Belarus: an unwanted friend of ‘Great China’?

On 6-8 April, Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe will visit Belarus. Wei’s combined visit to Russia and Belarus, his first foreign trip since taking up the post, demonstrates recognition that Minsk gives the highest priority to its partnership with Beijing.

The Belarusian authorities have chosen orientation towards Beijing as a fundamental dogma in foreign policy. Belarus pursues this policy despite contradictory effects of the alliance with China. The Belarusian government hopes that it will get a better place in the sun in a future world shaped by China. For the time being it tries to reap some smaller benefits from Beijing to restructure its industry, find new loans and rearm.

Minsk expects a brighter future

The current Belarusian government wants China to reshape the world. It supports Beijing in that regard. Addressing a Belt and Road Initiative forum in Beijing in May last year, the Belarusian president urged the participants of this new Chinese integration initiative for Eurasia to “change the model of interaction between states.” Belarus’s presidential administration announced that the Chinese initiative “forms international relations of a new kind.”

While at the forum Alexander Lukashenka spoke of “reshaping the world’s economic map,” in a subsequent meeting with Chinese leader he assured Xi Jinping that Belarus was willing to help China “defend peace throughout the world” too.

Image: Kazinform

Other Belarusian officials sound a similar note. For instance, at a December meeting of the Chinese-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Belarus’s prime minister Andrei Kabyakou insisted that the member states of the organisation should create additional factors for world security and stability.

To underline his belief in China’s ascendancy, Lukashenka even made his youngest son, Mikalai, learn Chinese. A video with Mikalai congratulating the Chinese on New Year in Mandarin appeared on YouTube on 18 February.

Does Beijing notice?

How much do these pro-Chinese moves by Minsk impress Beijing? On the one hand, top-level Chinese officials regularly visit Belarus. Last year, six Chinese ministerial-level officials, as well as state and party administrators of three Chinese provinces, visited Belarus. Minsk negotiated with such major Chinese companies as Sinomach, China UnionPay and others.

Belt and Road Initiative’s official routes and involved nations (in orange). Belarus marked grey. Map: DW.

On the other hand, even Belarus’s status in China’s global plans, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), remains unclear. Numerous Chinese and international publications do not include Belarus in the initiative.

The Belarusian president, responding to this problem, announced that the Great Stone Belarus-Chinese industrial park will be an instrument by which Minsk should participate in the BRI. For about three years now, the two countries have been constructing the industrial park which will provide the most favourable conditions for Chinese firms. 

Belarusian officials emphasise that the park’s construction progresses more rapidly than scheduled, but by the end of December occupancy comprised only some two dozens firms. Moreover, top officials in Minsk, again and again, ask their Chinese partners to bring new technologies to the park voicing the reasonable concerns of Belarusian government which Lukashenka succinctly put thus: “We do not want just storage there.”

The hopeless trade situation

To make things worse, since the mid-2000s Minsk suffers from a huge and increasing trade deficit with China. It dramatically grew again in 2017 (see Table 1).

Even the planned indicators of export growth for China for 2017-2020, adopted by the government last year, demonstrate Minsk’s lack of hope that it can significantly reduce the deficit anytime soon. After keeping silent for years, Belarusian officials started raising that issue with every visiting Chinese counterpart from 2016 onwards.

Beijing responded in several ways. First, it offered Minsk assistance, for instance in the form of unspecified “technical economic aid” to build housing for socially vulnerable groups. It shared defence technologies and sent armoured vehicles as a gift to Belarusian military, with the last instalment arriving in January.

Secondly, it opened its markets for Belarusian food exports: in 2016 – for dairy, in 2017for meat. The absolute figures of such export last year – about $10m – fail to impress if compared to Belarusian food exports to its main market in Russia which made up $2.1bn. The government, however, celebrated this achievement as a promising start.

On 28 December, the head of Vitsebsk province Mikalay Sharstnyou in a commentary for Belarus Segodnya, a media outlet of the presidential administration, said that the Chinese market should relieve the national agriculture and food industry which regularly faces closure of Russian markets. He added that in 2018 some dairy factories in Vitsebsk province would be adapted to meet Chinese standards.

Chinese industrialisation

PM Kabyakou visiting BELGEE. Image: adt.by

Meanwhile, Minsk wishes to reshape national industry with Beijing’s help and pulls out all the stops to that end. On 18 March, TUT.by, an internet media outlet, revealed that Belarusian deputy minister of industry, Hienadz’ Svidzerski, has been appointed to run the joint Belarus-Chinese car manufacturing factory BELGEE. Apparently, he had not resigned from his office at the ministry, and so the appointment represented an extraordinary gesture of support for the project. The factory started operation last November and will produce 60,000 cars annually.

Observers see several positive results of Belarus-Chinese industrial cooperation. Last December, the Chinese САМСЕ corporation completed a cellulose factory in Svietlahorsk. By January, another major Chinese company Zoomlion launched serial production of construction and special vehicles in Mahilyou. At the same time, this company organises the manufacture of tower cranes at the bankrupted Strommashyna factory nearby. Another Belarusian firm, Amkador, received a Chinese loan of $192m to construct its new factory.

On 20 February, Belarusian state media reported a programme aimed at the industrialisation of Belarusian regions. The programme intends to set up more than a hundred enterprises throughout the country by 2025. The Belarusian ministry for industry hopes that China will become a major source of support for the programme.

Beginning of the construction of an engines producing factory, a Belarus-Chinese joint venture. Image: MAZ.

Belarusian media usually fail to discuss the contradictions inherent in Chinese involvement. For instance, they wrote about Minsk Motor Works (MAZ) constructing an engines plant together with the major Chinese Weichai corporation. They ignored the fact that it creates competition for MAZ which has produced engines in Belarus for many decades. Likewise, no discussions followed when last November the Chinese Midea corporation announced its plans to launch production of home appliances, which will compete with the Belarusian firm Atlant.

Only recently has some criticism appeared. In January, Narodnaya Gazeta and Respublika, government-affiliated dailies, published articles criticising the BELGEE automobile production project and the Chinese Zongshen corporation’s plans to acquire Homselmash, the Belarusian machinery manufacturer.

Belarusian officials maintain a sycophantic line in dealing with China, with Lukashenka setting the example by praising “Great China.” Yet Minsk has started demonstrating more pragmaticism regarding its Chinese partners. Belarus now asks for and gets some rewards for its Sinophile policies and the losses it suffers because of them. The projects with Chinese involvement are not considered immune to criticism anymore. That detail makes future Belarusian cooperation with China less idealised, and instead more responsible and efficient.




CIS leaders rating, new local politicians, gas price drop, labour migration – Belarus state press digest

Minsk approves the current pragmatic approach of the EU towards the Eastern Partnership. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka is the top rated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) leader among Russians. The authorities expect new faces in politics after 2018 local election.

The cost of Russian gas for Belarus will decrease in 2018. Chinese Midea Group is expanding its business in Belarus. Belarusians are increasingly looking for jobs abroad.

This and more in the new Belarus state press digest.

Politics and foreign policy

The EU does not fully understand the ultimate goal of the Eastern Partnership. The EU, exhausted by internal difficulties, cannot bear the burden of geopolitical confrontation with Moscow, argues political scientist Usievalad Šymaŭ in an article published in Respublika, a Minsk based newspaper. Judging by the results of the Eastern Partnership summit, pragmatists in Europe now clearly dominate over hawks. The final declaration of the summit focused exclusively on a positive agenda and tried to bypass all dispute and moments of conflict, especially those related to the war in Ukraine.

This is a good sign for Belarus. It is precisely this format of cooperation that Minsk traditionally advocates, diligently avoiding ideology, which relations with the EU always entail. However, today’s pragmatic EU is a product not so much of goodwill as of internal weakness. European eastern policy may still undergo significant changes, which Belarus should remain prepared for.

Alexander Lukashenka heads the rating of CIS leaders among Russia’s population. The Presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan, Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Nursultan Nazarbayev, appeared highest on Russia’s rating of trust in leaders among CIS member states (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan). According to the poll conducted by the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion, 62 per cent of Russians trust Aliaksandr Lukashenka, and 56 per cent trust Nursultan Nazarbayev, reports Belarus Segodnia, a daily newspaper.

In addition, Russians recognise Belarus (64 per cent) and Kazakhstan (57 per cent) as their country’s main partners. Appraisals of the protection of Russian-speaking populations have also risen significantly. 66 per cent of Russians think that Russian-speakers enjoy full rights in Belarus (27 per cent in 2010), and 38 per cent thinks so of Kazakhstan (18 per cent in 2013).

Картинки по запросу лидия ермошина

Lidzija Jarmošyna. Photo: tut.by

The authorities expect new faces in politics after the 2018 local elections. Daily Belarusian newspaper Zviazda quoted the chairman of the Belarusian Central Election Commission, Lidzija Jarmošyna, who spoke on 6 December in Viciebsk at a training session for managers and organisers for the upcoming local councils elections.

Commenting on the applications, which are just now being sent in to the Central Election Commission, Lidzija Jarmošyna noted that they mostly concern the nomination of candidates for deputies. The candidates are inquiring about certain regulations, such as the declaration of property, use of election funds, and advertising rules. “All of this suggests that many individual candidates will participate in the election, because those from existing parties already have experience in such matters. We will have unexpected figures and new politicians,” said Jarmošyna.

Economy

The cost of Russian gas for Belarus will decrease in 2018. The price of Russian gas for Belarus in 2018 will drop from $143 to $129 per 1000 cubic metres, and to $127 in 2019. The lower price will make Belarusian enterprises more competitive, writes Belarus Segodnia. According to Energy Ministry estimates, the economic effect of the price reduction will reach $700m. By the end of the year, Belarus and Russia hope to define an approach to the formation of a common gas market in the Eurasian Economic Union by 2025.

The sides still disagree on tariffs for the transportation of gas through member state territory. Today, Russia’s Gazprom has exclusive rights to supply gas to Belarus. However, after the creation of the common gas market, the consumers will be able to purchase it from various producers in Russia and Kazakhstan through the stock exchange or by signing long-term contracts.

Chinese Midea Group is expanding its business in Belarus. On 27 November President Lukashenka hosted Fang Hongbo, the Chairman of the Board and President of Midea Group. The corporation is one of the largest manufacturers and exporters of household appliances in China and the world with about 130,000 employees. The Belarusian leader said, “[Chinese businessmen] will not only always find the understanding of our leadership, but also all kinds of support.”

Midea Group came to Belarus a decade ago. It began production of microwave ovens and water heaters jointly with Horizont Holding, a Belarusian conglomerate. Fang Hongbo expressed his satisfaction with the results Midea Group’s partnership in Belarus over the period. He also spoke about the intention to use Belarus as a starting site for expansion to CIS markets. Midea Group plans to develop its existing production and to introduce new items, including refrigerators and washing machines.

More Belarusians are looking for jobs abroad. According to the Head of the Presidential Administration Natallia Kačanava, 97,600 Belarusians are currently working abroad, reports Narodnaja Hazieta, a Belarusian politics and society newspaper. Meanwhile, the Russian Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate for Migration published a report, which claims 346,000 Belarusians registered as migrants in Russia just in the past year. Moreover, some Belarusian migrants work in Russia illegally without registering.

However, because of Russia’s recession, more and more Belarusian labour migrants choose to work in Poland. In 2015, Polish employers registered some 5,500 work invitations for Belarusians under Poland’s simplified employment scheme. In 2016, this figure rose to about 25,000, and then went even higher in the first half of 2017. A study carried out by the the Institute of Sociology at the National Academy of Sciences shows that at present more than 8–10 per cent of Belarusian citizens are looking for work abroad.

Geely cars produced in Belarus. Photo: sb.by

The government has formulated preferential conditions for Geely car sales. The President has told administrators to increase the warranty period of the Belarusian-Chinese Geely car from 4 to 5 years and offer preferential conditions to buyers, writes Respublica. Belarusians will have the opportunity to make the first payment at 10 per cent a vehicle’s total cost, and then to either lease or finance it over 7 years. The sale of Geely vehicles under these new conditions begin this December.

The cost of Geely’s three new car models vary in the range of $17,000–$25,000. The government expects to sell at least 25,000 cars in the coming year, increasing this number by 10,000 annually. However, in the market for crossover vehicles—where Belarusian Geelys are located—competition remains very high. The entire domestic crossover market does not exceed 6,000 cars a year.

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