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BELARUS


  

REPUBLICAN REFERENCE

Area (sq.km)
207,595

Population
10,350,194

Principal ethnic groups
Belarusians 77.9%
Russians 13.2%
Poles 4%

Capital
Minsk

Currency
Rubel 
(Belarusian Rouble)

President
Alexander Lukashenka

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Background:
After seven decades as a constituent republic of the USSR, Belarus attained its independence in 1991. It has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics. Belarus and Russia signed a treaty on a two-state union on 8 December 1999 envisioning greater political and economic integration but, to date, neither side has actively sought to implement the accord. 

Update No: 264 - (01/01/03)


The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukasheka, has deservedly had a very rough time lately. In October his regime, the regime the last fully dictatorial one on European soil, looked secure. Not so any longer after a severe rebuff at the hands of the West, delivered in tandem by the EU and NATO.

The pique of a slighted dictator
Lukashenka for all his apparent self-confidence craves international recognition. He has been smarting at the absence of any acknowledgement of the message of congratulations he sent Bush on his victory in the US presidential election of October 2000 and Bush's failure to offer commendation on his own presidential re-election. He was re-elected himself with a 75% endorsement in September, charged at the time as having been rigged, by Western observers. Lukashenka has recently refused to allow the monitoring group of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to investigate the matter further in Belarus. 
Lukashenka got his own back at Bush at the time by pointing to the 'Florida angle' in the US president's victory. He ironically commiserated with Bush's predicament in having his legitimacy disputed in such an 'unfair' manner.

Europe act tough
The EU on November 19th banned Lukashenka from visiting its member states or those about to join, as well as 50 leading figures in his regime.
The EU decision coincided with the NATO meeting in Prague on November 21st-22nd, from which Lukashenka was debarred by the Czechs, another candidate nation, refusing him a visa. In particular he was debarred from the second day of the summit when the leaders of the 46-member Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council were due to convene. Belarus has withdrawn its ambassador in Prague for "consultations" and threatened to break off diplomatic relations.
Lukashenka has now been given pariah status, a position likely to be extended if his regime carries out a threat to allow an estimated 150,000 illegal immigrants and numerous drugs to flood into the EU from Belarus. They would not be so easy to stop without a far wider ban than envisaged, not just on Lukashenka and his 50 sidekicks, but on everyone coming from Belarus and on trade with the country too. Clearly for Lukashenka to carry out his threat would involve an escalation that could get out of hand and topple him. But he is nothing if not headstrong.
The ban will apply to Lukashenka, all his ministers and deputy ministers, key members of the presidential administration and the chairmen of certain state committees. It will also cover the heads of the national state television, the procurator-general's office, the central electoral commission and of the constitutional, supreme and arbitration courts.
Individual EU governments may choose to suspend the travel ban for various reasons, but must first make a case for an exception to the EU; any other member state has 48 hours to lodge any objections to the proposed concession.
All member states have agreed to the ban and all candidate countries, aware that Belarus has ignored warnings given in October not to disrupt the work of the OSCE monitoring group. Minsk has refused to grant visas to the group's members, effectively making it impossible for the monitors to operate.

The Russian angle
Belarus trades with the EU and candidate countries that are neighbours; but it has far closer links with Russia, which subsidises its energy in return for taking shoddy manufactured goods unsaleable elsewhere.
The bad news for Lukashenka is that even Russia is clearly looking for ways to oust him. A scheme thought up by Putin and proposed in the summer is that Belarus should hold a referendum to decide whether to become part of Russia. Putin is doubtless calculating that the beleaguered Belarussians, most of whom must be thoroughly fed up with their president, would be willing to trade their rather exiguous sovereignty for the pleasure of levering him out.
Lukashenka is aware of that and went off into a huff, rediscovering himself as a Belarussian patriot. The proposal was an "insult" to Belarus and its sovereignty as a nation state.
Lukashenka wants instead a Union of Belarus and Russia on equal terms. Moscow has been going along with the idea up to now, with many Duma members and those in the security forces favouring a friendly outpost next to the Baltic states and Poland, themselves now outposts of the West. But the reformers in government are extremely wary of taking on full responsibility for the basket-case of a Belarus economy. There are plans to merge the rubel, the Belarussian currency, with the rouble by 2005. Some even want this by 2003. This does not look a realistic proposition.

Lukashenka lashes out at home
Lukashenka's position may be deteriorating rapidly abroad; but he remains very powerful at home. On October 31st he signed a new law on religion which took effect on November 16th: "On the Freedom of Confessions and Religious Organisation," a bewildering piece of legislation with 40 articles, outlawing regular meetings of worships of any faith not registered with the state. It strictly limits the places where even registered faiths can hold services. Restrictions govern church publications, visits by foreign priests, religious schools, charities and a wide range of other activities. No individual church may have fewer than 10 members and no organised creed less than 20 churches. Crucially, no organised faith is eligible to function unless it can prove it had a church in Belarus before 1982, in the Brezhnevite epoch of widespread religious repression in the USSR.
The bill's authors are explicit about its intent to protect the Russian Orthodox Church and its dominant role from dangerous sects, which are proliferating in the aftermath of communism.
The Belarussian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church is a pillar of support for the autocracy of the regime and helped draft the new law. It comes at the culmination of a campaign of persecution of people of other faiths not approved by the government. A Belarussian chapel of the Russian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was bulldozed in August, a punishment for its split from the main Russian Orthodox faith. Several Minsk branches of the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church, an evangelical Protestant faith that is among the largest religious minorities in Belarus, were notified in September that their prayers services were illegal. In October the head of the New Life Protestant Church was summoned to a Minsk district administration office and informed that unspecified complaints had been filed against his church.
The campaign and the new law are directed not just at the Christian rivals of Russian Orthodoxy, but at all non-orthodox religious faiths. In Belarus Hindus who gather together in their gods' names are almost always by definition in violation of established law, and now doubly so. Minsk's Hare Krishna temple received a notice in September that its prayer meetings were illegal. Individual Hindu worshippers have been arrested, sent to jail and heavily fined, or just been beaten up by police, who think nothing of invading their apartments. The religion which has as its demotic trinity the gods of creation, preservation and destruction has every reason to carry meaning for its devotees in Belarus.
But there is one non-Christian religion which is of particular anathema to Lukashenka and his like-minded henchmen, Judaism. He has often made anti-Semitic statements in public, echoing a common Russian predilection. In an interview with the Russian TV network RTR, he insisted that Jews in the Russian government and media are "responsible for anti-Semitism because they have damaged Russia's economy." The chief rabbi of Belarus, Sendor Uritsk, head of the country's Reform Jewish community, has publicly warned that the new law could create serious problems for Jews, a judgement endorsed by Nikolai Butkevich, of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, based in Washington DC.
It is not surprising that the US has named Belarus as a main culprit, along with Ukraine, in providing arms to Iraq. The US Administration would, doubtless, rank Belarus as another country overdue for 'regime change.'

The Old Believer
Lukashenka's inclinations in the religious sphere, are all of a piece with his authoritarian style of politics.
The regime's power rests upon the existence of a KGB, still called that, of 150,000 who receive special privileges and extend steadfast loyalty to the president. Lukashenka hankers back to the USSR, his vision of paradise when he was a collective farm boss like his father. A Soviet baron so to speak, he can imagine nothing more wonderful than recreating the Soviet Union; and his concept of the Union of Belarus and Russia is to be the substitute for that.
Lukashenka is a remarkable man in his own way. He is strongly reminiscent of the Old Believers, those Russian Orthodox faithful to the old rites as Peter the Great and other modernisers reformed Russia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Lukashenka's faith is of course communism or rather what one might call Sovietism, as the only Belarusian MP to oppose independence in 1991.
His problem is that Putin, who hails from St. Petersburg, sees himself as a new Peter the Great. He can understand the nostalgia of Lukashenka and his like, not being an adept of the KGB for thirty years for nothing. But he does not think it a useful pointer to current policy. His one known witticism is to this effect: "he who does not regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart; he who thinks that it can be restored has no head." That is likely to be his take on the Old Believer of Belarus.

The new bullyboy
When Lukashenka, was running his collective farm, he was infamous for his bullying and beating up of errant tractor drivers. That is the way he now runs his country.
He has even been known to hit parliamentary deputies. A big, burly figure, of 49 years, he is an enthusiastic ice hockey, football and tennis player. To make daily time for his sports, he spends a bare five hours in the office. When there is snow, he enters cross-county skiing competitions (bearing the No. 1 label) and invariably wins.
He is increasingly erratic in his decision-making. In a gesture against the West, he has just banned McDonalds in favour of cabbage soup take-aways. But more sinisterly, his opponents mysteriously disappear and journalists reporting the fact are deported if they are lucky, or just disappear themselves.
Lukashenka openly admires Stalin, his model in many respects. Last year he paved over the graves of 250,000 people murdered by Stalin. One defecting secret police officer says that death squads had been set up, using the gun officially reserved for post-trial executions.
Yuri Chaschtschevatski, a film-maker, made a recent documentary about the Belarussian leader. He recorded Lukashenka saying approvingly: "German order reached its peak under Hitler." Other gems included: "freedom is the freedom to work" and "we are encircled by enemies, just as we were in 1941." The last point he is doing his best to make a reality.
When the president was shown the documentary at a private screening he smashed up two wooden chairs. A few days later the film-maker was visited by young men, who broke his leg in three places. Clearly the dictator does not know his own mind, whether he wants to be Stalin or Hitler, or like Saddam Hussien, a sublime synthesis of them both.

Domestic support seeps away
There was a time when Lukashenka was popular, especially just after winning the presidency for the first time in 1994. He vowed to fight crime and corruption and purveyed a populist image, his wife continuing to live on their farm rather than in the presidential palace. He speaks like a working man and has the popular touch, while such a beefy hunk of a man appeals to a lot of women voters.
But the wear and tear of everyday life in Belarus are turning the population against him. As often in dictatorships, the students are leading the way in open opposition. Some of them recently donned Lukashenka masks and raced through a Minsk park pursued by fellow pranksters wearing white coats and waving straightjackets. Even some of the police laughed - briefly. 
The increasing international isolation of the regime is coinciding with a stagnant economy and 60% annual inflation. The population is increasingly restive and disaffected.
The gloss is wearing thin. The regime is under pressure from without and from within. Lukashenka needs to be preparing an exit strategy.

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ENERGY

Belarus to lift restrictions on Beltransgaz privatisation


Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenka, and cabinet, intend to lift restrictions very shortly on the incorporation of the Beltransgaz gas delivery agency, so a joint Russian-Belarussian venture managing a unified gas transport company can be set up by the middle of next year, Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, said following talks with his Belarussian counterpart, Gennady Novitsky.
A bill providing for the lifting of restrictions will be sent to the Belarussian parliament in the near future. Novitsky has assured Kasyanov that the setting up of a joint venture and a unified gas transport system will be brought to completion by July 1st, 2003, as provided for by an earlier bilateral agreement. The next meeting of the Union State's Council of Ministers is scheduled for early December, Kasyanov said. By that time Gazprom and other independent gas suppliers were to sign contracts on the supply of Russian gas to Belarus and the amounts of Russian gas that Belarus needs will be determined.
It turned out in the course of the talks that Belarus' Beltransgaz is running an overdue debt of over US$80m for supplies of Russian gas last year, Kasyanov said. The Belarussian leaders had been unaware of this debt, Interfax News Agency reported. "The tension resulting from the recent remarks (made by Lukashenka) was attributable to inaccurate data reported to the Belarussian leadership," Kasyanov said.
Kasyanov said Russia had the right to halve supplies owing to the debts run up for gas, but it was not Gazprom that did this. Gazprom has supplied all the gas it planned to supply to Belarus this year. He said Belarus would pay the US$82m it owes quickly, partly with a US$40m tranche of an inter-state credit issued by Russia.
Kasyanov also said that the Belarussian prime minister acknowledged during the meeting that Russian enterprises had honoured their gas supply contracts in full. So Belarus has no complaints on that score. Planned Russian gas supplies to Belarus this year are 16.5bn cubic metres, of which Gazprom was due to supply (and has supplied) 10.2bn cubic metres. The ITERA consortium is due to supply 6.3bn cubic metres. But Belarus has not signed any contracts proper with ITERA, only a framework agreement.

Belarus resumes sale of Slavneft with Russia

Bidding resumed at the Belarussian currency and stock exchange on December 2nd for shares in the Slavneft oil company which are owned by the Belarussian government, Interfax News Agency quoted the Director of the State Property Fund of the Belarussian Economics Ministry, Gennady Podgorny, as saying. He said that the only bidder - Belarus's Slavneftebank - has not changed its initial offer of US$210m. The deal was due to be completed by December 5th. "However, we may put back the date. The main task now is to find a price that would suit both the buyer and the seller," he said. On November 29th, Belarussian President, Alexander Lukashenka, said it was impermissible to sell the stake in Slavneft for a pittance and demanded that the government pay more attention to the sale of Belarussian shares in Slavneft. He named as an argument the fact that initially one third of the Mozyr oil refinery had been exchanged for the stake. "By selling the 10 per cent stake in Slavneft for a pittance, we are selling one third of our oil refinery for a pittance," he stressed. On November 22nd, the Belarussian state property fund put up for sale 515,087,000 shares in Slavneft (10.83 percent of the charter capital) as a single lot at the starting price of 6.3 billion Russian rubles (US$200m). Only one bid has been made so far.

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TELECOMMUNICATIONS

MTS to invest US$60m in Belarus in 2003


Mobile TeleSystems (MTS), a leading cellular phone provider in Russia, plans to invest US$60m in the economy in 2003, MTS head, Mikhail Smirnov, said at the Belarussian Investment Forum, New Europe reports. MTS views the Belarussian market as very promising, he said. "The level of cellular communications penetration in Belarus is still very low, less than four per cent of the population, which makes it possible to count on vigorous market growth in the coming few years," he noted.

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