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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: 266 - (27/02/03)
The Belarus republic was remarkable on February 15th for having a large demonstration in Minsk to oppose the US war in Iraq. No other former communist state had any great enthusiasm for opposing the removal of a totalitarian dictator for rather obvious reasons. But then Belarus is the one FSU state which is still communist of sorts, with a KGB of 150,000 personnel running the country under President Alexander Lukashenka.
There is a cult of his personality in Belarus, with his portrait everywhere, the usual iconography of modern tyranny. The demonstration in Minsk was unusual in that the street-marchers were carrying placards with portraits of Saddam on them, obviously under official inspiration. But it is significant that only in a fellow would-be totalitarian state were the demonstrators honest that being anti-the war was to be pro-Saddam Hussein, something that would have been hotly denied at any demo in a Western capital.
The return of the repressed
The Belarussians are living in a sort of limbo. They have a dictator ruling over them who is out of the Dark Ages, as though renewed for modern edification, because there may be lessons to be learnt from his benighted rule. The dictator in question is Alexander Lukashenka, former collective farm manager and the one member of the parliament in 1991 who voted against the independence of Belarus.
Lukashenka has had an extraordinary career. Why should he have become the ruler of the country in whose independent existence he disbelieved?
He believed in communism and still does - hence his longed for re-union with Russia; but as he must by now be painfully aware, times have moved on. The Russians no longer do so themselves.
His ardent hyper-communist internationalism, hyped since the end of communism itself, is in practice an ardent fascism. He now celebrates the nation that he wanted never to appear. He after all rules it, so why not.
The pique of a slighted dictator
Yet Lukashenka 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.
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, 2001, 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, as well as 50 leading figures in his regime, from visiting its member states or those about to join.
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.'
Moscow may soon acquire Belarusian gas network
After months of friction, Belarus is moving to let Russia take over its gas network even sooner than Moscow originally demanded. Unidentified Belarusian officials told the Interfax News Agency that the government will turn the state gas firm Beltranshaz into an open joint-stock company before 1st April. The privatisation in March could effectively allow neighbouring Russia's gas monopoly, Gazprom, to gain control even earlier than the 1ar July target date agreed to in December, Michael Lelyveld reported for RFE/RL.
The speedup seems to be part of a remarkable recovery in relations, which fell apart in a fury last August after President Alyaksandr Lukashenka blasted President Vladimir Putin's proposal to unify the countries' currencies at the start of next year. The union treaty calls for the monetary merger to take place in January 2004, which has now been reaffirmed as the date for adopting the Russian ruble in Belarus.
Lukashenka never fully explained the reasons for his outburst, although he apparently hopes to have influence over the "emissive centre," or, in other words, the central bank that will print the currency. In order to secure a reasonable deal on converting its currency into Russian roubles, Belarus needs more time to bring its annual inflation rate of 34.8 percent into line with Russia's rate of 15.1 percent last year. In dollar terms, the Belarusian ruble is worth about one-sixtieth of its Russian counterpart.
The fight over currency coincided with a conflict over Russia's heavily subsidized gas exports to Belarus, which Gazprom cut by half in October and threatened to stop altogether due to non-payment of debt. Both problems were resolved during fence-mending meetings in Moscow in November, resulting in very little payment by Belarus but a promise to privatise Beltranshaz by July in response to Russia's demands. The decision was confirmed during Putin's visit to Minsk recently.
The network will be a prize for Gazprom as it seeks to extend its reach beyond Russia and to restore its control over all former Soviet export routes to Europe. A parallel process is occurring in Ukraine, where President Leonid Kuchma has agreed, after much resistance, to set up an international consortium with Russia as an equal partner to manage its transit lines. As with the Belarusian currency issue, the terms of who will control the consortium have been kept ambiguous.
But Lukashenka's decision to convert Beltranshaz into a joint-stock company ahead of schedule may not be unrelated to Gazprom's breakthrough with Kuchma in Ukraine. Interfax quotes a government resolution as saying that the decision to privatise the company "was made in the interests of attracting investments for developing the country's gas-transport system." The consortium in Ukraine is also seeking investment capital to renew the country's aging transit lines.
What began as reluctance may have turned into a race to see which country will allow Gazprom in first. While Ukraine has carried up to 90 percent of Russia's gas traffic to Europe, Belarus could gain a greater share, along with an assurance of subsidized gas for years to come.
Interfax has reported that Russia's new Yamal Peninsula pipeline will open in Belarus in mid-2003, allowing shipments through Poland to Germany. Like Ukraine, Belarus may well seek a face-saving formula to avoid the impression of a Russian takeover of its gas system. Lukashenka has shown little liking for privatising large state enterprises before.
Belarus officials have denied that the government would trade interest in Beltranshaz for what it claimed was US$130 million in gas debts. But the effect may be much the same if Gazprom acquires the firm and eventually pays itself. The government has estimated the company's basic assets at 600 billion Belarusian rubles (US$306.6 million), plus 85 billion rubles for distribution and storage facilities.
Gazprom has demanded that all gas payments from Belarus be made in cash, while the independent gas trader, Itera, has required 30 percent advance payment for deliveries, RBC News reported. Belarus was said to owe US$226 million at the start of the year for imported fuel.
Both Belarus and Ukraine have become more open to Russia's suggestions on gas transit and share ownership since Gazprom pressed plans to build a North European pipeline project across the Baltic Sea. The US$5.3bn underwater line would link Russia directly with Germany, the Netherlands, and eventually Great Britain.
While such a project seemed unlikely when it was first proposed more than a year ago, Russia's experience with the recently opened Blue Stream gas line across the Black Sea to Turkey may make the plan seem more feasible now.
FOOD & DRINK
Breweries fall into decay
The Sixth International Beer Exhibition in Minsk was attended only by two Belarusian companies - the Slutsk and Lida-based breweries. The reason is simple: most breweries can not afford participation in exhibitions (the fee was 500 million Belarusian rubles), being short of money to upgrade production assets or purchase quality materials abroad. For them, the challenge is to survive.
Dmitri Antonovich of the Lida-based brewery says the situation on the beer market is unfavourable for producers. The most pressing problems are excises which are charged on manufacturer's prices. Brewing becomes unprofitable since any price increase causes an increase of excise duties. Mr Antonovich says it is impossible to purchase high-quality raw material in Belarus while the problems of foreign exchange in the country impede its purchase abroad. "It is impossible to brew good beer without good material," he said.
Sergei Gazukin, representative of the joint-stock company Beer House (Moscow), has been amazed by a poor choice of beer in Belarus. He has noticed at most one or few brands of beer in Minsk stores while the range, in his opinion, must account at least a dozen brands of local beer. Mr Gazukin says the market of brewery equipment in Belarus has been completely ruined. If earlier Russian breweries used to purchase foreign-made equipment in Belarus, today the situation is quite the contrary. Sergei Gazukin says in Belarus obstacles emerge everywhere: from purchase of foreign currency and constant changes in legislation to problems of making payments to non-resident companies.
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