The People’s Assembly and Attacks Against Opposition Activists – Politics and Civil Society Digest
Last Saturday's Narodny Skhod (the People's Assembly) had been long planned as a major protest event in Belarus. Authorities warned and intimidated its organizers and prospective participants in all regions of the country well in advance. As a result of this pressure and adverse weather conditions, only around one thousand people appeared in Minsk and several hundred in other regions of Belarus. Other instances of pressure against opposition included attacks and in one instance a robbery of activists by plain clothed individuals.
Masked men attack opposition politician Ukhnaleu on his way to Minsk from Lithuania. On 1 October, masked men attacked Valery Ukhnalyow on a road shortly after midnight as the deputy chair of the “Spravedlivy Mir” (Just World) Belarusian Party of the Left was returning to Minsk from Lithuania by car with his daughter and associate Vatslaw Areshka. Masked men stole $12,000, bags, mobile phones, two laptop computers and the keys to Ukhnalyow’s home and car. Police appeared to be committed to undertake a thorough investigation.
Attempt to capture Anatol Liabedzka by plain-clothed men. The leader of United Civil Party was also attacked by people dressed in civilian clothing on 1 October. Several people twisted his arms and tried to push him into the car in the courtyard of the house where he lives. Intervention by his wife and neighbors allowed him not to be captured. Police were not interested in investigating the incident and instead questioned Liabedzka about his old passport, which allowed him to freely travel abroad.
Oleg Manaev detained by the police to keep out a briefing for diplomats. On 6 October, a founder of the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) Oleg Manaev was detained in Minsk by police officers. He was held by the police for about three hours. His detention, Oleg Manaev explains, was due to the desire of the authorities to disrupt his speech at a briefing to diplomats.
Uladzimir Neklaev and Nasta Palazhanka officially warned. Former presidential candidate Neklaev was officially warned for making a foreign trip last week despite being banned from leaving Belarus. Along with several other opposition politicians, Nyaklyayew stayed in Warsaw between September 27 and 30 to take part in a series of meetings with high-ranking foreign officials on the sidelines of the Eastern Partnership Summit. Palazhanka was warned about her activity in Belarus.
Court Fined Picket Participants in Central Minsk. On 3 October, the central district court of Minsk fined detainees participating in a picket at Peramoha Square in the amount of 10-30 base units (Br350 thousand – Br1.05 million). They were accused of administrative violations under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code of Belarus (violation of order or organization of mass action or picketing). Lawyer Tamara Sergei got the maximum penalty.
Utility Services Going up in Price in Belarus. In Belarus, housing and communal services rise in price from 1 October. For example, tariffs for electricity go 15% up, tariffs for thermal energy for heating and hot water – 3.2%, maintenance of residential buildings – 3%. The corresponding decree № 1300 was adopted by the Council of Ministers of Belarus on September 28.
Petrol Goes up in Price for Eighth Time this Year in Belarus. On 1 October, fuel retail prices go up by 5% in Belarus. It’s going to be the eighth price increase since the beginning of the year. The scheduled protest actions were not held.
Belarus Still Participating in Eastern Partnership. On 3 October, Foreign Minister of Belarus Syarhei Martynau said that Belarus will retain its part in the EU program Eastern Partnership: "We’ve not participated in the summit in Warsaw, but Belarus will continue participating in the Eastern Partnership."
Committee to Honor 4 Journalists for Courage. On 5 October the Committee to Protect Journalists said it has chosen four journalists for its 2011 International Press Freedom Awards in New York, an annual recognition of courageous journalism. Awarded journalists included Natalya Radina, of Charter 97 website in Belarus. The awards will be presented at the committee's annual awards ceremony in New York on 22 November.
Call for positions of coordinator and local consultants. The Office for Democratic Belarus (Brussels) announces a call for coordinator and local consultants to work in a joint initiative of the European Union and Belarus Clearing House. The initiative was established by the Office for Democratic Belarus (Brussels), in partnership with EuroBelarus, Forum Syd (Sweden) and Pact. It aims at strengthening the capacity of Belarusian NGOs, promoting their cooperation with the EU and its Member States, as well as improving communication and cooperation between the Belarusian CSOs, the EU, donors and international implementers.
Gay Pride in Minsk. Minsk Gay Pride-2011 will take place from 11- 23 October. The organizer is a human rights project "GayBelarus" and its chairman Sergei Androsenka.
Alexei Pikulik Elected BISS Academic Director. BISS completes its search for a new academic director. BISS’s new Academic Director is Alexei Pikulik, who previously worked for BISS as a senior analyst.
New project for youth. Youth Education Centre Fialta launched a project 'Catch the present'. Over nine months 25 young people will participate in trainings, master classes, as well as implementing their own ideas in various areas of life (culture, sports, literature, science, IT, entertainment, education, etc.).
Survey about people with disabilities. Under the survey conducted by IISEPS in September 2011, the Office of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has initiated a series of issues concerning people with disabilities, as well as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In particular, the data shows that there is no noticeable improvement in the attitude towards people with disabilities in Belarusian society.
The fourth call for proposals under the program "Meeting Place is a Dialogue." International NGO "Understanding" (“Ponimaniye”) together with the Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" (Germany) announced a call for proposals. The program provides funds to organizations and institutions that create the conditions for realizing the potential of older people and establishing a productive dialogue between the generations.
Child Fund International calls for proposals aimed at preventing child abandonment and institutionalization of children. The competition is held under the program direction "Development of services targeted at the prevention of institutionalization of orphans in the community." The maximum amount of funding per project is $ 10 000.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.
Stripped of Cash, Belarus Grants Large Concession to British Company
Yesterday the Belarusian government concluded an investment agreement with the British company GMC Global Energy plc owned by Russian oligarch Mikhail Gutseriev. Gutseriev, who fled Russia in 2007 and currently lives in the United Kingdom, has undertaken to build a major potash-extraction enterprise in Belarus.
The new enterprise will inevitably compete with Belaruskali, the most profitable state company in Belarus. It will extract the same potassium and undermines all its further prospects. This desperate move by the Belarusian authorities is like shooting themselves in the foot. It shows that their options are really exhausted.
Earlier this month, Lukashenka issued a presidential order on concessions for natural resources. Belarusian potassium chloride has been the single major mineral exported of Belarus since Soviet times. Mikhail Gutseriev promises to invest USD 1.5 billion in three major sites to the south of the Belarusian capital. The new enterprise will reach its full capacity in ten years.
Allowing Gutseriev into such business is a very sensitive issue. Belarus has extracted potassium on its own for about 50 years, and has advanced technologies to do it, so it does not need foreign input. The potassium-extracting branch is controlled by state monopoly Belaruskali, which brings a bulk of income to the Belarusian budget; this year alone it will earn about USD 3 billion. Contrary to the government's boasting, it is potash products that are Belarus' major export commodity, and not cars or tractors. Another source of big money for the Belarusian government – oil refineries – are now suffering net losses because of the new price arrangements with Russia.
However effective its work may be, Belaruskali cannot expand its production despite increasing global demand. The government effectively confiscates all the profits leaving nothing for any major investment. In addition, no matter how much the Belaruskali earns, Lukashenka needs money now, and cannot wait.
In order to get the money, the Belarusian leadership grants – as always without any tenders or transparency – a concession to a good friend of the Minsk ruler who has already worked with the Belarusian regime in the past. In 2002-2002 he was the president of Russian-Belarus oil firm Slavneft. Apparently in today's Belarus, the only way to undertake major investment in the country is to befriend someone from the very top of the regime, and even better, Lukashenka himself.
Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet admits, “Of course, he [Gutseriev] does have money, but it is that type of entrepreneur and that type of investment which may be called risky. And this project is built upon a political component. None of the well-established Russian oligarchs will come to Belarus”*.
Having a powerful political sponsor is a precondition for doing business in Belarus. For example, after Lukashenka's visit to Qatar last August, the Belarusian government media loudly applauded the deals made which would allegedly bring billions to Belarus. The secret of such deals was simple – of course, the Qatari rulers can afford property in more legally-protected places in the West. Yet in Belarus they can build whatever they want even in places where the building is legally prohibited for some social, cultural or environmental reasons. What is impossible in Western countries is possible in Belarus.
For instance, some of the most discussed projects may be linked to building palaces in the world-renowned protected area of Belavezhskaya Pushcha. But there are no restrictive laws for Gutseriev and other friends of the Belarusian strongman. Upon signing the deal he gratefully declared that “the investment climate in Belarus is not worse than in other countries”*.
This new development demonstrates that the situation in Belarus is becoming desperate. Lukashenka would not touch potassium business had he not found himself in a real emergency. Could he put on sale other assets of his country? It is hard to answer this question, yet the value of many assets currently owned by the Belarusian state cannot be as high as expected.
The Belarusian government recently declared it was planning to get USD 6-7 billion of foreign investment for extracting national mineral resources. Yet this sum seems to be hardly achievable. Potassium was indeed sought by many companies and Belarus is actually a major player on the global market of this mineral resource. But other natural resources such as granite, gypsum or low-quality iron ore – that can be made available for some kind of foreign investment or purchase, are by far less profitable.
Most likely the king is effectively naked. Most business adventures of Lukashenka in the past – like the arms trade – were no more than improvisations to get quick money without any prospects for stable earnings.