8 Ideas for 8 March: Women’s Day

If you live outside the realm of the former Soviet Union, chances are you never celebrate 8 March, International Women's Day.

However, for Belarusian men this holiday brings an eternal conundrum of how to celebrate the women in their lives – colleagues, mothers, sisters, wives, daughters etc.

In Soviet times it became a very popular holiday for glorifying the deeds of Clara Zetkin, Rosa​ Luxemburg and other conscientious, working women. Since then the emphasis has somewhat shifted, and consequently the femininity and beauty of Belarusian women has come more into focus.

Together with the usual flowers and confectionery, there exist at least eight other things that would make any Belarusian woman happy this 8 March. Below is a sample list of ideas:

1. Close the gender pay gap

According to Belstat statistics, 85.3 per cent of women above the age of 15 in Belarus are economically active, or simply put – work. Therefore, they could all benefit from state policies geared at closing the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap in Belarus remains large: the average woman makes 25 per cent less than the average man.

Women tend to work in service-oriented spheres like education and healthcare, which also happen to have the lowest remuneration rates in Belarus. There are also fewer women among high-ranking managers, decision-makers and business owners, and there is overt discrimination of women in the labour market. As a solution some European companies choose to report their gender pay gap and together with gender equality experts seek ways to close it.

2. Introduce domestic violence legislation

Every third grave crime – and the Ministry of Interior defines only murder or assault and battery as grave crimes – takes place in a family setting in Belarus. This means that Belarusian women face fatal danger from their intimate partners. Older people – both men and women – may also face attacks from their children, who in some instances beat them up to take their meagre pensions away.

And yet Belarusian legislation has no separate law on domestic violence. Considerable progress came in 2014, when amendments to the current Criminal Code defined for the first time the notion of domestic violence, victim, and abuser, and introduced innovative measures including restraining orders. These measures are welcome but insufficient. Domestic abuse continues to go on unpunished.

3. Introduce sexual harassment legislation

Article 170 of the Criminal Code of Belarus stipulates that coercing anyone into having a sexual relationship or other sexually-motivated action against their will using blackmail, overt threats or professional power dynamics is punishable by up to three years in prison. This neither defines sexual harassment nor makes it possible for women to prove anything in the courts. This is why, according to Ministry of Interior data, the year 2015 saw zero cases investigated or prosecuted under this Article.

4. Ensure obligatory paid parental leave for fathers

Traditionally women hear a lot of nice words about their parenting skills on this day. Indeed, women continue to be the primary caregivers in the Belarusian economy for both children and the elderly. According to the Ministry of Labour, men take only 1 per cent of the total time taken off by parents to take care of a newborn. While praise is in order, women’s professional development often stalls following childbirth.

Many employers consequently view women as unreliable workers because they tend to take time off when children fall ill. This translates into lower wages and fewer growth opportunities for female workers. And this in turn feeds into the aforementioned gender pay gap. More equally distributed childcare responsibilities will eventually feed into fewer gender stereotypes for both parents. Furthermore, men will surely better appreciate women’s domestic labour if they themselves spend at least a couple of weeks taking care of children full time.

5. Promote non-traditional gender roles for men and women

Gender roles remain rigid and unforgiving, punishing those people who choose or happen to step outside of them. As a consequence, very few do so in Belarus. Men continue to be mostly breadwinners, while women take care of the house and children.

Even if both parents work outside the household, women tend to do a lot more household chores than men. According to the preliminary results of the UN and Belstat Time Use Survey, in Belarus women every weekday spend more than twice as much time on household chores – 15 per cent of their overall time versus 6 per cent for men, and consequently have only 28 minutes of free time, whereas men have 40 minutes daily.

6. Encourage women to go into STEM education and 'male' professions

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Traditionally men dominate these spheres. Girls tend to choose humanitarian disciplines, which consequently lead them into lower paying jobs. Women also tend to go into ‘service-oriented’ professions: Belstat data suggests that 83 per cent of teachers and 85 per cent of doctors in Belarus are female.

The opposite is true of computer science: boys outnumber girls five to one at maths and IT science schools. And as Belarus has found its place in the international IT markets, programming has become a high-paying occupation. Countries all over the world seek to attract girls and women into STEM professions by setting up mentor programmes, with women leading other women by example and guidance.

7. Encourage women to take on leadership positions

Belarus ranks well on women’s representations in parliament. Today women occupy 30.1 per cent of parliamentary seats. Yet, many would argue that parliament has no real authority and merely rubber-stamps the executive decision of the government.

In the positions of power that really matter women tend to be few. Men hold 22 ministerial positions out of 24 in Belarus. Two female ministers yet again head service-oriented ministries: Mariana Shchotkina is the Minister of Labour and Social Protection, while Liliya Ananich heads the Ministry of Information. There are no women regional governors. Women tend to occupy low and mid level management, but few reach the top management positions either in education or industry.

8. Support women's organisations advocating for real change

Over the past 15 years the number of women’s NGOs has fluctuated between 17 and 38, and has currently stabilised at 30. This accounts for 1.1 per cent of all civil society organisations active in Belarus. Such a low number may testify to two things: low self-awareness among women about their issues, or the lack of financial resources available for women’s causes, or maybe both.

Instead of conclusion

None of these things can in reality be gifted to women, but rather women will continue to work on them for themselves. However, men very much need to be part of this process. This list serves as a suggestion and by no means should be regarded as complete.

And yes, happy 8th of March, International Women's Day to you and yours!




How to Make Quick Money for the State: The Belarusian Solution

Belarus had a rough start to 2016 with the global drop in oil prices, causing instability in its currency and posing problems for its budget planning.

Yet instead of focusing on the IMF recommendations, the government appears to favour short-term solutions that allow it to generate immediate revenue for the state budget.

In 2015 the government introduced a range of new regulations, including the infamous tax on “social parasitism.” Limitations on cross-border duty-free goods allowances and postal parcels from abroad followed in 2016.

New measures, including stricter control over the occasional business activities of the population, came as a surprise and stirred up discontent in society. They directly impact the lives of ordinary Belarusians, forcing them to show more interest in politics.

Fighting tax evasions

According to the Minister of Tax Collection Siarhiej Nalivajka, in 2015 the Belarusian tax system generated more than 70 per cent of state revenues. This is less than in 2014 and 2013, when these figures were 86 per cent and 87 per cent respectively. The minister noted the need to improve monitoring of business operations to encourage more payments.

In the past month the Belarusian tax inspection service has followed this advice and tightened controls over the “illegal business activities” of the Belarusian population. This broad definition includes everything from occasional private sales advertised on online platforms such as craigslist, to entrepreneurs who violate standard procedures.

Several recent publicised cases involve undercover tax inspectors posing as potential customers in the notorious “control deals.” One offender caught in this manner was Aliaksandr Makaeŭ, owner of a business selling plumbing equipment and an activist of the entrepreneurs’ protest movement. For him, the sale of a faucet turned into a fine for incomplete certification documents and a failure to provide a receipt.

These tactics by the authorities target tax evasion and aim to secure fair conduct of business. However, at the same time they affects the lives of ordinary Belarusians who are trying to make some extra money on the side. In December 2015, several Santa Clauses fell victim to charges of unregulated business activities in Homiel’. In Minsk people had to pay fines for selling kittens and puppies and failing to report the income to the authorities.

Eliminating “social parasitism”

On 2 April 2015, President Alexander Lukashenka signed decree No. 3 “On the Prevention of Social Dependency,” otherwise known as the “tax on parasitism.” It is one of the innovations of the Belarusian tax system, reminiscent of the infamous Soviet practices of the 1960s.

In the Belarusian case, “social parasites” are persons who do not participate in financing state expenditure, yet enjoy the benefits of the social state, including free education and medical services. Anyone who does not work for more than 183 calendar days in the year and who fails to register as officially unemployed has to pay the state a sum of about $190.

The implementation of the decree remains unclear, as there are numerous categories of tax exemptions. The Belarusian Tax Ministry announced that it would prepare a comprehensive list of “social parasites” by 1 August 2016, since currently only 820 persons have voluntarily reported to the authorities.

The end of shopping tours era?

On 11 February 2016, Lukashenka signed decree No. 40 on regulating imported goods. In particular, new rules for monthly parcels from abroad limit their total duty-free value to €22 and their weight to 10kg. By contrast, the previous duty-free monthly limit, in effect since 2014, allowed for 31kg of a total value of €300.

This measure will undoubtedly affect online shopping in China, which recently became quite popular among Belarusians. According to the State Customs Committee, more than 250,000 Belarusians made online purchases in 2015, with the average number of parcels from abroad ranging from 10 to 100 per person.

Moreover, to prevent the import of goods for commercial use, the new decree introduced tighter limits on frequent travelers abroad. Currently, the duty-free allowance is set at 50kg and at a total value of €1,500 per person. However, those who cross the border more often than once every three months will be able to transport goods of a total value not exceeding €300 and weighing no more than 20kg.

In reality, these new regulations will most likely have an impact on those Belarusians who prefer shopping abroad, attracted by lower prices and better quality. VAT tax returns on such purchases make this option even more attractive. Shopping tours to Białystok malls in neighbouring Poland have already become a distinctive feature of the Belarusian travel market.

A chance for the Belarusian opposition

Discontent caused by the tighter regulations offers a chance for the Belarusian opposition to work on its current marginalised image. Re-establishing the link with society over the unpopular measures might also energise the reshaping process within the opposition.

Former presidential candidate and political prisoner Mikola Statkevič already made use of this opportunity, accusing the president of “robbing the ordinary people” and depriving them of consumer choices.

The recent entrepreneurs’ protest in Minsk on 15 February gathered between 500 and 1000 people. Among them were opposition activists Mikola​ Statkevič, Anatol’ Liabedz’ka, Uladzimir Niakliaeŭ, and Paval Seviarynec. The protesters demanded that the authorities revoke decree No. 222, which prohibits trade with goods without certification and affects the small traders.

It appears that Lukashenka has recognised the dangers of popular dissatisfaction. On 16 February he criticised the government, warning against “destabilising the situation in the country.” At the same time, the regime has started monitoring contact between the opposition and entrepreneurs. On 19 February, the authorities detained opposition activist Viačaslaŭ Siŭčyk together with Aliaksandr Makaeŭ in Svetlahorsk, where they organised a meeting with local entrepreneurs to discuss decree No. 222.

So far the benefits of the new regulations and tax innovations remain debatable. At first sight, they alleviate some of the budget constraints. Yet they also emphasize short-term solutions at the expense of the population, harming the image of the social state. Finally, they make the Belarusian regime more economically vulnerable.




Can Belarus Authorities Prevent the Decline of Textile Manufacturers?

On 4 December, Aliaksandr Lukashenka cancelled his visit to JSC Kamvol, a major textile manufacturer located in Minsk.

The president threatened to pay an unexpected visit to this state-owned enterprise in the future and denounced its attempts to cover up problems ahead of his scheduled visit.

Kamvol received more than € 100 mln in state subsidies in the last seven years, but has not finished a single year with profit. Kramvol's workforce shrank by half during that period.

The decline of the enterprise mirrors the fate of many such companies in Belarus. Successful during the Soviet period, Belarus's textile manufacturers are struggling and lose customers to foreign companies today. And yet these companies continue to be subsidised by the authorities despite their increasing unprofitability.

The Decline of a Soviet Giant

Founded in 1955, Kamvol flourished while Belarus remained in the Soviet Union. During that time, the enterprise produced up to 22 million metres of fabric per year. Today Kramvol produces 10 times less fabric and faces a real possibility of closing.​

Between 2009 and 2014, the number of Kamvol's employees decreased by half, reaching 797 people. Considering the general depression in the economy, the company's workforce may have shrunk even more in 2015.

According to the Ministry of Finance, Kamvol finished 2014 with a net loss of €1 million. The only year, in which the losses were negligible, was 2011. That year Belarus instituted triple devaluation, decreasing the price of Belarusian goods on the world market.

Kamvol’s problems became most acute in the winter of 2012, when Alexander Lukashenka visited the factory.

During his visit, room temperature at the enterprise hovered around 0 degrees Celsius. Heating the company's space with 13-metre high ceilings was too expensive. The authorities also discovered that Kamvol's machines were worn off by 95%.

Enraged at the poor state of affairs, Lukashenka fired the plant's management and the leadership of the concern of the Belarusian light industry.

Modernising Kramvol

Even on the verge of bankruptcy, the company remains one of the largest manufacturers of fabric in the former Soviet Union. Kamvol also occupies a significant position in Belarus's light industry. At the same time, the company desperately needs to modernise in order to survive.

The Belarusian authorities have planned to modernise Kamvol for several years now. Lukashenka has repeatedly raised the issue with the company's management. On 4 December, after he had refused to visit the enterprise and claimed that its management had tried to whitewash Kamvol's problems, Lukashenka held another meeting on the status of the enterprise. He then announced an additional € 5 million in funding for the company.

In the last eight years Kamvol received more than € 100 million from the state. Yet the company remains unprofitable despite generous support.

state-run textile manufacturers remain in business, propped by governmental subsidies

Kamvol struggles financially for the same reasons that many other textile manufacturers in the post-Soviet space are going out of business. These companies cannot compete with Asian or Turkish producers. For example, Ivanov textile plant in Russia went bankrupt in 2001.

Yet unlike similar companies in other post-Soviet states, two dozen of Belarusian state-run textile manufacturers remain in business, propped by governmental subsidies. Like Kamvol, these companies performed strongest when the Belarusian rouble was devaluated in 2011. What makes the current crisis different from that of 2011, however, is that the Russian economy is also shrinking. Moscow now lacks money for buying Belarusian textile products.

The whole textile manufacturing, which accounts for 3% of the Belarusian industrial production, is on the decline. If textile manufactures go bankrupt, thousands of people will lose their jobs. Liudzmila Chanchavik, a seamstress from Brest, told Belarus Digest that most textile manufactures lack customers. She said she worked only two days per week this year.

Lukashenka is Helpless

Saving Kamvol resembles the plot of film Groundhog Day. Dissatisfied with the enterprise, the government dismisses its management and increases subsidies to improve production. Kramvol invariably incurs losses, provoking a new round of dissatisfaction, followed by the reshuffling of management and financial inflows.

Lukashenka's promised surprise visit to Kamvol in 2016 will change nothing. The poor state of the company's affairs is common knowledge, and the solutions to Kramvol's problems remain out of reach.

A few years ago, the authorities proposed to develop a sheep breeding complex, in order to provide Kamvol with domestically produced raw material in the place of the wool imported from Russia. This plan has failed because creating a sheep breeding enterprise from scratch is costly and because Belarus lacks the meadows needed for grazing sheep.

The authorities have considered several other alternatives, such as attracting foreign direct investment or merging Kamvol with a successful weaving enterprise. In 2011 Turkish company De Textile declared readiness to invest in the company. But, like many foreign investors in Belarus, De Textile failed to come to an agreement with the Belarusian government.

A merger remains on the agenda, as it would allow to hide the Kamvol’s losses on paper. The government prepared a draft decree in 2014, but Lukashenka still is yet to sign it.

In reality, the Belarusian authorities can do little to reverse the decline of the moribund textile industry. Despite Lukashenka's personal engagement in the rescue operation and the large sums earmarked for the company, Kamvol will continue to falter.




Why Belarus Struggles to Stop Subsidising Its Enterprises

This month, the Belarusian Ministry of Finance will issue bonds for $425.8 million to bail out Gomselmash (abbreviation for Homiel Rural Machine Building), the most important industrial holding company of the second largest city in the country. The large cost of issue reflects the size of Gomselmash’s problems.

The holding fails to sell its products, is reluctant to lay off people and cannot pay salaries to its employees. Many other Belarusian enterprises face similar problems. The state recently limited assistance to state-owned enterprises, which still dominate the Belarusian economy but has no choice but to provide even more help.

The Main Problem of Homiel

In May, Prime Minister of Belarus Andrej Kabiakou stated that the authorities should assist Gomelselmash because it remains a Belarusian national brand. In fact, the factory has a long history: it emerged in the late 1920s, during the Second World War it was evacuated, but was still producing mines. After the war it became one of the five largest manufacturers of agricultural machinery in the world.

Today Gomselmash is one of the main companies of the Homiel region. It has around twenty thousand employees and offices not only in the post-Soviet region, but also in China and Argentina.

Now the plant is going through its worst times. Sales fell several times, and the plant shortened its employees working week to four or three days in winter, spring and summer. The reduction in sales was primarily a result of the economic crisis in Russia and high prices. Salaries in the company fell by 3-4 times. Moreover, the number of staff members decreased by 10% in one year only

Holding Companies The number of employees in 2014

The number of employees in 2015

OJSC "Gomselmash" 9492 8203
OJSC "Gomel Plant of Foundry and Fasteners" 4755 3810
OJSC "Research and Development Centre of Combine Harvester Engineering" 683 600
OJSC "Svetlogorsk Machine-Building Plant" 251 251
OJSC "Gomel Factory of Special Instruments and Technological Equipment" no data available no data available
OJSC "SP-Build" no data available no data available

Data: Ministry of Finance

The enterprise appeared at second place among the most unprofitable enterprises in Belarus in the first quarter of 2015. The newest data remains unavailable, but introduction of the bailout program means that the second-quarter results can bring no difference.

Gomselmash is no longer able to service its loans or cover the costs of electricity and gas necessary for production. Gomselmash cannot even issue its own bonds, so the Ministry of Finance would have to do it instead. Minsk Tractor Plant, who will also get help this month.

Unstoppable Belarus

Belarusian authorities believe that Gomselmash remains too big to let it fall. Belarus, however, no longer has the money for direct state subsidies, as the amount of exchange reserves does not allow to keep printing money. Therefore, the authorities came up with the idea of issuing bonds for $425.8 mln that will be acquired by four banks.

Without this state aid Gomselmash would be unable to pay its debts and that would lead to serious problems in the banking sector

According to Aliaksandr Chubrik, Director at IPM Research Center, "this measure does not contradict to stabilization efforts of the authorities and is in line with their general approach: not to allow further aggravation of problems in financial sector". Without this state aid, he told Belarus Digest, Gomselmash would be unable to pay its debts and that would lead to serious problems in the banking sector. Therefore, Belarus subsidises state companies to keep them afloat, even though these same enterprises led the economy to the current state in the first place.

The International Monetary Fund, that is currently negotiating a new program with the Belarusian authorities, could as well, according to Chubrik, understand the reasons behind the help to Gomselmash. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities never promised to stop enterprise bailouts and start economic reforms. And possible donors, like the IMF, know that things cannot change for the moment.

Keeping the Status Quo

Given the state of Gomselmash, it makes sense that the Belarusian authorities decided to help the holding. However, these tactics will probably not save it, but rather increase its debt and worsen the economic situation of the whole country.

Today, Gomselmash's problems are associated with low levels of innovation, but the money it will receive will not go to research and development. The law signed by Lukashenka does not provide extra subsidies for Research and Development of the Centre of Combine Harvester Engineering, Gomselmash's R&D subsidiary. The poor quality of machinery does not appear to bother the authorities at all.

Most major enterprises in Belarus belong to the state and, according to the Ministry of Finance, a quarter are not profitable

According to Chubrik, the money will go to pay off previous debts and to ensure the basic functioning of Gomselmash. However, it remains unknown whether the holding will be able to upgrade its production or repay its debts. It also seems that this is not the last check picked up by the government for the company.

The bailout of Gomselmash would not be a topic for discussion if it did not open the gate for other enterprises to seek government money. Most major enterprises in Belarus belong to the state and, according to the Ministry of Finance, a quarter are not profitable. They certainly would like to have some financial help from the state.

According to a report released this month by the Ministry of Statistics production in machine building fell by 20%, while in rural machine building, as in case of Gomselmash, it fell even further.

The situation clearly shows the dilemma that Belarus faces: if it wants to keep the economy afloat, it has to continue to subsidise its enterprises. Other options, like privatising or discussing how to restructure dysfunctional enterprises with the IMF's help, remain on the table, but the authorities remain reluctant to choose them.




Belarus At War With Its “Social Parasites”

On 2 April, Alexander Lukashenka signed a decree against “social parasites”. From now on, individuals who do not pay taxes will lose be forced to submit around $240 annually into the the state’s coffers.

This law is designed to help stimulate employment and fill any number of budget gaps, but it should be viewed in terms of how it reflects the natin's rising unemployment rate and inability to collect taxes.

Despite its good intentions, it is almost certain to harm many individuals who are in real need of assistance. According to the IPM Research Centre, in the near future the unemployment rate in Belarus will rise to a historic high of 8-9%. Moreover, many Belarusians are presently working either part-time or have been laid off as the economy struggles to recover.

The rising level of unemployment has only extended the gap between the authorities and society. Lukashenka’s approval rating has dropped by more than 10% over the last six months. The latest round of ill-conceived legislation clearly demonstrates that the authorities are helpless when it comes to adverting further economic decline.

The Belarusian Fairy Tale of Full Employment

The pre-election campaign programme of Alexandr Lukashenka in 2010 claimed that by 2015 “everyone will be guaranteed a job”. According to official statistics, the Belarusian authorities have gotten pretty close to reaching their prescribed goal over the past couple of years. As of 1 March, for example, only 0.8% of Belarusians are officially registered as being unemployed.

This figure does not reflect reality. The majority of Belarusians do not apply for social welfare assistance and do not officially register as unemployed for a number of reasons.

unemployment benefits in Belarus amount to roughly $8 a month 

First of all, unemployment benefits continue to be miniscule and amount to roughly $8 a month. Second of all, to obtain this financial support, the average Belarusian must perform poorly paid public monthly work like street cleaning. Both of these issues make it pretty clear why only a small percentage of Belarusians have registered themselves as being unemployed with the officials.

Despite unreliability of the state's data, the unemployment rate in Belarus is much lower than in neighbouring countries. A low unemployment rate has allowed the Belarusian economic model to remain attractive for many Belarusians, many of whom have been reluctant struggle through economic liberalisation, a path that has dominated the policy agendas of all of its neighbours to some degree.

Unemployment in Belarus and its neighbours in 2013 (%)

Country Russia Belarus Ukraine Poland Latvia Lithuania
Unemployment rate 5.6 5.8 7.9 10.4 11.1 11.8

Data: World Bank

A high employment rate largely explains why Alexandr Lukashenka has quickly become a popular president, not only among Belarusians, but also in neighbouring countries. As of late, however, a rapid transformation is under way – a chance that challenges this dominant paradigm.

Belarus Prepares for High Levels of Unemployment

Unemployment in Belarus is very likely to reach historic levels in the near future. A recently published study by the IPM Research Centre, for example, shows that an unemployment rate of 8-9% may be just around the corner.

Even official statistics have shown a growing level of unemployment – from February to March it officially increased 0.1%. The number of labourers has steadily declined in Belarus even in traditionally strong sectors like construction and trade.

Unemployment is only the tip of the iceberg. Many businesses have closed their doors and are sending their employees home. Near the end of March the Minsk Automobile Plant shut down its main conveyor belt. Some enterprises, like the Minsk Tractor Plant for instance, literally have no place to store their finished products. Many enterprises are currently working only two or three days a week as a result of the ongoing economic slump.

Since the disparity between Belarusian and Russian salaries has decreased, Belarusians have fewer incentives to go to work in the east

Businesses have huge debts that they owe banks and, by all appearances, are unable to satisfy them in the current economic climate. Many of them are unable to pay their employees' salaries at present, like the Homel Agricultural Plant. Data from the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies shows that more than two thirds of Belarusians believe that the Belarusian economy is in a state of crisis.

The economic decline of Russia has made Belarus' problems even more acute. Since the disparity between Belarusian and Russian salaries has decreased, Belarusians have fewer incentives to go to work in the east. Many Belarusians will stay at home and look for a job, even though the number of positions has declined. One collective farm director told Belarus Digest that refugees from Ukraine have created additional pressure on the market and lowered local salaries due to competition.

A Decree on “Social Parasites”: A Goofy Means of Meeting Budget Demands

The Belarusian authorities are trying to encourage Belarusians to take up any job they can find. A recent law, more popularly known locally as a decree on "social parasites", forces Belarusians to pay a tax for being unemployed. This law is unique to Belarus and many individuals question how it will be enforced given the current climate.

Belarus has problems with collecting taxes and largely appears to be unable to punish tax evaders in the usual way, so it has been forced to create push out nontraditional measures. According to Alexander Chubryk, Director of the IPM Research Center, the presidential decree on the issue largely avoids the main issues and will help tax evaders profit and develop into the next generation of "social parasites" all while avoiding paying usual taxes, which are much higher.

The law will, however, punish people who really need help during the economic crisis. People, who really cannot find a job and make ends meet will receive adequate financial support from the state.

Unemployment is Already Changing Belarus

Alexandr Lukashenka is paying for the economy's ongoing decline. According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, in September 2014 his electoral rating was sitting at 45.2%, and in March 2015 only 34.2% of Belarusians were behind him. If not for the war in Ukraine, Lukashenka’s rating would likely be even lower than this.

As the Belarusian economy will continue to be in crisis for at least another two years, Lukashenka’s ratings may yet reach new historic lows. Although mass demonstrations are unlikely at the moment, the situation will open a larger window of opportunity for other forces inside and outside of Belarus.




Belarusians Pop Car Tires to Express Ukraine Sentiments

On 23 July, the main Belarusian portal TUT.by blew the Internet up with an article about Belarusians who were going around popping car tires with Russian number plates in Minsk.

The site’s administration removed nearly two thousand comments for inciting ethnic hatred.

The attitude of some Belarusians towards Russia is getting more radical due to the conflict in Ukraine, and these tires appear to be just one example of their growing displeasure.

In a turn of events unheard of in Belarus previously, people are also target cars with Ukrainian symbols and taxes  history as mentioned from My Car Tax Check historical Belarusian white-red-white flag symbols.

Radicalisation is not only a result of the Ukrainian conflict or boom of Russian organisations now active in Belarus, but also from the authoritarian political climate in the country.

The authorities have banned basically any political protests from taking place, so many feel they have no way to express their dissent other than by piercing the wheels of cars.

Fighting in The Streets

On 23 July, TUT.by tells published an article describing how at least three cars were in Minsk, all of which were carrying either Russian numbers or symbols.

The vandals have made use of different means of inflicting damage: popping tires or breaking out windows, scratching the side of the car or pouring buckets of mud on them.

Last year, the Belarusian media wrote about several cases where drivers of public buses hung Russian flags on the window and activists sought their withdrawal. On 30 October 2013, police even detained an activist in Minsk for a few hours as the driver accused him of debauchery.

Not only cars with Russian symbols become victims

Later, however, the police released the activist, and Minsk’s public transport service apologised “for the inconvenience”​ and the driver remove the flag.

However, not only cars with Russian symbols have become victims in the latest wave of hooliganism. Recently, a driver who had a Belarusian white-red-white and Ukrainian flag in their, said that someone since May 2014 has been puncturing his tires repeatedly in Minsk.

Until Lukashenka came to power the white-red-white flag served as the official symbol of Belarus. Now the Belarusian diaspora and nearly all opposition parties in Belarus consider it as the only true flag of Belarus.

Country of Intolerant People

Most of these events are, to a large extent, the result of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. While a few Belarusians are fighting on both sides in the Donbass, some continue to battle with one another Belarus, albeit typically in a much less violent form.

This ongoing, growing conflict helps to debunk one of the most popular myths about Belarusians – their tolerance.

Belarus occupies 92nd place in the Global Peace Index. This ranking makes use of three main criteria: the level of safety and security in society, the extent of its domestic or international conflicts, and the degree of a nation’s militarisation. Belarus is better positioned than Russia (152nd place) and Ukraine (141st position), but worse than its EU neighbours Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Moreover, recent these offences have ties to another important myth – that of the Belarusian partisans. After the Second World War communists portrayed Belarus as a “guerrilla country”, one that knows how to fight under occupation.

These recent events suggest a growing trend of anti-Russia sentiments. A driver of one of the damaged cars quoted on TUT.by said that, “he had never seen people in Belarus have such a strong dislike for the Russians [before]”.

The current radicalisation of Belarusian society has its roots in the absence of democratic institutions and open forums within the country. According to Freedom House’s criteria, Belarus has the same freedom rating as China. Belarus needs public debates to help society let off some of its steam.

Pro-Russian organisations supply free Russian flags for distribution in Belarus

However, the authoritarian regime provides few chances for genuine public discussions to take place, as Lukashenka likes to call virtually all pro-democracy organisations a “fifth column”.

Therefore, many have only one way of expressing themselves – popping the tires of those who have different political views as expressed by the national insignia of this or that country.

Thus, while most Belarusians hold pro-Russian sentiments, some Belarusians have become sensitive to the Kremlin’s barrage of anti-Ukrainian propaganda which has served as a catalyst to revitalise dormant pro-Russian organisations in Belarus.

As part of their work, pro-Russian organisations supply free Russian flags for distribution in Belarus at every turn possible. Although Russian organisations previously did not spread Russian national symbols in the past, in recent months the Belarusian media has reported on a serious spike in their distribution in at least five cities, including Minsk, the capital of Belarus.​

Although Belarusians call the police to try to get them to stop people from handing out Russian flags on the street, there is obviously not much that they can to do. On one such occasion, on 15 July, the police acted and detained people distributing Russian flags in Orsha, a town in east Belarus.

They turned out to be deaf people who were either selling or giving away the flags in exchange for a miniscule wage, as they have an extremely difficult time finding other jobs in Belarus.

Since distributing the symbols of another country remains legal according Belarusian law, the police were obliged to release them, since they had nothing to hold them on.

Belarusian Hooligans and Russian Organisations

Who is responsible for the damage done to the cars remains unknown. In the case of the cars with Russian symbols, suspicion may fall on football fans. Despite a spike in pro-Russian sentiments, Belarusian football fans have much better ties with their counterparts in Ukraine than in Russia.

This is why most football fans support Ukraine today. Their support has only grown in the months since protests broke out in Kyiv last winter. In one instance the police arrested several BATE fans for merely having taken a photo in solidarity with Maidan.

With regards to the cars vandalised that were carrying Ukrainian symbols, activists of pro-Russian organisations would appear to be the most logical and likely perpetrators.

Lately, organisations such as Rumol (Russian youth) have intensified their activities in Belarus through their usual events such as holding sports competitions or tourist rallies.

since late 1990s, Belarusians have been deprived of any real form of participation in the nation's political life

Their last event took place in Minsk region on July 2014. The Belarusian authorities pay close attention to these associations, but do not interfere with their activities. Their hands-off approach is likely due to the fact that Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian federal government agency, is financing these organisations.

Still, it can be ruled out that ordinary Belarusians may also be responsible for these acts of vandalism. An increasingly propagandistic Russian television, which is very popular in Belarus, has created an atmosphere of hatred presenting Ukrainians as fascists or a people who support a junta.

At the same time, since late 1990s, Belarusians have been deprived of any real form of participation in the nation’s political life.

As a result, some people may view vandalising someone else’s property as an opportunity to express their stifled political views.

No matter who committed these offences, they show that the Russian war against Ukraine will shape not only high level politics in the region, but also affect the relationship between thugs, football fans, youth organisations and ordinary people.




EHU: How Belarusian is the Belarusian University in Exile?

The European Humanities University, also known as Belarus's university in exile, is struggling to find its identity. It is torn apart between being the Belarusian university in exile and a "normal" European university based in Lithuania. Some say, it has lost its Belarusian character and gave up on its original mission. Others say that moving away from the Belarusian language and Belarus-focused curriculum is a sign of a truly international university, which the EHU should be. 

If the EHU is to remain loyal to its original mission as a Belarusian university, it should seriously think about offering what is not available in Belarus or at Western universities. In addition to greater academic freedom (which some say exists in Belarus too), it should keep Belarus-focused courses and language at the forefront of its activities.

A Lost Belarusian Component?

The European Humanities University had a promising start. Professor Anatoli Mikhailov established the university in Minsk 1992. The university had very good connections with Western academics and foundations and enjoyed a reputation as a more liberal university compared to state-run institutions. In 2004, Belarusian authorities put pressure on the EHU management and demanded that its rector Professor Mikhailov steps down. He refused and the Belarusian authorities closed down the university.

The university began a new chapter in Vilnius, 180 km from Minsk.  One EHU political science graduate has identified two periods in the history of the EHU in Vilnius: Belarusian and Lithuanian. The Belarusian period of the EHU lasted until the group of Belarusian political scientists, which included Andrei Kazakievich and Dzianis Melyantsou left the university accusing its management of authoritarianism. The Lithuanian period began when the EHU started to replace dismissed Belarusians with Lithuanian academics, who often had little knowledge of Belarus and "did not know the tradition of the programme".  

The same EHU graduate told Belarus Digest that the political science department was very important and symbolic to them – Belarusian students could freely discuss the political mechanisms of Belarus with their lecturers. To him, other student activities, which the EHU is so proud of, were an added value to the whole political science and history programme. But without quality Belarusian academics in "sensitive" areas, the task of the EHU to retain its identity has become more difficult to accomplish. 

without quality Belarusian academics in "sensitive" areas the task of the EHU to retain its identity becomes more difficult to accomplish

The Belarusian or International University in Exile?  

Today the EHU seems to be looking for its own place. Darius Udrys, the ​Vice-Rector for Development and Communications, explained to Belarus Digest that "the EHU exists for the sake of Belarusian students". He adds that they would like to maintain the main focus on Belarusian identity, but not to isolate EHU. The question is whether making the university truly international conflicts with its mission, which according to Udrys is, "to provide Belarusian students with that which they cannot obtain in Belarus''.  

Vadzim Smok, another EHU graduate in political science and a Belarus Digest author says that in his experience the university stimulated the critical thinking of the students and remained open and supportive to students’ initiatives. In the words of another EHU graduate, "the EHU remains an alternative for many young Belarusians". The Soviet educational system persists in Belarus and does little to encourage the critical and creative thinking of students.

Many young Belarusians choose to study in Vilnius because of its proximity to Minsk. The newly introduced frequent express trains between Minsk-Vilnius and affordable ticket prices, makes commuting to Vilnius even more attractive. The students also like the idea of getting EU-recognised diplomas at a cost lower than at the Western universities. 

Darius Udrys underlines that ‘'we are always trying to balance national identity against what is necessary for us to be an international university'’. However, the university appears to be switching its focus from Belarus-oriented programmes to a more universal curriculum.  Although around 95 per cent of the student body are Belarusian nationals, it appears that they cannot learn much about Belarus at EHU. Only one specialisation appears to have the word "Belarus" in its title – "Belarusian Studies" within the Cultural Heritage programme. In the past, Belarusian Studies was a separate programme. 

This may not fit well with the university's original mission of offering what is not accessible in Belarus. This year the EHU closed its Social Science and Political Philosophy programme altogether. The new program will be called World Politics and Economy Studies and will be conducted jointly with Vytautas Magnus University, a Lithuanian university. Young Belarusians can study visual design, international law and many other EHU courses free of propaganda also at Belarusian universities, closer to home and at a lower cost.

The university's attitude towards the Belarusian language has recently received press coverage in Belarus. Today only a handful of courses are taught in the Belarusian language and a number of Belarusian-speaking lecturers left the university over the last couple of years. Former EHU faculty member Aleś Smalianchuk in his interview for Radio Liberty, argued that the EHU demonstrated contempt for the Belarusian language and history with its current policies.

Others, like both the EHU graduates whom Belarus Digest interviewed, argued that the Belarusian language did not suffer discrimination at the university. Another question is whether the university is taking seriously the task of supporting the language which faces serious discrimination back home. 

The EHU Future: More Belarusian and More Democratic? 

Transparency and democratic governance within the EHU itself is another area where the EHU could improve. According to Vadzim Smok, there is plenty of room for improvement here. When asked what he would like to change at the EHU, he says "the management system – to make the EHU more democratic, in a way, to have more social consensus there between the administration and the academics".

Others are concerned that its founder and rector, Professor Anatoli Mikhailov, has been ruling the university for over twenty years. This seems like a long time. Perhaps the EHU management could follow examples of other European universities which require rotation of management to improve efficiency.

Instead of shifting focus from Belarus towards becoming an ordinary Lithuanian university, it should try to find a balance between being Belarusian and internationally competitive

With all its problems and struggles, it is important to preserve and support EHU. It has infrastructure and a potential to offer a unique environment to Belarusian students. Perhaps the biggest challenge the EHU faces today is how to remain faithful to its original mission. Instead of shifting focus from Belarus towards becoming an ordinary Lithuanian university, it should try to find a balance between being Belarusian and internationally competitive.

Preservation and introduction of courses related to Belarus or at least taught in Belarusian language should be a priority for the university.

Making the university more democratic and Belarusian may also make it more attractive to Belarusian students and those who want to support the university.




EU Should Keep Belarus in Its Orbit

Last week Belarus Digest published an article about the problems of technical assistance to Belarus. The current piece recommends possible solutions to those problems.

In the first place the EU should send a clear message to the Belarusian authorities that Belarus will be able to receive more assistance if the regime decentralises and simplifies its system. This will encourage other actors to participate more actively in European programmes.

The European Union should elaborate a “road map” for the future and outline priorities of cooperation together with the Belarusian authorities. EU representatives in Belarus should also try to work with Belarusian authorities at the local level as much as possible.

The EU should also increase its cooperation with the Belarusian independent community of experts. As the level of  Belarus' public administration remains quite low, the EU input can provide the most important ideas for the modernisation of the country.

Lukashenka’s regime erects barriers to EU technical assistance. The authorities have created complex and lengthy procedures to obtain assistance, which worsens the conditions for the implementation of projects. Nevertheless, the projects in Belarus serve their function. Technical aid assistance opens up Belarus to the international community and improves the quality of state governance and the lives of people.

EU Message to the Belarusian Authorities

Working with Belarus is difficult. Belarusian expert on European integration Aliaksandr Papko says that the “absence of freedom of local authorities to make their own decisions is still a great problem. As a result, the local officials sometimes have to either wait for years till the top officials approve a project or refuse to take on any responsibility.” Thus, it is primarily the Belarusian side which can improve the efficiency using the aid available to them.

Bearing in mind these differences, the EU message to the Belarusian authorities should be simple: even in today's political environment, Belarus could receive more. But the procedure for obtaining technical assistance to implement projects should be de-bureaucratised, so that project realisation is not delayed for a few years. Currently it takes two or three years from the identification of a project to the actual signing of a contract.

The EU should increasingly engage local authorities and average Belarusians in European projects aimed at supporting Belarus' infrastructure. If the Belarusian authorities wish to work more closely with the EU, they would have make internal changes and decentralise the process of obtaining technical support. The European Union has provided over € 510m to Belarus for the years of the country's independence. This seems enough to demand certain concessions in the organisational sphere from the regime.

It is important to understand that the authorities can easily simplify procedures for receiving technical assistance. They may be lazy and sly, but the bureaucracy can work if someone can clearly explain a direct relationship between the much-needed money and a simplification of procedures.

Belarusians themselves need to stop thinking too much about the regime and try cooperating with the EU directly. According to the Delegation of the European Union to Belarus, even under the current political conditions, it is possible to do more. For example, Belarusian organisations could participate much more actively in thematic global calls for proposals and even more actively in regional and cross-border programmes.

However, not many Belarusian organisations meet the EU’s requirements. Belarusians think that European programmes remain too bureaucratised. The European Union for its part should simplify the procedures surrounding the projects and applying to them. They should also promote initiatives that provide assistance to Belarusian civil society organisations on simple tasks, including how to develop project proposals for the European Commission.

What Should the European Union Do?

First, the EU and the Belarusian authorities should elaborate the “road map” of the technical aid for Belarus. In the document, the parties should outline common priorities, obligations and subsequent steps for rendering technical aid to Belarus in specific spheres. The EU will elaborate its own documents in the form of the country strategy paper, but the very creation of such documents should include the opinions of a larger number of stakeholders.

Secondly, the European Union should be prepared to deal with the fact that the Belarusian authorities may not engage in dialogue. Therefore, such a document should be elaborated in the framework of a Dialogue for Modernisation. In this case, the status of this “road map” will be downgraded in a sense, but the EU and civil society will be able to coordinate their actions. Moreover, independent experts often understand Belarus’ needs much better than officials and can be more honest.

Thirdly, the EU should cooperate with local authorities and NGOs as much as possible and facilitate their independence from the Belarusian regime. Local officials and NGOs may in turn prove to be the most open and willing to accept best practices in good governance.

Technical assistance should become an instrument to improve the qualifications of Belarus' system of public administration. The more direct contacts  between European officials and representatives of the Belarusian nomenclature have, the more likely the goals of the technical assistance provided and the common European strategy on Belarus will be achieved. Belarusian officials at low and middle level positions do not bear much of the burden of the regime’s viciousness and can become the main actors for future reforms.

It remains important that the EU’s representatives should speak with the Belarusian officials, making them their partners, at the same time being an example of successful governing practises, democracy and transparency of the state governing. For this, they should organise more seminars for Belarusian officials, roundtable discussions and internships. The EU should keep Belarusian officials in its orbit.

Investing in the Future Now

Belarus needs a long-term strategy by the EU. Still, it is difficult to demand long term change from European officials as they cooperate with Belarusian authorities whose actions have remained unpredictable. Thus, European policy makers should focus not just on the regime, but also on those who want to change it inside the country, and those inside the regime itself.

It is also time for the EU to start promoting youth organisations which have clearly articulated social and economic agendas. From these organisations a new political class of Belarus will subsequently grow.

There should be no illusions – most likely the quality of the cooperation will remain at the same level as now while Lukashenka remains in power. But increasing the efficiency of EU assistance may push Belarus towards European standards and broaden the pro-European mood and Europe's influence within the society and within the Belarusian bureaucracy.




Why EU Assistance Remains a Low Priority for Belarus Authorities

Despite European protests against human rights violations, the European Union continues to render technical assistance to Belarus. In 2012-2013, Belarus can get more than € 55m in the framework of the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument and the Eastern Partnership.

For Belarus, the EU is the largest potential development cooperation donor. Overall, since 1991 the EU has provided to Belarus with over €510m worth of aid. Belarus is far from being the North Korea of Europe: the European Union has a real means of exerting influence, primarily through its technical assistance.

Still, the Belarusian top officials consciously limit the technical assistance as they consider it dangerous for the integrity of the existing political regime. Moreover, Russia is happy to provide much more aid to the regime for its geopolitical loyalty. 

The major part of the EU aid goes to  projects of modernisation of the Belarusian border infrastructure, energy sector, economic changes or development of cities. The projects face multiple hurdles: administrative delays, lack of knowledge about getting financial support and reporting. The European Union tends to work through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to make projects look more acceptable to the Belarusian authorities. 

EU Priorities in Belarus

The European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument remains the single largest channel for technical aid assistance to Belarus. The National Indicative Programme for 2012-2013 sets two key priorities for the EU’s financial aid. First, good governance and people-to-people contacts. Second, economic modernisation. Belarus is eligible for € 40.5m over two years for these priorities. Moreover, Belarus has access to an additional €15m in the framework of the Eastern Partnership.

Source: Delegation of the European Union to BelarusBelarus takes part in a number of regional programmes, thus the provided figures may change insignificantly as Belarus'  exact share is not always indicated in the regional programmes. 

Although it is difficult to describe all the projects in this brief space, their number and variety leaves a strong impression. However, other countries from the region receive much more. For example, Ukraine will get €470m in over a period lasting from 2011 to 2013, and Georgia – €180m. Belarus with its € 40.5m looks quite modest in comparison.

Belarusian authorities understand that the EU is sensitive about its border control. They have accumulated more than € 50m for border management, and are implementing the project for € 19m, with plans to sign agreements for the next € 4.5m tranche in the nearest future. 

Significant EU resources also go to the energy sector. Europeans will act as advisors to the Belarusian Ministry of Energy for three years for € 5m. Another project for € 5m will be provided to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection. The State Committee for Standardisation has an agreement for € 12m, aimed at standardisation in the field of energy efficiency and savings.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection will get € 12m for green economic development. It looks highly likely that Belarus will get this money due to the desire to set this project as a priority at the Commonwealth of the Independent States, a regional international organisation which facilitates the integration of post-Soviet states. 

The European Union also provides money to facilitate the development of Belarusian cities. For instance, a small town in the Vitsebsk region, Navapolatsk, received € 500,000 to develop tourism in the region. Europeans have allocated more than € 13m in total for the regional and local development of Belarus.

Belarus also is a participatant in the project East Invest, aimed at facilitating improving the investment situation as well as support of small and medium businesses.

The Delegation of the EU to Belarus often implements projects together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which has a better reputation with the Belarusian authorities, than the Commission. 

The Commission cooperates with this UN agency for quicker registration and to minimise problems with the Belarusian side. The European Commission and the UNDP has implemented in Belarus 13 projects related to border management, human trafficking, drugs and crime, the environment and sustainable development. Although not without their own difficulties, but these projects do work and are effective. 

EU Assistance Viewed with Suspicion 

It is hard to tell whether these projects have a significant impact on the situation in Belarus. The EU Delegation to Belarus has never created a public evaluation of its financial aid, and the Belarusian authorities and media keep silent about help from the West. The EU’s technical aid to Belarus seems like a process without long-term or political goals.

Belarusian NGOs experience great difficulties with obtaining EU aid legally. First, the authorities deny a significant number of NGOs official registration. Second, the NGOs are obliged to register any approved project which relies on foreign aid, even if they have registration. The authorities, in turn, are often not very willing to register such projects. The state monopoly for the technical aid has lead to a deterioration of the quality of the fulfilled projects.

Somewhat paradoxically, Belarusian authorities seem reluctant to sign agreements on technical aid. A great number of projects get delayed or suspended for a certain period of time. According to Alexei Pikulik and Alena Artsiomenka of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2012 Belarus started up several  projects approved back in 2007. It usually takes two years from the identification of a project to the actual signing of a contract. As a result, the money arrives when the situation is different and there is a need to adjust the old priorities to the new situation. 

The low quality of Belarus' public administration remains a serious problem. The National Coordination Unit was set up in Belarus and its role is to closely work with the EU Delegation to provide guidance and counsel to any potential project partners and beneficiaries. 

The author made several phone calls and sent several letters to the National Coordination Unit to find out their point of view on the Belarusian-European cooperation. The National Coordination Unit did not respond to e-mails, and their executive director explained over the phone that technical assistance was a very broad issue to have a conversation and he refrained from sharing his opinion on how to improve its quality in Belarus. 

Why It's Still Worth Doing

Financial aid and cooperation facilitate the popularisation of the European development model in Belarus, modernisation of the Belarusian economy, improvement of the border management and other areas as well. However, according to Vladimir Putin, Belarus gets about four billion dollars per year from Russia in the form of discounts on oil and natural gas. These billions remain a priority for the Belarusian authorities. If anyone thinks that the € 510m technical aid package may seriously democratise the regime, this is rather far from truth.

Nonetheless, even if the authorities view EU technical assistance with suspicion and its sums remain very modest, this assistance remains very important for Belarusians. This is a signal of the EU’s readiness to help Belarus not just by declarations and symbolic gestures, but also by concrete actions.




Vilnius: the New Mecca for Belarusian Shoppers and Activists

On weekends, Vilnius looks like a Belarusian city.

Cars with Belarusian registration plates, crowds of Belarusians carrying shopping bags, even bus schedules to Belarus from big shopping centres. In 2012, according to the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism, 400,000 Belarusian guests visited Lithuania.

In politics, Lithuania maintains a critical position against Lukashenka’s regime. A significant number of offices of foreign foundations and organisations which work with Belarusian civil society are located in Vilnius.

In 2012 the goods turnover between Lithuania and Belarus broke all records. In comparison with the previous year, it grew by 8% and reached $2,3bn. Moreover, Lithuania has the positive balance. Belarusians come to Lithuania more and more often, not only for shopping but also to spend a weekend there.

Lithuania, somewhat paradoxically, remains one of the few countries which profits from Belarus’ isolation. Thanks to the protectionist practises of the Belarusian regime, it has become much cheaper for Belarusians to pay for visas and transportation expenses, and to buy many goods in Lithuania, than at home.

The official Vilnius wants the status quo in Belarus’ policies to change, but it will not pursue any changes at the expense of its economic benefits. In fact, the current situation in Belarus supports Lithuania’s interests.

Who Earns Belarusian Money in Lithuania?

Lithuanian shopping centres remain the key destination point for many Belarusians. Most Belarusians visit centres like Akropolis and Ozas during the weekends. These shopping centres hold major advertising campaigns in Belarusian cities. According to a study conducted by the advertising agency AD Hunters Baltics, Belarusians bring 10-15% of Vilnius retail shopping income. In some shopping centres, this number has even reached 30%.

Lithuanian supermarkets owners even try to hire personnel that can speak Russian to their Belarusian clients. Clients can drop about $450-600 in one visit to these Lithuanian shops.  Belarusian visitors buy everything – clothes, food, household equipment, goods for children and cosmetics you can also find available at https://lashbombusa.com/. Some even come to Lithuania to change the tires on their cars. All this is cheaper than it is in Belarus. In addition, visitors return the VAT on the border.

Belarusians often call the Vilnius airport “Minsk-3”. According the director of the Vilnius airport air service department Edvinas Levaškevičius, 240-250 Belarusians use the services of the Vilnius airport daily, and the total number of Belarusian clientele reaches about 10% of all passengers of the airport.

This large intake at the Vilnius airport is a result of the Belarusian authorities’ protectionism. The Belarusian authorities protect the domestic air company “Belavia” and keeps low-price airlines away from the Belarusian market. Belarus does not belong to the EU–US Open Skies Agreement either which makes it complicated to open new routes and to lower ticket prices.

Hotels, cafes, restaurants, tourist and real estate agencies stay natural beneficiaries of the Belarusian visitors’ financing. Although most Belarusians visit Lithuania to shop, some of them go to Lithuania on holidays as well.

The Capital of Belarusian Civil Society

It often seems that Vilnius is the capital of contemporary Belarusian civil society. Belarusian NGOs and several foreign foundations have more offices here than in Minsk. When Belarusian authorities refuse to register organizations in Belarus, activists often go to Lithuania and incorporate their NGOs there.

Most American foundations and organisations working with Belarus also chose Vilnius for their offices. Among the most influential are International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. A major German Foundation, Konrad Adenauer, is also operating from Vilnius. Most of the aforementioned organisations are not able to operate legally in Belarus and consequently stay in Vilnius, just 30 km away from the Belarusian border.

Plenty of Belarusian civil society organisations, including the international consortium EuroBelarus and representatives of the Belarusian opposition work from Vilnius. Belarusian Human Rights House in Exile, also working from Vilnius, continues to impress with its ongoing activities.The House hosts almost year-round human rights schools, continuously attracting a large number of active youth.

One of the most important institutions for Belarus in Vilnius remains the European Humanities University. Belarusian authorities closed EHU in 2004, but thanks to Western aid the university resumed its activities in Vilnius in 2005. Well-known Belarusian public figures and journalists lecture at the university, including Siarhei Chareuski, Ales Lahvinets and Viktar Martsinovich.

In addition, Vilnius hosts numerous seminars, trainings and conferences for Belarusians. As a result a significant share of money directed to help Belarus lands in Vilnius.

Mutually Beneficial Cooperation

The Lithuanian authorities provide statistical data that the trade turnover between the two countries in 2012 made up around $2.3bn. $1.4bn can be accounted for by Lithuanian exports and $875m – for Belarusian exports. The goods turnover increased by 8% throughout the year.

Alongside this, the goods turnover does not include everything; for example, stores paying for Lithuanian port services. Last year, Lukashenka threatened to use Russian ports instead of Lithuanian ports but this threat remained merely words.

The Belarusian-Lithuanian cooperation is beneficial for both sides. It leads to a situation where Lithuania conducts a two-track policy with regards to Belarus. On the one hand, it supports the opposition and the civil society. On the other hand, it closely cooperates with the regime in the economic sphere. Some even call this hypocrisy.

In fact, Lithuania has become a hostage of its economic benefits and its ability to act on its obligation to react to the human rights violations.

The Future of the Belarusian-Lithuanian Relations

Belarus and Lithuania will have to live with each other regardless of their political regimes. Their cooperation covers not just transit and big business, but also shopping centres, markets, airports, and accomodation. Belarusian and Lithuanian small businessmen strengthen their ties to one another and bring in profits for both countries.

Most likely bilateral relations that are “walking on one leg” – the economy –  will continue. Relations at the higher echelons of politics will remain cold for a long time to come. Increasing contacts between people may facilitate changes in Belarus and economic benefits for Lithuania. That is why the decrease in visa fees and simplification of the visa procedures remains one of the few things that the European Union can do to help Belarusian society.




Afghanistan Veterans in Belarus: Soldiers of Forgotten War

Few people from the West know that tens of thousands of Belarusians fought in Afghanistan.

The war has long been over, but its legacy remains. The Afghan war brought not only death, physical disabilities and material losses. It also made drug addiction a widespread occurrence in the former USSR. 

On 15 February, the Belarusian warrior-internationalists celebrated their professional holiday. 24 years ago, on 15 February 1989, the Soviet troops left Afghanistan for good.

During 10 years of the war, the Belarusian military enlistment offices sent nearly 30,000 people to Afghanistan. Two-thirds of them still live in Belarus. In everyday life, these people are called Afgantsy, a Russian word for those who participated in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

The Afgantsy in Belarus have strained relations with the authorities. Although the Belarusian government has deprived the veterans of almost all benefits, some remain loyal to the authorities. Others openly oppose the regime, for example, political prisoner Mikalaj Autukhovich and human rights defender Aleh Vouchak.

Belarusian society never looks back on those events that transpired, and any moral estimations of that war are rare in the public sphere. Only the independent community’s representatives openly speak about the shame of particpating in the war for Belarus.

Afgantsy in Belarus 

The war in Afghanistan still causes pain in Belarusians' memories. This war remains the last in which they took part in and in which the Belarusian military involvement was very prominent. According to the number of human losses, Belarus is fourth after Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

The Afghan Memory Foundation provides information that the Soviet authorities sent 28,832 Belarusians to Afghanistan during the war. 732 of them died, nearly as much were maimed and are now disabled. 12 Belarusians are still missing, three received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, two of them – posthumously. On average, the Afgantsy did not live long after the war – making it only to their 45th birthdays. More than half of the military casualties were under 20.

According to Radio Liberty about 21,000 participants of the Afghan war live in Belarus today. Approximately half of the Belarusian Afgantsy became members of the Belarusian Union of Afghan war veterans. A more specialised organisation – Association of People Disabled in the Afghan War is helping these warrior-internationalists. These kinds of organisations exist all over the former USSR.

There are certain separations in the relations between the Belarusian Afghan veterans. First of all, between those soldiers who were located at a base, the political ideologists and those who played the part of “cannon fodder” during the Soviet invasion. Children of high-ranking communist officials did not go to war, while the military actions were conducted at the expense of young soldiers from ordinary families.

The current discussion in the Afghan soldiers’ circles often comes to defining who are the real Afgantsy. Moreover, the veterans also are become divided by their attitude to the current Belarusian regime.

Why Do the Afgantsy Have Bad Relations with the Regime?

People who witnessed deaths of their 18-year-old friends have less fear towards the present authorities than ordinary Belarusians. However, not many Afghans are interested in the fight for their rights. 

The Belarusian authorities’ attitude to the Afgantsy grows colder and colder. The regime deprived them of benefits, leaving only an opportunity to apply for “targeted aid”. Some Afgantsy never applied for help. They think it will be a strike against their dignity.

In 2009, the Afghan war veterans human rights defender Aleh Vouchak, retired Lieutenant Colonel Alyaksandr Kamarouski and political prisoner Mikalaj Autukhovich sent a letter to Lukashenka, in which they declined to accept their awards dedicated to the 20th anniversary of withdrawal of the Soviet troops from the territory of Afghanistan. Many veterans supported their initiative and handed in their medals for participation in that war.

In addition, Vouchak and Kamarouski managed to defend free travel in the public transport for the veterans. Kamarouski says that the former soldiers “have nothing else”, except this meager benefit.

The Belarusian authorities dislike the most active Afgantsy for the support they have rendered to one of the persons who signed that famous letter – Mikalaj Autukhovich. The Supreme Court sentenced Autukhovich to five years and two months of imprisonment for the illegal storage of gun cartridges. Belarusian and foreign human rights defenders considered Autukhovich a political prisoner.

Many Afghan veterans think that all accusations against Autukhovich were nothing more than “empty words”, and his arrest looked like an attempt to discredit the whole movement of the Afghan war veterans.

Previously, the Belarusian Afgantsy had several small businesses, and they forwarded their incomes to the activity of the organisation and to support for their fellow veterans who are unemployed, disabled, or even for their funerals. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Kamarouski said, "there soon started claims being filed for no reason, and as a result three directors ran off, and the businesses became bankrupt”.

What Was the War for Belarus?

The war in Afghanistan brought not only numerous deaths and disabilities to Belarusians, but after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 1979 drug addiction in the Soviet Union grew enormously.  Soviet soldiers en masse became drug addicts — and they brought this habit back home with them.

Although drugs were produced in some Asian republics of the Soviet Union, like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, the mass addiction came to Belarus and other former USSR countries from Afghanistan. Afghanistan still remains to this day the biggest illicit drug exporter to Europe.

For many people, that Soviet invasion was a point of shame and disgrace. Many former soldiers refused to accept medals as they consider the war to be alien to Belarus as a nation.

Famous Belarusian artist Ales Pushkin, who served a year and a half in Afghanistan, says that “they forced Belarus to send its sons to defend the imperial interests of the Soviet Union, and we should never forget – we were occupiers there”.

Many of the Afgantsy agree with these words, but the members of the veteran organisations still do not speak up  whether the war was just. The Soviet war in Afghanistan is rarely discussed in public. The freezing of all civil and political processes in the country may partially explain this. However, even the Afgantsy themselves do not care about remembering the war itself or bringing it into the public spotlight. For them helping their former comrades-in-arms is more important that thinking about the reasons that the war happened. 

Ryhor Astapenia




Belarus Fights Pornography

Last month BELTA news agency announced that a 21-old Belarusian in the east of the country published eight pornographic videos on his social network page. The authorities started a criminal case and the accused faces up to four years in jail. 

Belarus has become a noticeable actor in the porn industry in recent years. Belarusian pornographers work not only inside the country but abroad as well. One of the porn-oriented websites claims that “Porn makers from Belarus manage to produce high-quality porn products despite the stagnation in the country”.

This year the Belarusian authorities showed that they want to crack down on porn producers and distributors. Between 6-12 August, police, education, health care and culture employees held a week of intensive fighting against the distribution of pornography amongst the youth. The police look for pornography even on school kids’ mobiles in order to trace porn producers and distributors. Today, authorities have almost fully cleared out the Belarusian-based Internet from pornography. 

Porn Industry in Belarus

Pornography was a very profitable business in Belarus until recently. Porn film makers got their money easily. In 2009, the Belarusian authorities started approximately as many criminal cases against producers and distributors of pornography as in the first half of 2012 (157 and 136 respectively).

Although pornography has always remained prohibited, Belarusian legislation provides for rather mild punishment for porn producers (by the standards of an authoritarian state). The hardest punishment for production and distribution of pornography by a group of persons is imprisonment for up to four years.
 
Moreover, Belarusian law considered production and distribution of pornography as an administrative offence only until 2005. The punishment for child pornography committed by a group is more serious but still relatively mild – up to eight years of imprisonment.
 
On the other hand, Belarus offers beneficial conditions for the development of the industry. First, one can rent cheap accommodation facilities for shooting in Minsk and other Belarusian cities. Secondly, porn actors and operators get very low wages in comparison with the average wages on the world porn market. According to Rosbalt Information Agency, the total cost of a 15-minutes movie in Belarus reaches about $900-$1,000. Porn dealers sell these movie to the West or Japan for $2,500. 
 
According to Telegraf ​Information Agency, porn producers even involve 10-year-old kids in their movies. They find them mostly in low-income families, in orphanages and boarding schools. According to the Interior Ministry there are a number of kids with well-situated parents among the porn actors as well.
 
Belarusian “cheesecake” has gained great popularity in the West. In 2008, Belarusian law-enforcement agencies detained an organised group of Belarusians and Russians who had filmed gay and child pornography and sold it through websites to Western Europe and the USA. About 50 actors were involved in the activity of this porn studio network over two years.
 
Belarusian pornographers work not only within the borders of their own country. In 2011, security services of Belarus, Spain and the United States organised a joint operation to lay open a porn network which covered several European countries and the United States. Forty-nine members of the group produced child pornography and sold it through more than 200 websites. The network earned about $2,000,000 per month.
 
Many Belarusian porn videos are filmed in Russia. Russia remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world and Belarusians can go there visa-free. The criminals can always bribe law-enforcement officials and continue making pornography. Secondly, Russia allows  it to remain confidential. According to Rosbalt Information Agency some women leave for Moscow and tell their families that they will work as baby-sitters or accountants. Meanwhile, they go into prostitution and pornographic movies. 
 
Fight against Pornography
 
The top Belarusian police officer in charge of sex crimes Alyaksandr Haurylau says that the pornography problem has become pressing in the last several years.
 
The Belarusian authorities monitor webpages and have almost completely cleaned the by.net (Belarusian internet) from pornography. However, the majority of porn production is kept on the vkontakte.ru social network – the most popular one in Belarus.
 
On vkontakte.ru, anyone can download any video. It can be not just porn, but rape or other "exotic" stuff. The social network administrators promise to delete porn content fully but they cannot do so entirely, as pornography keeps appearing.
 
Most pornographers in Belarus get caught through this very social network, although these are usually not producers, but those who upload porn videos to their private pages.
 
Pornography in Belarus is often closely connected with prostitution or pedophilia. In Zhlobin, a local court sentenced five pedophiles who raped 13-16-year-old boys and filmed it to 8-13 years of imprisonment. Pedophiles distributed this video on the Internet afterwards. The pedophiles then used these photos and videos to blackmail the children so that they would not report the rapes to their parents or to the police.
 

Will the Belarusian Regime Fix the Problem?

Belarusian law enforcement agencies report that they solved 136 crimes connected with production or distribution of pornography in the first six months of 2012. Thirty of them concerned child pornography.

For a long time authorities paid no attention to the widespread distribution of pornography. However, the upheaval of child pornography and the growing image of Belarus as an important porn industry actor forced the authorities to react.

The Belarusian authorities appear to have taken the fight with pornography seriously and are likely to complete their goal. Time will show whether they can effectively mobilise Belarus' numerous security services to fix the problem. It is likely that the quantity of pornography produced and distributed in Belarus will decrease by several times in the next few years.

Ryhor Astapenia

 




Arche: Authorities Against Belarusian Intellectuals

On 26 October, Belarus state television showed another criminal movie about independent Belarusian community. This time to prevent crimes Department of Financial Investigation staff members confiscated scholarly books written in Belarusian.

The authorities confiscated over 5,000 books from a former chief editor of Arche Valery Bulhakau. According to state TV-channel, these books are “stinky literature" and "works, leaning towards extremism."

Seizure of Valery Bulhakau’s books is the next stage in the fight of authorities against Belarusian intellectual community. This September the authorities already sacked academics for writing books and fairy tales. 

In Belarus state-owned houses publish almost exclusively pro-governmental authors. People do not buy their books and consequently authorities just send them to the libraries. In these circumstances, independent publishing houses carry out the function of studying Belarusian history, normally performed by the state. 

The story of Arche magazine serves as a good illustration of it. Arche is a humanitarian monthly journal about Belarusian history, politics, art and literature. Since 1998 not only Belarusians publish there, but also foreign intellectuals. In addition, Arche translates works of global researchers like Andrew Wilson or Zbigniew Brzezinski into Belarusian language. Now it seems that the authorities decided to close down the journal. 

How It All Began

On 14 September, chief editor Valery Bulhakau presented in Hrodna a new book from Arche magazine series on "The Sovietization of Western Belarus." During the presentation, tax inspectorate staff did "test purchases" of several books. Mr Bulhakau was seeling the books without any receipts, and therefore was accused of illegal business activities.

Belarusian authorities decided that Dr Valery Bulhakau broke the law, although the sale of books without receipts at book fairs is a common practice around the world.

Clearly,  the offence is only an excuse to launch a wave of repression against Arche. In addition to targeting Bulhakau, he authorities also plan to deprive the magazine’s incense. With no bank account, it will not be possible to publish a new edition of Arche.

Today, Valery Bulhakau does not rule out a criminal case against himself. By the way, to take re-direct the impact away from the journal, Mr. Bulhakau resigned as its editor-in-chief. Today, another well-known Belarusian intellectual Ales Pashkevich performs the duties of editor-in-chief.

Obviously the society with free mind stands in the authorities’ way. By closing Arche they want to scare all Belarusian intelligentsia. The aim of authorities is to marginalise Belarusian independent research and publication. It is very important for the state ideologists that humanitarian researches should not go outside the frames set by the authorities or shatter the ground of the official pro-soviet history.

When Scholars Became Extremists

Today, authorities are trying to accuse Arche of extremism.State propaganda claimed that seized books "give dubious interpretation of Belarusian history during the Nazi occupation."

Among 20 different titles which were seized, only two related to the Second World War. Belarus state journalists were impressed by a fairly common thesis among historians that the Soviet Union was itself planning an attack against Hitler's Germany. According to the state television, through such statements Arche publishers are “promoting Nazis’ speeches at Nuremberg trial".

Belarusian historian Uladzimir Lyakhouski demanded an apology from Belarusian Television to Arche. In his view, "comments and the visual sequence accompanying the report can be interpreted as Goebbels’ technique, through which the truth is replaced by lies and falsification."

It is not the first time they call Arche an extremist publication.  In 2008, customs officials confiscated from Ales Pashkevich several copies of the magazine. That edition was about the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but also had several articles about Belarusian politicians. Exactly these articles a court found extremist at that time. However, when Arche magazine filed an appeal, the KGB decided to withdraw its claim.

What Arche Means for Belarusians

Harassment of the magazine became a cause for reflection what Arche represents for Belarus. The titles seized from Bulhakau included books about the first Belarusian city of Polatsk, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, famous Battle of Grunwald, Belarusian People's Republic. Generally, Arche editions cover the whole Belarusian history – from ancient times to its contemporary problems.

Arche magazine is a Belarusian intellectual centre, which collects research about Belarusian history at the time when the government censors such history. In fact, Arche perform tasks that  the Ministry of Culture and Education should perform. Also, authorities still do not like the journal's international recognition. Incidentally, Arche is a member of Eurozine network, which combines cultural magazines across Europe.

Will the Magazine Continue to Exist?

Valery Bulhakau says to preserve Arche in current format is almost impossible. It seems that the magazine will have to completely migrate to Internet. At the same time, it is clear that the Internet is not really suitable for long scientific research articles.

To rescue the journal, many in Belarus call for demonstration of solidarity – both in Belarus and abroad. Belarus Digest  discussed the journal's future with acting editor in chief Ales Pashkevich.  Pashkievich said that  it "was difficult to predict what the case tends to. The result may be cancellation of the magazine’s registration, or imposing huge fines on so that it stops existing by itself."

Pashkievich assured that Arche stuff will do their best to continue their work and asked people to show solidarity and send  written requests to the Ministry of Information.

Staff members of the Department of Financial Investigations of the Committee of State Control do not give any comments on Arche’s case. It could be that the authorities have not yet made ​​a final decision to close down the magazine. The final decision may  depend on how broad the solidarity with Belarusian intellectuals will be. 

Ryhor Astapenia




Dziady in Belarus

On 28 October thousands of Belarusians are expected to visit Kurapaty to mark Dziady.

Dziady is a traditional day of remembrance of the deceased ancestors observed in Belarus. Kurapaty is the place on the outskirts of Minsk where the Bolshevists executed over 200,000 people in 1930s. 

Dziady is more than a traditional holiday. It has also become a symbol of resistance to the Soviet regime and the revival of the Belarusian nation. In 1988 Dziady became the day when the Belarusian first organised a mass demonstration against Soviet rule.

Belarus is the only country where the Dziady celebration preserves its authentic form. On this day, Belarusians visit not only the graves of their dead relatives, but also invite them to visit their houses. ​As with most traditional folk holidays it has pagan roots. Belarusians believed that on this holiday the deceased souls visit their descendants. The hosts even leave spare sets of flatware on the tables for the dead.

Dziady used to be a holiday that was granted the status of a day off in 1990s. However, Lukashenka abolished it as the people associated Dziady with the anti-Communist struggle.

Lukashenka and Communism

A great number of Belarusians still miss the Communist past. These people nearly all support Lukashenka, who thinks that “The Communist ideology, based on Marxist-Leninist ideology, should be a key part of the Belarusian state ideology”.

Research conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies showed that 48.7% of people over 60 and 29.3% aged between 50 and 59 even wish for the revival of the Soviet Union. These very groups actively support Lukashenka and the idea of closer ties with Russia. On the other side, young people do not want revival of the USSR and support the idea of an European path for Belarus: 55.1 % of those between the ages of 18-29 want to join the European Union.

That is why today’s authorities keep silent about the mass executions in Soviet times in public, and support the Communist party which mainatins its loyalty to Lukashenka. Communism remains one of the fundamental principles of Lukashenka’s regime, which are full of fissures and cracks when analyzed under the facts of Soviet rule in Belarus.

The Article That Changed the Belarusian History

Kurapaty is the Belarusian symbol of Stalinist repressions. The first mass action which gave hope for changes in Belarus took place there, on Dziady. The demonstration was a reaction to publication of the article written by Zyanon Paznyak and Yauhen Shmyhalyou “Kurapaty – the Road of Death”.

Literature and Art magazine published this article in 1988. It is unbelievable that such article was published in the Soviet Union. In the article, the authors depicted about the mass executions in Kurapaty, and how the Soviet special services tortured and murdered dozens and thousands of people. According to their research , every night from 1937 until 1941 the NKVD delivered people to Kurapaty and shot them.

No one knows exactly how many peaceful citizens the Soviet authorities killed. Initially, the Communists spoke of a figure of around 30,000. Zyanon Paznyak who publicised Kurapaty crimes claims that the number may more likely be 100-250,000, while British historian Norman Davies thinks it is over 250,000.

They Went to Dziady as Population, and Returned as People

The truth about the mass executions had a powerful effect on the Belarusian society in 1980s. 30 October 1988 became a historical day for Belarus. In those days, it was extremely difficult to distribute information and  dissidents had not yet forgotten what prisons and mental hospitals looked like. Despite all this, thousands of people came to the demonstration.

The Soviet authorities behaved brutally on that day. Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau described that day as “The Long Road Home” in his autobiography:

They started dispersing the demonstration – they beat and arrested people, poisoning them with gas, using portable gas-sprays. They poisoned Paznyak as well – he was leading the crowd. But Paznyak did not surrender. He led the crowd to the outskirts and then to Kurapaty. However, the troops were there to block the way. Then Paznyak led the people to the field, where the religious ceremony took place under the snow which fell from the sky.

It was on Dziady when people hoisted the white-red-white flag for the first time in Soviet Belarus. Belarusian writer Victar Kazko said after the action that “They went to Dziady as a population, and returned as a people”.

The Soviet authorities were scared, for the first time in many years. They were scared not only because the people found out about the mass executions. They were frightened because the peaceful protesters continued their rally to Kurapaty despite the demands and the brutal actions of the authorities.

Vandals Destroy Kurapaty, the Authorities Keep Silence

Today, there is a People’s Monument in Kurapaty. People come here and erect their own crosses. But every year, vandals dig out the graves, destroy crosses, break memorial shields, and paint swastikas on the icons.

The favourite target for the vandals is a bench with the following encryption: “From people of the USA to People of Belarus, for Memory”. People call it “Clinton’s bench”, as the American government presented it in 1994 during his visit to Kurapaty.

The authorities try to leave the acts of vandalism unattended. In fact, they do not give any help or protection to the memorial complex. The law-enforcement agencies initiate criminal cases for vandalism, but only one case has reached the courts thus far, and only because members of the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front caught the vandals on the spot. The court considered the vandals guilty but they were then granted amnesty and released.

Today a private company is building park near the stove. The owners claim that the visitors of the new complex will have an excellent opportunity “to hide from the city fuss”. Of course, business should develop in Belarus, but the question is, whether it should happen next to the place were hundreds of thousands were murdered under Stalin.

The History Will Decide

Every year since 1988 the opposition marches to Kurapaty.The age of the participants has changed greatly. Previously, it was mostly middle-aged people who came to Dziady, but today the great majority of the participants are young.

The authorities do not let any information about Kurapaty to seep into history textbooks. They threaten students who participate in political activities with expulsion from universities and administrative detentions. But still young Belarusians come to Kurapaty on Dziady.

The Communist regime also seemed unbreakable but it lost to the History in the end.

Ryhor Astapenia




Vatican Helps to Release Belarusian Political Prisoners

Apostolic nuncio Claudio Gugerotti is the only diplomat who can visit the Belarusian prisoners of conscience.

The Holy See seems to work as an intermediary between the European Union and Lukashenka with regard to release of the political prisoners. The nunciature tries to keep their profile low and refuses to give details of the visits to prisons. The secrecy of those visits may hint at the seriousness of intentions. 

On 3 October, Claudio Gugerotti met with the Pope to discuss the latest events in Belarus.

The nuncio visited seven political prisoners last month: ex-presidential candidate Mikalaj Statkevich, chairman of the human rights organisation Vyasna Ales Byalyatski, co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Paval Syevyarynets, Young Front leaders Zmitser Dashkevich and Edward Lobau.

He also met anarchist Pavel Syramalotau and activist of the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front Syarhei Kavalenka. It is notable that the Belarusian authorities released the latter two after the meeting with the nuncio.

Besides, Belarusian analysts have often expressed the idea that the Catholic Church would have been a perfect intermediary in Belarusian-European relations – an opinion shared by some politicians in the West. 

Weakness of the Catholic Church in Belarus

The position of the Catholic Church in Belarus is unstable. On the one hand, the Belarusian Catholic Church effectively develops: builds new churches, organises mass pilgrimages to holy places and religious camps. 12 per cent of Belarusians consider themselves Catholics and every second Belarusian visits church regularly. The Catholic pilgrimage Budslau in Northern Belarus is considered to be the key religious event in Belarus. Christians of all denominations take part in it.

On the other hand, Belarusian Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz knows that the Belarusian Catholic Church can develop only if the authorities allow this. Therefore, the Catholic Church has to remain loyal to the regime.

But discontent with the policy of the Catholic Church administration is growing among the ordinary priests. Fathers Piotra Rudkouski and Yury Barok have many times condemned in public the silence of the Catholic Church authorities when the regime beats people and illegally sentences them to long terms in prison.

Nonetheless, the official line of the Catholic Church remains the same. 

How Lukashenka Made Friends with the Catholic Church

In 2007, relations between the Catholic Church and Lukashenka significantly improved. At that time Pope Benedict XVI appointed Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz as Metropolitan of Minsk and Mahileu. The new Metropolitan soon found understanding with the authorities which made conditions for development of the Catholic Church in Belarus more favourable. However, this development was achieved at the price of loyalty to the Belarusian regime.

In 2009, the Pope officially received Lukashenka in the Vatican after long years of isolation. He was the first in Europe who did so. Naturally, Lukashenka is thankful to the Catholic Church for that. Lukashenka keeps saying at the meetings with the official representatives of the Catholic Church that there is a need for closer cooperation between Belarus, the Holy See and the West.

Last November, Lukashenka said to Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, that he expected “from the Catholic Church and from Pope Benedict XVI personally more integration with regard to defence of our interests, especially in the West”.

This April, Lukashenka mentioned to the current Apostolic Nuncio Claudio Gugerotti that “the Catholic Church’s work on making the relations between Belarus and Western Europe is incomplete”.

It is obvious that Lukashenka really wants to see an influential ally with minimum political ambitions beside him. This ally should also depend on him in some way. The Catholic Church meets these criteria perfectly. 

Why Do They Need an Intermediary?

Brussels does not trust Lukashenka anymore. It is clear that the “dialogue 2008-2010” and its sudden interruption cost a lot to European politicians. The European Union does not want to hold direct negotiations with Lukashenka. Back on 26 August 2011 Bulgaria’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Nikolay  Mladenov arrived in Minsk with a mission to talk to Lukashenka. Lukashenka promised he would release all political prisoners soon but failed to keep his promise. 

Brussels is tired of “spinning Minsk round”. The European decision-makers built their Belarus policy on the basis of a search for dialogue and compromises which could lead to at least minor political changes. Today Brussels is tired of looking for common points and the new approach is “if Lukashenka wants it, we want it too”.

This is why Lukashenka decided to establish relations with the Apostolic Capital himself. Today, the Catholic Church is a perfect intermediary for Lukashenka. Belarusian analysts think that positive sides of the Apostolic Capital as an intermediary are great experience in negotiations and non-essential political ambitions. However, there’s one more aspect, which no one mentions for some reason – the Catholic Church in Belarus is Lukashenka’s hostage.

Apostolic Nuncio Claudio Gugerotti probably knows that Lukashenka will not go for reforms, but the Catholic Church sees its own advantages. First, the Catholic Church as an organisation based on morality wants to facilitate release of political prisoners. Second, although release of several political prisoners is not a great achievement, it will positively affect the reputation of the Holy See. Third, Lukashenka will pay back by letting the Belarusian Catholic Church develop freely.

Release of Several Political Prisoners Will Happen in the Near Future

It is worth mentioning that Belarus has its own very simple political cycle. If Russia is ready to supply energy resources at low prices to Belarus, Lukashenka will destroy the opposition by any means. If Russia demands that Belarus should pay more for oil and gas, Lukashenka starts slow liberalisation and the Belarusian prisoners of conscience come out of prisons.

Relations between Lukashenka and Putin are getting worse again. The Russian authorities demand that Lukashenka respects his own commitments. In the first place, this concerns privatisation and no more sales of oil products disguised as solvents. Belarus is not obliged to return taxes to the Russian budget when it sells oil products this way.

In such conditions, Belarusian authorities will seek support in the West. Belarus’ foreign minister Uladzimir Makey even had a short meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week in the United States. Naturally, the former head of the presidential administration had some serious business to discuss with Clinton.

Therefore, the time for Lukashenka to release political prisoners has come. The Belarusian authorities will not do it massively in order not to lose face. However, several political are likely to leave their prison cells soon.

Ryhor Astapenia