Minsk/Moscow talks, Ukraine, Budget, Gomselmash sells to EU, Nukes, Opposition, Air Crash, Opinion and Blogs
Belarus delegation to discuss gas transportation joint venture in Moscow March 21
According to the source, the negotiations will table cooperation in the energy industry, in particular, the creation of a Belarusian-Russian gas transportation joint venture on the basis of Belarusian pipeline operator Beltransgaz.
BelTA reported earlier, the Belarusian and Russian sides are adjusting positions on the main articles of the agreement for the acquisition of OAO Beltransgaz shares. Negotiations concerning the gas transportation joint venture took place in Minsk on February 28 – March 2. The negotiations discussed the agreement of purchase and sale, nuances of the handover of Beltransgaz shares to Gazprom and other issues.
Let us remind you, on December 31, 2006, Belarus and Russia signed a protocol for setting up a joint gas transportation venture on the basis of OAO Beltransgaz. According to the document, Gazprom will buy 50% of Beltransgaz shares for $2.5 billion. The Belarusian-Russian gas transportation joint venture is to be set up by June 1, 2007. Gazprom is expected to buy the 50% of Beltransgaz shares in equal parts within four years.
OAO Beltransgaz performs natural gas distribution to domestic customers and gas transportation across Belarus. The state owns 100% of Beltransgaz shares. The company operates around 7,000 km of gas pipelines, which diameter varies between 100 mm and 1400 mm, and services the Belarusian section of the Gazprom-owned transcontinental pipeline Yamal-Europe.
In 2006 Belarus imported 20.8 billion cubic metres of gas and transported over 44 billion cubic metres of gas in transit.
The agreement has been duly coordinated by the concerned agencies in Belarus and Russia. “In the near future we will resolve all the issues and there will be no more problems. We will also reach agreements on supplies of both sugar and potatoes,” he said. At the same time, he said that some issues are still to be addressed.
In a related story, Pavel Borodin State Secretary of the Union State also pointed to some problems with regard to the work of the Union State permanent committee. He expressed bewilderment at the fact that the money allocated for Union State programs has not been utilized. Earlier the process of allotment of money from the Union State budget was lengthy because it took between 8 to 9 months to have the so-called ‘budget signature’ put. Today this process takes between two to three days. “Today the financing starts in January, not in August as it used to be,” he added. “We will raise this issue at the session of the Union State Council of Ministers on March 23 in Minsk,” he said.
This year’s Union State budget is expected to approach RUR5 billion. Every year it is getting bigger. The first Union State budget was RUR500 million, he said. In the future it may grow to RUR25 billion as new Union State programs will be implemented. Today specialists in the two countries are developing new sci-tech programs, programs in mechanical engineering. The programs involve over 5 million people. “If we destroy the Union State, these people may lose their jobs,” Pavel Borodin said
The Oil Biz
It is uneconomic to build an oil pipeline bypassing Belarus, State Secretary of the Belarus-Russia Union State Pavel Borodin has told reporters in Minsk today.
He has underlined that it is the shortest and cheapest way for the Russian oil transport companies to use the Belarusian oil transport facilities. The oil pipeline from Russia to Europe via Ukraine is 700 kilometers longer than via Belarus. The Russian companies have to pay three times more to deliver oil through the Baltic States. And it is two times more expensive and three times longer to deliver oil via Finland”, Pavel Borodin underlined.
“Everyone knows that Belarus is located in the center of Europe”, said the State Secretary. “Economic interests, which are the best arguments, should placed in the forefront in this sphere”, Pavel Borodin underlined.
An intergovernmental agreement on trade-economic cooperation between Belarus and Russia may be signed on March 19-20, 2007 before the meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Union State, prime minister of this country Sergei Sidorskiy stated today in the course of his meeting with State Secretary of the Belarus-Russia Union State Pavel Borodin.
“By signing the document we will settle all the problems”, the Belarusian premier believes.
Sergei Sidorskiy has underlined that the agreement focuses on all most important aspects of trade cooperation between the two countries. It will help lift all restrictions and settle all bilateral claims, which Belarus and Russia submit. Vice-premier of Belarus Andrei Kobyakov and minister of economic development and trade of Russia German Gref have been authorized to sign the document.
In January the sides signed a protocol to the agreement, the prime minister noted. Since that time the sides were actively preparing the document for signing.
Isolationist policy harms democracy in Belarus, says Ukrainian president
"We believe that the policy of the total isolation of Belarus harms the development of democracy in that country," the Ukrainian president told members of the Danish Foreign Policy Society, politicians, public figures, diplomats, journalists, and parliamentarians in Copenhagen on Thursday.
"Belarus does not ask us to act as its advocate. But we are its neighbors. We are interested in Belarus reentering the European dialogue," he said.
In a related story, the NLIPRB tells us that Ukraine suggests uniting ports of the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea by a modern motorway. The move is expected to increase the cargo traffic by at least 10 times, Ukrainian transport and communication minister Nikolai Rudkovskiy told BelTA after today’s meeting with the Belarusian transport and communication minister in Gomel.
Nikolai Rudkovskiy informed, within the next five years Ukraine plans to build over 5,000 km of modern motorways. “We have a motorway connecting Odessa and Kyiv. We plan to extend one branch from Kyiv up to the Belarusian border. Then via Belarus we will be able to extend the motorway up to Saint Petersburg”, said the Ukrainian minister. The project can be implemented only when Ukraine, Belarus, Russia or Lithuania take an active part in the project, stressed the official.
According to Nikolai Rudkovskiy, Ukraine and Belarus have one of the highest transit potentials and should embrace the opportunities. In the future Ukraine plans to continue expanding the transport industry cooperation with Belarus. In particular, the minister noted, all ports of Ukraine are ready to take any volume of cargo from Belarusian consigners.
Belarus consolidated budget surplus as large as Br1.2 trillion in January
BelTA learnt from the finance ministry, revenues of the consolidated budget reached almost Br3.5 trillion (57.9% of the GDP) in January 2007, expenses — Br2.3 trillion (38.6% of the GDP).
The value added tax, income tax, profit tax, and excise duties prevail in the budget revenues, accounting for 40.6% of the consolidated budget revenues in January.
The consolidated budget mainly spent money on the social sphere and other branches of the economy. In January the budget’s funding of social and cultural events (healthcare, physical culture, sports, culture and mass media, education, social security) amounted to Br1.6 trillion. Expenses of the consolidated budget in the national economy totalled Br205.1 billion.
In January 2007 the surplus of the central state budget made Br1 trillion, or 16.6% of the GDP. On the whole, this January the revenues of the central state budget equalled 8.6% of the annual target, expenses — 5.1% of the annual target.
Gomselmash to supply agricultural equipment to EU countries
In April this year the combine harvesters are expected to be supplied to official representative of the company – the Czech company Trado Holding.
Production Association Gomselmash received the right to supply its equipment to the European market in 2006 after the testing its samples on the fields of the Czech Republic. In line with the testing, the Belarusian company received international certificates for the harvester unit Polesje-6, a moving-crusher machine and the combine harvester Polesje-1218. All these machines can be sold on the European markets.
Today, specialists are discussing the possibility to supply the Belarusian agricultural equipment to Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary and some other European countries. Moreover, this year Gomselmash intends to certify some more kinds of machines in Europe. In particular, the combine harvesters Polesje-600 and Polesje-7 are to be tested this year.
In 2006, Production Association Gomselmash exported equipment at the value of $56 million, or 55.3% up as against 2005. The company supplied its production to Russia, China and Argentina. The company became a winner of the contest “The Best Goods of Belarus” and a laureate of the contest “The Best Goods of Belarus on the Russian Market”.
In a related article, the NLIPRB reports that Belarus will spend over Br1 trillion on the spring sowing campaign, head of the central plant cultivation department of the Belarusian agriculture and food ministry Grigoriy Romanyuk told media.
He said, the money will be allocated by the national and oblast budgets, the national fund for the support of agricultural producers and as bank loans.
Belarus has already apportioned Br305.5 billion for the spring sowing campaign, which makes around 30% of the planned figure.
Grigoriy Romanyuk also informed, purveyance and processing companies will pay to agricultural producers in advance for the 2007 harvest supplied to satisfy the national state demand as much as 30% of the state-guaranteed order or Br174.1 billion. The purveyance and processing companies have already signed contracts for the farmers to supply crop products as part of the state-guaranteed order. The supplies will total Br43.7 billion or 7.5% of the state-guaranteed order.
A draft presidential decree has been worked out to grant Br41 billion in state budget subsidies to agricultural producers or 7.4% of the state-guaranteed order. The rest of the state-guaranteed order — Br133.1 billion (22.6%) — will be paid in advance with bank loans and proprietary funds of the purveyance and processing companies.
Mark-ups for purchasing prices for animal products will be spent on buying mineral fertilisers and crop protecting agents. A presidential decree has been drafted to provide Br150 billion in subventions for buying fuel and lubricants.
Belarus: more investments in greenhouse industry
From: Fresh Plaza
At the moment, the majority of greenhouse farms have started collecting new cucumbers. And in April they will be gathering new tomatoes. Last year they commissioned 39.8 hectares of greenhouses with energy saving facilities. Over the next 6-year period they renovated 86% of greenhouses. In 2006 the average yield in the greenhouse sector was 38.4 kg of vegetables per square metre, with the highest yield was achieved in Zhdanovichi – 70 kg of cucumbers per square metre.
Last year the average return on funds invested in the greenhouse sector was around 19%. By the year 2010 they are planning to increase greenhouse production of vegetables up to 90,000 tons. In 2006 Belarusian greenhouses exported over 4000 tons of vegetables to Russia.
Bill drafted to regulate nuclear power engineering in Belarus
Representatives of the Belarusian energy ministry informed BelTA, the bill will be prepared and forwarded to the government in June 2007. The energy ministry, the emergency ministry together with the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, the economy ministry and national state administration bodies are working on the bill. Other legal acts have to be prepared in order to execute regulations of the future law.
Let us remind you, Belarus plans to start building a nuclear power station in 2008. The construction site of the future power plant is being chosen. In 2007 Belarus should complete theoretical studies and choose the strategic partner for implementing the project, start negotiations with suppliers of the equipment and technologies.
The 2 megawatt nuclear power station will save around 4.5 billion cubic metres of gas. The first power unit is supposed to be put into operation in 2014.
Prime Minister Sidorski to visit Azerbaijan later this month
The matter was under discussion at the premier's meeting with Azerbaijani Ambassador Ali Teimur Nagiyev on March 14.
The Belarusian prime minister said that he had recently had a telephone conversation with his Azerbaijani counterpart to discuss the agenda of the coming talks.
"Trade between our countries reached a pretty high level of more than $37 million in 2006, but this is not enough for the growing economies of Belarus and Azerbaijan," Mr. Sidorski was quoted as saying. "We need to step up bilateral ties, look for opportunities for contacts between economic entities, intensify the embassies' work in the area."
The prime minister noted that the Belarusian government had devised a plan of comprehensive cooperation with Azerbaijan until 2015. The plan will be under discussion during Mr. Sidorski's talks in Baku later this month.
The Belarusian premier expressed a high opinion of preparations conducted by Azerbaijan for starting an MTZ tractor assembly plant. "This gives hope that the plans will materialize," he said.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka also is scheduled to visit Azerbaijan in the first half of 2007, according to Mr. Sidorski.
Trade between Belarus and Azerbaijan increased by 24 percent to $37.2 million last year, with Belarus' exports rising by 22.9 percent to $34.4 million. Belarus supplies Azerbaijan with road construction equipment, tractors and other heavy engineering goods, chipboard and medical drugs, and imports fruit and vegetable juices, cotton fiber, canned tomatoes and synthetic fabrics from the country.
Representatives of six opposition parties decide to hold Congress of Pro-democratic Forces on April 21 and 22
|Alexander Milinkevich: Likely to be ousted as front man for the opposition|
As Alyaksandr Bukhvostaw, chairman of the organizing committee for the Congress, told BelaPAN, the decision was made at a meeting that was attended by representatives of seven out of the 14 members of the Political Council of United Pro-democratic Forces, including representatives of the Belarusian Party of Communists, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party "Hramada," the United Civic Party, the Belarusian Women's Party "Nadzeya," and the unregistered Belarusian Party of Labor, as well as and Ihar Lednik, who represented small business owners.
According to Mr. Bukhvostaw, participants suggested holding the Congress before Charnobylski Shlyakh (Path of Chernobyl), a traditional opposition demonstration to be staged in Belarus on April 26 in commemoration of the 1986 nuclear accident.
Mr. Bukhvostaw said that at the Political Council's March 15 meeting, Alyaksandr Milinkevich's supporters proposed that preparations for the Congress should be made without setting any date, whereas Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the Belarusian Party of Communists, suggested that the Congress should be held on April 21 and 22. However, no decision was then made because neither of the proposals received the required two-thirds majority, said Mr. Bukhvostaw.
He noted that at the March 16 meeting, participants outlined an action plan and formed commission that would draft the main documents to be adopted at the Congress.
Among these documents are the pro-democratic forces' action strategy for 2007 and 2008, an economic strategy, and a so-called small constitution.
A statement announcing the date of the Congress is expected to be signed on March 19. The signatories of the statement will participate in the Congress, Mr. Bukhvostaw said, adding that it would be open for signing by other political groups and non-governmental organizations.
According to the politician, the original composition of the Political Council of the United Pro-democratic Forces has ceased to exist.
He said that the Congress should reform the governing body of the opposition coalition. "In order to unite, we should first separate to see what purposes coalition participants have," said Mr. Bukhvostaw. "All this will help [opposition forces] consolidate closer after the Congress."
Belarus Opposition Still Divided on Major Congress
|Anatoly Lebedko, head of the nited Civil Party is likely to be at the forefront of the votng|
Opposition activists last year backed academic Alexander Milinkevich as the sole challenger to Lukashenko, but other prominent figures have since called for a "rotating" leadership.
Groups led by veteran opposition figure Anatoly Lebedko on Friday announced a new date in April for the strategy congress. But Milinkevich said he wanted nothing to do with it.
"If we can get all the documents and our strategy ready, the congress will take place on April 22-23," Lebedko, leader of the United Civic Party, told Reuters.
The congress should be seen as the highest body of the opposition coalition, he said
Milinkevich, who finished second with six percent in last year's election in the ex-Soviet state compared with 83 percent for the president, has accused other opposition groups of provoking divisions.
"I will take no part in this congress which some members of the coalition are in such a hurry to organise," he said.
"This will be a congress of party groups and not of democratic forces as a whole. If leaders at the top do not want real unity, I will organise it from the bottom."
The congress was to have taken place this weekend before the annual March 25 rally honouring the short-lived Belarussian People's Republic, crushed by Bolshevik forces in 1918.
That gathering is to proceed, but organisers acknowledge that the number of participants is unlikely to be very high.
Splits have dogged the opposition throughout Lukashenko's more than 12 years in office. Backed by the United States and European Union, opposition members accuse the president of hounding rivals, silencing the media and rigging elections.
The opposition has since maintained a low profile, playing only a limited role in local elections in January.
Opposition figures have appealed to Lukashenko to join them in upholding Belarussian independence in view of the president's New Year row with Russia over energy price rises.
But authorities this week detained a prominent opposition activist and ordered him to appear in court two days before next week's rally on charges of unruly behaviour.
Election Laws: Reform is not expected
"The CEC Belarus and my personal point of view, the electoral law must be stable. We see no need to change it. Elections must take place on the same technology," said head of the CEC. "The electoral law takes into account a wide range of voters, virtually all the adult population. If it is too often changed, it changes the quality of the elections, and makes it possible for the passage of power to go to those who can bring the preparations political,ie, to lawyers. Changes should be restricted only to the rules that fail."
The Central Commission had until the eve of the local elections with the initiative to make some changes in legislation and many of last year's changes were found to unduly influence the results. One such new rule was to abolish the second round of voting in the elections of local councils of deputies. The idea that the election results would be declared as soon as possible. But by puting most of the majority vote getters in the first round of parliamentary elections is not anticipated by the political campaign should be more stringent requirements, as well as Republican elected body in which people perform their duties in a professional manner. With regard to the presidential elections, the rule is "clearly is not long because the manner in which they conduct determined by the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus." Innovations affecting the campaigning and propaganda processing ballots will be fixed in the upcoming elections for the House of Representatives.
Lidia Yermoshina said that the idea to abolish the minimum turnout and row which allows for "against all" on the ballot paper (changes recently made to the Russian law) "does not enjoy success in Belarus. There is a view that the turnout threshold of 50% is too high. But is the dominant principle, the election must ensure representativeness power. And it provided to the extent it was supported by a certain number of people. Denial of minimum turnout is feared that the elections will be narrow constituencies, "said the CEC chairman. The more citizens support of a deputy, the legitimnee his credentials.
According to Lydia Yermoshina, some political parties Russia, which do not have their representatives in Parliament will be able to get voters to repeal the box "against all". Walking away from the rule deprives voters of choice. His forced to vote any alternative party just because they can not vote "against all." This move is premature, and indeed wrong, "says interlocutress.
Head of the Central Commission also reported that while the parliamentary elections will take place only in 2008, "they will be discussed sooner." Preparations for the election campaign will begin in the summer-autumn of this year."We are planning to host events with activists on the ground and give them assignments relating to the delimitation of constituencies. This boundary transformed, as a permanent housing is the number of voters, "said Lydia Yermoshina.
Seven die in Russian air crash
A twin-engine Tupolev Tu-134 jet operated by regional airline YUT-Air broke into pieces as it landed in heavy weather on Saturday, killing seven of the 57 passengers and crew aboard, officials said.
Six people were trapped in the wreckage of the jet for about three hours before being freed by rescue workers.
Emergency situation ministry officials said a total of 23 people were hospitalised, while another 27 were treated by psychologists at the Samara airport, 1,100km east of Moscow.
"Our investigations into accidents... point to major faults in the professional training of crews as well as their inability to appreciate the seriousness of situations and react in an appropriate manner"
Interstate Aviation Committee report
The 2006 figures represent a six-fold increase in accidents over 2005.
"These events always reflect the shortcomings in the industry," Mikhail Fradkov, Russia's prime minister, said.
The cause of the crash in Samara was unclear, though the prosecutor general said in a statement that the plane had hit the ground 400m short of the landing strip, attributing pilot error as a preliminary cause.
The IAC report found the same culprit in over two-thirds of Russia's air accidents over the past five years.
Saturday's accident came three days after a Boeing 737 carrying 143 passengers made an emergency landing in Moscow after reporting engine problems. No one was injured in that incident.
An air safety commission announced in January that the average age of the country's international airliners was 18, and its regional jets 30.
Aviation officials announced plans in February to replace Russia's fleet of Tu-134 and Tu-154 jets with more modern aircraft, but said the process would take five years.
Russia to transport oil through the Balkans
From: RIA Novosti
On March 14-15, Russia, Bulgaria and Greece plan to sign an agreement on its construction at a trilateral summit.
Earlier this month, the parties agreed on the text of the agreement, according to which the 300-km pipeline will pump 35 million metric tons of oil a year at the first stage, with a possibility of increasing its capacity to 50 million. The project includes two sea terminals - one in Burgas able to unload 150,000-metric-ton tankers, and one in Alexandroupolis for 150,000-300,000 metric-ton-tankers. It also envisages the use of a technology that would allow different brands of oil to be pumped sequentially. The cost of the project is estimated at about 1 billion euros.
After the pipeline goes on stream, Russian oil will be shipped by sea from the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk to Burgas and then pumped to Alexandroupolis, from which it will be delivered to European, U.S. and Asia-Pacific markets.
Experts believe that if the project is implemented, the difference between the cost of pumping oil and shipping it through the straits will bring the industry an additional $1 billion annually.
The Russian participants in the project say that the route is beneficial for them. They, in turn, will help to ensure the necessary load for the pipeline. Sergei Bogdanchikov, president of the state-owned oil major Rosneft, said that "it is an absolute certainty that the pipeline will be full and supply guaranteed." He believes that the Russian companies supplying oil for the pipeline should hold a controlling stake in the pipeline consortium. Among these companies could be Rosneft, the Russian-British joint venture TNK-BP and Gazprom Neft, the oil arm of the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom.
The Russian government agrees. "After the intergovernmental agreement is signed, a company for the project will be set up, in which Russia will hold 51%, and Bulgaria and Greece will equally divide the remaining stake," said Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin. He believes that construction could be launched early next year and completed at the beginning of 2009.
The main objective of the project is to reduce dependence on the Turkish straits, through which Russian tankers carry commodities to southern Europe. Turkey has been consistently toughening the passage rules, and there are often "tanker jams" in the straits. A tanker spends an average of 20-25 days there, which affects exporters' revenues. In fact, Turkey is using the straits to put pressure on Russia, introducing restrictions on the passage of tankers from Novorossiisk. This way, it is seeking to force Russian oil producers to start using the pipeline from Baku (Azerbaijan) to Tbilisi (Georgia) to Ceyhan (Turkey), which is profitable for Turkey, but not for Russia. Turkey is becoming an increasingly important player on the oil transit market and is beginning to take advantage of its geographic location by raising transit tariffs. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is not acceptable for Russia owing to both economic (it is too expensive) and political considerations. In contrast, the Burgas-Alexandroupolis project seems a good option with regard to its economic, political and even religious (Bulgaria and Greece are Orthodox countries like Russia) aspects.
Bulgaria and Greece are also interested in the pipeline, as it will better connect southern Europe to global oil markets and provide an impetus for developing the energy sector in the Balkans. Bulgaria alone may earn $35 million a year from oil transit. Both countries will also encourage the development of their transport and port infrastructures and create new jobs.
Clearly, the new pipeline bypassing the Turkish straits will reinforce Moscow's position in its pipeline confrontation with Turkey. It will further secure Russia's foothold on the global energy market, help it to find new consumers that will not link market relations with politics, make oil deliveries cheaper and expand transit possibilities for oil exports from countries like Kazakhstan that do not have direct access to the sea.
Dr. Igor Tomberg is a senior research fellow with the Center for Energy Research at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Poland's ex-president Kwasniewski and ex-PM Miller accused of corruption
From: Free Republic
Marek Dochnal, three years ago one of the most influential lobbyists in Poland, for the past two and a half years under arrest on charges of large scale corruption, has testified that Poland's most prominent left-wing politicians accepted huge bribes back when they were in power.
Among others, Dochnal names as guillty of corruption Poland's former president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and former Prime Minister, Leszek Miller, both of Poland's previous post-communist government.
According to Marek Dochnal's recent testimonies, he himself acted as an intermediary in corruption transactions between the then Poland's top politicians and foreign companies that wanted to buy major Polish state-owned companies at stunningly low prices.
Investigative journalist Leszek Szymowski sums up the recent media revelations:
'Many Polish politicians, including ex- president and ex- prime minister took money from Marek Dochnal's customers. They had bank accounts in Switzerland. The reason of this whole affair, in my opinion, was to buy national Polish companies almost for free.'
Among other things, Dochnal was to hand in a 3 million dollar bribe to the then Prime Minister Leszek Miller for his assistance in the sale of Polish steel plants. Dochnal has also revealed, that former president Aleksander Kwaśniewski was sponsored by two German businessmen and the most prominent left-wing politicians of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance party, including Marek Siwiec, Jacek Piechota, Marek Ungier and ex- president Aleksander Kwasniewski had secret bank accounts in Switzerland.
All this exposes the criminal circumstances in which privatization was carried out in Poland under the post-communist government of Democratic Left Alliance, says investigative journalist Leszek Szymowski:
'The scandal with Marek Dochnal shows the pathologies of privatization in Poland. A foreign corporation that wanted to buy a national Polish company preferred to hire a private lobbing company, that made possible to buy it almost for free. Marek Dochnal helped to do it, because he corrupted many Polish clerks. One of them was Andrzej Pęczak, a deputy to the Polish parliament. Pęczak was arrested when prosecutors proved that he took money and a luxurious car from Dochnal.'
According to Dochnal, one of the persons involved in the illegal business transactions of Poland's left-wing government politicians was Peter Vogel, known also as Piotr Filipczyński. Back in 1971, 17-year old Vogel was sentenced to jail for burglary and gruesome murder of an elderly woman. He was paroled in 1979 and four years later, at the request of Poland's communist secret services, of which Vogel's father was a collaborator, he received a passport and was allowed to leave Poland. In the 1990s Vogel worked for western telephone companies. Although an arrest warrant was issued for him in 1987, he often traveled to Poland freely. In 1999 he was arrested in Switzerland an extradited to Poland. The very same year, Vogel was pardoned by the then Polish president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski. The prosecutor's office is investigating the circumstances of that pardon.
Today's prominent left-wing politicians of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance party deny the accusations spelled out by Marek Dochnal. Jerzy Szmajdziński:
'Nobody has the right to accuse other people without basis for it.'
The ruling Law and Justice party wants the suspicious connections of the previous post-communist government with the world of illegal business and corruption brought to light before the public opinion. MP Jędrzej Jędrych of the ruling Law and Justice party:
'Citizens should be aware of what is happening behind the scenes of decision making, who is working and helping there.'
If the Democratic Left Alliance politicians do not explain the situation convincingly, the ruling Law and Justice party is considering establishing a special parliamentary commission to investigate the criminal allegations against the former post-communist government.
Russia to build 3 nuclear plants each year from 2016
From: People's Daily
"Starting from 2016 we will be annually laying the foundation of three units, and we will think about the fourth starting from 2018-2020," Kiriyenko was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency as saying after a Friday meeting of the agency board chaired by First Vice-Premier Sergei Ivanov.
The industry will speed up the construction of nuclear power plants without governmental funding, Kiriyenko said. "We plan to enlarge the construction of nuclear power plant units at our own expense," he said, referring to the related program.
The Russian atomic energy industry will become self-supporting and build new units with its own funds by 2015, Ivanov said.
The government will allocate 674 billion rubles (26 billion U.S. dollars) from the federal budget for the industry before 2015, which will make it self-supporting, he said.
Belarus: President Is Firmly In His Saddle, Despite A Bumpier Road
The beginning of his third stint was met with an outburst of short but vehement political protests in Minsk. And the new year greeted him with a bitter dispute with Russia over gas and oil prices.
But if presidential polls were held tomorrow, 51 percent of adult Belarusians would vote for Lukashenka.
That according to a survey conducted in Belarus from 20-30 January by the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) among nearly 1,500 respondents.
It had appeared that Belarus's dispute with Russia over oil and gas prices had dealt a serious setback to Lukashenka's unwavering policy of integration with Russia. It also marked the end of Russia generously supplying Belarus with energy subsidies and political support in the international arena.
Lukashenka summed up the changed relationship during an interview with Reuters in February, in which he slammed Russia's "increasing imperial tones."
But the price hikes also threatened to hit closer to home: Would the added strain on their pocketbooks affect Belarusians' attitudes toward the government?
Belarusian political analyst Vital Silitski told RFE/RL that, for the time being, Lukashenka is not likely to face any social upheaval.
Would Belarusians protest against their government if their living standards lowered considerably? "Society has amassed a great deal of complaints and questions to the authorities," Silitski said. "There is a great deal of diverse dissatisfaction but, in my opinion, it is not poised yet to grow into shared dissatisfaction because society as a whole still acknowledges and accepts the social contract that has been imposed on it by the state."
The "social contract," Silitski explains, means an unwritten pact between society and the government, under which the government delivers a generally expected volume of economic and social benefits to people in exchange for their political loyalty. According to Silitski, the Belarusian government is still capable of meeting its terms under this informal pact.
Would Belarusians protest against their government if their living standards lowered considerably as a result of Russia's efforts to bring gas prices for Belarus to Western European levels?
NISEPI found in January that 23 percent of Belarusians were prepared to participate in street protests in the event the economic situation deteriorates, while 67 percent said they would stay home.
Belarusian political scientist Uladzimir Padhol believes that this declared protest potential in Belarus is too small to bring about any political shifts in the country. And Padhol argues that in the near future the government's propaganda machine is capable of preventing this potential from growing.
"Even if life hardships doubled, the protest potential would not increase because of a very simple reason: The [state] propaganda would immediately leap into action at full swing and point to Russian oligarchs as the culprits," Padhol said. "This is the potential of the regime, which can blame any deterioration of living standards on the energy price hikes made by Russia's leadership."
Padhol underscores that in all of his anti-Moscow tirades, Lukashenka takes the precaution to make a clear distinction between the Russian people (lauded as "the brotherly nation") and the Russian leadership (explicitly or implicitly vilified as "bad oligarchs").
NISEPI's findings in January indirectly confirm that this duality in the perception of present-day Russia is widely shared by ordinary Belarusians. When asked to choose between the two political options -- unification with Russia and membership in the EU -- 48.9 percent of those polled chose Russia, while 33.6 percent chose the EU. Thus, even after the sharp energy-price hikes, nearly half of Belarusians arguably do not perceive Russia as a hostile country.
According to Padhol, the weak protest potential in Belarusian society can also be attributed to what he sees as the Belarusian opposition parties' inability to take advantage of the changing political situation and to channel the people's dissatisfaction into the direction the opposition needs.
Lukashenka has endured a lot since his inauguration in April 2006 (epa)Somewhat sarcastically, Padhol argues that Lukashenka not only shapes the economic policy of the country but also takes the lead in protesting against it, thus defusing any genuine protest potential in society.
"During the first two months of 2007, the only man who was furiously protesting against the deterioration of life [and] the price hikes for energy resources was Lukashenka," Padhol said. "The opposition remained silent, opposition leaders were busy discussing among themselves what to do, while Lukashenka was protesting against this deterioration. Lukashenka thus appeared to be the rescuer of the nation."
Money Isn't Everything
Political analyst Silitski believes that economic hardships, even if they are a sina qua non for initiating political changes in Belarus, are not sufficient on their own. According to Silitski, people can efficiently champion their cause in protest only if they additionally share a common set of values.
"The real protest moods, the real protest potential will appear when we see a crisis of the existing social contract and, second, when this dissatisfaction and the protest moods acquire not only a pragmatic dimension but also one linked to values," Silitski said.
Judging by what NISEPI found in January, such a situation may still be far away from Belarus. When offered four different options regarding the political future of their country, 27 percent of Belarusians said they want unification with Russia, 21 percent opted for integration with the EU, 16 percent wanted to integrate with Russia and the EU simultaneously, while 25 percent rejected both Russia and the EU.
Was going to the library worth it?
From: Charter '97
In the break Radio Svaboda has asked Uta Zapf’s attitude towards statements of some opposition politicians who believe that holding the seminar was pointless, as within the three years after an agreement the Belarusian regime hasn’t done any steps in the direction of democratisation. At least, the Electoral Code hasn’t been changed yet.
The head of the OSCE Working group on Belarus answered that she understands the complexity of the situation, but she is sure there is no mistake:
“I find this seminar necessary, as not everything could be achieved in the relations between countries and organizations. We should move forwards, step by step. Every state has its time for solving its questions, in any case, the Electoral Code. I hope that we shall return to this problem later.
On the other hand, even if the Electoral Code wouldn’t be changed, but observed in full force and effect, it would be a great progress in the legal system of Belarus and would make the process more transparent and just. And the result would be better”.
A participant of the seminar, a deputy of the “council of republic” Anatol Malafeeu believes that for today the topic of relations between Belarus and the EU is becoming more of current interest than before:
“I think that the first and sensible step of the EU is to find solutions which would allow Belarus to join the EU neighbourhood policy more actively and quickly,” he stated.
Some representatives of the democratic community have come to the seminar: a former speaker of the “council of republic” Alyaksandr Vajtovich, a former deputy of the “chamber of representatives” Valery Fralou, a chairperson of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee Tatsyana Protska, the chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists Zhana Litsvina, an economist Leanid Zaika, a sociologist, professor Aleh Manaeu, a chairman of the Belarusian Congress of democratic trade unions Alyaksandr Yarashuk.
Some of the persons invited have refused to take part in the seminar. A well-known Belarusian politician, a former political prisoner Mikhail Marynich, who has refused to participate in the seminar, explains his standpoint to the Chartyer’97:
“Today, when the regime continues to keep in prisons political prisoners – Alyaksandr Kazulin, Zmitser Dashkevich, Mikola Statkevich, Paval Sevyarynets and other our friends, when young activists are persecuted for their active citizenship, when on the eve of Uta Zapf’s visit leaders of oppositional parties are detained, one shouldn’t take part in such questionable events. As a dormer political prisoner I know very well how those in prisons now need our solidarity and fidelity to principle,” Mikhail Marynich said.
As said by the politician, he is disappointed by the preparatory work to the seminar. “I am really disappointed that the organisers of the seminar, the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, have used a discriminatory principle against democratic opposition representatives. None of the opposition representatives has been entered on the list of speakers, they were not given floor. Is it a normal position for renowned international organisations? What are we invited there for? Is it to show a “picture” on TV that the democratic forces have taken part in the seminar as well? We cannot agree to this position and that is why I have refused to take part in Uta Zapf’s seminar. We can take part in these events only as equal parties, on equal terms,” the former minister and diplomat is convinced.
US missile defense in Europe could drag Russia into arms race - gen.
From: RIA Novosti
"This is a very urgent and politically important issue, and could drag us into a new arms race," Colonel-General Yury Solovyov, commander of the Air Defense Forces Special Command (former Moscow Military District Air Defense Command), told journalists.
The United States plans to deploy a radar installation in the Czech Republic and a missile base in Poland by 2011-2012, saying the shield is needed to counter possible attacks from Iran. But Russia objects to the plans, treating them as a security threat.
Solovyov said the deployment will not be a threat to Russia, but "could be bad for Russia because our potential adversaries will constantly monitor Russia's territory."
The chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Yury Baluyevsky, said in an interview with the daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta in February that unilateral U.S. action could damage the balance of power in Europe and undermine Russia's nuclear deterrence potential.
Solovyov also said the first air defense regiment equipped with a new air defense system will be put on combat duty by June 1.
"This year we plan to put on combat duty one of our regiments [equipped with S-400]," he said.
An air defense system manufacturer said February 27 the first air defense regiment equipped with new S-400 Triumf ground-to-air missile systems will be put on combat duty in the Moscow Region in the middle of 2007.
The Military-Industrial Commission, which answers directly to the Russian president, met on that day to consider prospects for a fifth-generation air defense system and building aerospace defenses in the country.
"The [new] regiment will have more [missile] batteries than regiments currently equipped with S-300 air defense systems," said Alexander Lemansky, chief designer at the Almaz Science and Production Association.
Lemansky said new S-400 systems considerably differed from S-300 systems by their effective firing range, firing capacity and other parameters.
The S-300 (SA-10 Grumble) anti-aircraft missile system was designed to protect military and industrial facilities from mass air strikes. A missile launched from the system can travel at a speed of 2,000 meters per second and is capable of hitting a target at a distance of 150 km (93 miles) flying at a height of up to 30 km (19 miles) and at a speed of up to 10,000 km/h (6,215 mph).
"The effective firing range of the new [S-400] system is twice that of the previous S-300 [system] and its firing capacity is more than double," Lemansky said.
First Deputy Prime Minister and former defense minister Sergei Ivanov, who oversees defense-related sectors and chairs today's meeting of the commission, earlier said new S-400 Triumf ground-to-air missile systems were adopted for service in late 2006 and will be placed on alert duty later this year.
Holidays: Real and Imagined
This holiday was actually celebrated only in 1994, when the Constitution was first adopted, and again in 1995. After 1996, when it was amended for the first time in what became known as Lukashenka’s coup d’etat, the opposition started organizing protests on March 15th, but they only lasted for a few years. This year, the authorities didn’t bother to stage any official celebrations. The holiday has been forgotten, even though it’s still marked on calendars. Hardly surprising at a time when “Europe’s last dictator” rules by decree and citizens have no faith in the rule of law. But this sad state of affairs didn’t stop Lukashenka from greeting his people on Constitution Day with the following statement: “The Constitution laid solid legal foundations for the establishment of a genuinely democratic state in Belarus. The principles of popular rule, the rule of law, the separation of powers and social justice that it declared have become reality today.” Sure.
I doubt his words had any impact on Belarusians, but it seems that some European politicians still believe what Lukashenka says. On March 15th, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s ad hoc group on Belarus arrived in Miensk for a roundtable with Belarusian officials and a few representatives of the opposition. Belarus is a signatory of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, as well as other international documents promising to respect human rights. But given the Lukashenka regime’s behavior over the last 13 years, the roundtable was seen as a very controversial event. Uta Zapf, the head of the ad hoc group, who has been kicked out of the country several times, was optimistic about the results and said that it was an experiment, the first step towards a real dialog. Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who was not invited to participate, pointed out that Belarusian democrats and Europe are ready for dialogue, but that the regime is not: “The government still does not feel danger in the present economic situation and in its international position.” Mikhail Marynich, a former minister and current opposition figure, turned down an invitation to attend because of the government’s crackdown on the opposition. He accused the regime of “faking” a dialogue with the West. And the state media proudly reported that Europe is ready to provide Belarus with investments and economic assistance.
Last November Brussels announced that it would offer more trade and aid to Belarus if it made progress on democracy and human rights. The offer got a cold reaction from the Belarusian government, before the “Gas War” with Russia. But with the economy beginning to hurt, the regime at least plays like it is interested. Among the 12 conditions set by the EU are free and fair elections, opposition access to the press, the release of political prisoners, and human rights. Ms. Zapf noted that the EU would hold “hard on the conditions,” but did not expect Belarus to fulfill all the 12 conditions at once; it was looking for “a step-by-step process.” I don’t know if Ms. Zapf was aware of what was going on in Miensk during her visit around Constitution Day, but Lukashenka was again blatantly demonstrating that he wasn’t interested in even pretending to fulfill any conditions.
Just a few examples of the regime’s hard work around the holiday are enough to show how it respects our constitution and its international obligations. On March 14th, the KGB raided the office of the legally registered World Association of Belarusians (Batskaushchyna) without a warrant and seized 1,000 copies of a book on anti-Soviet resistance in Belarus and other titles. The next day, the bosses of the Vitsba-3 correctional facility refused to accept food parcels for Alyaksandr Kazulin, a political prisoner under doctors’ care while recovering from a hunger strike. Three more criminal cases were launched against Young Front activists for being members of an unregistered organization and a dozen more youth activists were questioned by the KGB during the week. On the morning of the 16th, Uta Zapf met with Alyaksandr Milinkevich. That evening, KGB agents staked out his office and illegally searched the bags of everyone leaving the building (see KGB logo at left).
Constitution Day is over and the decorations have come down. Lukashenka has forgotten about the existence of our fundamental laws until next year’s anniversary. Uta Zapf’s delegation has left Miensk and the regime is no closer to fulfilling its OSCE obligations, despite its grand words about fulfilling the New Neighborhood Policy. Not one of our political prisoners has been released and more activists have been detained. The opposition is still planning to organize peaceful protests and fightinh about a spring Congress. Life goes on and, since we don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, it is a quiet Saturday. But I believe that Belarusians, and Europe, will better remember and take notice of our next holiday. On March 25th, those who believe in human rights and freedom will take to the streets and celebrate our Independence Day. The opposition has invited Rene van der Linden, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, to attend. Let’s hope the regime respects his visit better than it did that of Ms. Zapf.
From: Russia Blog
It seems like decades since the famous “Who is Mr. Putin?” brick was dropped at Davos. Instead of the supercilious eyebrows raised at a political inconnu, we now have a continually swelling plethora of articles, collections of papers, monographs, hefty volumes, memoirs, TV debates, internet forums, etc. etc., all devoted to the man and his doings. There is in fact a whole word-processing industry entirely concerned, to paraphrase Jerome K. Jerome, with what Mr. Putin has done, does do, will do, won’t do, can do, can’t do, was doing, is doing, is going to do, shall do, shan’t do, and is about to be going to have done.
A major branch of this industry, inflating by the minute in view of “problem 2008,” belabors the issue of, Will he or won’t he? Seek a third term in office, what else. There is a subdivision here: If he will not – who is most likely to succeed him? High time someone ran a tote on this, for the stakes are quite high. Much higher than in guessing which quadruped will run faster than the next.
Just as with quadrupeds, there is an exciting element of guesswork here, despite the evidence of form books and such. Some guesses are astute, others ridiculous, still others idiotic – all in a day’s work, or game. When I edited intelligent.ru (defunct now, in case you have not noticed), a certain political scientist wrote a lengthy article for it to prove that Russia’s next president would be Mr. Vladimir Yakunin, president of Russia’s Railways. The point was so thoroughly argued, and with such aplomb, that I now prick up my ears whenever I see Mr. Yakunin perform on TV. He does seem, judging by those appearances entirely, like an intelligent guy with a firm grasp on the job in hand, but – presidential material? I can only shrug my shoulders fit to dislocate one or both of them.
Still, there is a school of thought among Russia pundits, mostly abroad, that holds that Putin is keeping some unknown card up his sleeve, an heir presumptive whose name he will throw in at the eleventh hour: “Most insiders suspect there will be a last-minute stealth candidate, in keeping with how Putin himself emerged and how he operates” (see “Russia under Putin: Democracy or Dictatorship?” by Stephen Kotkin, 7 March 2007).
I do not have access to the secret suspicions of “most insiders,” or any insiders for that matter (I strongly suspect that neither has Mr. Kotkin). I am aware, though, that this is 2007 and will soon be 2008, not 1999; that Mr. Putin is not Mr. Yeltsin, nor does he “operate” like the latter – rather the reverse, judging by the results the two men have achieved; and that there is simply no need for Vladimir Putin to spring any dark horse on an apathetic electorate that would welcome the devil himself just to be rid of the incumbent, of whom the said electorate was sick and tired to the point of nausea and beyond.
There are several quite obvious things that Mr. Putin is doing on this issue of “succession.” These things are there for all to see and draw conclusions from, and it is not Mr. Putin’s fault that pundits prefer to invent more pundit-like, convoluted schemata, to bolster their reputations for acuity in the spin business.
Point one: Putin keeps saying, or rather trying to drum into his listeners’ consciousness, that Russia has got to learn the basics of democracy, including respect for the Constitution; that he will not therefore succumb to the entreaties of either the broad public or sections of the elite that have done particularly well during his tenure to seek a third term in office. No use drawing parallels with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms; all that is journalist talk, Russia in the early 21st century is not USA in the 20th, and he will step aside come 2008, whatever the 32nd US president may have done in his time.
Point two: Putin says that he does not intend to appoint his successor. There is indeed absolutely no need for him to make any dramatic announcements on New Year’s Eve, like his predecessor did in a move that had the country so delighted with his stepping down that it swallowed the “successor” bit (although this writer is on record as expressing at the time his rather fierce disgust not just with such an undemocratic procedure but also with Mr. Putin for going along with it). Right now Mr. Putin merely reserves the right – vouchsafed to any citizen of Russia – to express his preference for someone whom he would like to see as the country’s next president. If lots of people follow his tip, well, that’s the people’s own business. Nothing undemocratic about a personal opinion – everyone is entitled to it.
Point three: Putin is putting into positions of prominence and responsibility valued members of his team, particularly Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, where they have lots of public exposure and where their success or failure at their highly important, crucial tasks is there for all to see. That’s a far cry from undemocratic tricks like unexpectedly throwing Mr. Kotkin’s, or his mythical insiders’ “stealth candidates” into the works. Practically the whole electorate has ringside seats right now, so there is a good case for Vladimir Putin’s assertion that it is the people of Russia who will decide what president they want.
As matters stand at the moment, lots of people in the Russian street have already made their decision (or so I hear as I keep my ear to the ground): Sergei Ivanov for president (he has had more exposure to international affairs and looks and acts more “paternal”); Dmitry Medvedev for premier (he is younger and has more of the air of a technocrat about him). As we say in Russian, vozmozhny varianty “other scenarios are possible” (some point to Foreign Minister Lavrov as a presidential possibility), but a “stealth candidate” is not one of them. In this situation, only the self-appointed, mostly Transatlantic Russia watchers, pundits etc. may feel that nagging need for a “stealth candidate.” One wonders why – to make Russia appear more of a political jungle than it really is, perhaps? To bolster their cherished view of Putin as a grey KGB colonel with his sinister, KGB ways?
In the situation as it is shaping up in reality, not in some analysts’ fevered imagination, I would say that Putin will not even need to announce his preference for a specific individual. He may just say, “Dear voters, dear deeply respected people of Russia! I have put enough capable men in the limelight; you have seen them tested in serving your interests, so please make your choice, free and fair.”
Privately, he may feel completely confident that the choice will be as indicated above. If it is, the people of Russia will feel satisfied that things will not slip back to the 1990s sort of shambles. The Putin regime will continue without Putin in his present slot, the transition will be accomplished smoothly, without upheavals, bloody strife, August 1998-like “defaults,” “sovereignty parades,” or the like. And that’s democracy enough for Russia at the present stage.
The question remains, of course, what Mr. Putin himself is going to do in his afterlife, and how Russian democracy will evolve from its current state. There are some promising possibilities there. I hope to discuss them in a separate piece.
Belarus appeal is rejected by Court of Arbitration for Sport
On October 11, the UEFA Control and Disciplinary Body rejected the protest. Belarus appealed the decision to the UEFA Appeals Body but this was dismissed on October 27 at a hearing in UEFA headquarters, Nyon, following submissions from Belarus, the FAI and the UEFA disciplinary inspector.
On November 21 Belarus lodged an appeal to CAS. Both UEFA and the FAI made lengthy submissions on the lack of jurisdiction of CAS to hear the case and the lack of grounds for Appeal by Belarus.
This week three CAS Arbitrators - Prof. Hass, Germany (Chairman), Ms. Brilliantova, Russia and Dr. Netzle, Switzerland met to consider the appeal and submissions by UEFA and FAI. They ruled that the Belarus appeal should be dismissed and ordered that Belarus pay 1,000 Swiss francs towards UEFA’s legal fees.
An FAI Spokesman said: “We welcome this decision by CAS which confirms the Republic of Ireland’s place in the elite phase of the UEFA U19 Championships and the FAI looks forward to hosting Bulgaria, Germany and Hungary in May.”
- Note: Perhaps you can see from the tone of this piece why Belarus has not been so open to European advances. If you can't see it, you're not invited either.
Mixed up in Minsk:
Everywhere is evidence of a country both startlingly new yet exhausted by history, says Sam Knight
From: Tines On-Line
A few minutes later, the delay was resolved. “It is Tupolev,” she said.
I never quite understand the rules governing international borders in airports, but it is accurate to say that we started to arrive in Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship and Soviet boutique state, the moment we climbed through the door of the Belavia Tupolev-154 on a distant runway of Warsaw airport.
Entering the aircraft, a Cold War curio, its brand name redolent of Aeroflot emergencies, was to step into décor that is probably enjoying at least its second fashionable revival in some hip western circles. Rust flickered the door and a grey mouldy fuzz was happening around the limits of the blue carpet. The safety information card was sprinkled with English that might have been jotted down during former disasters – “Fire!” “Thick Smoke!” “Debris and Obstructions!” – and laser disc players, capriciously, were banned. But when the engines, all packed, rocket-like in the tail, were fired, the jet rattled merrily and started to roll, then faster, and blasted off into the darkness and the east.
Before leaving for Minsk, I had two conversations, entirely contradictory, that remained in my head throughout my three-day visit. I had confided in Iryna, my attentive travel agent who keeps a string of pleasant apartments in the city, that I was a journalist. Would that be a problem for my visa? She scoffed. “Belarus is very open country,” she said. But then there was the political analyst in Slovakia who I had also spoken to about my trip. “You will be there in March, which is the national protest time,” she said. “You will be followed of course, but just act naturally.”
So what was it to be, this holiday? A break in a touristless, culturally-interesting eastern European city, or a short sentence in an authoritarian, spy-ridden society, whose ruler, Alexander Lukashenka, a former chicken farmer, has done his best to preserve a corner of the world that is forever USSR? In case you think I managed to figure out the answer to Belarus in three days, I think it’s fair to warn you now: it’s a nyet.
Everything, more or less, that we saw and did carried elements of the mixture that makes Belarus at once energising and depressing, weird and sad. In its tiny banknotes, shop windows and policemen’s hats, everywhere there is evidence of a country that is both startlingly new – despite having its own culture for centuries Belarus only became properly independent in 1990 – and yet exhausted by history.
The government is a dictatorship but wages are rising. Everyone speaks Russian rather than Belarusian yet no one wants to be part of Russia. Belarusians are charming and swear they have the most beautiful country on earth and at the same time are routinely described as unhappy and have the second highest divorce rate on the planet. What can you possibly make of it all?
Landing in the freezing fog at Minsk airport and catching sight of the moustachioed, variously-uniformed set of guards preparing to meet our Tupolev, I didn’t feel much like finding out. Things didn’t improve when it turned out we didn’t have enough cash on us to afford our visas (two words: bring dollars) and had to be traipsed, under (moustachioed) guard, to a dark little bureau de change where two women peered suspiciously at our English banknotes.
But, documents in order, our trip was brightened when we met Yuriy, the Minsk end of Belarus Rent, the agency we used to organise the holiday, who drove us fast down the spookily empty highway towards the city. “We had communism bullshit,” he said. “And now we have democracy bullshit.” A relief. Here was humour, here were streetlights, here were restaurants, Europe's frontier. So why did our papers, on closer inspection, have us invited by a company we had never dealt with and staying at a hotel we had never heard of? We never asked, and we never found out.
Minsk on a radiant, snow-melt morning is beautiful. The streets are wide and maniacally clean. Indeed, the only public officials we saw with as much in the way of uniforms and materiel as the many, many police were Minsk’s battalions of street sweepers. It is also simply arranged, so if, like us, you can’t read Russian or Belarusian, you can still find your way around. The main, charging road, a six-lane monster of tractors, old-school Soviet trucks and hordes of imported European cars, is Nenavisimosti (Independence) Avenue. Until three years ago it was called Francis Skaryna Avenue, after Belarus’s great hero of the printing press, and people still call it that, but such is Minsk.
Walking around the centre of the city, with its parks, icy river and neo-classical design, is to feel close to something very White and Russian (the meaning of the word Belarus). It takes a great effort to remember – really you need to stop walking and say the words out loud, see the heat of them in the air – that 95 per cent of Minsk was destroyed during the Second World War, that only three large buildings remained standing. Almost every edifice around you has a similar vintage to the Royal Festival Hall.
Get to grips with this in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. A grey, office-block of a building next door to the city’s massive Palace of Culture (where last year 25,000 protesters gathered to object to Mr Lukashenka’s latest election victory), it is a-topped with the Russian words: “The Feats of the People Will Live Forever.” Buy your ticket and stumble in.
Once again, we couldn’t read any of the signs in these jumbled, war-darkened rooms, but the chronology of the museum is clear: the Germans come, the partisans fight back and some are hanged, the Jews are taken and killed, the Russians arrive and the Nazis are swept back across Belarus’s ruined surface. This is no Imperial War Museum, with diligent reconstructions, on-leave romances and 1940s ditty-music in the background. It is a terrible bag of memories, of photographs, of Nazi pamphlets, of raw junk – guns of every calibre, coats, gloves, small shoes, ankle-chains, watches that have stopped.
Between a quarter and a third of the country's 10 million people died during the Second World War. In 1941, there were around 50,000 Jews in Minsk, making up about 40 per cent of the population. More than 100,000 were eventually killed in the city and its environs – brought from western Europe – in the following three years. We walked around, the only tourists in the halls. Women in each room turned the lights on and off as we made our way.
Don’t be put off by the firm, large doors to the Belarusian State Art Museum on Lenin Street. I was convinced the place, with its chunky columns and colonnade, was closed until a sturdy Belarusian woman heaved her way in. What are more off-putting are the prices, nearly £8 – a wopping 28,000 Belarusian roubles – for not all that much. But if you do brave it, make your way past the glossy, hackneyed-feeling contemporary work to a quiet, red-walled gallery of Russian nineteenth-century art, where landscapes by Ilyat Repin and intense, involving forest scenes by Ivan Shishkin will transport you out of the city altogether.
Although, in keeping with the double-edge nature of the Belarus experience, as we left the museum we passed a group of prancing schoolchildren taking pictures on a digital camera. As you will see, now and again, one of the boys had the gaunt features of a leukaemia victim, a reminder that, even after everything else, Belarus received 80 per cent of the fall out from the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and child mortality remains high as a result.
Here is a democratically incorrect thing to say: the fear instilled by Belarus’s authoritarian regime and many, many police make it a nice safe place for tourists to walk around. I had never travelled in eastern Europe before but my friend, Charlie, had, and he recounted several occasions in Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic when he has been stopped by officials wanting spurious fines and hassled by other troublesome characters. None of this in Minsk, I can tell you. The calm may be that of a muted, politically rotten society, but it is genuine and I am sad to say (this is Belarus, how could it be any other way?) that my happiest, most memorable moments in Minsk came wandering, unmolested, knocking on doors and hanging around places that in another country I might have left alone.
We found a honey festival supervised by nuns in what might have been a public library. We shopped in the crowds of Belarusian families in GUM, the main department store. We pushed at the closed door of the Orthodox church of St Simon and Elena and came across a shuffling huddle of Minsk women, singing their morning prayers. One night we went out to the cold brown suburbs to a student club called Graffiti and watched some Belarusian jazz. Another we stood at midnight, by the eternal flame and great Soviet obelisk to Minsk’s war dead and took photographs in the empty square.
A word on food. The Belarusians know their potatoes. During one explanation of yet another incomprehensible menu, a Belarusian friend gestured to half the page and said: “Yes, from here down, these are all potato pancakes.” But they are often excellent potatoes. We ate a very good meal at Talaka Strauniy, a basement place in the Njamiha district of the city, where the menus are made of doors (that’s right), the kvas was mellow and tasty and we were presented with a perfect platter of cold meats. Otherwise there was a certain amount of pointing and hoping, cups of delicious coffee in the two dinky cafes, London and Stary Mensk, on Nenavisimosti Avenue, and a welcome Japanese meal, at Planeta Sushi, a few doors down.
We left on International Women’s Day, a Soviet holiday still celebrated, not surprisingly, with some fervour in Belarus. Walking in their furs, their high fake leather boots, the ladies of Minsk were carrying flowers. It was sunny, there was less traffic on the roads but the shops were full. Yuriy came, picked us up and drove stomach-stoppingly fast out of the city, at one point chasing a siren – “It is Russian national sport! Chase police car!” – before finally slowing down. Then we saw in the sun what had only been outlined in lights when we arrived a few nights before: Minsk’s astonishing, brand new, National Library of Belarus, a 23-storey diamond with as much floor space as the British Library, looming to the right of the highway. A monument to knowledge and truth, built by a dictator. Another Belarusian thing.