News, opinion, sports and culture E-mail:

Today's Headlines for:
Friday, December 22, 2006

Religion Special, Gas deal gets closer, EU and Canadian sanctions, How great is Russia really? Blogs, Opinion and Sport

From the Top#158

Alexander Lukashenko Meets with Members of the Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church

From: The office of the president and Belta
Many-sided activities of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, its high prestige, interaction with other historically traditional confessions are important factors in preserving political and social stability on the Belarusian land. A statement to this effect has been made by President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko at his meeting with the members of the Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church.

The cooperation between the State and the Belarusian Orthodox Church has been dynamically developing in many areas. The head of state noted that the cooperation is becoming increasingly important for the Belarusian people. “The work we have been doing together has become systematic”, Alexander Lukashenko said.

According to him, the state renders substantial assistance to the Church to help it develop its material and technical base. For many years the financial assistance has been given to the Minsk theological academy and seminary. In 2006, more than Br5 billion was channeled into the reconstruction of the educational buildings. Some Br2,5 billion will be assigned next year.

Alexander Lukashenko noted that the state assists the Church in constructing a theological and educational center in Minsk. More than Br1,5 billion was allocated for these purposes in 2006. In 2007 the sum will total Br6 billion.

Another unique temple – Temple-Monument in honour of All Saints - is under construction in Minsk. “It will become the symbol of spirituality of the native land, its cultural and heroic traditions”, the Belarusian leader is convinced.

The Belarusian authorities expect from the country’s Orthodox Church to put more efforts in the social sphere. The president believes that the resources of the Church are far from being exhausted. The head of state noted the importance of the fact that the Church has been involved in the social service to the society. This means patriotic upbringing of the young generation, social care, culture, sport, charity. Alexander Lukashenko noted that the Church also helps convicts return to normal life.

Another important field of activities of the Belarusian Orthodox Church is spiritual and moral revitalization of the Belarusian society. Alexander Lukashenko believes that the state and the Church together can do a lot for the benefit of the Belarusian people.

“Today people expect concrete deeds from us, real help in solving their vital problems. We cannot and have no right to betray their trust,” the Belarusian leader said.

n the early 2007 the Belarusian Orthodox Church plans to hold a roundtable meeting on demographic security. Representatives of the state bodies of authority, ministries and departments are expected to attend the meeting, Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk, Exarch of all Belarus Filaret stated today in the course of the meeting between Alexander Lukashenko and members of the Synod of the Belarusian Orthodox Church

Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk, Exarch of all Belarus Filaret valued highly the policy pursued by the head of state aimed to support maternity and childhood. He called measures to enhance responsibility of parents for neglected children well-timed.

According to Metropolitan Filaret, living standards do not exert influence on the birth rate. “A spiritual crisis is the main reason of the demographic decline”, he said. He noted with regret that the new generation is a generation of consumers and children often become a burden. Family values have been depreciated. Civil marriages have become popular. Moreover, Metropolitan Filaret drew attention to the problem of abortions.

It is necessary to take measures to morally improve the information area of Belarus and to orient educational system towards family values, Metropolitan Filaret underlined.

The president of Belarus stated however that he supports pragmatism in the relations between the church and the state. Alexander Lukashenko stressed the importance of refraining from taking rash steps in this field. The president noted, it is possible to start teaching theology in all higher educational establishments, build a lot of temples, however, it can cause a negative reaction of the people.

The head of state added, within a decade in the religious sphere Belarus managed to travel a way other countries would need centuries to go.

Belarus is a country with many denominations, therefore the domestic policy is aimed at supporting the toleration, peace and accord between believers of different confessions. "The Belarusian people will always remember and value the prominent role the Orthodox Church played in the country’s history, the Orthodoxy’s beneficial effect on the formation of spiritual and cultural traditions.

"The Orthodox Church has always been part of the nation, stabilised the society, helped prevent people from sinning, given hope and consolation in troublesome times, and united the nation in the face of a danger. The Orthodox Church started enlightenment, book printing and many other things, noted Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus, Russia still split on gas price

From: Earth News
Russia and Belarus continue to haggle over the value of Beltranshaz and the price of Russian gas supplies.

Belarusian Finance Minister Mikalay Korbut said in Minsk Wednesday that ABN Amro had valued the country's state-run gas supply and transit company at more than $5 billion, rejecting Russia's comments the company was worth $3 billion to $4 billion.

This is not true, the minimal value is more than $5 billion, he told reporters. The comments were reported by Interfax-Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Belarusian First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka said the price of Russian gas will be below $130 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Interfax-Ukraine said Beltranshaz network includes 4,321 miles of pipelines, six compressor stations and 224 gas-distribution stations. It also runs two underground gas storage facilities at Asipovichskaye and Prybuhskaye and 357 miles of the Belarusian stretch of the Yamal-Europe transcontinental gas pipeline, the news agency said.

Separately, the Belarusian news agency Belapan quoted Korbut as saying officials from the two countries were holding talks on splitting in half revenue from export duty on products made from Russian crude oil.

Russia has authorized imposing export duty on Russian crude supplied to Belarusian refineries, a move that may lower Belarus's gross domestic product by 8 percent, according to Belapan.

Gazprom told Belarus that it would raise its rates from $47 per 1,000 cu. m. to $200. This is surprising because the two countries are close allies and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed Europe's last dictator, has said he favors an eventual merger of his country with Russia. Gazprom has increased rates for former Soviet republics, which until recently had received gas at well below market rates. Most of the European Union, which relies on Russia for more than 25 percent of its natural gas needs, pays more than $200 per 1,000 cu. m.

Control of the pipelines, or at least a significant stake in them, would give Russian gas companies immense leverage when dealing with its clients in Europe and elsewhere.

Minsk and Moscow have 10 days left to settle their gas problems

From: Itar Tass
Minsk and Moscow have ten days left before the end of the year to agree on the cost of gas and on the petroleum products export tariffs. The summit talks were held on Friday, but it is still not clear how much the republic will have to pay for Russian gas next year. Unknown also are the time limits for the signing of the corresponding contracts. The sides also have to determine the export tariffs for petroleum products.

Most experts believe no compromise was found on the terms of Russian gas deliveries to the Belarus Republic. The Belarus side will presumably submit its version of an agreement on an inter-budget distribution of export tariffs for Belarus petroleum products at a meeting of the Commission on Tariff and Non-Tariff Regulation, which is to take place on Friday.

It was initially planned to share the export tariffs – 85 per cent to the budget of Russia and 15 per cent – to the budget of the Belarus Republic. The latter would have liked to amend the correlation in its favour. Officials of Belarus ministries and other institutions note that they are working on ways to settle the problem. Belarus analysts unanimously believe “it will be a shock for the Belarus economy” if Russia were to clamp down, as it had promised, export tariffs on deliveries of petroleum and to considerably increase the cost of gas (from the present-day 46.68 U.S. dollars per thousand cubic metres). “The boosting of the cost of petroleum will mean a loss of 2-2.5 billion U.S. dollars for the Belarus side or of 6-8 per cent of the Gross National Product. This is painful, but not deadly. The cost of gas can be expected to grow by one hundred U.S. dollars. This will decrease the GNP by approximately two billion U.S. dollars. Combined, the higher cost of gas and oil will add up to 4-4.5 billion U.S. dollars or 12-13 per cent of the GNP,” eminent Belarus economist Leonid Zlotnikov claims.

The cost of gas for Belarus could be cut down if the republic were to sell the “Beltransgaz” controlling block of shares on “Gazprom” terms. However, President Alexander Lukashenko has warned that “Beltransgaz” would not be sold dirt cheap and indicated the market price of 10-17 billion U.S. dollars. The cost of “Beltransgaz”, independently estimated by the ABN AMRO Bank, has still not been disclosed.

U.S. won't recognize any referendum on uniting Belarus and Russia

From: Kiev Post and Ria Novosti
A proposed referendum that would move Belarus and Russia closer to uniting would be undemocratic, given Belarus' authoritarian government, the U.S. ambassador to this tightly controlled ex-Soviet republic said Tuesday.

Karen Stewart said that the United States would not recognize any such vote.

"Given today's situation in Belarus, no referendum can be held that would convince us that this was the free will of the Belarusian people," she told reporters.

Despite years of pronouncements and on-again, off-again talks, the proposed Russia-Belarus Union remains largely on paper. Belarus' authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has rejected a Kremlin-proposed merger plan and negotiations on creating a single currency have stalled.

Earlier Tuesday, Pavel Borodin, the head of the proposed union, called for holding a referendum on uniting the two countries, saying 2007 would be "decisive for the building of the unified state."

Stewart repeated the position shared in Washington and other Western capitals that accused Russia of using its vast energy resources as a weapon.

"In our dialogue with Russia, we continue to push our point of view that a democratic Belarus would be a better neighbor and a better friend both for Russia and for us," she said.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Thursday it is surprised by the statements of Karen Stewart, the U.S. ambassador in Minsk, on Russian-Belarusian relations.

While commenting on Russia's move to introduce duties on crude supplies for Belarusian refineries from 2007 and the proposal to raise the cost of Russian natural gas for Belarus by 300%, Stewart said energy should not be used as a weapon in interstate relations.

"We believe such statements are incorrect, and in essence distort reality," the ministry said, adding that bilateral talks on energy cooperation are underway.

The ministry said it hopes American representatives will in the future make more "weighted" statements while being guided by real facts.

Belarus, which is building a Union State with Russia, today pays a discounted rate of $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas, but Russian energy giant Gazprom [RTS: GAZP] is now seeking a price of $200 or a controlling stake in the pipeline company Beltransgaz.

Russia has sought to prevent losses being inflicted on its budget from crude supplies to its ex-Soviet neighbor. Belarus refines oil and re-exports it to third countries, paying no taxes to the Russian budget.

EU Raises Tariffs on Belarus in Protest Over Rights Violations

From: Bloomburg
European Union governments approved trade sanctions on Belarus because of labor-rights violations, denying tariff benefits for 400 million euros ($529 million) of Belarusian exports including chemicals and textiles.

The EU suspended import-duty reductions for Belarus to protest infractions such as interference in trade unions. The former Soviet republic led by President Alexander Lukashenko is the second country -- Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was the first -- to face such a sanction.

Belarus must ``bring its labor standards up to international levels,'' European Commission trade spokesman Peter Power said by telephone in Brussels, where ministers from the 25-nation EU endorsed the penalty today. The suspension is due to take effect in six months.

The EU and the U.S. label Lukashenko a ``dictator'' and are working in parallel to isolate his government. They already impose travel curbs and financial sanctions on leaders of the country, which has 10 million people and is located between Poland and Russia.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko won re-election in a March vote that international observers called unfair. Russia congratulated Lukashenko on his re-election and rejected western demands for regime change.

ILO Recommendations

Belarus gets tariff reductions for about 12 percent of its 3.3 billion euros of annual exports to the EU under the bloc's Generalized System of Preferences. The EU is suspending the GSP for the country because the government failed to comply with recommendations by the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency that promotes employment rights and social justice.

The suspension will raise tariffs on EU imports of goods from Belarus because the bloc applies higher duties on products that come from nations without trade preferences. Chemicals accounted last year for 6.9 percent of EU imports from Belarus and textiles and clothing for 5.4 percent.

Other Belarusian exports to face higher EU levies include wood, rubber, glass, ceramics and cement, says the commission, the EU's executive arm.

The suspension will have no impact on EU tariffs on energy products such as fuels and lubricants that last year represented 56 percent of the bloc's imports from Belarus, according to the commission. This is because the EU applies a zero duty on these products, the commission said.

The EU's approval of the trade sanctions against Belarus comes more than a year after the commission recommended the step.

Belarus calls EU move short-sighted

From: Itar Tass
Minsk considers as short-sight the stance of the European Union that has started stripping Belarus of preferences in trade with EU countries, the Belarussian Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued on Thursday.

“We consider this document as a leaflet prepared for the use in a propagandist anti-Belarussian campaign,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov, told a news briefing on Thursday.

He said that the “accusations contained in the resolution are not new”.

“Our opponents permanently use them in the bilateral relations and in regional organisations. At present, they are trying to drag into this aggressive propagandist campaign of discrediting Belarus the UN General Assembly respected but us,” Popov said. "The content of the document is based on making invalid accusations, and the process of adopting the resolution on unwillingness and a lack of interest to hear the Belarussian side”.

Popov said that the “resolution does not create either political or other consequences and obligations for Belarus”.

“The approval by the European Union Council of the decision to cease for Belarus effect of the tariff rates within the framework of the general system of EU preferences, which can come in force in six months, testifies to a political short-sight of its initiators and supporters,” it said.

The Foreign Ministry said that the “European Union’s decision runs counter to its declared objective to render support to the Belarussian population”.

“The decision has clearly shown that the interests of ordinary Belarus citizens mean nothing for the EU”.

The Foreign Ministry said that the “decision of the European Union will not become a serious challenge for the economy and citizens of Belarus”.

“Pressure from outside on the Belarussian people and its state will not yield a result. It is time for the European Union to leave the inertia of thinking and to soberly assess the situation in Belarus, acknowledge successes in its socio-economic development and a large contribution that our county makes to the consolidation of security and stability of Europe. We hope that common sense will prevail in the European Union,” the Foreign Ministry said.

Canada Imposed Economic Sanctions on Belarus

From: Kommersant and Liev Post
Canada has restricted the export to Belarus, the government of Canada announced Monday. The reason is the continued crackdown of Belarus’ authorities.
Belarus continues to ignore the calls of the world community for democracy. It proceeds with human rights violation and outrage upon justice, Canada’s Foreign Affairs’ Minister Peter MacKay said specifying that the world community should build pressure on Belarus to improve the life of its people.

Minister of International Trade David Emerson hoped that economic pressure via restricting the export to Belarus will fuel positive changes there.

Under the ruling of Canada’s government, any company willing to export goods to Belarus should address the authorities for an export license. The decision will be taken separately in each definite case. In the better part of the cases, no difficulties will emerge for getting the permits for shipping humanitarian goods, including food, clothes and medicine as well as for delivering some single items acquired for personal use, Canada’s government made clear via the web-site.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry criticized Canada for new measures restricting Canadian exports to Belarus.

The new regulations, announced Monday by Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay and International Trade Minister David Emerson, allow for the export of some humanitarian items such as food, clothing and medicines. "Permits for other items will generally be denied," the Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement.

"It is Canada's hope that economic pressure in the form of export restrictions will help bring about positive change in Belarus," Emerson said in announcing the move.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov blamed the United States for pressuring Canada to impose the restrictions, which he said were cynical.

"Attempts by the Canadian authorities to put pressure on Belarus, having interfered in our internal political process, are considered by us to be shortsighted and pointless," Popov said.

Canada and Belarus had relatively small trade turnover last year, reaching just $28.8 million.

S&N's Russian arm buys Belarus brewer

From: Scotsman
BALTIC Beverages Holding (BBH), the fast-growing east European brewer jointly owned by Scottish & Newcastle (S&N) and Carlsberg of Denmark, yesterday bought a share of a brewery in Belarus.

BBH said that it had bought a 30 per cent stake in privately held Belarussian brewer Olivaria for an undisclosed price.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has been a major shareholder in Olivaria since 2005.

BBH said: "As part of the continuing development of the business, the current shareholders have been looking for an international partner. After the capital increase EBRD will have 21 per cent of the shares."

BBH, which is already active in Belarus via exports from its main Russian brewery, Baltika, said in a statement: "BBH believes that, with a growing economy and rising beer consumption, this market has strong future potential."

There were ten million people in Belarus and they each consumed an average of 33 litres of beer per year, the group said.

The S&N/Carlsberg joint venture's main market is Russia, where, via its Baltika brewery, it is the biggest player with a 35 per cent share of the market. BBH also has operations in the likes of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Finland.

The group said that Olivaria has a market share in Belarus of 10 per cent. It has a brewing capacity of 400,000 hectolitres and 600 employees.

Olivaria Brewery was set up in 1864 and the brewery plans to increase capacity to 600,000 hectolitres in 2007.

BBH announced a near-third jump in first-half earnings in August, with reported earnings before interest and tax of 199 million (£135.7m) on sales up 18 per cent at 961m (£655.7m).

The second quarter was much stronger than the first as the temporary disruption from the integration of BBH's sales and distribution network in Russia eased.

BBH is currently in the process of merging four breweries in Russia under its market-leading group Baltika.

Belarusian security chief vows to prevent street protests around local election

From: Kiev Post
Belarus' security chief on Wednesday vowed to thwart any potential street protests or demonstrations surrounding next month's elections for municipal councils.

Stepan Sukharenko, director of the ex-Soviet republic's KGB, also said he supported legislation introduced by President Alexander Lukashenko that would widen the definition of extremism potentially to include opposition pronouncements.

"Opponents of the current authorities ... conduct acts of civil disobedience with the aim of changing the existing state structure," he said. "Social order and stability will be guaranteed."

Sukharenko also asserted that living standards in Belarus were rising, which he said added to the country's stability.

Some activists, emboldened by mass uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia, have sought to spark similar movements in Belarus, only to be blocked or thwarted by Belarus' severe security agencies.

Belarus and Russia ready to implement new production programs

Union State is ready to implement new production programs, State Secretary of the Belarus-Russia Union State Pavel Borodin stated today in Moscow at the forum of the Union State draft programs “Private-state partnership and the Union State programs: goals and perspectives”.

He has noted that the new programs will cover such important sectors as harvester and machine-tool construction, aircraft construction, production of mine trucks and medium-scale business. According to Pavel Borodin, implementation of such projects can be started in the near future.

The State Secretary called production programs a foundation of the Union State construction. At present more than two dozens such projects are being implemented. Almost one third of the Union State budget is allocated to finance such projects, said Pavel Borodin.

The Power of Optimism

From: Kommersant
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a summary of the country’s foreign policy in 2006 at his traditional end-of-the-year news conference on Wednesday. Mr. Lavrov is convinced that Russia has become a global player, which is vexing its rivals who are trying to make Russia weaker with their “immoral” and “barefaced” actions. Foreign mass media and Georgian authorities with their “foreign patron” have been dubbed Russia’s main ill-wishers.
A Strong Russia

“The role of the Russian factor in international affairs has grown considerably in the past year.” “Russia is becoming increasingly confident of its own abilities. Russia “is able to stand for its national interests.” “Russia assumes more and more responsibility, which shows its big potential.” Russia has become “strong and self-assured.” Sergey Lavrov did not mind repeating one and the same statement about how strong and influential Russia has become. He earlier voiced the idea several times in summing up annual developments. This time around the statement was the keynote and centerpiece of his address.

Breaking the tradition, Sergey Lavrov has decided not to name major achievements of the Russian foreign policy this year. He only boasted that in the outgoing yea, Moscow presided at the Great Eight, the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization and the Arctic Council. The four facts were to give examples of the overwhelming influence of Russia.

It is Russia’s enormous clout that has brought troubles – everyone is simply envious, Lavrov says.

  • Opinion...

    Russian-Belarusian deadlock

    From: Andrei Suzdaltsev, Higher School of Economics, for RIA Novosti
    The plaque on the door to Alexander Lukashenko's office reads, "Chairman of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. President of the Republic of Belarus."

    The order of his titles seems to imply that the Belarusian president gives priority to economic and political integration with Russia.

    Nevertheless, the two countries are not getting on well. The era of euphoria in their relations gave way to a period of mounting problems, which have now been compounded. In recent years, unresolved issues have led to the unraveling of the Union's agreements. The first to be disrupted were vital agreements on Russian gas supply to Belarus at domestic Russian prices and on duty-free oil supply to Belarusian companies within the single customs zone.

    Minsk's fight for cheap Russian energy has affected the image of the Union State. The latter's existence helped to justify the politically motivated economic privileges and preferences (worth about $7 billion annually) enjoyed by Belarus. However, now that Belarus, as Lukashenko claims, has entered a period of "prosperity," Minsk can afford to buy its energy at average European prices.

    Belarus' failure to honor its commitments under the oil agreement of 1995 has cost Russia more than $35 billion over the past 10 years. This is more than Belarus' annual GDP. Gazprom's losses from Minsk's failure to abide by the package agreement of 2002 (under which it would buy gas at domestic Russian prices in exchange for the set up of a joint gas shipment venture) amounted to some $10 billion. The unilateral interpretation of bilateral agreements sooner or later leads to a crisis in relations and to a deadlock. The first victim of this crisis has been trust between the two countries' leaderships.

    To break a deadlock, it is usually necessary to change the entire foundation of political relations between two countries, which sometimes takes a whole era and a generation of politicians. However, the Belarusian government was able to convince its citizens that Lukashenko would return from Moscow on December 18 having secured the cheapest gas price in Europe and discounts on oil. Russia was to shoulder the cost of this odd integration. Unfortunately, years of unconditional economic and political support to the Lukashenko regime have led Belarusian politicians, including the opposition, to believe that Moscow has to foot the bill for the Union entirely on its own.

    Importantly, the Belarusian people still do not know that the Moscow talks failed. Taking advantage of Russians' generally low level of interest in Russian-Belarusian integration, because of which relations between Moscow and Minsk are not even among the top 30 priorities for Russian television, Belarusian electronic mass media are portraying bilateral relations as favorable to Lukashenko.

    Real sovereignty comes at global prices. This maxim, however, does not sit well with the Belarusian president, who believes that Russia has to pay for his country's sovereignty. He fears that the "Belarusian economic model" he has built will not bear market prices and will therefore collapse, burying his third presidential term. In early 2006, his ability to maintain gas prices for Belarus at 2005 levels - at the time of a bitter gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine - helped Lukashenko get re-elected.

    This is a vicious circle: talks imply concessions. Belarus was expected to allow Beltransgaz to set up a joint venture with Gazprom. However, the venture has yet to get off the ground, and postponing its creation by six or even twelve months will not help the regime. Lukashenko's integration model, which involves reaping the benefits of close relations with Russia while not participating in any real integration, will inevitably collapse and may cost him his post in the long run.

    If there is no progress in talks on gas or any other source of conflict, Lukashenko may face a full-scale Russian-Belarusian crisis on January 1. This scenario could jeopardize his power, but in the near term he may be able to create and ride a wave of popular outrage, just as he did in February 2004 (when Gazprom was forced to cut gas supplies to the country for one day after not receiving payments).

    Part of the Belarusian opposition may then go over to Lukashenko's side, and he may even get political support from Central Europe. Moscow will then be blamed for Belarus' economic troubles. Lukashenko will be able to keep his post by adopting an anti-Russian attitude.

    The campaign launched by Belarusian mass media applauding Lukashenko's success in Moscow may be pursuing a definite goal: on January 1, Moscow will come across as a treacherous villain who has "deceived" his brother nation. Apparently, this is what Minsk is trying to achieve by concealing from its people the truth about the deadlock in Russian-Belarusian relations.

  • Religion...

    BELARUS: Religious freedom survey, December 2006

    From: Forum 18
    "Killing a frog by warming up the water very gradually" is how one Protestant describes Belarus' religious policy in Forum 18 News Service's survey analysis of religious freedom. President Aleksandr Lukashenko has brought religious believers back to the late Soviet period, legally unable to practise religion in community without explicit state permission. State registration does not guarantee religious freedom, as has become increasingly clear in the spheres of youth activity and building and hiring places of worship. The state's tendency to harass religious communities for alleged "irregularities" means that some communities are voluntarily restricting or even stopping religious activity. A major reason for the state's eagerness to control religious communities is its preservation of an extensive Soviet-era secret police, religious affairs and ideology bureaucracy. Recently, the state has started focussing upon Protestant evangelicals as a political threat, one of whom notes that "it is not Jesus' example to sit down and accept what happens in your community." As state pressure steadily mounts, Forum 18 observes that religious believers are increasingly putting aside confessional differences in organised resistance.

    "Killing a frog by warming up the water very gradually" is how one Belarusian Protestant describes the state's religious policy. He notes that the first religious organisations to be closed down in August 2005 as a result of the restrictive 2002 Religion Law – Pastor Ernest Sabilo's Belarusian Evangelical Church and Pastor Lyavon Lipen's Belarusian Evangelical Reformed Church – are small and independent. So too is Christ's Covenant Reformed Baptist Church, whose pastor, Georgi Vyazovsky, was given a ten-day prison sentence in March 2006 – the first for religious activity on Belarusian territory since the demise of the Soviet Union. Without public prominence or a larger umbrella association to act in their defence, the Protestant points out, these churches made easy initial targets. "When Sabilo had problems, some people said 'Why protect him?' as they saw him as the 'wrong' kind of Baptist," a member of Vyazovsky's church explained to Forum 18. "I said 'Today it's Sabilo, tomorrow it will be us.' And it was."

    The incremental growth in restrictions under President Aleksandr Lukashenko – particularly in the wake of the 2002 Religion Law – has in many respects brought Belarusian believers back to the late Soviet period. They are legally able to practise religion in community only with express permission from the state. Under the 2002 Law, religious communities must be registered with the state, for which they require state-approved, non-residential premises. All public events outside these premises must be approved in advance by the state under the 2003 Demonstrations Law. Legal provisions typically combine to make nothing possible. Denied compulsory re-registration because of the impossibility of securing state-approved worship premises in Minsk, for example, the charismatic New Life Church was denied state permission to import religious literature in August 2005.

    The state's demands of religious communities are not just simple bureaucratic procedures, which some communities are failing to comply with due to incompetence or intransigence. As one Protestant points out, "They have created conditions so you can't live by the Law. We would need to close half our churches in order to operate technically in accordance with the Law." Religious believers may encounter obstruction from the moment they seek to organise their activity. Baptists, Pentecostals and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad all report routine state intimidation of those who agree to include their personal details as the founders of a new religious organisation, such as by threatening to withhold a share in a village tractor or livestock. In official documents, one senior official even insists openly that Orthodox should be dissuaded from affiliation to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, criticising junior officials "who have found neither the time nor the opportunity to influence these believers or to assist the local priest in returning them to the fold of the [Moscow Patriarchate] church."

    Particularly in the capital Minsk, Protestants and Hare Krishna devotees report the following phenomenon. Once they have located suitable premises for rent - a difficult task in a Soviet-planned city where religious activity is not permitted in cultural or educational institutions - and included the address as part of the compulsory registration procedure, the landlord suddenly withdraws consent citing state pressure. Officials may also refuse to allow even a legal address to be registered at particular premises. A pastor of the Baptist Union, for example, was this year refused permission to register a new community's legal address at his home, on the grounds that this would be detrimental to his children and that the building has no outside electric light. Krishna devotees complained to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, after similarly being told that they could not register the legal address of an umbrella association at premises in Minsk due to alleged fire-safety and sanitation violations. The UN Committee upheld their complaint, pointing out that "appropriate premises [for worship] could be obtained subsequent to registration," but the Belarusian government defended its decision in 2006, arguing that it was justified under Belarusian law.

    Without republic-wide association status, Krishna devotees do not have the right to establish monasteries, missions and educational institutions or invite foreign citizens to Belarus to preach or conduct other religious activity. In September 2006, the Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church in the Republic of Belarus was likewise refused registration as a republic-wide association, due to "technical problems" in its application.
  • Text continues...

    Zen and the art of ATEC maintenance

    From: Columbia Basin Herold
    Sergey Shelyagovich is bustling through Big Bend Community College's ATEC Building the morning of Dec. 9.

    It's about 10 a.m., and he has to mop the floors and clean the sinks and mirrors in the restrooms, as well as vacuum, dismantle a dance floor and set up tables and chairs for a noon event.

    Usually, he would be the only maintenance worker in the building on a Saturday, but things are busier during the holiday season, he notes. There are several employees working extra hours, helping him prepare the facility.

    Born in Pinsk, Belarus; Shelyagovich left home at the age of 15, when he was hired by the Russian government to get an education at the Leningrad military academy and work. That's where he met his wife of 25 years, Nadia, who was not living very far from the academy. For two of his 15 years in Leningrad, Shelyagovich was in the military.

    "The main reason why we moved from there to here was religious persecution," Shelyagovich said. The Russian government does not recognize and appreciate Protestants, he explained. "They don't really want them in their system."

    As soon as the Shelyagovichs found an opportunity to escape the Communist regime, they took it. The border was open to leave the country in 1988, and they moved a year later, with a delay due to paperwork.

    "There you have to fill a bunch of paperwork and get permission to leave from your parents," Shelyagovich explained.

    His parents declined because of his religious beliefs; they were estranged, he said. No parental permission typically means there's no opportunity to leave. But after a special interview with the head of the KGB to explain the situation, Sergey was allowed to leave 24 hours later.

    "I believe that we were really, really tough with them," he said. "Some people afraid to talk with such kind of people, with KGB especially. And we were not afraid. We were talking with them seriously, openly and without any fear."

    Shelyagovich worried about getting through other countries on the way to America with Nadia, since he only spoke Belarusian and Russian. But the couple found people who were helping travelers make similar treks, as Jewish and Christian Protestants were leaving the former USSR republics in droves at the time. Over the years, many of those people moved to the Sacramento, Portland, Seattle and Spokane areas, Shelyagovich said.

    For a while, Shelyagovich was afraid to return home because of the KGB and because the government thought the Shelyagovichs were moving to Israel, when in reality their paperwork enabled them to go into other foreign countries, where their visas were changed to allow them into America. Those Russian residents who fled the country and headed to America were considered traitors, and there's still some risk to returning to Belarus. But now people have begun to visit their relatives back home, Shelyagovich explained.

    "I wasn't ready to go there for 10 years," he said. "Now I am ready, but for 10 years, I couldn't think of going back just to visit."

    Back in Belarus, Shelyagovich's parents now wish to see him, something he is open to, but he needs to arrange the trip with his whole family, which would cost a lot of money.

    "Maybe the next summer," Shelyagovich said. "My parents, they want us to come to visit. Seventeen years later, they become older. Everybody changed, the system changed."

    After arriving in the United States, he and Nadia lived in Seattle for six-and-a-half years. Working in hospice care, Nadia was required to get a series of precautionary shots.

    All Europeans receive a tuberculosis shot when they are young, Shelyagovich explained, and never again.

    His wife became ill from the shot, and immediately developed five different allergies -- to dogs, cats, feathers, dust mites and weeds. Doctors recommended moving from Seattle to a dryer area, such as Phoenix, Ariz. So the couple moved to Phoenix with their four children, then aged 14,13, 11 and 10. Shelyagovich's employer at a Marysville Albertson's, where he worked as a stockboy, arranged for him to find work in Phoenix.

    "Wasn't true," Shelyagovich said. "Doctor was wrong."

    They didn't stay for longer than a month. In fact, Phoenix residents told them Arizona was a good place to move to if someone wanted to develop an allergy and, indeed, Nadia picked up an allergy to mold. The 24-hour lifestyle of Phoenix, due to the heat and the quality of air, also proved a poor match for the Shelyagovich family.

    The couple stayed with friends in Soap Lake for a while and fell in love with the lake itself, ultimately moving to the Moses Lake area in April 1996.

    Nadia would swim in the lake, drink from the local fountain and was on a special diet.

    "She went to swim in Soap Lake every day, and she spent most of the time in the summertime in the lake with kids," Shelyagovich said. "A year later, she was checked and no more allergies. Just sensitivities left."

    Shelyagovich called the area a good place to raise his children, and said one of his favorite things to do is spend time with Nadia.

    "You can see me everywhere with my wife," he said. "In store, everywhere. We like to spend time together."
  • Text continues...

    Beis Aharon School for Boys holds its annual Chanukah Concert

    From: Karlin Gazette
    The now famous Beis Aharon Boy's School Chanukah concert was held last night at Pinsk's Dom Kultura and, as has become normal for the annual concert, only a few of the seven hundred available seats were left unfilled as members from both inside and outside of Pinsk's Jewish community came to enjoy the show.

    This year's show began at 4:00pm with the lighting of the Menorah by R' David Altman. Master of ceremonies for the show was Vladimir Dobrinski, head

    educator at the Beis Aharon School. Acts included songs by the Pinsk Jewish women's association Chessed, the boy's school's own singing trio "L`Chaim", another group called "Moshiach" made up of three younger boys, Yisroel Derr, Boruch bulgach and Aharon Pitkevich, who were accompanied by two members of the Peer Yisroel Yeshiva, Shlomie Pilchik and Eli litke. Some exeunt solo electric guitar work by assistant music teacher Alex Puoz followed with a dance by the one, two and three-year-olds of the new gan (playgroup). The event climaxed with an energetic "Vsyo Budit Chorosho" (All will be OK), which was sung by Eli Litka, Shloimi Pilchik and R' Moshe Fhima, Yad Yisroel Pinsk's head of project. The show was followed by a prize draw lottery lottery.

    The audience was appreciative of the talents of the young people and the boy's especially were treated to screamed encouragements by the Beis Aharon Girl's School from the rear of the auditorium.

    “This is a very good show we make every year.” Quipped Israel Korelinski, headmaster of the Beis Aharon School. "The boys put a lot of effort into their songs and they look forward to having the chance to show their talents. And of course the community comes here to see them, it’s not only for their teachers but also for their parents and many others from around the community."

    R' David Altman, who, accompanied by Alex Pouz on the guitar, also took the microphone to sing a song, had this to say after this year's performance: "We wanted to make a play this year about the 500th anniversary of the Jews arriving in Pinsk. We rehearsed it, but in the end we decided not to make it. There was supposed to be two parts to the show, one for the anniversary and the other just for Hanukah. But in the end we decided only to make it for the talents of the young people and the teachers of the school."

    Eli Litke, student of the Peer Yisroel Yeshiva and who has been in Pinsk for over two years now, said he enjoys playing in the annual Chanukah show. "We do this every year. It's a really big deal and the boys all look forward to this. The students in the yeshiva like working with the boys and helping them with their performances. I think everybody had a lot of fun which is our main objective”.

    R' Moshe Fhima, who participated in the show both with his trio and when called up to the stage to assist a clown act says "The Chanukah show is worth all the effort and work just for the kiddish Hashem and of course persumai nisa (glorifying and publicising the miracle). It is for everybody, not just the schools. So how could I not be here?

    "The annual Chanukah show is a chance for our school to show itself to the whole community. We get 700 people each year coming to see us and they are not just from the Jewish community but from all over Pinsk. The Chanukah show is our night to shine like the lights of the menorah.
  • Click here for more photos and the original text...

  • From the Blogs...

    Belarusians buy more foreign cash

    From: Belarus News and Facts
    Belarusian banks' sales of foreign cash to the population from January through November of 2006 exceeded their purchases by $602.1 million, which was a 40-percent year-on-year increase, according to the National Bank of Belarus (NBB).

    In the period under review, individuals sold $3,156.9 million in foreign cash to banks, which was a 27.8-percent year-on-year increase, and purchased $3,759 million from them, a rise of 30.1 percent.

    The NBB links the rise in the demand to an increase in the population's income. Apart from this, the National Bank says, many Belarusians still consider foreign cash as a way of saving their money. Other factors are the purchasing of foreign cash by market vendors for buying consumer goods abroad, and a rise in car imports.

    The increase in the population's real income boosts consumer demand, but many prefer to buy foreign-made consumer goods, which entails a rise in demand for foreign cash to pay for "unorganized imports," the National Bank explains.
  • Note: Please see also the article: Belarus under pressure about the EU sanctions against Belarus.

    An open leter to Congressman Flake

    From: Mike's Vacation
    Dear Congressman Flake,

    My name is Michael Miller and I would like to congratulate you on your wise vote against the Belarusian ReDemocracy Act. (HR5948)

    I am writing to you because I care about the long term best interests of both the American people and the Belarusian people.

    The Belarusian Democracy act was and is simply nothing more than a way for Washington to attack the legitimate presidency of Alexander Lukashenka by using trumped up issues such as Democracy, Human Rights and Religious Freedom.

    The money this Act allocates for Democracy in Belarus is intended to do nothing more than insight conflict in this otherwise stable and potentially prosperous post soviet country.

    This Bill amounts to nothing less than a US License to attack Belarus.

    I am sorry to say that both you and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio have been harshly criticized by the magazine Transitions Online. This is an offshoot of Transitions Magazine, a publication funded by George Soros.

    I have a small and new editorial blog called Mikes Vacation and I am frequently published on the Being Had times. The Being Had Times is an online news source published by my friend Adam Goodman.

    HR 5948 is a dangerous bill on several levels, but allow me to share some of my viewpoints on this continued legislation.

    This Bill hinders the constitional and civil rights of many American citizens because Belarus has recently authored a UN resolution calling multiple American problems to light. In this UN proposal, Belarus initiates discussion on the subjects of police brutality, the mistreatment of pows, the electoral system, the continued effacement of media liberties here in the United States.

    These genre of critiques are important for US leaders to face and deal with, and Belarus is in a good position to bring these problem areas to global public light without fear of retribution or undue US pressure because of these concerns. Travel restrictions against Belarusian government officials make it impossible for these Same Belarusian leaders to come to America and meet with minority and underrepresented Americans to discuss creative and benevolent methods to improve their conditions and circumstances.

    Regardless of whether or not our President likes or approves of the current Belarusian Government, I believe it benefits the downtroden in America for countries like Belarus to continue to illuminate American problems simply because some of these problems are perpetuated in part due to certain special interest groups and political forces that find it disadvantageous to attempt to discuss changing the status quo.
  • Text continues...

  • Sport...

    Vladimir Samsonov wins in Tournament of Champions in Changsha

    From: ITTF
    Vladimir Samsonov beat Korea's Ryu Seung Min, the number one seed in the Men�s Singles event at the ITTF Tournament of Champions in Changsha, China lost in the opening round on Thursday 21st December 2006 15-17, 11-4, 6-11, 11-8, 12-10, 15-13.

    However, Vladimir Samsonov believed that it could have been even better. "It's always a difficult match against Ryu Seung Min but usually I play well", he said. �In the hall, it's a little windy and we both made mistakes, it was hard for both of us today."

    Nevertheless, the duel thrilled the crowd.

    "Overall I think my topspin play was good today but when it comes to rallies, Ryu Seung Min is always good�, continued Vladimir Samsonov. �He runs and runs, he looks to play his forehand and of course he has stronger legs than me!"

    The crucial stage in the contest came in the fifth game. Ryu Seung Min trailed 8-10; then he levelled at 10-all. Rather surprisingly he took a `Time Out�.

    �I think that was a little mistake�, said Ryu Seung Min; perhaps it was, the next two points both went to Vladimir Samsonov.

    Maybe an error but in the Changsha you can check how you are playing; there is a large television monitor that replays the points and yesterday Zhang Yining had looked at the replays to try to ascertain why she had lost a point.

    However, for Vladimir Samsonov, it made little difference. �It�s up to you, it�s not a distraction for me�, he said. �You don�t have to look at the screen.�

    The man from Belarus rarely looked at the television screen. He was focused on the task in hand and succeeded to book his place in the semi-finals.

    Belarusians to take part in Lisbon-Dakar 2007 rally for first time

    From: Belta
    For the first time in history of the Belarusian motor racing a Belarusian team will take part in the world-famous Lisbon-Dakar rally which starts on January 6, 2007, BelTA learnt from head of the press service of the Voluntary Society of Assistance to the Army, Aviation and Fleet of Belarus Tatiana Gamolko.

    In her words, Belarus will be represented by driver Sergei Shkel and steersman Alexander Innuss. They will drive a specially equipped car Oscar.

    The competitors will take off from Lisbon, for a long 8,696 kilometre road including 5,010 kilometres of timed specials during the fourteen stages to be covered. The drivers will first battle it out during two specials in Portugal, will then cross the Mediterranean sea by boat and visit Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Senegal where the final overall standing will be established after the stage going from Tambacounda to Dakar, on Saturday the 20th of January. The following day, the remaining competitors will take part in the first Grand Prix du Lac Rose, a show race organised on a closed circuit on the beach where the traditional podium ceremony will be organised.

    Sergei Shkel made his debute in 2005 in the rally-raid world cup. He took part in varous rally raids in Russia, Latvia, in Paraon’s Rally in Egypt and in 24-hour race in the environs of Paris. This year Sergei Shkel came third in Belarus-Baja 2006.

    Alexander Innuss has been participating in rallies since 1996. In 2004 he started mastering rally raids. He took part in the world championship Orient and other rally raids in Arab Emirates, Tunis and other countries.