The controversy of the European Games: Price vs Prestige

In preparation for the European Games 2019 on the 21st of June, Belarus has already spent the double compared to the planned budget – $112m for ceremonies, repair, volunteers, and other expenses.

Belarusian authorities argue that the games will promote Belarus, and unite Belarusians. In addition, the government decided to introduce a month-long 30-days visa-free regime for the duration of the Games in the hope of attracting more tourists. However, this is likely not to be the case with the Games serving the interests of the Belarusian authorities first and foremost.

Price vs Prestige

The competition, organised by the European Olympic Committee, takes place for the second time in history and therefore has barely gained any popularity among sports fans. Some of the 15 sports in the competition are not the most popular nor followed sports. For example-  badminton, table tennis, and beach soccer. Hosting competitions in more popular sports, Belarus may have risked spending more than might get in return from the Games.

The Netherlands was the first to agree to host the Games. However, after the cost of the Games was revealed, the Netherlands backtracked from its promise and the European Olympic Committee turned to Belarus. After the Netherlands with a GDP of $912b. decided that hosting the European Games for them is too expensive, then the decision of Belarus with GDP $59b. seems rather surprising.

2nd European Games 2019. Source: belarusfeed.com

The Belarusian authorities barely hesitated before saying yes. While the announced $30-40m cost of the Games seemed reasonable to many, the real $112 m spent on the Games raises some questions.

For example, Belarus spent $12m for the opening and closing ceremonies, in comparison to Brazil that spent $21m for the many times bigger Olympic Games in 2016. According to Ideaby, each volunteer’s gear cost  $500 (the same gear cost 10 times less during the Euro 2012).

Although Belarus received financial support from the European Olympic Committee, Siarhei Rumas, the Belarusian PM, said that international sponsors have not rushed to invest into the European Games 2019.

The organisers of the European Games in Belarus expected to sell 190,000 tickets for the opening and closing ceremonies ($70-$150 per ticket) and competitions ($3-$27 per ticket), while only 69% were actually sold. The Belarusian officials announced they expect around 30,000 tourists to visit the Games. In the unlikely case that this number of tourist will attend Belarus during the European Games, it can barely compensate the money spent on the competition.

No-visa for tourists during the European Games

Belarusian authorities hoped that the European Games will attract more tourists. In addition to infrastructure renovations, Belarus also invested in creating a positive image of Belarus online. As a bonus, from 10th June to 10th July, residents from 98 different countries can visit Belarus visa-free through any border point if they purchased a ticket for at least one of the competitions or ceremonies. Due to fewer restrictions during the Games, foreigners can also travel across Belarus and enter the country through Poland or Lithuania.

"Flame of Peace" carried by the Belarusian athletes. Source: minsk2019.by

“Flame of Peace” carried by the Belarusian athletes. Source: minsk2019.by

Even if the number of tourists visiting Belarus stays below expectations, training more people to speak English and opening of new entertainment places add into the positive image and progress of Belarus. Preparing to host foreigners, Belarusian service industry develops and improves for Belarusians themselves as well.

However, the management of the Games is still rather superficial and strange. The Games committee suggested accommodating athletes in student dorms. Meaning that students have to entirely move out from their rooms with their belongings.  Roads, house facades, sports arenas are only repaired prior to the Games, and not following the need. At the same time, the returns are not likely to cover the cost of hosting the Games.

On 15th April Lukashenka said:

Sports facilities, telecommunications, road network, passenger transport, student village – everything must meet the highest standards… We must once again show that comfortable and safe conditions for human life and self-realization have been created on our land.

As a part of opening up Belarus, authorities could have also included the popularisation of the Belarusian language, history, and traditions that are very hard for foreigners to distinguish from Russian at the moment. However, neither Lukashenka nor the Games Committee has highlighted this idea. Instead, in the Hrodna region, authorities installed informational signs devoted to European Games, where the text is in  Russian, Polish and English. The Belarusian language and culture would benefit from being distinguished from Russian and the European Games would have offered an excellent opportunity to do this.

Pleasing the West?

Accepting to host the second European Games, the Belarusian authorities probably hope to soften its political reputation. In the midst of diplomatic conflict with Russia, caused by discussions on the integration within the Union state, the European Games could be seen by Minsk as a new tool for dialogue with European countries.

The presidential election in 2020 looks like another reason for Lukashenka to show the polished facade of Belarus. Creating a positive image of Belarus, which has invested a lot into the sports industry, might distract the discussions away from Belarusian authorities and their policies on the eve of the election 2020.

The decision to host the European Games appears financially inconsiderate, taking into account that Belarus spent almost twice as more than planned and tourists are not likely to reimburse even a third of the cost. Considering that a third of Belarusian population lives in poverty and the average salary in the country is around $500 (approximately 2 times less than in neighbouring Poland), conducting the European Games looks just cynical.

The Games may introduce Belarus to tourists that get a chance to visit the country visa-free from the 10th June to the 10th July. Though the visa-free regime has been functioning now for more than a year, the visa rules introduced for the European Games are much easier.

Hosting such an expensive event, the Belarusian authorities have put more importance on Belarus’s external image rather than the economy and its domestic needs in spheres like education, medicine, and social care.




Referendum rejected, black market for alcohol, Lukashenka plants corn – Belarus state press digest

Lukashenka rejected plans for a constitutional referendum. The Operational and Analytical Centre head gives their first ever interview. Lukashenka rode a tractor to plant corn with Moldova’s president Igor Dodon.

Counterfeit alcohol from Russia floods the Belarusian black market. Belarusian exports remains concentrated in very few markets and need diversification. The visa-free regime in Hrodna attracts Poles and Lithuanians.

All this in the latest edition of the Belarus state press digest.

Foreign policy and domestic politics

Lukashenka rejected plans for a constitutional referendum. On 24 April, Alexander Lukashenka delivered his annual state of the nation address to the Belarusian people and the parliament, reports Belarus Segodnia. During the one-and-a-half-hour speech, he discussed a variety of issues, including the rumours about planned changes to the constitution. “If someone thinks that we will change the constitution, and thus create the conditions for a Maidan here, [then they should know that] this will not happen.” The president claimed that the Belarusian opposition does not want to take power because it does not know what to do with it.

However, he also said that he can safely transfer certain presidential powers to other governmental bodies because the system functions well. Lukashenka admitted that Belarus currently fails to use its geographical potential in terms of logistics: people prefer to fly from Kiev, Vilnius, or anywhere other than Belarus. He also confirmed government intentions to establish a special ministry for information technologies soon. “By 2020 Belarus should appear to the world as attractive, comfortable and progressive,” the Belarusian president demanded.

Lukashenka and Moldovan president Igor Dodon rode tractors and planted corn. On 18-19 April, Lukashenka visited Moldova, reports Zviazda. The presidents of Belarus and Moldova attended an exhibition of modern Belarusian agricultural machinery at the Institute of Plant Industry, discussed developing cooperation in this field and then planted a corn field, with the presidents driving their own tractors. Igor Dodon said that most of the wines produced in Moldova go to Belarus.

Given the high popularity of Moldovan wine, Dodon promised to teach Lukashenka how to grow grapes. During the visit, the Government of Belarus and the Moldova-Agroindbank (a commerical bank) signed an agreement on the lending terms for the purchase of Belarusian goods. Moldova’s prime minister, Pavel Filip, remarked that jointly-produced Moldovan-Belarusian trolleybuses will be exported to the EU without customs duties and therefore suggest a promising area for further cooperation.

Картинки по запросу андрей павлюченко оац

Lukashenka presents an award to the head of the Operational and Analytical Centre, Andrej Paŭliučenka Photo: sb.by

The head of the Operational and Analytical Centre (OAC) gave his first interview ever. On the special service’s 10th anniversary, its head Andrej Paŭliučenka furnished Belarus Segodnia with details of work at the centre, created to ensure the protection of information and the development of internet technologies. Paŭliučenka characterised early attacks on Belarusian information systems as disorganised and spontaneous. In recent years, however, hacker teams seem to have one or more coordination centres. These groups try to hack into Belarusian defence systems with geopolitical or mercantile goals.

Turning to internal threats, corruption remains the most serious issue and the OAC particularly deals with combating corruption at the highest levels of power. Paŭliučenka also said that the OAC does not shut down websites as many think. It provides for the stable and reliable operation of networks and databases; the OAC serves as engineer and architect of the national segment of the Internet.

Economy

Counterfeit alcohol from Russia dominates the Belarusian black market. Narodnaja Hazieta investigated the black market for alcohol in Belarus. Black marker dealers sell half a litre of vodka for 1 euro online, while in the stores the same volume costs 3 euros. Five-litre cans of so-called “confectionery brandy” are offered for 12 euros. According to the Central Department for Combating Economic Crime, more than 95% of illegal alcohol products entering Belarus come from Russia. Indeed, large criminal groups run a highly profitable business.

The influx of counterfeit alcohol has even made the traditional moonshine industry less attractive among the population. While in 2011 the police confiscated 111,400 decalitres of moonshine, in 2015 it took away only 69,200 decalitres. Counterfeit alcohol is typically of poor quality and often causes poisoning. According to information provided by the Minsk Regional Department of Internal Affairs, during the first 3 months of 2018 in the Minsk region alone,  61 people died from the consumption of ethyl alcohol or other alcoholic surrogates.

Counterfeit alcohol in a private apartment in Homiel. Photo: sb.by

Belarusian exports remain concentrated on a few markets and needs diversification. In 2017 and early 2018, Belarusian exports saw stable growth for the first time since 2012, according to Zviazda. A favourable situation in the raw materials market and in the markets of Belarus’s major trading partners contributed to this growth. However, geographical diversification for export goods remains lower than the government expects. In January – February 2018, five national markets accounted for almost 71% of Belarusian exports.

However, the share exports to Russia saw a positive trend. In January – February it amounted to 38.2% compared to 45% over the same period last year. Speaking about commodity diversification and the example of exports to the European Union, Prime Minister Andrej Kabiakoŭ noted that Belarusian exports to the EU consist of a narrow range of goods with a significant share of petroleum products (50%). “The high concentration on the market of one or a few countries, or in a narrow range of goods, poses significant risks for our country,” the Kabiakoŭ said.

Tourism

The visa-free regime in Hrodna attracts Poles and Lithuanians. Before the introduction of the visa-free regime in Hrodna city, it received 4,700 tourists per year. Since the introduction of the new visa regime, 52,000 foreigners visited the nearby Augustow Canal alone. According to Respublika, 35-40% of tourists travel only for shopping. Visitors mostly buy goods that cannot be found in their home country: medicine, marshmallows, jellies, kvass, birch sap, linen, jersey and alcohol. Lithuanians show strong interest in the historical sites connected with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the medieval state of Belarusians and Lithuanians.

The head of a Polish tourist company from the city of Bialystok, Eugeniusz Laureniuk, notes that religious tourism in Belarus has become popular with Poles in recent years. Active tourism, especially cycling tours, also remain popular. But the lack of hotels, especially in small towns, presents a serious problem. While Hrodna and Brest more or less cope with accommodating tourists, Lida and Baranavičy, both towns with 100,000 inhabitants have only one hotel each.

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




10 days visa-free: a new stage for Belarusian tourism

On 26 December, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka signed a new decree on a 10-days visa-free entry regime for foreigners. It expands upon last year’s decree on 5-day visa-free entrance to the Augustow zone in the Hrodna region. The changes are in tandem with a February 2017 decree, which grants tourists a Belarus-wide, five-day visa provided they fly into Minsk airport.

The new visa-free rules are valid from 2018 and allow citizens of 77 countries to spend 10 days without a visa in the Hrodna and Brest regions. No changes have been made for those who enter without a visa into Minsk airport, and as such can still only spend five days in Belarus, but are able to travel anywhere in the country.

The current visa-free regime appears to be a logical continuation of the process of visa liberalisation, which has been taking place within the country. However, the territorial and administrative restrictions on visa-free travel to Belarus still create inconveniences for tourists. Concerns of the KGB and the Internal Affairs Ministry create additional obstacles for the implementation for simpler and longer visa-free regimes.  

What does the new 10-day visa-free regime imply?

Since 1 January, citizens of 77 countries have the right to enter Belarus without a visa and stay for 10 days to stay in certain parts of Hrodna and Brest regions. The new visa-free decree extends the area and the type of transport for visa-free travellers. In 2016, President Lukashenka signed a decree on the 5-day visa-free regime for those who enter the Hrodna region. Now foreigners can visit not only Hrodna but also Brest region for tourism purposes.

The map of the visa-free area in Belarus in 2018. Source: TUT.by

In 2017, to visit Belarus one should have crossed the border by bus or car at the border, or by plane into Minsk airport. Today, visa-free travellers can come to Hrodna and Brest regions by both road and rail. Visitors to Hrodna visitors can also take advantage of the local airport. Starting 2018, the visa-free territory applies to a whole visa-free region, rather than particular tourist sites as in 2017.

This year, however, a visa-free visit to Hrodna and Brest will become more bureaucratic in comparison to last year. Visa-free travellers at the border must display a permission form, which proves a purchase of service from a Belarusian tourist company. In practice, this means that foreigners must buy either a tour, accommodation or activity from an official travel agency. Foreigners still have to register at the local registration office—either at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a tourism office near an attraction, or at a hotel—within 5 days of arrival. 

Visa-Free Year: Achievements and Lessons

After the introduction of the visa-free regime, more foreigners have begun to visit Belarus. The Vechernij Grodno newspaper writes that many tourists from neighbouring Lithuania speak about low-cost products, medicines, alcohol, as well as the opportunity to visit theatres for just a few euros. Many foreigners also speak positively about the nightlife in Belarus.

The trial year of the visa-free regime has brought tangible material revenues. On 5 January, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei said after one year of the visa-free regime, the city of Minsk’s profit from tourism increased by 35 per cent, writes news agency BelTA. The annual number of tourists reached almost 80,000, which is 12 per cent more than before the visa-free regime. Tourists from Poland and Lithuania are the biggest spenders.

At the same time, it is hard to say whether the visa-free regime has made a significant contribution to the Belarusian economy. According to a report from the World Travel & Tourism Council, tourism in Belarus amounted to only 1.9 per cent of GDP, which is 0.1 per cent more than in 2016 (when the visa-free regime did not exist).  The World Travel & Tourism Council has ranked Belarus 139th among 185 countries by share of revenues from tourism to GDP. According to the report, Lithuania and Poland earn on average three times more from tourism services.

Hostel in Hrodna. Source: hrodna.life

Despite this, Belarus continues to develop its tourist industry. Last year tourists to the first visa-free territory in Belarus, Hrodna, mentioned a shortage of hotels and low-cost accommodation. Since then, the number of hostels in the city has increased from one to three, and three more are to open in 2018. In addition, most menus in the local cafes and restaurants now have an English version.

Belarus also continues to improve contact with neighbouring countries for the development of tourism. This year, Ukrainian and Belarusian travel agencies are putting together a joint tour package of Lviv, in Ukraine, and Hrodna, in Belarus, said National Tourism Agency Representative Alena Lihimovich in an interview with online news portal TUT.by. In addition, the Polish airline company LOT is considering the launch of cheap flights into Hrodna airport, which has recently become open for visa-free entry.

Touristic Belarus: unclear cautiousness of authorities

When it comes to visa liberalisation, the concerns of certain state institutions prevent the establishment of a longer, 30-day visa-free regime. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Sports and Belarusian Customs have voted for 30-day visa-free entrance for tourists. The Internal Affairs Ministry and the KGB remain reluctant to agree to such a proposal. Perhaps they are wary of a negative Russian response to the introduction of the 5-day visa-free regime in Belarus. Russian media have expressed security concerns due to the absence of strict border controls between Belarus and Russia.

The map of Hrodna. Source: vgr.by

Belarus continues to expand agreements with many countries to establish a visa-free regime. As of today, Belarusians can enter 70 countries visa-free. In part, Belarus is gradually liberalising its visa policy to coincide with the European Games, a sporting event that Belarus is to host in 2019

Since the implementation of the visa-free decree, Belarus has attracted tens of thousands of tourists. Tourist services have grown in tandem, providing a wider array choices and staffing English-speaking personnel.

However, by entering Belarus via Hrodna or Brest, foreigners cannot go beyond the visa-free zones in the two regions. Also, tourists have to buy tours to Belarus through Belarusian travel companies. An extra hinderance is compulsory visa registration process. It may take almost half a day to register, because of bureaucratisation of the process. If tourists do follow all the formalities or not register, they may be fined. In sum, despite the updated conditions of the visa-free regime, visa-free tourism to Belarus remains difficult due to territorial and duration limits, as well as to the increasing bureaucratisation of tourist travel.




Belarus’s international presence, official ideology, Eurobonds, and Geely cars – Belarus state press digest

Belarus hopes to expand its international presence when it presides over the Central European Initiative and hosts the summer session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly this summer.

In an Independence Day speech on 3 July, Lukashenka alluded to prominent cultural figures and mediaeval Belarusian polities as important elements of Belarusian statehood. This marks a shift from the usual Soviet-inspired nation-building discourse.

The government is issuing Eurobonds for $1bn and plans to launch assembling production of Chinese Geely cars in the second half of 2017.

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

Foreign policy activity

The Central European Initiative meets in Minsk, as Belarus holds the organisation’s presidency this year, according to the Minsk Times. At present, the organisation comprises 18 countries and aims to prevent further dividing lines from growing in Europe. In Minsk, the CEI Foreign Ministers discussed how to adapt the organisation to the new cross-boundary challenges in the region. According to Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makiej: ‘There is no room for selective dialogue, where those ‘not European enough’ are ignored or set aside. There can be no “one-size-fits-all” political integration and there can be no universal recipe for instant democracy’.

The most sensible European politicians understand this. For example, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto noted that: ‘We advocate a fair approach from the EU towards Belarus and support the removal of sanctions, simplification of the visa regime between Belarus and the EU, and the promotion of Belarus in negotiations regarding membership to the WTO’.

The summer session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly opens in Minsk on 5 July. Belarus Segodnia interviewed Permanent Representative of Belarus to the OSCE Aliena Kupčyna. This session was the first OSCE event of its size in Belarus. According to the article, the choice of Belarus as a venue for the annual session is very appropriate, given the current crisis of European security. Belarus is increasingly perceived as an island of stability: it has no military or protracted conflicts on its territory and makes a significant contribution to the fight against organised crime, illegal migration, and human trafficking.

However, dividing lines in the region continue to grow, despite OSCE declarations. In order to prevent them, countries in the region must first of all scale down confrontation and work to increase mutual trust in the military sphere. Secondly, they should overcome the growing economic fragmentation in the OSCE area and develop economic interconnectedness. Thirdly, the OSCE should help participant states to fulfil their obligations to the organisation, albeit without coercion.

National ideology

Nationalising rhetoric and IT development enter official ideology. Belarus Segodnia published a transcript of Alexander Lukashenka’s Independence Day speech on 3 July. Although such speeches usually feature overly militaristic rhetoric, this time the Belarusian leader alluded to prominent cultural figures in Belarusian history. The authorities seem to be incorporating more and more nationalising elements in official ideology.

Lukashenka mentioned ‘those luminaries and ascetics who created Belarusian statehood, including Euphrosyne of Polatsk, Kiryla Turaŭski, Francysk Skaryna, and Symon Budny’. He called the Principality of Polack ‘our historic cradle’, and stated that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania provided a powerful impetus to military and urban development. Lukashenka also mentioned that both Belarus and Russia have no future if they fail to develop their respective IT sectors.

Economy

Tourism fails to grow despite the new visa-free regime. The number of foreigners who have taken advantage of the possibility to enter Belarus visa-free for five days has reached 20,000 as of this summer, writes Belarus Segodnia. Tourist companies prepared interesting programmes in anticipation of an influx of tourists, but no such surge occurred.

Experts note that the introduction of the five-day visa-free regime for citizens of 80 countries remains largely unknown abroad. Most tourists seem to come on business and limit themselves to hotel conference rooms or nightlife rather than visiting local travel agencies.

Assembly production of Chinese Geely cars to be launched soon. A Respublika correspondent visited the Geely plant to obtain details regarding the launch of car production. However, the management refused to disclose the details of their business plan or its expected profitability. Representatives of the plant would not even specify the precise dates of the plant’s official opening, saying only that it would be in the second half of 2017.

Currently, all car components for test production come from China, but after the official launch suppliers will be primarily Belarusian and Russian. The management of the plant confirmed that there are already pre-orders for the new cars, albeit so far mostly from Russia. The minimum price of a car will be around $12,000 and maximum $26,000-$27,000, depending on the model. Currently, 90% of the company’s employees come from Belarus; the rest are Chinese specialists training Belarusians.

Belarus and Russia demonstrate their innovations at the Fourth Forum of Regions in Moscow. The forum, which was held on 29-30 June, was named ‘Vectors of Integration Development of the Regions of Russia and Belarus in the Sphere of High Technologies, Innovation and the Information Society’, according to Belarus Segodnia. The forum took place at the same time as the Supreme State Council of the Union State; both Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin took part. The Forum of Regions is designed to facilitate the expansion of contacts and to function as a discussion platform.

The exhibition not only displays various achievements, it also shows the real fruits of the economic integration of the two countries. They are laying the foundation for the development of the modern smart economy of Belarus and Russia. It is impossible to be competitive on the global market alone, so the countries need to use their high intellectual potential jointly.

Belarus issues Eurobonds for $1bn. The Finance Ministry has announced details regarding the beginning of a Eurobonds roadshow in the USA and Europe, writes the Minsk Times. Depending on market conditions, Belarus plans to place two issues of Eurobonds for 5 and 10 years. The organisers are the Development Bank of Belarus, Citi, and Raiffeisen Bank International AG.

The roadshow format envisages presentational shares and meetings with potential investors and leading analysts. The event is being organised by the top management of the companies involved, prior to the placement of the bonds. Concrete terms for new issues of Belarusian Eurobonds and the volume concerned have not been announced. However, experts expect that it may amount to $1bn.

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




Big talk with the President, a drop in gambling, armed neo-Nazis – Belarus state press digest

Last week Alexandr Lukashenka spoke for over seven hours to journalists emphasising deep problems with Russia at the press conference “Big talk with the president”. According to him, Russia should not fear an influx of migrants after Belarus’s visa-free regime starts.

Lithuania criticises the Belarusian NPP for solely political and economic reasons, not security concerns. The previously thriving gambling industry in Minsk is in decline since people is now using websites like 겜블시티. Experts discuss challenges to Belarus’s accession to the WTO in 2017. Brest police detain a group of neo-Nazis with a large stockpile of arms and links to Ukraine.

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

Politics

Lukashenka holds a “Big talk with the president”. On 3 February Aliaksandr Lukashenka held a press-conference which lasted for the record breaking 7,5 hours and gathered an unusually diverse spectrum of participants – journalists, political experts, businessmen, MPs, representatives of civil associations. “There are forces that try to involve us into conflicts, and today we especially need spiritual strength and consolidation. The talk gathered people with diverse views, but we are all devoted to independent Belarus”, he emphasised before at the beginning.

Belarusian leader commented on all current problems of Belarus. He insisted that the government should guarantee $500 average salary by any means. He stated that Belarus lost $15bn due to protectionist policies of Russia within Eurasian Economic Union, and criticised Russia for anti-Belarusian media messages and setting a border control zone on border with Belarus.

Lukashenka said that Belarus can do without Russian oil, however difficult it could be, because independence and history are priceless and cannot be traded. He also revealed that it was Vladimir Putin who advised him to normalise relations with the West.

Russia should not fear an influx of migrants after the visa-free regime in Belarus starts. Soyuznoe Veche published Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s response to the emerging concern in Russia over the new policy of visa-free entry to Belarus for nationals of 80 countries. This step could threaten Russia’s security since the countries have no border, some Russian commentators argue.

The Belarusian side claims that the government had considered the visa-free regulations for a year and a half and examined all the potential risks for Belarus, its allies, and neighbours – including Russia. Lifting visas does not mean removing border control, and any fear of criminals entering Russia is groundless. ‘This is our sovereign right. We are not violating any agreements with other states by introducing this regime’, the Belarusian leader said.

Lithuania criticises the Belarusian NPP out of envy. Lithuanian political parties plan to draw up an agreement which would prohibit purchase of energy from the Belarusian NPP, reports Narodnaja Hazieta. President Dalia Grybauskaite had stated earlier that the NPP may become an instrument of unconventional pressure on the Baltic states. Quoting the expert Aliaksiej Dzermant, the newspaper writes that the real reasons for Lithuania’s behaviour are political, as it plans to build its own NPP together with the other Baltic states and Poland.

However, Lithuania’s neighbours do not support the initiative, while the Belarusian plant is looking more and more like a successful rival. The newspaper also quotes the Director of the Division of Nuclear Installation Safety of the IAEA, Grzegorz Rzentkowski, who says that Belarusian government fully realises the responsibility for nuclear safety and has invited a large number of monitoring missions to Belarus.

Economy

Minsk casinos are in decline. Respublika reports on the sunset of the gambling era in Belarus. After Russia restricted the gambling industry to a few special zones in 2010, Belarus decided to take initiative and become a Las-Vegas for Russia and other countries. Investors flooded into Minsk in order to set up businesses and wealthy Russians appreciated the proximity of the Belarusian capital. However, year by year the government kept adding new taxes on both casinos and gamblers.

Casino owners complain that they are completely mistrusted by Belarusian officials, who think that gambling cannot be unprofitable. Moreover, plummeting oil prices have significantly reduced Russians’ appetite for gambling. On top of this, Russia is planning to open a new gambling zone in Sochi, which will definitely entice Russian clients. Many businessmen in Belarus are now simply hoping to close shop without losses or conflicts with the authorities.

Experts discuss the challenges to Belarus’s accession to the WTO. By the end of 2017, after a long delay, Belarus may finally join the WTO. Respublika asked experts about the challenges and opportunities membership in WTO could bring to Belarus. Director of the National Centre for Marketing Valier Sadocha thinks that in the middle and long-term period, WTO membership could lead to some industries reforming and others closing. More transparent legislation, compliant with WTO standards, could attract more investors to Belarus.

Growing competitiveness on the market would also result in lower prices. Uladzimir Karahin, head of the National Confederation of Entrepreneurs, believes that Belarusian businesses should learn how to defend themselves in courts and participate in anti-dumping investigations. According to World Bank estimates, WTO accession would increase real income of Belarusians by 8.2 per cent.

Society

Brest police detain a group of neo-Nazis selling arms and drugs. A group of men were detained during the sale of a gun and 1.5 kg of TNT, according to Belarus Segodnia. A search of their apartments revealed a large stockpile of arms and arms components, as well as amphetamines and marijuana. The arms included guns, rockets, bombs, ammunition, and explosives. They amassed the arms by accumulating remains from World War II as well as purchasing and smuggling them from Ukraine.

The men confessed that they planned to make money through arms sales, but during the interrogation they also admitted that they wanted to defend their land in case of invasion. According to the police, the group’s motivations consisted of a grab bag of various radical ideologies: racism, Slavic paganism, hatred towards Russia and Donbass, and support for far-right organisations.

Architectural heritage decays because of bad regulation. Narodnaja Hazieta inquired why old castles, palaces, and manors continue to moulder in Belarus. The state is largely unable to finance their restoration. There are around 600 such sites in the Hrodna Region alone. These buildings have remained state property since Soviet times, but they need private owners regardless of what functions they are to fulfil. This will at least prevent further decay.

However, the conditions for purchasing such buildings remain unacceptable for investors. The state demands very short terms for restoration and exorbitant prices. Besides, the legislation on protection of cultural heritage is outdated and needs to be comprehensively overhauled.

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




Paper on business education, the 2016 Journal of Belarusian Studies, Belarus-Lithuania – Ostrogorski Centre digest

In January, analysts at the Ostrogorski Centre discussed Belarus’s new oil war with Russia, the dynamics of Lithuanian investments in Belarus, and the initial impact of visa-free regulations on Hrodna Region.

The Ostrogorski Centre released the analytical paper ‘Belarusian business education: from a command economy to the market’, which resulted from the Fourth Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish conference on education.

The Centre also published the 2016 issue of the Journal of Belarusian Studies.

Analytics

Vadzim Smok discusses whether Belarus stands a chance in a new oil war with Russia. Oil products remain Belarus’s No.1 export commodity, making up a third of Belarus’s export revenues. Meanwhile, Russia has less and less need of political allies as it increasingly relies only on itself. The country is also adjusting its military policy to ensure its independence from the Belarusian army on the western front. With no alternative options for hydrocarbon supplies, and Minsk’s decreasing political and security leverage, the country will have to play by Moscow’s rules.

Ryhor Asapenia analyses recent developments in Lithuanian investment in Belarus. Lithuanian businessmen have become the largest Western investors in Belarus, adding more than €80 mln to the Belarusian economy in 2015. Investments remain at a high level, although several Lithuanian companies have abandoned their projects because of the Belarusian economic crisis. Moreover, the poor political reputation of the Belarusian authorities still discourages Western businessmen from investing.

Alesia Rudnik writes about the initial impact of the new visa-free regulations on Hrodna Region. In response to the increasing number of foreign tourists, Hrodna Region has started work on two important initiatives: visa-free railway voyages and launching low-cost flights to Hrodna airport. However, making railway services and the Hrodna airport accessible visa-free will not attract many more tourists if more tourist services are not first developed. Extension of the visa-free territory to the whole of Belarus and investment in the development of services would significantly improve the popularity of Belarus for tourists.

Analytical paper: Belarusian business education: from a command economy to the market

The Ostrogorski Centre releases an analytical paper which resulted from the 4th Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish Conference ‘Education as a Human Right: Modernising Higher Education to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century’.

The sphere of Belarusian business education is experiencing very challenging times in connection with the economic crisis in the country. Over the last three years, the amount of turnover in the market in dollar terms has decreased by nearly half, according to various assessments.

Three key problems exist today which representatives of the government, the international community, and business educators would do well to focus on: state regulations, poor integration into the international educational space and lack of affordable business education in the regions of Belarus.

The 2016 Journal of Belarusian Studies

The 2016 issue of the Journal largely resulted from a conference organised by the Ostrogorski Centre and the UCL School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies in London in March 2016. The conference gathered around 20 scholars of Belarus from the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Canada, Poland, and France. Three papers were selected for publication alongside the annual lecture on Belarusian Studies delivered by Professor Andrew Wilson.

  • The electronic version of the Journal is available here.
  • The paper version of the Journal is available for purchase here.

Comments in the media

Ryhor Astapenia analyses Lithuanian investments in Belarus on Polish radio. Lithuania remains the largest Western investor in Belarus. Lithuanians understand the Belarusian mentality and see many opportunities in the Belarusian economy. Due to the recession, Belarus has become less interesting for investors, while political tension between the countries over the Astraviec NPP does not affect business interests, the expert believes.

On the PraSviet programme on Belasat TV, Ryhor Astapenia comments on the role of Belarus in the Russian defence system. Moscow no longer considers Lukashenka a close ally, but is instead militarising its western regions. According to Ryhor, Russia will not consider placing a military base in Belarus in the nearest future. However, the issue may appear on the bilateral agenda again when Belarus has a weaker bargaining position.

Al Jazeera quotes Igar Gubarevich in an article about the Astraviec nuclear power plant. Igar argues that Lithuania’s resistance to the plant is partially fuelled by the fact that BelNPP is being built by Russia, whose technology and influence is widely mistrusted in the Baltic country. The series of incidents at the construction site has made Lithuania’s position stronger. Now, Belarus will have to make an extra effort to address safety concerns.

On Polish radio, Ryhor Astapenia analyses the interconnection of the Belarus-Lithuania dispute over the Astraviec NPP and a potential re-orientation of Belarusian cargo transportation routes. So far, Belarus primarily uses Lithuanian ports, but Russia and Latvia may take advantage of the cooling relations between Minsk and Vilnius to promote their interests.

Igar Gubarevich analyses Belarus’s vote at the UN General Assembly on Polish radio. The vote shows that Minsk is pursuing a much more independent foreign policy than most observers believe. The positions of Minsk and Moscow appear out of sync on almost a quarter of issues. At the same time, the Belarusian government will not cross certain red lines defined by the Kremlin. The Belarusian delegation would never vote for a resolution condemning the Russian government.

Belarus policy

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

Dzmitry Kruk. Causes and characteristics of the economic downturn in Belarus: the role of structural factors. BEROC, 2016.

Maryja Akulava. Current gender trends in Belarusian labor market: wage gap, child penalty and marriage premium. BEROC, 2016.

Ihar Pielipaś, Iryna Tačyckaja. Corruption study based on the survey of Belarusian small and medium-sized enterprises. IPM Research Centre, 2016.

Hlieb Šymanovič, Mattias Morgner. Implementation of state programmes in Belarus: recommendations to improve the effectiveness. IPM Research Centre, 2016.

Ryhor Astapenia. Belarusian business education: from a command economy to the market. Ostrogorski Centre, 2017.

Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by completing this form.

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




Belarusians in the Forbes rating, no autonomy for the Belarus Orthodox Church – Belarus state press digest

Minsk views a normalisation of relations with the EU as being in its national interest. The Russian World cannot be a political factor in Belarus, according to the Metropolitan of the Belarusian Orthodox Church.

The economic recession has reached its lowest point, and in 2018 the Belarusian economy will once a gain experience growth. Russian economic policies towards Belarus are creating obstacles for Eurasian integration. Several Belarusian IT entrepreneurs appeared in the '30 under 30' Forbes rating.

The city of Hrodna sees a rise in the tourism sector as a result of the new visa-free regime. The government reduces the cost of visas to Belarus.

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

Politics and foreign policy

Minsk seeks to build bridges between regional actors. Narodnaja Hazieta publishes an interview with Andrej Rusakovič, chairman of the Centre for Foreign Policy and Security Studies, on the dynamics of Belarus-EU relations in 2016.

Consistent normalisation of relations with the EU is in the national interest of Belarus, as this enhances economic development and strengthens Belarus's global position. The fact that Belarus currently holds the Presidency in the Central European Initiative and the 2017 OSCE Parliamentary Session is to be held in Minsk means that the EU has recognised Belarus's achievements in shaping a stable and lasting security system in the region.

Belarus's geopolitical position makes it dependent on EU-Russia relations. Therefore, Minsk seeks to build bridges between various European associations and institutions in spite of the historical, economic and cultural differences between the countries of the region.

The Russian World cannot be a political factor in Belarus. Belarus Segodnia discusses the recent comments of Metropolitan Pavel of the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the arrest of several pro-Russian journalists. The Metropolitan spoke of the 'Russian World' not as a political factor, but as a cultural and spiritual space. The newspaper adds that today some adherents to this idea propagate the armed defence of all those who identify as Russian but live outside Russia.

people with Russian roots work everywhere in Belarus, from road workers to the head of the Council of Ministers. 

The author argues that this idea has no potential in Belarus, since people with Russian roots work everywhere in the country, ranging from road workers to the head of the Council of Ministers. The newspaper stresses that incitement of ethnic hatred is a crime, and the arrest of pro-Russian journalists should not be considered a restriction of free speech, as some media debates suggest.

Economy

Economic recession hits bottom, 2018 will see growth. Respublika discusses the prospects for the Belarusian economy in 2017. In a recently published macroeconomics review, Sberbank of Russia noted that the economic recession in Belarus is grinding to a halt; this has been the case for three consecutive months now. According to a World Bank report, 2017 will still be uneasy for Belarus, but the worst of the recession has already passed and 2018 will see visible growth.

The government points to the 11% inflation rate as its main success in 2016, and hopes to drive it below 10% in 2017. It foresees a 1.7% GDP growth for 2017. Major growth factors will include global oil prices and the state of economy of Russia, Belarus's dominant trade partner. A forecast of the Russian economy predicts zero growth, so Belarus can hardly expect anything better, the newspaper concludes.

Russian economic policies towards Belarus create obstacles to Eurasian integration. Negotiations on supplies of Russian gas to Belarus lasted for almost a year, writes Narodnaja Hazieta. Back in spring, falling oil prices and a significant devaluation of the Russian ruble made Minsk claim $73 dollars per thousand cubic metres as a fair price for Russian gas.

However, Russia continued to demand $132 and went on to cut oil supplies to Belarus to be extra persuasive, which immediately affected Belarusian budget revenues. Such behaviour contradicts the basic principles of the Eurasian Union, which promise equal prices and conditions for all members.

A food safety conflict came as another serious blow to bilateral relations. At the moment, the Russian food control agency Rosselkhoznadzor has placed limits on exports from 20 Belarusian agricultural enterprises to the Russian market. The author concludes that a union does not make sense if it fails to meet the interests of all parties.

Belarusian IT entrepreneurs appear in the Forbes '30 under 30' rating. Jaŭhien Nieŭhień and Siarhiej Hančar made it into the Forbes '30 under 30' ranking, which lists 600 of the brightest young entrepreneurs, breakout talents, and agents of change in 20 different sectors. The two Belarusian were included in the Consumer Technologies category, reports Belarus Segodnia.

According to the magazine, 'When Facebook wanted to catch up with Snapchat, it turned to two entrepreneurs from Belarus. Nieŭhień and Hančar built MSQRD, an app which adds crazy filters to selfies. After the app caught on in the U.S., Facebook bought MSQRD for an undisclosed amount in March 2016. Since then, both co-founders have been working for Facebook in London'.

Tourism and visas

The city of Hrodna sees a rise in the tourism sector thanks to the new visa-free regime. The visa-free regime in Hrodna Region has been in effect for two months now. Around 2,200 tourists have already taken advantage of the opportunity to visit Belarus over this period. In the end of 2016, the Hrodna City Executive Committee met to discuss what has already been done and how to attract more foreigners, writes Hrodzienskaja Praŭda.

The recently created website www.grodnovisafree.by informs potential travellers about border crossing procedures and the tourist attractions in the region. The authorities have already installed signs on the boundaries of the visa-free zone and modified the working hours of museums, currency exchanges, and other tourist spots. They also drafted a schedule of events for 2017, which includes more than three hundred festivals, celebrations and other brand activities.

Meanwhile, tourist companies and attractions are hurrying to translate their facilities into foreign languages and introduce wifi networks.

The government reduces the cost of visas to Belarus. On 1 January 2017 Belarus introduced new consular fees for issuing visas, writes Belarus Segodnia. Now, individual visas will cost €60, regardless of the number of entries, while a group visa will cost only €10 per person.

Previously, foreign visitors had to pay €150 for D-type visa, €120 for a multiple C visa, and €60 for a one-time visa. Citizens of Poland and Lithuania could acquire visas for half the price: €25 and €60 respectively. According to new regulations they will also enjoy lower rates than other countries, while citizens of Japan and Serbia will be completely exempt from consular fees.

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