On 20 February 2017, Belstat, Belarus's official statistical agency, announced that the GDP has once again dropped by 0.5 per cent in January compared with the same month in 2016.
However, on 21 February 2017, Prime Minister of Belarus Alexey Kobyakov tried to mitigate the country's economic problems by claiming that Russia's oil cuts are the main cause of current economic woes.
Meanwhile, the real consequences of recession have led to a decrease in private consumption, lack of investments (especially foreign), and problems with trade diversification.
On 24 February 2017, Siarhej Palčeuski chained himself to a truck to protest the construction of a business centre in the vicinity of Kurapaty – a commemoration site for the victims of the 1930s Soviet repressions. Palčeuski's great-grandfather was among the thousands of Belarusians who disappeared in 1937.
In 2014, the Belarusian authorities re-drew the boundaries of the protected area surrounding Kurapaty to accommodate several construction projects. Belarusian civil society and oppositional activists argue that the state is thinking only of profit, disregarding transparency, public discussion, and proper historical research.
On 17 February of this year, Minsk saw the largest civic protest since 2010, when demonstrators gathered in the capital to protest the results of the presidential election . However, this recent demonstration of ‘angry Belarusians’ was significantly different from most other Belarusian protests.
This time, rather than the conventional crackdown, the Belarusian government opted not to break up the protests. It is possible that the authorities permitted the demonstrations because they recognised their mistake in instituting the controversial 'social parasites' law and are looking for an elegant way to abolish it.
Lukashenka meets oppositional editor, neutral coverage of protests, Russian pressure - Belarus state press digest
A palpable liberalisation is evident in the Belarusian state press with regard to politics and the economy in a context of threatening moves from Russia.
A major official newspaper writes about an opposition-led protest in a neutral tone for the first time in decades. Lukashenka meets with the chief editor of the oppositional newspaper Narodnaja Volia.
Russia instals a border with Belarus after 20 years of free movement. Belarusian food producers see 'irreversible losses' because of Russia’s restrictions.
This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.
Since late summer 2016, a small-scale refugee crisis has been unfolding at the Belarusian-Polish border near Brest, as several thousand Chechen refugees attempt to make their way into Poland.
They are mainly seeking political asylum in the EU, claiming that they are persecuted by the repressive regime in Chechnya. However, the majority fail to convince Polish border guards to allow them to enter the country as refugees. Nevertheless, many Chechen families refuse to give up and are biding their time in Brest, adamantly re-attempting to cross the border every day.
A recent construction conflict, lasting from May 2016 to January 2017, has divided Belarusian civil society. Residents, along with environmental activists, were able to halt the erection of a Catholic church in a Minsk park. Eventually, the Archbishop of Belarus even accused environmental NGOs of persecuting the Catholic Church.
Even according to official data, the population of Minsk is increasing by around ten thousand people every year. This growth is naturally accompanied by the building of housing complexes, malls, hotels, and even a new metro line. However, over the past years, Minsk has witnessed several construction conflicts. Residents of the capital often oppose construction and rally together to confront both developers and local authorities.
On 16 February, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin's press secretary, announced that the Kremlin does not plan to introduce a visa regime with Belarus. His statement comes in a context of increasingly harsh measures on behalf of Moscow towards Belarus over the past half year, beginning when Russia decided to partially reinstate its border with Belarus, which had been abolished in 1995.
The Kremlin is also working to undermine economic ties between Belarus and its other neighbours, paying special attention to the energy and transportation sectors. Results have been tangible: Belarus has already decided to stop importing Ukrainian electricity. Moscow is also doing whatever it can to convince Minsk to use Russian ports rather than ones in the Baltic countries.
From January to early February 2016, Belarus and Lithuania drifted further apart as their diplomats exchanged tart-tongued statements over the safety of the Astraviec NPP and Belarus’s sovereignty. Alexander Lukashenka, who remains unwelcome in the EU, travelled to more sympathetic Egypt and Sudan.
The Belarusian authorities continued with their efforts to restore the international legitimacy of the national parliament in both bilateral relations (with Poland’s willing accommodation), and international organisations.
When travelling to Hrodna at the end of January, a group of tourists ended up saving a unique historical museum: the Yanush Parulis Museum in Hrodna was only able to survive financially thanks to local activism and a media campaign.
Whereas neighbouring Poland announces a 9.5 per cent budget increase on culture, Belarus is failing to implement its only state-funded project for national heritage preservation. Instead of cooperating with civil society to preserve important cultural sites, the government prefers to restrict NGO activities and spends money on safety and order.
Belarus-Russia conflict, prospect for 2019 elections, end of recession - digest of Belarus analytics
BISS: relations with Russia have deteriorated to a minimum from early 2011. Arciom Šrajbman in his article notes that even if Minsk and Moscow are able to resolve their current dispute, the standoff will go down in history.
Reformation project presents a “dream government of reforms” for Belarus. Zautra.by explains why Belarusian public officials are unable to implement reforms. Poll: only 15% of Belarusian students feel positive effects of the Bologna process.
On 23 – 26 January 2017 a Baltic security wargaming simulation took place in Warsaw. Two defence and security think tanks, the Potomac Foundation and the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, hosted the event.
The wargaming initiative focused on the scenario of a Russia-NATO conflict and analysed the nature of the Russian military threat to the Baltic States and Poland. As a result Belarus was found to be a key contributor to regional security and stability by containing Russia's aggressive strategy.
The author of this piece also took part in the simulation.
Grassroots leaders’ stories, London conference, corruption in public procurement - Belarus civil society digest
The Second Annual London Conference on Belarusian Studies will take place on February 25, while the 7th International Congress of Belarusian Studies announces a call for sections.
SYMPA releases a social advertising video on corruption in public procurement. REP independent trade union starts appealing electronic and written signatures to abolish the decree on freeloaders. Media release new grassroots leaders’ stories.
Belarus in Focus 2016 opens online voting for best article. Informal education courses for elderly kick off in Homiel.
On 28 January 2017, the Minsk Tractor Works organised a rally called Paris-Mosar. The event was dedicated to the Day of Belarusian Science. Also this year, the Belarusian team Maz-SPORTauta for the first time ever placed 6th in the international rally Paris-Dakar-2016.
Belarus too has its own small Paris - a village in Pastavy district that shares a name with the French capital. Thus, with this geographical quirk in mind, the Minsk Tractor Works decided to make the village the starting point for their own rally.
Although the Belarus is struggling to deal with a dramatic economic decline, the authorities are considering hosting a large international sporting event in 2019. On 9 January, Belarus established a committee to organise the 2019 European Games.
The games, managed by the European Olympic Committee, resemble the Pan-American and Asian games. Last October, Lukashenka stated that Belarus was ready to host the games in 2019. But Belarus, with its struggling economy, is unlikely to benefit from the second European Games, as money raised from tourism will not cover the significant expense of organising them.
On 24 January, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne rescinded the Belarusian national rowing team's suspension. The International Canoe Federation (ICF) had banned the team in July 2016, just a couple of weeks before the Olympics in Rio.
Justice triumphed. Belarusian sport officials claim that due to the ban, Belarus had lost at least three Olympic medals, and they intend to seek compensation from the ICF. According to the sport ministry, $750,000 were spent to prepare the rowers for the Olympics.
This is not the only recent doping scandal. In November 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) deprived Belarusian athletes of three medals won in Beijing in 2008. Over the last twelve years, Belarus has been deprived of ten Olympic medals because of doping related charges. However, two of them were returned after appeals.
Last week Alexandr Lukashenka spoke for over seven hours to journalists emphasising deep problems with Russia at the press conference “Big talk with the president”. According to him, Russia should not fear an influx of migrants after Belarus's visa-free regime starts.
Lithuania criticises the Belarusian NPP for solely political and economic reasons, not security concerns. The previously thriving gambling industry in Minsk is in decline. Experts discuss challenges to Belarus's accession to the WTO in 2017. Brest police detain a group of neo-Nazis with a large stockpile of arms and links to Ukraine.
This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.
On 3 January 2017, The Eurasian Development Bank announced that Belarus is the only economy among CIS countries with a forecasted GDP decline in 2017.
Meantime, the biggest problem of 2016 remains unresolved – on 28 January 2017, the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Arkady Dvorkovich once again raised the bill for Belarus's supposed oil-gas debt.
In this light, the authorities are trying to find a path to new external markets by intensifying negotiations on WTO accession.
In 2015 Belarus joined the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and committed to putting a Roadmap for higher education reform into effect by 2018.
The implementation of the Roadmap is running behind schedule, which poses a threat to fulfilment of Belarus' obligations by the due date.
This paper released by the Ostrogorski Centre today analyses the main challenges to implementation of the Roadmap in Belarus; it also provides recommendation which could help to do it on time and benefit a wider range of stakeholders.
On 20 January, the Belarusian jury and TV audiences selected the band Navi to represent Belarus at the Eurovision Song Contest. For the first time in the history of Eurovision, Belarus's performance will be in the Belarusian language.
This is just one of many small steps that Belarus has recently taken to promote tolerance and respect for the Belarusian language. Following the Ukrainian conflict, Belarusian authorities are paying more attention to the role of Belarusian in society.
Today, many Belarusians see Hrodna as a cultural capital of the country, which actively popularises the Belarusian language through the service sector. One can find ample evidence of soft Belarusisation in Hrodna cafes, shops, and the sports sphere. However, use of Belarusian will remain superficial until the language becomes equal to Russian in government, media, and education.
In 2016, Belarusian diplomats succeeded in getting rid of most Western sanctions, improving the international legitimacy of the national parliament, regularising dialogue with Europe, and converting Poland from a strong critic into a good partner.
Nevertheless, they failed to make Lukashenka fully presentable to his peers in Europe, alienated Ukraine’s political elite, botched export growth and diversification of the export market, and turned Lithuania from a supporter into a foe.
Belarus Digest offers its summary of Belarusian diplomacy’s achievements and failures over the past year.