The Russian Lobby in Belarus
Earlier this month, the newly appointed Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel arrived in Minsk. The Metropolitan has no Belarusian passport or roots, does not speak Belarusian and visited Belarus only twice in his life before appointment.
The new Metropolitan owes his position to the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, rather than to Belarusians, majority of whom consider themself Orthodox Christians.
Russia has been building up it its long-term lobby in Belarus for some time. Many people from the bureaucracy have close ties with their Russian counterparts. After leaving government service, senior officials often find new jobs in Russian companies.
The Kremlin seems reluctant to build its representation amongst the opposition, as Russia`s authorities find them to be inane. However, rumours that Russian businessmen can finance democrats in Belarus remain frequent.
The Kremlin already clear economic and energy leverage over Belarus. Today's Russian lobby is an embryo that can become an influential political force in Belarus, which will serve the Kremlin.
The Russian Orthodox Church
Metropolitan Pavel, who arrived in Belarus at the beginning of 2014, seems to be the person least controlled by Lukashenka`s regime in the Belarusian public arena. The Belarusian Orthodox Church is part of the Russian church and lacks autonomy. The Moscow Patriarchate appoints the Belarusian Metropolitan without consulting with Belarusian believers of the faith or even its priests.
Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has appointed a non-Belarusian priest to this post for the second time in a row. At the same time other divisions of the ROC in other countries select their Metropolitans from the local clergy. For example, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which belongs to the ROC itself, identifies its head on its own. Thus, the new Metropolitan of Belarus, Pavel, remains primarily loyal to Patriarch Kirill, not to Belarusian believers.
Pavel`s assignment, however, has sparked outrage within the Church and in the Belarusian public. Many priests and parishioners were unhappy with the new appointee from the Russian city Ryazan. The new Metropolitan’s disgust towards democratic values, stemming from his interviews, shocked civil society. Lukashenka remains unexcited about the new Metropolitan as well. His official silence to Pavel`s appointment for a few days in and of itself is proof.
Though Belarus remains a largely atheistic country, the Belarusian Orthodox Church enjoys great credibility among its people. According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, the Belarusian Orthodox Church remains the most trusted institution in the country, with 63 % of Belarusians stating they can rely on it.
It remains unknown if the new Metropolitan will try to raise the level of trust and turn it into political capital or not. However if he does take a chance, it will become Russia's political capital for sure, not Lukashenka's.
Bureaucracy as a Lukashenka`s Fortress
Belarusian-Russian integration has brought about rather ambivalent results for the rising Russian lobby in Belarus. On the one hand, Belarusian officials have close ties with their Russian counterparts, which contributes to their pro-Russian orientation. Many of today's political elites have studied and worked in Russia. For example, Aliaksandr Miazhueu, the Secretaty of the Security Council, graduated from the Russian General Staff Academy
On the other hand, Belarusian officials understand Russia's imperialist intentions much better than Westerners. After all, it was the Belarusian authorities who went through the oil, gas, milk, potash wars with Russia.
During its years of independence the bureaucratic Russian lobby has decreased in its size and reach rather significantly. Most communist leaders with sentiments towards Moscow were sent into retirement. Today’s bureaucracy remains loyal to Lukashenka, not to anyone in Russia.
In the political environment of Belarus there appears to be a rumour that before the Presidential election-2010, one of Belarus' top officials in Moscow was offered a chance to discuss a future of Belarus without Lukashenka. After hearing these opening remarks, the Belarusian official apparently ran out of the room.
However, many Belarusians have good relations with Russian business. After leaving government service they often find jobs in big Russian companies. For example, Siarhei Martynau, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, works as a special representative of the Russian oil company “Rosneft” in Belarus.
The high salaries in corporations attract many Belarusian officials, especially representatives of the law enforcement and security bodies. Indeed it is these people that represent the Russian economic lobby in Belarus.
Because of prolonged and deep cooperation, the Belarusian army has very close ties with its Russian counterpart, so Russia's influence here also remains rather substantial. Many Belarusian servicemen and special service people were educated in Russia. For example, Chairman of the State Border Committee Leanid Maltsau.
However, Lukashenka's regime closely traces its cooperation with Russia not to shift their loyalty to Kremlin. Major General Ihar Azaronak, former head of the Air Forces of Belarus, received nine years in prison for lobbying the interests of the Russian military companies.
Minimum Attention to the Opposition
While Russia tries to have influence in the nomenclature circles, it shows complete disinterest in creating a lobby among the Belarusian opposition. On the one hand, Lukashenka would take it as a personal affront.
On the other hand, the Russian authorities do not know with whom they could work in Belarus. For example, the Belarusian communist Siarhei Kaliakin stands for deep integration with Russia, but the Kremlin remains reluctant to take such talk seriously.
Before each presidential campaign rumours appear that Russian businessmen or even the Kremlin are financing some of the opposition politicians. The rumours were particularly strong with Aliaksandr Kazulin in 2006 and Uladzimir Niakliajeu in 2010. However, no evidence confirm these rumours.
Although the Kremlin remains reluctant to conduct an active policy of engagement with the opposition, the creation of a Russian political force in Belarus looks like an easy task. For this, the Kremlin has constructed a network of former and current officials. Moreover, the Kremlin can always invest much more money than the West and purchase some opposition groups, real or fake. This is politics a-la russe.
Who Serves Russian Interests in Belarus?
The Kremlin lobby in Belarus, however, is still not nearly as powerful as it might seem. Lukashenka controls senior officials and ensures that they will not become loyal to Putin. The opposition remains largely pro-Western, and the Orthodox Church seems reluctant to challenge the regime..
However, this lobby can become an embryo to influence political forces in Belarus. The Kremlin potentially have a large impact on the church, the bureaucracy and the opposition. Belarus remains too energetically and economically dependent on Russia.
The Russian mass media also has a strong influence on Belarus and its public. Belarusians watch Russian television more than Belarusian television. They read Russian newspapers more often than Belarusian periodicals, and according to Gemius, an online research agency, the biggest Belarusian website tut.by is less popular in Belarus than Russian site mail.ru.
Russia has plenty of potential to create a political power which will serve the Kremlin directly.
Viber, World of Tanks, EPAM – Belarusian IT Companies Conquer the World
The Belarusian game World of Tanks has become one of the most profitable in the world, earning $372m in 2013. The game, with 60 million users, is only one instance that shows how Belarusian IT business is achieving considerable successes and becoming global.
Viber, the smartphone messaging and calling client, has become one of the most popular applications in the AppStore and Google Play, and EPAM Systems creates software for the largest companies in the world. These are just some of the world's leading companies with their roots in Belarus.
Belarusian highly qualified specialists with a robust technical education and favourable business conditions in the industry have made these achievements possible. Success in this field should be an important lesson for the Belarusian authorities.
Belarusian Skype`s Killer
Smartphone application Viber can become perhaps the biggest Belarusian brand on the global market. More than 200 million people use the program, with some hundred thousand people every day becoming new users of the service.
Though the founders registered a company in Cyprus, the application developers work in Israel and two Belarusian cities: Minsk and Brest, a city in the west of the country. Minsk office employs about 60 people.
Currently Viber's is mostly popular in the countries of the former USSR, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The company has a global aspiration and often appears in the news from those regions.
This year, the company made its services in the Philippines free of charge to help victims of the typhoon to connect with one another. Also this year, Saudi authorities have demanded that they decrypt the services traffic, as they are unable to monitor it. Viber Media refused. As a result, Saudi Arabia has blocked the programme from being used within its borders.
It is noteworthy that the company`s paid services in Belarus remain much more expensive than in other countries. For example, a one minute call to the U.S. phone costs 2 cents, while for a one minute call with a Belarusian number people should pay 39 cents. However, this price does not depend on the creators of the Viber, but on the telephone operators. Beltelekam, the state monopoly in this Belarusian market segment, sets such a high price.
IT-Leader in Eastern Europe?
Viber`s case is not an exception. Some other companies with Belarusian roots have become global players.
According to the Global Outsourcing 100 ® List EPAM Systems, an American company with Belarusian roots, became a leading provider of software in Central and Eastern European region. The market capitalisation of the company at the New York Stock Exchange even reached a billion dollars at one point. Microsoft, Barclays Capital, London Stock Exchange, Aeroflot, Gazprom, The Coca-Cola Company were among the clients of the company.
Pennsylvania hosts EPAM`s headquarters. Arkadz Dobkin, Belarusian National Technical University grad, moved to the U.S. from Belarus in 1991 and was washing dishes at the time, founding EPAM Systems in 1993. Now more than 9,000 people work for the company, half of them in Belarus. Apart from Belarus and the United States, EPAM Systems has offices in 10 countries.
It seems that every computer game addict knows the game World of Tanks, a tank simulator set in the time of World War II. This game appears to be the biggest game made by Belarusian developers with over 60 million people registered in it.
Wargaming Public Co Ltd.'s official company registration is in Cyprus. In addition to offices on the island and in Belarus, the company has offices in nine countries and pursues quite an aggressive development strategy. Wargaming is a phenomenon for Belarus where all the big businesses are directly or indirectly linked to the bureaucracy – current or former officials, security officers and oligarchs controlled by Lukashenka.
The company constantly launches new online games and swallows up Western game studios. During the last two years Wargaming bought two American and one Australian firms. Moreover, Wargaming diversified its own portfolio and on 31 October acquired a controlling stake in Hellenic Bank, a large bank of Cyprus at a cost of € 50 million.
How Belarus Achieved IT Success
The poor reputation of Lukashenka`s regime casts a shadow over the whole country, including Belarusian innovators. However, Belarus has enough talented businessmen who can play the game on the global market. Success in the IT sphere has primarily to do with two factors.
At the Belarusian State University the scores of programmers’ alma mater – the Faculty of Applied Mathematics – were considerably higher than in any other natural science faculty: 321-345 (depending on speciality) out of 400 possible points. Passing scores for most other natural science majors remained well below 300.
Marvin Liao, a former commercial director for Yahoo!, said in November 2013 that "Belarus in technical talent is excellent. Perhaps one of the best in the world.”
The authorities seems reluctant to be a hindrance to this sector. Many joke that they behave this way because they do not understand this branch of business. Moreover, the Belarusian High Tech Park offers its residents a preferential tax regime and favourable legislation. The companies registered in the technology park pay a fixed income tax of 9% and receive exemptions from corporate and capital gains taxes, VAT and custom duties. Few Belarusian business people have similar conditions.
However, Viber Media, EPAM Systems or Wargaming prefer to have their registration abroad. Not only do economic conditions influence their decisions, but political risks as well. On the one hand, businessmen are afraid of possible problems that the authorities could create. On the other hand, IT companies want to avoid economic sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union.
IT's success proves that Belarusian business is alive. Highly qualified personnel and favourable conditions from the state authorities can secure the constant growth of the industry and its global success. This is a good lesson for the Belarusian authorities.