What Life is Like in Belarus’ Small Towns
Few people in the West know that provincial Salihorsk, not Minsk, is the wealthiest town in Belarus.
Belaruskali, responsible for around 10% of Belarusian exports annually, makes Salihorsk the most economically important town in Belarus, outside of Minsk.
Despite its wealth, the town shares similar problems with many other smaller towns in Belarus. Salihorsk remains overly dependent on just one enterprise.
The flow of patients going into hospitals surpasses their holding capacities threefold, corruption thrives in the region. The young generation is leaving as they see no prospects for their own future in town.
The West should support mass media and NGOs in small towns to make local reforms possible in the future.
Belaruskali and Monotown
Salihorsk remains one of the most important cities in Belarus. Salihorsk-based Belaruskali is perhaps the most profitable state-run company. The average salary in Salihorsk is about $840 per month, one and a half times more than Belarus' national average. As a result, a new supermarket opens in Salihorsk every six months.
Despite all of this, the town remains a prime example of a typical Belarusian province. According to the People’s Program, an analytical project of the oppositional Movement for Freedom chaired by Aliaksandr Milinkievič, about 50 settlements in Belarus are so-called 'monotowns'.
This means that more than 25% of the economically active population work at one and the same enterprise. Belaruskali and Salihorsk fit the pattern, with about 20,000 of its 100,000 inhabitants working at Belaruskali.
Monotowns have their roots in the Soviet Union, which created cities to serve a single enterprise, be it a heavy machinery production or mineral extraction. As a result, Salihorsk became much too dependent on its only major enterprise.
When the Belarusian authorities kicked off an economic war with Russia's Uralkali, who had long been a partner, Belaruskali laid off many of its employees. This incident worsened the overall situation of the whole city.
Medicine as a Sensitive Topic
Each city has its own specific problems, but problems with healthcare remain common to most Belarusian towns. The quality of the medical equipment and treatment are themselves not an issue.
Last year, a clinic in Salihorsk received $100,000 from Japan under the Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Project to purchase of the new equipment.
The issues lie elsewhere. People wait half a day in line to simply make a medical appointment. In early September, Internet users published a photo of women waiting in front of a gynaecologist's office in a line that reached out into the street.
The low salaries paid to medical staff make people reluctant to become doctors, as, on average, a doctor in Salihorsk earns about $ 550 per month. Comparatively, an electrician after three-months of a vocational education can make the same amount of money while working at a hospital in Salihorsk.
Aliaksiej Valabujeŭ, the editor of the independent Saligorsk.org web-site, explained to Belarus Digest the other problem is that "the current medical facilities were designed for 680 visits every day, but in fact they receive three times as much." The authorities mention plans to build a new clinic, but so far their statements lack any concrete details or firm plans.
Many young people leave Salihorsk after graduating from school, as the 100,000-people town has no university. Salihorsk's high-school graduates usually attend universities in Minsk and after five years of study they rarely return to their hometown. Salaries in Minsk and Salihorsk are comparable, but the young choose Minsk because Salihorsk lacks career opportunities.
Local Authorities: Loyal to Lukashenka and Corrupt
Belarus’ political system works in a way that the head of the state appoints the head of the regional executive committee, who then goes on to appoint the heads of district committees. Therefore, the local authorities remain loyal primarily to their superiors and do not have any sense of accountability to local citizens.
Several stories demonstrate this point. Local politician Uladzimir Šyla has long been fighting against the destruction of a forest park. The local authorities essentially increased the city's density by cutting down the forest. Salihorsk's population density reaches 11,000 people per square kilometre. This is four times more than Brussels or three times more than Paris.
At the grassroots level, corruption flourishes in Salihorsk. Former Deputy Minister of Forestry Fiodar Lisica, who previously worked in Salihorsk, used state money to build several large houses and is awaiting trial for abuse of power after the authorities decided to act.
Viktar Maločka, an activist from the United Civil Party, explains the corruption schemes using the example of a pharmacy boom in Salihorsk:
The central streets of the town are full of multifunctional pharmacies. According to the law, the state provides land for these kinds of facilities for free, but in fact a pharmacy in these multi-storey buildings occupies only one tenth of the space. The remaining areas serve commercial purposes, such as banks, offices or shops.
How to Make Small Towns Sustainable
Currently Salihorsk is run by Aliaksandr Rymašeŭski, a rather traditional local leader for Belarus. He worked at a state collective farm and remains rather unpopular among residents of the town. People say, that he has recently won a car at a raffle organised by a local businessman.
Local elections have little to do with ruling a town in Belarus. People elect members of the Town Council, but they lack any real competence and elections remain untransparent. If Belarusians want to help their towns develop, they should elect local officials to carry out the work.
Although a mayoral election does not automatically result in improvements, it can increase transparency and accountability of officials. Countries in transition like Poland started to elect the heads of cities in the 1990s and do not intend to return to the previous practise.
Small towns should promote the development of small and medium-sized businesses to become less dependent on one industry. The rise of the private medical centres could provide a solution for the current scarcity of doctors, and the opening of private universities would help keep young people in their hometown.
Proper local elections should be a long-term goal, even if it sounds like a dream at this point. To make it real local anti-corruption activists, independent mass media and grassroots initiatives need serious support. That would make make small towns more transparent and closer to ordinary people.
Russia Still Seeks an Airbase, Financial Constraints, Balancing on Ukraine – Belarus Security Digest
Belarus is running out of money as only priority expenditures receive budget financing. Security forces will get a raise in their wages. However, this bump will simply compensate for inflation.
Russia still wants to get an air force base in Belarus. Drone manufacturers are fighting for the Defence Ministry's orders. The internal troops are suffering from staff shortages.
Possible Russian Air Force Base in Belarus
The creation of a Russian air force base in Belarus may create problems for the Belarusian air force. Russian officials remain the only source of public information about the prospects of creating an air force base in Belarus.
On 1 August 2014, Viktor Bondarev, Russia's air force Commander, said that they would open an air force base in Baranavichy after the signing of an intergovernmental agreement. If this were to occur, there is a high probability that the Belarusian fighter jets, which are stationed there, will be moved to another airfield. They may even be moved to Babrujsk, closer to the border with Russia.
Moving the Belarusian air force fighter jets' base of operations from Baranavichy threatens to negatively affect the staff of the domestic aviation: the big question is whether the authorities will be able to provide housing to airmen at the new duty station, and jobs and schools for their family members.
As a result, some officers may refuse to move to the new duty station and to abandon their already established way of life.
Belarus is Trying to Reassure Ukraine
On 18 August 2014, Alexander Lukashenka received State Secretary of the Security Council Alexander Miazhujeu. They discussed the situation on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. Lukashenka demanded from the Belarusian border guards to avoid receiving "any legitimate claims from Ukraine", implying that any conflict should be avoided. According to the Belarusian leader, he agreed with President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko that all security agencies of the two countries "should be in permanent contact".
The objective is to avoid any misunderstandings with its southern neighbour. Alexander Lukashenka received reassurances that all of the security agencies of Belarus and Ukraine had established contact among themselves and informational exchange was constantly ongoing.
On the same day, Valiantsin Vialichka, Belarus' ambassador to Ukraine, said at a press conference that Belarus would not allow for aggression from third parties to be committed against Ukraine from its territory. Officially, Belarus is in favour of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and against its federalisation.
The active pro-Ukrainian rhetoric of the Belarusian authorities in August could be a reaction to the information that Russia was preparing a large-scale operation to enforce peace. To do this, Moscow could promptly concentrate forces capable to address not only (and not so much) humanitarian but also combat. Simply put, this would be an intervention.
The CSTO exercises "Inviolable Brotherhood-2014" and "Interaction-2014" practised to prepare for such a scenario. The deployment of Russian forces with their staff and weapons over long a distance preceded the actual drills themselves.
The exercises included the use of artillery, armoured vehicles, aircraft and a massive air assault. In fact, these were not designed to be stricty peacekeeping missions but rather large-scale military operations that have a complementary humanitarian aid component.
'Irtyshia' Falls to Western Perfidy
The Belarusian authorities made these reassuring statements right on the first day of the "Interaction-2014" exercise of the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Forces in Kazakhstan. For the training mission, two simulated states were created: 'Karania', a CSTO member, and 'Irtyshia', a neighbour of 'Karania', which was experiencing an acute political crisis provoked by a separatist movement against a backdrop of ethnic tensions.
Meanwhile, the crisis in 'Irtyshia' originated with the support of "some leading Western countries". 'Karania' asked the CSTO for military assistance, and the member states provided such assistance following a decision of the Council for Collective Security. During the exercise, the participants also practised cyber operations on the Internet as well as psychological warfare.
Officially, they talked about the threat of destabilisation in Afghanistan and spreading of instability to the CSTO neighbouring member states. However, the use of cyber warfare suggests that a more developed state was its real objective. The exercise scenario strongly hinted at the ongoing events in Ukraine.
Security Expenditures Stagnate
An increase in security expenditures is not possible at present due to budget problems. The situation with the budget's performance remains difficult. The budget surplus from January – July 2014 was abnormally low for this period of the fiscal year at 0.6% of the GDP and this was only because of the spending restraints on low-priority expenditures. This situation seriously challenges the reality of the Government's plans to achieve a balanced budget in 2014.
Security forces will certainly be recipients of budgetary funds. But they are not going to get much. On 1 September 2014, the service members of the Belarusian security agencies received a raise in their wages.
The average increase was 17% of the official rate of pay. In fact, this is merely compensation for inflation, which has already exceeded 11% since the beginning of the year. Besides, they were told unofficially that the next raise would happen only on the eve of the presidential election.
Struggle for military procurement orders escalates
The situation with Belarus' security agencies equipment, particularly with its drones, has had some rather interesting developments. On the one hand, there are many models. On the other hand, few of them have passed the first stage of official trials and are operational.
With regards to mid-range drones, the Belarusian defence industry has the UAS-100, the official trials of which ended on 30 June 2014 on the premises of the 927th Centre for Setup and Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems of the Air Force and Air Defence Forces. Belarus can use the UAS-100, the tactical unmanned aerial vehicle 'Grif-1', with a range of up to 100 kilometres in the future.
The main purpose of this model is air reconnaissance. Belarus is a leader among the CIS countries in this category: currently, no other post-Soviet country has a model which is ready for serial manufacturing.
The Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Staff Shortages
The Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs are trying to solve a staffing problem. The issue of staff shortages in the Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs remains a rather acute one. Thus, a new concept for the personnel policy for the Internal Troops until 2020 was adopted in July. The concept has not yet been released and will most likely will not be made public.
Otherwise, the real level of staff shortage in the Internal Troops has become well known. Meanwhile, the most efficient mechanism is conferment with officers after short-term refresher courses. Those servicemen were not trained for the posts of unit commanders (the most pressing of all shortages facing the Internal Troops). They were trained for officer positions in the EOD and pyrotechnic and canine units and services for the protection of state secrets.
To be more plain, Belarus faces a shortage of field experts. One can only hope that the future officers have attained a sufficient level of qualification during their 1.5-month training.
Andrei is the head of “Belarus Security Blog” analytical project.