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Friday, December 23, 2005

Lukashenka ready to run, Milinkevich interview, Konopolev, New banking laws, Cops in Santa suits, Censorship,

From the Top


Reuters and Charter ‘97

Workers shoveling snow from in front of the government building.
Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka today submitted his paperwork to run for the presidency in next year's elections.

Nikolai Lazovik, the chairman of the Central Election Commission, confirmed receipt of Lukashenka's candidacy forms.

The commission has four days to register candidates, after which all those planning to run in presidential elections must submit a list of signatures from 100,000 registered voters to be officially eligible to run in the March 2006 poll.

Aleksander Milinkevich, predicted to be Lukashenka's leading competitor in elections, was expected to hand in his forms tomorrow.

Four other candidate hopefuls submitted their forms before Lukashenka.

In the executive committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Minsk the questions of improvement of election observation institute was discussed. One of the key proposals is to introduce long-term observation. It means that the observation mission representatives are to arrive to the country, where the elections are held a few months before the elections. It has been stated that the CIS mission is ready for observation over the imminent presidential elections in Belarus. The previous election campaigns in Belarus, as we have informed, despite accusations of gross falsifications, had always been highly assessed by the CIS observers’ mission.

The Foreign Ministry is to solve the question related to invitation of international observers to the elections of Belarusian president, which are to take place on March 19, said the Central Election Committee secretary Mikalay Lazavik to Interfax.

“Invitation of international observers, including observers of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR OSCE) to the elections lies within cognizance of the Foreign Ministry,” said the CEC secretary. “They know about that and are no longer bothering us,” M.Lazavik said.

He also stated that the Belarusian CEC members have “serious complaints” over the assessment of election process by the ODIHR OSCE. “There should be general criteria. It mustn’t be so that the same facts of election campaign were considered positive in one country and negative in another,” M.Lazavik said.

He also informed that “if we would invite somebody, we would invite our colleagues from the CECs of other countries”. “And [we would invite them] not as official observers entirely, but rather as guests, who are arriving to study the practice of preparation and carrying out elections, for exchange of experience,” the secretary of Belarusian CEC explained.


Charter ‘97

Milinkevich: According to some poles, he might just be even with the president
Three months remain until the presidential election in Belarus. The Belarusian opposition, learning from the experience of past defeats, has united behind one candidate, rather than a dozen, in opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko. That candidate is Alexander Milinkevich. “Moskovsky Komsomolets” (Russian newspaper) talked to him about the election campaign.

Question: How do you mean to defeat Lukashenko? You simply won`t be allowed to campaign.

Alexander Milinkevich: We will publish small unregistered papers - we are experienced at that - and work via the Internet, and going door-to-door. You know, the Belarusians aren’t at all thrilled with Lukashenko. The problem is that they aren`t very well-informed.

Question: Why should Belarusians vote for you? After all, you`re a proponent of painful market reforms.

Alexander Milinkevich: The present relative welfare of the Belarusian economy, based on the benefits from the part of Russia, won`t last. The later we leave reforms, the more painful the reforms will be. The important point is that we`re opposing a system in which the people are afraid of the authorities.

Question: Let me predict what will happen on March 19. The election takes place, and it is announced that Lukashenko has won. What are you going to do then?

Alexander Milinkevich: My democratic coalition colleagues and I don`t want a revolution. Neither do the people. If we lose a fair election, we`ll never protest. But if the results are rigged, people will go out into the streets.

Question: So there would still be a Belarusian version of Ukraine`s Independence Square.

Alexander Milinkevich: We`ll have a peaceful revolution. I would call it "a revolution of will." Because you need a strong will to go out into the square in such a totalitarian state as Belarus, where they can beat you with police batons and throw you in prison. Those whose will proves to be stronger shall win.

Question: So, how substantial is the opposition’s support?

Alexander Milinkevich: I can`t give you any data from Belarusian pollsters: polling agencies have almost been eliminated in Belarus. The Baltic office of the Gallup Institute reports that the opposition has 25% stable support. About the same number say they will vote for Lukashenko. The rest haven`t decided yet. So we`ll be fighting for their hearts and minds.

Question: Your visit to Moscow generated many rumors. They said you had secured the backing of the Kremlin. With whom did you actually meet?

Alexander Milinkevich: I met with representatives of the Duma`s CIS affairs committee. I got the impression that in Russia they are interested in contacts with us.

Question: Do you think in the Belarusian elections there won`t be repetition of the "Ukraine scenario," if Russia directly supports one of the candidates?

Alexander Milinkevich: I can state one thing: in Russia they are ready to listen to both sides: the government and the opposition.

(Editor’s note: Is it possible to actually read what Mr. Milinkevich’s ideas for reform might be? Some actual stating of his platform and ideas about what he would do with the presidency would be much appreciated.)


From the office of the president and Novosti

Sergei Sidorsky
On 22 December, President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka met with Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky to receive his report.

Sergei Sidorsky informed the Head of State on the preliminary results of the five-year planning period now under completion, and, specifically, on the results of the year 2005.

According to Sergei Sidorsky, the overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose by 42 percent over 2001-2005. The GDP rise in 1996-2005 was almost two-fold. The Government has set an objective to triple this indicator as compared to the year 1996. It is even more significant in light of the fact that this country has no rich natural resources (oil, gas).

He said Belarus is producing more high-technology products and 38% of the industry's volume is exported to the European Union.

The premier said Belarusian export deliveries had increased by 2.5-fold in the last five years.

According to Sidorsky, Belarus has one of the lowest inflation rates at just more than 6% this year and salaries increased to $250 against $70-80 in 2000.

In other news, taking into account numerous petitions from the citizens who have not managed to re-register in time their personal privatization vouchers “Housing,” the Head of State has taken the decision to prolong the re-registration period of housing privatization vouchers until January 1, 2007.

The Head of State has charged the Government to submit for his consideration, within the next few days, the draft enforceable enactment on this issue.

In addition, before the 1st of June, 2006, proposals shall be submitted to the President on further use of the re-registered personal privatization vouchers “Housing.”

The President was also informed on the results of the session of the Union State Council of Ministers in Moscow, of the talks with the Mayor of Russia’s capital, of the session of the Council of Business Cooperation between Belarus and Moscow. (See below article “Belarus Russia: Where do we go from here?”)


From Belta

Konopolev speaks to the house
On December 21, talking to reporters after the closing of the third session of the Chamber of Representatives, its chairman Vladimir Konoplev said, the parliamentarians did their best in legislature to ensure well-being of the Belarusian nation in the forthcoming year.

“We have considered even certain laws which provoked mixed reviews. But we are calm, we have taken all measures to prevent terrorism and other anti-public phenomena”, the speaker said.

“The country has no social or economic preconditions for revolutions”, Vladimir Konoplev underlined. Belarus is among the CIS leaders in the level of wages, pensions and scholarships.

“Everything that happened in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan shows interference from outside triggered by representatives of relevant countries and special agencies”, Vladimir Konoplev considers. In case of any interference from outside the deputy corps would act in line with the constitution of the country, the chairman underlined.


From the NLIPRB

Stanislav Stashevsky
On December 22 industry minister of Belarus Anatoly Rusetsky will pay a working visit to Kiev to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart minister of industrial policy Vladimir Shandra and first vice-premier of Ukraine Stanislav Stashevsky, BelTA was informed in the embassy of Belarus in Ukraine.

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Ukraine Valentin Velichko will take part in the talks.

A list of supplies for 2006 is expected to be signed within the framework of the visit in line with the corresponding agreement between the governments of Belarus and Ukraine of May 29, 2002.

Moreover, the industry ministers of the two countries will approve a program of development of production cooperation and service maintenance in mechanical engineering between the two ministries for 2006.


From the NLIPRB

New rules make it harder to export cultural goods
The Council of Ministers has introduced amendments and addenda in the legislation on the order of movement of cultural goods through the customs border of the Republic of Belarus. In accordance with the government’s resolution #1480, arts experts of the culture ministry will handle the issues of permitting, restricting or banning the export of art property from the country. In case the experts grant a permit to export cultural goods from Belarus, an applicant is granted a certificate which is valid for one year since the day of issue.

The resolution also imposes charges for the issuance of a license on juridical entities and natural persons: one base amount for the export of five and more cultural objects or cultural property composed of five and more objects, 0,5 base amount for the export of one-four cultural objects. For the reissue – 0,2 and 0,1 base amounts respectively.

The resolution was drafted in line with the convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property of November 14, 1970 and the Belarusian legislation.


Also from NLIPRB

In Belarus EVERYBODY is watching their pennies
Today, at the second reading, the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus adopted a draft law “On introducing amendments and addenda to the Banking Code of the Republic of Belarus”.

According to chairman of the permanent commission for monetary policy and banking activity Roman Vnuchko, the law has been designed in line with international documents and the republican banking practice.

The principal amendments and addenda concern empowering the National Bank in the field of banking surveillance. So, the document introduces the notion of a banking group and banking holding company to empower the National Bank to exercise surveillance over all types of unions of legal entities with participation of banks and non-banking institutions. This is done to entitle the National Bank to control banking risks.

Besides, the National Bank is defined as not only the central bank but as a state body since it is endowed with certain authorities and entitled to legislate.

According to the amendments, the National Bank will issue a single license to banks for exercising banking activity replacing the prior many-license practice. As Roman Vnuchko believes, this measure is coined to simplify the licensing scheme, reduce circulation of documents in banks and enable the National Bank to regulate activity of other banks by spelling out a set of operations for them depending on their financial condition and outlook.

The draft law also prohibits the National Bank to grant loans for the government to finance the budget deficit and purchase securities after their primary distribution.

Since 2004 laws on the budget have not envisaged loans of the National Bank for these purposes. The decision was taken in line with the international practice and in agreement with international financial organizations.

The document expands the list of grounds on refusing to register banks and non-banking financial establishments and fixes requirements to the business reputation of bank managers.

The bill also provides the notion “a subsidiary of the foreign bank” and stipulates the order on regulating its activity in Belarus.

At the same time the document simplifies procedures on granting loans to economic agents. In particular, it introduces amendments and addenda to the order on signing loan agreements, granting banking guarantees and attracting bank deposits. Thus, according to Roman Vnuchko, the target use of loans aims to liberalize loan relations.

The document envisages that banks reduce interest rates on deposits in national currency, i.e. reduce the refinancing rate of the National Bank, provide this norm in a deposit agreement and notify a depositor on the banking decision. Besides, the bill stipulates an opportunity to issue deposit and savings bearer certificates.



MINSK, December 22 (RIA Novosti, Olesya Luchaninova) - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday that he supports a government proposal to increase the export of Belarusian goods to Moscow.

The president's press office said the goods were primarily construction materials and light industry and food products.

"Moscow is interested in increasing supplies of construction materials, for example crushed rock, cement, slabs and silicate wool," the press office quoted the president as saying.

At a meeting with Lukashenko Thursday, Belarusian Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky discussed an agreement reached with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov that stipulates a meeting between the sides in Moscow before January 20 to ratify a joint action plan for 2006.



Lieutenant-Colonel Petro Rebkavets begins his transformation
Police in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, have launched a holiday campaign aimed at improving their image as well as public security. Officers are now dressing up as Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, donning red suits, white beards -- and their police badges -- and visiting city residents in their homes to talk about safety issues.

Lieutenant-Colonel Petro Rebkavets, hidden behind his long, silky beard, stands outside the main entrance of a Minsk residential building, ringing the bells to different apartments.

Each time someone answers from an apartment inside, he begins a different routine. Sometimes he is a policeman. Other times he is Ded Moroz. Still others he is a maintenance worker or a repairman.

The point, he says, is to see if Minsk residents will open their door to someone they don't know. After all, not everyone is likely to guess that the stranger ringing their buzzer is actually a policeman -- moreover, one dressed as Grandfather Frost.

On this particular excursion, one woman was among the very few to demonstrate what he considered a healthy sense of caution.

"Open the door. No one is answering at your neighbor's flat, apartment 94," Rebkavets says into an intercom.

"If there's no one there, why should I let you in?" a woman answers.

"You're right. We're actually police officers," Rebkavets says. "We're conducting a campaign. You're doing the right thing. Never open the door to someone until you find out their name, whom they want to see, and who sent them."

It may seem strange to see a beloved holiday figure turned away from city door fronts. But police in Minsk say that is precisely the point. Crime is on the rise in the Belarusian capital, and they say residents must learn to be more wary of potential burglars and other criminals who may try to enter their homes.

Police are also looking to soften their image as iron-fisted enforcers of the autocratic regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

So law enforcement officials are hoping people will respond favorably to a visit by a new, friendlier police officer, dressed in the comforting guise of Grandfather Frost, and accompanied by a female police officer dressed as his trusty sidekick, the snow maiden Snegurochka.

Police Colonel Uladzimir Karshakou told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that officers are using the visits to inform residents about the rising number of break-ins, and to try to persuade them to install burglar alarms that would allow them to immediately contact the police in the event of a crime.

"These incidents are taking place every day," Karshakou said. "People are opening their doors to God knows who, and this often results in burglaries and other violent attacks. By installing these alarms -- something that takes just 3-5 minutes -- police can arrive at your home almost immediately if something goes wrong."

The alarms cost the equivalent of $11 per month, which may seems like an unaffordable luxury to many in Belarus, where the average monthly salary is about $225.

But even families that aren't in the market for an alarm system said they had read about the program in the newspaper and were pleased to get a personal visit from Grandfather Frost.

Officer Rebkavets was on the receiving end of a number of poems, recited in traditional fashion by the families' youngest members.

In one home, Rebkavets coaxed a poem in Belarusian, rather than Russian, out of one young boy. After some encouragement, the boy plucked up his courage and recited a poem about the legend of Belarus's Lake Narach, the country's largest lake.

But is the Grandfather Frost police action about safety and image alone? It's a pre-election season, after all -- a time when presidential hopefuls and their supporters must literally canvass door to door to collect thousands of signatures to ensure their place on the ballot.

Some are questioning whether the police are truly worried about crime -- or if they just want to ensure that fewer doors are opened when opposition candidates come knocking.

Media and Censorship


Two stories from Charter ‘97

Who reads your mail and how it works

The following letter from a student at the Belarusian State Economic University was posted on the charter ’97 site. The letter concerns internet censorship which is taking place at that university.

“I have read the news item about control over internet in the BSEU and I would like to say that in the Belarusian State University we have the same problem for a long time. But the measures are even harsher here. Our vice-principal has ordered to nationalize all computer networks in the hostels and make them the property of the university. In the BSU, and according to some information, in the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radio Electronics and BSEU, an internal organ of internet security is operating. Its workers are scrupulously analyzing all visits to internet-sites according to IP addresses. System operators and the so-called investigation division are responsible for all the work concerned with spotting computers. Taking in consideration that the network of Minsk universities consists of several thousands of computers, one could imagine the scale of control,”


On December 22 the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Belarus disseminated a communication in which displeasure over the news item about the embassy in the program of the First National Channel “In the focus of attention”.

“On December 18, 2005 the Belarusian State TV in its evening program “In the focus of attention” unjustly and in discriminatory tone attacked the work of the consular section of the Czech Embassy in Minsk, and on consular sections of other EU countries,” the report reads.

“Coverage filled with propaganda, not based on real facts, is affecting Czech-Belarusian relations, and undoubtedly is not contributing to their improvement. Despite of these programs, interest of Belarusian citizens to trips to the Czech Republic is not lessening. Every year 23,000 Belarusian tourists visit our country. The Czech visa is issued in conformity with the law and instructions of the consulate of the Czech Republic,” the report reads.

The Embassy categorically disagree with the statement done by the Belarusian TV, that “to get visas applicants are to take part in opposition rallies”. “We would like to remark that our consular section throughout a year is issuing tourist visas also to officials of the presidential administration, members of parliament, diplomats and their families,” the statement of the Embassy reads.



It's been 14 years since the Almata declaration ending the Soviet Union was signed
The most important achievement of the Commonwealth of Independent States is the establishment and consolidation of sovereignty of former USSR republics, permanent representative of the Russian Federation at CIS bodies Yevgeniy Belov told BelTA.

Speaking about the 14th anniversary since the Almata declaration was signed, he stressed, "CIS foundation allowed the countries to resolve problems" caused by the USSR disintegration. Among the most important agreements signed during the period Yevgeni Belov mentioned those aimed to ensure equal rights of CIS member-states' citizens for education and pensions, expansion and consolidation of co-operation in economic, humanitarian, and military fields. He stressed, thanks to the Commonwealth independent states attained positive experience of international co-operation, adapted themselves to the market-based economy, and expanded their sales area. The CIS witnessed a stable GDP growth, with the mutual trade turnover up by 150 per cent.

Yevgeniy Belov also named CIS reformation prospects "good". "History says, the Commonwealth has achieved success and accomplished tasks it was assigned. Today we need to develop approaches to resolving new problems that CIS member-states face", said the source. In particular, he said, at present the CIS key role is limited to counteracting modern challenges and threats. Contacts in the economic, political and humanitarian fields are "a reliable basis" for a long-term integration.

In spite of the differences in approaches to the CIS reformation and geopolitical interests of certain CIS states, interaction in the fields will go on, Yevgeniy Belov is convinced.

Let us remind you that December 21, 1991 witnessed the signing of the so-called Almata declaration. The document was signed by leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldavia, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine (Georgia jointed the CIS in 1993). On December 8 in the Visculi residence in Belovezhskaya Pushcha heads of the Republic of Belarus, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine signed an agreement denouncing the treaty to set up the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics dated 1922 and an agreement to found the Commonwealth of Independent States.




The Pierre Cardin centre
An exhibition of masterpieces by Belarusian painters “Land under White Wings” is taking place at one of the prestigious halls of Paris – Pierre Cardin Centre. The exhibition hosts over 50 paintings by 14 painters representing various directions of the modern Belarusian painting art.

The press service of the Belarusian foreign ministry told BelTA, the exhibition invoked a live interest among the French public. The opening ceremony was attended by both French and Belarusian art amateurs, who now live in France, representatives of Pierre Cardin fashion house, businessmen, public figures, and heads of international friendship societies.

While opening the exhibition, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Belarus to France Viktor Shikh told the visitors about Belarus and its contribution to the European art and presented the idea of the exposition.

The exhibition is organized by the Belarusian embassy in France with assistance of the Belarusian Painters Union. The exhibition will last till December 23 at Pierre Cardin centre.



Smolensk, Russia
An international exhibition-fair “The Republic of Belarus is Your Partner” is opening today in Smolensk.

The Smolensk chamber of commerce and industry told BelTA, about 100 Belarusian companies and 60 enterprises from 16 central Russian oblasts, Volga region and the Urals are going to attend the event. The participants are expected to represent a wide spectrum of economy branches including light and textile industries, sewing, foodstuffs industry, furniture manufacture, chemical and machine-building industries, instrument-making, etc.

“Days of Mogilev oblast in Smolensk region” will take place under the exhibition, as well as business meetings, seminars and round-tables.

The event is organized by the administration of Smolensk oblast and Smolensk and the Smolensk chamber of commerce and industry. The Belarusian chamber of commerce and industry contributed to the event.

The exhibition-fair will stay open until December 24.
Today Belarus is the major business partner of Smolensk oblast. The latter comes 5th in terms of turnover on the list of the Russian regions leaving ahead only Moscow, Tyumen and Moscow oblasts and St. Petersburg. The turnover between Smolensk oblast and Belarus has spiraled almost 6 times over the recent 10 years.



By Daisy Sindelar (RFE/RL)

Looks as if the “quick-snap” strategy of moving up the elections will be paying off
Lawmakers in Belarus last week set the date of the country's presidential election not for July, as had been earlier suggested, but for 19 March. That decision leaves potential candidates with far less time to prepare for the race. Hopefuls now have just three days (until 23 December) to meet the first requirement in the registration process -- collecting the names of at least 100 supporters to form a nomination group. Critics say the earlier date is part of a strategy by incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to ensure his reelection to a third term and to deflate the threat of the political opposition.

In addition to Lukashenka, there are currently five potential candidates vying for a spot on Belarus's presidential ballot.

By 27 December -- when the nomination groups are formally announced -- there may be fewer. And by the 19 March vote, fewer still.

One challenger expected to stay on the ballot is Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the candidate of the united opposition forces.

Milinkevich announced his intention to enter the race in early October. Since then, he has conducted a grass roots campaign to build a support base, often going door-to-door in an attempt to meet potential voters.

Milinkevich is better prepared than most -- his nomination group will have far beyond the minimum 100 people required for registration. Still, he told RFE/RL's Belarus Service the new, early date for the presidential vote is a setback nonetheless.

"To include people in your nomination group, you need to talk with each of them [to make sure] they won't resign afterwards," Milinkevich said. "We have had our list of activists for a long time already. This work is being done now, [but] the group will not be as large as I had expected. I thought that by the summer we could have as many as 10,000 people. We will have fewer people [now]. However, they will be numbered in thousands, not hundreds."

Few observers were surprised by the decision to move up the date of the election -- or that the move was announced one day after Lukashenka met with his counterpart, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia, wary of a new "color revolution" in its post-Soviet backyard, is determined to see Lukashenka remain in power. It is also eager to gain greater control of Belarusian gas pipelines -- something it can do best with a pliable ally in the presidential office.

In return, it is providing Belarusians with some of the cheapest natural gas in the Commonwealth of Independent States -- while very publicly subjecting Orange Revolution Ukraine and Rose Revolution Georgia to fierce price hikes.

Lukashenka orchestrated his own reelection bid with a public referendum in October 2004. The poll, which was widely criticized in the West, allowed him to seek an unprecedented third term.

Few expect him to lose. But Milinkevich and other potential candidates -- like Syarhey Haydukevich, leader of the Belarusian Liberal Democratic Party -- hope to use the election to draw attention to what they say are Belarus's growing ranks of the politically and socially discontent.

"I will gather a nomination group as I have promised; I'm obliged to show that [my party] has the necessary structures. But I haven't made a decision yet. If it turns out that the situation isn't serious, I won't take part [in the election]," Haydukevich said.

Candidate hopefuls also include Alyaksandr Kazulin, leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada); Zyanon Paznyak, the exiled leader of the Conservative Christian Party; and former General Valery Fralou, who as an opposition lawmaker staged a hunger strike in 2004.

They have until 23 December to turn in their nomination group lists. Those that manage to qualify for registration will be announced on 27 December. Then each group will have just four weeks (29 December-27 January) to gather at least 100,000 signatures needed for a candidate to be formally added to the ballot.

The early election date has other potential consequences as well. Some observers have suggested the earlier date is meant to keep Belarus off the radar of the international community, which will be focused on Ukraine, where parliamentary elections will be held just one week later.

It is not yet certain if international election monitors will be on hand for the Belarusian ballot. The Lukashenka regime has accused foreign organizations of seeking to influence the outcome by providing funds and other aid to the opposition.

Mikalya Lazavik, secretary of the country's Central Election Commission, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that monitors will be present -- as long as they have no political agenda.

"If they want to come here as observers, and not as participants in the political process, then why not? We're always open to cooperation," Lazavik said.

Both the European Union and the United States have called for the vote to be free and fair, and pledged, if it is not, to toughen sanctions against Lukashenka's administration.


By Jan Maksymiuk RL/RFE

Presidents Lukashenka (L) and Putin
It has been nearly 10 years since Russia and Belarus declared their will to form a common state. In September, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka promised "landmark" decisions to be taken by the end of this year regarding Belarus's integration with Russia. However, his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week did not provide any clue as to what those decisions might be.

It was long expected that Lukashenka and Putin would meet in Moscow, in mid-November or mid-December, within the framework of the Higher Council of the Russia-Belarus Union State. That forum also includes the prime ministers and foreign ministers of both countries.

Back in September, Lukashenka suggested that this upcoming meeting would be "significant, momentous, and landmark, particularly in furthering our unity."

But Lukashenka's meeting with Putin in the Russian sea resort of Sochi on 15 December was held at very short notice. And, contrary to expectations, it was devoted to economic matters, not political. At least this transpires from what Putin told reporters after the meeting.

"I want to confirm our agreements regarding relations between our financial agencies. You will recall our talks about the need to support our Belarusian partners and achieve balanced decisions with respect to energy supplies," Putin said. "The Russian government has prepared the necessary documents and I hope they will be adopted by the end of this year."

Did Lukashenka really want to meet Putin just to confirm that Belarus will receive Russian gas in 2006 at the same price as this year, that is, at $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters? Putin promised not to increase this price for Belarus as early as in April, and Gazprom officials have reconfirmed this pledge on more than one occasion.

It was indirectly confirmed that Lukashenka may have discussed political issues with Putin when, the following day, Belarus's lower house of parliament hastily and unexpectedly announced that next year's presidential election will take place on 19 March. The election will take place four months ahead of the latest date allowed for the vote by the country's constitution.

Many Belarusian and Russian commentators have said that Lukashenka met with Putin primarily to communicate his decision to hold the presidential election at an earlier date and seek the Kremlin's approval for his anticipated third term. Whatever answer he might have received from Putin, Lukashenka looked rather pleased when thanking the Russian president for continuing gas and oil supplies at discount prices.

"I want to thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], because your government and your energy companies have carried out your order and we have practically finalized our contract for gas and oil supplies to Belarus. We have learned to save, and to save well. This year we may have not even imported the agreed volumes of gas and oil in full because our supplies have been sufficient for our economy," Lukashenka said.

It is likely that, once again, Putin will back Lukashenka's bid for the presidency. After the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, Moscow seems to have developed an allergy for any other "colored revolution" in the post-Soviet area. Therefore, Lukashenka, a loyal political ally of Russia since his inauguration in 1994, could count on the Kremlin's political and economic support for his reelection this time as well.

It is not clear, however, what Lukashenka had to promise to Putin in exchange for such support.

Last year, Moscow unambiguously indicated that it wants control over Beltranshaz, the state-run operator of Belarus's gas pipeline network. Lukashenka, who promised in 2002 to set up a Belarusian-Russian venture to run Belarusian gas pipelines, backed down on his decision in 2004. That provoked an angry response from Gazprom, which even cut off Belarus's gas flow for one day.

Earlier this month in Moscow, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka said the talks about the purchase of a stake in Beltranshaz by Gazprom have been reopened.

The most recent Lukashenka-Putin meeting also appears to signal that Moscow has shifted its attention from political to economic issues in its relations with Minsk even further than before.

Earlier this month, Russia-Belarus Union State Secretary Pavel Borodin divulged to journalists that both sides are currently working on no fewer than nine versions of the Constitutional Act of both states, that is, a common-state constitution. However, neither Lukashenka nor Putin found it necessary to say a word about this issue after their talks in Sochi.

This may not be so surprising when one recalls that Russia's clearest stance so far on integration with Belarus was formulated by Putin in August 2002. Putin then proposed an "ultimate unification" of both states by incorporating Belarus into the Russian Federation as a whole or dividing it into seven new federal regions. Arguably, such a form of integration hardly needs any additional constitution at all.

At that time Lukashenka indignantly rejected this incorporation proposal. But will he be able to withstand such an integration scenario during his anticipated third term, when economic considerations might force the Kremlin to increase gas prices for Russia's staunchest post-Soviet ally as well?


By Leonard Doyle, The Independent

Lukashenka and Putin
One is a Soviet-style dictator running a police state, the other the modernizing leader of the world’s largest country. Their two nations are locked in an embrace that could see one swallow the other whole. But for the moment, the relationship between Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus and Russia`s Vladimir Putin is one of fraternal support.

After an unexpected meeting with Mr Putin at the Black Sea resort of Sochi last week, Mr Lukashenko suddenly brought forward the date of his country`s presidential elections to 19 March. The move should guarantee the re-election of Europe`s most despotic leader to a third term.

Opposition members hoping to challenge Mr Lukashenko have until tomorrow to begin the registration process - collecting the names of at least 100 nominees. Critics say bringing forward the election is part of a strategy by Mr Lukashenko to restrict any opposition campaign.

That Mr Lukashenko can run at all is due to his controversial alteration of the constitution last year to abolish presidential term limits.

The last thing Mr Putin wants to see is another popular revolution sweeping away the leadership of a neighbouring country. The flames of popular democracy are already uncomfortably close in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and even Serbia. And for months President Putin has been trying to ensure an "elegant victory" for the hard man of Minsk. For the Russian leader, even an unpredictable dictator on his western border seems preferable to a reformer such as Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine.

There may well be a high price to be paid for Moscow`s support. Mr Putin once floated the idea of a common currency. Russia also wants greater control of Belarus` state-owned gas pipelines - something it can best achieve with a pliable ally in the presidential office. So it is now providing Belarus with the cheapest natural gas in the Commonwealth of Independent States - while subjecting "Orange revolution" Ukraine and "Rose revolution" Georgia to fierce price hikes.

A proposed tough new security bill makes it an offence, punishable by up to two years jail, to even train people to take part in street protests, a clause that appears intended to crack down on the sort of youth movements that were so prominent in the revolutions in Georgia and in Ukraine.

The loose wording of the bill means it could be used to jail anyone who has uttered any criticism of the president, for instance, or of the political, economic, or social state of the country.

Stepan Sukhorenko, the head of the KGB, as the Belarussian security service is still known, has already publicly accused two youth groups, the Youth Front and Zubr, of using foreign help to form their organisational core and prepare the ground for mass protests.

Determined to head off an "orange" - or any other colour - revolution, he said that Belarus had to defend itself against unprecedented pressure from abroad, in particular from the United States. He promised that the country`s security services would prevent any disruption of the elections. Journalists are also in Mr Lukashenko`s firing line. The legislation makes it an offence to call on foreign states, or organisations, to take measures detrimental to Belarus - even to publicise such appeals.

The European Union has been standing by helplessly as Belarus` 10 million people fall further outside the democratic orbit. Except for a condemnation of "the systematic and increasing repression of civil society and the political opposition and the independent media", the British-led EU presidency has been virtually silent on the country`s slide into totalitarianism.

From the Blogs


From Br23 (Blogging now from Poland, rather than Minsk or so it seems)

I haven’t commented about the #1 news item from the last week, which was the announcement about the presidential elections date. Belarus’s lower house of parliament set 19 March 2006 as the date for next year’s presidential election, voting unanimously 104 - for, zero - against.

The date was set much earlier that it was expected (July’06). The main outcome of this decision is that Lukashenka chose a date which he thought was more comfortable to him, obviously. This decision leaves potential candidates with far less time to prepare for the presidential race. Hopefuls now have just three days (until 23 December) to meet the first requirement in the registration process — collecting the names of at least 100 supporters to form a nomination group.

Anyway, I personally think it doesn’t matter that much. IMHO, if the chances of the democratic opposition candidate Milinkevich winning against Lukashenka in these “elections” were 2% - 98%, then now they dropped to 1% to 99%. Some people might say I’m being too pessimistic, but I think I’m just a being a realist. The “elections” in itself won’t decide the outcome. Even if more than 50% of the eligible voters will cast their vote for Milinkevich, they will have to come out to the streets and prove their vote by street “voting” in front of Lukashenka’s riot police. Without them, Milinkevich is doomed. And I doubt that Belarusian people will come out.

The West and especially EU also seems to have resigned into thinking that Lukashenka will stay in power and so they are not doing anything to help in 2006. For example, European Commission screwed up with its media support: “EU Belarus radio station delayed as elections loom” {}The 2-million euro EU project was originally designed to start up in January, but will be launched in May, at the earliest, two months after the presidential elections.

EU bureaucracy is amazing, isn’t it?

(Note: Please check the comments section of this blog)




The president supporting Youth Football
This is going to be the first time that Belarus will host such high-level competition, spokesman for the Belarusian football federation Alexander Leschik told BelTA.

The UEFA notes that recently Belarus has been performing well at the European youth level, qualifying for the men’s UEFA U21 and U17 championships in 2004 and in 2005.

A reminder, UEFA and the Belarusian national federation will hold two junior qualifying tournaments of the European youth championships. In May next year Minsk will host a tournament of the 3rd group of the European U19 championships (Belarus, France, Scotland and Bulgaria). In September-October 2006 Minsk will stage the qualifying tournament of the European U17 championships (Belarus, San Marino, Ukraine and Kazakhstan).