London conference, Annual Report, Belarusian language trends, the longevity gap – Ostrogorski Centre digest

In March, the Ostrogorski Centre held its annual London conference on Belarusian studies and published its report covering the centre’s activities in 2017.

Analysts from the Ostrogorski Centre wrote about trends in Belarusian language use in public education and civil society, Belarus’s massive gender longevity gap and the ongoing quiet reform of the Belarusian army.

We also added five new research papers from the Belarusian think tanks to our BelarusPolicy database.

Recent analysis

Alesia Rudnik discusses trends in Belarusian language use in the state education system and civil society. 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 2010-11 academic year to 13% in 2017-18) paradoxically coincided with the increasing popularity of various kinds of Belarusian cultural initiatives and projects.

Ryhor Astapenia analyses Belarus’s massive gender longevity gap. The Belarusian gender debate understandably focuses on women’s rights, but in reality, men deserve as much attention. Belarusian men have a far lower life expectancy than women; lower even than North Korean men. Both men themselves and state authorities bear responsibility for this. Belarus remains one of the most alcoholic nations in the world and Belarusian men generally treat their health with indifference.

This has painful consequences. Families lose a parent and a money-maker, while the state loses a taxpayer. Even before death, poor health among men leads to low productivity and hence holds significance for the economy. The Belarusian government undertakes some efforts to promote healthy lifestyles but it fails to do so systematically.

Siarhei Bohdan writes about the ongoing quiet reform of the Belarusian army. On 18 February, president Alexander Lukashenka offered to deploy a 10,000-strong Belarusian contingent as peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine. This represents a rather large commitment for the Belarusian army comprising in total 46,000 military personnel.

Minsk pays increasing attention to its military and has even raised spending on its armed forces by a fifth. But the Belarusian army still faces problems, which go beyond the acquisition of expensive weaponry. It also has fewer conscripts than it would like. Consequently, it employs additional professional soldiers and relies ever more on reservists. In this way, the army adjusts to the needs of the country.

3rd annual “Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century” conference

The 3rd annual conference, Belarusian Studies in the 21st Century, took place on 23 March in London. University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, the Ostrogorski Centre and the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum together organised the event.

Здымак Ostrogorski CentreThe conference featured speakers from the UK, the USA, Canada, Germany, Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus. Panels covered history, social and political movements, foreign policy and art. The traditional Annual London Lecture on Belarusian Studies, delivered this year by Dr. Alena Markova, was called “Belarusian State- and Nation-Formation: From Polatsk Principality to Independent Belarus”.

The conference guests included Stanislaŭ Šuškievič, the first head of independent Belarus (in office 1991-1994), and the UK ambassador to Belarus, Fionna Gibb. The conference programme is available here. Podcasts of the conference will be made available online on the Ostrogorski Centre Soundcloud.

2017 Annual Report of the Ostrogorski Centre

In March, the Ostrogorski Centre published its annual report for 2017. The Centre has strengthened its team as well as the reach and impact of our work, particularly in the field of online education.

It published analytical papers on distance learning, the challenges of Belarus joining the European Higher Education Area, and the reform of business education.

In June, the Ostrogorski Academy has been officially launched. Its ambition is to serve as the first entirely online educational platform in Belarus, which features video lectures, transcripts and tests presented in an engaging format.

As in previous years, we held three major annual conferences – the Ostrogorski Forum in Minsk dedicated to foreign policy and security issues, the annual London conference on Belarusian studies, and a conference on the reform of higher education in Minsk. The new 2017 issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies features articles by researchers from Canada, the United States and Belarus, as well as several book reviews.

In 2017, the Ostrogorski Centre continued to provide daily analysis of events related to Belarus in English through the Belarus Digest website, and in the Russian/Belarusian languages on Ostro.by. We also kept the Belarus Policy and Belarus Profile databases up to date.

This year, Belarus Digest welcomed a new analyst on national security and defence – Dzmitry Mitskevich from the Belarus Security Blog. Peter Braga, a PhD candidate at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London joined the editorial team of Belarus Digest. Siarhei Bohdan, a regular contributor to Belarus Digest, defended his PhD thesis at the Free University of Berlin.

Comments in the media

Siarhei Bohdan became the author of the Security Barometer section of the Minsk Barometer project – a regular monitoring of foreign policy and regional security. In the first issues, Siarhei writes that on the one hand, Belarus avoids being drawn into the confrontation of the current Russian leadership with the West and its eastern European allies. On the other hand, it is increasingly disappointed in the growing reluctance of the Kremlin to strengthen its allies militarily and economically.

The Belarusian leadership understands that the Russian media strongly influence mass opinion in Belarus and wage information attacks against official Minsk. At the same time, Minsk cannot go too far in countering it, for example by closing Russian channels which broadcast in Belarus, says Alesia Rudnik in a comment to Polish radio.

Belarus Policy

The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update its database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:

Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion in the database by emailing us.

The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to a market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian StudiesBelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.




Latvian support, 2018 local elections, new media policy, China-friendly tourism – Belarus state press digest

Alexander Lukashenka thanks Latvia for advocating the lifting of EU sanctions and its attitude towards the Belarusian nuclear power plant (NPP). New heads of the leading state media outlets appointed to modernise media policy, make media more competitive and introduce more local content. Lukashenka admits to defence ministry failures in information and ideological work.

Belarus works to make its tourist infrastructure China-friendly. The authorities plan to create the traditional festive atmosphere during the local elections on 18 February. However, local councils in Belarus remain little more than voluntary social work and attract little competition.

This and more in the latest Belarus state press digest.

Foreign policy and security

Lukashenka thanks Latvia for advocating the lifting of sanctions and its attitude towards the Belarusian NPP. The Belarusian president described the arrival of Latvian prime minister, Māris Kučinskis, to Minsk as ‘a very welcome and meaningful visit’ according to Belarus Segodnia. However, he took the opportunity to tell his guest: ‘You just need to get rid of the feeling that we are too dependent on our brotherly Russia and are not able to take any steps independently. We adhere to the policy of not creating problems for our neighbours. We never reproached you for joining the EU. On the contrary, we try to benefit from this… And we will never ally with any country against Russia, as well as against Latvia.’

Lukashenka also expressed his gratitude to the Latvian Prime Minister for Latvia’s active promotion of the lifting of sanctions against Belarus, including during its presidency of the EU Council. Now Riga looks equally constructive in its approach to the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, he noted.

Lukashenka admits to the failures of the defence ministry in information policy. On 13 February, the Security Council held its first meeting dedicated to summing up the work of the military and security agencies in 2017. The meeting particularly considered the problems and achievements in the military sphere, writes Belarus Segodnia.  Lukashenka mentioned that some ‘unexpected statements’ came from foreign partners regarding the Minsk agreements, but it is obvious to everyone that no real alternative exists today.

Security Council meeting. Photo: sb.by

The Belarusian leader noted that the Russian leadership lacks understanding of the need to jointly strengthen the national armed forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. He also demanded that the Ministry of Defense immediately strengthen its ideological work, including information policy. He admitted that the ministry failed in its responsibilities in this sphere and, in particular, ‘the coverage of the West-2017 military exercise in the media was badly organised.’

Domestic policies

New heads of the leading media tasked to modernise media policy. The president appointed new leadership to three national official media organs, reports Belarus Segodnia. Ivan Ejsmant became the chairman of Belteleradiocompany, Dzmitry Žuk – editor-in-chief of the newspaper Belarus Segodnia, and Ihar Lucki – general director of the STV television channel. Lukashenka said the main mass media in Belarus require changes and urged them to adopt the best foreign practices, especially noting the quality of Russian television. The new leaders each told Belarus Segodnia what the president expects from them.

Dzmitry Žuk explained: ‘The task is to show fairly how the country lives. Do not fool people, but give [them] the most objective information.’ According to Ivan Ejsmant: ‘The head of state asked us to modernise our television – both in terms of picture and content. To make it watchable and competitive compared to the TV channels of neighbouring countries.’ While Ihar Lucki added: ‘The most important thing is the development of national content. The share of Belarusian programs should increase. It is important to have new faces and new content.’

Belarus works to make its tourist infrastructure China-friendly. In December 2017, the prime ministers of Belarus and China during the Council of Heads of Government of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation declared 2018 the Year of Tourism of Belarus in China. In 2017, Belarus received about 20,000 Chinese tourists, but this figure could be higher, says the deputy minister for sport and tourism, Michail Partnoj. To attract more Chinese travellers, the country has to resolve a couple of basic problems: ensure visa-free entry and introduce more convenient logistics. For example, today flights from Beijing to Kiev and Moscow cost at least 250-300 dollars less than flights to Minsk, informs Respublika.

At the moment, Belarus has trained 15 Chinese-speaking guides, introduced Chinese information in the arrivals hall of Minsk National Airport, produced Chinese audio guides for the main tourist sites, and made some other steps to make Belarus China-friendly. Chinese visitors take most interest in the communist legacy in Belarus, particularly related to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and World War II.

2018 local elections

Local councils in Belarus remain a kind of voluntary social work. While in most of the Minsk city constituencies five or more candidates compete for a council seat, in the countryside the competition remains scarce, reports Narodnaja Hazieta. Even at the level of regional councils many constituencies go uncontested. Political analyst Aliaksandr Špakoŭski explains this with a mere fact that the deputies serving on local councils do not receive a salary or any other benefits. Essentially, they perform a kind of social work. Besides, unlike in the parliament, local councils do not make real political decisions.

Фото: Вадим Замировский, TUT.BY

A buffet at a polling station during the 2014 local elections. Photo: tut.by

Špakoŭski calls for a review of the legislation on political parties and to think about creating mechanisms for public funding of parties, including national funds, which will be engaged in the support and development of constructive parties. It is necessary to develop the political space, but the authorities should not grant power to institutions that have no support within the society, that is – the currently weak political parties.

The authorities will create a festive atmosphere during local elections on 18 February. According to Siarhiej Konanaŭ, first deputy chairman of the Žodzina City Executive Committee, retailers and catering facilities will offer their products and services at polling stations. The authorities strive to not only get the people’s votes but offer them entertainment and music, writes Zviazda.

Children will be able to feast with ice cream, biscuits and juice. The neighbouring Smaliavičy district will also create a festive atmosphere with performances of local music bands. On the same day, the holiday of Maslenitsa (Slavic Carnival) will be held on the central square. Residents of the area will be able to enjoy pancakes, as well as participate in games and contests.

The state press digest is based on a review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media primarily convey 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.




10 most-read stories on Belarus Digest published in 2017

In 2017 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 2017.

1. Visa-free travel and registration in Belarus: not so simple by Yarik Kryvoi.

Starting 12 February, citizens of 80 states, including 39 European countries, will be able to enter Belarus visa-free through the Minsk National Airport. But unlike Kazakhstan, which allows foreigners to stay in the country for up to 30 days, Belarus introduced a much more tricky visa-free regime.

Foreign travellers should be prepared for strict penalties should they fail to understand or abide by the rules. The current practice of registering people with Belarusian visas staying for longer than five days sometimes creates an impression that Belarusian migration authorities view tourists as cash cows.

2. The Belarus-Russia conflict through the lens of the Gerasimov Doctrine by Arseni Sivitski.

The recent visit of Alexander Lukashenka to Sochi on 15 – 26 February 2017, which did not include an audience with Vladimir Putin, casts the relationship between Minsk and the Kremlin in an ever more ambiguous light.

Tensions between Belarus and Russia have been mounting over the past months, as the Kremlin puts more and more pressure on Minsk. The nature of this pressure is perfectly encapsulated by the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine of hybrid warfare. According to the doctrine, Belarus and Russia have entered the ‘pre-crisis’ stage of the conflict.

3. Belarus at the centre of Russia-NATO wargame simulation by Arseni Sivitski.

On 23 – 26 January 2017 a Baltic security wargaming simulation took place in Warsaw. Two defence and security think tanks, the Potomac Foundation and the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, hosted the event.

The wargaming initiative focused on the scenario of a Russia-NATO conflict and analysed the nature of the Russian military threat to the Baltic States and Poland. As a result, Belarus was found to be a key contributor to regional security and stability by containing Russia’s aggressive strategy. The author of this piece also took part in the simulation.

4. Putin expects Belarus to boycott ports of the Baltic States by Siarhei Bohdan.

On 16 August, at a conference on transportation in Northwest Russia, Russian president Vladimir Putin demanded that Belarus stop exporting its oil products through Latvian and Lithuanian ports. Instead, Moscow wants Belarus to reroute through Russia’s Baltic ports. This way, Putin intends to put even more pressure on the Baltic states.

The next day, the Belarusian state-affiliated news agency BelTA published an interview with the acting director general of Belarusian Oil Company, Siarhei Hryb. The article made clear that Minsk wishes to continue its cooperation with the Baltic states.

It seems that Russia and Belarus are heading towards another oil dispute just months after ending the previous one. Minsk refuses to blindly follow the Kremlin’s policy of strangling the Baltic states, if only for pragmatic reasons. To survive as a sovereign state, Belarus needs good relations with all its neighbours, not just Russia.

5. Will the Kremlin topple Lukashenka? by Ryhor Astapenia.

On 20 January, Alexander Lukashenka described the reactions of Russian officials to the introduction of the new five-day visa-free regime in Belarus as ‘groans and wails.’

Recently, the rhetoric surrounding Russian-Belarusian relations has become so sharp that some journalists and analysts believe the Kremlin plans to overthrow Aliaksandr Lukashenka or occupy Belarus.

However, off and on conflict remains a fixture of Belarusian-Russian relations. Despite the belligerent grumbling, Lukashenka mostly upholds the Kremlin’s interests, promoting cooperation between the two countries.

6. The West-2017 Belarus-Russian military exercise: smaller than anticipated by Siarhei Bohdan.

During a meeting with defence minister Andrei Raukou on 20 March, president Alexander Lukashenka demanded ‘absolute transparency’ at the forthcoming West-2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercise. The Belarusian government is working to counter the negative repercussions of such a massive show of military force in the region.

These repercussions have certainly been felt. On 9 February, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė stated that during the West-2017 exercises ‘aggressive forces are concentrating in very large numbers, this is a demonstrative preparation for a war with the West.’

Moscow would apparently like to increase the fog of uncertainty surrounding its military moves. The Russian military previously published the numbers of railway wagons needed for troop movement. In the absence of proper explanations, this created a threatening impression. Yet it is now clear that the exercises on Belarusian territory will be smaller than in 2009.

7. Moscow erects border with Belarus, undermines its links with Ukraine and the Baltics by  Siarhei Bohdan.

On 16 February, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, announced that the Kremlin does not plan to introduce a visa regime with Belarus. His statement comes in a context of increasingly harsh measures on behalf of Moscow towards Belarus over the past half year, beginning when Russia decided to partially reinstate its border with Belarus, which had been abolished in 1995.

The Kremlin is also working to undermine economic ties between Belarus and its other neighbours, paying special attention to the energy and transportation sectors. Results have been tangible: Belarus has already decided to stop importing Ukrainian electricity. Moscow is also doing whatever it can to convince Minsk to use Russian ports rather than ones in the Baltic countries.

Russia accuses the West and its allies in the region of undermining links between Eastern European countries. However, its own policies pursue exactly the same aim. Minsk must fight hard to resist these efforts by the Kremlin.

8. Belarus prepares to expand its visa-free zone by Alesia Rudnik.

In October-December 2016, almost 2,000 tourists took advantage of new visa-free regulations to visit Hrodna Region. In response to the increasing amount of foreign tourists, Hrodna Region has started working on two important initiatives: visa-free railway voyages and launching low-cost flights to Hrodna airport.

However, making railway services and the Hrodna airport accessible visa-free will not attract many more tourists if more tourist services are not first developed. Extension of the visa-free territory to the whole of Belarus and investment in the development of services would significantly improve the popularity of Belarus for tourists.

9. Anarchists, the avantgarde of social protests in Belarus by Alesia Rudnik.

On 15 March, Belarusian authorities detained dozens of citizens protesting against the social parasite decree. Anarchists were one of the most noticeable movements at the protests in Brest and Minsk, causing an immediate reaction from the police.

Anarchists in Belarus, who have a long history, tend to participate only in particular political events. Their creativity and integration distinguished them from other groups during the last two weeks of protests.

The regime has put considerable effort into diminishing the influence of any uncontrollable and integrated group of dissidents, including anarchists. Independence Day on 25 March will show whether the anarchist movement in Belarus is ready for social and political protest or whether it will continue to operate mostly underground.

10. Belarus’s new Russian arms: what Minsk has given in exchange by Siarhei Bohdan.

In an interview published on 23 February, Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou announced the forthcoming purchases of state-of-the-art Russian weaponry.

He specifically mentioned the Su-30SM fighter aircraft and 120mm Nona-M1 heavy mortars. Earlier, on 4 February, armament director of the Belarusian armed forces Major General Ihar Latsyankou said that Minsk would purchase these systems this year.

In other words, despite its dependence on Moscow, Minsk has prevailed in its dispute with the Kremlin over defence issues. Moscow initially did not wish to provide Minsk with weapons, intending instead to replace Belarusian with Russian troops. However, it has conceded one position after another. Minsk has thus emerged victorious in this spat.




Ostrogorski Academy, Ostrogorski Forum 2017, brain-drain, religiosity – Ostrogorski Centre digest

This June the Ostrogorski Centre launched the Ostrogorski Academy – a nonprofit educational project dedicated to disseminating knowledge of the humanities. The academy is the first Belarusian entirely online ‘university’, based on a series of lectures, tests, podcasts on important and engaging topics.

Ostrogorski Centre analysts discussed how Belarus’s neighbours doubt its sovereignty, brain drain, and religiosity in the country.

The Centre also held in Minsk the Ostrogorski Forum 2017, which focused on foreign policy, security, and identity.

Ostrogorski Academy

On 19 June, the Ostrogorski Centre officially launched the Ostrogorski Academy – a nonprofit educational project dedicated to disseminating knowledge of the humanities. The academy is the first entirely online educational platform, based on a series of lectures on important and engaging topics. Each lecture series is read by well-known Belarusian academics and analysts based both abroad and in Belarus; courses also feature graphic illustrations, transcripts of lectures, e-books, podcasts, and links to additional sources of information.

Ostrogorski Forum 2017

On 19 June, the Ostrogorski Centre held its 2nd Ostrogorski Forum, which was entitled ‘Belarus in the new environment: challenges to foreign policy, security, and identity after 2014’. The event and in particular remarks made by the Ukraine’s Ambassador to Belarus were widely covered in the Belarusian media, including TUT.by, zautra.by, thinktanks.by, Polish radio, and Radio Liberty. You can see videos from the conference below.

Analytics

Siarhei Bohdan showed that despite all of Minsk’s efforts to present itself as a neutral country, some of its neighbours doubt not only its neutrality but even its sovereignty and commitment to peace. Minsk’s efforts have failed to please at least some of its non-Russian neighbours, which would like to see Belarus distance itself more clearly from Moscow. The Belarusian government, however, can hardly pursue a policy other than a very cautious and incremental build-up of neutrality if it wants to survive as an independent state.

Alesia Rudnik analysed brain-drain trends in Belarus. According to official statistics, Belarus is among the few countries in the Post-Soviet region with more people coming to the country than leaving. Nevertheless, sociologists point to a discrepancy between official statistics and reality. The economic crisis, political pressure, and stagnation of education are just several reasons Belarusians are leaving the country, while the authorities do little to influence Belarusians to stay put.

Paula Borowska discussed a recent study on religiosity in Central and Eastern Europe by the Pew Research Centre with a focus on Belarus. According to the study, the overwhelming majority of Belarusians believe in God and affiliate themselves with specific religious organisations. Nevertheless, the number of practising believers who regularly engage in religious activities is far smaller. Unexpectedly, Belarusian Protestants, not covered in the study, might be the de facto leaders on the ground.

Comments of analysts in the media

On Polish Radio, Siarhei Bohdan argued that Belarus is moving away from its old security doctrine which ties it exclusively to the union with Russia. The Belarusian government is developing a more balanced foreign policy by creating a variety of partnerships in the area of security. It respects the interests of Russia while attempting to strengthen cooperation with the West.

On Radio Liberty, Yaraslau Kryvoi discussed how Belarus’s presidency of the Central European Initiative could help the country break with its international isolation. Its presidency will garner the attention of the European community, help balance its foreign policy, and boost regional cooperation.

Also on Radio Liberty, Yaraslau Kryvoi discussed the results of snap elections in the UK and how they could affect London’s negotiations with the European Union on Brexit.

Siarhei Bohdan commented for thinktanks.by on the blockade of Qatar by a Saudi-led Arab coalition. The ultimate goal of the blockade is to put pressure on Iran, which aims to restore the military part of its nuclear programme. Belarus, which has been actively cooperating with Qatar, is losing an opportunity in the region due to the conflict.

Ryhor Astapenia wrote an article for the Polish magazine Kontakt discussing the fall in support for Aliaksandr Lukashenka in Belarusian society.

On Polish Radio, Vadzim Smok discussed a recent series of arrests of important Belarusian businessmen. In Belarus, they can not freely do business without informal arrangements with the country’s leadership. According to the official version, the businessmen were tried for tax evasion, but the actual cause may also be a conflict in the system of informal relations with the authorities.

Siarhei Bohdan commented to Deutsche Welle on the recent oil agreements between Belarus and Ukraine. The Kremlin sees all attempts of its clients to diversify oil supplies in non-economic categories of confrontation – you are either with or against Russia. At the same time, the transition to a new structure of oil supplies from Iran and Azerbaijan via Odessa to Brody and Mazyr, and from there on to Eastern Europe, could change the geopolitical map of the entire Eastern European region.

On Polish Radio, Alesia Rudnik discussed alcohol policy in Belarus. The country continues to occupy top positions in the WHO’s world alcohol consumption ranking. What’s more, these statistics do not take into account illegal alcohol stock. Although the state claims to be working on some anti-alcohol policies, this seems to be in word only, and alcohol remains extremely affordable.

Belarus profile

The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following people: Jury Karajeŭ, Alieh Chusajenaŭ, Iryna Abieĺskaja, Mikalaj Lukashenka, Michail Zacharaŭ, Paviel Cichanaŭ, Alieh Rummo, Jury Hurski, Piotr Kraŭčanka, Aliaksandr Dziamidaŭ.

We have also updated the profiles of Siarhiej Pisaryk, Aliaksandr Kosiniec, Natallia Nikandrava, Siarhiej Ciacieryn, Siamion Šapira, Fiodar Poŭny, Anatol Kupryjanaŭ, Viktar Marcinovič, Aliaksandr Miažujeŭ, Liudmila Michalkova, Anatol Rusiecki, Marjana Ščotkina, Mikalaj Samasiejka, Siarhiej Michalok, Georgy Ponomarev.

Belarus policy

The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update its database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:

Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by emailing us.

The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.




Does Belarus stand a chance in a new oil war with Russia?

The year 2016 left Belarus with a serious economic problem: its unresolved dispute with Russia over energy.

On 9 January 2017, the Russian daily Kommersant revealed that Moscow will reduce oil supplies to Belarus from 4.5 to 4m tonnes in the first quarter of 2017. In doing so, Russia is pressing Belarus to pay its $425m gas debt.

Simultaneously, Belarus announced the discovery of a new oil field on its territory. Unfortunately, its own oil reserves allow for 1.6m tonnes worth of production annually, while Belarus needs around 25m for its refineries.

Oil products remain Belarus's No.1 export commodity, making a third of Belarus export revenues. With no alternative options for hydrocarbon supplies and Minsk's decreasing political and security leverage, the country will have to play by Moscow's rules.

Oil reserves in Belarus

On 3 January, the Belarusian official media outlet BelTA reported the discovery of a new oil field in the Rečyca district in southern Belarus. The field, however, is classified as hard-to-reach because of its depth. Preliminary research estimates the volume of the field at around 850,000 tonnes of oil. Totally, Belarusian oil reserves are estimated at 50m tonnes, although larger fields may exist, as Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Protection Andrej Kaŭchuta has claimed.

Belarus extracts around 1.6m tonnes of oil on its territory annually. This amount is tiny compared to world oil production leaders. Russia, for example, produces roughly the same amount daily. The capacities of Belarusian refineries, however, require an additional 24m tonnes per year, which the country traditionally buys in Russia.

Processing Russian oil and the export of oil products has guaranteed economic stability for Lukashenka for almost two decades. However, the Putin era brought regular oil and gas tensions, which forced Belarus to seek alternative supplies. Belarus even resorted to importing oil from Azerbaijan and Venezuela in 2010-2011 and 2016, as well as re-examining its own reserves.

In 2016, Belarus and Russia participated in another oil war. However, this time around events are unfolding in a new political context and its results are less obvious. The Russian media have attacked Belarus for alleged turning to the West and redundantly striving for independence. It has also attacked its policy of 'soft Belarusianisation', all of which calls to mind the 'Ukrainian scenario'.

Russia’s food safety administration consistently bans Belarusian food exports for various reasons. Moreover, the cut of oil supplies from Russia has hit the receding Belarusian economy heavily and created serious concern for Belarusian leadership .

Another hydrocarbon war

On 9 January, the Russian daily Kommersant revealed that Russia will cut oil supplies from 4,5 to 4m tonnes in the first quarter of 2017. In doing so, Russia is trying to persuade Minsk to pay its $425m gas debt. According to previous arrangements, Belarus was expected to receive a total of 18m tonnes of oil in 2017, but the sides failed to conclude a deal on Belarus’s gas debt by the end of 2016.

The dispute started in January 2016, when Belarus demanded that Moscow reduce its gas price for Minsk because of falling prices on the global market and the inability of Belarusian industries to compete on the Eurasian Economic Union market because of unequal energy prices. Russia denied the claim, and Belarus unilaterally decided to pay less, accumulating a debt of $425m by the end of 2016.

Moscow responded by putting conditions on the gas debt by limiting the amount of oil supplied to Belarus, a crucial resource for the Belarusian economy. A planned 5,3m tonnes per quarter contracted to 3,5m and finally to 3m tonnes in the last quarter of 2016. Before 1 January 2017, the sides were close to a deal but failed to finalise it. As a result of supply cuts, in January-October 2016, Belarus exported 15% less oil products compared to the same period of 2015, and 38% less in terms of money, which became a significant blow to the Belarusian budget.

No way out of the oil trap?

Belarusian-Russian relations saw a number of oil and gas wars in the 2000s, which usually ended in mutual concessions. Although Russia's image suffered as a result of these wars, it always retained a stronger position in negotiations.

Reductions or delays in oil supplies are inevitably extremely costly for Belarus, as oil products have been its No.1 export commodity for decades. Oil production exports make up around a third of Belarus's exports, which makes the country vulnerable to global market fluctuations.

Faltering oil prices hit Belarus heavily, as the adjacent diagram shows. Oil revenues peaked in 2012, with $16,4bn of revenues, and have steadily declined since. In 2016 Belarus received only $6,1bn from oil sales, a $10bn difference from 2012.

Moreover, there are still no viable alternatives to oil and gas supplies from Russia for Belarus. Minsk attempted to teach Russia a lesson by importing oil from Venezuela and Azerbaijan in 2010-2011, when it received around 1,5m tonnes of oil by sea via the Ukrainian port of Odessa.

During the new hydrocarbon war, Minsk imported 85,000 tonnes of Azerbaijani oil in autumn 2016, and Lukashenka revealed that Belarus was negotiating oil supplies with Iran. However, the negotiations apparently led to nothing, and Azerbaijani oil cannot cover the deficit of a few million tonnes of oil.

Belarus-Russia Relations After The Ukraine Conflict​ Moscow will keep Minsk in its sphere of influence for a long time, given the great political and economic significance that Belarus has for Russia. ​

The experts considered imports from outside Russia to be an economically unfeasible option. However, regardless of the direct gains, Minsk managed to secure better terms in its oil deals with Moscow by using these alternative deliveries as leverage, according to Vice Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamaška. But the current context of the Belarus-Russia disagreement have changed significantly since 2011 and Belarus became much more vulnerable economically, while Russia continues to assert its influence in the region and globally. Can Minsk counteract the Kremlin’s pressure in this new context?

There seems to be little chance for Belarus to gain an upper hand in this conflict. Russia needs political allies less and less, as it increasingly relies on itself. This means that the strategy of 'brotherly rhetoric' in exchange for economic gains does not work anymore in Belarus-Russia relations. Besides, Russia is taking steps in the military sphere to ensure its independence from the Belarusian army on the western front.

This significantly reduces Minsk’s leverage and restricts Lukashenka’s tricks with the Kremlin. With no alternative options for energy supplies and a heavy economic dependence on Russian resources, Belarus will have to play according to Russian rules for the foreseeable future.




Top 10 stories on Belarus Digest published in 2016

In 2016 Belarus Digest readers were particularly interested in our articles on security issues and relations of Belarus and Russia.

Other popular stories covered visa policies of Belarus as well as topics such as migration to Poland, potash trade and the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.

Belarus Digest team wishes its readers a healthy, productive and happy new year!

Below is our top 10 most read stories published in 2016.

1. Will Russia Occupy Belarus In 2017? by Aresni Sivicki.

Recently, the Russian Ministry of Defence disclosed logistical data of railway traffic to other countries for the upcoming year. It revealed that the Kremlin is planning to significantly increase the amount of military cargo headed for Belarus. This may be a sign that Moscow is preparing to redeploy a large number of Russian troops to Belarus in 2017.

An earlier piece by Belarus Digest predicted that the Kremlin was trying to transform Belarus into a flash point for menacing NATO and Ukraine by deploying its military capabilities on Belarusian territory. Unfortunately, this prediction is corroborated by the aforementioned logistic data, as well as the fruitlessness of the recent meeting between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

2. Belarus Opens Up? The Government Announces Visa-Free Entrance by Vadzim Smok

On 26 October 2016 a new visa-free area along the Augustow Canal, a conservation protection zone in the Hrodna region on the border with Poland and Lithuania became effective. Tourists will also be able to visit adjacent districts of Hrodna region as well as the city of Hrodna (population 300,000) visa-free, an unprecedented measure in the history of sovereign Belarus.The visa-free regime will last until 31 December 2017. This will make it the second visa-free zone in Belarus after the national park Bielaviežskaja Pušča opened up in 2015; foreign citizens can stay in the forest for up to three days.

These initiatives appear to be an experiment before Belarusian authorities implement a more comprehensive simplification of the visa regime: future plans also include the long awaited authorisation of local border traffic. Belarusian authorities have long overlooked tourism as a source of profit, but the crisis in traditional industries has forced them to consider this option.

3. Analytical Paper: Belarus-Russia Relations After The Ukraine Conflict by Ryhor Astapenia

Since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict began, the Kremlin has persistently tried to expand its control over Belarus, a process that has had quite the opposite effect as Belarusian government policy became more independent in 2014-2015. There has always existed a paradox in the simultaneous contingence and estrangement in Belarusian-Russian relations.

Estrangement looks the stronger of the two today, evidenced by the decrease in Belarus’ military dependence on Russia and its refusal to allow the establishment of a Russian military base on its territory; the reduction in the Russian economy’s role in Belarus; discrepancies in the foreign policy and media spheres; and conflicts between the political elites of both countries.

4. Poland Lures "The Best Migrants In The World" From Belarus by Vadzim Smok

On 28 January the Polish Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers proposed granting residence permits to a million migrants currently in Poland. The majority of them are Ukrainians, followed by Belarusians and Vietnamese. In recent years Poland has been aiming its immigration policy at absorbing a young labour force from the regions of former Polish rule, and has created unique preferences for foreign citizens in the form of the Card of the Pole.

The card gives its holder the right to work and study in Poland, and later to obtain Polish citizenship. Many Belarusians see it as an opportunity to work and study in Poland with the prospect of getting EU citizenship in the conditions of the ongoing economic crisis. The authorities of Belarus definitely dislike the initiative, but have proved unable to counter it so far.

5. 2016 Will Be Tough, Reforms Or No Reforms – Digest Of Belarusian Economy by Kateryna Bornukova

After several years of slow growth, 2015 became the first year of true recession. GDP fell by 3.9 per cent in January-November; employment declined over the year. The Belarusian rouble depreciated by almost 60 per cent.

Despite significant changes in the economic policy, 2016 will not be different. The official outlook (based on the oil price of $50) predicts zero growth, while the independent research centres expect modest decline. The recession is not deep enough to launch reforms quickly, and the positive effects from any possible reforms will come in only after 2016-2017.

6. Belarus Is Preparing For A Donbass-Like Hybrid War Conflict by Arseni Sivicki

On 14-20 September 2016 the Belarusian Armed Forces conducted large-scale military drills. Despite the fact that these military exercises were planned, they demonstrate a significant shift in security policy as Minsk increasingly takes into consideration possible risks and challenges from Russia.

It seems that the Belarusian Armed Forces are preparing for a possible Donbass-like hybrid conflict in light of increasing pressure from the Kremlin.

 

7. New Belarusian Military Doctrine Responds To Putin's Policies by Siarhei Bohdan

On 22 January, President Alexander Lukashenka approved changes to Belarus' military doctrine. This document reveals fundamental changes in the mindset of the Belarusian establishment. Learning Ukrainian lessons, Minsk is putting issues of military security at the top of its priority list.

Belarusian strategists have also identified which threats are to be countered. They include violent political changes, which Minsk suspects may come from Ukraine and pro-Moscow forces' attempts to repeat in Belarus their exploits in Ukraine.

Minsk is also reevaluating its alliance with Russia. The Kremlin for years ignored Minsk's interests and is embarking on an increasingly chauvinist path. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticised Soviet-era international borders as 'arbitrary', implying that they could be changed through a Crimea- or Donbas-like scenario.

8. Moscow Gives Belarus Arms And Seems To Abandon Airbase Plans by Siarhei Bohdan

Belarus has managed to persuade Russia to supply it with arms and renounce plans for a Russian air base on Belarusian territory.

The Belarusian official military daily newspaper admitted at the end of December that some (apparently four) Russian aircraft are still stationed in Baranavichy. But Minsk has managed to postpone or even cancelled Russian plans for an air base in Belarus. To do so Minsk was forced to finally invest in the overhaul and modernisation of its fighter aircraft. That was completed in November.

This will help Belarus not only to avoid a Russian air base being established in the country and to receive Russian equipment for the army; it will also help convince Moscow that its Belarusian ally possesses real force. Minsk has strengthened its position in any negotiations with Russia and made clear its readiness to defy any attempts to undermine the Belarusian state.

9. A New Big Potash Deal Between Belarus And China? by Aliaksandr Filipau

June 2016 became a breakthrough month for the potash industry in Belarus. The state-owned company “Belaruskali” managed to sign two long-awaited contracts with two major potash consumers – India and Bangladesh. However, the main news came from China: on June 17 Belarus received a $1,4bn loan from the China Development Bank for construction of a new mining and processing factory.

The parties reached this agreement after negotiations lasting more than one year. Although Belarus and China provided no information about a new potash contract, the very fact of this loan's existence provides grounds to suggest that such deal has been concluded.

10. Charnobyl 30 Years Later – Belarus Photo Digest by Siarhei Leskiec

On 26 April 1986, an explosion at Charnobyl Nuclear Power Plant released huge amounts of radiation into the atmosphere contaminating large territories of Europe. Belarus ended up the most badly affected taking 70% of the fallout from the power plant.

The Soviet Union sought to cover up the accident. The news about the explosion came out only two days later, after Sweden registered an increase in radiation levels on its territory. The evacuation of the population in the immediate vicinity of the plant began only several days later.

Although the power plant was located in the Ukrainian town of Prypyac, two thirds of the fallout landed on Belarusian territory. Photographer Siarhei Leskiec documents life in the contaminated parts of Belarus today, thirty years after what is considered the worst nuclear plant accident in history.




Opinion: four Russian instruments of control over Belarus

Many observers have noted that Belarus is slowly drifting towards the West and away from Russia.

This is corroborated by experts, results of independent opinion polls, and the intensity of contacts between Belarus and the European Union.

Russia retains four convincing arguments which effectively act as instruments of control over Belarus including economic, public opinion, and defence.

Belarus’s economic dependency on Russia

Since the late 1990's, Belarus has been regularly receiving subsidies from the Russian Federation to the tune of about $10bn per year. This aid takes a variety of forms: direct investments, intergovernmental credits, reduced rates on fuel, etc., but the amount of money provided from year to year is more or less constant.

Moreover, Russian subsidies have become such an integral part of Belarus’s economy and of the state budget that the main duty of one deputy prime minister consists of obtaining economic preferences and subsidised energy from Russia.

This brings us to our first conclusion, that the economic independence of Belarus is a myth. The same is thus true of the “Belarusian economic miracle”. One should also be cautious when talking about Belarus’s political independence, for what sort of political independence is possible when there is no economic independence?

Shaping public opinion: trust in the Russian media

The Belarusian Analytical Workroom, headed by Andrei Vardomatsky, presented their findings in Warsaw regarding the influence of the Russian media on viewers in post-soviet countries, including Belarus.

According to this research 73.1% of respondents from Belarus responded in December 2014 that they trusted (to a varying degree) the Russian Media. This means that Russia shapes (or at least significantly influences) the public opinion in Belarus. This also means that politically, Russia can promote or bring down any politician they choose, including Alexander Lukashenka.

The Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, another independent national public opinion pollster in Belarus, conducted a study in June 2016 demonstrating that 33.6% of respondents were ready to side with Russia should an armed conflict break out between the Russian Federation and the West on the territory of Belarus.

public opinion in Belarus is shaped by Vladimir Putin, not Alexander Lukashenka

Three times less people – 13.4% – were ready to stand with the West. Moreover, 26.1% of Belarusians viewed Russia as a protector against potential aggression from NATO. It is hard to believe that despite the Russian media's influence, even 10.6% of respondents in Belarus supported NATO. In March 2016, when asked plainly: “with whom do you want to unite” 48% of respondents preferred uniting with Russia; whereas 31.2% of respondents preferred joining the EU.

Thus the second conclusion is as unfavourable as the first: public opinion in Belarus is shaped by Vladimir Putin, not Alexander Lukashenka. This means that in the event of a serious conflict between Belarus and the Russian Federation, the majority of the population may not side with Lukashenka.

Russia's influence on Belarus’s non-profit organisations

There has lately been an outburst of activity from various previously dormant organisations in Belarus. These include Cossack organisations, unions of Afghan war veterans, Orthodox youth camps, patriotic military clubs, and others.

The Russian-language social network Odnoklassniki hosts many such groups and the number of their subscribers is estimated in the thousands or even tens of thousands. A peculiar feature of these groups is that they are often administrated by individuals with experience of armed conflict.

The way the state has been treating Afghan war vets recently has been very unfair: the veterans have lost their well-deserved benefits after a recent and hugely unpopular social reform. What's more, the state does not provide any form of re-habilitation programme for former soldiers suffering from war related trauma. As a result veterans have turned into a societal delayed-action bomb that is more dangerous than the Belarusian state would like to believe.

Moreover, there is an emerging group of new ‘veterans’ – vets of the Donbass war. These are people who travelled to the Donbass in Ukraine to participate in the on-going armed conflict between Ukraine in Russia over the past several years.

there is no actual border between Belarus and Russia: anyone could hypothetically bring weapons across the border

Compounding the problem is the fact that there is no actual border between Belarus and Russia: anyone could hypothetically bring weapons across the border. In the current geopolitical context, the presence of a group of disenfranchised people who know how to use arms is an unpredictable element which could be employed with a completely unpredictable effect during times of social unrest.

Thus, the third conclusion is also pessimistic: any large manifestation or political rally attracts all sorts of active individuals in the country. This means that the above mentioned groups could be involved as well, which may lead to armed conflicts and confrontation.

Defence and law enforcement agencies

Military and security enforcement services – siloviki – are a very influential group: these are after all the people who are permitted to carry guns. In the event of a coup, revolution, uprising, or confrontation with a neighbouring country their decisions may be a deciding factor. They determine whether or not to fire.

Closer examination reveals that a large number of Belarus’s siloviki have ties to Russia. Let us start with the Defence Ministry of Belarus and its leaders. The Minister of Defence, Andrei Ravkov, graduated with honours from the Moscow Higher Combined Arms Command School, and he later graduated from the Russian General Staff Academy. All of his four deputies studied in Russia; two of them were citizens of the Russian Federation by birth.

The leaders of various forces and troops must also be scrutinised. There are twelve such leaders in total, eleven of whom studied military science in the Russian Federation at institutions such as Gagarin Air Force Academy, the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Khroulyov Military Academy of Logistics of the Ministry of defence of the Russian Federation. By the way, three of the above mentioned leaders are Russian citizens by birth. This trend holds true in other areas of siloviki leadership as well.

Thus, the fourth conclusion is also worrying: nobody knows what the Belarus(s)ian siloviki would do should disagreements between Russia and Belarus escalate to a serious conflict.

It is intriguing to see how Alexander Lukashenka will be able to cope with these "instruments" in the coming years.

Olga Karatch

Olga Karatch is a Master of Arts in Political Sciences, European Humanitarian University, Vilnius, Lithuania (2012). For 2003-2007 she was a member of Vitebsk City Council (only oppositionist elected). Now she is a director of International Centre for civil initiatives "Our House".




Upgrading Relations with Europe, Winning in an Embassy Row – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

In recent weeks, Belarus managed to noticeably upgrade the level of its relations with EU countries. However, the ministerial-level meetings have been limited to Belarus’ long-time sympathisers in Europe (Hungary and Slovenia) as well as its closest neighbours (Poland).

The relations with the United States have maintained their positive dynamics but remained at the expert level. The embassy row with Israel has ended with a victory of Belarusian diplomats.

Visiting “friend Szijjártó”

On 16–17 March, Belarus' foreign minister Vladimir Makei paid an official visit to Hungary. The Belarusian foreign ministry made no prior announcement of the visit. It released its first communiqué when Makei almost exhausted his agenda in Budapest.

Makei had talks with his Hungarian counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, and met high government and parliamentary officials as well as potential investors.

Belarus and Hungary focused on the ways to develop economic cooperation, with priority attention given to agriculture and food processing, mechanical engineering, pharmaceuticals, construction, telecommunications and tourism.

Belarus seeks to play the card of Hungary’s independent position towards Brussels on several policy issues, including the EU’s relations with Belarus and Russia.

Makei: "Any state's task... is to find legal ways of circumventing sanctions"

Makei and Hungarian politicians favour pragmatism and prioritise economic interests over human rights and democracy considerations. In his interview to a conservative Hungarian daily, the Belarusian minister advocated search for “legal ways of circumventing sanctions”, referring to the EU and Russia's reciprocal embargoes.

Today's atmosphere of bilateral relations is prone to higher-level contacts between Belarus and Hungary. One should not exclude a possibility of a meeting between Alexander Lukashenka and Viktor Orbán in 2016.

Exploring new investment projects with Slovenia

On 25 March, Slovenia’s foreign minister Karl Erjavec visited Belarus accompanied by representatives of eleven Slovenian companies in a bid to strengthen bilateral relations and look for new economic opportunities.

The Slovenian politician met his Belarusian counterpart and was received by President Alexander Lukashenka. The identified priorities in economic cooperation match those in relations between Belarus and Hungary, with addition of power industry.

Erjavec attended the opening of the transformer station in Minsk build by Slovenia’s civil engineering giant, Riko Group. In presence of the two countries’ foreign ministers, Riko Group signed new cooperation agreements with local energy agencies.

In February 2012, Slovenia vetoed the introduction of the EU’s sanctions against Yury Chyzh, a Belarusian oligarch who was then closely linked with Alexander Lukashenka (but recently detained). At that time, Riko Group was implementing a large construction project in Belarus with one of Chyzh’s companies.

Alexander Lukashenka did not fail to thank the Slovenian diplomat for the “position, which Slovenia [had] taken in recent years on Belarus, in particular, when discussing problems with the EU”.

Discussing “most sensitive issues” with Poland

In between his encounters with the regime’s probably strongest allies in the EU, on 22-23 March, Vladimir Makei welcomed in Minsk Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski. President Alexander Lukashenka also received the Polish official.

While trade and investment relations have kept their traditionally important place in the bilateral dialogue, the parties discussed other issues extensively.

Belarus and Poland seek to further reinforce their shared border and agreed to seek financing from the EU funds while the security of the EU’s external borders remained a hot topic in European capitals.

Lukashenka thanked Poland for seeing Belarus as a sovereign and independent country

Poland would like to see progress in the treatment of Polish minority in Belarus. The Polish government also worries about the situation of the Catholic Church in Belarus, especially regarding the status of Polish clergy in the country.

Alexander Lukashenka reassured Waszczykowski about his intention to guarantee equal rights of all ethnic groups and creeds in the country. Vladimir Makei also mentioned the two countries’ “willingness to seek mutually beneficial solutions to absolutely all issues, including the most sensitive ones”.

However, one should not expect a quick progress on the matters involving human rights and democratic freedoms in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities manage very well to use these issues as a bargaining tool in a prolonged diplomatic game.

Honouring a US expert

On 28-30 March, Michael Carpenter, US deputy assistant secretary of defence, visited Minsk to meet Alexander Lukashenka, Vladimir Makei and Belarus’ defence minister Andrei Ravkov.

Carpenter is a top expert of the US department of defence for the ex-USSR. However, his strictly mid-level position in a bureaucratic hierarchy would preclude his direct talks with top government officials in most other countries. However, lately Lukashenka chooses to disregard such subtleties.

The US expert focused on bilateral relations with Belarus in the security and defence areas as well as on the situation in neighbouring Ukraine. Lukashenka used this opportunity to reiterate his earlier calls for a greater US involvement in the resolution of the crisis around Ukraine.

In dissonance with Russian politicians, the Belarusian president admitted that he was not inclined to demonise NATO’s expansion eastward and to think that NATO was going to wage a war against Russia or Belarus.

The Belarusian leader also chose to talk with the security expert about expanding economic ties between Belarus and the United States.

Ending embassy row with Israel

Belarus and Israel are close to a full resolution of the recent embassy row. The situation in bilateral relations quickly deteriorated in early January when Israel announced the imminent closure of its embassy in Minsk. Belarus immediately retaliated by announcing the symmetrical withdrawal of its mission in Tel Aviv.

Within a few weeks, influential Israeli politicians began sending repeated signals that their government’s decision would most likely be revoked. However, the Belarusian foreign ministry refused to suspend measures directed at phasing out its diplomatic presence in Israel. Several diplomats returned to Minsk. The embassy suspended some consular services.

Even the publication of the decision to maintain the embassy on the Israeli government's web site failed to satisfy Belarusian diplomats.

Only after having received a formal notification from Israel’s foreign ministry in late March, the Belarusian foreign ministry admitted that it got formal grounds for reconsidering the issue of Belarus’ diplomatic presence in Tel Aviv.

Belarusian diplomacy has scored another victory in already the second embassy row with Israel. This time, a more resolute retaliation led to a much quicker restoration of status quo.




Belarusian MPs at PACE, Cooperation with Turkey, Retirement Age Increases – State Press Digest

Belarus continues to boost cooperation with western partners and is seeking to avoid excessive economic dependence on Russia.

MPs hope to receive special guest status at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) after the issue of the death penalty is resolved in Belarus.

Foreign minister Vladimir Makiej says that the current turbulence in the world has made the west better understand the priority of security over democracy, which Belarus has always pursued.

All of this and more in the latest edition of State Press Digest.

Politics

Belarusians are not yet ready to abolish the death penalty. Soyuznoye Veche newspaper interviews Mikalaj Samasiejka, a member of the Standing Commission of the House of Representatives on International Affairs, on Belarus' growing cooperation with PACE. The newly elected president of PACE Pedro Agramunt during a meeting with the Belarusian delegation promised to restore the country's special guest status after Belarus abolishes or at least puts a moratorium on the death penalty.

The MP said that the death penalty issue cannot be easily resolved, as the majority of Belarusians still support the policy, though their numbers are gradually declining. The majority of parliamentarians are also in favour of leaving the death penalty in place. Samasejka also expressed support for the Russian delegation, which boycotted the recent PACE session because of some restrictive measures imposed on it.

West starts to better understand Belarus. Belarus Segodnya newspaper interviews foreign minister of Belarus Uladzimir Makiej during the Munich security conference. According to the minister, foreign countries seem to now better understand the reasons for Minsk's behaviour, its decisions and policies. The current turbulence in the world and the EU migrant crisis is making the west appreciate the significance of stability and security, which Belarus has always put before democracy and human rights.

The minister also explained that “the president has set a clear directive to avoid dependence on one economic partner”. The Belarusian economy is highly dependent on exports and Russia accounts for half of the country's trade turnover. This situation brought plenty of trouble after Russia fell into crisis, and Belarus will seek to establish firm economic relations with as many countries as possible to reduce its dependence on its eastern neighbour.

Security

Governors prepare to organise territorial defence. Belarusian governors – heads of the six regions and Minsk city – took part in a military drill at the firing field nearby Minsk, reported Belarus Segodnya. The military leadership organised the drill as part of its so-called territorial defence training. The governors learned how to shoot with various kinds of guns and how to organise the defence of their region in case of a conflict.

Territorial defence is a military system designed to involve the broadest possible population in defence in case of armed conflict. It works according to the administrative divisions of the state under the command of the executive vertical – heads of regions, who supervise the heads of districts. President Alexander Lukashenka initiated territorial defence drills for regional chiefs to be held on a regular basis.

Economy

The authorities initiate public punishment case against Ministry of Housing and Communal Services officials. The State Control Committee initiated 17 criminal cases against officials of the ministry and local governments after a sharp rise in the cost of communal services in January, Respublika reported. The Committee claims that the officials made multiple mistakes when introducing new tariffs which the government announced earlier in 2015.

Many Belarusians were shocked when they saw the new communal bills for January. The problem received wide attention in the media and among state officials, and Lukashenka had to deal with it personally. Low tariffs on communal services have traditionally been one of the key elements of Belarusian social model, which must now be reformed because of economic difficulties.

Turkey will expand its projects in Hrodna region. Hrodzianskaja Praŭda highlights the meeting of heads of Hrodna region with Turkish businessmen. Over the past three years Turkish business has been increasing its presence in the region, with six Turkish-capital organisations currently working there.

The parties discussed a project for a Turkish industrial park in the free economic zone Hrodnainvest. Belarusian officials are offering 300 hectares of land for realisation of the project. Contacts with Turks are increasing as a backdrop to the crisis in Russian-Turkish political relations, which has resulted in a decrease of economic cooperation.

Public policy

The government prepares public opinion for increasing the retirement age. In 2015 the issue of the rising retirement age became one of the most popular in official media. The state tried to explain to citizens the need for a highly unpopular step. Vecherniy Minsk writes that the state currently spends 10 per cent of GDP on pension payments. Belarus has one of the earliest retirement ages in the world – 55 for women and 60 for men.

In Minsk, the youngest city in Belarus, only a quarter of residents have reached this age, while in the countryside they make up the majority of the population. If the current pension system remains in place, after 2050 every working age Belarusian will have to support the life of one pensioner. The authorities plan to raise the retirement age in several stages to 60 and 65 years, but will not announce the final decision until the public is ready.

Belarusian education system faces serious challenges. The working meeting of the Education Ministry raised a number of problems in the national education system, writes Belarus Segodnya. Lukashenka himself recently criticised the quality of school textbooks. The Ministry admits that the system seriously lacks qualified author teams for writing textbooks. Excessive paperwork remains another major school problem, which turns teaching into red tape.

The authorities have also failed to attract foreign students into Belarusian universities. Out of 19,000 students from 98 countries, 50 per cent originate from Turkmenistan, while Russians make up only 5 per cent, and there are even fewer westerners.

Belarusian universities lack programmes in English – for example, the largest university, the Belarusian State University, offers only three such programmes. Meanwhile, one third of candidates and two thirds of doctors of science who teach at universities are over 60 years old. Young people do not want to teach at universities because of poor payment conditions.

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.




Europe Tests Belarus’ Willingness to Change – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

The diplomatic exchange between Belarus and Europe got into full swing in February. Over a dozen visits took place within a few weeks either side of the European Union's decision to abrogate its sanctions. Greater involvement of “old Europe” in direct dialogue with Minsk is becoming a noteworthy trend.

Belarusian diplomacy scored a big victory by prompting the EU to lift most of its sanctions against Belarus. The country’s authorities had to make only a few concessions to secure this decision. Minsk has now been focusing on reaping economic and financial benefits from the new reality in its relations with Europe.

Europe Lifts Sanctions

On 15 February, the Council of the European Union decided to end travel bans and assets freezes against 170 individuals and three companies from Belarus. Europe introduced these sanctions following a brutal crackdown on the Belarusian opposition in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential elections.

The arms embargo and sanctions against four individuals suspected of involvement in the disappearances of President Alexander Lukashenka’s opponents will remain in force for the next twelve months.

Belarus' 'positive steps' are limited to more and softer talking to Europe

The EU justified this decision on the basis that steps taken recently by Belarus have contributed to improving EU-Belarus relations. The Council's conclusions list these steps. Interestingly, all of them are limited to different negotiation tracks between Belarus’ government and the EU bureaucracy.

Europe values “Belarus' constructive role in the region”. EU leaders have also noted the release of the remaining political prisoners and the violence-free presidential elections in 2015.

Since those peaceful presidential elections last October, which triggered the four-month suspension of sanctions, the Belarusian authorities have failed to introduce a single measure to remedy the situation in the areas of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Miklós Haraszti, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, noted “numerous cases of new violations of basic rights” in his statement issued a week before the sanctions were lifted.

EU has rewarded geopolitical neutrality and restraint towards opposition

Most experts agree that geopolitical considerations played a major role in the EU's decision, even if European officials deny it. The EU has rewarded the Belarusian government for its stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Europe has also noted the authorities' willingness to show some restraint in their reactions to opposition activities in the country.

In the existing regional security context, Europe is reluctant to rebuke Belarus, which has recently acted as a fairly independent player. The EU fears that any further delay in the abrogation of sanctions would push Belarus into Russia’s embrace.

Makei Goes to Munich

On 12–14 February, in the days immediately preceding the EU decision on sanctions, Belarus’ foreign minister Vladimir Makei went to Munich to attend the 52nd Munich Security Conference. The Belarusian foreign ministry called this trip a “working visit to Germany”.

Indeed, Makei had a working lunch with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier and met several other German officials. Germany is doubly important to Belarus as the leading EU member and the current OSCE chair.

Makei has managed to gain Steinmeier’s trust in the sincerity of Belarus’ intentions to move gradually towards allowing more democratic freedoms in the country. “Belarus' motivation for adopting its foreign and domestic political decisions is better understood today,” Makei said in his interview with a Belarusian TV channel.

Makei’s European agenda included meetings with the foreign ministers of Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway, the EU commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy Johannes Hahn, as well as businessmen and foreign policy experts.

While in Munich, he also met the foreign ministers of Ghana, Georgia and Iran, the defence minister of Pakistan and unnamed senior US diplomats.

Belarus was not on the agenda of the Munich Security Conference. Meanwhile, many speakers in the debate mentioned the name of the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Some of them even went beyond the simple geographical reference. US senator John McCain found it “commendable that the Belarusian authorities [had] assisted in resolving the Ukrainian conflict”.

Belarus Talks to Europe

By lifting the sanctions, the EU has sought to establish “enhanced channels of communication” with Belarus’ government to help achieve “progress in a variety of fields”. The intensive dialogue with European countries and institutions in the weeks immediately before and after the EU decision have demonstrated that Belarus hardly lacks lines of communication with Europe.

On 1-2 February, deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna visited Brussels to meet a range of EU officials. Ten days later, she went to Madrid for bilateral consultations with her Spanish counterpart.

Belarus' WTO accession gets discussed before and after the lifting of sanctions

Belarus’ foreign ministry as well as the agencies in charge of the economy, agriculture, and industry received Péter Balás, a special advisor in the EU directorate for trade on 3-5 February. Belarus and the EU discussed mutual access to markets as well as issues related to Belarus’ accession to the WTO.

On 9-10 February, Minsk hosted separate delegations of senior diplomats from Austria, Germany, Romania, and the United Kingdom, as well as a joint delegation of the Visegrad Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). Diplomats came to Minsk mostly to finalise their countries’ position on the issue of sanctions against Belarus.

Already after the lifting of the sanctions, on 16 February the foreign ministries of Belarus and Switzerland held political consultations in Minsk.

However, the most important bilateral event in Belarus’ relations with European countries was the first meeting of the intergovernmental Belarusian-Italian commission for economic cooperation held on 23 February in Minsk (originally it was scheduled to happen in Rome). Alena Kupchyna called this meeting a “historical event”. Indeed, Belarus has been seeking to establish this bilateral body for many years.

The Italian delegation headed by under-secretary of state Benedetto Della Vedova discussed promising areas of bilateral cooperation, including the creation of an Italian industrial district in the Brest region of Belarus. The Italian diplomat also met first deputy prime minister Vasily Matyushevsky.

Alongside lifting the sanctions, the EU has promised Belarus assistance with WTO accession and enhancing cooperation with international financial institutions, including the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the EBRD, while encouraging the authorities “to accelerate much needed economic reforms”.

On 24 February, Makei received a joint delegation of the European Commission and the EIB. The delegation also held meetings with senior officials at the National Bank, the ministries of economy and finance and the presidential administration.

The end of sanctions makes possible greater engagement of Europe, and specifically the "old Europe”, in high-level contacts with Minsk. However, Europe is still likely to prefer Makei and Belarus’ government technocrats over Alexander Lukashenka as their negotiating partners.




Air Base Suspended, Seeking Support in Asia and Africa, Belarusian Studies – Ostrogorski Centre Digest

In December and January the Ostrogorski Centre analysts are busy analysing Minsk’s complicated games in foreign policy and security affairs, finalising the most recent issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies and organising a conference on Belarusian studies.

It appears that Belarus continues to cooperate with Ukraine on the issues where Belarus can gain financially and technologically, while keeping its distance from aggressive Russian foreign policy. Minsk has also managed to win the standoff over a Russian air base in Belarus.

Siarhei Bohdan argues that Minsk consistently avoids supporting Moscow in Ukraine and Syria. Belarus is continuing its active collaboration with Kyiv, aimed not only at business deals but also at acquiring the military technology which Russia has failed to provide it with. At the same time, Minsk seems to be winning the ongoing game over a Russian air base. A base will, it seems, not appear in Belarus in the near future, and on top of that Belarus will soon have Russian warplanes at its disposal.

Igar Gubarevich in his foreign policy overview shows that despite his renewed right to travel to Europe, Lukashenka’s “social circle” has so far remained limited to authoritarian countries. While visiting and hosting Asian and African colleagues, the Belarusian leader had to postpone his most important foreign trip to Moscow because of disagreements over relations with Turkey and the Russian air base in Belarus.

Ryhor Astapenia analyses the performance of Belarusian industry in 2015. While many enterprises, such as Kamvol, are poised on the verge of bankruptcy, others like potash exporter Belaruskali have saved the Belarusian economy, allowing inefficient industries to be subsidised.

Comments in the media

Siarhei Bohdan in an interview with the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty comments on the normalisation of Belarus-EU relations and their future in 2016. According to Bohdan, Belarus is trying to pursue a neutrality policy in a quiet manner and is seeking to boost trade cooperation with the EU. However, warming of relations will not change domestic politics significantly, as it will be dominated by Russian and Ukrainian factors.

Aljazeera quoted director of the Ostrogorski Centre ​Yarik Kryvoi, who analysed the reasons why the Belarusian authorities refrain from large-scale privatisation and its associated social costs. The Aljazeera piece also cited Ostrogorski Centre associate analyst Alieś Aliachnovič’s article on BelarusDigest dedicated to the role of Russia’s subsidies in the Belarusian economy.

Ryhor Astapenia together with several well-known experts summed up the year 2015 on Radio France Internationale. Among the most important events of the year Ryhor mentioned was Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize, which put Belarus in the focus of world media, and the October presidential election, which demonstrated people’s disappointment with politics and the economic crisis in the first years of Lukashenka’s new term in power.

According to the experts, the European Union should increase its presence in Belarus to be able to influence the situation from the inside

Siarhei Bohdan discussed with the Belarusian Programme of Polish Radio current trends in the development of the Belarusian Armed Forces. Despite the declared military union with Russia, the Belarusian army is seeking more autonomy and hampering major bilateral military projects.

Yarik Kryvoi and the Ostrogorski Centre’s senior analyst Siarhei Bohdan commented on the role of sanctions in Belarus’ relations with the west for WorldECR, the Journal of Export Controls and Sanctions. According to the experts, the European Union should increase its presence in Belarus to be able to influence the situation from the inside. Patient critical engagement and economic modernisation can ultimately strengthen Belarusian statehood and improve the human rights and democracy situation.

Vadzim Smok took part in a discussion titled In What Ways Can We Talk about the Nation and Nationalism Today?, organised in Minsk as a part of the Debates on Europe programme and supported by the German Federal Foreign Office. The experts exchanged ideas on various models of nation-building in today’s Belarus and the role of nationalism in this process.

The Belarusian government allows the existence of a sizeable shadow economy because its main revenue comes from outside the country

Siarhei Bohdan discussed with Radio Racyja the problem of the shadow economy in Belarus. The Belarusian government allows the existence of a sizeable shadow economy because its main revenue comes from outside the country, mainly from Russian hydrocarbons. Many businesses operate via illegal schemes, and the authorities turn a blind eye to them in exchange for political loyalty.

Belarusian Studies in the 21st century conference

The Ostrogorski Centre and the UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) invite proposals from established academics and doctoral researchers for individual papers and panels to discuss various aspects of contemporary Belarusian studies.

The conference will take place on 23-24 March 2016 at the SSEES in London. The Annual Lecture on Belarusian Studies will follow the main conference panels. The conference will serve as a multidisciplinary forum of Belarusian studies in the West and offer a rare networking opportunity for researchers of Belarus. The conference call for papers is available here and the deadline is 15 February 2016.

The 2015 issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies

The Ostrogorski Centre presents the 2015 issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies. The new issue of the journal focuses on the Belarusian-Polish-Lithuanian borderland and the period stretching from the uprising of 1863 to the inter-war period of the 20th century when the territory of today’s Belarus was split between the Soviet Union and Poland.

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

This issue also includes the transcript of the first Annual London Lecture on Belarusian Studies, and two book reviews – one by Stephen Hall examining the meaning of Europe for the Belarusian and Ukrainian authorities, and the other by Siarhej Bohdan looking at relations between various ethnic groups in Eastern Poland in the inter-war period, which is now Western Belarus.

The issue features authors from Estonia, Lithuania, United Kingdom, Belarus and Sweden.

Belarus Profile

The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following personalities: Aliena Arciomienka, Andrej Parotnikaŭ, Uladzimir Kaltovič, Dzmitryj Markušeŭski, Juryj Caryk, Kiryl Koktyš, Aliaksandr Aŭtuška-Sikorski, Andrej Rusakovič, Siarhej Vazniak, Uladzimir Kavalkin.

We have also updated the profiles of Stanislaŭ Kniazieŭ, Anton Kudasaŭ, Valiery Kulakoŭski, Aliaksandr Lahviniec, Dzmitry Lazoŭski, Žana Litvina, Anatoĺ Lis, Ihar Laciankoŭ, Alieh Latyšonak, Paviel Latuška, Viktar Lukašenka, Anatoĺ Liabiedźka, Anatoĺ Marazievič, Viktar Marcinovič, Siarhiej Maskievič, Andrej Šorac, Andrej Hajeŭ, Uladzimir Amaryn, Maksim Jermalovič, Dzmitry Charytončyk.

Belarus Policy

The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:

Any partner organisation of BelarusPolicy.com can submit its research for inclusion onto the database by completing this form.

The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com and BelarusProfile.com. Follow all the news from the Ostrogorski Centre on Facebook.




Top 10 Most Read Articles on Belarus Digest in 2015

In 2015 Belarus Digest published over 300 articles. Today we analysed statistics and selected the most read articles published this year.

They cover a range of issues – from tourism, the role of Belarus in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria to presidential elections and visa-free travel.

Most of the popular articles in 2015 dealt with foreign policy and security issues.

1. Why Do So Few Tourists Visit Belarus?

Belarus remains a blank spot on the map for many foreigners. A mere 137,000 tourists visited the country in 2013—twenty-one times fewer than the number who visited Estonia.

Onerous visa requirements, combined with an underdeveloped service industry, undermine the country’s efforts to attract foreign visitors.

The world’s largest travel guide company, Lonely Planet, warns travellers that “visas are needed by almost everybody” and that “homophobia is rife.” VirtualTourist criticises the lack of customer service, the paranoia of locals, and the country’s “lunatic” president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Belarus may have plenty of attractions, but many things have to change before the country can attract crowds of European tourists.

2. Russian Media Attack Belarus: A Warning For Minsk?

The past few weeks have seen an unusual increase of anti-Belarusian activity in pro-government Russian media and blogs. The Kremlin has not yet used its strongest media tools. However, the manner of the attack is in some respects similar to the information warfare which preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea.

In the face of the unfolding economic crisis in Russia and Belarus and the Belarusian presidential elections scheduled for 2015, this could signal a new shift in the relations between Russia and the regime of Alexander Lukashenka.

3. Belarus Helps Ukraine With Military Equipment

On Tuesday, a provocative article appeared in the pro-Kremlin Russian daily, Vzglyad. It demanded that Belarus hold a referendum on becoming a part of Russia or else face Ukraine's fate. The article referred to Alyaksandr Lukashenka's recent interview with Bloomberg, in which he once more cautiously expressed his sympathy for Kyiv and criticised the annexation of Crimea.

Moscow knows these are not just words. Minsk has avoided using the strategic means at its disposal – like its control of the Ukrainian oil products market – to destabilise the neighbouring country. Instead, it has enhanced economic cooperation with Kyiv and even sold military equipment to Ukraine.

4. Belarus Presidential Elections 2015 – Live Updates From Minsk

On 9 – 12 October, Belarus Digest provided live online coverage of the presidential elections in Belarus and international and domestic reactions to it. Below, we feature a collection of stories from international and Belarusian media, videos, pictures, and comments from experts, which we have posted online during these days.

5. Is Lukashenka Preparing For A War?

At the end of January, Belarus temporally mobilised nearly 15,000 reservists – a large number for the nearly 50,000-strong national army. A major Russian news portal Gazeta.ru linked this move to the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict. At the same time, the Belarusian army began conducting military exercises.The Belarusian parliament also introduced several amendments to existing legislation – allegedly with the view of preventing "hybrid wars," like the one currently going on in Ukraine's eastern regions.

These actions have generated rumours about the intentions of the Belarusian government which has to date sought to preserve its neutrality in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Belarus's neutral stance has provoked criticism from Kyiv and Moscow alike and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

6. How Belarus Disappointed Russia In Ukraine And Syria

Minsk consistently avoids supporting Moscow in Ukraine and Syria. To put it mildly. After all, on 7 December, Ukrainian Internal Minister Avakov inaugurated the new Ukrainian armoured vehicle Varta designed in cooperation with "Belarusian engineers".

It became just one more of a series of examples of Belarus-Ukrainian defence cooperation. Later on, the Belarusian Defence Ministry denied claims that it supported Russia's position in the latter's dispute with Turkey.

Belarus risks estranging its Russian ally, but not because it wants to earn extra money in Ukraine or from conservative Arab regimes. Minsk strives to improve relations with Russia's opponents because the Kremlin has shown itself willing to make radical foreign policy moves.

7. Belarus-EU Visa-Free Travel: An Unrealstic Prospect?

The EUobserver reported last week that Belarus might start talks over a visa-free regime with the EU, citing senior officials from the Latvian EU presidency. Many Belarusians reacted to this statement with expressions of surprise, satisfaction and hope, but mostly incredulity. Indeed, a few days later, Maira Mora, the head of the EU Delegation to Belarus effectively ruled out the possibility of a short-term solution for abolishing the visa regime between Belarus and the EU.

In fact, in technical terms, Belarus is better prepared for visa-free travel with the EU than many other countries. However, no major breakthrough will come about until Minsk and Brussels find common language on the issues of human rights and democratic governance.

8. What To Expect From The 2015 Presidential Elections In Belarus?

The year 2015 will herald a new presidential election in Belarus, certainly by the fall, and perhaps as early as March. It will be the fifth presidential election since the introduction of a national Constitution in 1994, and will mark Alexander Lukashenka’s 21st year in power.

Traditionally, elections are times when there are opportunities for the opposition to attract public attention, to use short spans on national TV and radio, and to make appearances at public venues. On paper at least for several reasons opposition leaders appear to have greater opportunities for support than in the past. They can be listed as follows, and not necessarily in order of significance.

9. Belarus Engages Ukraine, Moldova, Improves Ties With EU And US – Foreign Policy Digest

The summer holidays proved to be productive for the relations of Belarus with both "old" and "new" Europe. Foreign minister Vladimir Makei ended a continued pause in high-level contacts with Belarus' southern neighbour by an unconventional five-day long visit to Ukraine in mid-August. There, he took the risk of enraging Russia by meeting its mortal foe Mikheil Saakashvili in Odessa.

The EU Council significantly reduced its sanctions list against Belarus on 31 July and a US congressional delegation came to Minsk two days later. In exchange, Minsk agreed to discuss human rights with its Western partners, seemingly ending a long tradition of denial of any major problems in this sphere.

Will Minsk's diplomacy manage to continue befriending Russia's foes without alienating its main sponsor until right after the October presidential election?

10. Presidential Elections In Belarus: Why The West Should Not Hold Its Breath

On 1 September the Central Elections Committee of Belarus announced that four presidential candidates had submitted enough signatures to run in elections scheduled for 11 October this year.

Although few question the outcome of this elections and the official victory of the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenka, the elections take place in a very different geopolitical context.

In the 2010 presidential elections, the authorities saw the Belarusian opposition as the main threat and crushed protests, putting several presidential candidates in jail. After the recent events in Ukraine the authorities seem to view Russia as a more serious threat although they would not publicly admit it.




2015 Annual Report, Russian Airbase, Economic Reforms – Ostrogorski Centre Digest

The economy of Belarus shows a long-term negative trend. The need for structural reforms looks obvious even within the elite, and this need for structural reforms is desired especially by international creditors. In the political and military realm, Minsk struggles with Russia’s attempts to influence it.

As Alieś Aliachnovič shows in his piece, the authorities are not ready for large-scale market reforms, but rather slow and partial structural reforms appear inevitable. This is because creditors will monitor the progress of reforms before agreeing to pay the next tranche of funds.

Igar Gubarevich analyses the acceleration of Belarus-US contacts and concludes that the United States no longer regards Lukashenka as a Russian puppet. In order to contain Russia’s growing assertiveness in the region and beyond, the United States may help Lukashenka reduce economic dependence on Russia by assisting with securing an IMF loan and facilitating more trade and investment.

Siarhei Bohdan argues that the Kremlin is pushing for an airbase in Belarus for political, not military reasons. It seeks to eliminate any vestiges of Belarusian neutrality, which Minsk had built up in the past decade, by distancing itself from numerous Russian policies and looking for alternative partners.

Ostrogorski Centre Annual Report

The Ostrogorski Centre has published its annual report highlighting the main achievements in 2015 and its plans for the future. In 2015, the centre expanded its leadership team and established new partnerships.

The Centre launched BelarusPolicy.com, a research database in cooperation with the Belarus Research Council and expanded BelarusProfile.com. It is about to release the 2015 issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies.

Analysts at the Centre organised and participated in several Belarus related events in Minsk, Vilnius, London, Berlin and other place. This helped the centre increase its presence in Belarusian and foreign media. The report describes this in detail, with pictures and charts.

Over the next two weeks, the Centre plans to launch a fundraising campaign to support Belarus Digest and its other projects.

Comments for the Media

Yarik Kryvoi in an interview for the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty comments on the recent warming in Belarus–EU relations and the EU’s apparent shift of focus from democracy to the security agenda. He also touched upon the redlines which Minsk does not want to cross in its relations with Russia.

Polish Radio talks to Igar Gubarevich about the Belarusian authorities latest steps in expanding the countries’ exports to traditional and new markets. Minsk tries to boost trade with a wide range of countries, but its efforts may not prove effective because of administrative methods and the kinds of produce that Minsk tries to sell.

Siarhei Bohdan comments to Polish Radio about recent trends in Belarus’ security situation. After the change in the wider-region’s security situation Minsk has started to distance itself from Moscow and seek partners in other parts of the world. Besides, Belarus gives more attention to its army and develops its own weapons instead of buying Russian ones.

Igar Gubarevich talks to Belarusian Radio Racja about Belarus’ chances of profiting from the suspension of air traffic between Ukraine and Russia and possible Russian pressure. Belarus has enough capacity to connect Russia and Ukraine, and will not stop benefiting even if Russia were to desire such an outcome.

Siarhei Bohdan discusses in RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service programme the recent developments in Syria’s civil war and Minsk’s policy in the region. Belarus has for a long time taken the approach of its US allies in the Syrian conflict, and reacted very cautiously to Russian-Turkey tensions over a downed jet. Importantly, the Russian South Stream pipeline project involving Turkey now seems unrealistic, and Belarus may become the host for another pipeline to Europe.

Belarus Profile

The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following personalities: Dzmitryj​ Kruty, Aliaksandr​Zabaroŭski, Dzmitry Babicki, Elena Korosteleva, Andrej Jelisiejeŭ, Lieanid Zaika, Andrej Laŭruchin, Anatoĺ Michajlaŭ, Mikita Bialiajeŭ, Vadzim Smok.

We have also updated the profiles of Taras​ Nadoĺny, Aliaksandr ​Lukashenka, Michail Orda, Aliena Kupčyna, Juryj Čyž, Aliaksiej Vahanaŭ, Ina Miadzviedzieva, Piotr Mamanovič, Stanislaŭ Zaś, Andrej Raŭkoŭ, Siarhiej Kaliakin, Iryna Kanhro, Anatoĺ Kapski, Viktar Karankievič, Dzmitry Kaciarynič, Tadevuš Kandrusievič, Uladzimir Kanaplioŭ, Natallia Kačanava, Aliaksandr Kaškievič, Vitaĺ Voŭk.

Belarus Policy

The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update the database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:

Any partner organisation of BelarusPolicy.com can submit its research for inclusion onto the database by completing this form.

Follow all the news from the Ostrogorski Centre on Facebook.

ostrogorski.org




Russia is Trying to Control CSTO Countries, Mobilisation – Belarus Security Digest

Fears that a call for mobilisation was on the horizon sent the public into a panic in Belarus, though the concerns were largely unfounded.

The Belarusian military and industrial complex is planning for the future and hopes on orders from Russia, though it remains unclear whether they will procure them. The CSTO creates a strategic defence management system and will try to confront the West in cyberspace and its information operations.

Russia is trying to Control CSTO Countries

The Collective Security Treaty Organisation also shared its new plans in January. A defence management body of member countries – the Centre for Crisis Response – is being established to support the alliance. It will be paired with Russia's National Centre for Defence Management. It will allow the CSTO to use tried-and-true channels of operational communication and management in crisis response situations. The respective national management mechanisms of the CSTO's members will be connected to a single centre, making use of the same channels of communication.

Cooperation in the field of information security develops within the framework of the CSTO's operations. An operation known as "PROXY", set up to combat crime, has become a full-fledged standing body. It will allow them to enhance cooperation in the field of information security, identify attempted information attacks on its members and criminal acts being committed on electronic information networks.

CSTO established an Advisory Focal Point for Cyber-Incidents has been established. The new mechanism will warn about information security vulnerabilities, prevent attempts to infiltrate information networks and identify actions directed at harming the states' respective information resources.

The CSTO's information security policy is not limited only to protecting information networks and resources from unauthorised interference and modification. Rather, this is just one of many things it is tasked with doing. The primary objective is to create a system to "counter attempts to use information resources for anti-government purposes aimed at destabilising the situation and violently overthrowing the government in CSTO's member countries".

Simply put, CSTO countries hope to control their own information space in order to carry out efficient information activities within it. Given the fact that the capabilities of nearly post-Soviet countries besides Russia in this domain is basically negligible, one can argue that it is first and foremost designed to support Russia.

It will be natural to expect cases of censorship, restrictions set on the dissemination of information, dissemination of 'false information' and anti-Western propaganda.

Provocative Announcement about Mobilisation Leads to Panic

In January, the Armed Forces of Belarus engaged in a session of intensive combat training. They staffed some units to be in line with wartime requirements by calling on reserve units. This move roused the public's excitement: there was a bit of stovepiping about the calling-out up of fifteen thousand reservists because of the escalation of the Russian – Ukrainian war.

False information quickly engulfed domestic information networks and even some serious media outlets picked it up. Meanwhile, the reality on the ground was rather different, with only 341 reservists being called up for training. They participated in firing exercises and tactical exercises in their companies.

The mobilisation of reservists is a common event during military training sessions where it is customary to switch out units from a peacetime to wartime standing and staff them with personnel to their full capacity. It happens regularly. In a typical year, the number of recruits for re-training hovers around two to four thousand people. Judging by the size of the military budget for 2015, one should not expect a specifically planned wave of militarisation in Belarus in the near future. The background to the whole situation – the war between Russia and Ukraine – generated more excitement around this event than warranted.

Meanwhile, nobody has noticed that during the exercises in January, military units and border guards drilled their interactions in strengthening the protection of the state border and preventing the infiltration of sabotage and reconnaissance groups from a neighbouring country.

The Belarusian Military and Industrial Complex Develops

It is especially noticeable against the background of the stagnation of other sectors of the nation's industry. The Board of the State Military and Industrial Committee (SMIC) met on 30 January to appraise the development of the agency in 2014 and set objectives for 2015.

They confirmed their intentions to decide on issues related to the nation's combat geographical-information systems, integrated counterattack systems for precision weapons, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), launching systems, and combat systems for special operations and ground forces. The development of a range of communication equipment has nearly been completed. Before the end of the year, the development of digital shortwave radio stations are also slated to be finalised.

This year, there are plans to develop a legal framework for designing, testing and using UAS as well as for establishing a centre for certification for operating unmanned aircraft equipment (drones).

In 2015, the SMIC and law enforcement agencies will identify key areas where they can improve the efficiency of national security operations, including in the area of defence and develop proposals accordingly, which has been designated as a priority.

Defence goods and service exports continue to grow, up 118.6% compared to 2013. The agency's export policy seeks to identify new markets, develop investment cooperation with foreign partners, attract new technologies, and use bundled offers and state support for pushing exports.

Separately, the SMIC's chairman underscored the intentions of Belarusian defence enterprises to participate directly in Russian state defence orders. Currently, their participation remains indirect. So far, the Russian side is still doling out empty promises of equal rights to the Belarusian military and industrial complex.

Siarhiej Huruliou, the head of SMIC, admitted that there was a slowdown in cooperation between the Belarusian defence industry and their Ukrainian colleagues "for some reason, [but] not related to the Belarusian [party]".

The Belarusian military and industrial complex is getting ready to design a combat UAV. However, to date, the ministry of defence failed to formulate a clear-cut position on this issue.

Andrei Parotnikau

Andrei is the head of “Belarus Security Blog” analytical project.




Green Men, Western Assistance, 5 Years of Belarusian Web – Digest of Belarusian Analytics

EU foreign policy towards Belarus, who pays for journalism, the new martial law and Western assistance to Belarus are among the topics which kept Belarusian analysts busy recently. 

Foreign Policy

Rethinking the EU Policies Towards Belarus – Andrei Liakhovich, the Director of the Centre for Political Education in Minsk, believes that relations with Belarus are not a pressing issue of EU foreign policy. While the EU has leverage over Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime, it does not use it, as it fears pushing Belarus more towards Russia. Such fears are groundless. Lukashenka’s regime will not cross the dangerous line of integration with Russia under any circumstances.

Belarus’s Rising International Standing and Its Implications – Grigory Ioffe believes that renewed high-level negotiations on the war in Ukraine, with an agreement signed in Minsk, on February 12, further raise the stature of Belarus in the eyes of the international community.  In particular, the Belarusian president has sought to maintain close ties with both Russia and Ukraine while steadfastly appealing to Western leaders to abandon their increasingly contradictory policy of sanctions toward Belarus.

Russian Ruble's Hapless Little Brother – The worst-performing currency in the world so far this year is called the ruble, but it's not Russian. It's the legal tender of Belarus, a country increasingly uncomfortable with its too-close alliance with Russia. The small nation's latest bout of economic difficulties shows Russian President's vision of a Eurasian Economic Union – a partial recreation of the Soviet Union as a tight, European Union-like economic alliance with Russia at its center – makes little sense for its members, according to the Bloomberg View.

Media Sphere 

Andrei Aliaksandrau: Every Internet User Can Fund Journalism – State media in Belarus are funded from the state budget, while independent media are supported from abroad. It appears that Belarusian society basically doesn’t pay for the domestic journalism. 'Who is going to pay for high-quality journalism?' was the topic of the open lecture by Andrei Aliaksandrau, Belarusian journalist, that took place in December. The meeting happened within the frames of the 'Main question' cycle.

Five Years of Belarusian Web – Mikhail Darashevich, manager of Gemius in Belarus, analyzes figures of Internet development in Belarus for the last five years. Namely, from December 2009 to December 2014, the Belarus online audience has risen by 65.5% or from 3.023 million to 5.004 people. The retired people group has risen from 1.28% to 5.56%; however, this is extremely little as compared to the whole Belarusian society. The number of daily users has grown from 72.70% to 82.73% of the whole Internet audience.

Environment in the Media Mirror – the Center for European Transformation presents the results of research on covering environmental issues and activities of environmental organisations by Belarusian media. One of the recommendations of the study is the necessity for CSOs to establish their own news services, press secretaries, PR-manager, responsible for communication with the media. The lack of professionalism of CSOs (and the "greens" in particular) when dealing with the media was marked by almost all respondents from among journalists. The study was carried out on the initiative of the Green Alliance.

Human Rights and Security

Monitoring of the Situation with Human Rights in Belarus: October-December 2014– A group of Belarusian CSOs has released a regular monitoring aimed at highlighting short-term tendencies in the spheres of human rights, social, political and economic situation in Belarus. Namely, during 2014, 84 public associations, 12 funds and 40 private institutions were registered. Compared with 2013, the number of newly registered CSOs remains at the 2013 level but it is significantly lower than in 2010-2012, when over a hundred new public associations were registered annually.

Martial Law. In Search of Green Men – Dzianis Melyantsou, BISS, explains a new law ‘On Martial Law’, which became the subject of public discussions. Some media and experts consider the law as a trail of Ukrainian events and the desire of the Belarusian authorities to take into account this experience to prevent Russian aggression. Melyantsou argues that the new law is more adapted to the allied commitments of Belarus in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), rather than anticipate a conflict with Russia.

Other

Ten Facts about Western Assistance to Belarus – Hanna Sous', Radio Svaboda journalist, conducted an investigation on the foreign aid for Belarus. In particular, the Belarusian state is a major recipient of western aid; only 12-20% of the total amount directed to the development of civil society. The European Union is the largest donor; the EU institutions spend on the development of democracy in Belarus 13% of the total aid, while U.S. – 71%.

Ioffe presents new book on Belarus. Grigory Ioffe, professor at Redford University (Virginia, United States) presented his second book about Belarus entitled Reassessing Lukashenka at the National Library on Belarus. The work is based on a number of personal interviews with the Belarusian head of state. The supplement makes up a quarter of the book. Reading transcripts of the interviews one can make his/her own opinion of the Belarusian leader. According to the writer, the book is aimed at challenging the clichés in respect to Belarus and its leader.

Dates of the Fifth International Congress of Belarusian Studies are announced. The largest Belarusian academic event will be held on 2-4 October 2014. The Congress will gather around 400 scholars and experts from Belarus and abroad. Traditionally, the Congress will include discussions, presentations, and the ceremony of Award for the Best Academic Publication in 2013-2014. Proposals for organisation of Congress panels and sections can be submitted till 12 March.

From 2014 into 2015: an Attempt to Avoid the Regional Crisis via Administrative Measures – Belarus in Focus' Information Office presents the Belarus in Focus Annual Review 2014. The review covers the political and economic situation in Belarus in 2014, as well as forecasts for the coming year. Namely, the experts note that Belarus is entering 2015 with a major currency crisis and a significant turnover in government members.

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.