Category Archives: Belarus

Moscow commentator: Belarus must vote this year to join Russia or face ‘liquidation’

From –

In what appears to be a response to Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s recent declaration that Belarus will never become the northwestern part of the Russian Federation, a Moscow journalist says Belarusians must vote this year to become just that or face “the liquidation” of their country and “the fate of Ukraine.”

In the Moscow business newspaper, “Vzglyad,” Eduard Birov says that it is time for Lukashenka to hold a referendum that will open the way for his country to be united with Russia. If that doesn’t happen, the journalist adds, “Belarus in its current form will be liquidated.”

The need for Belarus to take this step is “not some caprice of Putin but an objective necessity” in a world where smaller countries must make a clear choice between being part of Russia or being swallowed up by the West. Lukashenka understands this, Birov says, and must now act on it by agreeing to a referendum this fall on the future of Belarus.

Valery Karbalevich of Radio Liberty’s Belarusian Service suggests that this Moscow article is “very indicative” of the attitudes of many in the Russian capital not only about Belarus but about the nature of the world, attitudes Kremlin propaganda promotes and now apparently believes.

“Russian media in connection with the Ukrainian crisis,” Karbalevich says, “have devoted great efforts for creating political myths with the goal … of justifying the current policy of the Kremlin.” What is both surprising and disturbing is that, as Birov’s article suggests, they have begun to believe their “own myths.”

The Belarusian broadcaster notes that “the leitmotif of the entire article is the demonization of the West as the absolute evil which is opposed to absolute good, that is the Russian Federation” and the related notion that individuals and entire countries must choose which side they are going to be on.

From Birov’s point of view, “the current international system in the region recalls that on the eve of World War II. Then in expectation of a military confrontation, the USSR and Germany divided Central Europe between themselves, depriving the small countries of sovereignty and unifying them with themselves.”

“Now all this is being repeated,” Karbalevich says, and it is being justified by the notion that “if we do not seize them, they – that is, the West, will.”

Birov’s logic “is interesting: if Russia liquidates Belarus, this is good, but if the West does the same thing, this is bad. But ‘the subordination to the West,’ which Eduard Birov threatens is not the liquidation of statehood; and why such subordination would be worse for Belarus than unification with Russia, the author does not explain.”

Birov has “no doubt” that the Belarusians would vote for unity with Russia, but he is almost certainly wrong at least if the votes are cast and counted honestly. According to the latest polls, only 26.3 percent of Belarusians would vote for unity with Russia, while 48.9 percent would vote against.

Clearly, Karbalevich says, people in Moscow don’t know much about Belarus despite viewing it as their “closest ally.” And he adds, “it is interesting that in Russia there are dozens of analytic centers but almost none of them focuses on the special study of Belarus. The reason? It is the very same ‘Russian world.’

What he doesn’t say but with justice could is the situation in the West is almost as bad: There are very few centers or scholars there either working on a country that occupies some of the most geopolitically important territory in Europe: as a glance at a map will show, a line between Moscow and Berlin doesn’t go through Ukraine as many think but through Belarus.

Russia’s Ex-Soviet Neighbors Struggle to Contain Ruble Fallout

From –

LONDON — The ruble’s precipitous depreciation over the past year is forcing many of Russia’s former Soviet trading partners into devaluations, while others are struggling to defend their currencies from collapse.

The ruble has fallen 8 percent this year versus the dollar after shedding 43 percent in 2014, driven down by lower oil prices, stagnating growth and Western sanctions over Moscow’s role in Ukraine.

Most ex-Soviet states are heavily reliant on Russia for trade, investment and remittances.

Here is a list of moves by central banks across the former Soviet Union this year:

The hryvna has fallen about 40 percent since Feb. 5 when the central bank abandoned the dollar auctions it had been using to support its currency. Instead it raised interest rates by 550 bps to 19.5 percent. The country has enough reserves to pay for just five weeks of imports.

The central bank devalued the Belarus ruble by 18 percent in a series of steps early in January. It forecasts the currency to weaken 3 to 7 percent in 2015 against the euro-dollar-Russian ruble basket.

The official rate of Moldova’s lei fell 1.9 percent to a new record low on Tuesday. It has fallen 25 percent in 2015. The central bank raised interest rates by 500 basis points on Tuesday..

The central bank raised interest rates on Feb. 10 to 10.5 percent from 9.5 percent to protect itself from the fallout of the Russian crisis. Its dram currency has fallen about 15 percent in the past year.

The central bank raised interest rates on Feb. 11 and sold $40 million to support its lari currency which has depreciated around 10 percent this year against the dollar

Oil-exporter Azerbaijan said Monday that it had abandoned a peg between the manat and the dollar in favor of a dollar-euro basket. Azeri reserves fell by $1 billion last month.

Gas-rich Turkmenistan devalued the manat by about 19 percent to 3.5 to the dollar, effective from Jan. 1.

The tenge was devalued by 19 percent against the dollar last February and authorities have refused to devalue again, even it has appreciated since then against the Russian ruble, the currency of Kazakhstan’s main trade partner. Non-deliverable forwards (NDFs) are pricing a 15 percent tenge devaluation to the dollar in the next three months.

How Lukashenko Is Milking the Ukraine Crisis

From –

The ink was barely dry on the agreements reached in Minsk last week on the conflict in eastern Ukraine when speculation began as to who had “won” and who had “lost” in the agreement.

Almost all commentators have missed perhaps one of the greatest victors, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, for whom the process itself, irrespective of the results, constitutes an ongoing success in trying to weave a course between Moscow and Brussels while maintaining his unquestioned political control at home.

Watching video coverage of the summit in Minsk, it seems incongruous to recall just how great an international pariah Lukashenko was less than five years ago. After a presidential election in 2010 was widely judged as violating many international standards, and protests against the unfair vote were violently suppressed by security forces, Lukashenko and others in his government were subjected to sanctions from both the European Union and the United States.

Among other measures, official contacts were reduced to a minimum in protest of violations of international standards in the parliamentary elections as well as continuing human rights abuses and repression of civil society in Belarus.

So what is one to make of the sight of Lukashenko serving as beaming host for French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and, of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin? Apparently all is not forgiven, since the EU extended sanctions against Belarus for another year as recently as Oct. 30, 2014. However, an increasing stream of EU and other Western officials have been visiting Minsk recently, in an attempt to manage the growing crisis in Ukraine.

In fact, for a long time Lukashenko has sought to walk a very fine line between Russia and the West, professing loyalty to Moscow and participation in Putin’s Eurasian integration project, the Eurasian Economic Union, while at the same time seeking to sustain working diplomatic and economic relationships with the West, in particular the European Union.

Belarus has steadily agreed to join economic integration projects with Russia, but has also shown itself willing to defy Moscow to defend its own interests, such as the high-profile detention of a Russian potash executive in a 2013 trade dispute. At the same time, Belarus has made minor concessions on human rights and political prisoners in return for increased dialogue with Brussels — for example, recent negotiations on visa facilitation.

In this context the crisis and subsequent war in Ukraine have posed both threats and opportunities for Lukashenko. Most obvious, an open and expanding military conflict not far from his borders poses clear dangers to stability and security in Belarus itself.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is also an economic threat to Minsk, which depends heavily on markets in Eastern Europe, especially the markets of both large neighbors. The political polarization between Russia and the West, especially the European Union, also narrows Lukashenko’s diplomatic space for mounting new political initiatives with the West.

Finally, economic sanctions on Russia and the subsequent swift decline of the ruble have the potential for significant negative effects on Belarus’s trade balance.

However, crisis and war in Ukraine and Russia’s estrangement with the West have also provided economic and diplomatic openings for Lukashenko. Moscow’s reverse sanctions on European goods offer great opportunities for entrepreneurs in Belarus to enrich themselves by shipping these goods into Russia disguised as Belarussian products — a ploy already employed to evade Russian embargoes on Moldovan and Georgian goods.

The crisis has also afforded Lukashenko the chance both to assert his own independence and to earn the good will of his neighbors and the EU by criticizing Russian sanctions against both Ukraine and Moldova as a punishment for them seeking to develop closer relationships with Brussels.

Most of all, the war in Ukraine has given Lukashenko the invaluable opportunity to create for himself the role of neutral, honest broker between Russia and the West, as well as between Kiev and its rebellious regions in eastern Ukraine.

Minsk was a natural venue for the talks on Ukraine, maintaining close relations with both Moscow and Kiev, yet serving as an acceptably neutral site for European negotiators. Lukashenko was careful to appear a balanced and gracious host.

In a recent news conference he alluded to his country’s “sacred ties” with Russia yet also pointedly asserted that he had no intention of going to war with the West “to oblige someone.” In addition to receiving Western leaders during the Ukrainian crisis negotiations, Lukashenko recently further poked the bear by announcing a visit to Tbilisi, Georgia this spring.

Nationalist leaders and analysts in Russia have denounced some of Lukashenko’s assertions of policy independence as moving too far toward the West. However, the Kremlin is unlikely to see any need to rein him in, since an ostensibly autonomous Belarus is far too useful to Putin as a venue for further contacts with Western leaders and negotiations over Ukraine’s future.

In addition, while Lukashenko’s diplomatic charm offensive may have improved somewhat his relationship with the West, it has done little to change the nature of Belarus’s domestic political regime. Violations of human rights are still systematic, prominent political prisoners remain in jail and press freedoms are still being actively restricted by government authorities.

So why should Lukashenko play the neutral mediator and peacemaker? On the positive side, aside from considerations of Lukashenko’s personal vanity and ambitions to restore his international reputation, relations with the European Union and even the United States have improved, and Belarus has more balanced foreign economic ties.

On the cynical side, Belarus has elections coming later this year, and no improvements in press, civil society or electoral freedoms seem to be on the horizon. Lukashenko is surely not afraid of losing, but the extent of international condemnation of yet another rigged vote may be a concern.

Perhaps Minsk authorities hope that diplomatic successes and improving relations with Brussels might obscure the absence of change in the country’s repressive domestic political environment. At some point authorities in Belarus may act more responsively to the desires of the country’s civil society. For now, smart money is with the cynics.

Lukashenka Says Belarus Could Leave Eurasian Group If Agreements Not Kept

From –

MINSK — Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka says his country “does not rule out” quitting the Eurasian Economic Union (EES), an instrument for Russian influence in the former Soviet Union, if agreements in it are not kept.

Speaking at an annual news conference on January 29, Lukashenka said “trade wars” within the bloc are unacceptable and pointed at an ongoing standoff between Moscow and Minsk over food imports and exports.

Lukashenka emphasized that Belarus and fellow EES member Kazakhstan have always pushed to preserve the “purely economic” status of the grouping, seemingly suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to use it as a political lever.

“We, and especially Kazakhstan, have always ruled out any political nature for the union,” adding that the two nations had rejected the idea of a common visa regime for that reason.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in a bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine has caused concern among its neighbors.

Worried About Moscow, Belarus’s Lukashenka Drifts Toward Brussels

From –

Alyaksandr Lukashenka isn’t known for waxing poetically about the Belarusian language. But that’s exactly what he did at a youth gathering in Minsk earlier this month.

“Culture is what makes a Belarusian person Belarusian,” Lukashenka said. “It is not only literature, music, and architecture, but also our language, which we must know; our history, which we must remember; and our values, which we must respect.”

The unexpected defense of the national identity — and particularly the Belarusian language — was one of many indications in recent months that the authoritarian Belarusian president has grown uncomfortable with his country’s current geopolitical position in the shadow of neighboring Russia.

“No matter who comes to the Belarusian land, I will fight,” Lukashenka said in an interview with Russia’s independent Dozhd television last May. “Even if it is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

The crisis in neighboring Ukraine, during which Lukashenka has consistently defended Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while playing an active mediating role to regulate the violence, seems to be offering an opportunity for Belarus to improve its relations with the West.

“Given the increasing issues that President Lukashenka has with the Kremlin, this is an extra incentive for him to try and engage with the European Union,” says Hrant Kostanyan of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini, tells RFE/RL that the bloc is “appreciative” of Lukashenka’s positions on Ukraine.

Belarus has not joined Russia in implementing countersanctions against EU countries, despite being a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

An EU official, who asked not to be identified, cautioned that it is “too early” to talk about progress in relations with Minsk, although “positive steps” have been noted.

“Minsk has woken up to the fact that the world is a nuanced place where you cannot rely on one partner,” the official said.

In more than 20 years at the helm in Minsk, Lukashenka has made an art of weaving between Moscow and the West, accepting generous handouts and political security from his patrons in Russia, while resisting Moscow’s efforts to undermine Belarusian sovereignty or even to fold the small country into the Russian Federation.

But this time, Lukashenka’s defiant stance may be taking deeper roots.

Last week, state media in Belarus announced a new policy of “de-Russification” of the country’s schools, a policy seemingly aimed at reviving the Belarusian language. According to a 2009 poll, 53.2 percent of Belarusians consider Belarusian their native language, down from 73.6 percent in 1999.

On January 26, the government announced its largest-ever peacetime exercises of military reserves, involving some 15,000 people.

And on February 1, a new military doctrine will take effect that specifically states the “sending of armed groups, irregular armed forces, mercenary groups, or regular armed forces who use arms against the Republic of Belarus by a foreign country or countries or on behalf of a foreign country or countries” will trigger a declaration of war.

Convergence Over Ukraine

In December, amid a broad government shakeup seemingly prompted by the tottering economy, Lukashenka named Alyaksandr Kosinets as his chief of staff, considered the second most-powerful position in the country.

Kostinets, a former provincial official from Vitsebsk, is a Soviet-style statist like Lukashenka himself. But he is also a Belarusian patriot who tamped down displays of Russian nationalism in his region. He also erected a monument to Grand Lithuanian Duke Alhierd in Vitsebsk last year over the protests of local ethnic Russians and Cossacks.

At the same time, Minsk has been – at a glacial pace – reforming and modernizing its economy. Hrant Kostanyan notes that more than 55 percent of Belarusians are now employed in the private sector, a dramatic increase that has steadily built up over the last decade. The growing private sector is inevitably interested in better trade relations with the EU, compared to state-owned giants with long-standing ties to the Russian economy.

The convergence of views between Minsk and the EU over Ukraine seems to be offering an opportunity to improve relations. The EU noted Lukashenka’s release of several activists that the bloc considered to be political prisoners and responded late last year by trimming the list of Belarusian officials and entities that are targeted by EU sanctions.

Minsk has also reached out to its Baltic neighbors and to Poland, taking advantage of the common ground it has with them concerning Ukraine. Latvia currently holds the rotating EU Presidency and Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics noted earlier this month that there are “new openings” in relations with Belarus.

The bloc held two rounds of talks with Minsk on visa facilitation in 2014 and a third round is expected this spring. Sources in the EU say a deal on visa facilitation could be initialed at the summit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership program in Riga in May.

EU officials, however, stress that they are not changing their position on “political prisoners” in Belarus and that remains an obstacle to deeper normalization. Amnesty International has recognized seven remaining political prisoners in Belarus.

Analyst Kostanyan says that Belarus has indicated to the EU that Lukashenka would like to attend the Riga summit personally. Belarus – together with Azerbaijan – has been something of a black sheep in the Eastern Partnership program, and Minsk has been represented by lower-level officials at all its summits since it began in 2009.

EU spokesperson Kocijancic does not rule out an appearance by Lukashenka at Riga, but adds it is “premature” to discuss who will attend the event. Analysts say it is more likely that Belarus would be represented by Prime Minister Andrey Kabyakau — which would still be an upgrade since Minsk was represented by its foreign minister in Vilnius in 2013.

Russia, however, continues to have enormous leverage over Belarus’s economy — particularly the energy and electricity sectors. In addition, the EU continues to press Lukashenka for political openness, while Russia is not concerned by Belarus’s authoritarian system. That issue will come to the fore again as Belarus holds another presidential election in November.

Belarus adopts new legislation concerning the ‘green men’

From –

Belarus introduced amendments to the Law “On Martial Law“. This legislation redrafted after the Russian intervention in Ukraine and will come into force on February 1, 2015.

According to this document, the appearance of armed men without identification chevrons (aka ‘green men’ in Crimea last March) on the territory of Belarus will be considered as an attack, endangering the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Belarus. Starting from February 2015, sending of armed bands (groups), irregular or regular forces by another state will be considered as an attack against Belarus.

The Law also considers the concentration of the armed forces of another state near the Belarusian border (if aggressive intentions are clear) or the mobilization in another state with the aim to attack Belarus to be enough to introduce the martial law.

Meanwhile, according to Charter97, the hidden mobilization has started in Belarus. One Belarusian reservist states, that “the reservists are called to the training camps in Grodno and Brest regions of Belarus in order to respond to NATO activities in Poland”.