The EU Helps Belarusians Sort Their Waste
On 13 December, a new waste sorting station will start working in the town of Masty in the Hrodna region.
The European Union finances the project as a part of national programme for environmental protection in Belarus. Besides the waste management problem, the EU supports other environmental projects such as green energy and water purification.
The Belarusian government frequently applies for EU assistance and gladly accepts it. However, the official line does not allow it to publicly demonstrate its cooperation with the EU. Environmental protection serves as one of the areas where quiet cooperation between the EU and Belarus is successfully developing.
Belarus generates around 30 million tonnes of waste annually, out of which household waste makes up 3 million tonnes. Each year, the volume grows by 20%. Existing waste recycling stations have the capacity to recycle only 12% of household waste, while in the EU the rate of waste recycling is around 60%.
The rest is dumped into landfills and/or buried. The existing landfills in Belarus often do not satisfy the the basic standards in their way they carry out their operations or with regards to their location or their usage. These landfills pose a major threat to the environment in Belarus.
Although the government states that 85% of urban housing has access to separate waste systems, the population does not yet actively use it. As a result, the waste suitable for recycling makes up half of the total waste and ends up in landfills.
The absence of equipment for recycling various post-consumer waste constitutes another problem, as the state has no resources to invest in this area.
Several foreign investors have already established their business in this area in Belarus, such as the Swiss company TDF Ecotech AG, the Swedish company Vireo Energy, Austria's Strabag and the German company Remondis. However, they work only in several urban centres, while most towns, the those that are small or medium-sized, have no prospects for developing a sustainable waste management system.
The European Union appreciates the importance of waste management and developed a program called “Waste Governance” within the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument. A portion of the €5m budget of the environmental cooperation program for 2010-2013 has been allocated to working on this issue and has implemented pilot projects in the Puchavičy district as well as in the towns of Masty and Kobryn.
The projects includes aligning Belarusian legislation with EU standards, raising public awareness of the problem, and a more practical component – buying special equipment and machines for sustainable waste management in these towns.
Because of the enormous dependence of Belarusian industry and households on Russian oil and gas imports, the problem of alternative energy remains crucial for modernise Belarus. Although the Lukashenka regime enjoys cheap tariffs on Russian energy in comparison to its neighbours who are less loyal to Vladimir Putin, the prices consistently grow and it has become harder and harder to make deals with the Russians.
Afraid of becoming fully dependant, the regime seeks to develop alternative energy sources. In 2011, the government published its National Programme of Development of Local and Renewable Energy Resources.
The programme aims to develop all reasonable sources of energy for Belarus, from peat and wood to wind energy, geothermal energy and biogas. However, while extraction of peat is a well-known to Belaruian industry since Soviet times and does not require large investments, wind power still needs significant investment and takes much longer to become profitable.
Belarusian bureaucrats seek easier ways to implement the programme despite the clear difference in environmental impact that these two energy sources have. So far, progress in the building of wind turbines has been very modest. Moreover, foreign investors who work in this area face bureaucratic barriers in Belarus.
In 2012, the German company Enertrag AG signed a €360m agreement with the government to build a wind farm of 50 turbines in the Dziaržynsk district near Minsk. But the Ministry of Defence banned the project on the grounds that the farm will interfere with work of its anti-aircraft systems. The offended Germans, who had invested quite a sum at that point, decided to pull out of all of the deals it had with the Belarusians.
Meanwhile, the European Union tries to persuade Belarusian government that the cost of production is not the only reason for developing alternative energy sources. Environmentally friendly technologies should be strategic priorities to keep the country clean for future generations.
In May 2013, Belarus and the EU signed a contract for the Green Economy project in Belarus worth €12m. The project will finance the construction of a wind turbine near Navahrudak and about twenty smaller green projects suggested by local authorities of various regions of Belarus.
River pollution and water management
Most of the rivers in Belarus are polluted with nitrogen and phosphorus compounds below or above the so-called “maximum allowable content”, the value that shows the concentration of chemicals in water. The main reason for this phenomenon is sewage water that is being discharged from the urban centres of Belarus.
Although Belarus significantly reduced the use of water in industry since Soviet times, the sewage treatment facilities continue to use technology from the 1960s-1980s and cannot sufficiently clean the water to an acceptable level. Moreover, in some enterprises cleaning facilities are simply absent.
45% of rivers of Belarus make up a part of the Baltic Sea ecosystem, and their pollution directly impacts the countries that border the Baltic Sea.
As Maira Mora, the Head of Delegation of the EU to Belarus said, “It is impossible to separate air, water, nature. We live very close to each other. Therefore, we do not finance green economy projects in Belarus out of pure altruism. It covers our mutual interests.”
In March 2013, the Ministry of Housing and Communal Service received a total of €65m for the project to moderne the water-purifyication systems in five Belarusian cities. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Nordic Investment Bank and Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership supported the project. Belarus received €21m as a grant, and the rest of the sum will be a loan on preferential terms.
Andrej Šorac, the Minister of Housing and Communal service recently explained that, “the negotiations that preceded the agreement's signing took years.” The minister showed a good example of how the Belarusian authorities, especially institutions that directly implement public policies, are interested in cooperation with the EU.
Despite the unfriendly rhetoric on the highest level fuelled by Russian support, Belarusian bureaucrats realise that the state lacks the funds and expertise to tackle environmental problems. The projects described above present only a small segment of environmental projects, both national and regional, that the EU is implementing in Belarus.
The Belarusian government wastes huge sums of Russian subsidies for unearned, politically motivated wage hikes, while strategic approaches like sustainable development receive less attention at the top. However, the Belarusian authorities always welcome EU assistance in environment protection – it does not undermine the political regime and helps local people, thus making it a win-win situation for all parties involved.
BўROOM: How to Break the Vicious Circle in EU-Belarus Relations
The Vilnius Summit of the Eastern Partnership is over. As expected, Ukraine dominated all official and fringe events. Belarus would have been almost forgotten if not for an interesting initiative by international and Belarusian civil society organisations. As a parallel event to the summit, they put together a creative civic space titled BўROOM.
The event hosted a photo exhibition and a civil society fair, a number of discussions and a Belarusian cuisine café. One of the discussions focused on how to break the vicious circle in EU-Belarus relations. The speakers outlined the fundamental problems of the difficult relationship and offered ideas to improve it. Most of the participants in the discussion agreed that the EU needs to look for more entry points to engage Belarusian society at large.
A Piece of Belarus at the EaP Summit
The organisers of the BўROOM – both international donor and civil society organisations – devised it as a creative space for NGO activists and initiatives to present firsthand their work and achievements inside Belarus. They wanted to attract interested attendees of the Vilnius Summit and the Eastern Partnership Reality Check Conference, which ran parallel to the summit, to meet Belarus’ leading national and regional civil society representatives.
The BўROOM proved to be a success that helped Belarus to keep its small place on the agenda of the otherwise Ukraine-dominated summit activities.
Over one and a half days it received more than 200 guests, both Belarusian and foreign. About 40 organisations and initiatives from Belarus displayed their accomplishments in seven thematic sections: education, culture, environment, grassroots activism, gender, human rights and research.
The events of the BўROOM received live coverage from Euroradio and the satellite TV channel Belsat. And the guests of the event had a chance to treat themselves to some dishes of the Belarusian cuisine, such as draniki, salted flitch, herring with boletus, apple cheese and mini-apple pies.
Also, the BўROOM hosted two discussions about the state of human rights in Belarus and a roundtable on EU-Belarus relations. The latter was co-organised by the Liberal Club and an independent analyst and activist Kseniya Shvedova and focused on how to break the vicious circle in EU-Belarus relations.
Why Does EU’s Policy Towards Belarus Keep Failing?
The discussion, which featured some well-known experts, attracted more than 70 people to attend.
Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations emphasised that nothing much had changed since two important events: the crackdown on the night of the presidential elections in 2010 and the Russian bailout of Belarus’ economy in 2011. The Russian factor, in his opinion, continues to play the primary role in EU-Belarus relations, as official Minsk uses this relationship to extract more economic benefits and concessions out of the Russians. As long as this remains the reality it is difficult for the EU to make any headway.
At the same time Katia Glod, a non-resident fellow of the Academy of Leadership in International Affairs of Chatham House, defined the existing Belarusian economic model as nearly exhausted and assumed that the looming economic troubles would pave a way for change. The opposition will get a chance to enter the political arena and this will automatically create a new state of EU-Belarus relations.
Sergey Kizima, an international relations expert from Minsk, argued that the responsibility for the poor state of the relations rests with the EU, which discriminates against Belarus by not permitting it to make its own sovereign geopolitical choices. Kizima also pointed out the double standards in the Union’s foreign policy by drawing parallels between the situations with human rights in Belarus and Azerbaijan.
This explanation was challenged by the Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission to the 2012 Parliamentary Elections in Belarus Antonio Miloshoski. He called the EU’s position on Belarus well-grounded as the authorities in Minsk regularly violate citizens’ rights and freedoms and elections look “more like a theatre”.
Yauheni Preiherman of the Liberal Club singled out two major factors why the EU’s Belarus policy keeps failing. Firstly, the Belarusian political reality lacks a strong democratic political actor that could promote European values inside the country. This makes the EU’s enlargement-centred policy of conditionality highly ineffective in Belarus. Secondly, the EU over time consistently swings from sanctions to engagement and back again. It is no surprise then that such short-term approaches fail to deliver any results with the consolidated authoritarian regime in Belarus.
Anais Marin, a researcher from the Finnish Institute of International Relations, talked specifically about the European Dialogue on Modernisation. In her opinion, the EU made a mistake when it did not insist on involving Belarusian officials in the dialogue. As a result, it remains non-productive today and reform proposals elaborated within its framework stand little chance of being implemented in the future.
And Is There a Chance to Break the Vicious Circle?
Sergey Kizima suggested that the EU should stop berating Belarus’ sovereign decisions and concentrate on the “good things that exist in the country.”
Antonio Miloshoski argued that the Belarusian government could improve its relations with the EU by reforming its electoral system. A proportional system would allow the opposition to get into parliament, which would improve the internal situation in Belarus and the country’s relations with the EU.
Yauheni Preiherman insisted that the EU should accept that quick change in Belarus is simply impossible, no matter what the EU does. Furthermore, qualitative change seems unlikely without a strong political actor promoting the values of freedom and democracy. And such an actor can only appear when society expresses demand for it. Therefore, the EU’s policy should aim at fostering multiple EU-oriented stakeholders through a long-term strategy of engagement and communication with different sectors of society.
This recommendation was shared by Anais Marin and director of the Office for a Democratic Belarus Olga Stuzhinskaya. The latter gave an example of educational programmes as a tool that the EU could use more effectively to reach out to Belarusian society. In her opinion, giving scholarships for young Belarusians to study in the EU needs to be accompanied by incentives for them to return back upon completion of their programmes.
Project Director of Freedom House Vilnius Vytis Jurkonis expressed a different opinion. He suggested that the EU should adhere to its proclaimed principle of “more for more” with the Belarusian authorities while applying the principle of “more for less” with society at large. Such a mixed approach, in his view, could do more to democratise Belarus than improvements in trade, economy or technical cooperation.