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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

President: Prepare for international tension, Union State, Inflation, Exports, Tourism, Sanctions, Embassy, UK spin Dr, Bike Path and Polish scandals

  • From the Top...
  • #291

    President: Belarus should be prepared for intensification of international tension

    From: BelTA
    President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko holding the meeting on enhancing defence capacity of, the rule of law and security in Belarus
    Belarus should be prepared for intensification of tension in the world, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said during a meeting on enhancing defence capacity of the state, the rule of law and security in Belarus on March 18.

    “In the near future the situation in the world and around Belarus may get tenser, which will require an adequate response from us and taking into account the national interests and security of Belarus and the Belarusian people,” Alexander Lukashenko noted.

    “The deployment of the US Ballistic Missile Defence System in the vicinity of our borders has become virtually a fact, which would undermine the strategic stability,” Alexander Lukashenko said. Russia has recently officially suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe as it felt the external threat was being building up and a real danger approaching its borders, he added. According to him, the situation around the treaty on the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles is also getting quite ambiguous.

    The precedent with respect to the declaration of independence by Kosovo has vividly shown that many countries apply double standards, Alexander Lukashenko said. We have a new real threat of unilateral revision of borders and changing of the political map of Europe, he said. “Today the dander of separatism is as pressing for many countries as never before. As we have learnt from the recent events, a new hotspot has appeared on the map of the world. In fact, Kosovo is in war today. All this leads to changes in today’s architecture of the European security,” the President added.

    USA aggravates situation around Belarus by actions with regard to Belneftekhim, Alexander Lukashenko says

    By its actions with regard to Belneftekhim companies the USA has been aggravating the situation around Belarus, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko said at a session on enhancing defence capacity of the state, the rule of law and security in Belarus.

    “I would like to say that it is not deadly for the country. We have been living and continue living under the so-called sanctions and will continue living,” Alexander Lukashenko said. According to him, the point is that the situation around the country is being aggravated, and the fact that the sanctions have been imposed is a testimony to it.

    “The political and especially military-political situation around us is changing fast. By breaching its obligations under the safeguards memorandum of December 1994, following Belarus’ accession to the NPT, the USA imposed and extended sanctions against Belneftekhim. They have once again showed their cynical attitude to the international law,” the head of state said.

    By way of a reminder, Alexander Lukashenko said that Belarus had been promised that nuclear weapons should be carried away from its territory without any conditions and restrictions.

    “We did it and signed the memorandum. Back then the USA, Russia and other states pledged they would treat our country in a manner fitting this humane act, would provide support in every way and would never apply any economic or other sanctions. Little time has passed and what do we see in reality? And what does Belneftekhim have to do with the business? What does democratization have to do with it? It is clear why this step has been taken,” the President said.

    People in Belarus live peacefully and comfortably, Alexander Lukashenko says

    The situation in Belarus is calm, people live comfortably, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on March 18 at the meeting on enhancing defence capacity of the state, the rule of law and security in Belarus.

    The aim of this extended meeting is “to preserve this peace and security for our people,” he said.

    It is only if there is cohesion between the national government bodies and law enforcement bodies, if we can adapt rapidly to a new environment that will determine whether we’ll succeed in ensuring intensive economic development and intensive development of the social sector, in enhancing the defence capacity of Belarus and the effectiveness of our law enforcement agencies, in guaranteeing security and safe life for our citizens and making Belarus truly strong and prosperous, said the Head of State.

    Foreign Ministry of Belarus strongly recommends USA embassy in Minsk reduce number of personnel

    The Foreign Ministry of Belarus strongly recommends the USA embassy in Minsk reduce the number of personnel, BelTA was told in the ministry.

    “On March 17, Charge d’Affaires a.i. of the United States of America to the Republic of Belarus Jonathan Moore was summoned to the Foreign Ministry of Belarus where he was repeatedly informed about the insistent recommendation of the Belarusian side to reduce the number of personnel of the US embassy in Minsk,” the Foreign Ministry noted.

    A reminder, in connection with the sanctions imposed by the USA on the Belneftekhim concern companies the ambassador of the Republic of Belarus to the USA, Mikhail Khvostov, was called off to Minsk for consultations. Simultaneously the government of Belarus suggested US ambassador in Minsk Karen Stewart depart Belarus for the same purpose. Karen Stewart departed Belarus on March 12 as required by the Belarusian side.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    It’s easier to ensure stable gradual development in Belarus-Russia Union State, Sergei Martynov says

    From: BelTA
    It is easier to ensure stable gradual development within the framework of the Belarus-Russia Union State, Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov told BelTA.

    “The Union State of Belarus and Russia has not been intended as a short-term undertaking. I am sure that neither Belarus nor Russia is interested in integration for the sake of integration, in the process for the sake of the process. We want the integration to lead to progress in economic and social spheres. The people should feel real benefits from the political decisions which we have passed or are reaching in our integration with Russia,” the Minister noted.

    The present relations of Belarus and Russia are unprecedented in many parameters. In 2007, the trade between the two countries hit $26 billion. The sides are equalizing the conditions for economic entities and social conditions for concrete people – citizens of both the states. “Therefore nobody can assert that our union is not a reality. In everyday life it yields real and substantial benefits for our countries and for our peoples. The union produces tangible results. When searching for the most efficient forms of the integration we need to take into consideration the realities and needs, find such variants which would ensure the mutual strengthening of the two independent states,” Sergei Martynov is sure.

    “It’s impossible not to notice things in our relations, which do not really exist but which are created artificially and on purpose in order to drag out, complicate or even completely break up the integration process. Any difficulties in Belarusian-Russian integration, even the tiniest of them, become covered with such a thick layer of legends that you easy to lose connection with reality. Speaking frankly, for many our union with Russia is like a stick in a throat.”

    Sergei Martynov said that much work is still ahead but the main point today is that the two sides understand the integration is much needed.

    Foreign investors show interest in Belarus, Sergei Martynov says

    The interest of foreign investors in Belarus has been growing for the past several years, Foreign Minister of Belarus Sergei Martynov told BelTA.

    This is a practical rather than theoretical interest as attested to by the growing foreign investment in Belarus’ real production sector. In 2002 foreign investment in Belarus amounted to $722.2 million, while in 2004 the investment increased more than twofold to $1.5 billion. For the past three years it has upped 3.5 times to $5.4 billion.

    “Yet, the proposals of foreign investors do not appear out of the blue, so to speak. They rather come as a result of the system-based work of the Government to improve the business-climate in the country. The recent measures were the abolishment of the golden share rule, introduction of the declaratory principle in business registration, unprecedented benefits to companies created in the towns with a population under 50,000,” Sergei Martynov said.

    Belarus is the only CIS country that has adopted the Investment Code to stimulate investment activity and protect investors’ rights. The mission of the Consultative Council for Foreign Investment headed by the Prime Minister is to enhance the investment climate in the country. Belarus has also set up the National Investment Agency, six free economic zones which have been granted preferential terms of activity. Belarus is the CIS leader in terms of economic development. The country is distinguished by the beneficial geographical position - between the European Union and the Russian Federation. By arriving in Belarus, an investor gets an access to the vast Russian market and the markets of the Customs Union member states. “And these are not all the advantages that Belarus offers as an investment destination,” the Foreign Minister said.

    Russia is ranked first among Belarus’ main investors. In 2007, Russian investments accounted for 33.5% of the total investments in Belarus. Other investors are Great Britain ($860.7 million, or 15.9% of the total foreign investments), Switzerland - $606.4 million, or 11.2%; Austria - $594.3 million, or 11%. For the past several years Switzerland has been our main direct investor. In 2007, the volume of Swiss direct investment made up $580.3 million, or 44.2% of the total direct investments. In Belarus there are a great many joint and foreign companies created with the participation of American, German, Polish and Lithuanian capital.

    It’ll take time to bring Belarus-EU onto brand new level, Sergei Martynov says

    According to him, 2007 and expired term of 2008 were characterized by some positive moments in the Belarus-EU interaction. “Yet, it is too early to speak about some stable tendency in the development of our bilateral relations. For too long these relations have been stagnant. So far the two sides do not trust fully each other. Therefore it is no use waiting for some immediate change in the relations,” the Foreign Minister said.

    “Both we and our European partners realize there is a need to search for new approaches to the development of the bilateral dialogue. It is not time we got rummaged in the past trying to understand who was right and who was wrong for the present situation when there is almost a complete absence of contacts. What is most important today is to elaborate a strategy of changing this situation for the better. We believe the gradual movement in this direction is the only possible way,” Sergei Martynov said.

    According to him, the testament to the intentions of the Belarusian side is the signing of the agreement on opening a Delegation of the European Commission in Minsk on March 7, 2008 in Brussels. The Belarusian side sees the EC Delegation as an instrument to promote cooperation between Belarus and the EU in the areas of common interests. These are, for example, energy, development of trans-European transport corridors, cooperation in the protection of shared borders, development of the border infrastructure, fight against illegal migration, human trafficking, organised crime, implementation of trans-frontier programmes and projects in environmental protection.

    “The essence of Minsk’s proposals to Brussels is to refuse from politicizing pragmatic cooperation in the areas of mutual interests of Belarus and the EU,” the Foreign Minister stressed.

  • Economics...

    Belarus’ inflation at 3.2% in January-February

    From: BelTA
    In February 2008, the consumer price index increased by 3.2% from December last year. The prices grew 0.7% in February over January 2008, BelTA learnt from the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis. In January-February, inflation in Belarus was at the level of 2.6%,

    Inflation grew 1.6% per month, while the forecast provides for 0.6%.

    In line with the main monetary policy guidelines of Belarus for 2008, the inflation is projected within 6-8%.

    According t the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis, in February the prices for foods inched up 0.8% over January 2008, 2.1% over December 2007. The prices in public catering places upped by 0.8% in February, by 1.2% over December 2007. Nonfoods went up in prices by 0.5%, by 1% over December 2007.

    The tariffs for paid services to the population edged up by 0.6%, and by 9% over December last year. The biggest increase was seen in the tariffs for heating services.

    The prices for industrial goods increased by 0.9% in February 2008 over January 2008 (for intermediate goods by 1.1%, means of production by 0.8% and consumer goods – 0.6%). The biggest increase was registered in the petrochemical industry.

    According to the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis, the tariffs for freight traffic went up by 0.3% in February, 7.1% over December 2007.

    In January-February, Belarus’ GDP was 9.9% up to Br16.1 trillion. In 2008, GDP is expected to increase by 8-9%, BelTA was told in the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis.

    Industry generated 32.1% of the GDP, transport and communications – 8.7%, trade and public catering – 10.4%, construction – 6.8%, agriculture – 1.9%.

    Belarus' foreign trade reaches $5.5 billion in January

    In January 2008, Belarus foreign trade of goods and services reached $5.5 billion, 59.5% up over January 2007, BelTA learnt from the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis.

    Exports grew 71.8% to reach $2.8 billion, imports went up by 48.7% to $2.7 billion. Belarus trade surplus made up $33.4 million (the 2008 projections are a $1400-1420 million deficit).

    The ministry noted that against January 2007 average export prices grew 39.6%, import prices – 22.5%.

    Foreign trade in goods in January 2008 made up $5.077 billion, including exports of $2.477 billion and imports of $2.601 billion. Exports of goods in actual prices grew 77.9% as against January 2007, imports – 48.4%.

    The major reason of foreign trade deficit was export-import operations with energy goods. Thus, energy carriers trade deficit totaled $264.5 million, 2.1 times up from January 2007.

    At the same time the situation was better in the foreign trade of other intermediate goods – in January 2008 trade surplus made up $7 million (in January 2007 – trade deficit of $77.9 million).

    Besides, in January 2008 the country reached trade surplus in investment goods - $108 million (in January 2007 trade deficit made up $121.7 million). Trade surplus in consumer goods in January 2008 totaled $28.7 million as against $32.9 million of trade deficit in January 2007.

    Foreign trade in services in January 288 reached $444.9 million, 31.8% up from the same period 2007. Exports of services grew 31.9% up to $288.1 million, imports – 31.5% up to $156.8 million.

    Belarus’ export of petroleum products reported up 72.8 percent in January

    From: Naveny
    Belarus exported 1,474,300 tons of petroleum products in January 2008, which was 72.8 percent more than in the first month of 2007, said the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis.

    Belarus reportedly exported 1,318,200 tons of petroleum products to non-CIS countries, the main export destination, which was 68.6 percent more than in January 2007. A total of 156,100 tons of petroleum products was exported to CIS countries, a 120-percent year-on-year increase.

    Belarus imported 2,036,600 tons of crude oil, a 140-percent increase, and 111,100 tons of petroleum products, a 41-percent rise, according to the statistics ministry.

    In January 2008, Belarus exported 370,000 tons of potash fertilizers, 16.5 percent more than in January 2007; 10,700 tons of chemical fibers, 18.7 percent less; 5,108 tractors, 15.9 percent more; 681 truck-tractors, 12.9 percent more; 364 metal-cutting machine tools, 18.2 percent more; 227,600 tons of iron and steel, 3.3 percent more; 7,800 tons of steel wire cord, 36.3 percent more; 276,300 tires, 21.9 percent more; and 3.9 million square meters of fiberboard, 2.2 percent more.

    Belarus also exported 68,200 refrigerators and freezers, a 4.1-percent year-on-year decrease, and 14,300 tons of furniture, a 5.2-percent decrease.

    The nation imported 2.3 billion cubic meters of natural gas, 13.9 percent more than in January 2007; 157,500 tons of iron and steel, 15.9 percent less; and 8,777 cars, 18.6 percent less.

    In January 2008, Belarus imported 499 tons of retail-packaged medicines, or 10.9 percent less than in the first month of 2007; 768 tons of cotton fiber, 25.4 percent more; 8,121 tons of vegetable oil, 23.6 percent less; and 10,500 tons of frozen fish, 0.2 percent more.

    Some 5,3mln foreigners visit Belarus in 2007

    From: BelTA
    In 2007, 5,3 million foreigners from 121 countries worldwide visited Belarus, Belarusian Minister of Sport and Tourism Alexander Grigorov noted during a presentation of the Belarusian tourist potential in the Belarusian Embassy in the Russian Federation on March 18.

    In 2007, the number of foreign guests increased by 300 thousand people as against 2006. By 2010 the number of foreign tourists is expected to hit 7, 5 million.

    According to Alexander Grigorov, not only citizens of the CIS member states but people from other countries actively visit Belarus. In particular, the number of tourists from China, the Netherlands, Great Britain and other countries is growing.

    Belarus tourist industry to be presented at exhibition Inturmarket in Moscow

    Tourist industry of Belarus has been presented at the exhibition Inturmarket in Moscow. The tourist forum was held in the Russian capital on March 15-18, BelTA learnt from Viktor Yankovenko, the director of the tourism department of the Ministry of Sports and Tourism of Belarus.

    According to him, Belarus takes part in the exhibition annually. Attending the forum will be the Belarus National Tourism Agency, the committees for physical culture and sports of the Vitebsk and Gomel oblast executive committees, Thentrokurort Centre of the Presidential Property Management Directorate, tourist-information centre Minsk, Victoria Hotel, companies Top Tour, Tourlux, Belinturist and others. They will showcase national reserves of Belarus, resorts and the best tourist programmes. Belarusian folk groups will take part in the Moscow forum as well.

    Taking part in Inturmarket were 52 countries worldwide. All the CIS member states and Russian regions will attend the forum.

    The Belarusian delegation was led by Minister of Sport and Tourism Alexander Grigorov who took part in the session of the CIS Tourism Council which was scheduled on March 17.

    The exhibition Inturmarket is held under the auspices of the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism, Russia’s Presidential Property Management Directorate, the Federal Service for Transport Control, the Russian Railways, the Russian Union of Tourist Industry, the Russian Hotel Association. Participants of the forum will have an opportunity to establish new business contacts with representatives of tourist market of various countries, share experience and identify the price policy for the forthcoming spring-summer season.

  • From the international press...

    Lukashenka slams United States over sanctions against Belnaftakhim

    From: Naveny
    The United States is stirring up tension with regard to Belarus by its sanctions against Belnaftakhim, Alyaksandr Lukashenka said while speaking at a government conference on security, defense, and law and order, BelaPAN reported.

    “In violation of its commitments under a December 1994 memorandum on security guarantees in connection with Belarus’ accession to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the USA introduced and then expanded sanctions against the enterprises of Belnaftakhim, thereby revealing its cynical attitude toward international law,” the Belarusian leader said.

    According to him, the United States acted in violation of its commitment not to apply measures of economic compulsion in exchange for the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Belarus. “We did that and signed that memorandum,” he said. “The USA, Russia and other states then pledged that owing to this humane act, they would treat our country accordingly, support it by every possible means and in no way apply any measures [against Belarus] in the economic and other spheres. Little time has passed and what do we see in reality? And what has Belnaftakhim to do with it? What has democratization to do with it? It’s clear why this step was taken.”

    Mr. Lukashenka pointed out that the US sanctions are not fatal to Belarus. “We lived before, live now under their so-called sanctions and will continue to live,” he said.

    Minsk recalled its ambassador to the USA, Mikhail Khvastow, on March 7 "for consultations" after the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a statement with regard to the applicability of the financial sanctions imposed by the Department against Belnaftakhim (Belneftekhim), Belarus’ state petrochemical conglomerate, in November 2007 over human rights abuses.

    The sanctions included freezing any assets under US jurisdiction belonging to Belnaftakhim and barring US citizens from doing business with Belnatfakhim, and applied to its offices in Germany, Latvia, Ukraine, Russia and China, and its US subsidiary identified as Belneftekhim USA, Inc.

    “U.S. persons who have or who are contemplating business relationships with entities in which Belneftekhim owns, directly or indirectly, a 50% or greater interest should be aware that the property and interest in property of such entities are blocked pursuant to E.O. 13405 [Executive Order of June 16, 2006], regardless of whether the entities themselves are listed in the annex of E.O. 13405 or otherwise placed on OFAC’s list of Specially Designated Nationals,” OFAC said in the statement.

    Karen Stewart, the US ambassador to Belarus, left the country on March 12 at the urgent request of the Belarusian government.

    Lukashenka sounds alarm over increasing tension in world

    In a related story, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has sounded alarm over what he called a tense situation that might soon arise around Belarus and elsewhere in the world, state-run media outlets said.

    Speaking at a government meeting on defense and security on Wednesday, the Belarusian leader said that US missile-defense shield sites in Poland and the Czech Republic were "in fact a closed issue." He said that they would "undermine stability."

    Mr. Lukashenka recalled that Russia had recently suspended its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty "feeling an increasing outside threat."

    He said that the "situation also was controversial" regarding the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

    Mr. Lukashenka said that Kosovo's declaration of independence had revealed "double standards" applied by many countries, and had given grounds for a "real threat that borders can be revised unilaterally." "As we know from recent events, one more hot spot has appeared on the planet's map in fact. Battles are taking place in Kosovo today in fact. This brings about changes in the modern architecture of European security," he said.

    Mr. Lukashenka expressed the opinion that the situation in Belarus was "calm" and people lived in a "comfortable" way.
    He called on the government and law-enforcement agencies to take "well-coordinated and efficient" efforts to establish conditions for intensive economic growth, the country's stronger defense capability, and the security and peaceful life of the citizens.

    Envoy says US set to bow to Belarus call for embassy cuts

    From: AFP and IHT
    Washington is likely to bow to Belarus' call to cut its embassy staff in Minsk to avoid breaking diplomatic ties altogether amid a row over sanctions, the US ambassador to Minsk said Tuesday.

    "At this stage, having considered everything, I think it is very important to keep an embassy there," Karen Stewart told AFP when asked if the United States would respond to Minsk's demands or risk seeing the mission closed.

    Stewart left the ex-Soviet state last week on what the embassy said was a "temporary" basis after Belarus recommended she depart amid a diplomatic row over US economic sanctions on Belarussian oil monopoly Belneftekhim.

    Belarus also recalled its own ambassador to Washington, and on Monday asked the United States to further reduce its embassy staff in the country.

    Stewart said it wanted equal numbers of diplomats working at the US embassy in Minsk, where there are about 35 staff, and in the Belarussian embassy in Washington, which employs about 20.

    She said the staff issue should be resolved next week, adding: "It is a meaningful cut because we feel like we don't have an overstaffed embassy.

    "We think we are staffed for what is right and appropriate for the responsibilities we have there and for our security concerns. This includes our security people, our Marine Guards and all that."

    Concerning the departure of Belarussian ambassador Mikhail Khovostov from the United States, she said: "We hope he will come back and he is welcome too. There is nothing on our side to keep him from coming."

    The US sanctions on Belneftekhim's foreign assets aim to put pressure on the administration to allow democratic freedoms and release political prisoners. Belarus said they were a "crude violation" of international law.

    US ambassador to Belarus not expecting quick return to Minsk

    In a related story, the U.S. ambassador to Belarus, who left the country under pressure from the Belarusian government, said Tuesday she has no immediate plans to return and is not sure whether she would be allowed to.

    Karen Stewart told The Associated Press Tuesday that she returned to Washington after the government threatened to expel her in retaliation to U.S. sanctions.

    "I was not expelled, but they made it clear that that would be the next step if I did not leave," she said.

    The Belarusian Embassy in Washington had no immediate comment Tuesday.

    The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday that it had summoned the senior remaining U.S. diplomat to convey the "strong advice of the Belarusian side to cut the number of the U.S. Embassy personnel."

    The ministry statement did not specify what reductions it demanded.

    Stewart says the United States is considering the demand. But she added: "We don't think it is a warranted request."

    The United States would like her to return soon, but Belarus has indicated that should not happen before it sends its own ambassador back to Washington, Stewart said.

    "They have not signaled when he would come back," she added.

    Stewart says the tension has been difficult and she was disappointed to leave Minsk.

    "If I am smiling now, it means that I have pulled myself a bit out of the dumps," she said. "I love my job, but the last couple of weeks have not been all that pleasant."

    Thatcher adviser mulls Belarus role

    From: BBC
    Advertising and public-relations executive Lord Bell, best known for his advisory role in Margaret Thatcher's three successful UK general election campaigns, has confirmed he has met and is hoping to advise a man described by the US as "Europe's last dictator".

    Lord Bell helped set up advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi and was regarded as an instrumental figure in the Conservatives' general election victories under Lady Thatcher.

    He advised her on interview techniques, what to wear - even her hairstyle.

    Now he is hoping to secure a new client - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

    Lord Bell told me: "I went to see him, at his request. He's asked me to put a proposal together about how his image could be improved."

    Alexander Lukashenko has been President of Belarus since 1994 - and it is no understatement to say that international diplomatic niceties have not been a top priority for him.

    And there is no shortage of countries that will strongly criticise his regime. Take US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who described Belarus as the "last true dictatorship" of central Europe.

    The UK - together with the rest of the European Union, and the US - has imposed a visa ban on Mr Lukashenko and other top Belarussian officials.

    Last week, the American Ambassador to Belarus was asked to leave the country.

    Political enemies

    Alexander Lukashenko's government has a reputation for jailing its political enemies or forcing them into exile. Others have simply disappeared.

    Russian television even reported recently that traffic police in Minsk used civilian vehicles, with their owners still inside, to block roads in order to catch speeding drivers.

    This is a country some distance from the European mainstream.

    So why would a highly respected public-relations executive want to get involved with Belarus?

    Lord Bell is not keen to say too much before any possible deal to work for President Lukashenko.

    But I understand he strongly believes that Belarus suffers because of what he sees as the double standards of many Western governments.

    Why, for example, is Russia a member of the G8 club of industrialised nations and there is little criticism of Kazakhstan's human-rights record?

    Cynics point to their abundant oil and gas reserves - and Belarus' distinct lack of either.

    Lord Bell acknowledges Belarus's leader "isn't perfect" and admits he has already been criticised for even contemplating working for him.

    But he detects signs the country may be changing. And perhaps it is.

    'Communism with a cappuccino'

    I travelled to Belarus as a tourist a few years ago. The capital, Minsk, could not have felt, or indeed looked, more different from neighbouring Lithuania's capital Vilnius.

    There were no tourist stalls or Western hotel chains anywhere.

    In fact, in the imposing Soviet-era tower block of a hotel where we stayed, the few Western visitors they had were all put on the 16th floor. The rest of the place appeared empty.

    Many were certain the hotel was bugged.

    And yet amongst the city's young people there was a palpable urge to embrace Western culture - whether drinking European brands of beer or dancing to albeit somewhat dated European pop music.

    Little wonder the Lonely Planet travel guide describes Minsk as "communism with a cappuccino".

    Perhaps, now that Belarus borders three countries that are fully paid up members of the European family - Poland, Lithuania and Latvia - there is a feeling in Minsk that it is time for relations with the West to thaw.

    The European Commission will soon be opening an office there and there are further incentives for President Lukashenko to consider.

    "We are ready to re-engage with you, and move towards a normalisation of our relations, provided that additional serious steps are taken in Belarus towards democratisation," says Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's External Relations Commissioner.

    But for the country's critics, a new image can only be a start.

    Mike Blakemore, from human-rights group Amnesty International, tells me: "If President Lukashenko really wants to improve his image, actions would speak louder than words - however well they might be spun.

    "He should stop harassing and locking up opponents... release prisoners of conscience and join countries such as Belarus's near neighbour Uzbekistan, that have abolished the death penalty."

    Status of US lawyer arrested in Belarus still unknown as his family worries for his health

    From: IHT
    The arrest of a U.S. lawyer in Belarus last week remained shrouded in mystery Tuesday as local authorities declined to provide any information on his detention.

    Russian-born Emanuel Zeltser, 54, who heads non-governmental organization Russian-American Law Institute, was detained on March 12 as he arrived in Belarus for meetings with clients.

    Officials at Belarus' spy service, which still goes under its Soviet name KGB, confirmed Zeltser's arrest, but declined to provide any details.

    Zeltser's brother Mark said by telephone from New York he has not heard directly from Emanuel and does not know why he was arrested. He said he was very concerned.

    "He needs medication for gout and diabetes," Mark Zeltser said of his brother. "Some of his medications are considered narcotics in Belarus, and I don't know how to get them to him."

    Emanuel Zeltser was traveling from England with his secretary, Russian national Vladlena Funk, who also was detained. It was his first trip to Belarus, his brother said.

    Mark Zeltser said he has was told by the U.S. Embassy that it had received no information from Belarusian authorities about the arrest, and had been unable to get in touch with Emanuel Zeltser.

    "I understand he was detained immediately after leaving the plane," Mark Zeltser said, adding that he had got confirmation of the arrest from the Belarusian Embassy in Washington.

    The case could worsen already strained ties between the U.S. and Belarus, which earlier this month recalled its ambassador to Washington for consultations and pushed the United States do the same.

    Minsk has said it is angry over U.S. sanctions against Belarus' state-controlled oil-processing and chemicals company.

    U.S. officials have called President Alexander Lukashenko "Europe's last dictator" for his authoritarian rule and intolerance of dissent in the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million. Washington has demanded Belarus release all inmates the U.S. considers political prisoners.

    Russian news agency Interfax cited Belarusian Interior Ministry sources as saying the arrest may have taken place at the request of Russian law enforcement authorities.

    But the Moscow branch of Interpol said it was not aware of any Russian-issued international arrest warrant for Zeltser.

    The Russian Prosecutor General's Office could not be reached for comment.

    Zeltser appeared in 1999 before the U.S. House Committee on Banking and Financial Services as an expert witness on money laundering and fraud in Russia.

    In 2001, Zeltser acted as defense lawyer for Pavel Borodin when the former senior Kremlin official was arrested in New York on money laundering charges. Borodin, who has longtime links with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, is now executive secretary of a Russia-Belarus union.

    In 1995, Zeltser sued Inkombank, once Russia's second-largest bank, in a U.S. federal court, accusing it of misappropriating funds from depositors in collaboration with the Bank of New York. He previously worked for the bank, but claimed he was dismissed from his post after initiating an investigation into evidence of theft and fraud. Inkombank collapsed in 1998 amid Russia's financial crisis.

    Belarusian Association of Journalists asks information ministry for text of draft presidential edict that would govern online media

    From: Naveny
    The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) has made official inquiries to the Ministry of Information, and the presidential National Law Drafting Center about a draft presidential edict that would govern online media outlets.

    The BAJ has expressed its readiness to take part in work on the draft edict and put forward proposals to improve it.

    On March 13, Information Minister Uladzimir Rusakevich said that the edict would “confirm the notification principle of registration” for online media outlets such as an online version of a newspaper and any other online news source. The edict will settle the issue of online media outlets’ responsibility and the issue of copyright in the Internet environment, the minister said.

  • Cultural scene...


    From: Minsk Blog

    Мы мечтаем о мире, в котором ценится каждая жизнь.
    Мы мечтаем о мире, наполненном любовью и заботой отцов и матерей.
    Мы мечтаем о мире, в котором есть возможность рождения каждого нового ребенка.
    Конкурс детского рисунка «МИР С МЕЧТОЙ», посвященный Дню защиты детей, проводится впервые. Цель проекта - утверждение в обществе ценности жизни человека, семьи и ребенка, также мы хотим привлечь внимание общественности к проблеме не рожденных детей – аборта, увидев это глазами детей.
    90 лучших работ будут награждаться билетами на концерт «В ЗАЩИТУ ЖИЗНИ!» и дипломами участников.
    Торжественное награждение ценными призами, победителей Конкурса состоится 24 мая 2008 на Концерте «В ЗАЩИТУ ЖИЗНИ!», посвященном Дню защиты детей.

    Конкурс проводится: Общественным объединением “Международное сообщество детей-сирот, инвалидов и малоимущих” и Общественной благотворительной организацией “Доброта”

    Конкурс проводится при поддержке: музыкальной группы «Новый Иерусалим»

    Сроки проведения Конкурса
    - апрель, 2008 – отборочный тур.

    Сроки подачи: Приём заявок на участие в Конкурсе до 21 апреля 2008 года по почтовому адресу 220082 РБ г. Минск А/Я 71

    Конкурсные работы принимаются без оформления. На обратной стороне работы должен быть закреплен Бланк заявки на участие. Проверяйте правильность его заполнения! (ФИО автора; Название учебного заведения; Возраст участника; Полный почтовый адрес, телефон, адрес электронной почты (если есть) участника; ФИО, полный почтовый адрес, телефон, адрес электронной почты (если есть) законного представителя участника; Тема конкурса и Название работы)
    Работы НЕ рецензируются! НЕ возвращаются!

    Основные критерии отбора – соответствие тематике конкурса и качество творческого воплощения художественной идеи.

    Жюри оценивает творческие работы согласно номинации в возрастной категории.
    Возрастные категории:
    1. 6 – 10 лет «Мой мир – моя семья»
    2. 11-15 лет «Мы ждем ребенка…»
    3. 16-19 лет «В защиту жизни»

    Требования к выполнению работ:
    - формат А2 или А3;
    - техника исполнения на выбор автора, предпочтительно живопись, графика, коллаж.

    Соучредители конкурса имеют право присуждения специального приза!!!

    За дополнительной информацией обращаться по тел. (029)9185115 - velcome
    mailto:info @
  • Note: For more cultural happenings around Minsk, please see the Minsk Blog!

  • Around the region...

    Interpresidential Meetings; The American delegation meets one president and talks about its problems with another

    From: Kommersant
    U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (left), U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (center) and Russian President Elect Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, March 17, 2008
    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, elected two weeks ago, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, elected four years ago, met yesterday with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Kommersant special correspondent Andrey Kolesnikov thinks that, if meetings with one Russian president had always been hell for the American pair, yesterday they did descended through two circles of it.
    Rice and Gates met with Medvedev first. That is the fate of everyone who visits the Kremlin, and it is usually the visitors' request as well. It was the request of the American visitors, in any case. The desire to get to know Dmitry Medvedev better brought them to the Blue Room of the 14th Building of the Kremlin.

    Medvedev confessed to Rice and Gates at the very beginning of the meeting that U.S. and Russian positions on the placement of an American missile defense system in Europe remain at variance.

    “We want to establish a base for succession in Russian-American relations,” Medvedev explained.

    That meant he wanted to appear in the eyes of those around him to be a Russian nationalist – in the positive sense of the phrase. Mentioning succession implies that the variance will remain further.

    Rice told Medvedev that she and the defense secretary would meet with Putin to discuss all areas where there are differences. “There is no problem that will be solved in a better way unless the United States and Russia are able to work properly together,” she said, flashing a smile that set off a blinding array of flashbulbs.

    That thought was obviously enough to calm any Russian nationalist, in her estimation.

    Gates observed that agreement had been reached on issues, and joked that his broken arm, noticeable under his suit jacket, made him an easy negotiator.

    “Well, we'll see,” replied Medvedev.

    U.S. Not to Make New Proposals to Moscow

    En route to Moscow, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that the United States would propose nothing new to Russia.
    "We’ve put a lot on the table and now it’s time for them to reciprocate,” Reuters quoted Gates as saying. According to Gates, the parties reached the oral agreement in October 2007, whereby the missile defense shield would be built in the Czech Republic and in Poland without being put into operation.

    The facilities would become operational once the threat of the missile attack by Iran would be confirmed by powerful evidences. Russia’s military would be authorized to inspect the shield in Eastern Europe, the U.S. officials agreed then.

    As to the current visit of March 17 and 18, Gates manifested no enthusiasm for the chance to ink any definite agreements and a top-ranked diplomat in Russia appeared equally pessimistic.

    The meeting lasted about an hour

    According to information obtained by Kommersant, the Americans told Medvedev much of what they had prepared for their meeting with Putin. It was a complicated mix of proposals that they had made orally the last time they came to Moscow, in October of last year, and later in written form when they were asked to clarify what they had in mind. There were no new proposals. Nor did Rice and Gates comment on Putin's proposal for the joint use of the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan and the radar station being built outside Armavir in Russia, although it would be easy to imagine that they could voice their objects to that proposal more easily to Medvedev, with whom they were discussing it for the first time, than with Putin whose idea it was.

    Seventeen American journalists came with Rice and Gates. They looked around the Kremlin with interest, and behaved as thought hey were in the White House, that is, they talked loudly and pushed in the corridors. One was in the late stages of pregnancy and she removed her shoes every time they stopped for even half a minute and paced barefoot with an expression on her face that made you want to call her an ambulance.

    When security personnel ushered opened a door for them, she was always somehow first inline, however, and with her shoes on. The only one of them that was let in though was Sergeant Harrison, the defense secretary's personal photographer, who has a Kodak slung around his neck that was not available in the stores yet in Moscow, or in New York. The Kremlin has never seen a more suave journalist than that American soldier.

    The meeting with Putin was to take place in the reception hall. Rice and Gates approached the open door. Putin was to emerge through the door opposite it. Rice had her beaming smile on, but Putin didn't appear. After a few minutes, she couldn't keep the smile up. She held it in place with her teeth for a while, then dropped it and turned away from the closed door. The Russian president still did not appear. They waited several more minutes. I suspect the complications in U.S.-Russian relations increased rapidly in that time.

    Finally they met in the center of the hall. Putin, like Medvedev, extended his right hand in greeting to Gates, who more gracefully this time received it with his unbroken left hand.

    Rice seemed uncomfortable in her shiny brown shoes and walked with the delicate step of a heron in a swamp. It looked difficult. Her unfortunate experience almost two years ago, when she bought a new pair of shoes in Moscow and had to put bandages on her feet midday, apparently had taught her nothing.

    Putin stated that, when Rice and Gates had met with him, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov half a year ago, they had had a very productive dialog.”

    The Russian president looked at the American carefully. They nodded in confirmation of the productiveness of the dialog, which had had no result at all. Putin added that he received the American president's letter.

    “It is a serious document. We have analyzed it carefully and, if we are able to reach an agreement, we can consider the progress serious,” he said.

    Gates commented that they had come out of order (that is, to Moscow a second time in a row, in hopes of such progress.

    “Protocol is not the main thing here,” Putin returned instantly, “but meaningful conversation and the fact that you have come again shows that you liked it the first time.”

    That was a hint that the meeting was being held at the initiative of the Americans.

    According to information obtained by Kommersant, the letter from U.S. President George W. Bush contains a discussion of the need for succession in U.S.-Russian relations and real proposals, such as the extension of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT 1). That was apparently what Putin had referred to. Rice and Gates stated that compromise was possible on the missile defense system in Europe. The missiles could be not loaded in their shafts and the radar could be turned on only in the event of real danger. (But what good would the radar be at all then?)

    It was clear that those agreements could be made only after Bush and Putin meet personally. Kommersant has learned that that meeting was also discussed yesterday. The meeting of the two ardent nationalists, one Russian and one American, could be an effective summation of their political careers, and the effective beginning of the career of a third nationalist.

    Brits skeptical of Putin plot
    Russia 'leaks' report of failed assassination attempt

    From: world net
    British intelligence analysts are increasingly skeptical about the truth of a carefully leaked plan of a failed plot to assassinate outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin and president-elect Dmitry Medvedev in their post election euphoria, according to Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin.

    Kremlin spin-doctors spent last weekend briefing selected Moscow commentators in the pro-government media that the plot -- reminiscent of Frederick Forsyth's thriller, "The Day of the Jackal," when a shadowy figure attempted to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle using a sniper rifle -- had been created by Russian oil billionaires living in exile in Britain.

    Members of the Kremlin-controlled Moscow media were told the plot was evidence that "the enemy without had now reached within."

    The plot centered on an apartment overlooking Red Square. It had been rented on the eve of the recent Russian election by a man named as Shakhvelad Osmanov. His age is given as 24 and he is described as an "Usbek from Dushanbe."

    It is the capital of Tajikistan, one of the five central Asian republics that formed part of the former Soviet Union. The country became independent in 1991 following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Today Tajikistan remains one of the poorest of the ex-Soviet republics.

    Osmanov is said to have worked as a picker in the country's cotton industry.

    What has raised doubts among MI6 Russia Desk analysts is how was Osmanov able to rent an apartment in one of the prime Moscow sites overlooking Red Square without raising suspicion? Prices there are among the highest rentals in Moscow.

    "The whole area had been secured by the FSB, the successor to the KGB, and every building had been thoroughly searched before the election. At the best of times, the presence of Osmanov would have raised questions," said one London based intelligence analyst.

    Another key question which raised doubts was how did Osmanov manage to smuggle into the flat what a Kremlin spokesman called "an arsenal of firearms including a sniper rifle and a Kalashnikov assault rifle."

    "Such weapons would have been hard to come by for a cotton picker who appeared to have no record of being a marksman or even having service in the army," said the analyst.

    However, the Kremlin briefer insisted the apartment had been rented for Osmanov by a "mysterious third person. We believe the same person also organized the smuggling in of the weapons."

    Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin is the premium, online intelligence news source edited and published by the founder of WND.

    Russia renews hostilites with Britain as thaw hopes fade

    From: Times On-line
    The Kremlin gave Britain warning yesterday that there would be no improvement in relations until it abandoned Cold War-hostility towards Russia.

    The Foreign Ministry said that Britain had become increasingly critical of Russia, urged on by Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire anti-Kremlin campaigner, and other political refugees.

    Its annual diplomatic review appeared to dash hopes of a fresh start between London and Moscow once Dmitri Medvedev succeeds Vladimir Putin as President in May. The ministry accused Gordon Brown’s Government of holding outdated attitudes in its dealings with Russia.

    “There has been no decisive moving away from the stereotypes of the Cold War era in the political policies of the British elite,” it said. “If this problem is not resolved it will be hard to count on the normalisation of Russian-British relations.” It said relations had worsened as a result of the decision by David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, to expel four Russian diplomats last July. The envoys were expelled after Mr Putin refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoy, the man suspected of murdering Alexander Litvinenko, the dissident former spy, with radioactive polonium-210 in London in November 2006.

    The ministry said that tensions had been fanned by Mr Berezovsky and Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen separatist envoy, who have political asylum in London. Both men are wanted in Russia but British courts have rejected extradition requests, ruling that they would not face a fair trial.

    “British authorities have become more critical in their comments on Russia. The main emphasis is being placed on the theme of the 'worsening situation in human rights and democratic freedoms in Russia’,” the Foreign Ministry said.

    About the only bright spot in relations was business, which continued to grow strongly despite the frosty political atmosphere. The annual report said that British companies invested $20.7 billion in Russia’s economy in the first nine months of last year, three times the amount invested in the whole of 2006.

    Trade relations between Britain and Russia also grew strongly, up 16 per cent in the first three quarters of 2007 in comparison with the same period in 2006.

    Britain’s deteriorating relationship with Russia stood in stark contrast to the ministry’s warm comments about other leading European states. Russia enjoyed a “strategic partnership” with France, relations with Italy were “mutually advantageous” and Spain was in the “solid nucleus” of Russia’s partners in Europe.

    The ministry said that Russia also enjoyed strong relations with Germany both in business and politics, although it chafed at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s criticism of parliamentary elections in December as undemocratic.

    Relations between Britain and Russia plunged to their worst since the end of the Cold War after last year’s expulsions. Moscow retaliated by expelling four British diplomats.

    Mr Brown and Mr Putin have not met and have not even talked to each other since the President telephoned Mr Brown to congratulate him on becoming Prime Minister last June.

    Mr Brown sought to break the deadlock earlier this month by sending Mr Medvedev a letter of congratulations on his election as President, saying that he looked forward to meeting him at the G8 Summit of major democracies in Japan in July. But he pointedly failed to invite the President-elect to Downing Street, underlining the continuing strains over the murder of Mr Litvinenko. Hopes of a breakthrough in the Litvinenko case under President Medvedev are likely to be disappointed.

    Mr Putin accused Britain of “colonial thinking” in demanding that Russia over-ride a constitutional ban on extradition to send Mr Lugovoy to London. Mr Medvedev, a former law professor, will be certain to support that position.

    Mr Putin will become Prime Minister when he leaves the Kremlin, further reducing the chances of a change in relations under Mr Medvedev.

    Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, adopted the same theme during the row over the closure of two British Council offices in January, accusing London of “nostalgia for colonial times” in its relations with Moscow.

    Ukraine Govt forecasts growth of negative foreign trade balance

    From: Unian
    The government forecasts growth of the negative foreign trade balance of Ukraine.

    According to an UNIAN correspondent, Prime Minister of Ukraine Yulia Tymoshenko claimed this today at a session of the Council of Investors at the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine.

    She stressed this may happen as a result of serious steps of the government aimed at struggle against contraband and fictitious export.

    Yulia Tymoshenko stressed that the government has created “more or less good system for legalizing import”.

    “We should realize that we will receive other foreign trade balance at the Ukrainian border. That is, Ukraine import and export showings will be worse than before, but it will be the real picture. It does not mean that the inflows changes, it means that they merely were not legal. When the government will be criticized for growing the import volumes and reducing export volumes, I want you to know that it will merely indicate the real situation, and not the worsening of the foreign trade balance in Ukraine”, the Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko emphasized.

    Governemnt “meets with fierce resistance” – Tymoshenko

    In a related story, any actions of the government aimed at creating transparent conditions for business activities meet with “fierce resistance”. Prime Minister of Ukraine Yulia Tymoshenko claimed this today at a session of the Council of Investors at the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine.

    According to an UNIAN correspondent, she said: “We have rather clear intents to introduce order in the business system in Ukraine. Without any doubt, this is not easy, and just a government’s desire is not enough. Every step, aimed at creating transparent procedures, meets with fierce resistance”, Yulia Tymoshenko said.

    In her opinion, this indicates that the Ukraine business system is opposed to any changes.

    “We saw this in 2005, and we see this today as well. But, I hope that our council, created to achieve changes, is really important”, Yulia Tymoshenko said.

    The Prime Minister assured the Council of Investors representatives that the government is ready to daily work.

    “Our meetings will be held periodically. Our work will be carried out every day at the level of Ministries and departments, working groups, which will be created today. Step by step, all this will bring positive”, the Prime Minister pointed out.

    Yulia Tymoshenko also outlined the three top priorities of the government in the sphere of creating favorable conditions for business: wiping out bureaucratic obstacles, wiping out any privileges and exceptions for certain economic objects, and minimizing corruption in this sphere.

  • From the Polish Scandal Files...

    Polish rapist loses UK lawyer

    From: The News
    Andrew Langdon QC, representing Jakub Tomczak sentenced to double-life imprisonment for raping an inhabitant of Exeter, UK, has resigned from his post.

    Andrew Langdon, who is among the top 400 lawyers in the UK, sent a letter to the Long Martin prison, where Tomczak is currently serving his sentence, in which he communicated to his client that he sees no chance of a successful appeal against the sentence, reports Polish TV station TVN.

    Jakub Tomczak’s family is now looking for another lawyer, so far.

    The Pole was declared guilty of raping and assaulting 49-year old Jane H., and sentenced to double life-imprisonment by an Exeter court 28 January. Crucial to the verdict were CCTV recordings and DNA samples.

    The rape occurred on the night of 22 June 2006. Jakub T. was extradited to Great Britain last autumn after a European Arrest Warrant was issued after him.

    The Catholic Church in Poland is facing another child-abuse scandal

    From: WBJ
    A new child-abuse scandal rocked the Catholic Church last week. Daily Gazeta Wyborcza first reported claims of four former children from the St. Brother Albert shelter in Szczecin, who accused priest Andrzej, a helper at the shelter, of sexual harassment, psychological abuse and rape.

    All major dailies covered the incidents last week. According to Gazeta Wyborcza, the Church authorities in Szczecin were informed of the situation in 1995 but did not act on it for years. "The youngest of the children was, at the time, 13 years old," said Father Mogielski, who learned of the issue in 2003 and filed a report with the Church. The prosecutor in Szczecin is investigating the matter, while Father Andrzej has denied all accusations. The Church removed him from his duties as an educator in 2007.

    This is not the first time the Church has been accused of ignoring reports of priests abusing minors. In March of last year, Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus of the Diocese of Plock came under attack, alongside other diocese officials, following claims that they had known about priests abusing minors for at least six years, but had failed to intervene.

    A spokesperson for British child protection organization NSPCC told WBJ that the right support needed to be given to the victims. She said that running campaigns similar to the organization's "Don't Hide It" campaign could help victims seek aid. Last year 8,637 people called NSPCC's Childline to talk about sexual abuse, while another 150,000 calls were made to its National Protection Helpline.

    But there is no comprehensive helpline listed in the Child Helpline International directory for Poland. The country does have a number of emerging organizations that offer some help for abused children like the Nobody's Children Foundation's helpline and Dzieciecy Telefon Zaufania.

    Stoklosa to remain in custody

    From: The News
    Henryk Stoklosa will remain in custody for the next 3 months in connection with tax fraud.

    The court in Poznan, west-central Poland, granted the motion for an extension of custody for the Polish businessman and former senator.

    Stoklosa was detained in Germany in November, after an international arrest warrant was issued for him. In December he was transported to Poland.

    Henryk Stoklosa is connected to the scandal in the Ministry of Finance. He is suspected of securing tax exemptions worth millions of zloty thanks to his connections with corrupt officials from the Finance Ministry and a judge from Poznan.

    The Public Prosecutor's Office in Warsaw brought 22 charges against him. He is facing up to ten years in prison.

  • From the blogs...

    Heart of darkness; A ray of hope from Belarusian exiles

    From: Edward Lucas
    LIKE a stub of candle, even a small bit of history is a comfort when you are in a dark room. Belarus looks pretty gloomy under Alyaksandr Lukashenka. An earthy collective-farm manager, he won the last freely contested election in 1994 against a representative of the old Soviet nomenklatura.

    Many people (including your columnist) thought that any change was bound to be for the better. It wasn’t. The new regime pioneered the kind of authoritarian rule, bombastic and occasionally murderous, that has now spread to Russia. In retrospect, 1990-94 looks like the heyday of Belarussian freedom.

    With one exception. For a few months in 1918, Belarus enjoyed its first fragile taste of independence. As the Soviet regime consolidated its hold, the government fled, first to Lithuania, then to Prague.

    The 90th anniversary of that first proclamation of statehood is on March 25th. It will be celebrated by both the opposition in Belarus and by the Belarusian National Rada (BNR), an ?migr? assembly and government-in-exile that has doggedly maintained a vestigial existence for the past nine decades. From the authorities’ point of view there is nothing to celebrate. Belarus was from the beginning a Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the great Soviet Union. Any suggestion to the contrary is bourgeois nationalist claptrap.

    The idea of maintaining loyalty to a country that even nonagenarians would not remember might seem impossibly quixotic. But experience suggests that when governments-in-exile keep going, history rewards them.

    The Polish government-in-exile, marooned in London after the war, was welcomed back to Poland when communism fell to present the newly elected Lech Walesa with the presidential insignia. The “People’s Poland” imposed at gunpoint by the Soviets was revealed for the sham it had always been. The exile government’s presidents—stalwart members of the suburban Polish ?migr? community in London—are now officially recognised as former heads of state.

    East Timor’s government-in-exile returned home victorious when the Indonesian occupation ended. Exiled politicians and diplomats from the Baltic states came home happily too.

    The danger is to wind up too soon. Ukraine’s "migr" leaders declared victory rather promptly in 1991. The Belarusians, wisely in retrospect, decided to wait and see. The BNR now presents a poignant symbolic challenge to the regime at home, and is a focus of unity for the opposition.

    Slowly, real-world politicians are beginning to take it more seriously. The BNR’s president, a personable Canadian artist named Ivonka Survilla, is in Strasbourg this week to be formally received at the European Parliament, along with a bevy of Belarusians from both the diaspora and the domestic opposition. The BNR, normally secretive for fear of endangering its members in the homeland, has issued a public statement urging the outside world not to forget the Belarusian cause, and to protect those inside the country who want to celebrate the anniversary.

    Politics seems to be thawing a bit inside Belarus too. The regime has responded to feelers put out by European countries, including Poland, and has released almost all political prisoners. Only one remains: Alyaksandr Kazulin, an outspoken figure who seems to have attracted Mr Lukashenka’s personal ire. American sanctions on a big Belarusian company, Belneftekhim, seem to have bitten hard too. The tempestuous Mr Lukashenka abruptly expelled the American ambassador last week.

    Mr Lukashenka has flirted with the West before and it would be too early to declare a change of heart. But whether because of the country’s economic plight (Russia is driving a much harder bargain on gas) or for some other reason, some rusty wheels are in motion. The BNR’s loyal supporters hope that theirs may turn too.

    A Thaw in Belarus?

    From: RobertAmsterdam
    There's an interesting piece in the Economist (see above blog) about the recent thaw in relations between Belarus and the West, and a possible political opening driven by Gazprom's increasing reluctance to subsidize the Lukashenko regime with cheap natural gas - however "Europe's last dictator" remains hung up on one political prisoner and sanctions against the state's oil monopoly:

    Politics seems to be thawing a bit inside Belarus too. The regime has responded to feelers put out by European countries, including Poland, and has released almost all political prisoners. Only one remains: Alyaksandr Kazulin, an outspoken figure who seems to have attracted Mr Lukashenka’s personal ire. American sanctions on a big Belarusian company, Belneftekhim, seem to have bitten hard too. The tempestuous Mr Lukashenka abruptly expelled the American ambassador last week.
    Mr Lukashenka has flirted with the West before and it would be too early to declare a change of heart. But whether because of the country’s economic plight (Russia is driving a much harder bargain on gas) or for some other reason, some rusty wheels are in motion. The BNR’s loyal supporters hope that theirs may turn too.

    Don't give up on BELARUS!

    From: Rundudundu
    28 September 2008 is a date for the elections in Belarus. The last dictatorship in Europe will have its moment of fragility and yet again there are hopes for change. Can it change and what to expect...

    One of the political groups in the European Parliament has organised a Belarus week. An occasion to meet with opposition leaders and discuss their impressions of the current situation and plans for the future. Few points to give one an idea of the situation:
    - 61% of the Belorussian population believe that elections are held in a democratic fashion
    - International debt (especially to Russia) is reaching cosmic levels
    - Few of prominent opposition politicians are imprisoned
    - Recently "Parliament" has approved legislation for Internet censorship
    - Press, TV and Radio is a mere tool of state propaganda

    These facts are neither new, nor surprising and it still seems that Europe is ready to swallow it, or rather interest of the neighbouring EU countries does not make a shift in the policy of the European Union as a whole. Visa restrictions on high officials have not made a difference. Lukashenko is still in charge and seems to be willing to do his best to stay that way, preparing his son to take over.

    What is the mood of the opposition politicians?

    Opposition is united or wish to portray themselves being united. It reminds me of a sand castles during the storm... no matter how beautiful they look, they are extremely fragile. So they are. Milinkevich while being rational and peaceful in his rhetoric's is far from inspirational politician (probably that is why he leads the "united" opposition. Some say it is not good to have electoral lists prepared and political agenda not. Others claim that political agenda will appear only once freedoms are reinstated. However there seems to be an overarching agreement that opposition needs a "message". Hearing this word from politicians that do not speak or understand English, unintentionally made me smile. Message that can be understood and that can mobilise those that don't mind the "guy with moustache" in Minsk. Message that can make people within the administration consider whether in the long-term perspective Luka regime is such a safe bet?
    More experienced politicians speak of the need to work hard and campaign before elections, while participating in them with united list. Young politicians sound much more militant, they speak of the need to boycott the elections and go for major street protests and civic dissent.
    As a nation of brilliant chess players people analyse the moves that "enemy" will make before the polling day, there are a few:
    - in the electoral districts were opposition has one united candidate, to nominate only independent candidates, that would not endorse the regime officially and like this undermine the claims of opposition that regime is pressuring them
    - organise a referendum on the Russia - Belarus unified state and like this steal the thunder from legislature
    - budget of the state medias was increased by 10 million US dollars on the electoral year, citizens get ready for praise the leader session 24/7

    Finally, what Europe can do for Belarus?

    Don't give up on Belarus. It is a country of 10 million Europeans that believe in European integration even if they appear to be on the other side of the fence. Help to maintain alternative media, provide free Internet points in the country, encourage cultural, educational exchanges, speak to Minsk and insist on the violations of HR, freedom of assembly, release of political prisoners. Don't give up on Belarus!

    BELARUS: Throwing the West a bone

    From: The Big Orange
    The government again threw a bone to the West by releasing independent journalist Alexander Sdvizhkov, former editor of the newspaper Zgoda (Agreement), on Feb. 22. Sdvizhkov had received a three-year prison sentence in January on charges of religious hatred for publishing caricatures of the prophet Mohammed.

    The latest gesture was a temporary release of the most famous incarcerated opposition leader. Alexander Kozulin, another presidential candidate, was arrested and imprisoned for five and a half years for leading an illegal demonstration during the presidential campaign. He had been on a hunger strike to try to get permission to be released for the funeral of his wife. He received a three-day reprieve, which he vowed to use to launch a lawsuit against the government for the suffering they caused on his wife.

    Kozulin said he would resume a hunger strike upon his return to prison until his colleague, Andrei Kim, is released after being arrested during the businessmen protest a month earlier. Kim is facing a six-year prison term for leading that protest.

    Five hundred protesters gathered outside Red Cathedral on October Square to pray for Kozulin and his family. Police did not interfere with the gathering but videotaped those who gathered. Alexander Milinkevich and Kozulin were reunited after they had split over differences on how to oppose the Lukashenko regime. Kozulin had favored illegal and confrontational approaches, which landed him in prison, whereas Milinkevich advocated peaceful protests that broke a minimum of laws.

    The annual Index of Economic Freedom listed Belarus the eighth worst country in the world. The report said that Belarus' autocratic rule and international isolation has discouraged foreign investment and the development of the high-tech sector. It also stated that the weak rule of law has led to out-of-control corruption and insecure property rights.

  • Sport...

    Велоспорт. Строительство велосипедной трассы начато в Минске

    From: Прессбол
    Как сообщает БЕЛТА, строительство велосипедной трассы начато в Минске. Об этом рассказал директор КУП "УКС Мингорисполкома" Андрей Галь сегодня на оперативном совещании в мэрии.

    Он уточнил, что спортивный объект пройдет вдоль реки Свислочь через три района столицы — Партизанский, Первомайский и Ленинский.

    На первом участке (а всего их пять) — от улицы Первомайской до железной дороги в районе улицы Аранской — начаты подготовительные работы по демонтажу покрытия. Сдать в эксплуатацию велотрассу планируется до конца 2008 года.

    Строительство велодорожки будет сопряжено с некоторыми трудностями. В частности, отдельные участки трассы пройдут по заболоченным местам, которые предстоит очистить. Также необходимо сохранить занесенные в Красную книгу мхи и лишайники, переместив их в другое место, пояснил Андрей Галь.

    Общая протяженность объекта составит 27 км. Со временем велотрасса "обрастет" социальной инфраструктурой: на каждом пятом километре намечено обустроить площадки для отдыха с пунктами проката велосипедов, точками общепита, мастерскими по ремонту спортоборудования. Вся велодорожка будет освещена, что даст возможность использовать ее практически круглые сутки.

  • Endnote...

    Birthday ends with train track snooze

    From: Stuff
    A Belarus woman survived being run over by a train travelling at 145km/h after she fell asleep between the tracks after celebrating her birthday.

    Svetlana Yurkova, 32, said: "I'd had a few drinks and felt sleepy and just lay down on what I thought was the ground.

    "It felt very comfortable, but I later found out it was between two rail tracks and an express train went over me.

    "The doctors said it was a good job I was so hard asleep because otherwise I would have woken up with the sound of the train and got my head knocked off."