Visa Black Market, WTO, Arche – Western Press Digest
Over the last months the European press covered a wide range of Belarus-related topics starting from worsening economic dependence upon Minsk and the change in Minsk approach towards the West. The recent trial against Belarusian photographers and the market of selling visa appointments also drew attention of Western journalists.
The "visa black market". The Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reports on the increasing problem of selling visa appointments in Polish consulates in Belarus. The illegal procedure has intensified with the increase of the number of Belarusians applying for visas to Poland. The consulates trying to facilitate the whole procedure implemented online application for visa appointments. However, new problems appeared.
Hackers also decided to "accommodate" Belarusian applicants whose number last year reached the level of 350 thousand of applications. They can enter the system of the consulate illegally and block the system of free appointments for a month ahead. The applicants who did not manage to book the appointment can afterward purchase it even up to 100 Euro. The newspaper reports that according to some experts Belarusian state telecommunication company Beltelecom might be involved in the illegal activities.
Minsk intends to normalise relations with the West? Aliaksandr Kudrytski argues on Bloomberg.com that Minsk is trying to improve the relations with the Western countries. The EU-Belarus relations cooled since the 2010 breakdown on the protesters after presidential elections. In the words of Alexander Lukashenka, "We don’t want to quarrel, we want good relations with you, but we also don’t want to bend our knees before you".
According to the author, the Belarusian authorities made recently a few steps towards the European Union and the United States. For that matter, the Swedish charge d’affairs can return to Belarus after a last year teddy bear stunt, but also Prime Minister, Mikhail Myasnikovich, paid an official visit to Lithuania in August.
Salami-slice strategy of Moscow. Who should save the Belarusian economy this time? EU Observer notes that the Belarusian authorities will probably need to sell out more enterprises to Russia in order to sustain the economy. And this will inevitably lead to deepening dependency upon Moscow, both economic and political. Threat of the "Russian hegemony" can make Minsk more prone to conduct a dialogue with the West.
According to the journal, "the next few months are a good time for the EU to undertake negotiations with the regime and demand the release of political prisoners". Moscow uses the deteriorating economic situation and offers to purchase the profitable Belarusian enterprises, including Belaruskali, the Navapolatsk Naftan refinery and Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT). The West has two options, another financial aid from the IMF, or support for modernisation within the policies of the European Union.
Belarus-Russia military co-operation deepens. EU Business reports on the Russian plans to open the air base in Baranavichy in Belarus. Moscow wants to complete the project by 2015. According to the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, the first fighter jets will appear in Belarus this year. Both Minsk and Moscow go hand in hand as for political and economic co-operation. The journal reminds that over the last years the mutual relations also in the military sphere have significantly deepened. Russia has already installed a radar station and a navy radio station in Belarus.
In the past they held also joint military exercises, what raised controversy among the Belarus’s western neighbours. This year the exercises will take place in September 2013 and Lukashenka commented as follows: "We are not hiding from everyone that we are the closest peoples and are trying to build a single policy".
Belarus goes to the WTO? Sergei Kuznetsov writes in his FT blog about Belarus’s plans to join the World Trade Organisation. As the author notes, the Belarusian politicians, with Lukashenka at the top of them, have already expressed optimism about Minsk accessing the organisation in the near future. The Russian leadership has already suggested the organisation should become more open for negotiations with Minsk on this issue.
Alexander Gurianov, deputy foreign minister, suggests that Belarus could join it in 2015. In the words of another politician, Andrey Snopkov, Belarus could join the WTO within one year if the US and EU “leave politics out of the process”. Russia remains today the only major supporter of Belarus accession to the WTO.
Pictures in the court. Gazeta Wyborcza reports on the unprecedented process of the authors of the pictures for the ‘Belarus Photo Press 2011’. Belarusian court decided that the album "Belarus Press Photo 2011", which presented the best pictures recognised by the international jury, was extremist. The court decided about the confiscation of the whole circulation of the publication and prohibited its further corporation. The newspaper reminds that the KGB in Hrodna has initiated the case against the photographers, because "corporation of such pictures leads to creating the negative image of the state and humiliates the Belarusian nation".
Another Polish daily Polska The Times adds that the court rejected the application of the photographers for another expert evaluation of the publication although the Independent Belarusian Association of Journalists had appealed before to the director of the Hrodna KGB for the withdrawal of the accusations concerning the album. Die Welt daily dealing with the same topic underlines that the album contained also completely apolitical pictures and scenes of everyday life. The newspaper refers to the case as "censorship as in the Soviet times".
ARCHE is back. The Polish daily Rzeczpospolita reports that the independent opinion-making journal ARCHE received the permission for registration. The journal ceased to be issued since June 2012 due to the change of the editor what according to the Belarusian law required a new registration. Ales Pashkevich, a vice-editor, confirmed that the authorities rejected the journal’s registration already a few times, so he welcomes the recent approval. As in the past, Valery Bulkhakau will serve as the editor. Rzeczpospolita reminds that the problems of Bulkhakau began in September 2012, when he was presenting the book of the Polish historian about the Sovietisation of Western Belarus. The state-media started the campaign against him personally, but also targeting the journal ARCHE.
Towards the strategic partnership. The Lithuanian Tribune reports on the record increase in economic cooperation between Belarus and Lithuania. According to the Belarusian Ambassador to Vilnius, Vladzimir Drazhin, for 2012 investment of both countries accounted for 273 million USD. It seems that the positive economic relations may the discussions over the local border traffic between both states. The ambassador Drazhin comments that "If such dynamics remains this year as well, these indicators will be definitely exceeded. I believe we can surely say that Lithuania and Belarus have reached the level of strategic partners".
Hrodna Region: the Land of Catholics and Smugglers
Belarus Digest starts a series of articles devoted to Belarusian regions. Most often only Minsk ends up in the focus of Western media. But around 80 percent of Belarusians live outside of Minsk. Each region has its own political, economic and cultural peculiarities. The series begins with Hrodna region and will also cover Brest, Vitsebsk, Homel and Mahiliou regions.
Hrodna region due to its specific culture and history, has always been the object of thorough attention of the authorities. It has the largest share of catholics in Belarus and was a part of Polish Republic until 1939, while eastern regions of Belarus entered the USSR already in 1922. The region showed strongest support of the nationalist candidate Zianon Paźniak in 1994 presidential elections, arguable the only relatively honest presidential elections in Belarus.
The West of Belarus
Hrodna region is situated in the western part of Belarus bordering Poland and Lithuania. It is the smallest of the six Belarusian regions in terms of population and territory. However, it has the largest percentage of Poles (21,5%) and around half of its population are Roman Catholics. Hrodna region also has one of the largest share of people speaking Belarusian at home (35%), second only to Minsk region (39%).
The regional centre, Hrodna city, is officially known since 1128 AD, when served the heart of princedom. Soon the territories of the region united with neighbouring parts of Lithuania to form a medieval state called the Great Duchy of Lithuania. Hrodna region has absorbed the mix of ethnic and confessional groups on the border of Slavic and Baltic languages, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity with specks of Judaism and Islam.
From 1921 to 1939 the region was a part of Polish Republic, while eastern regions of Belarus entered the USSR in 1922 already. In Poland, Belarusians had quite hard conditions for national development, but on the other hand no severe repressions occurred here.
The 20 years of Polish rule had a significant influence on various aspects of life and identity of the people. A “westerner” remains an image of hard-working, non–drinking and more religious person compared to the “easterner”, more Sovietised and Russificated.
The Anti-Communist Region
For Soviet administration, population of Western Belarus presented “an unreliable element”, as they expressed more scepticism to Soviet rule. The same picture remained after USSR collapse.
In the first presidential elections, Hrodna region showed biggest support to the pro-Western nationalist candidate Zianon Paźniak. The results of subsequent election also showed that western Belarus supports democratic candidates clearly more that the east of the country. Lukashenka himself often publicly spoke of Hrodna as an “uneasy” region.
The map of Zianon Paźniak support in 1994 elections
Today, as in any other Belarusian region, the regime destroyed local political parties and NGOs. The only functioning NGO, Third Sector, remains the only spot of non-state civil activity.
The so called executive vertical, the hierarchical pyramid of executive bodies that persist from soviet times and subordinate to the president, presents the chief body of regional government. The heads of "the vertical", or governor, serves a major political figure in the region and Lukashenka personally appoints him from his reliable men.
The current governor, Siamion Šapira, has replaced his predecessor Uladzimir Saučanka in 2010. Saučanka was accused of “poor management”, which served an euphemism for all kinds of power abuse.
But being a friend and countryman of Lukashenka, he was simply removed from office and hidden for some time. Soon, however, he quietly emerged on the post of director of a state-owned agricultural enterprise. Simply put, Lukashenka forgave him and charged with a lower position.
At first, the public perceived new governor, Doctor of Economics Siamion Šapira as a more educated and liberal ruler, than his notorious predecessor. He tried to uphold this reputation by speaking of “importance of preservation of cultural heritage” and “tourism development” which appealed to Hrodna people. Subsequently, however, he did not give evidence of his better style of government. Recently Šapira completely destroyed his reputation by ordering to fire academics and rector of Hrodna university on political grounds.
The Land of Smugglers
Western Belarus appears less industrialised that eastern Belarus, and cannot boast a large number of big industrial plants. The biggest enterprise in the region is “Azot”, the producer of chemical fertilisers. The plant consumes the largest amount of natural gas in Belarus, and therefore poses a certain problem for the government. In recent years, the government often expressed their readiness to sell it, but did not select the new owner yet.
The region appears among the best agricultural producers of the republic because of more fertile lands and a better work ethics.
Hrodna region has perhaps the richest architectural legacy in Belarus. A number of mediaeval castles, dozens of old Catholic and Orthodox churches and much more smaller objects like gentry estates can be found here. Thus, it has a large tourism potential, but as a matter of fact tourist infrastructure remains extremely poor here because of awkward policy of the government in this field.
For common people of Hrodna region, border smuggling became a popular occupation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The border that emerged between Belarus and its western neighbours, Poland and Lithuania, has become the main source of income for many people. Decades pass, but border smuggling remains a thriving industry.
People smuggle cigarettes and fuel from Belarus, where it is cheaper, and return with everything from clothes and products to electronics and tools. Although officially unemployed, these people lead a comfortable life and have income several times higher that their honest fellows working hard at factories.
Smugglers use various kinds of tricks to escape from border control. People hide the stuff in cars, buses and trains, on their body, in bags, balls and even cakes. The industry also experiences the influence of high-tech: many cases have been identified when people tried to float the cigarettes by river with GPS navigation devices.
Border smuggling became a distinct culture with its slang, legends and stories, and code of conduct. Thanks to Belarusians, you can often find illegal but cheap cigarettes in European streets.
This interesting feature of the local economy actually shows serious problems with regional development. The region that has a vast border with the EU fails to properly benefit from it because Belarus remains in isolation from the Western side. Little cooperation exists between local authorities, tourist movement and investments remain at a very modest level. People living in the Hrodna region are important stakeholders interested in rapprochement with the EU and should be treated as such.