Posts Tagged Belarus-Russia
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.
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.
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.
The act of terrorism in Minsk on 11 April is an attempt to destroy the myth that Belarus is an ‘island of stability and security,’ as the Belarusians describe it.
The country has neither religious nor nationalist internal conflicts and no external enemies. The explosion comes shortly after presidential elections in December, which saw law enforcement bodies hailed for preventing what they called a coup d’etat prepared by the opposition and Western countries. So how was the blast in the very centre of the capital possible?
The bomb attack occurred in the Minsk metro during Monday’s evening rush hour. Thirteen people are dead, 200 were injured. It’s a huge tragedy for a peaceful country of 10 million people which has not taken part in any wars since it gained independence in 1991. A far more striking loss than the disappearances of several opposition politicians and a journalist in 1999 and 2000.
On 13 April – the official day of mourning – President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced that the case has been solved and the bombing suspects have confessed.
The main suspects are two ordinary 25-year-old men, a lathe operator and an electrician. They also confessed to two earlier bombings – in September 2005 in Vitsyebsk and on Independence Day in Minsk on 3 July 2008 – basically, the only other bomb attacks of note during Lukashenka’s rule. Nobody was killed in the earlier blasts, which had remained unsolved.
There has been a lot of speculation on who might have wanted to ‘destabilise the country’ at a time when it is already struggling with a complicated economic problem.
Moscow? But Minsk has pinned its hope on a loan from Russia and it will be hard for the Kremlin to seek tough conditions in the aftermath of the tragedy. In fact, the latest news from Moscow is that talks on a $1 billion loan could be completed within a month. Also, that a second anti-crisis loan of $2 billion will be considered in the framework of the Eurasian Economic Community.
The opposition? After the presidential elections opposition leaders and their aides are either in prison or under house arrest, awaiting trial on charges of organising or participating in mass protests.
Islamist groups? Organised crime? Could it be an internal power struggle between apparatchiks? The fight against Lukashenka?
For sure, the explosion has caused discomfort for the government: the first reactions on Belarusian websites blamed Lukashenka himself. He visited the site just two and a half hours after the attack with his seven-year-old son (!) and urged police to catch the bombers as soon as possible.
In theory, he could benefit from distracting people from the economic crisis and use the event as a pretext to strangle what remains of the opposition. But in practice? It doesn’t make much sense. How can you distract someone from his daily routine? And destroy what is already almost nonexistent? And more trials will follow anyway.
For its part, the UN Security Council condemned the explosion as an “apparent” act of terrorism on face value. It apparently saw “a more than even chance that the government was behind this”.
Meanwhile, Lukashenka is indignant over the suggestions he may have been involved. He said that peace and security are the “brand” of Belarus and that the case has been solved very quickly. He added: “Am I an idiot to be the one to claim the crime is cleared?” The terrorists loved chemistry and hated people.
The President has linked the post-election protests, the current economic problems and the bombing as a joint-up conspiracy to undermine the stability in the country, saying that the opposition is acting in collusion with Western governments and could be responsible.
Lukashenka promised to stabilise the economic situation in a matter of days, or a week. He asked people “not to be mad at him” and promised that the worst has already passed.
One of the Russian yellow newspapers published the names of the three suspects, all of whom are simple guys from Vitsyebsk who worked at the Vitsyebsk Tractor Parts Factory. An opposition activist who happened to serve in the army together with one of the suspects confirmed that the guy was a real fan of chemistry.
No formal charges have yet been brought against the men, but it’s pretty clear what awaits them: Belarus is the only country in Europe which still executes people. They could be trialed as quickly as they were arrested. The official discourse – that the country is in a state of war – is also alarming as for instance, the people spreading ‘slanderous accusations’ about the events could face criminal charges.
Unreal as it may seem, the situation in the country might soon stabilise: the government is likely to get the loans it needs and to privatise some of the biggest enterprises. Devaluation will be a tough but necessary step, foreign currency will flow back, those found guilty of the bombing will face capital punishment.
What will remain is a deep fissure in the fabric of society, recognised even by the President himself: between those who believe anything the authorities say or do and those who find it difficult to believe anything.
How many people believe that the hastily arrested are the terrorists? How many will trust the verdict?
How many will be happy with economic measures to curb the crisis? How many regret their vote in December?
The question is – can such a country be considered genuinely stable?
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.
There’s nothing else you can talk about in Belarus these days. After the presidential election on 19 December people woke up in a different country. New year 2011 has brought a new reality to Belarus.
Probably, you didn’t hear?
A short retrospective, as I feel the need to explain myself, the same as German and Polish FMs Westerwelle and Sikorski – the architects of the EU-Belarus “critical” political dialogue. I’ve been trying to show it’s not that bad. Well, now it is.
Two weeks ago the authorities dispersed an anti-Lukashenka demonstration with extreme violence. About 700 people were detained, and not just protesters. People who were simply leaving bars or cinemas in Minsk city centre were also among those put under arrest for 10 to 15 days or fined. It’s as if someone wanted to make sure that the number of those detained was impressive enough. The detention reports were identical: everybody, apparently, was arrested at 10.30pm local time at the Nezavisimosti square, where an unauthorised demonstration took place and where they shouted anti-state (!) slogans – inter alia – “Long live Belarus.”
In the two weeks that followed, the crackdown has continued but in a more targeted way. The homes of the relatives of those arrested were searched, as well as the flats and offices of human rights defenders, opposition activists and journalists.
There’s also a (growing?) list of 27 people who could be charged with organising mass riots (facing between 5 and 15 years’ jail) and participating in them (3-8 years).
The list features seven former presidential rivals of Alyaksandr Lukashenka – Ryhor Kastusyow, Alyaksey Mikhalevich, Uladzimir Nyaklyayew, Vital Rymashewski, Andrey Sannikaw, Mikalay Statkevich and Dzmitry Uss.
All of them, except for Kastusyow and Uss, are being held in the KGB detention centre, even though the charges were brought by the Minsk city police. The news is coming out from the lawyers of those charged. There is no official information as this stage. Rymashewski was suddenly released today on his own recognisance (3 January). More people are expected to be released on the condition that they will not leave Minsk during the investigation.
Among the 27 on the list and in the KGB cells are the presidential candidates’ aides, journalists and opposition activists, but not the dozen or so people who broke the windows of a government building on 19 December. The attack on the building was a signal for the police to brutally disperse the whole unarmed crowd. They dozen assailants can be clearly seen on videos posted on the internet. Where are these still-unknown heroes? The minister of interior, Kulyashow, has promised to identify each and every one who was involved.
Meanwhile, the president-elect decided not to wait for the inauguration and appointed a new government (same faces, different positions). On 31 December Belarusian authorities sent another signal to the Western front: they found no objective reason to prolong the mandate of the OSCE office in Minsk (“We don’t need no education”).
Every action has a reaction.
I can hardly believe the massive wave of solidarity this has provoked: Social networks put aside their holidays, people have been raising money to pay the fines, discussing how they could help. The Guardian-Angel programme published the list of people arrested for 10-15 days and suggested ways to help: choose a person to supply with toilet paper, drinking water, warm clothes and so on, come to pick him/her up with a car when they are released.
Blogs and forums have analysed pictures and videos from the demonstration, compared official reports and independent media. Newspapers got phone-calls with stories such as: “Who can I tell that my mum took a taxi from the restaurant and was snatched out of it when it stopped at the traffic lights? She is arrested as a demonstration participant”.
The comment of the president-elect – that Christmas in Belarus was celebrated this year in a unique, unprecedented atmosphere – is indeed true.
This country, situated between the EU and Russia, has contained had a dividing line. Now the nation is more polarised than ever, mostly along age lines, not geographically, but geopolitically and, above all, emotionally. In his New Year’s address Lukashenka spoke of “the absolute majority” and “the minority.”
What’s going on? How far is Moscow involved? Is it the intention of Minsk to stop all cooperation with the West and put up with the opposition? Just like that? All of a sudden? That’s what “the minority” can’t stop talking about and finds no answers.
But the question that bothers me the most: what were the police guys thinking when they beat and kicked their own countrymen – people who were armed only with slogans?
Everything is possible, the impossible just takes a little longer. As a Belarusian I can say it again: the impossible is possible.
The upcoming presidential election in Belarus shows how different things might be. Two months before the 19 December vote, activists under the white-red-white opposition flags peacefully collected signatures in the vicinity of the Presidential administration. As a result, 11 (wow, 11! usually three or four) hopefuls have announced that they have raised the necessary 100,000 signatures to be registered as candidates. We will see how many will actually get through the registration formalities.
It was highly visible in Minsk how Belarusians actively signed up for the opposition candidates – giving over their passport details without any apparent fear. Of course, most of the hopefuls are completely unknown to the wider public. They got the signatures primarily on the grounds that they are an alternative to the 16-years-in-office president.
Having collected more than enough signatures for himself within the first few days, President Lukashenka asked people to sign up for the other hopefuls as well – to give them a chance, he said. This could also help explain why they got so many singatures.
Belarusians are not overly passionate or desperate people. They are rational and pragmatic. Due to the situation in the country and the sad state of political culture following years of Soviet regime, apart from the president there aren’t many politicians who are actually that well known. Only the President is genuinely popular. One can’t really expect that an opposition candidate will get a lot more than five or seven percent of the vote and that crowds will take to the streets to celebrate his endeavour.
It’s the economic crisis and the crisis in relations with Russia that is pushing Minsk in the direction of more democracy and making people look for an alternative.
Minsk is aiming to show the EU that it shares common values and merits increased economic and financial co-operation. That’s why the elections should be as free and transparent as possible. And indeed, nothing is impossible.
Recent development shows that Brussels is willing to put up with the re-election of the Belarusian President and with a vote which has basic credibility, even if it is not spotless. It should already be quite satisfied with the free signature campaign and the plurality of the candidates.
On 2 November, the German and Polish FMs, Westerwelle and Sikorski, will be in Minsk to campaign for democratic elections (“Yes, you can!”). This was difficult to imagine some years ago, now it’s possible. Lukashenka will probably even shake hands with a gay minister!
Meanwhile, it’s Moscow which is indirectly influencing the electoral campaign, far more than the West ever could. Kremlin boss Medvedev has even commented in his podcast on the stagnation of what were once considered brotherly ties. Recently he coldly told journalists that he doesn’t expect anything good from the elections in Belarus in December, but corrected himself, adding that he was joking. In return, Lukashenka and the opposition hopefuls compete on who is more nationalistic and more anti-Russian.
Belarusians authorities need to be careful when opening the Pandora’s Box of rights and values, however. Controlled democracy and increased co-operation with the West has the potential to undermine the old system. As the example of Moldova shows, today you take up European values and tomorrow you will have a new government, and the day after tomorrow another one.
We have yet to see, how much stability Belarusian people want.
You could pretty well imagine how it feels today to be a Belarusian.
Think of your influential neighbouring country, one that is very close culturally as well as politically. After a government green light, the media starts a propaganda campaign against your president, who has always been its friend. According to the reports he is corrupt and authoritarian, controlling cash flows and killing his challengers.
This campaign to oust him has to do neither with investigative journalism nor with the sleaze itself. It’s just a means to discredit a head of state. The two governments are all too close and in fact pretty similar – telling the entire story behind its previous support could be far too revealing for the accusing side.
The neighbouring leadership has even threatened to publish a transcript of talks behind the closed doors, where other presidents were present. That’s an unacceptable step in terms of diplomacy and international relations. But your mighty neighbour doesn’t care.
And it’s not very pleasant, whatever your attitude to your president.
After the recent gas and media wars between Belarus and Russia, sociologists speak of a new geopolitical trend. Since May 2004 and EU enlargement the number of pro-Russian Belarusians is bigger than that of the pro-European side. For the first time after six years the statistics balance out again, heralding the comeback of traditional, bivectoral geopolitical preferences.
It shows that you can hardly beat Lukashenka on his own territory. Even if you are Russia. Belarusians watch filtered Russian TV and have only a few of Russian newspapers to buy. The majority of those who find Russian reports on the Internet are too critical and too knowledgeable to believe the recent TV documentary series and the reports describing Lukashenka on his knees, in despair, being ready to beg for forgiveness and to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia within a matter of hours. This campaign is aimed at the Russians. And at Monsieur Lukashenka, of course.
Strange as it may seem, the people of Belarus are uniting around Lukashenka, as he is the guarantor of the country’s independence. Even nationalists see the Kremlin as a far more awful evil than the president, whom they have gotten used to anyhow.
The trying-to-be-impartial Western media views Belarus with Russian eyes. Foreign correspondents in Moscow report on the defeated Lukashenka, saying, between the lines, “it serves him right.”
Sorry, but have you thought about the consequences? Do you believe, dear Western colleagues, that Russia is thinking of getting rid of Lukashenka (even if only in the long run) in order to foster democratisation in Belarus? If Russia comes, we’ll have even more Russia, not human rights.
The question is, what is the Kremlin’s plan – especially for the upcoming Belarusian presidential election? Russia can’t put forward a candidate, it has no political influence on the structures of power in Belarus. Experts worry what may happen if Russia doesn’t recognise the results of the elections and the West is forced to follow suit. The whole nation, not just the leadership, will be ousted and isolated.
And, as you look back, unlike the case of Ukraine or Georgia, there’s neither Brussels nor Washington, absolutely nobody behind you.
Scary, isn’t it?