Posts Tagged Lukashenko

40,001 Brother

Have you ever heard of Babruysk?

It’s a regional town in Belarus which once had an important river port and a fortress. Jews used to live there since the 16th century; 100 years ago there were some 40 synagogues.

But my story is different. By 2016 Babruysk will host a Russian airbase with 24 Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets.

There are already two Russian military facilities in Belarus: One has an Antei long-range naval communications station, and the other has a Volga missile attack early warning radar station.

If extraterritorial jurisdiction is to apply to the base in Babruysk, Russians could even place nuclear weapons there.

Possibly a very new chapter for this little town. And for Belarus, which in 1996 completed its nuclear disarmament programme.

But until the Sukhois arrive, this Babruysk arrangement is up in the air.

Belarusian president Lukashenka always wants to know what he gets in return for his brotherly help. And 2016 is still some way off.

After the Eurasian Union is launched on 1 January, in 2015 Belarus can keep its revenues from export duties on Russian petroleum products, securing at least $2.5 billion for its budget.

That’s a good cushion for Belarusian economy. And for November 2015, when the next presidential elections in Belarus are expected to take place. Not that there will be any surprises: Lukashenka’s rating recently mushroomed to 45.2 percent. The opposition is talking of having a symbolic joint candidate, Mikola Statkevich – a prisoner of conscience who ran for the presidency in 2010 and who is still behind bars.

Now that Minsk is also a theatre for international talks on Ukraine and Belarus has increased its trade with Ukraine, Moldova, and several EU member states, Lukashenka has only one difficult partner – the big one in the east.

His loyalty to Russia was in the past portrayed in an aria on how not even 40,000 brothers, with all their quantity of love, could equal the sum.

This time, it’s a new tune.

The Belarusian brother at an annual press-conference for 100 Russian journalists reminded them that parts of the Pskov, Bryansk, and Smolensk regions in Russia used to be Belarusian. He also refused to recognise Crimea, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia. And dismissed Putin’s politics as imperial ambitions, unquote.

Now Minsk can talk. But next year it will launch a new round of negotiations on further support from Moscow.

Yes, Russia is ready to pay for its allies.

But what happens when Moscow runs out of economic carrots? Needless to say: It also has sticks.

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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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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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When In Doubt, Shoot

Apropos of countries with capital punishment, what do you think the notification looks like which informs you that your relative has been executed? White letters on black paper? Mournful coloration and a red stamp with the national coat of arms? Or it’s a telegram? Clear and brief, no condolences. Will it be dated? Will it be personal? Will God be mentioned?

Human life is not the biggest value in the 21st century. So many die daily in car crashes, domestic accidents, street and domestic violence, diseases, hunger. Norms are changing. The Catholics are about to use condoms, conservatives are having a second thought about abortion. But capital punishment could still for many be just a part of normal life.

The politicians made a clever decision to write laws and proclaim the rule of law – all to prevent the irrational and emotional from dominating reason, to defend people from each other. In dubio pro reo – when in doubt, for the accused.

Well, people are still being executed, even though most civilised countries abandoned this measure to show that not just the accused or his family, but that the of whole society failed if he or she committed such a serious crime.

Again, apropos of countries with capital punishment. What do you think it feels like when the judiciary is not independent? When it is in dubio pro rex (when in doubt, for the king)? When you have no trust in the judgment?

Two young people were recently executed in Belarus. They were arrested the next day after a terrifying bombing in Minsk metro in April. The show trial took place in September in the House of Justice, where the accused where put on display in a cage on a big stage. Over five hundred volumes of evidence and hundreds of victims and witnesses’ testimonies were rushed through in 10 weeks. The sentence was the harshest: death row both for the terrorist and his friend, who knew about it but didn’t try to stop it.

The reaction of society was strange. It provoked discussion about the barbaric notion of state killing exactly because people had their doubts that the terrorists could be identified so quickly, that they confessed several bombings and 14 crimes all together and that their aim was no less than “destabilisation of the society.”

The family of the accused even stayed in Minsk with a victim of the bombing. Even the victims were afraid that toll number of casualties will simply go from 15 to 17.

People were not convinced, but not the king. On 14 March President Lukashenka dismissed the pardoning petition. Days later it became known that both convicts have been executed. The fastest capital case in Belarus ever. Now the volumes of evidence can be put in the bin.

What does the note look like? I can tell you. One day you get a short bureaucratic statement. You won’t even know the exact date when it was over for your closest family member.

The executed have no grave in Belarus. But those who have their doubts have been bringing flowers to the house where the executed lived and to the memorial of the victims who died in the metro bombing; people abroad have been coming to the Belarusian embassies. In memory of the victims of the regime who they failed to defend.

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Not Russia

As a Belarusian joke goes: There are tours to Belarus organised for the Russians to see what they will have after the presidential elections on 4 March.

Putin will be elected, but of course situation in Russia is and will be different. Even the demonstrations show how different we are.

In Russia rallies are tolerated.

And there are so many creative and witty posters. People mock at the regime and its corrupt nature: “Don’t shake the boat, our rat is sick”, “Veggies are good for the regime”, “Putin cheats at maths”, “Passive intellectuals are here today as well”, “They killed elections! You, bastards!” etc, etc.

And I thought: why have I never written anything funny when joining a rally?

It’s been 17 years, it’s bitter not witty.

There’s nothing funny about any new scandal, every other broken life of an expelled student or a sacked trade union activist.

It’s not in Russia that a dissident receives two weeks imprisonment for placing toys with slogans against the regime or two years for hanging out a white-red-white flag that is not forbidden.

It’s not in Russia that terrorists are arrested a day after the bombing and the death cases of the journalists or politicians stay unsolved.

Not in Russia the results of the national Eurovision contest are declared rigged and revoked personally by the president after the scandal in the internet forums.

It’s not Russia that in response to EU sanctions raises the level of repression against its own people.

It’s not Russia that forces the EU to recall all ambassadors. Smiling and giving its best bark that is still worse than its bite, in a row that it can not afford and is bound to lose…

The knowledgeable ones here are unhappy as they also know how few they are, and how many are not interested to be informed.

Right, Russia also has those who care and those who don’t. But none of the parts is that disillusioned, hard-boiled, taken through the 17 years of mincing machine, with its ups and downs, being proven wrong, proven right but meaningless.

This is Belarus, baby.

“They killed our hope! F*ck you, bastards”…

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Many Little Strokes

“No, Rakhlei. No long introductions. Just a simple answer: Are you for the sanctions or against?”

Oh oh. Now it’s getting deadly serious. If you support the idea of any kind of a dialogue or contacts between the West and the regime in Belarus, they will never ever be your friends again. You will have to drink your vodka on your own.

There’s currently a lack of everything in Belarus. Of warm weather, but also of optimism, good news, solidarity, the ability to listen and compromise.

There are those who believe that only tougher restrictive measures from the West could influence the situation in Belarus. As external democratisation efforts could only be effective if the authorities support, not hamper them, sanctions are the only way to influence the regime from outside the country.

And Belarusians need help as they don’t have any instruments to make themselves heard. Moreover, it’s immoral to hold any negotiations with those who beat up dissidents and torture opposition activists in jail.

There’s also an alternative point of view. That the sanctions the EU is able to adopt are of a symbolic nature, unpleasant for the authorities, but largely ineffective. And they won’t get tougher than the imposed travel ban and targeted restrictions against certain companies which support the regime. Moreover, if only the regime can trigger changes, let’s talk to them as well. Future democracy would also need democrats and they can’t mature overnight.

Two more political prisoners (Sannikau and Bandarenka) are rumoured to be released mid-February – would that be thanks to the restrictions or to negotiations? Oh, a slave trade, you say? You would prefer them to die in jail?

I know. It’s very difficult not to get overemotional and frustrated about fruitless negotiations in the situation of constant pressure and stable decline. But a pragmatic, result-oriented position on the necessary effectiveness of the restrictions is also important.

There is no other winning strategy than a long-term one, being very well aware of the risks and staying very well informed. Only a clear, consistent, conditionalised and – reasonable position can be persuasive.

One has to have the big picture in mind and take all the possible steps to achieve one’s ultimate goals. Even if these steps might seem too, too small for now.

So, I am against simple answers to complicated questions.

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On 19 December 2010 Alexander Lukashenka claimed victory in a presidential election that, according to domestic and international monitors, was marred by irregularities and falsifications. This re-election saw the largest protests in Belarus in a decade and was followed by an unprecedented wave of repressions again political opponents and civil society, as well as a complete freeze in relations with the West, and by the deepest economic crisis since Belarusian independence. Speed and scale of these developments came to the surprise of even the most astute experts of Belarus.

79.6 percent was the official count of votes supporting Lukashenka. By contrast, independent polls saw him score merely 51.1 percent. According to them, 20.5 percent is the share of Belarusian citizens that would cast their vote for him today.

And here are some more figures:

189 percent is the rate, at which the Belarusian rouble devalued this year.

113.6 is the current figure for base inflation. Food prices have risen by 127.4 percent, those of services by 72.4 percent.

45 percent is the current refinancing rate, the highest in the world. This rate compares to 10.5 at the beginning of the year.

70 percent of GDP is the estimated size of Belarus’ external debt by the end of 2011. And it is not supposed to exceed 55 percent of GDP under the country’s national security strategy.

$177 is the difference between wages in December 2010 and October 2011, as average incomes dropped from $530 to $353.

Tens of thousands of Belarusians have migrated to Russia and Ukraine for work; the worst-case scenario expects 1 million people to leave for work.

11 price rises have driven up the costs of gasoline in 2011, provoking several mass protests by automobilists.

$270 per one thousand cubic meters has been the price Belarus paid this year for Russian gas. In 2012, the price will drop to $165.50, while Ukraine is ready to pay $416.

100 percent is the ownership by Gazprom of Belarusian pipeline operator Beltransgaz. Having just purchased the remaining 50 percent for $2.5 billion, Russia now for the first time owns a pipeline outside its territory. Gazprom promised a threefold wage growth to its new employees.

$7.3 billion is the total of Russian subsidies to Belarus, as per Moscow’s calculations, in 2011 and 2012. Besides reductions in gas prices and the purchase of Beltransgaz, Sberbank has provided a $1 billion loan to potash giant Belaruskali.

A single currency is to be introduced in 2012, according to the hopes of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

…a year has never been that long for the Belarusians.

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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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Belarusian Tango

It’s been the talk of the town for a while and finally EU countries have come up with a verdict: fresh sanctions against Belarus. Two days before the official EU decision on Monday (31 January), seven opposition activists were released from the KGB detention centre in Minsk and put under house arrest, including one formal presidential candidate: Vladimir Neklyaev.

So why the sanctions? Since the evening of election day on 19 December Blearusian civil society has faced an unprecedented level of pressure.

Political activists, journalists, human rights defenders are being taken for questioning and arrested, their offices and flats are being searched. Three out of 10 presidential candidates are still in KGB detention centre, five ex-candidates and 37 people in total face harges of organising mass protests and could spend up to 15 years in prison.

Most of them haven’t met their lawyers since 29 December. All 37 have been recognised by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience.

What could the EU do? Ban officials from entering EU countries; freeze their assets and property in EU countries; embargo products of Belarusian state companies.

What would it bring? Only the embargo option has an impact beyond the political. There are calculations that the Belarusian economy would collapse in a matter of months if Europe stops buying Belarusian oil products and potash fertilisers. On the other hand, any restrictions from the West would inevitably push Belarus eastwards – into Russia’s loving arms.

What do Belarusians want? Belarusians hope that imprisoned activists are released. They also hope for “positive sanctions” – more freedom to travel; enhanced and non-bureaucratic co-operation with NGOs and political parties; a long-term perspective for institution-building and social development. And they want no more Russia.

What’s it all about? Is the ultimate goal regime change? The democratisation of Belarus? If the latter, the EU should proceed with restricted political dialogue with the political elite and an extended dialogue with the population at large. I do hope they consider carefully the means, not just the end.

As the last month has shown, it’s very unlikely that the BY government has the potential to carry out structural democratic reforms and to open up. At the same time, the uninformed wider public in Belarus has no way to articulate its will, no public sphere in which to imagine a new path of development. We need external help to help ourselves.

If supermarkets have for decades only sold apples, why would you suddenly demand pineapples, which are anyway believed to  be “the worst form [of fruit?], except for all the others that have been tried?”

I know, the matter is a lot more complicated than I have pictured here. For informed Belarusians it’s been a very, VERY exhausting month. Every day has brought ups and downs and ups and then downs again. There is no signs the madness will end shortly, or that the EU  sanctions will really help.

The prisoner release on the eve of the EU foreign ministers’ meeting is the traditional Belarusian political tango: two steps backward and one step forward. Will the EU be deceived again?

If nothing else, Belarus is a wonderful stress test for EU foreign policy, and its influence on events in the Union’s most direct of neighbours.

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