Top 10 Most Read Articles on Belarus Digest in 2015
In 2015 Belarus Digest published over 300 articles. Today we analysed statistics and selected the most read articles published this year.
They cover a range of issues – from tourism, the role of Belarus in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria to presidential elections and visa-free travel.
Most of the popular articles in 2015 dealt with foreign policy and security issues.
Belarus remains a blank spot on the map for many foreigners. A mere 137,000 tourists visited the country in 2013—twenty-one times fewer than the number who visited Estonia.
Onerous visa requirements, combined with an underdeveloped service industry, undermine the country’s efforts to attract foreign visitors.
The world’s largest travel guide company, Lonely Planet, warns travellers that “visas are needed by almost everybody” and that “homophobia is rife.” VirtualTourist criticises the lack of customer service, the paranoia of locals, and the country’s “lunatic” president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Belarus may have plenty of attractions, but many things have to change before the country can attract crowds of European tourists.
The past few weeks have seen an unusual increase of anti-Belarusian activity in pro-government Russian media and blogs. The Kremlin has not yet used its strongest media tools. However, the manner of the attack is in some respects similar to the information warfare which preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea.
In the face of the unfolding economic crisis in Russia and Belarus and the Belarusian presidential elections scheduled for 2015, this could signal a new shift in the relations between Russia and the regime of Alexander Lukashenka.
On Tuesday, a provocative article appeared in the pro-Kremlin Russian daily, Vzglyad. It demanded that Belarus hold a referendum on becoming a part of Russia or else face Ukraine's fate. The article referred to Alyaksandr Lukashenka's recent interview with Bloomberg, in which he once more cautiously expressed his sympathy for Kyiv and criticised the annexation of Crimea.
Moscow knows these are not just words. Minsk has avoided using the strategic means at its disposal – like its control of the Ukrainian oil products market – to destabilise the neighbouring country. Instead, it has enhanced economic cooperation with Kyiv and even sold military equipment to Ukraine.
On 9 – 12 October, Belarus Digest provided live online coverage of the presidential elections in Belarus and international and domestic reactions to it. Below, we feature a collection of stories from international and Belarusian media, videos, pictures, and comments from experts, which we have posted online during these days.
At the end of January, Belarus temporally mobilised nearly 15,000 reservists – a large number for the nearly 50,000-strong national army. A major Russian news portal Gazeta.ru linked this move to the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict. At the same time, the Belarusian army began conducting military exercises.The Belarusian parliament also introduced several amendments to existing legislation – allegedly with the view of preventing "hybrid wars," like the one currently going on in Ukraine's eastern regions.
These actions have generated rumours about the intentions of the Belarusian government which has to date sought to preserve its neutrality in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Belarus's neutral stance has provoked criticism from Kyiv and Moscow alike and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.
Minsk consistently avoids supporting Moscow in Ukraine and Syria. To put it mildly. After all, on 7 December, Ukrainian Internal Minister Avakov inaugurated the new Ukrainian armoured vehicle Varta designed in cooperation with "Belarusian engineers".
It became just one more of a series of examples of Belarus-Ukrainian defence cooperation. Later on, the Belarusian Defence Ministry denied claims that it supported Russia's position in the latter's dispute with Turkey.
Belarus risks estranging its Russian ally, but not because it wants to earn extra money in Ukraine or from conservative Arab regimes. Minsk strives to improve relations with Russia's opponents because the Kremlin has shown itself willing to make radical foreign policy moves.
The EUobserver reported last week that Belarus might start talks over a visa-free regime with the EU, citing senior officials from the Latvian EU presidency. Many Belarusians reacted to this statement with expressions of surprise, satisfaction and hope, but mostly incredulity. Indeed, a few days later, Maira Mora, the head of the EU Delegation to Belarus effectively ruled out the possibility of a short-term solution for abolishing the visa regime between Belarus and the EU.
In fact, in technical terms, Belarus is better prepared for visa-free travel with the EU than many other countries. However, no major breakthrough will come about until Minsk and Brussels find common language on the issues of human rights and democratic governance.
The year 2015 will herald a new presidential election in Belarus, certainly by the fall, and perhaps as early as March. It will be the fifth presidential election since the introduction of a national Constitution in 1994, and will mark Alexander Lukashenka’s 21st year in power.
Traditionally, elections are times when there are opportunities for the opposition to attract public attention, to use short spans on national TV and radio, and to make appearances at public venues. On paper at least for several reasons opposition leaders appear to have greater opportunities for support than in the past. They can be listed as follows, and not necessarily in order of significance.
The summer holidays proved to be productive for the relations of Belarus with both "old" and "new" Europe. Foreign minister Vladimir Makei ended a continued pause in high-level contacts with Belarus' southern neighbour by an unconventional five-day long visit to Ukraine in mid-August. There, he took the risk of enraging Russia by meeting its mortal foe Mikheil Saakashvili in Odessa.
The EU Council significantly reduced its sanctions list against Belarus on 31 July and a US congressional delegation came to Minsk two days later. In exchange, Minsk agreed to discuss human rights with its Western partners, seemingly ending a long tradition of denial of any major problems in this sphere.
Will Minsk's diplomacy manage to continue befriending Russia's foes without alienating its main sponsor until right after the October presidential election?
On 1 September the Central Elections Committee of Belarus announced that four presidential candidates had submitted enough signatures to run in elections scheduled for 11 October this year.
Although few question the outcome of this elections and the official victory of the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenka, the elections take place in a very different geopolitical context.
In the 2010 presidential elections, the authorities saw the Belarusian opposition as the main threat and crushed protests, putting several presidential candidates in jail. After the recent events in Ukraine the authorities seem to view Russia as a more serious threat although they would not publicly admit it.
Top 10 Belarus Civil Society in 2015
In anticipation of the New Year, Belarus Digest publishes Pact's overview of some of the most notable Belarus’ civil society developments in 2015.
For the fourth straight year, Pact presents its version of the top 10 civic initiatives in order to acknowledge individuals and groups whose enthusiasm, dedication, and communication contributed to positive change in Belarus.
The top 10 list below represents only a portion of developments in Belarus civic space, which has become more vibrant and diverse over the years.
Event of the Year: Open-air Concerts at the Town Hall
For the third consecutive year, Fond of Ideas organized open-air free music concerts in the heart of Minsk on the Freedom Square. This summer, three Saturday jazz evenings (with participation of European stars) and four classical music concerts attracted a record high of more than 70,000 people.
The events were funded by local business companies according to the concept of social corporate responsibility and aimed “to change urban space, make Minsk brighter and louder” and closer to European standards with wider civic space.
Advocacy of the Year: Entrepreneurs
This year, vendors continued to advocate for a workable regulatory environment for small businesses, which came under threat following the Presidential Decree #222, which introduced a complicated procedure of certification of light industry products in accordance with the Customs Union rules.
Due to their visibility and consistency achieved through a number of massive events (at least four public forums, the most abundant of which gathered 1,200 participants in February) and protests (in October nearly 500 entrepreneurs went on strike in Polotsk), the entrepreneurs managed to freeze new regulations for one and half years.
Perspektiva, a small vendors association headed by Anatoly Shumchanka, articulates the voice of 120,000 individual entrepreneurs and 140,000 hired employees. At the recent forum, Perspektiva proposed an anti-crisis plan to authorities in order to postpone the Decree for another 6 months and create an inter-sectoral working group to resolve the situation.
Authorities, including president Lukashenka, reacted to the entrepreneurs’ situation (in March Lukashenka met with entrepreneurs in one of the Minsk malls), however it looks like officials will push for the implementation of new regulations as they believe that the abolition of the Decree will cause negative consequences for the economy.
Civil Society Theme of the Year: Community Development
This year, several programmes gave a new impetus to the adoption of local community (and particularly urban) development topics and promotion of community activism. Superheroes School trained 42 activists who implemented a number of visible improvement projects in Minsk communities. After piloting the topic last year, the 2015 Leadership in Local Communities program recruited 30 rural and urban activists for a community development-learning course.
The first summer reality-competition of urban projects #RazamMіnsk received 300 applications and rolled out 12 projects implemented without donor funding. The General Plan For Minskers! campaign was highly visible, fostering public discussion of the draft plan for Minsk development, as well as the Minsk Urban Platform urban-oriented projects and events.
Moreover, 87 out of 722 initiative applicants are lined up for funding under the UNDP/EU joint Support to Local Development project; 12 out of 60 community proposals were selected for their economic empowerment by New Eurasia.
Breakthrough of the Year: Bologna Process
In May 2015, Belarus joined the Bologna process. The accession to the Bologna process has the potential to affect nearly 400,000 university students in Belarus every year. In 2012, Belarus’ accession to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) was blocked due to the alternative report of the Public Bologna Committee of Belarusian civil society representatives that referred to numerous violations of academic freedom, particularly students and teachers who had been expelled/fired because of their political opinions.
This year the Bologna Committee achieved the mandatory condition for Belarus to implement the roadmap for higher education reform in Belarus in accordance with the values, principles and goals of the EHEA. While Pact has chosen the Bologna accession as its Breakthrough of the Year nominee, we would like to give due regard to another important development this year: Belarus’ accession to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which after 8 years of efforts may positively affect over 500,000 disabled Belarusians.
Policy Outreach of the Year: Kastryčnicki Economic Forum (KEF)
In November, Minsk hosted the largest economic conference in Belarus in a decade – the Kastryčnicki Ekanamičny Forum (KEF), organized by the independent think tanks IPM Research Centre, CASE Belarus, and BEROC. The event gathered over 300 high ranking professionals for an open dialogue on economic reforms, reaching out to over 2,5 million Belarusians through conference-related publications.
First Deputy Economy Minister of Belarus Alexander Zaborovsky presented the road map of reforms and, while President Lukashenka publicly reacted with criticism and reluctance, the public debate and demand is out there thanks to KEF. Thus, BISS’ surveys demonstrate that the Belarusians, including entrepreneurs and state servants believe in the urgency of economic reforms.
Political Event of the Year: Release of Political Prisoners
On August 22nd, six political prisoners were suddenly released in Belarus: Mikalai Dziadok, Ihar Alinevich, Mikalai Statkevich, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka and Yury Rubtsou. Aliaksandr Lukashenka pardoned them in accordance with the "principles of humanity," in an attempt to normalise relations with the West.
Since that time, police have been applying ‘soft practices,’ such as avoiding new politically motivated cases and arrests of organizers and participants of unauthorized protests. However, on December 7th, Belarusian human rights defenders recognize a founder of Platforma NGO, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, as a new political prisoner.
Fundraiser of the Year: Crowdfunding Platforms
Three crowdfunding platforms that attract people’s funding for non-profit ideas emerged in 2015 in Belarus – Talakosht by Talaka.by platform and Ulej/Beehive by Belgasprombank in the spring, as well as MaeSens after upgrading at the end of the year. For the first six months of the platforms’ activity, the projects placed at Ulej collected $30,000; at Talakosht – $17,000; and at MaeSens (which has been working since 2011) – $300,000.
Art Project of the Year: Urban Myths Festival
From September to November 2015, street artists from different countries painted Minsk buildings based on their talks with local activists and modern history as part of the Urban Myths festival, organized by the Signal street art community. Two of the Minsk murals – Man without Identity and Girl in Embroidered Shirt – for the first time in Belarus history place in the top 10 ratings of the best graffiti in the world. The new artistic images caused heated debate between citizens who are irritated with graffiti and those who believe that street art makes Minsk more European.
Innovation of the Year: Online Platforms to Petition Government Agencies
This year’s mechanism to petition authorities and resolve citizens’ concerns moved increasingly online. A Minsk resident Valery Koldachev launched the One-Window-Online website, which enables people to send information about Minsk problems to the relevant state agency and monitor how the issue is resolved.
Comfortable City platform founded by the KoshtUrada project helps to create petitions and collect signatures to support them. The most impressive statistics belong to the 115.бел website of the Center for Information Technology of the Minsk municipality – launched on November 1st, the website has already solved about 1,500 issues in the sphere of housing and communal services.
And For Something Completely Different: The First Ever Nobel for Belarus Was not Celebrated by The State and Сaused Debates in Civil Society
This year’s Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, the country’s first Nobel laureate. While officials discreetly congratulated the laureate, who consistently criticizers the authoritarian regimes, ordinary Belarusians, independent media, and CSOs conducted creative flash mobs, organised joint watching of the award ceremony, and intensively covered the event.
Aleksievich also came under fire from some of Lukashenka’s opponents for allegedly not doing enough to cultivate Belarusian national identity, as well as not turning the Nobel lecture into a political rally. Yet, over a hundred Belarusians gathered at the airport to greet Svetlana Alexievich as she arrived back home and congratulate her on winning the prestigious award.