Nobel Prize for Audio-Literature

Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich has been shortlisted this year for the Nobel prize for literature.

She has long deserved it. Having started as a journalist, she fleshed out and elaborated her own documentary style to give a voice to those who are rarely in the spotlight in the post-Soviet world. Be it victims or soldiers, their families, their mothers – people who never make it onto the front pages of newspapers.

Her books are audio guides to personal stories through the dark tunnels of Soviet history.

Incredibly moving, very subjective, full of pain, love, anger, helplessness, courage, human dignity, despair and hope. Full of contradictions, but at the same time explicit and definite. So very human.

Alexievich talked to people affected by the Chernobyl disaster, whose lives have been metamorphosed by something invisible. She talked to those who were able to return from Afghanistan, families of those who didn’t. She looked for women, who, during the time of the Soviet Union, fought in the Second World War, but never mentioned it as the story of the war is a male domain.

Her latest book “Second-Hand Time” is an exploration of the vast heritage of the USSR – these four letters and 70 years, what did they do to so many nations? Why has globalisation brought back nostalgia for homo sovieticus?

Alexievich gives an insight, a glimpse, into subjects which are impossible to grasp in their entirety.

There has been a discussion in Belarus if she is a Belarusian writer, as all her books are in Russian. She was born in Ukraine and seems not to think too highly of literary merits of the Belarusian language.

But the stories she retells with such breathtaking brilliance belong to the whole world. With or without the Nobel prize.

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Hostage of Love

News from Belarus: activist detained, activist arrested, journalist detained…

And now for something completely different: head of Russian potash giant Uralkali, Vladislav Baumgertner, arrested in Belarus.

Baumgertner is also chairman of the supervisory board of Belarusian Potash Company, a joint trader of Uralkali, and of Belarusian potash producer Belaruskali.

At the end of July 2013 Uralkali stopped exports through the joint cartel (BPC), citing Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s December 2012 decision to allow Belaruskali to export potash through other traders.

Minsk was outraged. Belarusian investigators have counted the losses of Belaruskali so far: $100 million.

The dissolution of the BPC cartel could cause the global potash price to fall. Which could bring Belarus’ losses up to $1 billion a year.

And probably even more, as Russians were responsible for sales, Belarusian side doesn’t have traders.

Baumgertner would not have travelled to Minsk unless the bait was sweet. They say the Prime Minister of Belarus arranged a meeting with him through his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev.

After a brief discussion (or, as Russian press reports, after an angry monologue of the Belarusian head of government), Baumgertner tried to return to Moscow. And failed.

TV footage, aired on Belarusian state channels the same evening, showed him handcuffed. He is being kept in a KGB detention centre, accused of abuse of office. If found guilty, the head of Uralkali could spend up to 10 years in prison.

The Russian elite is quite shocked but not so active just yet.

Uralkali has refuted all the allegations. The Russian foreign ministry has demanded the release of Baumgertner and Russia’s eccentric ambassador in Minsk has made some angry comments and insists on visiting him.

The press in Russia has ridiculed this humble reaction to what it calls Belarus’ “outrageous provocation.”

Minsk’s action is understandable: In a time of external deficit growth, any loss is unbearable.

Potash fertilisers are the only considerable source of foreign currency in Belarus that is almost free from Russian control. Oil, which is processed in Belarus and sold in the West, originates from Russia. Belarus has so far resisted selling Belaruskali to Russia.

Meanwhile, this apparently risky venture is a game that Minsk can hardly lose.

It is a form of Russian-type machismo enacted on the eve of the next round of negotiations on Russian oil deliveries and another Russian loan.

The potash business in Russia does not belong to people from President Vladimir Putin’s team; it is rather Medvedev’s business.

Baumgertner’s arrest has so far not influenced the next tranche of loan money, approved by Russia.

At the same time, in case there are no concessions on the Russian side, or even a new “economic” war, Moscow can be blamed for economic failures in Belarus.

This could help Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka escape the Eurasian Union, the Russian-led club to be launched in 2015.

A standoff with Russia is also an opportunity to mend relations with the West: one political prisoner was released by Belarus shortly after Baumgertner’s arrest.

The fact is. Moscow cannot let Belarus go, not from the Eurasian project, not to lose it to the West. So Minsk has taken the apparently risky move, knowing that its strategic partnership with Russia death could not end.

And Baumgertner is a hostage of love. Be it love of Belarusian revenue or Russia’s love of its old status as a regional power.

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Beware Twilight Diplomacy

They say that long journeys begin with small steps.

Thousands of small business owners recently staged strikes across Belarus against new rules imposed under the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Minsk was reluctant to join it back in January 2010. But it is difficult to say “Niet” to its strategic partner: Russia approves loans and sets gas prices.

Meanwhile, street vendors need to do business.

There are some 80,000 small firms in Belarus that sell clothing and footwear. The new rules come into force on 1 July 2013 and require them (but not manufacturers) to submit samples of their goods to laboratories to test compliance with Customs Union safety standards and to pay (high) certification costs.

After the protests, the new rules were put on ice till November, hopefully the procedure of certification will be tested.

Small business owners believe the Customs Union is a threat to private enterprises in Belarus. They want the country to withdraw from the club. The businessmen were never consulted, but now they are having their say.

President Alexander Lukashenko says that Belarus’ social and economic model is based on the Christian ideals of the Russian civilisation.

Maybe that’s how come the Russian civilisation can force through any project it wants without it being labelled political.

The Russian are even opening a (Christian?) military airbase in the Belarusian town of Lida. The location is close to the Lithuanian border, which makes it vulnerable – and political.

It’s good to have allies. But the “Russian civilisation” has a habit of cooking up new gas price formulas, unions or initiatives behind closed doors. And the Russian bear’s embrace suffocates much needed reforms in Belarus.

Belarusian people are not consulted, but the government says, of course, that they endorse the projects by their own free will. So, its their responsibility, not Russia’s, not the EU’s.

Funnily enough, the EU also practices twilight diplomacy in Belarus. It recently suspended, for one year, its visa ban on Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey.

It is not a bad move per se – there should be someone to oil diplomatic contacts.

It is clearly aimed at the Eastern Partnership summit in November in Vilnius, where the EU hopes to pull closer some of the former Soviet countries by signing agreements and visa pacts. But nobody knows the conditions of Makey’s attendance.

Regardless of its political calendar, the EU needs to engage more with Belarusian society, to have (genuine, not bogus) NGOs as a condition partner for its common projects with Minsk.

The EU should be watering the roots of civil society. It is these people who must, ultimately, come to an arrangement with their state.

At the same time, as a normative power, the EU should create clear, fair and open rules for its relations with difficult neighbours.

If it wants to play diplomacy in the twilight zone, it should beware: the Russians and the Belarusian elite are masters of the game.

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(im)Prove

Improvement becomes a philosophical matter, when it is about less repression in a country that barely has any political activity left to repress.

Belarus has seen no sign of change.

Wait. Signs, yes. Signs that Minsk wants to improve its relations with the West. Foreign minister Makey met foreign diplomats and some of his counterparts to announce that Minsk is seeking to rebuild its ties with united Europe.

There are signs that there can be change. But no changes so far. No ground-breaking economic or social reforms, political prisoners are still in prison, dissidents still in the underground.

Months ahead of the Eastern Partnership summit in November, Lithuania is trying to make sure it is going to be a success: several important agreements (with Ukraine and Moldova) are to be signed and European political heavyweights will come together in Vilnius to celebrate EU politics on Eastern Europe.

Belarus is, of course, not the top of potential success stories on the agenda, Ukraine is far more important.

But to have political prisoners released and lay the ground to start a dialogue of any kind at all would be good. At any time. Even if it is tied to the EU political calendar. Or the decision of Minsk to balance its dependence on Russian support (as Moscow is pressing to privatise key assets to its investors).

But it is not that much about the exigency of improvements. Which are being sought and found.

As the EU offers Minsk a formula of “more for more and less for less.” The strategy of Minsk, as Belarusian experts put it, is “less for nothing.”

Both Minsk and Brussels have always had conditions to resume dialogue. And have resumed it several times. And broke it up again. I am afraid the point of the whole rapprochement is lost.

So… What is the goal? Does the EU want to have a dialogue with Belarusian authorities? Does it aim at profiting from intensifying co-operation?

If the objective is improvement of the political situation and legal framework in Belarus, there is definitely a need of a clear roadmap for both sides to follow, with a list of steps, concessions and such. Otherwise this stumbling block will be endlessly moved around.

You want to improve it? Prove it.

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Your Cause

Guess which European country held a nationwide, three-day official period of mourning after the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez?

This country didn’t mourn after a blast in the underground that killed a dozen people (only the capital mourned, the city where it happened). It didn’t join European nations in mourning when half the Polish ruling elite perished in a plane crash. It didn’t mourn the victims of the Japanese nuclear disaster.

But this time it’s different. Even the celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March is postponed.

It’s all about ideology. There is a country in Europe that wants to be a twin brother to far-away Venezuela. To rely on its own oil, erratically choose its allies and foes; be generous with the first and dismissive with the latter. Stay populist and popular, win elections… Till death do us … Well, you know.

Regimes are similar all over the world. For this reason they are categorised and labelled. And so are the people who embody them.

When your authoritarian twin at the other end of the world dies, you write an epitaph that you hope will be read out for you:

“Our hearts have been rocked by the sad news … the untimely death of one of the greatest statesmen and leaders of our time, a tenacious hero, a flaming patriot and fighter for independence, an outstanding politician, thinker and public speaker, a brilliant, strong and life-loving man whose life was completely and entirely devoted to the service of the Fatherland… led his nation to happiness and freedom with a strong and firm hand. He was and I am sure will remain in the hearts of millions of people, who will remember him as the true farther of the nation, a defender of the poor, underprivileged and oppressed, a focus of hopes and a pillar of democracy on the continent.”

It is the President of Belarus who believes that the name of Hugo Chavez, “should be inscribed with golden letters on the scroll of world history.” Or even, beyond history.

“Your cause will last forever,” Lukashenka concluded.

He went to Caracas to take part in the funeral.

This official grief in Belarus is indeed a bit exaggerated. But little wonder. When fear of your own death is so big.

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A Real Poker Face

Did you know that there are Belarusians who unlike Lukashenko don’t have a moustache? But they all are very serious.

Please meet Vitaly Zelkovsky who travels but doesn’t get emotional.

Vitaly, seriously, you are my hero.

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…and if you ask me I think it’s no coincidence that he lives in Belgium now ^^

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Empire Strikes Back

Everything you wanted to know about human rights violations in your country but were afraid to ask: A report is drawn by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of (surprise, surprise) Belarus and describes countries that “traditionally represent themselves as developed democracies.”

In the introduction FM Makei states the intention to spotlight “the victims that are traditionally given a blind eye” as well as “the most resonant human rights violations in 2012.”

The report is based on data, collected by Belarusian embassies and accessed online.

It covers USA, Canada and countries in Europe. Of the EU members, several are not even mentioned. Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Luxembourg and Malta seem to be the least troubled spots on the map.

There is already criticism and comments on the report. However, who-are-you-to-judge is the bottom line of the discussion.

But don’t be too hard on the authors. They just wanted to chime in with their view of the appalling human rights violations. Just imagine how worried Belarusian MFA is about situation back home!…

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Rinse and Repeat

It sounds familiar in 2013: Belarus is aiming high. It plans to have 8.5 percent GDP growth and it has unveiled a big-hearted programme on modernisation, social housing, wage growth and debt repayment. After another period of turning its back on the West, it also says it wants to get back to the negotiating table.

But time is a river, you cannot really step into the same water twice. Yes, the average wage is back to $500/month. Meanwhile, prices keep growing. Stable, but low is the President’s popularity rate, at just 30 percent.

So who can help with a bit of cash to keep ambitious plans alive? It is Russia and/or the West.

Moscow already owns the gas pipelines that run through Belarus. It does want to see more extensive privatisation. But with oil prices going down, its support is also dwindling, be it in the form of Russian oil which Belarus refines and sells on, cheap gas, loans or, more simply, in terms of Russian demand for Belarusian exports.

The EU is a rich neighbor. It also has the means to help modernise industry and to bring private sector investment. But it wants Belarus to free political prisoners and to see economic and political reform.

So today it is cheaper to come to terms with the West. You release the inmates and you pick up the discourse of yes-we-want-to-be-your-democratic-friend.

The Russians want the family jewels, and you can only sell those once.

However, the EU might be less easy to fool after the violent post-election crackdown in December 2010 than it used to be. Lukashenko can put on his poker face. But he has already showed his cards.

Let’s wait and see who outwit the others.

The game is: promise more and give less. Complain about the iron fist of Russia but reap the benefits of its Eurasian Union project. Release dissidents and arrest new ones. Rinse and repeat.

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Decree Me

Belarus used to be one of the most technically advanced republics of the Soviet Union. Today, 21 years after the collapse of the USSR, it’s just one of the most Soviet. Years pass, but certain qualities stay.

Belarus’ strategic efforts to attract investment and modernise the industry are overshadowed by presidential orders and decrees. Recently at the stroke of a pen two of its biggest candy makers were nationalised. Decree No9 on planned reconstruction of the wood-processing enterprises also forbids their workers to quit their (yet poorly paid) jobs.

2012 is the Year of Books here, 2013 will be the Year of Frugality.

The country starts paying off its debts next year and plans no further loans so far. It is unlikely that they could get any from the West due to the lack of (promised!) structural economic reforms.

But Russia can never fail a true friend, even though this friend failed to fulfill the precondition for 2012, a $2.5 million privatisation. Moscow already signaled that the last of tranche of its EurAsEc grant ($440 million) will be wired in December.

Despite the difficulties, Belarus aims high. There are lists of factories for sale, with impressive price tags. For example, the state share of Belaruskali potash company can be acquired for $32 billion.

These attempts to sell the crown jewels remind me of a story about a neighbour, who hoped to sell his ancient car for $8,000. Just because he badly needed money.

I don’t mean to underestimate Belaruskali, it has some 40 percent of the world’s potash fertilisers market. But if you want to be effective, you have to be realistic.

Now all eyes on economic security! Economy should be economic was the Soviet slogan.

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Save Belarus Farmers

Oh, this wonderful fatigue… Problems that can’t be resolved in a limited span of time annoy ad infinitum, don’t they?

Eastern Europeans from their big and small Russias are too elusive to grasp. They have alternating periods of colorful revolutions, flawless democracy and authoritarian rule.

I understand the EU attitude. There are too many national and local problems, with politicians stuck within election cycles, between voters’ pressure and populism, foreign policy being domestic policy-making.

There are very different parties assuming power and bureaucrats merrily-going-round due to rotation.

There is anaemic, drowsy strategic planning and no painstaking decisions as to the countries outside the EU.

As if EU doesn’t have any neighbours any more.

One of the recent episodes of South Park shows Americans supporting the fight of farmers in Belarus. Or was that about cosmonauts in Armenia?

Whatever. Politicians have to act anyway.

And if you have five minutes to spare, please join the fight. Ukrainian stamp collectors need you.

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