The Belarus-Russia border, Asian merchants dumping cheap goods, rising fuel prices, and Chernobyl programme failures – Belarus state press digest
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka calls the Belarus-Russia border ‘the strangest border in Europe.’ Belarus’s relations with the USA demonstrate incremental improvement. The Belarusian Central Electoral Commission reports on the candidates for the 2018 local elections.
Central Asian merchants illegally gain a foothold in the Belarusian market by taking advantage of recent trade liberalisations. Belarus has to significantly raise fuel prices, because of Russian oil subsidy policies. Belarusian inhabitants of radiation-contaminated zones ignore security rules.
All of this in the fresh Belarus state press digest.
Foreign and domestic policy
Lukashenka calls the Belarus-Russia border ‘the strangest border in Europe.’ A government meeting headed by President Lukashenka discussed Belarus’s visa policy and its future development. Belarus’s recent measures to ease foreigners’ access to the country is a point of contention with Russia. Since February 2016, the Belarusian-Russian border acquired the unofficial status of being ‘the strangest border in Europe.’ Since that time, Russian has begun to exercise full passport control of all persons coming by road, air, or rail. In fact, it is no longer a possibility for a foreigner to enter Russia via Belarus.
Over the past four years, the Belarusian authorities sent back to Russia about 230 people for readmission. Russians returned only one over the same period. This shows that Belarus pays much attention to security issues. Passport control at the border appeared inconvenient first of all to the Russians themselves. As Lukashenka stated, “Russia claims to take this step due to security reasons. But what kind of security are we talking about, if we have joint lists of foreigners who are prohibited from entering the territory of the Union State of Belarus and Russia? No one on the list can enter Belarus.”
Belarus’s relations with the USA demonstrate incremental improvement. In 2017, Belarus and the USA continued to work jointly in spheres of mutual interest, such as trade and economics, humanitarian affairs, the fight against international organised crime, and exchange programmes for professionals. Interaction between experts has also increased. In April 2017, the USA held the first ever Belarusian-American forum for small and medium-sized private companies, organised jointly with the Republican Confederation of Entrepreneurship.
In June, Belarus’s national exposition opened at the eMerge Americas exhibition of high-tech in Florida, with several Belarusian business delegations visiting the states of Arkansas, New York, Oklahoma and North Dakota throughout the year. Belarus and the USA have successfully advanced cooperation in preventing the illegal transit of nuclear and radioactive materials and in fighting high-tech crime. A joint dialogue on human rights begun in 2015 has continued into 2017, writes The Minsk Times.
Belarus’s Central Electoral Commission reports on the structure of candidates for the 2018 local elections. On average, 1.2 people compete for a local deputy mandate within a district across the country, but Minsk is an exception with an average of 6 local delegates competing per district. However, many regions have constituencies with only one candidate, except for Minsk city and the Mahilioŭ region. Among the candidates, 32 are Russian citizens. 45 per cent are currently serving local deputies. About 30 per cent are representatives of education, science and culture sphere, 11 per cent work in public administration, and about 4 per cent are in trade and services. Approximately 3 per cent of the candidates are military and law enforcement officers, and individual entrepreneurs represent only 2 per cent.
As for party affiliation, the Communist Party of Belarus has nominated 333 candidates, the Liberal Democratic Party has put forward 266, the United Civil Party is fielding 78, and the Belarusian Left Party ‘Fair World’ has a modest 72. The elections seem to have woken many parties that have been dormant for some time, reports newspaper Belarus Segodnia.
Central Asian merchants illegally gain a foothold in the Belarusian market by taking advantage of recent trade liberalisations. In 2017, clothing stores with surprisingly low prices began to pop-up across the country, reports Belarus Segodnia. There are already almost 80 of these cut-price stores in the regions. The capital, Minsk, has only two. All of the stores belong to merchants from Central Asia. The stores quickly became popular. Meanwhile, Belarusian businessmen started to express concerns. They complained that foreign merchants were stealing their customers and obviously dumping cheap goods to overwhelm the Belarusian clothing market, all the while bypassing the law. They accused them of smuggling their products illegally into Belarus and evading taxes.
Their prices are 2 to 3 times lower than the Belarusian average. Local entrepreneurs complain that these new competitors have taken advantage of loopholes in Belarusian legislation, because according to the recent liberalisation of trade measures, controlling agencies cannot officially check the newly created business entities for two years from the date of registration, and only have the right to monitor and offer recommendations.
Belarus has to significantly raise fuel prices because of Russian oil policies. Belnaftachim, a state petrochemicals firm, spoke to newspaper Respublika about why it has been forced to raise fuel prices. The domestic market has always been unprofitable for oil processors. Indeed, the state fixes prices as a part of its social policy. Previously, Belnaftachim was able to compensate the difference with highly profitable exports. Russian tax manoeuvres in oil industry has brought the cost of the oil it sends to Belarus to world market prices. The price of gasoline and diesel has increased accordingly. Exports, while still profitable, can no longer close the gap in the sales on the domestic market. Therefore, it is necessary to raise fuel prices.
Moreover, the firm needs to invest about $1.3bn into modernisation. Otherwise, by 2020, when Russia plans to equalise oil prices, Belarusian plants will lose their competitiveness. According to Andrej Rybakoŭ, Deputy Chairman of Belnaftachim, in order to compensate for the increase in the cost of oil, fuel prices have to increase by 23 per cent. Belnaftachim considers it necessary to bring Belarusian domestic fuel prices to the level of the Russian market at the very least, which are currently 7–11 per cent higher than Belarus’s. The firm has already undertaken all possible internal measures to reduce costs.
Inhabitants of radiation contaminated zones ignore security rules. Respublica has produced a report on the problems in overcoming the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe in Belarus’s Homiel region. The main problem concerns the misuse of funds. Last year, for example, over $133m was allocated towards the state’s elimination of Chernobyl consequences programme. As it turned out, the state organisations and businesses involved with the programme were cutting corners, evading taxes and marking down unjustified expenses. The report put the blame to poor management and negligence. Many of the programmes projects failed to be implemented at all.
The Respublica drew particular attention to six districts in the Homiel region. State farms were growing agricultural products without any control for radiation. In eight farms, inspections revealed cases of excess amounts of the radioactive chemical strontium-90 in grain, which was being supplied for food consumption purposes. The local dwellers often ignore security rules and go mushroom or berry picking in contaminated zones, such as the Paliessie radiation ecological reserve. Few of them care to safety-check their bounties in radiological laboratories.
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.
NATO praises Minsk, the KGB’s 100th Birthday, ‘Belarusian Certificates’ – Belarus state press digest
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka shows his support for Russian foreign policy at CIS members meeting. NATO praises Belarus’s unprecedented transparency provided during the Zapad-2017 army exercises. Belarus marks the 100th anniversary of the KGB, with the agency’s current head, Valier Vakulčyk, revealing a number of interesting facts about its recent operations.
Belarus’s visa-free territory has grown even larger as of 1 January 2018. Belarusian lawmakers consider issuing a ‘Belarusian Certificate’ for foreign compatriots. From 2018 on, Belarus is pulling the plug on electricity imports from Russia.
All this in the latest Belarus state press digest.
Foreign policy and security
President Lukashenka showed his support for Russian foreign policy at a meeting of CIS member countries. According to the newspaper Belarus Segodnia, an informal meeting of CIS heads of state took place in Moscow on 26 December, where Alexander Lukashenka shared his position on some fundamental issues. CIS member countries include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. He expressed solidarity with Russia’s position on Syria; if not for Russia’s intervention, Syria would cease to exist at all.
As for the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Lukashenka called it ‘a bit strange.’ He said America should not destroy peace, which was established through so many hardships, and must adhere to the decisions of the UN. The President of Belarus also expressed concern that terrorists displaced from the Middle East would move to Afghanistan, where combatting them will become more difficult than in Syria.
Assessing the economic results for the year among CIS countries, Lukashenka said they were positive. However, Belarus will keep on advocating the timely creation of common markets for electricity, gas, oil and oil products, reports Belarus Segodnia.
NATO praised Belarus’s unprecedented transparency provided during Zapad-2017 army exercises. At a briefing for Belarusian journalists and experts at NATO headquarters, the organisation’s representatives said, “NATO praises Belarus’s unprecedented transparency provided during Zapad-2017 army exercises,” reports newspaper The Minsk Times. Belarus issued the necessary notifications about the forthcoming exercise and the number of its participants in advance and did not misinform anyone. Indeed, authorities listed that 13,000 participants would take part when, in fact, the actual number was even smaller.
Belarus was not obliged to invite international observers, but it did so voluntarily. Moreover, the authorities arranged a five-day tour for the foreign observers, including a flight over the exercise area. “We see that the country is interested in expanding cooperation with the European Union and NATO in security matters. In our opinion, there are no serious hindrances to it,” the NATO officer said.
Domestic politics and economy
Belarus marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the KGB. On 20 December, the Belarusian state celebrated the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the various incarnations of its security bodies. The present head of the KGB, Valier Vakulčyk, in an interview to Belarus Segodnya, among other things, revealed a few interesting facts about the agency’s recent activities. From 2014–2017, Belarusian security services identified 59 foreign terrorist fighters on Belarusian territory, 23 of whom were on the international wanted list.
The agency head said the KGB did not consider the neighbouring Baltic States, Poland, and Ukraine as a ‘threat.’ Indeed, he said the concept of ‘enemy’ has completely disappeared from everyday KGB vocabulary. However, he also defined “the aggressive methods of the Lithuanian special services, which include targeted provocations,” as “uncivilised.” For the last five years, the KGB detected and disrupted the intelligence activities of 36 officers and agents of special services from foreign states. 13 of these officers and agents faced criminal charges.
Vakulčyk also praised the national security training academy, which prepares specialists on behalf of many foreign countries and has developed its own communication systems and equipment for the Belarusian government.
Belarus’s visa-free territory has grown again. Since 1 January 2018, foreigners have been able to stay visa-free in six districts located in Belrus’s Hrodna and Brest regions for up to 10 days, reports Belarus Segodnia. Earlier, the visa-free regime only applied to the Hrodna region and only for 5 days. The new visa-free zone in Brest includes Brest City as well as the Žabinka, Kamianiec, Pružany and Svislač districts.
Another pleasant change relates to vehicles permitted for travel. While earlier tourists could only come by car or bus, now they will also be able to take trains and planes. However, to use the visa-free opportunity, one will need to buy a tour package for a group or individual. The changes apply to citizens of 77 countries around the world. The tourist companies in Minsk are awaiting the same rules to spread to their territory soon. At present, tourists can come to Minsk without a visa by plane only and for just 5 days.
Belarus is thinking about issuing a ‘Belarusian Certificate’ for foreign compatriots. Belarusian MPs have proposed the creation of a ‘Belarusian Certificate,’ which will be issued to ethnic Belarusians living abroad, as well as to their descendants, writes newspaper Respublika. The document aims to ‘strengthen the spiritual connection of Belarusian diaspora with their historical homeland.’ They will be more likely to come to Belarus and thus will improve its economy and image, said Foreign Affairs Standing Committee Chairman Valiery Varaniecki. For others, the certificates would remain merely a symbolic, spiritual tie.
Aliaksandr Chuk, the head of Heritage, a Belarusian cultural foundation based in Kazakhstan, calls the initiative very necessary, but notes it should not be seen as an ordinary piece of paper. The document should provide real privileges, for example an opportunity to study or work in Belarus. Today, some 3.5 million Belarusians are living abroad.
2018 is the year Belarus stops electricity imports from Russia. Belarus’s Energy Minister, Uladzimir Patupčyk, assures there is no political background to the decision. Belarus has been long preparing for it. Operators have been gradually reducing supplies from abroad and working modernising Belarus’s energy system.
Almost every year, the country introduces new energy capacities, modernises existing power plants, and encourages the consumption of local fuels—which includes the use of renewable energy. For example, the two largest hydropower stations in the country, Polack (21,7 MW) and Viciebsk (40 MW), were launched in 2017. In addition, Belarus finished full-scale reconstruction of one of the oldest power plants in Homiel. In 2019, the country plans to launch the first bloc of its nuclear power plant, writes newspaper Soyuznoe Veche.
The state press digest is based on a review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media 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.