The Russian Shoppers Are Coming
Thousands of shoppers from Russia cross the Belarusian border every day to buy large quantities of cheap Belarusian goods. Shopping in Belarus became very attractive after the Belarusian rouble lost over a half of its value in 2011.
Belarusian shops cannot satisfy the demand of Russian consumers and often run out of stock, leaving the locals without essential goods. Some shops have begn to introduce rationing and refuse to sell more than a certain quantity to satisfy as many people as possible. That results in quarrels and even clashes between local Belarusians and Russian shoppers.
Belarusian service of Radio Liberty reported last week that a quarrel between local and Russian buyers in the Mahiliou region turned into a real fight. Similar scenes were seen in the Vitsebsk region. Radio Liberty quoted a local resident who conveyed the general mood in his area: "The Russians are buying out everything. Perhaps it is good for the economy but it is certainly bad for us. It is frustrating that we cannot afford to buy what we want for our salaries".
Belarusian exporters sell even more products directly to Russia. Unlike Belarusian buyers, the Russians pay in hard currency, not in Belarusian roubles which are rapidly losing their value. The Russian shoppers bring in the badly needed hard currency but often leave Belarusians with empty shops and frustration.
In the 19th century, the Great Famine in Ireland caused millions of deaths. While people were starving large quantities of food were shipped to Britain. Then the poor had no money to buy food and the government did not ban exports. Although there is no famine in Belarus, many people struggle to afford basic things and the government can neither limit Belarusian exports not make their people richer.
Export restrictions would contradict the Customs Union arrangement with Russia and Kazakhstan, which came into effect in 2011. Without any significant oil reserves, Belarus does not fit very well in the union with oil exporting Kazakhstan and Russia.
But over the last two decades Belarus acted as if it had its own oil because Russia was happy to supply it at very cheap prices. The Belarusian authorities then redistributed revenues from processing and reselling cheap oil to the Western markets. They had no incentive to modernize the Soviet-style economy. When Russia reduced its subsidies, the Lukashenka economic model collapsed and the real income of Belarusians fell sharply.
What lured Lukashenka to join the Customs Union was the opportunity to get cheap oil and gas. Not as in the good old days but still better than the market prices. According to Vladimir Putin, the gas price formula for Belarus now stipulates the same profit margin as supplies to the European Union. But it will also include an "integration-related" coefficient, which will apparently depend on Lukashenka's conduct. Ukraine decided not to join the customs Union and according to Putin will continue to pay much higher gas prices.
Lukashenka strikes deals with Russia not because of his ideological preferences. It is simpler than that – Russia is the only country in the region which is able and willing to waste billions to support its imaginary geopolitical goals. Like a group of bad boys who want to be noticed, many in the Russian elite want to be in charge in Belarus and they pay for it. Like their Belarusian counterparts, the Russian political elite is not accountable to the Russian taxpayer. That makes it easy to engage in buying loyalty of neighboring dictators rather than building roads or modernizing Russia's own economy. This is one of the ways the Russian elite is trying to heal the psychological trauma caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
But even with relatively cheap Russian oil and gas supplies, the Belarusian government can neither find a quick fix for its economic problems, nor is it capable of serious structural reforms. Nearly all senior officials in Minsk are in their late 50s and worked most of their lives in the Soviet Union. When Russian subsidies helped to keep they economy afloat they felt comfortable. Today they face a different economic reality and do not know how to deal with it. They are pathologically scared of market reforms and dislike the very idea of privatization. But they will have to do it because it looks that there will be no other way out.
For a long time the Russian elite has been keen to engage in a different kind of shopping. Rather than buying Belarusian dairy products and electronics, they hope to get control of major state-owned assets. Belarus already committed to sell the rest of its transit pipeline to Gazprom to ensure cheap gas prices. More state enterprises are likely to follow. Similar to consumer goods the prices for these assets are likely to be very low.
More Pressure against Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’ – Politics and Civil Society Digest
The Belarusian authorities intensify their pressure on Viasna, the most active human rights organization in the country. Based on materials the Belarusian authorities received from Lithuania and Poland, they have kept Viasna's chairman Ales Byaliatski in prison since August. This month they charged Valiantsin Stefanovich with tax evasion – the number two person at Viasna.
Tax inspection against Valiantsin Stefanovich.The Partyzansky district court of Minsk is considering a lawsuit against human rights activist Valiantsin Stefanovich. He is accused of failing to pay more than Br37 million (approx. $7,400) in taxes. The amount of unpaid taxes has been calculated based on information about his foreign accounts, details of which were transferred to Belarus from Lithuania and Poland.
Confiscated computers returned to Viasna. The Main Police Bureau of the Minsk City Executive Committee, passed to human rights defenders computers and other items that had been confiscated during the search held at the office on December 20, 2010. However, several laptops that were confiscated during the second search, held on 17 January 2011, are still at the disposal of the KGB.
Additional restrictions imposed against Uladzimir Niaklajeu. On 9 September, a court in Minsk banned the ex-presidential candidate from leaving Minsk, going to shopping malls and restaurants, meetings and rallies. He is also obliged to report to police once a week and stay at home from 8 pm to 6 am. Niaklajeu was severely beaten and jailed on the day of the presidential elections. Subsequently he was given a two years suspended prison sentence.
Over a dozen of people remain in prison convicted under articles of the Criminal Code for organization or participation in the Ploscha events on December 19, including three ex-presidential candidates: Andrey Sannikov (5 years), Nikolay Statkevich (6 years), Dmitriy Us (5.5 years).
One more public appeal about KGB torture. Recently Siarhei Pauliukevich issued a video address to Internet users in which he described torture and recruitment by KGB agents. Inspired by that recognition, a former presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich posted his article about his own experience of recruitment by the KGB.
Ivan Shyla spends 22 days in jail. On 7 September, the Horki District Court sentenced Ivan Shyla, a Salihorsk-based activist of the Young Front, to 22 days of imprisonment, for participation in the picket near the penal colony where the Young Front leader Zmitser Dashkevich is serving his two-year term, being subject to cruel and degrading treatment by the colony administration.
Statement by Viasna on the conditions of dialogue with the Belarusian authorities. On 8 September, Human Rights Center Viasna made a statement which stressed that dialogue is impossible if there are political prisoners. Moreover, without transformation of the political system a major threat of new political hostages remains.
Makey again gathers Public Advisory Council. In late September, the head of the presidential Administration, Uladzimir Makey, will hold a meeting of the Public Advisory Board. According to official reports, the meeting will be devoted to the role of civil society and its functioning in Belarus.
Conference of "People Program". On 11 September, a conference titled "Independence: Achievements and Prospects" was held in Minsk. The event was organized by the "People Program" campaign (movement “For Freedom”) with the participation of the organizing committee for celebrating the 20th anniversary of Belarusian independence. The conference will bring together about 300 civil leaders, experts and politicians.
Social contracting. Between 23-31 August, in four cities of the Gomel voblast – Zhlobin, Rechitsa, Kalinkovichi and Svetlogorsk – district commissions reviewed applications submitted for the competition of non-profit projects on HIV. It was a part of testing the mechanism of social contracting, initiated by NGO ACT. Among the winners there are only two NGOs – Youth Association "Real World" (Svetlahorsk) and "The Belarusian community of people living with HIV".
Most projects will be implemented by non-profit state institutions (social service centers, schools) or GONGOs like The Red Cross and BRSM. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria provides most funding for the projects, contribution from the local district budgets may be called symbolic – up to Br5 million ($1 000) for each city.
Seminar “EU in higher education”. On 24-25 September, "Educational center “POST” NGO holds a seminar titled "The European Union in higher education: the forms and methods of work". Teachers of various disciplines related to the EU, as well as employees of the international departments of universities, are invited to participate in the seminar.
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.