Vilnius Summit, Demonstrations in Kiev, Rental Housing – Belarus State TV Digest
Belarusian state TV widely covered various topics related to the recent Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. Journalists commented upon the final reaction of Victor Yanukovych to an offer from Brussels, mass demonstrations in Ukraine and also the interests of Minsk in its relations with the EU.
State media also showed how the state-level body controls the local authorities and remains concerned about the needs of local residents from one Belarusian town. They also covered new changes in the Belarusian Catholic Church – Pope Francis named three new bishops in the country.
Kiev makes a pause in its relations with the West. Belarusian state TV reported on the recent Vilnius summit. Its coverage noted that Brussels remained against the dual integration of Ukraine with both the EU and the Customs Union.
Due to its rapprochement with the Customs Union, Kiev would rather hold out on signing the Association Agreement with Brussels. As the Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov stated, the Customs Union made simply a better offer to Ukraine than the EU. Thus Kiev is now rather open to develop its relations with Russia and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Journalists noted that manifestations of supporters and opponents of the EU integration coming out onto the streets took place throughout Ukraine.
Russia’s entry into WTO did not have any unfavourable implications on Belarus but… A special commission analysed the 12 months since the country became a member of the WTO. It concluded that for a more tangible impact to be measured more time is needed. The media noted that actually the WTO within 5-10 years could lose its position as the leading trade resolution organisation.
What could, however, have a real lasting impact on the economies of the Customs Union members is the potential Association Agreement between Kiev and Brussels. The Agreement would bind Kiev to comply with the European standards, journalist explained.
This could rupture the links between Ukrainian business and the Customs Union, but also influences mutual trade turnover between the parties. It would lead to the number of labour migrants from Ukraine to Russia increasing. The Agreement also carries with it certain risks, state TV goes on to say, though which particular risks were not mentioned.
Yanukovych resisted pressure from Brussels. One report covered the reaction of Kiev to the Association Agreement. According to a number of experts found by Belarusian television, the European Union is not the best choice for Ukraine at the moment. Benefits from potential integration with the West seem rather blurred when compared with the costs of making the Ukrainian economy to be in compliance with European norms.
That process would cost the country up to 180bn EUR. In any event, the very signing of the Agreement does not guarantee anything, the journalist emphasised. The case of Croatia and Turkey prove that. Zagreb waited to join the EU for 12 years, whereas Ankara signed its Association Agreement with Brussels already in the 1950s and has not yet joined the European Union. The Ukrainian leadership managed to resist pressure from Brussels, the journalist concluded.
Drive intoxicated – you may lose your car. State TV reported on the first case of the confiscation of a car from a drunk driver to take place in Belarus. The court made its verdict based on a new law that came into force in October. According to the new law, if a driver commits the offence of driving while under influence for a second time, the state has a right to confiscate his vehicle. A special commission then determines its value and sells it. A former owner does, however, have the right to repossess it provided he pays a certain price.
The state closely observes the work of local authorities. Belarusian TV reported on inspections of local governing bodies as ordered by Lukashenka, this time in the Viciebsk region.
State TV showed how promptly and efficiently the commission reacted to complains of local residents. One of the calls was from a woman unhappy that only one type of bread was available in a local store. The head of the commission, Aliaksandr Yakobson, checked out the situation and explained to the store’s management that competition was necessary, and thus more types of bread should available to their clients. The commission left survey forms in a hospital and shops to see how satisfied the residents were with the service provided by the local authorities.
Housing policy should address the needs of Belarusians. Lukashenka chaired a meeting on the nation's housing policy. He made it clear that the priority for all officials remained the peoples’ interests regarding housing. The state created a special scheme of “rental housing” where all non-privatised housing will be included. Now officials are discussing how much the state should charge people for them. Lukashenka emphasised that Belarus remains one of a few countries, if not the only one, that these kinds of housing privileges for its citizens.
Changes in the Catholic Church in Belarus. Reporters took note of an important event for the Belarusian Catholic Church. Pope Francis named three new bishops in Belarus. Among them are Aleh Butkevich for Viciebsk Eparchy (also known as a Diocese), Yury Kosubitski for Minsk and Mahiliou Eparchy and Iosif Stanieuski for Hrodna Eparchy. Journalists commented that the Belarusian Catholic Church has been waiting for decades for these changes, though they did not explaining this point of view in any further detail.
Economic development of Belarus at the Vilnius summit. For Minsk, liberalisation of the visa regime remains among the key issues. But the top priority is economic co-operation with the EU. A policy of sanctions certainly impedes the mutual relations between Minsk and Brussels.
Minsk remains loyal to integration with the Customs Union first and foremost, state TV reported. What the Belarusian authorities remain in favour of is rapprochement with both the Customs Union and the EU, or the so-called "integration of integration".
Fake bankruptcy in Belarusian companies. A company producing glass bottles in the town of Lida announced its bankruptcy. Journalists, however, did not believe in the pure intentions of the company's management and suspected them of deliberately causing the company to go bankrupt. The company worked successfully for over 15 years and employed over 100 people. Today only 29 Belarusians work there. What concerned the journalist most was that the company has its various branches working without any arrears in payments in the city of Homiel.
State TV reiterated that Lukashenka had already talked about how poor management and a company's business plan, as well as also how falsification of documents, can lead to bankruptcy and influence the Belarusian economy. Another case of fake bankruptcy occurred in Navahrudak – currently its management are already facing criminal charges.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). 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.
The EU Helps Belarusians Sort Their Waste
On 13 December, a new waste sorting station will start working in the town of Masty in the Hrodna region.
The European Union finances the project as a part of national programme for environmental protection in Belarus. Besides the waste management problem, the EU supports other environmental projects such as green energy and water purification.
The Belarusian government frequently applies for EU assistance and gladly accepts it. However, the official line does not allow it to publicly demonstrate its cooperation with the EU. Environmental protection serves as one of the areas where quiet cooperation between the EU and Belarus is successfully developing.
Belarus generates around 30 million tonnes of waste annually, out of which household waste makes up 3 million tonnes. Each year, the volume grows by 20%. Existing waste recycling stations have the capacity to recycle only 12% of household waste, while in the EU the rate of waste recycling is around 60%.
The rest is dumped into landfills and/or buried. The existing landfills in Belarus often do not satisfy the the basic standards in their way they carry out their operations or with regards to their location or their usage. These landfills pose a major threat to the environment in Belarus.
Although the government states that 85% of urban housing has access to separate waste systems, the population does not yet actively use it. As a result, the waste suitable for recycling makes up half of the total waste and ends up in landfills.
The absence of equipment for recycling various post-consumer waste constitutes another problem, as the state has no resources to invest in this area.
Several foreign investors have already established their business in this area in Belarus, such as the Swiss company TDF Ecotech AG, the Swedish company Vireo Energy, Austria's Strabag and the German company Remondis. However, they work only in several urban centres, while most towns, the those that are small or medium-sized, have no prospects for developing a sustainable waste management system.
The European Union appreciates the importance of waste management and developed a program called “Waste Governance” within the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument. A portion of the €5m budget of the environmental cooperation program for 2010-2013 has been allocated to working on this issue and has implemented pilot projects in the Puchavičy district as well as in the towns of Masty and Kobryn.
The projects includes aligning Belarusian legislation with EU standards, raising public awareness of the problem, and a more practical component – buying special equipment and machines for sustainable waste management in these towns.
Because of the enormous dependence of Belarusian industry and households on Russian oil and gas imports, the problem of alternative energy remains crucial for modernise Belarus. Although the Lukashenka regime enjoys cheap tariffs on Russian energy in comparison to its neighbours who are less loyal to Vladimir Putin, the prices consistently grow and it has become harder and harder to make deals with the Russians.
Afraid of becoming fully dependant, the regime seeks to develop alternative energy sources. In 2011, the government published its National Programme of Development of Local and Renewable Energy Resources.
The programme aims to develop all reasonable sources of energy for Belarus, from peat and wood to wind energy, geothermal energy and biogas. However, while extraction of peat is a well-known to Belaruian industry since Soviet times and does not require large investments, wind power still needs significant investment and takes much longer to become profitable.
Belarusian bureaucrats seek easier ways to implement the programme despite the clear difference in environmental impact that these two energy sources have. So far, progress in the building of wind turbines has been very modest. Moreover, foreign investors who work in this area face bureaucratic barriers in Belarus.
In 2012, the German company Enertrag AG signed a €360m agreement with the government to build a wind farm of 50 turbines in the Dziaržynsk district near Minsk. But the Ministry of Defence banned the project on the grounds that the farm will interfere with work of its anti-aircraft systems. The offended Germans, who had invested quite a sum at that point, decided to pull out of all of the deals it had with the Belarusians.
Meanwhile, the European Union tries to persuade Belarusian government that the cost of production is not the only reason for developing alternative energy sources. Environmentally friendly technologies should be strategic priorities to keep the country clean for future generations.
In May 2013, Belarus and the EU signed a contract for the Green Economy project in Belarus worth €12m. The project will finance the construction of a wind turbine near Navahrudak and about twenty smaller green projects suggested by local authorities of various regions of Belarus.
River pollution and water management
Most of the rivers in Belarus are polluted with nitrogen and phosphorus compounds below or above the so-called “maximum allowable content”, the value that shows the concentration of chemicals in water. The main reason for this phenomenon is sewage water that is being discharged from the urban centres of Belarus.
Although Belarus significantly reduced the use of water in industry since Soviet times, the sewage treatment facilities continue to use technology from the 1960s-1980s and cannot sufficiently clean the water to an acceptable level. Moreover, in some enterprises cleaning facilities are simply absent.
45% of rivers of Belarus make up a part of the Baltic Sea ecosystem, and their pollution directly impacts the countries that border the Baltic Sea.
As Maira Mora, the Head of Delegation of the EU to Belarus said, “It is impossible to separate air, water, nature. We live very close to each other. Therefore, we do not finance green economy projects in Belarus out of pure altruism. It covers our mutual interests.”
In March 2013, the Ministry of Housing and Communal Service received a total of €65m for the project to moderne the water-purifyication systems in five Belarusian cities. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Nordic Investment Bank and Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership supported the project. Belarus received €21m as a grant, and the rest of the sum will be a loan on preferential terms.
Andrej Šorac, the Minister of Housing and Communal service recently explained that, “the negotiations that preceded the agreement's signing took years.” The minister showed a good example of how the Belarusian authorities, especially institutions that directly implement public policies, are interested in cooperation with the EU.
Despite the unfriendly rhetoric on the highest level fuelled by Russian support, Belarusian bureaucrats realise that the state lacks the funds and expertise to tackle environmental problems. The projects described above present only a small segment of environmental projects, both national and regional, that the EU is implementing in Belarus.
The Belarusian government wastes huge sums of Russian subsidies for unearned, politically motivated wage hikes, while strategic approaches like sustainable development receive less attention at the top. However, the Belarusian authorities always welcome EU assistance in environment protection – it does not undermine the political regime and helps local people, thus making it a win-win situation for all parties involved.