To Peat or Not to Peat?
An official myth describes Belarus as a country of mires and swamps. Indeed, Belarus has one of the largest wetlands on the continent, often the lungs of Europe.
But peat extraction on an industrial scale in 1960s – 1980s led to the drainage of 51.2 % of its peatlands. Peat has been used mostly as a fuel for boilers for many years. As a result, just one third of Belarusian peatlands remains untouched.
Nevertheless several years ago Deputy Prime minister of Belarus Uladzimir Siamashka declared that the golden era of peat briquette plants was coming and pointed out that government will make a huge investment into peat enterprises. To defend the last Belarusian mire public campaign In Defense of Belarusian Wetlands emerged.
Activists started the campaign one year ago. Over this short period of time they spread information about the plans of the Belarusian government to start peat extraction in the areas of eight natural mires included in the list of protected territories of national importance and they managed to collect 17,000 signatures to prevent peat mining.
Last summer the environmentalists had their first success. The rosecutor’s office declared the decision of Pukhavichy regional Executive Committee for the re-organisation of natural reserve Vetrevichsky as a wrongful act and, thereby, prevented the peat extraction in the protected area near Minsk.
Peat as a cheap energy resource
The main lobbyist of the peat extraction expansion became the Ministry of Energy which considers domestic peat an alternative to imported natural gas. According to the state program called Peat, established in 2008, peat extraction must be increased twofold by 2020. The catch is that most of the peat fields located throughout the country belong to the nation's land fund and its nature protection fund where extraction activities are forbidden, leaving only 7% of total its reserves open for extraction.
The campaign In Defense of Belarusian Wetlands started after the issuance of The Government Decision from 17 June 2011. The document listed prospective areas for peat extraction and introduced changes to the allocation scheme of protected areas of national importance. The document allows for peat extraction to begin in the peatlands which belong to the nature protection fund.
Proponents of peat extraction in protected areas argue that in 1960s–1970s these territories were a source of raw materials. According to their reasoning, if the country has economic problems and lacks its own energy resources, peat extraction in protected territories justified.
Environmental NGOs experts disagreed with this reasoning. They claim that the extension of peat extraction in protected territories will have a negative influence on the climate, biodiversity preservation and lead to the depletion of water resources. In turn Belarus' ministry of environment officials have often reminded the public that an ecological evaluation should precede any mining. In cases of Vetrevichsky and Aziory natural reserves the expertise proved inexpediency of peat extraction.
Moreover, the promotion of short-term profits for a few companies which leads to the destruction of wetlands ecosystem attracted the attention of foreign donors. For example, it caught the attention of United Nation Development Program which provides financial support for the "re-wetting" of Belarusian mires. That negatively influenced an already broken image of Belarusian authorities.
In Defense of Belarusian Wetlands campaign
The idea of the campaign belongs to participants of the Green Alliance association. A very young team that came up with an idea of the campaign In Defense of Belarusian Wetlands have never taken part in any opposition political movements, nor did they have nay experience with public campaigns. For that reason, the activists were able to successfully cooperate with officials and state media.
The campaign caught the attention of independent media as well as official TV, which resulted in a TV report criticising peat extraction in protected territories. According to journalists mining activity can result in water resource depletion and a decrease in biodiversity.
Many international environmentalist organisations also supported the activists. Surprisingly, together with Finnish Association for Nature Conservation and Czech Green Party, Marea Socialista movement supported the campaign. Marea Socialista belongs to The United Socialist Party of Venezuela whose ex-leader Hugo Chavez was a close friend and ally of Alexander Lukashenka.
In Defense of Belarusian Wetlands activists travelled to wetlands areas, teamed with residents of local villages and provided legal assistance for local people to prevent peat extraction in those areas.
The peat extraction issue did not have any political connotations and for that reason lawsuits from local residents had good chances for succeeding. It proved that the decision of the prosecutor’s office, which declared the decision of Pukhavichy regional Executive Committee for reorganisation of zakaznik Vetrevichsky as an illegal act and, further on, prevented peat extraction in the protected area near Minsk.
In addition, activists collected 17,000 signatures for the abandonment of plans for the destruction of 8 natural mires included in the list of protected territories of national importance. They also organised dozens of activities such as exhibitions, art performances and lectures aiming to make people aware about threats to the wetlands.
Despite the successes of the campaign, the probability of peat extraction in protected territories persists. Celebrating the one year anniversary of the campaign, the activists’ coordinator Ola Kaskevich mentioned that the current situation with four wetlands situated in protected areas is still unclear and a huge work has to be done to prevent peat extraction in these territories.
Wetlands campaign – exception to the rule
The struggle in defense of wetlands continues and it is difficult to predict its outcome. The obvious fact, however, that the wetlands campaign is unique for Belarus. The activists of the campaign have avoided any repressive measures. Moreover, they were able to cooperate with officials and effectively use legislation and courts to achieve their goals.
But, such “liberalism” would impossible if wetlands issue concerned politics or ruling business elites. For example, activists of campaign against Belarusian nuclear station construction are constantly subjected to repression. Exactly the same way environmentalists are not able to influence the decisions on real estate construction in places originally used for recreation.
Nevertheless, the wetlands campaign demonstrates that the Belarusian environmentalist movement has potential. It also serves as a positive example that local people in cooperation with NGO activists can influence the cloudy decision making process of authoritarian state institutions.
EU Aid to Belarus: Financing the Dictatorship or Keeping Illegal Migrants Out?
On 19 October, British newspaper The Daily Telegraph published an article, where it criticised the UK for its contribution to the EuropeAid programme on EU-Belarus border cooperation as helping the Belarusian dictatorship.
The technologies provided by the EU, the author argues, can be used to prevent the Belarusian opposition from escaping from the country. In reality, border security has little to do with the Belarusian opposition.
Border cooperation remains one of the few areas where Belarus successfully cooperates with the EU and receives financial aid. The interest here is mainly European, as the issue of illegal migration, terrorism and trafficking is critical for the EU. The undemocratic Belarusian regime, despite all its problems with the EU, prevents a mass inflow of migrants and contributes to European security.
The UK Government Finances the Dictatorship?
On 19 October, British conservatively oriented newspaper The Daily Telegraph published an article titled “EU passes British aid to Belarus dictator”. The article discussed the fact that European Union’s EuropeAid programme, to which Britain’s Department for International Development is a major donor, provided £68 m since 2007 to autocratic Belarus. This money, directed mostly at border security issues like people trafficking, drug smuggling and illegal migration, arguably will help to strengthen the control of the regime over the movement of opposition.
The author based his statement on the words of a Belarusian dissident, who resides in the UK according to whom “With such equipment they would block all possibilities of escape completely. It would be a completely isolated country”.
The author also cited Jim Murphy, the Labour shadow development secretary, who said “Aid is vital to help alleviate poverty and to support UK national security and economic interests. It should not support regimes in countries of concern with alarming human rights records”.
In the online comments below the article, the outraged public condemned the UK and the EU government for helping the dictator while many Brits are in need. The comments urged to vote for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the future to prevent such a shameless waste of money by “faceless EU bureaucrats”.
EU-Belarus Cooperation in Security
On 21 October, the European Commission categorically denied the story in The Daily Telegraph. The European Commission spokesperson said that Brussels had financed equipment for border guards in order to prevent the illegal trafficking and the smuggling of goods on the border between the EU and Belarus. All projects that receive funding have been discussed and approved by all EU member states. The EU representative also underscored the fact that its money is earmarked for so-called "neutral sectors" where it cannot be used to enhance the regime in Minsk.
Indeed, according to EU documents, it cooperates with Belarus on security issues which, first and foremost, concern EU interests. EU aid hardly affects the regime's sustainability. Border management and customs services has been the largest recipient of the EU aid and received €74m since 2001. The assistance included the demarcation of borders, equipment for guards and customs officials, financing the reconstruction of border crossing points, the training of the staff and policy advice.
Another functioning field of cooperation has been combating human and drug trafficking. Here, the EU allocated much less, around €9.1m since 2001. Apart from these two fields, cooperation with Belarus in the sphere of security did not take place since the 1990s. And considering even the funds mentioned above, they seem quite small in comparison to other EU aid programmes.
For instance, in 2012 the EU committed €52m to justice sector reform in Moldova, a small post-communist country with population of 3.5 million. As the Belarusian border committee reports, Belarus annually spends around $125 m for border management, while the EU allocates only $7m annually for this purpose.
Is the Opposition Threatened?
The argument cited by the Telegraph article, which considers EU aid to Belarus border management a threat to the opposition, seems irrelevant. The regime can easily control all opposition personalities and their movement inside the country. Escaping via the Belarus-EU border presents the most unwise way to go because Belarus has no real border with Russia and fleeing there provides many more opportunities. Moreover, it appears that Belarusian authorities actually encourage activists to leave Belarus who are usually less harmful for the regime outside rather than inside Belarus.
Escaping via the Belarus-EU border presents the most unwise way to go because Belarus has no real border with Russia and fleeing there provides many more opportunities. Read more
For Belarusian authorities, cooperation in the border area has been of major interest as it provided at least some international legitimation and did not demand vast reforms inside the state. In his speeches, Lukashenka always presents Belarus as a secure wall on the way of illegal migration and trafficking to the EU.
In periods of tension, however, Lukashenka tries to use the issue of illegal migration in order to blackmail the European Union. “We stop tens of thousands of migrants who are trying to move to Europe annually, but the EU continues to criticise us. Now we will let them all out. We have no funds to continue doing this, and if the EU will not pay us for dealing with the issue, we are not going to protect the borders,” he said in 2012. However, such developments will hardly take place, as the regime also realises the degree of this threat to the EU.
The EU Security at Stake
The threat of illegal migration through the territory of Belarus is real. In August 2013, German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine published information provided by German police, which said that every week as many as one Chechen village slips through the Belarusian-Polish border. In the first half of 2013, 9,957 Russian citizens applied for asylum in Germany and most of them descend from the Chechen Republic.
Belarusian police give some more statistics – last year 20 thousand people attempted to cross the border and ask for asylum and 11 thousand of them were sent back to Belarus, which in turn sends them to Russia. But since there exists no border between Russia and Belarus, those who failed to reach the EU come back and make another attempt. They live in the border areas of Belarus for months trying to get into the EU.
These figures do not include migrants who try to slip to the EU by bypassing the crossing points. Detention of such groups is part of the daily routine for Belarusian border guards, and no one knows how many migrants succeed annually.
Among them are not only people fleeing from regions of conflict or seeking economic welfare in Europe. Any one of them could be a potential terrorist whom the authorities would hardly be able to identify. Not to mention the channels of drug trafficking from Asia to Europe or the smuggling of cigarettes and other illegal activities.
So, it looks like the EU's aid to Belarus is not a waste of money by faceless bureaucrats, but a strategic policy that covers important issues in European security. The UK officials made statements on aid to Belarus out of political reasons without any analysis of the situation at the EU's eastern border. UK citizens should not therefore be misled: in this area the Lukashenka regime, although undemocratic and repressive, indeed contributes to their security.