On 31 March, Arciom Basciuk, a soldier in the Belarusian army, committed suicide because of hazing. Less than a year earlier, another soldier shot himself during a military exercise for the same reason. Psychological pressure and the hierarchical structure of the Belarusian military means that runaways are commonplace, as are complaints, lawsuits, and sometimes even suicides.
If official statistics are to be believed, fewer and fewer soldiers have been filing complaints about obligatory military duty since 1994. However, human rights activists claim that this data has been falsified, and hazing remains an important issue in their campaigns. Compulsory military duty has become an instrument of the state to neutralise political activists. In order to combat hazing, the state must first admit there is a problem and make concerted efforts to monitor and reform the military system.
Lukashenka finally signs laws on implementaiton of the Eurasian Customs Code. After a presidential meeting in Saint Petersburg, Russia approves additional credit for Belarus.
Foreign visitors of the 2019 Eurogames are to enjoy more beneficial visa-free regime. Legislation on business liberalisation is open for public consultation and recommendations.
Belarusian space scientists prepare to launch two satellites by 2020.
This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.
On 30-31 March, talks were held in Ashgabat between Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenka.
The launch of the $1bn Garlyk potash fertiliser plant which Belarus built in the country differentiated this encounter from other such annual meetings between Turkmenistan and Belaurs.
The economic cooperation and training of Turkmen students in Belarus remains the only thing keeping the two countries' relationship afloat. Will it survive the end of a huge construction project and the continuing fall in trade turnover?
Belarus has recently moved to the headlines of major international news outlets because of massive protests against the rule of president Lukashenka. But unlike in Ukraine, protests in Belarus has not yet lead to political changes.
The KCL Eurasia Society, KCL Diplomacy Society and the Ostrogorski Centre hosted public discussion "Between East and West: What's next for Belarus?" on 12 April 2017.
Dramatic deterioration of human rights situation in March: over 900 people subjected to various forms of repression, according to Viasna. BY_Help initiative collects $27K to help detainees of the March protests in Belarus.
Urban Forester's volunteers plant 20,000 trees. 34 Media Days project kicks off its first spring event. Imena magazine marks one-year anniversary: over $100,000 raised for charity. The Dobra Fund is established in Belarus to unite the socially responsible business.
On 11 April, the official Belarusian media launched a massive propaganda campaign. They aimed at revealing the alleged plans of a group called White Legion to destabilise the country and overthrow the government. The White Legion is a patriotic sports and military-style organisation which ceased to exist in the early 2000s.
At the moment, 35 people remain under investigation on charges of organising mass riots and creating an illegal armed group. However, independent experts have revealed numerous facts that prove the official evidence false.
Around 1,100 tourists, a record number, visited Hrodna Region between 26 March and 2 April 2017, according to Belra news agency. Since October 2016, it is possible to visit the region for five days visa-free.
This growth in tourism has occurred despite inconvenient entry procedures: the authorities restrict visits to five days, limit where tourists can go, and prohibit entering the country via certain modes of transportation.
Over the last months, infrastructure, food services, and lodging in Hrodna Region have been developing. However, attracting more foreign investment and modernising housing, air, and railways would do much to increase the capability of the city to host more tourists.
After a meeting with Alexander Lukashenka on 3 April in Saint Petersburg, Vladimir Putin announced that all oil and gas issues between the two countries had been resolved.
The media in Belarus reported on the Kremlin's concessions extensively. However, what Minsk will provide in return remains unclear. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka provided a clue when he said that the summit dealt more with security than with energy issues.
Lukashenka and Putin agreed to resolve all critical problems in bilateral relations, including the oil and gas dispute. Belarus realises its largest ever investment project abroad – a potash plant in Turkmenistan.
The official media resoundingly condemns protests against the 'social parasite tax'. Lukashenka approves the creation of a public security monitoring system in Belarus.
The number of young men attempting to avoid military conscription in Mahilioŭ Region increases. Belarus tractor manufacturers continue to face difficulties. The Eurasian Economic Union recovers from economic recession.
On 3 April, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka succeeded in securing concessions from Vladimir Putin following a year-long oil and gas dispute between the two countries. In order to reach a deal, Minsk put the idea of buying oil from non-Russian sources back on the table.
On 15 February, the news source Reuters reported an oil deal between Belarus and Iran. It involved 80,000 tones of Iranian oil which were indeed delivered on 24 March to the Ukrainian port of Odessa for subsequent transport to Belarus.
Over the past decade, Minsk has already gained more experience than its neighbours in securing alternative oil sources; it has been able to secure both Venezuelan and Azerbaijani oil before. Although the deals were short-lived, the Kremlin's reaction to these manoeuvres proves that it takes the Belarusian government seriously.
Over the past few weeks, the world media largely focused on the protests against the so-called 'social parasite' tax when covering Belarus. The government's reaction, which involved numerous arrests and brutal suppression, alarmed the West and international human rights organisations. They condemned the actions of security services and demanded the release of arrested demonstrators.
The press also took note of the changing dynamics in Belarusian-Russian relations and their implications for the West. The hike in Russian oil and gas prices, as well as the import ban on certain Belarusian agricultural exports, show that Belarus and Russia can no longer maintain the status quo in bilateral relations.
Belarus has begun importing oil from Iran and introduced a limited visa-free travel regime to reduce its economic dependance on Russia. Russia's response to potential political unrest in Belarus remains unpredictable, and is likely to have an effect on Russian-Western relations.
On 3 April 2017, Economy Minister Vladimir Zinovsky announced a negative forecast for first quarter GDP growth in Belarus. This comes despite an increase in industrial output and exports at the end of March.
In this context, on 6 March a new IMF mission arrived in Belarus in an attempt to encourage the authorities to implement further economic reforms.
Meanwhile, insufficient efforts at liberalising the private sector still hinder the emergence of a new pillar of the Belarusian economy.
In March, analysts at the Ostrogorski Centre focused on the unfolding protests against the ‘social parasite’ tax and the Freedom Day celebration, which led to a violent response from the Belarusian security services and the arrest of more than two dozen suspects as a result of alleged planned armed resistance.
The Centre has released an analytical paper entitled ‘The state of distance education in Belarus: problems and perspectives’, which resulted from the Fourth Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish Conference.
We have also published podcasts of the Second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies.
In March, two Belarusian youngsters attempted to commit suicide while playing a 'game' on the popular Russian social network VK.
Belarusian law enforcement services have initiated two criminal cases, connecting the suicides with a game called ‘blue whale’, especially popular in Russia and Ukraine.
The game consists of 50 dangerous quests which youngsters, threatened by the game's administrators, have to perform in reality.
In other countries, such as Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, even more children have committed suicide playing the game. The Main Internal Affairs Directorate has revealed that thousands of Belarusian youngsters have already registered in the dangerous groups and informed schools and parents of the danger.
On Saturday 25 February, Ostrogorski Centre organised the Second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies in cooperation with University College London and the Belarusian Francis Skaryna Library and Museum.
Speakers from Belarus, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, the United States, and other countries presented and discussed Belarus-related research. The conference panels covered Francis Skaryna’s work and legacy, problems of Belarusian national identity, foreign policy of Belarus and comparative politics, social and political movements, and language and literature.
Ever since it released important political prisoners in August 2015, the Belarusian government has rarely resorted to outright violence against dissidents. This paradigm shift facilitated the removal or suspension of most Western sanctions against Belarus. The parties were able to move from confrontational rhetoric to positive dialogue.
The Belarusian authorities’ resolute return to large-scale repression against opposition in March 2017 took the West by surprise. European and American diplomats have failed to rapidly formulate a coherent response to this policy change.
On 10 March, a court sentenced six football hooligans to lengthy jail sentences for a fight between fans of FC Partyzan Minsk and a rival group of ultras which occurred in June 2014. The football fans received particularly severe sentences of twelve, ten, six and four years in jail.
In sentencing the leftist hooligans to imprisonment, officials intend to keep anarchists and football ultras off the streets during the countrywide social protests which started in Minsk on 17 February.
Despite the fact that human rights organisations have not recognised the ultras as political prisoners, the sentence can be seen as political motivated. Fans of the currently defunct football club were well-known for their antifascist views and had links to the anarchist movement.
Following the violent suppression of peaceful political protests in Belarus, many policy-makers Western capitals are at a loss. Should they re-impose sanctions? Ignore human rights violations for geopolitical concerns?
To resolve this quagmire, it is important to understand why the Belarusian authorities have resorted to violence.Why are Belarusian authorities overreacting?
Although no one doubts Alexander Lukashenka's willingness to resort to violence against peaceful protestors, expert opinion differs over why exactly he chose violence this March. Over the past several years, the authorities have refrained from resorting to large-scale violence. Unsanctioned opposition protests were monitored, but large-scale violence was not used until this month.
During a meeting with defence minister Andrei Raukou on 20 March, president Alexander Lukashenka demanded 'absolute transparency' at the forthcoming West-2017 Belarusian-Russian military exercise. The Belarusian government is working to counter the negative repercussions of such a massive show of military force in the region.
These repercussions have certainly been felt. On 9 February, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė stated that during the West-2017 exercises 'aggressive forces are concentrating in very large numbers, this is a demonstrative preparation for a war with the West.'
On 22 March, Alexander Lukashenka revealed an extraordinary discovery – the authorities had arrested armed fighters who were planning to overthrow the government on 25 March, the day when the Belarusian opposition traditionally celebrates Freedom Day with mass rallies.
The fighters allegedly had training camps inside Belarus and in neighbouring countries. The official media also reported on a series of related incidents, such as gunmen in a car attempting to force their way through a border checkpoint in Ukraine. This all comes in a context of mass arrests of oppositional activists protesting the ‘social parasites decree’.