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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Elections week! Arrests, Pressure, Public Swearing, Hooliganism, Expulsions, Camping Gear Seized; Lukashenka, Kozulin, Milinkevich, Rushillo, Lebedko

From the Top

Elections Week!

Investments to Gasification of Belarus Have Exceeded USD 1 Billion

From the office of the president

Lukashenka Visiting the Potash Company «Belaruskaliy»
Alexander Lukashenko said today that in the forthcoming years Belarus should reduce its dependence on supplies of Russian energy by 25 per cent. “This means that we will extend supplementary heating supply networks which would run on the Belarusian energy resources to houses and industrial enterprises. We have our energy resources in abundance. This way is cheaper and more beneficial. But natural gas is very convenient. Today it is very profitable”, the head of state stressed while talking to residents of the Oktyabrskiy region, Gomel oblast.

“I would like you to understand that it is a bliss when a man has a choice. If it gets costly to use natural gas, it will be possible to use fire-wood for heating. Drawing up the project for extending the gas supply in Belarus, the principal idea was to give people a choice what fuel to use. Moreover, oil and gas are exhaustible resources. Sooner or later they will be getting more expensive”, the president added.

Alexander Lukashenko urged to remember to use natural gas economically and take advantage of energy saving technologies. According to the Belarusian leader, a wider use of the local energy resources is a requirement of the present-day economic trends.

This year construction of gas distribution networks in Gantsevichi, Miory, and Verkhnedvinsk will be accomplished. In 2007 natural gas will be supplied to Rossony and Berezino, Belarusian energy minister Alexander Ageyev informed the Belarusian president today while Alexander Lukashenko was visiting Gomel region.

The president was informed, this year 387 km of gas distribution network has been built, twice as much as, for example, in Chernigov region of Ukraine.

Last year the head of state ordered to provide natural gas supply to all agricultural district centres within two years. According to Alexander Ageyev, the task will be accomplished in 2007. The energy minister stressed, simultaneously efforts will be exercised to introduce local fuels.

He also added, Belarus will save a lot of money by replacing gas delivered in containers with gas delivered via pipelines to enterprises and households.

Belarus follows due course

Alexander Lukashenko is confident that Belarus has chosen the right course of development.

“Maybe we will not have enough time to do everything but normal policy-makers who will come after us, will have to finish what we have started. By the attitude of people I feel we are following the right course. There is a need to do so that even if a wrong person comes to power, he might not turn the country back in its development. This is the most important thing for me”, the head of state stressed while talking to residents of the Oktaybrskiy region.

“Over these years I have tried to show you that our country, which you entrusted to me once, is the most important thing for me”, the president said.

Alexander Lukashenko added that the leadership of the country does its best to ensure wellbeing of its people. “But people should also take care of themselves”, the Belarusian leader believes.

March 14, 2006
Alexander Lukashenko Visits the Joint Institute of Informatics Problems

On March 14, President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko visited the Joint Institute of Informatics Problems of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the republican science and engineering unitary enterprise “Geoinformation Systems” of the NAS. The Head of State became familiarized with the operation of the space information receiving station which is a part of the Belarusian space system of Earth remote sensing.

The President surveyed the TNA-9PB antenna system and an instrument room for receiving and processing space information. The Head of State became familiarized with the work of the hard- and software complex of the space information receiving station. The basic steps of antenna control, receiving and processing space information were demonstrated to him.

March 13, 2006
Active work in addressing socially important problems of the population and implementing the plans of the country’s leadership on creating the state for the people will be continued in 2006. To raise efficiency of the work with citizens’ petitions and to increase attention to everyday problems and concerns of the people is a major goal here. The plan of specific measures to this effect elaborated by the Government has been approved by the Head of State.

On March 13, the President of the Republic of Belarus signed into action Decree No 147 on changing the confines of the town of Soligorsk and Soligorsk District. In pursuance of the Decree, the plots of land of organizations and individuals occupying a total area of 567.5417 hectares have been included within the confines of the town.

On March 13, President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko received the letters of credence of the ambassador of the Russian Federation Alexander Surikov, the ambassador of Ukraine Valentin Nalivaichenko and the head of the diplomatic mission of the Kyrgyz Republic in our country Lidiya Imanaliyeva.

Foreign ministry: sanctions against Belarus will hit European partners
Sergei Martynov
Economic sanctions against Belarus will seriously damage interests of Belarus’ partners in Europe. “Belarus will survive, but the specific companies, businessmen… It would be much more painful for them than for us as a country”, Belarus foreign minister Sergei Martynov told Reuters in an interview posted on the foreign ministry web site.

Besides, he added, if Belarus trade privileges were annulled, several countries, which “make serious profits trading with Belarus”, would be affected. “Would these countries, some of which (the neighbouring states) earn 30-40 per cent of the revenues trading with Belarus, benefit?” asked Sergei Martynov.

He is convinced, in the end Belarus will overcome consequences of possible sanctions inspired by the European Union and the United States of America. “The goods we export to the European Union can be easily sold. If they weren’t marketable, they would not be sold. If they are marketable, we could sell them somewhere else. In Brussels’ place I would reconsider before taking such a decision. I wish to believe European politicians are wise”, said the Belarusian foreign minister.

Sergei Martynov added, trade with the European Union accounts for 44 per cent of the Belarusian export. It can be assumed any Belarusian family gets a share from Belarus exports to the European Union. Therefore, the West’s decision to introduce any limitations will not contribute to raising the popularity of the European Union among Belarusians, the minister is convinced.

Speaking about the nature of sanctions, Sergei Martynov stressed, “Sanctions never resolved any problems”. “Using economic sanctions to reach political goals looks doubtful to us. It does not smell pleasant”, added the Belarusian foreign minister.

Belarus does not need to be recognized; it is all-sufficient

“The choice of the nation does not need to be recognized; it is all-sufficient”, foreign minister of Belarus Sergei Martynov told the agency Reuters in the interview, published on the site of the foreign political department of this republic.

According to him, “we are oriented towards the choice of the Belarusian people and external factors do not exert influence upon us in this respect”.

At the same time the head of the foreign ministry underlined that “the declarations before the elections suggesting that the polls are supposed to be unfair or rigged simply show judgment has already been passed”. “Those working against us are simply waiting for the elections to say so”.

When speaking about the support rendered by the West to certain presidential contenders Sergei Martynov stated that in any political system, especially in a democratic one, interference in the domestic affairs, in the election processes of other states is absolutely inadmissible.

“The choice of the Belarusian nation does not threaten legal interests of the European states, the European Union or the United States. I hope they will be ready to understand that Belarus is a reliable partner first of all on the European continent. Belarus does not depend on Europe. We are a partner in the true sense of the word”.

We actively trade with each other. Business circles in Europe are highly interested in Belarus, while Belarusian business circles are interested in Europe. We are an important donor of the European security, starting with nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation issues and ending with conventional weapons and, let’s say, fight against international crime. Our merits and contribution are acknowledged. We are a most important transit country. Without Belarus Europe will not be complete and whole”, said the minister.

He wished the West at last understood its policy against Belarus was wrong. “The policy is wrong not because we don’t like it, but because it is ineffective. The policy has been pursued since 1996-1997. It brings no fruits to them or us. It needs to be changed. I wish it was understood after the election. We hope to a certain degree the election will contribute to it, as our partners should understand that for another five years they will have to work with leadership of a most important European country”, underscored Sergei Martynov.

  • Elections

    Pressure on Opposition Mounts as Election Nears
    Alexander Milinkevich
    MINSK -- State-run media in Belarus marked Constitution Day on Wednesday by praising authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and criticizing his opponents before Sunday's presidential election that the opposition fears will be rigged.

    Meanwhile, authorities detained a major opposition party leader, and two Polish members of an international monitoring mission were barred from the country, reflecting tension between the Belarussian government and the West over the vote.

    The main state-run newspaper, Sovietskaya Belorussiya, distributed a special free edition marking the anniversary of the adoption of a constitution shortly before Lukashenko's election in 1994 -- a document later altered to boost his power. "The state is us!" read a towering red headline. "The state is for the people, for human beings" said a message from Lukashenko, who is running after pushing through a referendum scrapping term limits.

    Opposition leaders have called for peaceful protests if the vote is considered to be fraudulent, but a government ban on rallies Sunday has potentially set the stage for violent confrontation.

    Lukashenko's challengers have been hobbled by arrests and other measures against supporters. The main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, said more than 300 opposition activists had been detained or otherwise punished and more than 50 remained behind bars.

    Anatoly Lebedko, leader of an opposition party that has thrown its weight behind Milinkevich, said he was detained outside his office and accused of resisting police and swearing.

    Lebedko, head of the United Civil Party, said the government was "neutralizing opposition leaders" ahead of the election. "The authorities are conducting a total cleansing," he said. He could be jailed for up to 15 days.

    In the latest government accusation that the West is seeking to push out Lukashenko, Sovietskaya Belorussiya suggested the opposition had help from "those who received a check abroad and an order to change our life."

    Lukashenko has vowed to prevent the kind of change that has brought opposition forces to power in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. "We will not let anyone destabilize the situation here," state news agency Belta quoted him as saying after claiming that foreign activists planned to interfere with the election. "We are in charge in our land."

    Rushailo: CIS observation mission has no serious claims to election campaign in Belarus
    Vladimir Rushailo
    The CIS observation mission has no serious claims to the election campaign in the Republic of Belarus, chief of the CIS observation mission, CIS executive secretary Vladimir Rushailo has told reporters today.

    According to Vladimir Rushailo, international observers representing the CIS have received positive impression from visiting the Belarusian regions. “For the first the observation mission was deployed two months ahead of the election rather than one month as it is used to be before. Thus we have been able to devote more time to the work with oblast and district election commissions. On March 14 we went to Mogilev, visited 3 town and 3 rural and also the oblast election commissions. Tomorrow we are going to Gomel. On Saturday, March 18, the CIS mission seniour officials will be working in Minsk and Minsk oblast, Vladimir Rushailo informed.

    He also informed that the CIS observers plan to monitor about 60 per cent of the polling stations in Belarus on March 19. Both long-term and short-term observers have been instructed to study the complaints from citizens about the preparation and conduct of the presidential elections.

    Today Vladimir Rushailo met with prosecutor general of Belarus Piotr Miklashevich to discuss the issues of law enforcement practice during the elections.

    Belarus bars U.S. camping gear ahead of polls
    There will be no camping out on te streets of Minsk on the 19th of March
    MINSK, March 15 (RIA Novosti) - Customs officers in Belarus refused to let in a batch of U.S. camping gear Wednesday, four days before the country's presidential elections.

    Belarusian law-enforcement authorities said the freight, worth an estimated $200,000 and containing tents, sleeping bags, warm clothing and footwear, could be used by the country's opposition for setting up street camps during the March 19 vote. They said the camps staged by Ukrainian opposition activists and supporters during the "orange revolution" in November 2004 had played a crucial role in deposing the incumbent government.

    In a separate development, an opposition activist was detained in the Belarusian capital Minsk Wednesday. Anatoly Lebedko, supporting Opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich in a campaign against the incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko, was placed in custody after promotional leaflets had been found in his car, police officials said.

    EU monitors denied entry to Belarus
    The EU is not being allowed in
    MINSK, Belarus, March 15 (UPI) -- Belarus has refused to grant visas to a delegation of European Union MPs, leading members to cancel a planned visit.

    Another group of monitors from the European security organization, the OSCE, was also denied entry to the country, reports the BBC.

    The head of the EU contingent said he feared the Belarus government, led by President Alexander Lukashenko, would crack down hard against protesters.

    Lukashenko seeks to secure his third term in office in Sunday's upcoming election. Early voting began Tuesday, a format opposition groups say will enable the president to rig the ballot.

    Members of the EU group were told that any further attempt to enter Belarussian territory would be considered a provocation and would be stopped at the border.

    The would-be observers will now monitor the election from Brussels and Warsaw and insist they will not incite people to protest.

    Milinkevich: Belarus is ripe for changes
    Aleksandr Milinkevich
    Minsk, 15 March. The Belarusian people are ripe for changes, opposition presidential candidate Aleksandr Milinkevich told reporters in Minsk on Wednesday.

    "We are becoming increasingly more cheerful while the authorities are getting increasingly gloomier," he said.

    According to Mr. Milinkevich, at the beginning of the election campaign, the united opposition forces had two problems: fear and apathy in society. "People's fear was fuelled by the authorities, whereas apathy was partly our fault," he said. "We did not display the strength of our unity."

    As the candidate said, more than 300 members of his team have been harassed by authorities in various ways since the presidential campaign began in January 2005, with 50 of them receiving jail sentences.

    Mr. Milinkevich reiterated that the united opposition forces were not plotting any revolution. "We advocate the peaceful and evolutionary development of Belarus," he said. "We do not lead people to the streets. It is the authorities who do so with their lies, lawlessness and falsifications, which have already been apparent to people. So if the authorities treat their people like that, the people have the right to take to the streets and say no to lies."

    Mr. Milinkevich noted that the authorities were planning provocative acts during the united opposition forces' rally scheduled to take place on Oktyabrskaya Square on the night of March 19, the main polling day. "But we still call on people to arrive at the square to defend the future of their children," he added.

    Opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko charged with petty hooliganism for allegedly speaking obscenities, to spend night in custody
    Anatoly Lebedko
    Minsk, 15 March. Anatoly Lebedko, a key member of opposition presidential candidate Aleksandr Milinkevich's campaign team, was charged with "petty hooliganism" under Article 156 of the Administrative Offenses Code on March 15 for allegedly speaking obscenities. He is likely to spend the night in the detention center on Okrestina Street in Minsk and stand trial on Thursday.

    Mr. Lebedko, leader of the United Civic Party (UCP) and chairman of the National Executive Committee (the opposition's shadow cabinet),

    was apprehended by police near the UCP office earlier in the day. As the politician told BelaPAN by telephone, police officers stopped his car at 3:05 p.m. and drove him to the Tsentralny district police department.

    According to him, in the car, he had legally printed information material about the candidate and copies of the newspaper Glotok Vozdukha (Jolt of Air). "Since it would be problematic to jail me for carrying printed material, they accused me of insulting police officers and swearing at them, which is certainly untrue," Mr. Lebedko said.

    Washington Condemns Opposition Arrests In Belarus

    The United States, as usual, doesn’t have anything nice to say about Belarus
    WASHINGTON, The United States today condemned the Belarusian government's arrest of 20 campaign workers for Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate in the March 19 presidential election.

    Among the detainees is Milinkevich's aide Anatol Lyabedzka, who was detained in Minsk on March 15.

    The arrests come just days before presidential elections are held, on March 19.

    In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli also criticized President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government for the seizure of newspapers in Belarus, and said such behavior is at odds with its responsibilities under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

    "All of these actions are clearly inconsistent with the government of Belarus' claims that it intends to hold a free and fair election this Sunday, and also inconsistent with its commitments to the OSCE – as a member of the OSCE."

    Ereli said the United States will be carefully watching the March 19 election, in which Lukashenka is running for a third term.

    Lukashenka's government is not allowing representatives of the European Parliament and the OSCE to monitor the vote.

    Russian diplomat calls for OSCE monitoring objectivity

    RIA Novosti
    Grigory Karasin
    European monitors might fail to make objective conclusions on the upcoming elections in Belarus and Ukraine, which means universal monitoring criteria should be adopted, a deputy Russian foreign minister told RIA Novosti Monday.

    Speaking about the upcoming monitoring mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), a body within the world's largest regional security grouping, Grigory Karasin said: "There are fears that the election verdicts offered by the ODIHR will again be ideologically tinted."

    The ODIHR, part of the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections, human rights, and democracy across the world, is currently forming a mission to cover the March 19 presidential poll in Belarus and the parliamentary vote in Ukraine on March 26.

    Russia and other countries have accused the organization of focusing on promoting democratic institutions in eastern Europe and ignoring abuses elsewhere, or applying what Russia calls "double standards" in its activities. The Russian Foreign Ministry has consistently called for the security grouping to undergo a thorough reform.

    "The most important criterion here remains objectivity and impartiality in assessing preparing for and the voting itself," the deputy minister said. "Otherwise, the institution of monitoring is discredited."

    Karasin, who pointed to a "geographic imbalance" in the monitoring body's activities, said the mission would comprise observers from other organizations, including NATO's Parliamentary Assembly, the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament, where Belarus was not represented. He added that observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose union of former Soviet republics including Ukraine and Belarus, had not been invited to join the international mission.

    The CIS, however, plans to send its own monitors to Belarus, as does Russia's Central Election Commission (CEC), and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Russia-Belarus Union State. Russian members of parliament, CEC officials, and members of the CIS Inter-parliamentary Assembly will also monitor the poll in Ukraine.

    Karasin said the OSCE's Needs Assessment Mission, which delivers preliminary findings and conclusions, had already criticized the political situation in the former Soviet republics and made "far-reaching" conclusions that influenced international public opinion.

    The diplomat said the Council of Europe, which aims to defend humans rights, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, had to adopt a convention to set out universal election criteria. He added Russia had already put forward a proposal to the organization, but the reaction had been unenthusiastic.

    However, according to the diplomat, the ODIHR is set to change its monitoring practices and report on them to the OSCE's next ministerial session in Brussels.

    Karasin also said Russia planned to hand out questionnaires at the OSCE concerning ODIHR activities. The surveys will also set out Russia's concerns and contain recommendations to improve the office's performance.

    Russian politicians have accused foreign organizations of supporting the incumbent Western-leaning Ukrainian government, which came to power following the "orange revolution" in early 2005, and officials have reported violations in the run-up to the elections in the country.

    On Thursday, the PACE president issued a statement charging Lukashenko with creating a climate of intimidation against opposition candidates, citing the arrest and trial of youth activists, and an assault on presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin.

    Belarusian officials dismissed the criticism, saying those were provocative acts staged on purpose. In an interview on Russian television Saturday, Lukashenko said he had ordered the authorities to take every measure to ensure opposition leaders' security and prevent further provocations.

    65,000 copies of false Sovetskaya Belorussiya newspaper seized at border
    Only official state sponsored and approved propaganda is allowed
    A joint operation by police and KGB officers resulted in seizing 65,000 copies of false Sovetskaya Belorussiya newspaper at the Belarusian-Russian border in Mstislavl district of Mogilev region on March 14.

    Representatives of the Belarusian state security committee told BelTA, the false copies used the logo of the most popular Belarusian periodical, its printing house information and even the articles had signatures of Sovetskaya Belorussiya reporters. Only a fine print notice on the final page reads the newspaper was printed in Smolensk. “All the copies are coloured ones and were printed using expensive high-quality newsprint”, specified the source.

    The source stressed, the information in the forged newspapers is false and biased and defiles the incumbent head of state.

    According to the source, the forged editions were transported by a minitruck by two Belarus citizens. One of them is deputy president of the Belarusian People’s Front Ales Mikhalevich. The citizens and the cargo were seized, an investigation is underway.

    Three Belarus Newspapers Shut Down Ahead of Presidential Poll

    Thousands of copies of the independent Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) newspapers stacked in its office waiting to be mailed directly to subscribers
    Three independent Belarusian newspapers have suspended publication after a printing house in Russia said it could no longer print them, the RFE/RL news website reported Tuesday.

    The newspapers — “Narodnaya volya,” “BDG Delovaya gazeta,” and “Tovarishch” - have been using a printing house in the Russian city of Smolensk after state printing houses in Belarus refused to print them.

    Anatoly Guchev, the head of the Smolensk printing plant, said printing contracts with the newspapers were cancelled on March 13 because of economic and political reasons.

    “Narodnaya volya” Deputy Editor Svetlana Kalinkina has accused Belarusian authorities of striking a deal with Russian authorities to pressure the printing house.

    Opposition groups have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of cracking down on the independent media on the eve of the country’s March 19 election, in which Lukashenko is running for a third term.

    Nordic Election Observers Expelled from Belarus
    Unofficial elections observers are seen as agitators in Belarus
    The Belarus government has ordered eight members of a Scandinavian team of unofficial election observers to leave, BBC News Online informed.

    The two Swedes and six Danes were part of a monitoring team sent by the unaccredited Danish group Silba.

    The Swedes, Thomas Ochman and Bjorn Stenstrom - members of Sweden's Liberal Party - were arrested in the western city of Grodno after visiting a polling station there.

    After several hours of interrogation, they were released and ordered to leave the country within 24 hours. The two, who are members of the Swedish Liberal Party, were accused of breaking a law against conducting opinion polls. They were in the former Soviet republic to monitor this Sunday’s presidential elections.

    Six Danish election observers from the Friends Across Borders NGO, which includes members of Silba and the Social Democratic Youth of Denmark (DSU) were also taken into custody Tuesday and ordered to leave Belarus.

    Michael Johnson, the DSU co-ordinator for Belarus, said the police confiscated computer equipment and questioned them for four hours at a police station.

    He said he was afraid the arrests showed how Mr Lukashenko's "repressive dictatorship" could crack down on opposition members after the elections.

    The Scandinavian team is not part of the official election monitoring mission of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has been invited by Belarus to cover the vote.

    Western leaders deny plot to influence destiny of Belarus
    Condoleezza Rice
    The US and the European Union would like little better than to contribute to ending what Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, has called "the last dictatorship in Europe".

    However, they insist they are limiting their efforts to promoting fair elections and democracy - and reject claims from Belarus and Russia that the west is plotting to remove Belarus president Aleksander Lukashenko in a Ukrainian-style Orange Revolution.

    In any case, western governments recognise that Belarus is much less open and susceptible to outside influence than Ukraine was in 2004, or even Georgia, which saw a similar popular revolt at the end of 2003. Pavol Demes, director of the central and eastern Europe operations of the German Marshall Fund, an independent US institution promoting democracy, says: "Belarus is far more isolated."

    Russian officials have said this isolation has not prevented western governments from interfering in Belarus's elections in favour of the anti-Lukashenko opposition. The foreign ministry recently questioned the impartiality of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Europe's main organiser of international election monitoring, in its preparations for the Belarus poll.

    In a Financial Times interview on Friday, Dan Fried, the US assistant secretary of state, said Washington was promoting democracy in general in the former Soviet Union and not trying to manipulate local political forces. "What we want to do is shine a spotlight on Belarus and what is going on to make sure Lukashenko knows he can't do things in the dark," he said.

    The US and the EU have issued strong statements urging Mr Lukashenko to hold fair elections, although they have little hope this will happen. They are also warning Mr Lukashenko and the opposition to avoid violence if the polls are followed by demonstrations.

    Mr Lukashenko has imposed tough controlson independent political parties, the media and non-governmental organisations. Foreign financial assistance is often channelled through secret routes, a tactic that inevitably provokes charges of conspiracy from the Lukashenko administration.

    The US last year budgeted nearly $9.8m (£5.7m) for the promotion of democracy out of $11.8m total assistance for Belarus and it is planning similar spending for 2006. The EU last year earmarked €9m (£6.2m) for promoting democracy and civil society, including €2m in new money.

    Mr Lukashenko is permitting the OSCE to deploy nearly 500 election observers, alongside 400 coming from Russia and its allies. However, independent exit polls are banned.

    Foreigners or no foreigners, Mr Lukashenko is leaving little to chance.

    Belarus: Little Hope For A Fair Contest As Early Voting Begins
    An activist sticks a poster of leading opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich onto a wall in Minsk
    Early voting for Belarus's presidential election began on March 14. The vote pits incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka against three candidates who have little, if any, chance of upsetting his bid for a third five-year term. In the end, the importance of the Belarusian vote may not be its outcome, but the public response it provokes. Will Belarusians take to the streets to protest an unfair election -- and how will the state respond?

    Not everyone is laboring under the pretense that Belarus's upcoming presidential vote will represent a legitimate political contest.

    Some Belarusians interviewed by RFE/RL's Belarus Service on Monday said they thought all candidates in the March 19 were being given equal opportunity to get their message across. Others weren't so sure:

    Woman: "It seems to me they get almost the same chance. They've all had equal time on the radio and everything else. We're already bored with all their talk."

    Man: "Lukashenka, as president, has better access to the press. But I think the others get a sufficient opportunity to express their thoughts."

    Woman: "No, no. It's not equal."

    Man: "It's not equal."

    Man: "Well, first of all, I think that the incumbent should temporarily resign his duties in order to run for president. Otherwise, all these rallies and the state press have no choice but to promote the president."

    Man: "At present, we can't say they're equal. We see that TV and radio are constantly promoting only one candidate -- the incumbent. The others don't have even 5 percent of the opportunities and possibilities that he does."

    Even so, the ruling regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears to be taking no chances when it comes to ensuring election success.

    Arresting Opposition Supporters

    Riot police on March 12 arrested around a dozen Ukrainian and Belarusian activists attending a Milinkevich rally in the capital Minsk.

    Hanna Horozhenko, a television reporter with Ukraine's Channel 5, was reporting live from the rally to news presenter Natalia Moseychuk when she and her cameraman were also apprehended by police. Horozhenko, who began with a straightforward report about the groups attending the rally, broke into horrified screams as she was accosted by police and forced into a law-enforcement van before her mobile phone was cut off.

    Horozhenko and her cameraman were released after several hours, following an intervention by the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk.

    But at least two of the Ukrainian activists have been given 10-day jail sentences, and Belarusian authorities have said they will deport any foreigners planning to take part in public rallies aimed at "destabilizing" Belarus ahead of the election.

    They have also accused the European Union and the United States of funding the opposition with the aim of fomenting public unrest.

    Brussels and Washington deny the claim. But they have already condemned the vote as unlikely to be free or fair, and are watching carefully the run-up to the election.

    'Abysmal' Pre-election Climate

    In a hearing on March 9, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a government agency, criticized as "abysmal" Belarus's pre-election climate, and warned Lukashenka to refrain from postelection violence against peaceful demonstrations.

    Among the hearing's speakers was Belarusian student activist Iryna Vidanova, who said the country's youth would play a "key role" in the elections.

    "In Belarus, young people are the most open-minded, tolerant, and pro-European segment of the population. It should come as no surprise that a December survey found that more than one-third of those supporting the democratic candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich were under 30. Belarus has a very young society, and many of these young people will vote for the first time. But 77 percent of young people doubt that the elections will be fair," Vidanova said.

    Arrests like those on March 12 underscore the lack of public trust in the upcoming vote. They were just the latest actions by Lukashenka's camp to silence opposition voices ahead of the ballot, which formally begins on March 14 with early voting.

    In recent weeks,scores of opposition supporters have been arrested, fined, or otherwise harassed. Authorities have cracked down on nonstate newspapers and censored television appearances by Lukashenka's political rivals.

    'Colored Revolutions'

    Following the sweep of "colored revolutions" that brought political transformation to Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, many had hoped Belarus would follow suit with a youth-driven "denim revolution" of its own.

    But many in Belarus concede the country -- which under Lukashenka has enjoyed economic and social stability -- is not yet ready for such an uprising.

    Svyatlana Aleksiyevich, a Belarusian writer and passionate commentator on Belarusian society, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service she has little hope this week's election will bring change to the country: "I'm afraid that it seems to me that we don't have the kind of internal strength to beat this situation. That is primarily because the state is strong -- and also brazen, let's put it like that. I've already said that [former Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma didn't shoot on his own people. [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov -- he did. So let's think, what kind of government do we have? For example, as far as I understood, at a recent large gathering, they said troops would have automatic rifles with which to defend this government. In fact, they're talking about defending a single person."

    Milinkevich has asked supporters to join him in central Minsk after polls close on March 19 -- not for a revolution, but simply to "defend their choice."

    But the country's top police official, Vladimir Naumov, has said all rallies will be banned on election day. He has vowed to use "all means within the law" to disperse protesters.

    Journalist of the “Channel five’ is arrested during live from Belorussia
    The Journalist of the “Channel five’, Ganna Gorozhenko, arrested while talking on the phone with news presenter Natalia Moseychuk during Live news on Channel 5.

    She was broadcasting from Minsk, where the meeting of the opposition leader Alyaxandr Milenkevich is held. Unknown persons towed her into a car, said journalist while still on the phone and the connection was broken. Ganna Gorozhenko and camera-man Leonid Leonidov are working in Minsk together. Channel 5 is investigating the reasons and details of the incident with the help of Ukrainian Ministery Of Internal Affairs.

    AUDIO (803 Kb, mp3)
    VIDEO (25 Mb, avi)

    5th Channel journalists denied entry to Belarus

    Channel 5 news has been having a heck of a time working in Belarus
    Belarusian border guards removed 5th Channel journalist Andriy Zhyhulin and cameraman Vitaliy Doroschenko from a Kyiv-Minsk train and sent them back to Ukraine without explaining the reason, the 5th Channel reported on Wednesday

    The reporters had all the necessary documents issued by the Belarusian Foreign Ministry for covering the presidential elections in Belarus, the channel said.

    According to Zhyhulin, at about midnight, when the train stopped at the Teryokha border station, Belarusian frontier guards confiscated the two Ukrainians' documents. The journalist and the cameraman were then taken off the train and brought to the border service facilities, where they were given their documents back and put onto a Minsk-Kyiv train.

    Kyiv: Activists demand release of colleagues arrested in Belarus
    Ukraine protests their countrymen’s treatment in Belarus
    Members of the Studentske Bratstvo organization pitched tents in front of the Belarusian embassy in Kyiv on Wednesday. They are demanding the release of their organization's members who were arrested in Belarus last weekend. They claim their fellow activists were beaten by Belarusian police and want those responsible to be brought to justice. They are also calling for an end to political repressions in Belarus.

    A spokesman told 5 Kanal that their demonstration will not end until their demands are met. On Thursday, they plan using drums and loudspeakers to ensure the people inside the embassy hear their demands.

    Moscow city parliament backs Belarusian nation
    Moscow is with Belarus during the time of the elections
    The Moscow city parliament upholds "the brotherly Belarusian nation in its decision to independently choose its destiny", reads a special statement adopted by the Moscow parliament on March 15. A copy of the document was submitted by the parliament's press service to BelTA's news office in Moscow.

    In particular, the statement reads, "March 19 will see a presidential election in the Republic of Belarus. Peoples of Belarus and Russia are united by special ties, based on many centuries of common statehood, history, culture, religion, and language, common victories and heroes. In recent years the Belarusian nation has greatly advanced in its social and economic development. Belarus was one of the states to initiate restoration of the single Union. One more time the 3rd All-Belarus People's Assembly confirmed importance of building up the union of Belarus and Russia".

    The statement pointed out special economic and cultural relations between Belarus and the Russian capital, which have been repeatedly accentuated by Belarus leadership and the Moscow mayor.

    Moscow MPs believe, "Certain outside forces try to destabilise the situation in Belarus". "The Moscow city parliament upholds the brotherly Belarusian nation in its decision to independently choose its destiny and raises voice against destabilisation of the situation in the Republic of Belarus, perfectly understanding that the head of Belarus will greatly influence the destiny of the Belarus-Russia union. The election results are of vital importance to Russia and its citizens, including Moscow. We call upon all foreign states to renounce interference in Belarus' internal affairs, for its nation to make its choice independently. The Moscow city parliament is convinced, relations of our brotherly nations after the election will remain cordial and friendly and our countries will continue along the path of the Union State creation", reads the document.

    Right For Choice
    Charter ’97 offers an overview of the first day of early voting
    On the first day of early voting numerous facts of pressure on voters have become known. Students and civil servants are forces to take part in early voting on a mass scale. Observers note that in this way the authorities have started preparation for mass rigging of the presidential elections results. “The authorities themselves push people to the square,” noted the single democratic candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich. The leader of the Belarusian democratic forces Alyaksandr Milinkevich and the candidate for presidency, former BSU rector Alyaksandr Kazulin called upon the Belarusians to come out to October Square in Minsk on March 19 at 8 p.m. to sum up the real results of the presidential elections.

    On the first day of early voting pressure on the workers of the joint stock company “Naftan” in Navapolatsk. The press service of the United Civil Party is informed about that by the workers of the plant. They are forces to take part in early voting, and buses arrive for organized transfers to polling stations. The administration intimidates its workers. A master of the 3rd producing unit told that nobody would be granted compensatory time-off until March 23 (is it to prevent them from going to Minsk?) Those who would vote earlier, would be marked in special lists.

    The director of the concern, Barouski, arrived to Navapolatsk, to supervise personally the early voting. He controls the organization of the early voting at “Polimir”. And in university hostel a building-service supervisor told that at least 90% of the students must take part in early voting.

    Workers of Brest enterprise informed that the deputy General Director on ideology of the joint stock company, Gladun, invited workers for a conversation. She told that there is a plan on early voting. At least 30-40% of workers are to take part in the early voting. Earlier Gladun was a member of Lukashenka’s initiative group.

    4-year students of the Belarusian State Economic University, management department, inform that the dean’s office forces students living in a hostel to take part in early voting. And promises to those who would vote earlier, an official leave for a week.

    A call from assistant professor of the Belarusian National Technical University Dzmitry Zhukau was received on the hot line. He told that in thee 15th building of the university, where architectural and construction department is situated, early voting started at 9 a.m. Students were driven to the polling station, and they formed a long queue.

    “I was shocked that the students were standing with glass eyes, frightened, not understanding what to do,” Zhukau said. “I expressed my disagreement with this situation, and told that forcing to vote is a violation of the law. Bur the dean of construction department Mr Yakimovich told that early voting is done for the good of the students”.

    As said by the professor, the rectorate resolved to announce unscheduled holidays from Friday to Monday, and let students from other cities go home. He cited the words of the BNTU prorector, who said: “We are dependant people, that is why we are to obey decisions of the authorities”.

    By the way, the students of the BNTU said that in the classes they are not only urged to vote by curators, but demanded to vote for the imminent president. And it is the direct pressure on voters.

    The BNTU professor Zhukau tells his name deliberately:

    “The Narodnaya Volya has published my open letter to Lidziya Yarmoshyna. I am categorically against the early voting. I cannot be intimidated by the calls to keep a low profile”.

    In Vitsebsk a campaign for early voting is underway at enterprises. The hot line of the United Civil Party is informed about that by workers of “Energosistemy” enterprise and a hospital of Chyhunachny district.

    At the meetings of labour collectives instructions to obligatory vote for Lukashenka before March 19 are heard. Otherwise the administration threatened to tear up contracts with stubborn workers and evict them from hostels.

    As the UCP member Uladzimir Buevich told, in the town of Lepel a general assembly for policemen and firemen is announced today. They were orally ordered to take part in early voting and give an account of that.

    Monitoring of Criminal Cases That Have Been Recently Brought against Public and Political Activists in Belarus

    The Human Rights Center "Viasna"
    Alexander Kozulin pondering the meaning of it all
    This monitoring contains information about the criminal cases that were brought for political motives during the presidential electoral campaign in Belarus in 2006. The electoral campaign is defined by a rapid growth of the number of criminal cases against activists of civil society, oppositional parties and non-governmental organizations.

    On 16 December 2005 the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus appointed the presidential election on 19 March 2006. The day before, on 15 December, the Chamber of Representatives almost unanimously adopted the law of the Republic of Belarus On introduction of amendments to some legal acts of the Republic of Belarus with the aim to increase punishment for actions against individuals and public security. These amendments included article 193 (organization or directing of the activity of public association or religious organization that attempts on the individuality, rights and duties of citizens), article 193.1 (illegal organization of activity of public association, religious organization or fund or participation in their activity) and article 369.1 (discrediting of the Republic of Belarus).

    These amendments were enforced on 1 January 2006 and the month after the first criminal case on one of the new articles was brought. The enforcement of the mentioned articles is a matter of grave concern for members of human rights organizations of Belarus. These articles violate the fundamental civil rights - the right to association, liberty of expression, the freedom of opinion and convictions. They contradict to the main international pacts on human rights that were ratified by the Republic of Belarus - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights.

    It’s worth mentioning that the authorities also actively use other articles of the Criminal Code for political purposes. It especially concerns youth activists. Often political graffiti were considered as hooliganism or malignant hooliganism. This gave the opportunity to detain the activists before trial and present them as petty criminals that have nothing to do with political activity.

    The growth of the number of the politically motivated criminal cases witnesses the enforcement of the political repressions in the country on the eve of the presidential election.

    Starting from December 2005 politically-motivated criminal cases were brought against 19 public and political activists. One of them was sentenced to 5 months of jail, seven are kept in custody and haven’t been tried yet.

    1. Criminal case against Aliaksandr Kazakou and Dzmitry Zubro

    The activists of the Zubr movement Aliaksandr Kazakou and Dzmitry Zubro were detained on 28 December 2005 for political graffiti (number 16 to call people to take part in the Day of Solidarity with political prisoners and families of the missing activists). The youngsters were kept for more than two days in the isolator of preliminary detention and were released on written undertaking not to leave the city. They are accused of violation of part 2 of article 363 of the Criminal Code (resistance to the police) and can be punished by up to five years of personal restraint or jail. The case has been passed to Minsk Tsentralny Borough Court and the legal proceedings have already started.

    2. Criminal case against Pavel Krasouski

    In the city of Zhodzina the case for violation of article 369 of the Criminal Code (public insult of duty officials) was brought against the youth activist Pavel Krasouski, member of the initiative group of Aliaksandr Milinkevich. The case was brought for publication of satirical charges of the city’s authorities in the bulletin Naziralnik that was edited by Pavel Krasouski. These charges were also found during the search of his flat in December 2005.

    At present Mr Krasouski is a suspect on the case and hasn’t received official charges yet. Article 369 of the CC provides corrective fine, up to two years of corrective labor, up to six months of arrest or up to three years of personal restraint as punishment.

    3. Criminal cases against Dzmitry Kaspiarovich

    The activist of the BPF Party Dzmitry Kaspiarovich was detained at night between 17 and 18 December 2006 on suspicion in the outrage of the state symbols. According to Mr Kaspiarovich, he really climbed the roof of Minsk City Executive Commitete and tried to remove the official flag, because he considers it Stalinist. The outrage of state symbols (article 370 of the CC) doesn’t provide imprisonment (the maximal punishment is 1 year of personal restraint). Besides, the persons accused on this article can’t be kept in custody before trial. However, Mr Kaspiarovich was accused of violation of part 1 of article 339 of the CC (hooliganism), according to which he could be sentenced to up to three years of jail. That’s why he was also detained before the trial.

    On 27 February Minsk Maskouski Borough Court sentenced Dzmitry Kaspiarovich to five months of jail. The activist didn’t take the blame and said he was ready to bear responsibility for outrage of the state symbols, not for hooliganism. He explained that he was well-bred and has never been a hooligan.

    The trial was attended by the chair of the BPF Party Vintsuk Viachorka. He called the case against Dzmitry Kaspiarovich an example of double standards in the Belarusian court practice. He reminded that in 1995 the high state official Ivan Tsitsiankou tore the state white-red-white flag. ‘I think that the reaction of the authorities is disproportional to the violation, in the case it really took place. What is even more important, the country mustn’t have double standards. I mean that in the case some people are allowed to tear the national flat was also the state flag in 1991-1995, put signatures on it and receive no punishment, what can we expect from the people who can’t bear the present artificial state symbols’, Mr Viachorka said.

    The court verdict was appealed at the college board of criminal cases of Minsk City Court.

    4. Criminal case against Artur Finkevich

    At night of 30 January in Minsk the police detained the activist of the youth organization Young Front for political graffiti. The criminal case was brought on part 2 of article 339 of the CC (malignant hooliganism) and the official charges were given on the same article. Now he can be sentenced to up to 6 years of jail.

    At present Artur Finkevich is kept in the investigative isolator. The fact that the investigative organs purposefully qualify political graffiti as hooliganism or malignant hooliganism is alarming. Such accusations allow for pre-trial detention and punishment with jail.

    5. Criminal case against Uladzimir Khomichau and Maksim Kokarau

    On 2 March it became known that Niasvizh District Board of Internal Affairs brought a criminal case on two activists of the Young Front for political graffiti. The case was brought on article 341 of the CC (defilement of buildings and corruption of property), that provides corrective labor, fine or up to three months of arrest as punishment. The case is on the stage of preliminary investigation. The youth activists were released under written undertakings not to leave Niasvizh.

    6. Criminal cases against Siarhei Biazmen and Siarhei Lashkevich

    On 2 March in Shchuchyn the police searched the flats of Vasil Biazmen and Siarhei Lashkevich, local activists of the headquarters of the candidate to the presidential position Aliaksandr Milinkevich. In both cases the police confiscated all information carriers, some printed editions and documents from personal archives. Siarhei Liashkevich was kept in the investigative isolator of Shchuchyn for several days. His mother, Iryna Liashkevich, was informed that her son was detained for 72 hours. According to the preliminary version of the investigation, he is suspected of preparation the mass actions that rudely violate the public order. The criminal case on part 3 of article 293 of the CC (mass riot) has been brought against him. However, the police don’t tell which actions they qualify as mass riot. We should remind that according to the latest amendments to the Criminal Code part 3 of article 293 (training or other preparation of persons to participation in mass riot, or financing and other material provision of such activity) provides up to six months of arrest or up to 3 years of personal restraint as punishment.

    7. Criminal cases against Aliaksandr Kazulin, candidate to the presidential position of the Republic of Belarus

    These cases were mentioned in the appeal of the General Procurator’s Office. One of them was brought in connection with the incident of 17 February, the day of registration of the candidates to the presidential position. That day Mr Milinkevich and his adherents burst into the National Press Center where his press-conference was appointed. ‘Kazulin and his companions insulted and used physical violence against the guards of the concert hall Minsk and a policeman’, -- stated the procurator’s office.

    As a result, on 1 March there was brought a criminal case on part 2 of article 339 of the Criminal Code (malignant hooliganism) with Aliaksandr Kazulin as suspect. The maximal punishment is 6 years of jail.

    The second case was brought in connection with Kazulin’s behavior at the police station after his beating and detention on 2 March, when he with a group of adherents tried to pay a visit to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly that was organized by the authorities. At the police station he smashed a portrait of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. As a result a criminal case on part 1 of article 339 of the CC (hooliganism) was brought. The maximal punishment is 3 years of jail.

    The cases are on the state of the preliminary investigation. The official charges haven’t been given yet.

    It’s worth mentioning that on 2 March, during the attempt to register as a delegate to the so-called All-Belarusian Assembly Aliaksandr Kazulin was violently beaten by representatives of secret services and the commandant of a special police brigade Dzmitry Paulichenka. After the beating Mr Kazulin was detained and taken to Minsk Kastrychnitski Borough Board of Internal Affairs. Unknown persons shot in the car that followed the police car with Kazulin inside. Outside Minsk Kastrychnitski BBIA persons in plain clothes assaulted activists of Kazulin’s electoral headquarters and journalists. Dozens of them received bodily injures. The correspondent of Komsomolskaya Pravda b Belarusi Aleh Uhlevich is still in hospital with broken nose.
    The full text of this article with more examples can be found here

  • Economics

    Belarus Economy Greased by Oil
    Heavy-duty trucks made by BelAZ, like this dump truck with a horsepower of 3,000, are one of Belarus' main exports.
    In the run-up to Sunday's presidential elections, Belarussian television has been airing a documentary series called "15" on the fates of all 15 former Soviet republics since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

    "As you can imagine, we have it the best," Diana Kalenik, 25, said with a short chuckle. Nonetheless, Kalenik, a marketing manager and economics post-graduate student in Minsk, said that most people she knew were far from dissatisfied with their financial situation, no matter what their political views.

    The majority of the people seem either to support President Alexander Lukashenko or to be resigned to his continued authoritarian, Soviet-style rule. The opposition, which has been obstructed and suppressed, at times brutally, campaigns for a more democratic, Western-oriented Belarus.

    Under Lukashenko, salaries and pensions have risen steadily and are paid on time. "People don't complain. As a whole, life would be OK, if I weren't looking to buy an apartment," Kalenik said, adding that prices for a one-bedroom apartment in Minsk were around $60,000 and beyond reach for most people.

    Belarus gives the outward appearance of stability and modest prosperity, without the extreme poverty or excessive wealth seen in Russia. The state seemingly is able to meet the basic needs of its 10 million people, despite the inefficiency of most Belarussian industry, where increases in productivity and profitability far way behind the rises in wages and pensions.

    The answer to the seeming enigma of Belarus' economy lies close at hand.

    "How do we live? It's Russia that loves us so strongly, and we are all in a flutter and are stifled by that love," said Stanislav Bogdankevich, president of the National Bank of Belarus from 1991 to 1995.

    Through supplying Belarus with the cheapest gas in the CIS, at about $47 per 1,000 cubic meters and crude oil at prices well below market level, Russia subsidizes its most loyal ally to the tune of more than $4 billion per year, Bogdankevich said by telephone from Minsk, citing official figures and estimates made by the International Monetary Fund.

    A major oil-refining center for Russia since Soviet times, Belarus may have generated up to $3 billion in profits last year by processing Russian crude and selling the petroleum products in Europe and the United States at world market prices, according to calculations by Moscow-based Trust investment bank.

    The estimated $3 billion was one-tenth of the country's official gross domestic product in 2005. Also, the taxes paid by the two Belarussian refineries, Mozyr and Naftan, constituted one-third of the country's tax revenues last year, said Bogdankevich.

    In addition, Russia provides Belarussian producers with a large export market unencumbered by customs fees, thanks to a customs union between the two countries.

    The arrangement is not completely altruistic on Russia's part, said Yevgeny Nadorshin, an economist with Trust. "It would not be quite right to say that Russia supports Belarus. Russia co-exists with Belarus," he said.

    "For Russia, Belarus provides a way to reach European borders, bypassing undependable neighbors like the Baltic states and now Ukraine," he said. Apart from Kaliningrad and its northwestern regions, Russia has little direct land access to European markets, a point that became painfully obvious during the gas conflict with Ukraine early this year.

    133 Companies

    For economists, however, there are worrying signs for Belarus.

    "When economists look at the country on paper as they do other countries, they see what appear to be warning signs of a crisis or collapse. Yet the economy has proved itself to be somewhat resilient," said John Litwack, chief economist at the World Bank in Moscow.

    On the one hand, Belarus has shown improvement in all the main macroeconomic indicators. Its GDP grew by an average of 7.5 percent annually over the last five years to reach $30 billion in 2005, industrial output doubled in two years to about $28 billion last year, and exports, labor productivity and energy efficiency have all shown positive trends, according to official Belarussian figures.

    The country's economic strength, however, is highly concentrated in a small number of companies, whose tax payments to the federal budget are used to subsidize loss-making enterprises.

    More than half of Belarus' exports are supplied by just 20 companies; when looking at Belarus' exports outside of the CIS, those same companies account for 80 percent, according to a World Bank economic memorandum on Belarus published in June 2005.

    Bogdankevich added that the whole of Belarus' GDP is propped up by 133 companies, which employ about 1 million people, or one-tenth of the country's population.

    "That leaves 60 percent of Belarus' factories as either operating on very low profit margins or loss-making," he said. The financial gaps are then plugged by the country's 30 commercial banks, all of which extend credit lines for loss-making enterprises on orders from Lukashenko, Bogdankevich said.

    "It's an absurd system. But we exist. And if the democrats come, we'll fall in the mud," he said, explaining that, in his opinion, the dismantling of the system would be more traumatic than keeping the status quo.

    If estimates by the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are correct, however, Belarus' system will need to change, and soon.

    Already wage increases have grown at double the rate of increase in domestic production, while current levels of pensions are "a major fiscal risk" since the country will not be able to support them in the future, the World Bank said in its June report.

    The average pension stands at $107, up from $98 at the end of 2005. The average monthly wage is officially $214, compared to $220 in Ukraine and $302 in Russia, where the cost of living is considerably higher. The Belarussian ruble has been pegged to the U.S. dollar for the last three years at 2,150 rubles to the dollar. Given inflation, Bogdankevich said, real income has dropped, even as paychecks have gotten fatter.

    Low profits and relatively high wages make the country's businesses unattractive for foreign investors, and the internal business climate further discourages private and foreign companies, the report said.

    In 2005, the Belarussian government expected a total of $295 million in fixed-capital foreign investment, but the actual amount was $174.4 million -- a 5 percent drop from 2004 -- and included foreign loans, Interfax reported Monday, citing the Belarussian Economy Ministry.

    According to IMF figures, less than one-fifth of Belarus' enterprises are privately owned, and the percentage of small and medium-sized businesses stands at 8 percent.

    Hanging the responsibility for Belarus' revenues on a narrow circle of companies makes the Belarussian economy easier to control but more vulnerable to external market changes, Nadorshin said.

    Last year, the volume of Belarussian exports to Russia dropped for the first time in at least five years, falling 12 percent to $5.7 billion, according to the Russian State Statistics Service. Nadorshin said it was not clear how Belarus would react to seeing its share of the Russian market for food products and household goods, such as refrigerators and television sets, decline amid increased competition, with Minsk showing little initiative to diversify the economy.

    Trucks for Export

    In part because of the barriers to foreign and private investment, Belarussian producers have little motivation to try to compete more effectively and win back their export share, Litwack said.

    A case in point is one of Belarus' main exports, BelAZ heavy-duty trucks.

    Peter Hambro, the chief executive of Peter Hambro Mining, one of Russia's top four gold miners, said the trucks had attracted many metals and mining clients throughout Russia, yet the Belarussian maker has made virtually no effort to expand sales outside of the CIS, apart from scoring the odd contract with former communist ally nations such as Vietnam.

    "We rate BelAZ because they are cheaper than Caterpillar and readily available," Hambro said. The truck maker could take advantage of a worldwide shortage of machinery in the mining industry to enter Western markets, but "they don't have an international outlook," he said.

    BelAZ sales representatives would not comment, and calls to the marketing and main information departments of the Zhodino-based company went unanswered.

    A former manager at MAZ, a maker of buses and construction equipment, explained that one factor inhibiting the expansion of Belarussian manufacturers into new markets was that under the law, the officials who run these state companies carry personal responsibility for fulfilling foreign contracts and repaying loans. "An inability to pay back loans leads to imprisonment," the former manager said on condition of anonymity.

    Slow business expansion is characteristic of states where most enterprises are state-owned and managed, Trust's Nadorshin said.

    International financial institutions such as the World Bank, the EBRD, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the IMF have all noted difficulty in operating in Belarus, despite some initial successes.

    "The first impression when you get there is: We can really do something. The government seems very interested in cooperating, easy to talk to and launch new projects with. But sometimes the dialogue reaches a certain stage and goes no further," Litwack said. "The problem was usually getting approval at the very highest level."

    The World Bank reports little involvement in Belarus other than analytical and advisory work, and a few programs that deal with environmental problems, including the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.

    A Good Deal for Oil Firms

    Belarus is of far greater interest for Russian oil firms, thanks to export duties Moscow imposes on crude oil going to all other countries.

    With Russia's oil export duty set to rise again this April, by $25.60 per ton to a record high of $186.40 per ton, sending crude to Belarus tariff-free for processing makes much more economic sense than sending it to Ukraine or Europe, said Oleg Kirsanov, the chief editor of Argus Media in Russia, formerly Petroleum Argus.

    "In Russia, there's great competition among companies to send their crude to Belarus; it's seen as very profitable," said Alexander Yershov, an analyst with Argus Media, an industry analytical and information agency.

    While Ukraine has six oil refineries to Belarus' two, the volume of crude sent to Ukraine for refining dropped by 28 percent in 2005 to 14.5 million tons. Meanwhile, crude flowing into Belarus increased by 3 percent last year to reach 20.3 million tons, Kirsanov said.

    Earlier this week. LUKoil CEO Vagit Alekperov called for greater investment in oil-refining technology in Russia, saying the country had built only one oil-refining plant since 1966 and risked becoming an importer of petroleum products as early as 2009.

    The export duty exemption allows Belarus to pay Russian oil producers below market price for the crude -- less than $40 per barrel according to Argus. The crude is refined into petroleum products in Belarus and then sold through tenders and international oil traders at market prices, Kirsanov said.

    According to Trust investment bank, citing official figures, the average price per barrel paid by Belarus last year was a little under $30 per barrel, while the average global price for Russia's Urals blend hit $50.50 per barrel.

    Taking into account processing costs and a moderate level of domestic oil consumption, Belarus potentially earned close to $3 billion in oil sales abroad, Naroshkin said.

    Furthermore, some Russian oil majors choose to refine crude in Belarus and export to Europe from there, because the export duties on petroleum products in Belarus often lag behind those imposed by Russia, Argus' Yershov said. "They are supposed to be the same, but when Russia hikes its rates, it takes a while for Belarus to follow," he said.

    Completely state-managed through its oil and chemistry concern Belneftekhim, the Belarussian oil industry benefits from the country's proximity to Baltic ports and the high quality of its refining at the relatively modern Mozyr and Naftan refineries, Kirsanov said.

    On its web site, the Belarussian Embassy in Washington even offers ways for U.S. companies to purchase Belarussian petroleum products via the Internet.

    Belarus' economic partnership with Russia has not been without its hiccups.

    In January 2004, Gazprom stopped shipping gas to Belarus after Minsk refused to lift the price per 1,000 cubic meters from $30 to $50, the price paid by domestic Russian consumers. The current price of $46.63 was finally agreed upon only after Gazprom temporarily stopped using Belarus as a transit route for its European gas clients in February of that year. Less than one-fifth of Gazprom's European gas supplies go through Belarus.

    Gazprom owns one of the two pipes in the Yamal-Evropa pipeline that transits gas to Europe. Russia is also in talks to set up a joint venture to manage Beltransgaz, which owns the rest of Belarus' pipeline network.

    Who is Alexander Lukashenka?

    A biography from
    A.G. Lukashenka
    Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko (Russian: Александр Григорьевич Лукашенко, Belarusian: Алякса́ндар Рыго́равіч Лукашэ́нка, Aljaksandar Ryhoravič Łukašenka) was born on 30 August 1954. He is the current President of Belarus.

    Lukashenko was born in the village of Kopys in the Vitebsk voblast of what was then the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. He graduated from the Mogilev Teaching Institute in 1975 Communist League), leading a Komsomol chapter in Mogilev from 1977-1978. After leaving the army, he became the deputy chairman of a collective farm in 1982 and in 1985 was promoted to the post of director of the Gorodets state farm and construction materials plant in the Shklov district.

    In 1990, Lukashenko was elected as a Deputy in the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus, his first step as a politician. He founded a faction called Communists for Democracy, which advocated a democratic Soviet Union run on communist principles. He claims to have been the only deputy of the Belarusian parliament who voted against ratification of the December 1991 agreement that dissolved the Soviet Union and set up the Commonwealth of Independent States in its place. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR, Lukashenko briefly returned to management of a state farm.

    Having acquired a reputation as an eloquent opponent of corruption, Lukashenko was elected in 1993 to serve as the chairman of the anti-corruption committee of the Belarusian parliament. Although he maintained close links to leftist Communist factions, he fell out of favor with much of the Belarusian Communist Party for attacks on the corruption and privileges of the Communist nomenclature. In late 1993, he accused 70 senior government officials, including Stanislav Shushkevich, the speaker of the parliament and the acting president, of corruption and stealing state funds for personal purposes. Lukashenko's accusations forced a vote of confidence that Shushkevich lost. Later the accusations against Shushkevich proved to be without merit.

    A new Belarusian constitution enacted in early 1994 paved the way for Belarus' first democratic presidential elections, held in July 1994. Six candidates stood, including Lukashenko, who campaigned as an independent on a populist platform of 'defeating the mafia'. Shushkevich and Vyacheslav Kebich also ran, with the latter regarded as the clear favorite. Lukashenko won 45% of the vote against 15% for Kebich and only 10% for Shushkevich. A second round was held on July 10 in which Lukashenko won over 80% of the vote.

    Please see also:

    Lukashenko's first term as president
    Lukashenko's second term as president

    Belarus: Prominent Writer Sees Little Potential For Change
    Svyatlana Aleksiyevich
    Svyatlana Aleksiyevich was born to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother in 1948 in Ivano-Frankivsk (Ukraine), where her father served as a Soviet Army officer. After her father was released from military service, the family moved to Belarus. Aleksiyevich graduated from the journalism faculty of Belarusian State University in Minsk in 1972. She is the author of five books written in Russian: "The War's Unwomanly Face" (1985), "Last Witnesses" (1985), "Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War" (1989), "Enchanted By Death" (1993), "Chornobyl Prayer: Chronicle Of The Future" (1997), and "The Wondrous Deer Of The Eternal Hunt" (2001). Aleksiyevich is among the best-known Belarusian authors abroad. Her books have been published in more than 20 countries. RFE/RL's Belarus Service held an online news conference on March 8, with people from all across Belarus asking Svyatlana Aleksiyevich questions. The full transcript of the conference can be read here. Below are translated excerpts.

    Question: Speaking frankly, I have never belonged to the admirers of your writings. Perhaps it is because you and your books emit negative energy toward all things Belarusian, toward Belarus. Anyway, what are your reasons for considering yourself a Belarusian writer?

    Svyatlana Aleksiyevich: I have often heard such an opinion, particularly from young people. I think [this opinion] stems from a feeling of weakness, from the unwillingness to understand in what world we are currently living.

    Why do I write in Russian? Because I am creating a chronicle of utopia. [This] utopia spoke Russian. All this huge country, all this horrible experiment, all this big lie -- its language was Russia. Therefore it would not be close to the historical truth if I wrote my chronicle in Belarusian.

    Why do I consider myself a Belarusian writer? You know, I consider myself a writer in general. I do not deny that I am a Belarusian writer. I do not deny that I am a citizen of the world. I do not deny that I have been brought up mostly on Russian culture, Russian ideas. For example, I could not have written my Chornobyl book without [Nikolai] Fedorov, [Fyodor] Dostoevsky, [Konstantin] Tsiolkovsky.

    The formulation of the question is rather strange for the present day, I would even say -- outdated. I have lived for 2 1/2 years in Paris. It's sufficient to live there for just one month in order to see that 40 percent of children going to kindergartens are either black or [of Asian origin]. And 60 percent of children going to schools are either black or [of Asian origin]. There has already been such a term in use in Germany as "constitutional patriotism." That is, we see that in the future Europe will become a place where perhaps half or one-third of Berlin's population will consist of people of totally different cultures -- there will be Arab and Chinese quarters. This is already a fact of life, a fact of the future.

    We are a belated nation. We are still resolving problems of the past. And we put forward the language problem as the most important. It is an important problem for us, indeed, but I want to repeat: The pattern of the past is becoming less and less suitable for projecting the pattern of our future life. The future is absolutely unpredictable. I have talked with German and French intellectuals. They did not suspect until the last riots in France that there is no French France any longer. The country is different. And the future is sort of different, too.

    Question: What is your prognosis regarding the upcoming election? Does Belarus have a chance to get a new president this spring?

    Aleksiyevich: I'd like our life to change. [I'd like] our country and people to get some other symbol, some other figure, to open other horizons for us in order to enter, as they say nowadays, the civilized world. But I'm afraid that we lack the kind of inner strength to beat this situation, primarily because the authorities are strong -- and also brazen, let's put it like that.

    [Former Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma did not shoot on his own people. But [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov did. So let's think -- what kind of government do we have? For example, as far as I understood, at a recent big gathering [the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk on March 2-3] they spoke about defending the current government with submachine guns. In fact, to defend a single person...

    Of course, I'd like to hope [for the better], but I don't see grounds for optimism today, because there is one powerful argument at work. One needs to do justice to [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka.

    I realize that dictators are in principle uneducated. And [they are] in principle uncultured. Otherwise, they would not be dictators. But thanks to his intuition, he [Lukashenka] has put a powerful social factor into action.

    A large percentage of people in this society agree with what is taking place in the country. It means that they can earn a living somewhere, village children can be schooled somewhere, there is some quota for them in institutions of higher learning, there is still some education and health care free of charge. That is, he has brought the resources of socialism into operation. This is exactly what has been lost in neighboring countries -- in them people were hurled directly from war-style socialism into a wild [free] market, and they have felt themselves lonely and confused. Lukashenka has intuitively mixed up some things. It cannot be denied that he has brought into operation many factors that are important during a transition from socialism to capitalism. I think that today he is a [prominent] figure for the majority of people. [But] everybody realizes that he is a transitory figure. Everybody has already realized this [on the threshold of his] third term. But I think that he has time yet -- psychological time in the minds of a part of the population in our country. And I'm afraid that there will be no changes for the time being.

    Question: What are the main problems of today's Belarusian literature?

    Aleksiyevich: The problem of Belarusian literature is that there is no Belarusian literature. Today, we have a confused, depressed society and confused readers. Some young writers are still trying to say something but this is more like playing literary games or illustrating national ideas. The writers of older generations have fallen silent for good. The tools that were used during the previous confrontation, in the Soviet era, do not work today, because today the confrontation has shifted toward its existential aspect. Our historical time has been stopped. One can say that Belarus is a museum. In Ukraine you can see completely different processes. There is movement there. Our time has been stopped by the authorities.

    Question: In your opinion, why does Lukashenka hate so much the Belarusian language and culture?

    Aleksiyevich: I have already said that dictators are in principle uncultured people, this is their footing.... Lukashenka is a man from the Soviet times, molded solidly by the Soviet era, a man with a strong desire for power, who of course wants to remain in history. But he has already used up his potential. He has nothing to move forward with.

    As for adopting something new, embracing the Belarusian [national] idea, surrounding himself with some intellectuals or people with ideas about the future -- he has no proper antennas any longer. I think he has already begun to move in a circle, and he has begun to lead the nation in a circular fashion. It is understandable why. He does not have any other possibilities any longer. Because he is confined to his time and, I would say, his loneliness.

    The Elections for Belarusian President will be held this Sunday, March 19, 2006