Books on Belarus
Principal ethnic groups
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: 277 - (01/02/04)
EU probe into labour rights
Sometimes a comparatively minor event can light up a whole landscape, in this case the nature of an unpleasant regime. The EU has launched an investigation into the treatment of labour unions in Belarus, which has Europe's last dictator in charge, excepting Armenia's Robert Kocharian, now that Shevardnadze is out in Georgia. This could result in Belarus losing its right to preferential tariffs on exports into the EU, worth hundreds of millions of euros.
If it happened, it would deal a devastating blow to an economy already reeling under the worst mismanagement in the former Soviet world, with a decade of authoritarian rule and a dearth of foreign investment. The regime imposes tight media censorship, that does not stop at having journalists killed. Its elections are rigged and its opposition parties are harassed into oblivion.
But it is the fate of the trade unions which is the Achilles' heel of the regime from a European point of view, for it warrants drastic measures against it. The case is based on a complaint made by three trade union federations last January, that is in 2003. They wrote to PascaL Lamy, the EU Trade Commissioner, claiming that "obstacles have been raised systematically to oppose legal registration of free trade unions, to limit trade union activities, and to repress trade union leaders and activists."
They say that President Lukashenko has had a stooge in charge of the FTUB, the country's main trade union organisation, since July 2002. Should these accusations be confirmed, Belarus could lose all benefits linked to its membership of the EU's Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). Countries are allowed to import goods into the EU at heavily reduced tariffs or even zero duties.
The EU can revoke these privileges if a country fails to abide by certain guidelines, including labour laws and social standards. Concerns over Myanmar's failure to crack down on child labour led Brussels to cancel its GSP status seven years ago - the first and only time the EU has resorted to this measure.
James Howard, director for international labour standards at the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, one of the complainants, said: "Given that Belarus exports some very price-sensitive goods such as textiles, its exports could really suffer if found guilty. But in an ideal scenario we would of course like the Belarus government to recognise labour union rights rather than have sanctions."
Games with Russia
The Belarussians do, indeed, have a curmudgeon of a leader. Their president wants his countrymen to join in a very different entity than anything like a trade union, namely a union with Russia, just like the old days. By no means all of them welcome the prospect.
Minsk is the capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). On September 29th the CIS had a meeting in Yalta, where a new departure was made. Putin persuaded the presidents of three key FSU states, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakstan, the very three which had agreed to the death warrant of the Soviet Union back in November 1991, to enter into a far-reaching economic treaty, envisaging a 'common economic space.' That this is not just moonshine is shown by the agreement of Belarus to adopt the Russian rouble.
Belarus has been given a target date of January 2005 to introduce the Russian rouble as its currency. This is part of a Putin-sponsored plan to reincorporate the country into a new union with Russia, ruled from the Kremlin. The union already exists in embryo as the Russo-Belarussian Union, whose state secretary is none other than Pavel Borodin, the eminence grise of the Kremlin in the Yeltsin years. Putin was once his deputy and has returned favours by protecting Borodin from extradition demands from the Swiss, who have charged him with money-laundering on an extensive scale.
Minsk welcomes oil and gas deals with Moscow
Russia has agreed to leave gas prices for Belarus this year at the same level as for the fifth price zone in Russia, Belarussian Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky said after a recent meeting with Russian Prime Minister, Kasyanor, in Moscow. "At the talks Kasyanov called for prices for gas supplies to Belarus in 2004 to remain at the level for the fifth price zone in Russia," Sidorsky said. Under the agreement reached by the prime ministers, Belarus will receive 20.5 billion cubic metres of gas and 18 million tonnes of oil in 2004. In 2003 Belarus received 18.5 billion cubic metres of gas and 15 million tonnes of oil, Interfax News Agency reported.
According to the statement from the Belarussian embassy, Kasyanov and Sidorsky directed Gazprom and Beltransgaz, by the end of the year, to "find a mutually acceptable solution and sign the corresponding agreement so that Belarus can receive gas at Russian prices from January 1st.
"During the talks the positions of the prime ministers drew closer regarding the conditions for setting up a gas transportation joint venture based on OAO Beltransgaz," the embassy's press service said. In particular, the sides agreed that Belarus and Russia will participate equally in the charter capital of the joint venture being set up. The Belarussian prime minister noted that Kasyanov confirmed Russia's agreement to hold an independent evaluation of the value of Beltransgaz.
The press service also said that Kasyanov and Sidorsky agreed that the price for Russian electricity supplied to Belaru next year will be increased to the same level paid by Russian companies - by 7.0 percent. "During the meeting both prime ministers learned with surprise that Russian suppliers of electricity to Belarus planned to increase prices to the level for foreign consumers - by 35-40 percent", the embassy said. The press service also said that the fuel and energy balance in the Union of Russia and Belarus will be signed in February at a meeting of the union's council of ministers.
IMF urges Belarusian government to stop interference in banking sector
An International Monetary Fund (IMF) technical assistance mission, which stayed in Minsk on 1st-12th December at the invitation of the National Bank of Belarus (NBB), urged the Belarusian government to stop its interference in the country's banking sector. While in Minsk, the IMF delegation had meetings with the NBB top officials, as well as representatives of commercial banks, the Association of Belarusian Banks and an auditing company. The IMF officers reviewed the country's banking supervision system, studied the NBB's work to assess its compliance with the Basel Core Principles for Effective Banking Supervision and considered the position of Belarus's banking sector. The mission's findings were included into a press statement released by the IMF Office in Minsk.
The IMF officers noted that Belarus's banking system remains vulnerable to shocks due to its structural flaws that include the government's intervention and the dependence of banks on the government's assistance and loans, unstable banking regulations, weak corporate governance and low profitability, a high market concentration of banks and underdevelopment of non-banking financial institutions, the absence of equal conditions for market participants, as evidenced by the practice of waiving regulatory requirements for certain banks and the deviation of national reporting practices from international standards.
The mission stressed that drawbacks in the accounting and information disclosure rules, as well as in other regulations, impede the development of the banking system. It advised the NBB to eliminate the remaining discrepancies between the national accounting practices and international standards. Moreover, the delegation noted that the absence of the International Accounting Standards in the non-banking sector makes it difficult for banks to assess the financial position of borrowers.
The IMF officers urged the Belarusian authorities to "stop the practice of directing the banking system to stimulate growth in particular sectors by financing its quasi-fiscal activities at subsidized interest rates, and by providing government guarantees, as the quality of loans extended in such a way may be questionable." At the same time, the fund's mission expressed a high opinion of the competence of the staff at the NBB's banking supervision department and called on the bank to move ahead with its plan to implement a concept of banking supervision development until 2005.
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