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.
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.
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.
Did you know that there are Belarusians who unlike Lukashenko don’t have a moustache? But they all are very serious.
Vitaly, seriously, you are my hero.
…and if you ask me I think it’s no coincidence that he lives in Belgium now ^^
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.
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!…
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.
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.
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.
So here we go again.
The regimes of Russia and Belarus tend to look more and more like twins, identical twins.
Political activists are arrested under a “hooligan” label? Been there, done that. The laws for demonstrations and associations are tightened? Same o’, same o’. Politicised trials for flash mobs in churches and teddy bears dropped out of planes? C’mon, tell me something new.
A Russian friend put it very nicely: She could have been very optimistic about all the protests and anger that rises in Russia, if she didn’t know the situation in Belarus so well.
The Belarusian and Russian leadership are acting as if there were no moral laws, no neighbouring countries, no international agreements and – no tomorrow. For this reason, domestic policy can lie solely in the hands of the elected heads of state and their clique. The majority, minority, the dissidents and well-wishing international organisations can be disregarded.
The Pussy Riot case showed it very clearly. For Putin not just a handful of opposition leaders, but any citizen with a critical and active political stand is a thorn, even if not an immediate threat to his power. And yes, he himself is not a pussy.
That’s exactly what happened in Belarus in the last decade. First the opposition politicians were silenced, now everyone should go into ostrich mode.
Here let’s not forget that a triplet twin is on the way. Kyiv gets less media attention but cultivates the same tendencies.
It is impressive enough to see modern leaders acting to the disadvantage of their country to conserve the status quo and consolidate their power.
And it works well.
There are stars and VIPs supporting Russian activists and unfortunate punks, EU regularly pulling in and out its ambassadors from Belarus, European leaders pronouncing threats to sports events in Ukraine. To no avail. Moscow, Minsk and Kyiv couldn’t care less.
With the bottom line here being general apathy and frustration in the societies.
The possibility for the united democracies of European Union to face the united autocracies of the Eurasian Union is getting higher.
Are you scared? Then act today.
I think it’s funny. Peaceful Swedish citizens get themselves a small jet and sneak off from Lithuania over the Belarusian border to scatter teddy bears in support of the freedom of speech. In Belarus, which is so obsessed with its security.
I don’t find it funny when there is a show of toys with slogans for more human rights and freedoms and the human organisers are tried and put behind bars. The toys luckily, not.
It is not very amusing to see Soviet style parades during the Victory Day and Independence Day celebrations, showing off military aircraft and defence equipment, all those tanks and other examples of the munitions wardrobe of Belarus.
Twenty five years ago, in 1987, as the Soviet Union was crumbling and tumbling, German Mathias Rust illegally landed next to Red Square in Moscow, in the heart of the Soviet empire.
Of course he was tracked, but nobody was decisive enough to give an order to shoot him down. As a result there was a window of opportunity for Gorbachev; he fired key defence officials who opposed his perestroika ideas.
Belarusian history also knows a very different story: In September 1995 a balloon participating in an announced international race was shot down; two Americans were killed. A big international scandal followed.
Who knows what happened now, when Belarusian authorities have tense relations with both Europe and Russia? If there was a decision not to shoot the low-flying plane. If the plane went unnoticed and managed to violate the Nato-Belarus border. Or if it was disassembled and brought to Belarus across the Russian border, where there are no border controls.
The facts are: there are videos showing hundreds of teddy bears with signs “We support the Belarusian struggle for free speech” flying towards places in Belarus that can be identified; there are witnesses who saw them, and those who picked them up.
The State Border Committee of Belarus denied any invasion of Belarus’ airspace, claiming that the video is a fake; the Lithuanian side confirmed the trespassing of the border but refused to elaborate if it was linked to the teddy bear flight.
Notoriously, Belarusian air defence system is meant to protect Russia as well. And now Belarus is planning to help Venezuela build up an air shield.
But apart from the question of national security. With human protests being silenced, the toys are still able to cross the border and ask for more freedom. But this time most of the teddy bears from Sweden ended up in police stations for further investigation. Isn’t it ironic?
PS It was on 10 July 1994 that Lukashenka came to power. 18 years ago today.