Posts Tagged Belarus politics

(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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Vladimir Vladimirovich Lukashenka

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.

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EU or EU

Twenty years ago the Soviet empire broke into independent pieces. It’s a very good moment for Putin – who considered the break-up “a geopolitical catastrophe” – to launch his Eurasian Union to relieve its phantom pains of the new post-Soviet states.

The Eurasian Union is presented as a purely economic integration project to unite the markets of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, to begin with.

But there is nothing as political as an economic integration project with Russia. As Putin once put it: wars for land are pointless today, as you can just buy it.

The Union can look to its predecessors. The pilot version – the Union State of Belarus and Russia – got stuck somewhere between oblivion and non-existence. There is also the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Community, Eurasian Economic Community of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia and – last but not least – the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

The Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions start and end with the immediate neighbourhood and have a strongly nostalgic flavour. The Eurasian Union looks like a set of crutches for three authoritarian regimes with different (and to some extent incompatible) economies to cling together for survival.

Russia’s main export is gas and oil. Its import is everything else. The most significant part of the Belarusian budget is exports of processed Russian oil. Russia is an important market for Belarusian products, but no Russian oil means no state budget. But considering popular protests around Belarus and Russia, economic stability is more than ever a necessity in these countries.

Twenty years have gone by and Belarus’ choice between the EU and the EU (the Eurasian Union) is not political but purely geographical as it still borders on three EU member states and Russia.

Brussels expects Belarus to embrace democracy before any integration can go ahead. The regime in Minsk has ignored Brussels’ unilateral offer to liberalise visas. Politically, the offer from Moscow looks unbeatable as it contains no uncomfortable conditions on structural reforms, liberalisation and respect of democratic values.

But the latest-model union means for Belarus an even tighter hug by the Russian bear. The common market excludes access to Russian gas and oil. And the formula for gas prices is always open to re-calculation and re-negotiation, depending heavily on the good political will of Moscow.

So the Eurasian Union, another integration project with Russia: It’s like a bad dream, not even a nightmare, because it’s all too familiar.

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Clap Your Hands, Say Change

Picture this: My granny regrets having voted for Lukashenka in the elections half a year ago. It’s not the end of the world, but looks like the beginning of it. As we say, meaning that a certain fate is unavoidable: Annushka has already spilled the oil.

Isn’t it ironic? The name of my blog has changed its meaning several times since I started it. The spring of 2009 brought the thaw, the winter of 2010/2011 looked like an Ice Age and summer 2011 has it all: economic breakdown, complete loss of direction on behalf of the authorities and creative protests. My personal Oscar goes to the sense of humour skyrocketing these months in Belarus.

And it is ironic indeed. Now that the opposition is in jail or morally devastated, Belarusians all over the country are organising themselves with the help of social media (and use of the Internet is fairly widely spread) for silent protests. During three consecutive Wednesdays Belarusians gathered on the central squares of 20 cities, without chanting any slogans, and simply clapped their hands.

Each time more people came (several thousands only in Minsk) and even more were brutally detained or arrested. The next demo is on 29 June. On 3 July – on our Day of Independence – there is another one. Police have already announced that clapping hands will be considered a violation of public order.

Meanwhile, the EU has introduced its first ever economic sanctions against the regime. They needn’t have bothered. They regime already did that to themselves: problems with availability of foreign currency, imports and foreign debt are drastic.

In the time of economic crisis it’s finally evident  – even for my granny  – that the country badly needs structural reforms.

Belarus’ economic model has run out of steam, the World Bank says. Devaluation of the national currency to 56 percent is a blessing for an export-oriented economy, Lukashenka says. He is embarrassed to see how Belarusians reacted, with panic buying, to rumours about possible shortages of sugar and sunflower oil … (the oil, yes, the oil, Annushka).

A quarter of Belarusians believe they are to blame for the economic crisis in the country, Lukashenko also says. Aha, the nation responds, now we know how many Belarusians really voted for the president in December.

You can’t choose a nation to govern, Lukashenka adds. But you can choose a president is my reply.

Russia? Its involvement in the whole story of the economic deterioration in Belarus is not so clear. After years of brotherly help, it sharply raises energy prices, denies indirect subsidies, demands back debts and remindes about the Belarusian enterprises it could buy.

In terms of political pressure, the Russian government has publicly deplored politicised trials and state Russian TV is closely following our protests. For his part, Russian President Medvedev didn’t even bother to come to the Brest fortress to commemorate 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic war.

This is what Belarusians are saying with their silence. That changes are taking place and more is to come. It’s scary. It’s unbelievable. It’s unexpected. But it’s real and it needs to be done.

Hey EU – all eyes on Belarus for 3 July.

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Zealous Belarus

P.P: As the post was published, shocking news came. There was an explosion in the busiest Minsk underground station Oktyabrskaya, in the very centre of the city, near the Presidential Administration. 11 dead, 126 injured.. The explosion is classified as a terroristic act. The second one after the bombing in July’2008.. and the first one which took human lives.. Lukashenka personally examined the scene and urged to search the county and arrest anyone who has explosives.

The two main weapons of the Belarusian authorities are fear, surprise and ruthless efficiency… Well, the three weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and fanatical devotion to the social model of market economy… Anyhow, not the rule of law, but the law of their rules, which are not always logical.

The current economic and political self-portrait of Belarus is full of the brightest shades of the darkest colours. Since presidential elections in December 2010, the future of the country has been changing. On 12 April EU ministers will discuss potential economic sanctions against Belarusian authorities. No sweat: they already introduced economic sanctions against themselves.

The country faces a crisis in terms of hard currency: trading in foreign currency has been restricted and no flexibility in the exchange rate is allowed. It’s very difficult to buy dollars or euros, which makes foreign travel difficult, handicaps the private sector and could end-up bringing the biggest state factories to a standstill.

Belarusians have hurried to empty their bank accounts to buy foreign currency as well as anything that can be traded (gold) or might get a lot more expensive (sugar, buckwheat, sunflower oil).

Belarus lives beyond its means. Foreign debt skyrocketed from zero in 2006 to $10.6 billion dollars in March 2011. The government has ruled out a devaluation, which the IMF believes is a vital step.

It looks like Moscow is in control. It promised loans ($3 billion) but is in no hurry to pay them. First the Kremlin gave Minsk 10 days (!) to bring forward a plan for economic reforms. Now this document is being studied. Is Moscow expecting Belarus to give it carte blanche to buy the family silver (Belarusian chemical and machinery plants, oil refineries)? Russian businessmen have wanted this for a long time but could not get access.

Meanwhile, Russia is to raise its gas price for Belarus. It used to be $187 dollar per 1.000 cubic metres in 2010, $223 at the beginning of 2011 and will now be $244.7.

One sign that Belarusian authorities are once again putting their hope in the West is the release of a number of detainees from KGB detention centres considered by the EU to be political prisoners. Their charges have not been dropped but10 of them now face three instead of 15 years in jail. The official story is that this is the result of the investigations.

The two main sources of stability for Belarusian authorities have always been cheap Russian gas (for whatever reasons) and the trust of the wider public (for whatsoever reasons). The lack of the first asset shows the instability of the latter. And this at least is logical.

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Staff Reshuffle: Encore

Belarusians usually get new ministers on a Friday. This time we got five and 40 new appointments all together. But you couldn’t quite call the officials new.

For example, the state secretary of the Security Council and the defence minister exchanged their posts. The first deputy minister of taxes and duties and the deputy minister of labour and social security were appointed as ministers, of their respective ministries. The former ideologue from the Administration of the President,Aleh Pralyaskowski, who is best known for his plans to control media even on the Internet, will replace the minister of information.

Government staff rotation should be regular, said Alyaksandr Lukashenka, as quoted by Belapan, while meeting with the newly appointed officials. He recalled that the country is on the eve of local elections (April 2010) and presidential elections (January or February 2011). “Everyone should know beforehand who will work in what position, including after the political campaigns are over,” he said. Sure, even afterwards.

The President added that the struggle against corruption is still a priority. “No one will be treated with indulgence,” he said.

In contrast to his statement he appointed Alyaksandr Barowski as the director general of Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ). Barowski is the former head of the state petrochemical conglomerate, Belnaftakhim. In March 2008 he was sentenced to five years in prison on the charge of abusing his powers. He was pardoned by Lukashenka and released in December 2008, one year ago.

Later on it was explained that his new appointment is “no accident” as Barowski is a political figure who has amassed much experience in “crisis management.” OK, now I see.

For sure, the personnel policy has its logic. Reshuffling staff like cards helps keep them on their toes and prevents them from gaining political and/or professional weight. But it doesn’t bring any changes to the system. It is a bureaucratic game. One of the main results is that today there are almost no prominent figures among the officialdom in Belarus. Apart from the one and only.

The rest are very faithful.

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