US investments, arrest of anti-Belarusian journalists, corruption – Belarus state press digest
Belarus aims to expand its cooperation with Malaysia and hosts another high-level visit from Poland. The Belarusian delegation visits the US to discuss economic cooperation and investment with state agencies and corporations.
The authorities arrest three Belarus-based journalists from the Russian media on charges of propagating extremism. The KGB discloses large-scale corruption schemes within the state procurement system.
This and more in the new edition of Belarusian state press digest.
Belarus expands its cooperation with Malaysia. Zviazda reports on Lukashenka’s meeting with Speaker of the House of Representatives of Malaysia Pandikaram Amines Mulia. The Belarusian leader stated that Belarus is interested in developing relations with Malaysia 'because it does not attach conditions to relations as some other countries do. Belarus will likewise refrain from putting forward any conditions'.
Lukashenka also stressed the need to increase trade between the two countries and develop inter-parliamentary political cooperation. During the meeting, the representatives of Belarus and Malaysia discussed possible cooperation in high-tech, industry, tourism, and education. Lukashenka also announced his intention to pay an official visit to Malaysia.
Another high-level official visit from Poland. Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Stanislaw Karczewski, the Marshal of the Polish Senate, conducted negotiations in Minsk. The Minsk Times reports that Karczewski emphasised that Belarus is a place of stability and security in Eastern Europe, although some countries have previously overlooked it. The officials discussed the importance of shared history, and agreed that political interaction should follow the business interests of the countries.
Specifically, the parties agreed on the importance of trade intensification. The senator also visited the Council of the Republic, where the two sides signed an agreement on education. Michail Miasnikovič, the Chairman of the Council, noted that the successful cooperation between the Belarusian and Polish parliaments this year will have a positive impact on the Belarusian parliament’s contacts with other parliaments across the EU.
The authorities arrest three Russian media contributors based in Belarus for 'incitement of racial, ethnic, religious, or other social hatred or discord.' Zviazda reported that the three writers worked for the Russian publications REGNUM, LENTA.RU, and Eurasіa Daіly. The Investigative Committee analysed 500 materials and found elements of extremism in 120 of them, according to Belarusian Minister of Information Lilija Ananič.
Ananič said that the publications question the sovereignty of Belarus, and were insulting to the authorities, nation, history, language, and culture of Belarus. They repeatedly claimed that 'Belarus is moving to the West' and that 'the Belarusian government conducts anti-Russian policies'.
Belarusian authorities had earlier sent requests to explain the situation to the Russian Ministry of Communications and the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications. Russian officials replied that these publications 'are produced by marginalised authors and in no way represent the position of the Russian leadership, which consistently strives to deepen Russian-Belarusian cooperation'. The readers and authors of such articles are obviously trying to sow discord between Belarus and Russia, Ananič concluded.
The State Security Committee (KGB) of Belarus uncovers a large-scale bribery scheme. The company BelABM, which specialises in IT and business process automation, organised a corruption scheme involving government officials, reports Belarus Segodnia. The scheme was uncovered on 15 December when the CEO of BelABM Dzmitry Ronin gave a bribe of $20,000 to the manager of the Social Protection Fund of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, Liudmila Bačyla. In doing so, Ronin intended to secure his company’s win of a state procurement tender.
On the same day, the KGB detained Alieh Vieramiejčyk, the chairman of the non-bank financial institution Single Settlement and Information Space. They also detained representatives of the National Bank Anatol Maroz and Kaciaryna Paŭloŭskaja on the same charges: corruption deals with BelABM in the area of state procurement.
A Belarusian delegation visits the United States to discuss investments and loans. On 6-10 December a Belarusian economic delegation visited Washington at the invitation of the Congress of the United States, writes Zviazda. The delegation included deputy head of the Presidential Administration Mikalaj Snapkoŭ, head of the Ideology Department of the Presidential Administration Usievalad Jančeŭski, and representatives of the National Bank, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Economy, and other ministries.
The Belarusian delegation held talks in a number of key US governmental agencies: the State Department, the Department of Commerce, the Office of the US Trade Representative, the Federal Communications Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
The delegation held working meetings with the leadership of the Emerging Market Private Equity Association and the US corporations Microsoft, AGCO, Case New Holland, and others. The sides discussed investment projects to be implemented in Belarus. The delegation also held talks with Deputy Managing Director of the IMF Mitsuhiro Furusawa concerning preparation of the IMF programme for Belarus.
Mahilioŭ introduces the first 2nd generation energy-efficient apartment complex in Belarus. As Mahilioŭskija Viedamasci notes, the building heats water with solar power as well as wastewater, while air can be heated with a special conditioning system. This allows savings of up to 40% for water and 60% for apartment heating.
The house was designed by Belarusians specialists with financial support from UNDP and the Global Ecological Fund. Funding from international organisations totalled $1mn, or 15 per cent of construction costs. The apartment complex will soon house 160 large families.
Belarus and Poland negotiate the development of the Augustow Canal. The first meeting of a joint working group of the authorities of Hrodna region in Belarus and Podlasie voivodeship of Poland took place in Bialystok, writes Hrodzienskaja Praŭda. The group discussed the development of Augustow Canal, which shares a border legacy with Belarus and Poland. They discussed simplifications of cross border movement of tourists and joint technical regulation of the canal's operations.
The group considered the possibility of allowing water vessels to move between the Polish town of Augustow via the canal and the Nioman river in Belarus. The sides agreed to jointly promote the tourist potential of the Augustow Canal and exchange information and provide media support to each other.
The state press digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.
A U-turn in Poland’s policy towards Belarus?
On 20 December, Polish MP Robert Tyszkiewicz publicly stated that Poland will hold parliamentary debates on the future of Belsat, an independent Belarusian TV channel based in Poland.
According to Tyszkiewicz, 'the termination of Belsat TV would mean a U-turn in Polish foreign policy, we would consider this a political mistake.'
Nearly all Polish politicians, journalists, and analysts covering Belarus share this stance. Moreover, Belarusian civil society, including leading figures in the Belarusian Polish minority, condemn the Polish Ministry for Foreign Affairs' proposal to cut support for Belsat.
It appears that due to the growing uproar against the possible closure of Belsat, Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczywski may reverse his decision.
Policy change in the Polish government
A few years ago it would be difficult to imagine that the Polish government would develop such a good relationship with the Belarusian authorities. In 2016 the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Head of the upper chamber of the Polish parliament all visited Minsk.
As one Polish diplomat privately told Belarus Digest, 'The Minsk embassy is actually understaffed for such an intense relationship.' It seems that even the President or the Prime Minister of Poland would consider meeting with Lukashenka if they could ensure it would not damage their reputations.
Together with the thaw in relations between Minsk and Warsaw, the Polish authorities have begun treating Belarusian pro-democratic groups with greater scepticism. The lack of prospects for political change, along with the decrease in repression, makes Belarus seem like a less urgent cause for many donors.
Nevertheless, few people expected the Polish MFA to be so harsh to Belsat TV. The ministry has not disclosed any information about its plan to cut next year's support for the channel by two-thirds, although there are only two weeks remaining in 2016. This information first came to light on 15 December thanks to Agnieszka Romaszewska, head of Belsat TV, and was based on her sources.
Ironically, even the Belarusian authorities are not demanding that the Polish side close Belsat; it has in fact become more tolerant of the station. In 2016, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry even accredited four Belsat TV journalists for the first time.
No one is happy with Waszczykowski’s idea
On 18 December, Minister Waszczykowski explained that after reformatting Belsat, the Polish government hopes to persuade the Belarusian authorities to allow TVP Polonia to join Belarusian TV cable networks. TVP Polonia is a Polish-language channel tailored to Poles living abroad. This would arguably strengthen the position of Poles living in Belarus.
However, the Polish minority in Belarus has expressed dissatisfaction with this idea. On 19 December, Anżelika Borys, leader of the Union of Poles in Belarus, stated that 'the closure of Belsat will be a blow to Belarusian civil society.'
On the same day, Andrzej Poczobut, another important representative of the Polish minority, published an article in Gazeta Wyborcza claiming the Polish foreign policy has lost its credibility, and that 'the closing of Belsat comes at a fatal time and in a fatal style.'
The possible closure of Belsat TV also caught Polish politicians by surprise. Last week, the Commission for Foreign Affairs of the Polish Sejm passed a resolution to support the Belarusian independent media.
Even Robert Winnicki, a prominent Polish nationalist who previously called for the closing of Belsat, sees no point in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs' decision, as this change would be a move 'from being stupidly anti-Lukashenka to being stupidly pro-Lukashenka'.
Polish analysts are also dismayed. Adam Eberhardt, director of the influential Polish think tank Centre for Eastern Studies, tweeted that ' the possible extinction of Belsat would be a great gesture to Lukashenka. The problem is that he does not usually reciprocate gestures and respect agreements.' According to Witold Jurasz, a Polish analyst and former diplomat in Minsk: 'if the Polish government plans to cut the subsidy for Belsat, I can confirm that someone has gone crazy.'
Needless to say, Belarusian civil society also opposes the Polish minister's decision. Movement for Freedom has launched an online petition addressed to the Polish president which has already been signed by thousands of Belarusians. Opposition groups also held a demonstration in Minsk on 20 December.
While Belarusian civil society wields little influence, the emerging coalition of pro-Belsat politicians, journalists, and analysts may prove more effective. The negative political fallout of the decision may exceed the desire of Witold Waszczykowski to close Belsat TV.
The two main reasons not to abandon Belsat TV
Why the Belarusian television channel should continue to receive support from the Polish government boils down to two arguments.
Firstly, the closure of Belsat TV will further delay the democratisation of Belarus and hinder its movement towards the West. Belsat, as well as other projects, plays a large role in supporting Belarusian national identity, and Belarusian identity remains the basis for the existence of a Belarusian state.
Belsat remains for Belarusians the only TV alternative to the official views propagated on Belarusian and Russian television. While the station cannot democratise the country alone, Belsat’s journalists play an important role at a grassroots level. For example, in 2016, a corrupt official from Slonim came under investigation thanks to Belsat.
Now, even the Belarusian authorities are feeling the heat of Russian nationalism. Just this week the Belarusian Foreign Ministry officially protested statements by Leonid Reshetnikov, the Kremlin-linked head of the influential Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, who claimed that Belarus remains a part of Great Russia.
It seems that nowadays Lukashenka's regime has more problems with Russian TV broadcasts than with Belsat. The authorities are no longer seriously afraid of a pro-Western colour revolution, but are more concerned about the threat from the East. Incidentally, the Russian-backed Sputnik.by welcomed the possible closure of Belsat calling it "a remnant of the past".
Secondly, de-funding Belsat will deprive Poland of its most important instrument of influence in Belarus, into which it has already invested around $40m. Furthermore, Poland will lose its moral credibility. When Polish politicians first launched Belsat TV, they gave speeches about solidarity and alluded to the help Poland received from the Western countries during the communist times.
Poland certainly has a right to set its own foreign policy priorities, but compromising its values and abandoning such a huge project will make Warsaw less credible and predictable to many countries. Diplomats from other Western countries have privately expressed to Belarus Digest their concern over the possibility of such a sharp U-turn.
Over the course of Lukashenka's rule Poland had 12 different foreign ministers. Some of them believed that they could engage Lukashenka and others wanted to isolate him. However, never has the Polish Foreign Ministry come this close to abandoning the long-term moral commitment of Poland to support Belarusian statehood, democracy, and independence.