struggles of the state sector in the current dire economic climate remain the priority and thus traders must sell homemade products.

The anti-crisis forum

An estimated 1,500 small traders attended the anti-crisis forum held at the Hotel Belarus, with a further 800 gathering outside in the foyer. Šumchanka addressed the assembled and complained about the lack of prior consultation of the new decree. He stressed that traders do not oppose the certification of goods, but the authorities introduced the laws without consultation.

Šumchanka cited a former judge of the Constitutional Court, Michail Pastuchoŭ, who analysed Edict 222 and reached the conclusion that the document illegally restricted the rights of citizens. Šumchanka​ proposed the gathering of 50,000 signatures to introduce a new law into Parliament on behalf of the traders to create more favourable conditions for small businesses.

Perhaps unsurprisingly some participants wanted more direct action and in the foyer Minsk trader Aliaksandr Makajeŭ called for a mass protest at October Square on January 16.

Notably also, former presidential candidate Taссiana Karatkievič attended the forum, as did two (invited) officials from the government, Andrej Miaškoŭ (Ministry of Trade) and Valery Chomčanka (Ministry of Economy).

Šumchanka​, however, who highlighted the campaign on his Facebook page (Anatoliy Shumchenko), responded angrily to what he perceived as the attempt to politicise the protests and commented that radical actions would not bring the desired results. At the same time, Miaškoŭ​ provided an overt warning that traders would be held responsible for “violating established working hours” should they fail to report to work the next day. The vast majority ignored the threat.

Could the protest widen?

Šumchanka referred to political activists as “scum” and “provocateurs” who should hold their own events, but some political activists perceived the dispute as a potential for more coordinated anti-government actions, perhaps based on Šumchanka’s own estimate that the new decree encompasses potentially not merely 37,000 individual traders, but also over 120,000 businesses operating in shopping centres and as private companies.

The gathering at the Hotel Belarus also comprised delegates from all parts of the country, indicating the breadth of the protests. The leader of Perspektyva believes that the government logically must come to an agreement with traders who have no alternative but to oppose a law that undermines their very livelihood.

Opposition leader Mikalaj Statkievič provided an interview to Belsat TV on the same day as the Anti-Crisis Forum. He made it clear that if the authorities failed to respond to demands of ‘democrats’ for electoral reform, they should be prepared to gather “in the Square” in order to “maintain dignity” and demonstrate their willingness to fight for their rights.

Street actions, in his view, remain the sole mechanism to influence the authorities. He revealed that he is preparing a group of 150-200 committed and “courageous” people who are prepared to lead street rallies. The call for confrontation contrasted with the milder approach of Šumchanka​, who although equally dismissive of the government’s responses to date, still holds out the hope of reaching agreement.

A time for compromise?

The dispute between the government and small traders carries potential for broader protests, especially given the dilemmas of large companies who are cutting the workforce and dealing with high costs of imported materials.

Moreover, an immediate solution appears unlikely as the suppliers of the imported goods refuse to provide documentation of their origin. Such trade originated in Soviet times and constitutes an essential mechanism for supply of consumer products in a command economy. And while the majority of small traders in Minsk on January 11 seek economic rather than political solutions — such as a change of government — their frustration is evident.

Belarus can ill afford a sustained mass protest given the forecasted sluggish GDP growth of 0.3% in 2016 — a prediction itself based on a highly implausible oil price of US$50 per barrel. A wise government would consider a compromise solution.

David R. Marples

David R. Marples is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta




Political Prisoners – No Longer a Sticking Point in Belarus-EU Relations?

This May, the Belarusian authorities increased pressure on a number of political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkievič, anarchist Mikalaj Dziadok and political activist Jury Rubcoŭ.

This move appears unreasonable when set against a backdrop of improving relations with the West, as the political prisoners issue has always been a major contributing factor in western policy towards Belarus. However, in recent months, an unheard of number of Western officials have visited Minsk, and few, if any, raised much of an alarm about the human rights situation.

The reason for their conduct is, clearly, a result of the regions' profoundly changed geopolitical landscape. The growing concerns surrounding the Ukraine conflict and Belarus' position on Crimea's annexation and peacemaking efforts are pushing the West to change their strategy towards Minsk.

Isolation is giving way to strengthening Belarusian independence in order to weaken Russian influence in the region. Still, western negotiators should be careful not to remove human rights issues from the agenda, while acknowledging that talking to Minsk requires some delicacy.

Growing Pressure on Political Prisoners

On 5 May the court of the Škloŭ colony ordered Mikalaj Statkievič to be transfer into a prison for the rest of his time in confinement for breaking the terms of his imprisonment. Mikalaj Statkievič, a famous Belarusian politician, is serving a six-year term in prison for leading the 2010 street protests that opposed the results of the presidential election. He is the only former presidential candidate still in prison, and continuously refuses to sign an appeal for a pardon to Lukashenka, an position that seriously irritates the authorities.

On 20 May, another political prisoner, Mikalaj Dziadok deliberately injured himself protesting against harsh conditions in the penal ward. However, after receiving medical aid he was sent back to the ward. Mikalaj was one of the anarchists imprisoned by the authorities for allegedly attacking state buildings and private institutions in 2011.

On 28 May, the Pružany district court sentenced Jury Rubcoŭ to two years in prison for evading compulsory work, which he was originally sentenced to serve out in an probationary correctional facility. Rubcoŭ found the wages for jobs the administration assigned him to be too low and demanded the average Belarusian salary. He was serving a 1.5 year term for insulting a judge during an administrative trial after a Čarnobyl Way annual protest gathering.

Who is (and Who is not) a Political Prisoner in Belarus

Currently, Belarusian human rights groups, the International Federation for Human Rights and Freedom House list six political prisoners in Belarus. Four of them, Ihar Alinievič, Jaŭhien Vaśkovič, Mikalaj Dziadok, Arciom Prakapenka, were tried in 2011 under the so-called “anarchist trial” and sentenced to 4.5-8 years in prison. They are accused of attacking banks and casinos, as well as a KGB office in Babrujsk. As for the cases of Jaŭhien Vaśkovič and Arciom Prakapenka, Belarusian human rights groups accept that certain laws were broken, but say their prison terms are excessive.

However, earlier this spring the head of Latvian Foreign Ministry Andrejs Pildegovičs stated that the EU officially only recognises three political prisoners: Ihar Alinievič, Mikalaj Dziadok, and Mikalaj Statkievič. In other words, the EU apparently accept, more or less, the validity of the the charges against the remaining three anarchists as well as Jury Rubcoŭ.

Moreover, authoritative international groups Amnesty International recognised only Mikalaj Statkievič and Jury Rubcoŭ as "prisoners of conscience". Meanwhile, Minsk continues to insist that there are no political prisoners in Belarus, and those whom human rights groups call political prisoners are serving fair sentences for specific criminal offences.

Lukashenka's Prisoner Dilemma

Political prisoners are now a part of the Belarusian electoral cycle, with each of the two last presidential campaigns in 2006 and 2010, as each were accompanied by the imprisonment of activists and opposition figures. By doing so, they demonstrate their control over what is considered politically acceptable in Belarus.

At the same time, political prisoners have been the chief obstacle in developing relations with the West, which thus far have set a proper human rights record as a necessary pre-condition of any improvement of relations. As Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski stated at a EU foreign ministers meeting in 2011, "the liberation and rehabilitation — their participation in politics — of all political prisoners in Belarus is a prerequisite for our resumption of dialogue with authorities in Belarus". Consequently, Lukashenka sought to find a balance between demonstrating his firm grip on the domestic situation, all while maintaining some degree of cooperation with the West.

The image of a dictator holding people in prison for political reasons, in Belarus' case, continues to damage the investment attractiveness. It damages any real potential economic cooperation with western countries, to say nothing of securing loans from international financial institutions like the IMF. Moreover, Lukashenka is now in dire need of a counterbalancing force to overwhelming Russian influence in Belarus if he is to retain his ability to independently make decisions. Although he tries to find it elsewhere in the world, Europe and the US certainly remain major actors in the game.

Lukashenka sees bowing to demands to release the prisoners, sees as humiliation. Perhaps he hopes that the growing security threats in the region may help him build relations with the West without releasing political prisoners.

Hostages of the Ukraine Crisis?

In recent months, Minsk has hosted unusually large number of western officials, including the Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service Helga Schmid, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn, PACE special rapporteur on Belarus Andrea Rigoni, and US Department of State representative Eric Rubin.

In their meetings with Lukashenka and other Belarusian senior officials, they have largely discussed Ukraine and appear to have shelved any serious discussion on human rights issues in Belarus. Minsk's peacemaking efforts in the Ukraine conflict and its refusal to support Crimea's annexation, by all apperances, have proven to be of greater importance to the West.

As Eric Rubin stated, “In our view, support for Belarusian independence, economic growth and trade do not contradict the issues where we have disagreements”. This new approach allows for limited cooperation in a de-politicised manner that seek to strengthen Belarus' independence and, consequently, weaken Russia's influence on its neighbours.

While the West does still recognise the political prisoner problem in Belarus, it has assigned it to the competency of a sovereign state to deal with. This limited cooperation suits Minsk well. It has no interest in adopting European political models and norms, and can benefit from other forms of cooperation with the West, especially those that can nudge Russia towards new concessions with energy and loans. By taking the political prisoner issue of their foreign affairs agendas, even temporarily, is precisely what Minsk has been yearning for for years.

While it may make cooperation between the West and Belarus easier and could potentially lead to deeper engagement between them, the issue of political prisoners should not be set aside. This requires a delicate balance of diplomacy and determination by western officials in their dealings with Minsk.




New Polls: Belarusians Support Lukashenka and Do Not Want an Euromaidan

At the end of April, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies published the results of two polls.

The polls demonstrate that the crisis in Ukraine became an informational tidal wave that has been sweeping over Belarus, with 90% of Belarusians following the events. Belarusian society has become strongly politicised for the first time in many years.

However, most Belarusians consider the ousting of Yanukovych a coup and do not want to host a similar revolution in Belarus. Moreover, Belarusians prove reluctant to participate in mass protests and enjoy the current stability provided to them under the Lukashenka regime, which the growth of his approval rating proves.

For Lukashenka, the crisis has been a challenge and a gift at the same time. Relations with Russia have deteriorated and Belarus may yet lose its valued Ukrainian markets. Yet Lukashenka still now has the chance to become a true national leader and consolidate the nation as the protector of sovereignty of Belarus.

Mass opinion on Euromaidan

Broader Belarusian public opinion on the events in Ukraine remains largely unstudied, since very few polls are held in Belarus. Those made by the government usually remain confidential.  Perhaps the only publication on their public opinion recently appeared in a study done by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, the oldest independent polling institute of Belarus currently registered in Vilnius.

The IISEPS conducted the poll in March, therefore it did not include the events surrounding Crimea or the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine. However, it provides a good picture of attitudes of Belarusians towards mass protests and coups, as well as shows the level of their attention to Ukraine events.

Did you follow political conflict in Ukraine, which ended in the ousting of president Yanukovych?

The poll shows that the crisis in Ukraine has been hugely influential in Belarusian media space. Almost 90% of Belarusians followed the crisis' developments. Moreover, a third of Belarusians reported that they followed the Ukrainian crisis every day. In Belarus, where real political struggle has not existed for quite some time, and most people are interested only in routine and private issues, these figures look like a populace awakening after a long political winter.

People were discussing Ukraine in the streets and in public places, which is the first such instance perhaps since the beginning of the 2000s. Every media outlet had Ukraine headlining, and these stories garnered a virtually unfathomable number of comments. Heated discussions were unfolding, dividing people into pro and against Maidan camps.

Many Belarusians were able to articulate for themselves their values on the matters of freedom, material wellbeing, national identity and violence. The events in Ukraine have had a significant on the minds of Belarusians, making them consider their own position and future choices.

President Yanukovych was ousted in Ukraine. What do you think of these developments?

A question on their personal perception of Euromaidan showed that a majority of Belarusians (55% ) consider the ousting of Yanukovych a coup and not a democratic revolution or fair retribution. However, almost a third seems to support Euromaidan.

Would you like events similar to Ukrainian happen in Belarus?

In this question Belarusians demonstrated their famous love for stability. They would rather not have a similar revolution even provided that it is peaceful.  23% of respondents would accept a non-violent revolution in Belarus, while only 3.6% are ready to shed blood in the fight against Lukashenka regime. This means Belarus will hardly ever experience a revolution, at least until people have a minimum level of wellbeing and sense of security.

Although economically Belarusians feel that they are only slightly better off than Ukrainians in terms of corruption and security. For them, Belarus looks to be in a considerably position overall and people appreciate it. Ukraine has indeed become a fine example of poor government, associated, in public opinion, with scuffles in parliament, oligarchs and omnipresent corruption.

If events similar to Ukraine happen in Belarus, would you take part in them?

This diagram supports the previous one, and still sheds light on some interesting details. While most Belarusians state they are reluctant to participate in any kind of mass protests, only 11% are ready to defend the current political regime. This means the majority would simply observe the developments without interfering with them.

Perhaps some of them would change their mind and take one side or another, but the general trend seems to be relatively clear. And importantly, 15% are ready to struggle against the regime via a Belarusian Maidan, which is more that the number of its active defenders.

In the end, however, a majority Belarusians would accept any developments of potential conflict and largely prefer not to interfere – a strategy they have typically employed throughout their history.

A Present for Lukashenka before Elections

The same institution, IISEPS, also measured Lukashenka's approval rating in March 2014. Since December 2013 it has grown from 35% to 40%. Lukashenka surely remains far behind Putin, who currently enjoys an 82% approval rating according to Russian Levada-Centre estimates, and who has capitalised pretty well on the intervention in Ukraine under the “protection of Russian civilisation” mask.

Dynamics of Lukashenka's Approval Rating

But despite a much lower rating compared to Putin, Lukashenka has shown himself to be a true national leader in the Ukrainian conflict. Despite Belarus' heavy economic dependence on Russia and political and military union, he refused to recognise the annexation of Crimea and Belarus' official position remains in favour of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He also spoke out against the federalisation of Ukraine, a point that Russia is strongly advocating for in negotiations with the west.

He is also continuously accusing Yanukovych of outrageous levels of corruption in Ukraine and named it the root of Ukraine's current malaise. Moreover, Lukashenka quickly recognised the new government of Ukraine, personally met with Turchynov and later discussed with him some developments in Ukraine over the phone – a move Vladimir Putin would hardly approve of.

In his address to the nation and parliament on 22 April, Lukashenka for the first time spoke about protecting the Belarusian language and ordered the KGB to identify pro-Russian "diversionists". He also criticised the position of Russia on the Eurasian Union, the main geopolitical project of Vladimir Putin.

The moves of Lukashenka appealed not only to his traditional electorate, but also to many of his opponents who agreed with him on at least some of his points. Ahead of the 2015 presidential elections, Lukashenka may appear to be a true national leader and protector of Belarus against Russian aggression. Meanwhile, his opponents remain in the shadows and are largely unknown to the majority of Belarusians.

Although economically quite damaging for Belarus, Lukashenka received an invaluable present before the next elections – the chance of becoming a truly popular leader and consolidate the nation. At this point it looks like Lukashenka can already be called the next president of Belarus, and maybe this time around he will not even need to use fraud to do it.




Belarus’ Latest Propaganda Film

On 30 January – 2 February a mass protest was staged in the centre of Minsk as a a part of a state-sponsored film project entitled Abel

The highest echelons of the Presidential Administration are supervising the production of the film. Some observers dubbed Abel a response to Viva Belarus, a film that was shot in Poland last year. But producers claim the film will be a fictional work with only a few historical parallels. 

However, many things point to the fact that the film can indeed be used as a more ideological affair, made in preparations for the upcoming 2015 presidential elections.  The first awkward shots, strange filmmaking team and a leaked scenario convinced many that the project might end in failure. 

A State Film Project

Abel will appear in accordance with an order by the Ministry of Culture of Belarus, which has allocated $2.17m for it. The film holds the status of being a national project and Aliaksandr Radźkoŭ, the First Deputy Head of Presidential Administration, is said to be supervising it personally.

The film producer is Nonstop Media, a private company that is owned by Siarhej Ždanovič, who will work with American, German and Russian partners. The producer says that the cream of the crop of foreign stunt men will participate in the film, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise's respective stunt doubles.

At first glance, the fact that Nonstop Media, a private company, is producing a film supervised by the regime would appear unusual at first sight. But it turns out that Siarhej Ždanovič serves as a functionary of White Rus, an organisation that primarily brings together state officials to support the regime of Lukashenka. He has connections in at the very top of the Belarusian establishment and, allegedly,has already managed to win all the tenders for the UN-financed Above the Sky film

Amateur Director and Regime-Affiliated Producer

Ždanovič chose William Devital as the film's director, who came all the way to Belarus from the US for the film's shooting. Strangely, Devital has never directed a film and worked only as a second unit director and stuntman. In his interview with the BELTA news agency he confessed that he has been working hard for such an opportunity all of his life and really feels that he deserves the chance to direct a film.

Andrei Kureičyk, a famous Belarusian dramatist and scriptwriter, has extensively commented on the film. According to him, the Presidential Administration designed Abel as a response to the anti-regime Viva Belarus movie directed by Krzysztof Lukaszewich and shot in Poland. Even independent experts said that Viva Belarus showed an exaggerated picture of the regime's cruelty. Needless to say, it had a highly negative impact on the regime's already poor reputation.  

Kureičyk also claims that Siarhei Ždanovič created Abel to swindle some money out of the budget of the state. He promised to make an ideologically strong picture which will improve the image of the Belarusian regime internationally. It was also suggested that the film will make clear to its audience that leading up to the presidential elections of 2015 taking in protests is a bad idea. 

The Leaked Script

Meanwhile, on 2 February someone leaked a scripts from Abel to the Charter97 website. According to the story, missionaries form a powerful secret organisation called Cain Seal, who is trying to save the world. They know beforehand when a major assassination or murder will take place and try to prevent them from happening.

One of their operations takes place in Belarus right the mass protests, where Presidential Security Service assists them in preventing some people from being killed, including saving many from a metro terrorist attack. The final scene of the film apparently even involves the Anders Breivik massacre.

The producers told the media that this was one of early possible treatments of the film and the final one differs considerably from the script that was leaked. However,  they do not hide their annoyance with the fact that it was indeed leaked and will even sue the person suspected to be responsible. 

Abel's Ideological Mission

The information which filmmakers have been publicly sharing about the project make it the film sound like it will be rather controversial. Producer Siarhei Ždanovič has constantly emphasised that the film will be fiction, not a reconstruction of the December 2010 events. 

In other interviews, however, he accepts that the film will cover the 2010 events, but unlike the anti-regime account shown in Viva Belarus, which was a one sided interpretation of the events. Instead Abel will show the “true” picture of the events it describes. The ideological background behind the film is evident from several other facts that have been revealed. For example, one of the scenes will cover the 11 April 2011 terrorist attack in the Minsk metro. 

Film director William Devital, for his part, spoke about the film's main idea in a rather open manner, clearly unaware of the film's local context. In his interview to the BELTA news agency he explained that the film revolve around dramatic events that could happen in any country: a group of hooligans and ringleaders provoke others to violence during peaceful protests. 

According to a majority of public opinion, it was the Belarusian security services who provoked the 19 December 2010 assault on the House of Government. By doing so the authorities tried to justify a brutal attack on peaceful protesters and their subsequent detentions and prison sentences.

These events still remain a painful memory in the minds of many Belarusians today. This to say nothing of Mikalaj Statkievič, one of the presidential candidates in 2010 elections, still remains in prison.

The First Filming Session – Not Entirely Succesful

The first public filming session took place between 28 January – 2 February. It immediately raised a number of controversies and has become fodder for several anecdotes. Police in civilian clothes guarded the area where it was being to avoid journalists being able to enter and cover the filming session. 

Students reported that their university administrations forced them to participate in the mob scenes near the House of Government during the demonstration's filming. The mob scenes involved around 4,000 people in total according to the film's production team. Students reported that they received $4 an hour for their participation. 

While shooting the scenes, the film crew repeated once more again that they were not going to reconstruct the events that took place in 2010. The film apparently shows the casting of Molotov cocktail at police, something that did not in reality happen during the 2010 protests. However, like in 2010, the film included the destruction of doors of the House of Government.

The slogans “Viva Belarus” and white-red-white flag did not appear at the filming. Instead, the filmmakers ordered the mob to shout “We are against [the government – ed. BD]” and “Something is not right!” These phrases led to a wave of photoshopped memes on the Belarusian Internet, where the users made fun of such awkward protests.

If one is to judge by the first scenes that have been shot  as well as the information known about the filmmaking team, it might be fair to surmise that Abel is likely to become another failed image project of the Belarusian authorities. Foreign viewers will hardly pay for a cheap motion picture made by a group of virtually unknown amateurs. One hopes that Belarusians themselves will have enough independent thinking skills to understand where the truth really lies.




Hugo Chavez: the Musical, Tax Hike Protest, Opposition Leader Beaten – Western Press Digest

The western press covered a number of Belarus-related issues over the past month, though the economy remained their primary focus.

The long-rumoured potential sale of state-owned assets to Russian investors appears to be moving forward. This news is closely tied to Russia providing Belarus with a new $2bn loan, a deal which was commemorated in Sochi with an All-Star Hockey game.

Motorists took to the streets of Minsk to protest a new tax to be imposed on automobile owners. Leading opposition figure Anatol Lyabedzska was reportedly beaten and abducted by unknown individuals before being delivered to the police for gathering signatures for a petition against the tax.

Reverence for Hugo Chavez in Belarus’ capital remains, despite the former Venezuelan President’s passing last year. With a park being named after him and a musical in his honour planned to take place this summer in Minsk, 2014 looks as if it will a year in which Lukashenka will be able to show gratitude to his old friend.

All this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.

Minsk Flooded with Motorists, Protesting New Taxes on Automobiles – In a rare mass protest, the first in over 2 years, Belarusian citizens came to the Minsk’s centre to protest a new proposed tax on automobiles. Bloomberg notes that the Belarusian government is in dire straits seeking to generate revenues in order to bolster the faltering economy. Despite having secured a new loan from Russia, the IMF has officially stated that no discussions are planned with Belarus.

With Lukashenka’s attempts to raise foreign direct investment and attract more loans from sources other than Russia yielding few results, the government is becoming increasingly desperate and citizens are beginning to feel the results. The tax itself, according to official estimates, is expected to generate only $168.5m.

In response to the proposed tax, Belarusians organised a protest to jam up traffic on Nezavisimosti Avenue, one of the city’s main roads which goes by Lukashenka’s official residence. Protestors outside of the Belarusian ruler’s residence, who cheered on the motorists, were eventually dispersed.

Opposition Leader Intimidated and Beaten, Headed to Trial – Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reports that the Chairman of the United Civic Party, Anatol Lyabedzka, was beaten and then taken to the police by 7 unknown men. Before arriving at the police station his assailants drove him by the Kurpaty Stalin-era mass grave and the city crematorium.

Lyabedzska states that he faces a trial on January 14, after being charged by police for gathering signatures against new taxes on automobiles. According to the opposition leader he was formally charged with breaking a law on sanctioned public gatherings. If convicted, Lyabedszka’s punishment will be minimal and include a fine and/or a few days in jail.

New Stetl Tourist Route to Open in Belarus, Poland, Ukraine – The Associated Press covered a new, the primarily EU-funded project that would create a real-life tour of towns that were formerly bastions of Eastern European Jewish culture and life. The tour will include 20 towns that straddle the border with the EU, including sights in Belarus, Ukraine and Poland.

Since many of the largely Jewish towns were destroyed in the late 1930s and 1940s, 3D models will be assembled to help visitors visualise Jewish life. According to the coverage, these models will re-create the “gems of architecture” that were once found in the regions wooden synagogues. Other items, including multilingual guidebooks and guides will already be available in 2015.

Hugo Chavez Musical Planned by Belarusian Musical Theatre – RFERL reports that while Hugo Chavez, who passed away in 2013, may no longer be around, his spirit will endure in Belarus. The Belarusian Musical Theatre, in collaboration with Venezuelan composer Gerardo Estrada Martinez and other Venezuelan artists, will create a musical in Spanish entitled, “In Memory of Hugo Chavez.”

According to RFERL despite Chavez’ passing, the two countries have continued to work closely together, with Belarus helping Venezuela to develop its oil and gas fields. After a resolution by the Minsk City Council in early January, a park in Minsk has been re-named after the former Venezuelan president.

Friendly All-Star Ice Hockey Game and a New $2bn from Russia – Russia has decided to provide Belarus with an additional $2bn loan, due to the current global economic situation. Lukashenka and Putin signed the agreement in late December, with Belarus already having received $440m in early January. They celebrated the new agreement with a All-Star friendly hockey match in Sochi, site of the future winter Olympics.

The Financial Times mentions that the terms for the loans are perhaps not as friendly as they might seem. It is likely that Russia expects Belarus to sell off some of its state-owned companies. Lukashenka has maintained that the situation with the troubled Belarusian economy is in large part due to the potash scandal which erupted in 2013 with Uralkali. Russia’s top diplomat in Belarus, Ambassador Alexander Surikov, stated that the loan is part of helping Belarus to better prepare for integration into the Eurasian Economic Union.

Belarus Preparing to Sell State-owned Assets to Russia – In October 2013, the Belarusian State Property Committee a list of state-owned assets that the government would allow foreign investors to buy shares in. Russia has long demanded the sale of certain state-assets, or at least controlling shares in lucrative state-owned companies, as conditions for any further loans. While this tactic failed in the past, it appears that Belarus can no longer withstand Russia’s demands.

The Financial Times reports that up for grabs are the Mozyr oil refinery and a military-grade vehicle manufacturer, MZKT, among other assets. While Rosneft and Gazpromneft already control a 42.58 stake in Mozyr, the remaining 42.76 stake up for sale would give the Russian state corporations complete control over the lucrative Belarusian refinery. Belarus has also be looking to offload its 51 per cent stake in Belarusian mobile phone network MTS, but their asking price ($863m) has not attracted any buyers yet.

Devin Ackles




Will Christian Values Unite the Belarusian Opposition?

In recent months, two political prisoners, Źmicier Daškievič and Paval Seviaryniec, completed their incarceration and compulsory labour terms. Both promote Christian politics and are going to keep on struggling with the regime in the upcoming 2014 and 2015 elections.

Belarus remains the least religious country of the former Soviet Union, with only 33% of its population reporting religion as important for them. Moreover, as Belarus remains a sovietized society in many aspects, the law on religious freedom remains quite restrictive.

In such conditions, building a political campaign on purely idealist values may be a challenging task. However, coupled with good social and economic program and smart usage of modern technology, such a campaign can prove successful.

Paval Seviaryniec: Time for a Moral Revolution

Paval Seviaryniec is perhaps the most prominent activist of the younger generation of the Belarusian national movement. Born in 1976, he joined the Belarusian Popular Front in 1995 and in 1997 co-chaired the newly created oppositional youth organisation Malady Front. In 1997-2004 he served as one of the main organisers of mass street protests against Lukashenka's politics, and took part in numerous political and cultural projects. He was detained around 40 times.

In 2005, the authorities accused him for organising protests against the results of the 2004 referendum which allowed Lukashenka to serve more than two terms in office. Paval received three years of compulsory labour, which means living in a settlement in a remote areas of Belarus and working with restricted travel rights. In 2010 he was arrested after a mass protest against the presidential elections results and sentenced to another three-year term of compulsory labour.

In an interview after his release, Seviarynets proclaimed the total defeat of the opposition and its marginal role in current politics. He thinks that today's leaders should prepare a moral revolution. Lukashenka will be gone sooner or later, and the opposition's leaders should prevent the persistence of norms which exist under Lukashenka regime – theft, lie, fear and threats. The opposition, in Paval's view, also does not fully stick to a moral way of life.

“We need thousands of people who set moral principles above all else. We should respond to hatred with love, to fear with belief, to lies with truth”, Paval said. He regards the church as the most important and crucial center for a moral revolution today, as it has the largest moral potential. The lawyers, economists and engineers who visit churches today can replace the hundred thousand Lukashenka bureaucrats.

Źmicier Daškievič: God, Family, Fatherland

Źmicier Daškievič became another leader of the nation's youth in the 2010s. He served as co-chair of Malady Front in 2005 and took over its leadership in 2008. He took an active part in the 2006 presidential elections and supported the candidacy of Aliaksandr Milinkievič. After the elections he was one of the main organisers of the tent camp which was set up to protest against the election results.

In November 2006, the court found him guilty of acting on behalf of an unregistered organisation and sentenced him to a year and a half in prison. In 2010, before the notorious crackdown following presidential elections, security services provoked a fight with him in the street and soon he received two years in prison for “hooliganism”.

Zmicier Daškievič, after his release, stated that he was not going to keep the position of Malady Front leader, although he would continue to support it. Zmicier, who married his girlfriend while in prison, now believes he has a responsibility to his family and therefore puts the values of God, family and fatherland above all else. He has to abandon his former revolutionary passion and fight using the word of God. “The day of regime change will come, because God has already decided upon it”, Zmicier says.

Religion and State in Belarus          

According to a 2009 Gallup poll, Belarus occupies 15th place in the list of least religious countries, with 57% reporting that religion is not important in their lives. Hence, Belarus presents the least religious country of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, the role of the church in modern Belarusian politics has been small in comparison to such religious neighbours of Belarus as Poland.

As Belarus remains a sovietized society in many aspects, the law on religious freedom appears quite restrictive here. All religious communities must obtain state registration, and all public expressions of belief must receive official permission from the state. After the restrictive 2002 law came into force, Belarusian authorities faced a resistance to some religious communities, especially protestant, who are considered “not a traditional church” and are often met with more restrictions.

The Catholic Church in Belarus, having up to 1.5 million believers according to some estimates, also regularly experiences problems with the state.  As representatives of the west and potential “agents of influence”, catholic priests from abroad sometimes do not receive permission to work in Belarus and some of them already working in Belarus are forced out of the country. As evidence of such official policy, recently the Belarusian KGB detained catholic priest Uladzislaŭ Lazar and accused him of assisting a spy suspect.

The problems with restrictions on religious freedom in Belarus have even appeared in European Parliament resolution of 17 December 2009, where it urged Belarusian authorities to safeguard freedom of religion for religious denominations other than the Orthodox Church.

Will Christian Democracy Unite the Opposition?

With only a third of citizens considering themselves believers and such restrictive politics towards religion, it would be hard for politicians like Paval Seviaryniec to mobilise society and build a new government based on Christian values. However, that very third of the population seems to be an active participant in Belarusian society, especially among Catholics and Protestants. The 2010 presidential elections showed that the candidate from the Christian Democrats Vital Rymašeŭski drew substantial attention from Christian voters.

Christian Democracy as a political subject emerged in Belarus in the late 2000s. In 2009, the founding congress of Belarusian Christian Democracy took place in Minsk. Unsurprisingly, the Ministry of Justice declined the application for the party's registration. Despite this, the party continues with its activities with its unofficial status. Its activists have faced constant pressure in carrying out their work, especially in the regions. However, today the party looks more viable than its colleagues among the “old” opposition, who became “professional oppositionists”.

Currently, the Belarusian opposition has formed two coalitions ahead of the 2014 local elections and 2015 presidential elections. While Źmicier Daškievič expresses skepticism to them and sees no way to challenge the regime at the moment, Paval Seviaryniec appears more optimistic. He suggests that Belarusain Christian Democracy become the link that unites the two coalitions to lead a joint campaign with a single candidate in 2015.

As a pragmatic nation with mostly materialistic interests and views, Belarusians will hardly follow a purely idealist political platform. However, coupled with a good social and economic program and a smart campaign, it can indeed yield successful results for Lukashenka's opponents. 




Belarusian Opposition in “Status Quo” Survival Mode

While the presidential election campaign of December 2010 saw a revival of dynamism and interest in the opposition in Belarus, the subsequent violent clampdown ended hope of an opening in Belarus. The opposition, rattled and weakened by these events and continued government pressure, has not been able to turn the economic crisis, mismanagement by the government and falling ratings of Alexander Lukashenka to their advantage.

Instead, the opposition parties since the elections have been in "status quo" survival mode. Dependent on modest Western aid, they have been caught up primarily in their own parallel political reality. Disengaged from the wider population, they have missed opportunities such as the economic crisis to explain how their plans would positively impact individuals in society. Meanwhile, a resurgent "political middle" is now more disappointed with Lukashenka’s leadership than ever before. Yet all "third way" attempts at reaching out to this group to date have failed. The regime’s effective “divide and rule” strategy is the prime cause, but the lack of persuasive arguments put forward also contributes.

Status Quo between Lukashenka and his Opposition

The political consequences of the economic crisis could not be more visible: President Lukashenka’s rating fell to 20.5 per cent in September 2011, the lowest ever. However, there has been no corresponding rise in the ratings of  opposition leaders. In the meantime, Lukashenka’s ratings edged slightly higher to 24.9 per cent in December 2011, illustrating that in the short term, at least, he is able to deal with the worst aspects of the crisis.

Any objective analysis would recognise that the Belarusian opposition are largely in an impossible situation. Prominent activists are in jail while others have had their health broken through imprisonment. 12 years ago saw the murder of some of their leaders, those who most resonated in society. Constant repression over many years has seen their structures frozen as the authorities have directly obstructed changes of leadership or registration of new parties.

Parties have been infiltrated by the authorities who have played “divide and rule” – evident in particular for the Social Democrats where perhaps the political allegiance of most Belarusians would currently lie. It has proved very difficult for parties to expand beyond relatively small groups of people, when individuals risk their livelihood by signing up. Meanwhile, in the regions, activists are exhausted and constantly harassed by the regime to keep them from gaining momentum. Perhaps even the ability of the opposition to survive until now can be considered a success in itself.

Yet alongside this situation, local experts have long pointed out that over the years there has been a strange sharing of a status quo between Lukashenka (the ruler) and his opposition (victims). Although they clearly hate each other, they are – to some extent and in the current environment – mutually interdependent. Lukashenka needs an opposition to treat badly as well as to keep his image as the last dictator of Europe to extract rents from Russia.

Meanwhile, most of the opposition and civil society leaders are fully dependent on (even modest sums of) Western aid. All too often this helps them become caught up in their own parallel political reality where they read their own news on their own websites – a reality out of step with the everyday life of non Western-aid recipients.

Obsession with own Internal Politics

Yet in this parallel political reality they focus more on their own internal politics, rather than on what those from outside would like to see or are suggesting. They have trouble seeing beyond their internal view of how Belarus is different and how only the opposition understands the real situation.  Some activists remain obsessed with processes rather than substance and focus too much on their own press releases and activities rather than concrete results. The internal fighting and politicking for their own “crown” as leader of the opposition (or preventing others from attaining it) remains more important to them than really reaching out and gathering support.

While some activists are making efforts to reach citizens, at least rhetorically, and with plans that demonstrate a recognition for the need to expand their bases, all too often the political forces continue to insulate themselves and focus only on the issues that sustain their bases and keep up the level of activity they have going.

A classic example is the issue of political prisoners, which the parties feel the need to talk about and make a core issue. It is what their base of activists want and the parties fear turning those people off and not recruiting new people to replace them.  As a result they focus more on prisoners when talking to the public than they do on real ‘bread and butter’ issues – even though this is an issue that does not directly affect the wider population.

According to recent polling results, a “political middle” in society seems to be re-emerging. These are people who are disillusioned with the current leadership, but for various reasons appear unwilling to support the opposition (for example due to their perceived lack of credibility and successful propaganda efforts directed against them). For 2012, the challenge for the opposition is to seek to fill this vacuum.

Reaching Out to the People

First and foremost the opposition should try and link Lukashenka to the economic situation, the devaluation of currency and rise in prices, and above all, become more effective in promoting an alternative strategy. Thus far, the opposition has missed a major opportunity by often being silent during the economic crisis. While the United Civic Party developed an anti-crisis programme and traveled around the country to talk about it, ultimately they have not yet been able to explain its impact on the individual or promote it to the wider population. While the major reason for this is limited opportunities to communicate, poor messaging also plays an important role.

Prominent slogans put forward by opposition leaders such as a “Marshall Plan for Belarus”, i.e. let the West pay once Lukashenka is gone – need to be elaborated or dropped. Indeed, at present this is aimed more at the EU (seeking their support) than at Belarusians, and the concept remains an empty slogan without any content at all.

The opposition also needs to improve at "opposing". Its leaders need to learn how to oppose the government on a day-by-day, issue by issue, policy-by-policy basis, rather than obsessing about Lukashenka.

Opposition party leaders need to demonstrate that they are able to reach out and work with the growing number of people clearly dissatisfied with the situation in Belarus. While they recognise the need to work with the population and build a larger base of support, they struggle to turn this acceptance into tangible action and often are distracted by on-going opposition internal issues.

There is a growing social demand for new ideas, faces and approaches, but nothing has yet filled this demand so far. While there have been numerous attempts to create a “third way” such as Alexander Kazulin (in 2006), Govori Pravdu, Ales Mikhalevich (in 2010) they have all effectively ended in failure. None of these “third ways” were ever able to stay in the middle as Lukashenka effectively marginalised or forced them into formal opposition with his “either with us or against us” approach.

Indeed, most of these “third ways” had their own backers in the west (or east) who decided to support them as something new. They were chosen, in some cases groomed, by the donors to replace the “old opposition” but in the end they failed. None really represented anything more than a reshuffling of the existing opposition, occasionally with one or two new names and new structures. Indeed, some of these “new ways” represented the worse of those who are looking for money, short-term solutions to defeat Lukashenka rather than promoting any new ideas or ideology.

Thus the focus remains on the opposition. Their survival even in the face of adversity illustrates that they do continue to have a constituency of support in Belarus and retain internal organisation power. While they have recognised and significant weaknesses, they are not artificial creations, but real entities who are the only consistent fighters for change.

Dr Alastair Rabagliati

 




Digest of Belarusian Analytics: The Logic of Non-Violence

Over the last weeks scholars in Belarus focused primarily on the new forms of street protests, their potential and implications. The fresh public opinion polls demonstrate growing dissatisfaction of Belarusians with the economic crises and how the authorities cope with it. A recent paper also analyzed Poland's efforts to facilitate democratization of Belarus.

The logic of non-violence. Belarusian social researcher Irina Solomatina considers that silent actions are a manifestation of a new type of community that does not fit into the framework of state ideology. An important cornerstone of the Belarusian official ideology is glorification of the Soviet vision of the Second World War, where Belarusians and Russians stood against aggression from the West. The authorities use various public rituals to entrench Soviet values of obedience and deliberately ignore massive repressions and economic stagnation which characterized the Soviet period.

On the other hand, security services violently punish any expression of other values with a particular emphasis on collective actions. The authorities regard the seemingly meaningless act of clapping as a serious challenge. Solomatina predicts development of new forms of non-violent communication of disagreement with the values imposed by the authorities.

Silent revolution in people's minds. Gomel politician Pyotr Kuznetsov believes that authorities were able to bring down the dynamics of "silent protests". However Kuznetsov is confident that the revolutions in people’s minds and in the relations between the government and people havealready taken place.

Can nonviolent methods of protest bring a victory to the Belarusian opposition? Russian Radio Liberty talks with Belarusian experts on the effectiveness of the methods of protest, currently going on in Belarus. Journalist Yuri Drakakhrust draws attention to the important fact that the actions cover not only the capital and also the rest of the country. Pavel Sheremet predicts strong protests of opposition in autumn-winter, before the parliamentary elections, when the economic crisis will become more apparent. Yuri Chavusau, a political analyst, says that government repression can intimidate the participants of the actions, but the demand for a protest in society will remain and could explode at any place at plants, factories, or at border crossings.

Why the political parties do not rebel? Political scientist Yuri Chavusau explains why Belarusian political parties do not participate in street protests. According to his observation, the most efficient and capable parties are “now engaged in internal audit of scarce resources, defining the position in relation to socio-economic crisis, addressing the issue of coalition building up to the upcoming parliamentary elections, or, simply, licking their wounds after a very hard political season 2010”.

Belarusians want reform, not revolution. BISS (Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies) prepared a briefing paper on the basis of an opinion poll conducted by IISEPS on May 20, 2011. BISS draws attention to the growing number of supporters of market reforms (67%) and high levels of anxiety at the possibility of new terror attacks (70%).  Comparative analysis of the data also shows an increasing number of respondents who believe that "go on living like that we can not". However, the number of respondents willing to take part in active protests has not increased. According to the BISS, these results indicate that the Belarusians are ready for reforms, but will not use the revolutionary methods. The paper is launching a new series of BISS regular publications, based on data from the independent opinion research centers.

A new public opinion poll. On June, 2011 the Independent Institutefor Sociological and Political Studies (IISEPS) conducted a survey on the most important issues of Belarusians’ life. Deteriorationof the "economic well-being" of Belarusians can be characterized as a true landslide. Thus, the number of respondents who said their financial situation over the past three months has worsened, increased from 26.9% to 73.4%. 81.5% believe that "the Belarusian economy is in crisis", and lay the blame primarily on the president (44.5%) and government (36.7%), but not to the world crisis (27%) or speculators (16.6%). The number of those who are ready to vote for Lukashenka again in the presidential election for the first time since March 2003 has fallen below 30% and amounted to 29.3% (December 2010 – 53%, March 2011 – 42.9%).

Warsaw will do everything to solve the "Belarusian issue". Since July 1, Poland leads EU. Mikhas Iljinski examines the relationship between Poland and Belarus after the events of December 19 and concludes that "during its EU presidency, Warsaw will continue its efforts that the "Belarusian issue" would not disappear from the range of interests of Brussels".

Iljinski notes that because of the Arab Spring the Medeteranian region is becoming more important for the European Union than its East. However, there is a nearly unanimous position on Belarus in the Polish society and  the Poles will keep working on their efforts to promote democracy in Belarus – unilaterally and in cooperation with other EU countries. The author hopes that Poland will be able to cooperate with Belarusians in as many areas as possible to balance Russia's dominance.

 

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




Belarusian Opposition: The Silence of The Lambs

Several months into the grave economic and social crisis the Belarusian opposition seems to be concerned only about two problems: how to achieve the release of political prisoners and how to keep their offices. The economic crisis, the impoverishment of the people and the cheap sale of the state property are largerly ignored. The opposition leaders do not use these issues to mobilize the population.

Viktar Ivashkievich, veteran of the Belarusian opposition, proposed the first event on the crisis for as late as 16 October. Other politicians prefer to limit their activities on social problems to media comments. The post-election repressions proved effective: the oppositional politicians have become extremely cautious.

Right-Wing Democracy: an Infantile Disorder

Many years of continuous failures have negatively effected intellectual capacities and institutional structures of the Belarusian opposition. Many capable individuals have left to avoid being permanent losers for years. To be a freedom fighter may be romantic for a brief period, yet after a while it makes more pragmatic people think twice about their future prospects. As a result, they go elsewhere.

Now, the proportion of emotional idealists in the Belarusian democratic opposition is disproportionally high. There are far too few pragmatics, however. No wonder that analytically and strategically the opposition looks not much better than the government.  Even to launch a campaign on social problems or against selling state flagship companies seems to be an insurmountable task for the opposition at the moment. And probably not because they fear the consequences, but because there are not enough methodological and analytical capacities to produce such new concepts. The parties' regional structures have disintegrated as far as never before.

This uncritical approach to the results of their own activities since 1996 on the part of the opposition is combined with an ideological right-wing tilt. There are no left-wing parties in Belarus to be on par with the right-wing political organizations. Even worse, the right-wing parties are taking purist rightist stances and – contrary to their Western European counterparts – they have failed to articulate a social agenda. Thus, for instance the Christian Democrats effectively take as their model the US Republicans and not Western European Christian Democratic parties, which have long ago understood that social matters should have a place in the programs of non-left parties as well.

Commenting on the latest Internet-organized protests in Minsk on June 15th, one of the leaders of the Christian Democrats, Dzianis Sadouski, declared, „We should not go to a social action with party flags“. Instead, the Christian Democrats are going to hold 100 pickets and other actions supporting political prisoners in all regions of the country and start collecting the signatures under a petition calling for their release. A former presidential candidate, Vital Rymasheuski emphasized, “no loans, no anti-crisis program will work in Belarus, unless main political demands are provided for. That is — free elections, media freedom and freedom of public organization and political parties activities».

Such ideological right-wing purism deliberately blind to social issues is pursued in the country where social and welfare traditions of Soviet times have formed many common people's beliefs. That omen loomed over the democratic opposition in Belarus since its beginning in the late 1980s. The then opponents of the Communist rule have positioned themselves as the representatives of nobility and disregarded that Belarusians are a nation with strong egalitarian traditions. The democratic opposition suffered subsequently numerous setbacks yet did not give up socialism-bashing as their major idea.

The same fear of touching any presumably socialistically-sounding themes may explain why nobody is attacking the government for selling the Belaruskali, the most valuable asset of the Belarusian state. Even the media are limiting their coverage to neutral when describing the situation.

Without doubt, selling such a national company – comparable in its importance to national oil companies in oil-producing countries – under more than unclear conditions should be a cause of nationwide protest campaign. After all, almost no news on presumable Belaruskali deal with a Russian oligarch reach the public, and given the track record of Belarusian regime, no one expects it to act openly. The opposition, however, does not touch the issue.

Yet even the pure rightists should see that any government to come after Lukashenka will find empty pockets, the Belaruskali sold and money for it already spent. It will simply have no more internal resources for reforms – on any ideological platform. Besides, there are doubts about the rationale of privatization of mining company as such.

0+0=?

Maybe the problem is that the opposition is divided and therefore unable to take a stronger line against the government? Today, many speak about uniting the oppositional movement. Yet, this would make sense only when the forces to be united are something more than zero each. Adding zeros together hardly brings an increase in strength, as the 2006 presidential election has clearly shown. Though the last elections in December have demonstrated the untapped potential of protests that exists in Belarus, it is clear that the people were gripped by the appeal of candidates and not the political parties, whose popularity is negligible.

The balance of more than a dozen years of democracy proponents struggle with the regime is not impressive – Lukashenka has won, opposition is defeated and its structures eliminated, media and NGOs have had the same fate. Recent protests at the Belarusian-Polish border have shown that the angry Belarusians are not talking the language of opposition and possibly would not articulate their condition in political terms at all. They even sang the state hymn – a Soviet-style song reinvented by Lukashenka's regime and out-rightly rejected by opponents of existing Belarusian regime.

One thing is clear. This opposition will stay aside of future political developments determining Belarus after Lukashenka. The government is currently overcoming its weakness – though by a terrible price of selling the best national companies – and is going to retain its control of the nation by gradual and not acute impoverishing the people while suppressing any protests in the bud. Democratic opposition effectively are assisting it. Finally, either Lukashenka will prevail or some figures of his regime will emerge as new rulers in Minsk – but not the old-style Democrats.

The question of who is guilty for defeat of democratic movement in Belarus cannot be explained only by recent repressions. Of course, repressions played its part, yet the opposition is weakening itself by behaving this way and dropping the most actual issues. As a result, it loses popular support, remains weak and unimportant partner for the government and – last but not least – is extremely susceptible to foreign pressure.

Apparently, the foreign support from abroad – moral and material – both helped the Belarusian democratic opposition to survive and made it inefficient. The most evident example is the OSCE intrusion in 2000-2001 when the opposition was too week to resist the foreign friends' proposal to put Uladzimir Hancaryk as its single candidate.

The very first measure to change the situation should be a critical review of the opposition's activities. To be able to conduct a long-needed 'cost-benefit analysis’, the Belarusian democratic movement needs more robust media and think tanks which will let it see itself from outside.  It is also important that the opposition learns to listen to even the most outspoken critics and learns from their criticism.

SB