10 most-read stories on Belarus Digest published in 2018
In 2018 Belarus Digest readers particularly interested in our articles on Belarus visa issues, security as well as the relations of Belarus and Russia.
Belarus Digest team wishes its readers a healthy, productive and happy new year!
Here we compiled our top 10 most read stories published in 2018.
On 26 December, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka signed a new decree on a 10-days visa-free entry regime for foreigners. It expands upon last year’s decree on a 5-day visa-free entrance to the Augustow zone in the Hrodna region. The changes are in tandem with a February 2017 decree, which grants tourists a Belarus-wide, five-day visa provided they fly into Minsk airport.
The new visa-free rules are valid from 2018 and allow citizens of 77 countries to spend 10 days without a visa in the Hrodna and Brest regions. No changes have been made for those who enter without a visa into Minsk airport, and as such can still only spend five days in Belarus, but are able to travel anywhere in the country.
The current visa-free regime appears to be a logical continuation of the process of visa liberalisation, which has been taking place within the country. However, the territorial and administrative restrictions on visa-free travel to Belarus still create inconveniences for tourists. Concerns of the KGB and the Internal Affairs Ministry create additional obstacles for the implementation for simpler and longer visa-free regimes.
On 26 February, Thai police arrested Belarusian model Nastya Rybka (Anastasiya Vashukevich) and her Belarus-born “sex coach” Alex Lesley (Alexander Kirillov) on charges of arranging “sex-training” courses in Thailand without work permits.
Prior to this, Rybka and Lesley sparked a major sex-scandal in Russia involving oligarch Oleg Deripaska and the Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko. Rybka subsequently claimed to be in possession of secret recordings proving Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and requested US asylum.
While Russians have paid between $600 to $1500 for Lesley’s seduction classes in Moscow, Belarusians eagerly splash similar amounts of money on “sex training” courses and consultations with parapsychologists.
Belarusian astrologers, bioenergy consultants, and “sex coaches” vigorously advertise themselves on the internet. The general decline in levels of education, as well as the demographic gender imbalance, have created a perfect breeding ground for the appearance of numerous occult practitioners and self-proclaimed “sex experts” in Belarus.
In a speech to the Belarusian parliament, Alexander Lukashenka expressed dissatisfaction with Belarusian airlines. The president questioned the absence of low-cost flights in Belarus and Belarusians’ extensive use of Vilnius, Warsaw and Kiev airports. This issue – discussed by Belarusians for several years – has been problematised by Lukashenka for the first time.
Companies such as Ryanair and Wizzair find it unprofitable to fly to Minsk airport, and so Belarusians choose to travel to airports in neighbouring countries.
According to the administration of Belavia, the Belarusian national carrier, it would be detrimental for their business to welcome cheap flights to the country. As a result, Belarusians choose between Lithuanian, Ukrainian or Polish airports – or seek out rare Belavia online sales.
On 25th January 2018, top Belarusian media outlet TUT.BY compiled a portrait of the average Belarusian citizen. The media outlet used a combination of recent data from the National Statistical Committee of Belarus, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations. Apparently, the average Belarusian citizen is a 42-and-a-half-year old woman with higher education. She speaks Russian, votes for Lukashenka, and consumes 64 kg of potatoes per year.
At the same time, the recent statistical data on the Belarusian population raises a number of concerns. Belarus comprises an ageing nation with astonishing gender imbalances. While Belarusian women face difficulties in finding a marriage partner, Belarusian men fervently consume alcohol.
The diet of Belarusian citizens still lacks fruit and vegetables, and their salary ranks among the least competitive in the region. Permanent stress eventually take its toll in the form of heart disease.
Only 13% of pupils in Belarus study in the Belarusian language. The authorities, therefore, aroused great public interest with a recent promise to establish Belarusian-language groups in kindergartens in each district in Minsk.
At present, the near impossibility of receiving pre-school education in the Belarusian language concerns some parents. Others cling on to even the slightest possibility of ensuring their children’s education in the Belarusian language. Yet others wonder why the question arises at all – thinking that it would be better to teach students English or Chinese.
The rapid disappearance of the Belarusian language from the education sector (from 19% in the 2010/2011 academic year to 13% in 2017/2018) paradoxically coincided with the increasing popularity of various kinds of Belarusian cultural initiatives and projects.
On 20 March 2018, Metropolitan Pavel (also known as Georgy Ponomarev) – the Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslaŭje, and Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus – stated his wish to organize the visit of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Minsk. He scheduled the visit to follow on the heels of Pope Francis’s visit to Vilnius.
Some see this as the latest in a series of efforts by Russia to provoke religious conflict in Belarus. Russia’s actions earlier this year can be seen in the same light.
Speaking in Brussels on 1 June, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei warned that a proposed US military base in Poland would trigger a response in the region. Moreover, if tensions grow, as a result, the Belarusian government could soon play host to a Russian military base.
On the same day, while visiting border guards in the south of the country, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka sounded a different note. He would prefer Ukraine to join NATO than see it taken over by nationalism and turn into “a bandit state” where a war of “everyone against everyone” rages.
The Belarusian government has held this ambiguous position for decades. As NATO enlarged towards Belarusian borders, Minsk constantly adjusted its rhetoric and engaged in cautious yet increasing cooperation with the alliance. The “NATO ghost”, however, remained a major theme in Belarus’s relations with Russia.
8. Skyrocketing economic growth and weak regional development – a digest of the Belarusian economy by Aleh Mazol from Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)
On 16 March 2018, the official statistical body of Belarus Belstat has announced that GDP growth in the first two months of the year has accelerated.
Meantime, the weak regional development cast doubt on the sustainability of Belarusian economic growth in the future. Decreasing population number, lack of investment, and depressed business climate accompanied by low average wages play here a crucial role.
Finally, on 20 March 2018, the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka has announced plans for the establishment of a new ministry – The Ministry of Digital Economy. The digital transformation of the economy needs authorized governance.
9. Opinion: Cannabis Reform in Belarus? by Michael Dorman
On 17 February 2018, a group of young Belarusians holding a banner reading ‘Legalize Belarus’ gathered on Independence Avenue in the heart of Minsk. The group was campaigning for the legalisation of marijuana in Belarus, a proposition that, at least for now, seems unlikely to attract support from the public or government officials.
The perception of cannabis use in Belarus has been largely shaped by Soviet-era misinformation and anti-cannabis propaganda disseminated by the Lukashenka government. Adding to the stigma of cannabis use is the fact that Belarus has some of the harshest drug laws in Europe and its penal code makes no distinction between the categories of drugs.
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.