Books on Belarus
Principal ethnic groups
Update No: 287 - (29/11/04)
Falling out with Putin
There are increasing signs of tension between Minsk and Moscow. It comes at a
most delicate time in Belarus-Russian relations.
Minsk is the capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In
September 2003 the CIS had a meeting in Yalta, where a most important new
departure was made. Putin persuaded the presidents of three key FSU states,
Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakstan, to enter into a far-reaching economic treaty,
envisaging a 'common economic space.'
Belarus was given a target date of January 2005 to introduce the Russian rouble
as its currency. This was part of a Putin-sponsored plan to reincorporate the
country into a new union with Russia, ruled from the Kremlin. Belarus would be
the favoured route of its gas exports to Western Europe.
The union already exists in embryo as the Russo-Belarusian Union.
Union now off?
But the whole thing might now be off just before its crucial coming of age as a
monetary union. There are plenty of indications of this, some diplomatic and
some more substantial.
Kiev's celebration of its liberation from the Germans could have doubled as a
victory parade for Belarus' Alexander Lukashenka. Just 10 days earlier, on 17
October, he had enjoyed what election officials described as an "elegant
victory" in a constitutional referendum that paves the way for him to serve
a third term.
But Lukashenka's trip to Kiev ended abruptly before the victory parade that was
the centrepiece of the celebrations. While Putin stayed for three days,
Lukashenka restricted himself to just one day in Kiev, returning after laying a
wreath and attending a concert.
His spokeswoman, Natallya Pyatkevich, said on 28 October that the visit had
always been scheduled for one day.
However, the press office of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had announced
that Lukashenka would arrive on a two-day visit.
Some analysts argue that Lukashenka's decision to rush back may have been an act
of retaliation, as neither Kuchma nor President Vladimir Putin showed up at a
military parade during Belarus' liberation festivities in July.
Others believe he was angered by the cold reception that his referendum victory
received from Putin. Certainly, relations between Lukashenka and Putin seem
chilly. Although an overwhelming majority in Russia's State Duma voted on 22
October to recognize the Belarusian plebiscite as "free, open, democratic,
and legitimate," the Russian president never officially congratulated
Lukashenka on his victory.
But, on the eve of his departure for Ukraine, Putin took matters further,
indirectly criticizing Lukashenka for extending his term as president. "I
believe that in many countries, at least in Russia, stability is essential
now," Putin said. "And only the rule of law can ensure this stability.
There is a law that is the basis of everything--and that is the constitution.
That fundamental law permits [no more than] two presidential terms in a row, and
I will be guided by this."
Belarusians may not have noticed Lukashenka's potentially embarrassing absence.
Rather than show the parade, state-run television showed pictures of Lukashenka
from the previous day.
Putin has thrown economic as well as political cold water on the relationship.
On 27 October, the CEOs of Russia's Gazprom and Ukraine's Naftohaz Ukrainy
signed an agreement that will almost quadruple the transit of gas via Ukraine
(from 5 billion cubic meters in 2005 to 19 billion starting 2010). Belarus had
been trying to persuade Russia to increase the volume of gas sent through
Belarus, and some preliminary agreement was said to have been reached.
While the deal was being signed in the Ukrainian president's residence,
Lukashenka and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev waited outside. A
nervous-looking Lukashenka apparently remarked, "Did we come here to amuse
the public or what?"
Striking at the heart of the Soviet heritage
In early November came further unwelcome news for Lukashenka. Some
pro-Kremlin legislators have proposed to the Duma that the Nov 7 holiday,
commemorating the October Revolution, be replaced by a new holiday on Nov 4 to
be called National Unity Day. Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma,
is expected to consider the measure in three required votes.
"This day was and will be a landmark event, and its celebration cannot be
abolished," Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov said, according to the
ITAR-Tass news agency. "People suffered for this holiday, and no one has
the right to trample on our history."
Criticism of President Vladimir Putin's government, changes to social benefits
and complaints about inequality dominated the speeches.
But some also chanted, "America, hands off Lukashenka!" a show of
support for the authoritarian Belarus leader, who has resurrected Soviet-era
symbols and institutions and has honoured now-disgraced Soviet-era officials.
The United States has accused Lukashenka of human rights violations and
threatened his country with sanctions.
Young protesters, wearing masks, stomped on the flag of the pro-Kremlin United
Russia party and tried to burn it in Chelyabinsk, about 1,500 kilometres east of
Moscow, Russia's NTV television reported. Police arrested several of the
In the Siberian city of Tomsk, Communist party members carried posters reading,
Hands off Nov 7th.
A poll of 1,500 Russians by Romir polling agency found 77 per cent opposed
scrapping the Nov 7 holiday.
Lukashenka and the next Ukrainian president
Putin's visit to Ukraine had been interpreted as a very public endorsement
of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych ahead of presidential elections on 31
October. Some, such as Stanislaw Shushkevich, Belarus' first head of state, and
former deputy defence minister Andrey Sannikaw, see similar electoral
calculations behind Lukashenka's absence: Yanukovych may not have wanted to have
been tainted by association with the Belarusian president. (However, that fails
to explain why many of Russia's and Ukraine's government-friendly media chose to
claim that Lukashenka had been at the parade.)
Whom Lukashenka would like to see as Ukraine's president is debatable.
Yanukovych might seem his natural preference, as he represents the less
reform-minded spectrum of politics in Ukraine and as his grandfather came from
Belarus' Vitsebsk province. But during his brief trip to Kiev, Lukashenka
managed to find time to visit the leader of the Communist Party, Petro Symonenko.
Moreover, analysts in Minsk argue that Lukashenka might actually prefer the more
pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko to carry the election, as this
would doom Moscow to friendship with Belarus.
Lukashenka himself has been balanced in his comments, saying this summer: "Yushchenko
is a normal, strong, and sensible expert, and Yanukovych is a strong personality
with Belarusian roots; both are very strong personalities."
Yushchenko's camp is distinctly cooler to Lukashenka. The deputy leader of
Yushchenko's campaign, Anatoly Hrytsenko, told Belarusian journalists on 11
October that Ukraine would "have friendly relations" with Belarus in
the event of a Yushchenko victory, but he said, "Belarus poses a problem as
it has preserved Asian values," going on to criticize the persecution of
the independent media and opposition leaders in Belarus.
Oleksandr Turchynov, another deputy chairman in Yushchenko's team, takes a much
Speaking to the same group of reporters, he said "We are always ready to
cooperate with Belarus' civil society, opposition, hold talks about cooperation
at the state level, but not in the context of the regime that has failed to
answer questions about high-profile disappearances and to democratise the
electoral system," referring to the disappearance of four critics of
Lukashenka in 1999 and 2000.
"There should be no double standards here, if we want to be a civilized
country. If Western countries have a consistent position, we, too, should not
Yanukovych offers a warmer relationship. Serhiy Tyhypko, his campaign chairman
(and governor of the central bank), argues the Belarusian-Ukrainian relationship
would "improve considerably" if Yanukovych were elected president.
Ukraine was Belarus' fifth-largest trading partner in 2003, according to
official Belarusian statistics. Trade is booming. Bilateral trade amounted to
US$681 million in the first eight months of 2004, a rise of almost 54 per cent
on the same period last year. Belarus' exports jumped by 56 per cent, to US$334
Stability uber alles
But Lukashenka's priority at the moment is not foreign policy, but--as he
said on 26 October while rewarding officials who distinguished themselves during
the referendum campaign--to maintain political stability and public order.
Many of Lukashenka's "working meetings" with his government officials
have lately focused on measures to ensure security and preserve stability.
He stressed that Belarus is "under particular pressure from both the West
and the East." He noted that "our enemies" would jump at the
opportunity to magnify a single weak point of the government. He warned the
authorities against making any "concessions" to those he called
"criminals and arm-wavers" lest the country plunge into chaos.
Leanid Yeryn, chief of the Committee for State Security (KGB), has already
proved to be one weak point. On 18 October, in a move unprecedented under
Lukashenka, Yeryn went out to a crowd of protesters angered at the fraudulent
referendum and parliamentary elections, and invited some journalists and Pavel
Sevyarynets, leader of an opposition youth group, to meet him for talks.
That came just an hour after riot police beat back protesters from the
Since then, Yeryn has been away from his post. Rumours have swirled that Yeryn
has been dismissed. KGB spokesman Alyaksandr Bazanaw was quick to explain that
Yeryn was sent on leave. But, as a KGB officer said on condition of anonymity,
nearly everyone in the organization understands that Yeryn will not be allowed
to return to his post.
In the opinion of the opposition daily Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, what the
president most objected to was not that Yeryn went out to the crowd and not that
he held a 40-minute talk with oppositionists but that he said, "Everyone
will learn the truth when the time comes" when asked about the
disappearance of four critics of the president in 1999 and 2000.
The Belarus-Russia Union option after all?
The Belarus-Russia Union 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
The prehensile character of Borodin is revealed in the following anecdote, cited
by certain ironists to demonstrate his honesty. He chaired the Yakutsk Executive
Committee when it gave a lucrative contract to a German construction company,
which, on completion of the deal, flew a Mercedes out to Yakutia to give him as
a present. He refused it on the grounds that he could be prosecuted under the
Soviet Industrial Code for bribery. But he added, "you could sell it to
me." His interlocutors readily agreed and asked how much he was prepared to
pay. He replied: "Twenty kopecks. And I will buy two of them." That is
the sort of honest broker Putin likes around himself, a scoundrel, yes, but 'one
of our scoundrels.' Just like Lukashenka in fact.
Borodin has a plethora of unusual ideas. He has proposed that St Petersburg
should eventually become the capital of the new union. That would make a
familiar backdrop for Putin if he avails himself of the opportunity to become
its president after 2008. This is the future destiny Borodin is preparing for
Putin, with the added inducement that he could then lead its expansion into
other countries and consolidate 'a post-Soviet space.' It is by no means sure
that this vista would appeal to the present master of the Kremlin, who must view
the prospect with profound scepticism. He has his uses for Borodin, but does not
have to accept his wilder fantasies.
Belarusian banks increase credit portfolio by 47.1%
Belarusian banks increased the overall volume of their combined credit portfolio
by 47.1% to reach the equivalent of 8.195 trillion Belarusian roubles, a report
published by the National Bank of Belarus said, Interfax News Agency reported.
With regard to the structure of the portfolio, the share of foreign currency
loans went down from 50.4 per cent at the start of the year to 45.3 per cent, as
of October 1st. Banks increased the volume of foreign currency loans in
January-September by 32.2 per cent to the equivalent of US$1.72bn, while
national currency loans grew 62.2 per cent to 4.48 trillion roubles. As far as
the whole structure of credit portfolio is concerned, as of October 1st legal
entities received 6.496 trillion roubles (43 per cent up on the year),
individuals - 1.664 trillion roubles (65 per cent up). The rest of the credit
portfolio falls on non-banking credit institutions. The share of short-term
loans made 59.3 per cent, against 59 per cent at the outset of the year. As for
the structure of loans given to individuals, the share of real estate loans fell
from January's 77.5 per cent to 68.8 per cent. In 2003 Belarusian business banks
increased the volume of advances portfolio by 55.6 per cent to 5.57 trillion
Belarusian president pleased with railway links with Russia
Belarusian President, Alexsander Lukashenka, is pleased with cooperation between
Russian and Belarusian railway workers, the head of state said at a meeting with
the chairman of the CIS Council for Railway Transport, Gennadiy Fadeyev,
Belarusian television reported.
The main function of the council is to work out coordinated actions, as the
railway network was formed as an integrated network of the unified state [the
USSR]. It, as well as common interests of the railways, has been preserved, the
Belarusian president thinks. A meeting of railway company chiefs of [the CIS]
member-states is taking place in Minsk for the 39th time. Alexsander Lukashenka
called railway communications between countries the backbone which unites the
CIS. Belarus is trying to support the railway network to make sure it works in
the interests of all countries.
"We will always provide assistance to this Council to make sure it works
accurately and without failings. And it is true that we have an interest in it,
as a transit country. We should receive certain dividends from it. And we do
receive dividends, albeit small ones, today. We are very satisfied with
cooperation with the Russian Federation, the Russian Railways Company. We have
practically no losses here. Finally, we have managed to reach an understanding
on common problems and their solutions. We both understand that this cooperation
is beneficial for Russia, not to mention Belarus," the president said.
Third mobile telephony licence awarded in Belarus
The Minsk City Executive Committee has registered a third GSM operator, Belapan
learnt from Ahat state company. The new company called Best is fully state-owned
and has been founded by Ahat and the state unitary enterprise Beltelekam
[state-owned telecom monopolist], Belapan News Agency reported.
According to the Belarusian Communications Ministry, Ahat will own 70 per cent
of the new company. The new GSM operator is now obtaining registration with the
State Military-Industrial Committee. The start-up capital of the new company is
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