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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Eastern Partnership, Papal visit, Medicine, Economic growth, Mining, Manilla, Russia, Ukraine, Hockey and, as always, Polish scandals and corruption

  • From the Top...
  • #409

    Alexander Lukashenko: Eastern Partnership will help balance Belarus’ foreign policy

    From: BelTA
    The participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership initiative will give the country an opportunity to balance its foreign policy, said President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko in an interview to Reuters on May 4, the presidential press service told BelTA.

    The President stated that in the recent years Belarus has emphasized relations with eastern countries, increasing trade with Russia, China, Vietnam and other states manifold. “It is very important for us to be able to balance our foreign policy at last,” the head of state underlined.

    At the same time Alexander Lukashenko stated that Belarus’ participation in this European initiative should not be linked to any turn to a particular direction. “It is not meant against anyone. Taking part in Eastern Partnership project, we are not turning away from Russia,” the Belarusian leader said. Moreover, according to Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus suggested including the Russian Federation in some Eastern Partnership programmes that are being developed. The President said that “if someone intends to make Eastern Partnership project an anti-Russian initiative, they will definitely fail and will not achieve their goals.” He added that if this project is to bring together Russia’s enemies, Belarus will not be there.”

    Alexander Lukashenko stressed that Belarus is interested, first of all, in the “pragmatic, practical part” of the Eastern Partnership. According to the President, it is highly important for Europe that Belarus takes part in the Partnership as “there is a lot we can offer to the Europeans” starting from the issues of migration to the energy deliveries and transit from the Russian Federation.

    The President believes that the invitation to participate in the dialogue with Europe is as important as the content of the Eastern Partnership. “As for our proposals, they will be delivered by the head of the Belarusian delegation at the Eastern Partnership summit. It will be the first meeting within the Eastern Partnership framework and all the proposals already constitute the initiative. We need to discuss the idea of the Eastern Partnership itself,” the head of state said.

    Alexander Lukashenko does not see the invitation to participate in the Eastern Partnership as a breakthrough to Europe because “Europe turned towards Belarus in terms of economy a long time ago.”

    The head of state said that Belarus pursues a multidirectional foreign policy. “As for Belarus’ balancing between the West and the East: if you want to call it balancing between the West and the East, I do not mind it. I would like to ask a rhetorical question: since we are situated between the East and the West, on the crossroads of these ways, what policy you would pursue if you were me? We have to have a multidirectional foreign policy,” the President said. According to him, there is something Belarus can learn from the Middle East, Scandinavia, Mediterranean Sea countries and others. “If this is balancing, then this is not bad either. If there is no balance, then there will be no much progress either in economy, or politics or public life. Therefore there is no reproaching me for trying to balance out the vectors of the foreign policy so that we could have a normal situation in the country, so that it remains as it is,” Alexander Lukashenko stressed.

    Belarus sees its union with Russia only as union of equal states

    “We see this union only as the union of equal states. The main principle of any union is equality. There is no union without it. If the union is based on this principle, it will be developing. It will grow as strong as the peoples want it to be, first of all, the people of the Russian Federation. I would not say that we have got such an equal union. We need to go a long way in this direction, Alexander Lukashenko said.

    Yet, a lot has been done, the President said. In fact, the Russians and Belarusians do not feel they live in different states. The legal framework has been developed in education, healthcare, economy and other areas. However, there are certain problems. “The Russian Federation has been overusing protectionist measures. In fact, it blocks supplies from the republics of the formers Soviet Union including from Belarus to the Russian market under all kinds of excuses, the President said.

    “We have close friendly and legal relations with the Russian Federation. We have signed the union state treaty with Russia and will not depart from this treaty even if Russia keeps on violating the agreements we have signed Alexander Lukashenko also said that

    For example, Russia has withdrawn from the treaty on equal conditions for the economic entities of the two countries. “If we build the Union State, then what difference is there between companies of Russia and Belarus? There should be none. We should have free movement of goods, services, capital. The prices should be based on the demand and supply principle. Russia has withdrawn from the treaty, has compromised the principles of equal prices for our companies. This undermines the basis of the Union State. We have customs-free space. Yet, Russia has imposed oil duties. This, of course, does not promote the unity,” Alexander Lukashenko said.

    The President said: “I think it would be better if the Russian Federation pursued a more coherent and correct policy towards the Belarusian economy. If we have bad relations in the economy, we will not have good relations in politics, defense and other areas either”.

    As for the dialogue between the presidents of Belarus and Russia, the efficiency of addressing various issues, taking important decisions, the progress is evident. “The implementation, though, leaves much to be desired,” the President said. “We have no problems with the Russian authorities at the interpersonal level,” he added.

    As for the relations with Europe, Alexander Lukashenko noted: “Belarus may become a member of the European Union some day in the future. We have not thought about it yet and even have not been offered such variants. Therefore, it is somewhat awkward to discuss this issue,” he said.

    Belarus can come out of crisis by diversifying foreign trade, President says

    Belarus can come out of the crisis by diversifying its foreign trade, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko said in an interview to Reuters news agency on May 4, the presidential press service told BelTA.

    According to the President, Belarus had a high economic upturn in 2007 and 2008. “The development was good and sustainable: 10-11% of GDP in addition to the high level we had already achieved. In Q1 2009, the economic growth was 1.5% to the 2008 level. This is not what we have planned. It is almost nothing. This is a very low growth. We used to have a 5-6% quarterly growth and a 10% increase at the end of the year,” the head of state stressed.

    According to Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus has been badly affected by the global financial crisis. “We have no problems with manufacturing. We do not say we lack resources and circulating funds for the production. Our exports have been badly hit. Our goods do not sell well, the same as yours, due to a drop in the global demand,” the President said. Since Belarus is an export-based country, it has faced certain problems here.

    “I still believe we can come out of the crisis by diversifying the foreign trade. Half of our exports goes to the European Union, the second half to Russia. What about other markets? They account for less than 10% of our trade. It is not good,” the President thinks. “We have started looking for new markets. Our products are of high quality and two, three or even five times cheaper than the EU-made products. This is our advantage and we are trying to make use of it. We are advancing to Latin America (we have considerably increased the trade with Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, other states). We are looking to North America including the USA, never mind Asia and Africa,” the head of state emphasized.

    According to him, owing to the aforesaid Belarus is still keeping afloat, although it is very difficult. “There are some problems related to the part-time working schedule introduced at some companies. The wages and other social allowances do not grow as fast as we want to. We have started economizing and do it very seriously. We have problems but still we are afloat and closely monitor the situation in the world,” Alexander Lukashenko noted. The President stressed that the unemployment rate remains approximately at the level of previous years.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    Vladimir Semashko to lead Belarusian delegation at Eastern Partnership Summit

    From: BelTA
    Vladimir Semashko
    First Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Vladimir Semashko will lead the Belarusian delegation at the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Prague, deputy head of the information department of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Maria Vanshina told reporters.

    “The Head of State has taken a decision as to the members of the delegation. As the Eastern Partnership is about social and economic avenues of the cooperation (trade, energy, transport, migration and other issues), the government has been put in charge of the cooperation within the Eastern Partnership programme. Therefore, the official Belarusian delegation will include First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko and Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov,” Maria Vanshina noted.

    She also added that Belarus advocates “equal and non-discriminatory participation of all the six countries of the region in the Eastern Partnership Initiative”. The implementation of the initiative should promote the unity of the European continent without new dividing lines and spheres of influence, Maria Vanshina noted.

    The invitation to participate in the EU Eastern Partnership Summit has been handed over by the Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic, which presides at the EU, to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

    US heart surgeons to partake in Children’s Heart campaign in Belarus

    From: BelTA
    Heart surgeons from the United States are to come to Belarus to participate in the international charitable act Children’s Heart that will start in Minsk on May 18 and will last two weeks, BelTA learnt from deputy director for pediatric heart surgery of the National Cardiology Research Centre Yuri Chesnov.

    According to him, the charitable act will be held in the Pediatric Heart Surgery Centre affiliated with the Cardiology Centre. Ten specialists from the US together with Belarusian medical professionals will provide a series of consultations and perform operations on kids with congenital heart defects. “The Centre will work as usual, the children will be operated as they are admitted in hospital,” Yuri Chesnov said.

    He added that since the time the first charitable act was held, the Belarusian pediatric heart surgery has made a big step forward; a sufficient number of operations, including most complicated ones, is performed in Belarus. “This charitable act became a tradition, it gives an opportunity to share experience,” Yuri Chesnov noted.

    Yuri Chesnov did not specify the number of surgeries that will be performed during the campaign. In the previous years, the surgeons managed to perform 2-4 surgeries a day. An international medical team led by a famous American Professor William Novick will carry out routine surgeries and consultations. Only some of the children who had been operated under the direction of Dr. Novick might be brought to hospital upon his request.

    This time US medical professionals will hold two seminars for their Belarusian colleagues.

    Beginning 1996, a total of 10 charitable acts have been held; hundreds of little Belarusians have been operated. The joint campaign was initiated by the Health Ministry of Belarus and the Belarusian Children’s Fund.

    BelTA recognized Belarus' best news agency

    From: BelTA
    The BelTA News Agency was announced best news agency of Belarus at the 5th Golden Letter National Printed Press Competition. It is the fifth time BelTA has won the title. The awarding ceremony was held in the Palace of Republic.

    In December 2008, the BelTA News Agency celebrated its 90th anniversary. The agency occupies a solid position on the media market of the country. Having such a long history, the agency remains young, energetic and ambitious.

    BelTA is a diversified company. Every day it prepares and distributes news materials, including photo materials covering major events in the political, social, economic, cultural and sports life of Belarus, reporting on initiatives and decisions undertaken by the country’s leadership, international links and contacts, various public organizations and political movements. In 2008 BelTA issued 150-170 news items every day; the 2008 newswire contained 4652 photo reports and 21844 photos.

    BelTA issues daily, weekly and monthly bulletins covering various topics. BelTA products include the weekly 7 Dnei (7 Days), the Economy of Belarus Magazine, the Belaruskaya Dumka socio-political and popular science journal, the information bulletin of the Presidential Administration of the Republic of Belarus. BelTA publishes books, brochures, posters, booklets and other promotional materials, makes polygraphic materials to order, designs Internet-sites, provides technological and information support.

    BelTA delivers live news coverage in Russian, Belarusian, English and German through its web page. BelTA subscribers include almost all Belarusian printed media outlets, TV and radio companies, FM stations, many ministries and agencies, local authorities, diplomatic missions, companies.

    BelTA provides news items to the news agencies of Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia and other CIS countries, Reuters news agency and also to China, Cuba, Iran, Malaysia, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Syria. BelTA has expanded cooperation with information partners such as ITAR-TASS, AzerTAc, Armenpress, Kabar, Kazinform, Moldpress, Ukrinform, Xinhua, Prensa Latina, IRNA. The new partners are the SANA news agency of Syria, WAM of the United Arab Emirates and Yonhap of South Korea. Every day BelTA provides information to 230 subscribers in the regions of the Russian Federation and more than 50 Russian-language mass media abroad.

    BelTA has a network of offices and its own correspondents in all major towns of Belarus and also in Moscow, Kiev, Chisinu, Vilnius and Warsaw.

  • Cultural Scene...

    Mogilev hosts international plein air painting conference

    From: BelTA
    International plein air painting conference “Image of Motherland in Fine Arts” opened in Mogilev on May 5. The event is timed to the 95th anniversary of famous Belarusian artist Pavel Maslennikov and the 65th anniversary of Belarus’ liberation from the Nazi invaders.

    Taking part in the plein air painting conference are participants from nine countries: Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Serbia, Montenegro, Armenia, Moldova, Israel and Belarus. On May 6-25, the artists will work in the most picturesque places of the Bobruisk, Kirovsk and Osipovichi regions of the Mogilev oblast.

    The plein air painting gathering will continue project “Outstanding People of Mogilev Oblast” for the Mogilev Arts 20th Century Museum. In 2009, the participants of the event will perpetuate leading actors of the Mogilev Oblast Theater of Drama.

    On May 22, the artists will take part in the final concert of the Mogilev oblast in Minsk. The programme of the concert includes an exhibition of the best works of participants of the Mogilev plein air painting conference. On May 25, an exhibition of the participants of plein air painting conference of 2009 will be held as well. In line with the regulations of the plein air painting conference, every artist will present the Maslennikov Museum of Arts in Mogilev with two works.

    On May 5, famous Belarusian artist Georgy Poplavsky presented the Maslennikov Museum with his 14 graphical works dedicated to the 65th anniversary of Belarus’ liberation from the Nazi invaders.

  • Economics...

    Economic growth will remain in place in 2009, Nikolai Zaichenko says

    From: BelTA
    The economic growth in Belarus will remain in place in 2009, Economy Minister of Belarus Nikolai Zaichenko told a press conference on May 5.

    “The situation is complicated but manageable. The Q1 results show that there is a possibility to preserve the economic growth in 2009,” the minister said.

    The machinery construction industry is in the worst situation. The forestry and woodworking industries are also facing big difficulties. Most likely the light industry will fail to reach the first quarter results of 2008 either.

    According to Nikolai Zaichenko, there are three points of economic growth. These are the agriculture industry, construction and services sector (trade). These areas are expected to set off the losses for the Belarusian economy amid the global crisis.

    In Q1 the agricultural production in Belarus was up 6.3%. In H1 the growth is projected at 6.5-7%. A total of 1,327 million square metres of housing were built in Q1 which accounts for 22% of the 2009 target and 5% up above the Q1 target. The construction industry will try to keep ahead of schedule. “The target is to have 90% of the annual plan built in nine months. This is a good instrument of maintaining the domestic demand,” the minister said.

    The Q1 results show there are the reserves of growth in trade and public catering which exhibited a 5.9% growth in Q1. These industries have the reserves to keep the growth and even add up two or three points, Nikolai Zaichenko believes.

    International experts have varying opinions as to whether the crisis has hit its peak point, Nikolai Zaichenko noted. Yet the majority believes that the world trade will pick up in the second half of 2009.

    Russia to grant pricing preferences to Belarusian products

    Russia will provide pricing preferences in government purchases to about 40 Belarusian commodities, Economy Minister of Belarus Nikolai Zaichenko told a press conference on May 5.

    Nikolai Zaichenko remarked, at present the problem of government purchases has been resolved while fulfilling the agreement to ensure an equal access of commodities to the markets of Belarus and Russia. In his words, a new order has been passed by the Russian Federation Economic Development Ministry. The order specifies about 40 Belarusian commodities to which preferential coefficients will be applied. Earlier the Economic Development Ministry passed an order introducing 15% pricing preferences for government purchases of specified Russian goods.

    The Minister reminded that ensuring an equal access of commodities to the markets of the two countries is a critical point in the anticrisis plan of Belarus and Russia. The plan stipulates that the sides are supposed to apply national procedures to commodities offered for trade on the domestic markets.

  • From the Foriegn Press...

    Belarus, Moldova leaders to skip EU eastern summit in Prague

    From: Ria Novosti
    The presidents of Belarus and Moldova will not attend a EU summit designed to boost ties with ex-Soviet republics due in Prague on Thursday, Czech media reported on Tuesday.

    Alexander Lukashenko, who has long been criticized for human rights abuses in Belarus, and Vladimir Voronin, whose country saw violent protests against parliamentary vote results last month, will send deputy prime ministers to take part in the Eastern Partnership summit, an unidentified Czech Foreign Ministry official was reported as saying.

    Europe has been relaxing the isolation of Lukashenko, who visited Italy late last month, his first trip to Western Europe in 14 years. Concerns over progress towards respect of human rights were overcome in inviting the country to the summit in the Czech Republic, which holds the European Union's rotating presidency.

    The Eastern Partnership program does not offer EU membership to Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Belarus, but is aimed at ensuring their political and economic rapprochement with the bloc, including by improving human rights, easing visa regulations and ensuring energy security.

    Russia's foreign minister has in the past expressed concerns about the program.

    "We heard an announcement from Brussels that this is not an attempt to create a new sphere of influence and that it is not a process which is directed against Russia... but I won't deny that some comments on the initiative made by the EU have concerned us," Sergei Lavrov said.


    From: Eurasianet
    Belarusian mining concern Belgorhimprom is to invest in Turkmenistan’s first facility to mine and enrich potassium salts for fertilizer compounds, the semi-official news website reported May 4.

    In negotiations with state-controlled chemical conglomerate Turkmenkhimiya, the companies agreed to jointly develop a plant that could produce between 1 million and 1.5 million tons of potash fertilizer a year. Turkmenkhimiya representatives said Belgorhimprom was selected for the task because of its "significant scientific and technical potential and large production base in the sphere of mining production and progressive technologies of processing potash ore."

    Andrei Grozin, director of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow, told EurasiaNet that the deal should help Turkmenistan make strides toward diversifying its economy.

    "Despite its economic and social problems, Turkmenistan is opening for investors. Definitely the country has a high potential and it is trying to use it. [The Turkmen] chemical industry is still an untouched field, therefore the Belarusians decided to try. It is a very big risk for them. It is still very hard to do business in Turkmenistan," Grozin said.

    Turkmen authorities know that future investment may depend on the Belarusian company’s success, Grozin continued. "Whether other investors will be willing to come to Turkmenistan and invest money in the chemical industry will depend on the Belarusian success there. And I think the Turkmen government understands this."

    Separately, reported May 4 that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will visit Ashgabat in 2009.

    Lukashenko of Belarus steals a march on his EU critics

    From: FT
    While European Union leaders fret about whether to shake hands with Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s authoritarian president since 1994, the wily 54-year-old leader himself stole a march on his critics on Monday by popping up in, of all places, the Vatican for talks with Pope Benedict XVI. What’s more, he was due later on to be welcomed for dinner by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister.

    This is Lukashenko’s first official visit to a western European country since 1995 - although I am reliably informed that, since the EU suspended a travel ban on him last year, he may have made at least one private trip to western Europe. According to Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, the purpose of no longer treating Lukashenko as a polecat is to encourage democratic reform in Belarus and the gradual acceptance of EU norms of behaviour.

    There are other aims, of course. The main one is to keep alive the very idea of Belarusan independence and to stop Belarus from slipping completely into the clutches of Russia, which is the country to which Belarus is closest in economic, cultural and historical terms. EU policymakers are particularly keen that Lukashenko should not bow to Russian pressure to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two separatist Georgian enclaves whose “independence” Moscow proclaimed after its triumphant military campaign against Georgia last August.

    These considerations explain why the EU has offered Lukashenko the opportunity to attend its “Eastern Partnership” summit in Prague on May 7, an event that will launch the bloc’s latest attempt at stabilising half a dozen ex-Soviet states situated between the EU’s eastern border and Russia. Will Lukashenko show up in Prague? It’s not clear. EU diplomats say there are doubts about the participation of both Lukashenko and President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova, where the recent post-election unrest has prompted EU criticism.

    Meanwhile, the Vatican has no qualms at all about hosting Lukashenko. From its point of view, there is every reason to cultivate relations with the leader of Belarus, a country whose Roman Catholic minority is well-treated in terms of religious freedom and which, indeed, is growing steadily in influence. Democratic reform may have made modest progress in Belarus - that was my own assessment when I visited the country in February - but the Vatican’s contacts with Lukashenko show that the Holy See has distinctive foreign policy interests all its own.

    Belarus businessmen look for RP opportunities

    From: Manilla Pub
    The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) and the Consulate of Belarus on Manila are inviting businessmen to attend the upcoming Philippines–Belarus Business Forum and Business Matching slated on May 7, 2009. The event is arranged by high–profile trade delegation of manufacturers and exporters from the Belarus Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI).

    Belarus is a former republic of Russia that gained its independence in 1991. Its economy has been steadily growing since gaining independence, with its GDP growth rate reaching 8% for the year 2008. Its major industries are metal—cutting machine tools, tractors, trucks, synthetic fibers, textiles, radios, and refrigerators.

    The Belarusian trade delegation, led by Mr. Vasily Romanau (Romanov) aims to establish bilateral economic cooperation with the Philippines as well as to meet with local industry counterparts. The companies in the delegation are involved in various industries such as tire and rubber, optical laser electronic equipment, tractors, municipal vehicles, forestry machines, ploughs, cast iron, radar equipment, safety equipment for high–voltage lines, carpets and flooring, and development, production and repair of military products.

  • From the Opposition...

    Andrei Sannikov: Lukashenka became a lame duck

    From: Charter '97
    Andrei Sannikov, leader of the civil campaign “European Belarus”, thinks a cancelation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s visit to the EU summit in Prague means the Belarusian dictator remains persona non grata in Europe.

    “I think it is a result of the activities of the democratic forces of Belarus, supported by principal European politicians and the European civil society. So, Lukashenka remains persona non grata in Europe. Future relations with Belarus are not connected with him. Using the terminology of politics, he may be called a lame duck, a person who is approaching the end of his tenure,” the politician thinks.

    According to Andrei Sannikov, the Belarusian democratic forces have new tasks now.

    “We have achieved this, and now our task is to gain release of political prisoners and holding free elections in the country,” the leader of the “European Belarus” said.

    It should be reminded, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus officially announced formation of an official Belarusian delegation for the Eastern Partnership summit, which takes place in Prague on May 7. The delegation consists first deputy prime minister Uladzimir Syamashka and foreign minister Syarhei Martynau.

    Czech president Vaclav Klaus spoke against the visit of Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the EU summit. He said he wouldn’t neither shake hands with him nor accept him in his residential palace.

    The Chairperson of the Standing Czech Senate Commission on Assistance to Worldwide Democracy Vlastimil Sehnal has come out against the visit of the Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka to Prague categorically. “We simply shouldn’t allow him to leave the plane,” the politician noted.

    In her turn, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy noted that the Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg had invited to the summit not A. Lukashenka personally, but Belarus.

    The Dutch foreign minister harshly criticised an idea to invite the Belarusian dictator to Prague.

    “We will criticise the Belarusian ruler in Prague, and nobody will forbid us to do this. If countries members of the Eastern Partnership program want full partner relations with the EU, they should respect our values. Our values are democracy and respect for human rights,” the Dutch foreign minister Maxime Verhagen said.

    Belarusian opposition politicians and human rights activists have repeatedly said a visit of Alyaksandr Lukashenka is impossible while there are political prisoners in the country, repressions against the opposition go on, elections results are rigged, and cases of kidnapping and killings of Belarusians opposition leaders and a journalist are not investigated.

    Belarusian journalists didn’t receive accreditation for Prague summit

    From: Charter '97
    The Czech authorities withdrew accreditation of political emigrant and journalist Alyaksei Shydlouski and other Belarusian journalists for the Eastern Partnership summit.

    Alyaksei Shydlouski received accreditation for the summit as a reporter for the Belarusian emigrant newspaper Minsk-Prague-Inform with the editor-in-chief Yauhen Sidoryk. The accreditation was confirmed by the press service of the Ministry of Foreign Affaires. However, Shydlouski and Sidoryk received a letter from the press service saying the accreditation was annulled by the security service for reasons of safety. Raman Kavalchuk, also born in Belarus, received a similar letter.

    “We think withdrawing accreditation of Belarusian journalists is groundless and biased. The security service had no grounds for this decision. I don’t know who gave orders to strike the Belarusians, but I have faced similar situations in Belarus for many times. Europe continues playing cynic games with the Belarusian regime and appeasing everything. Such games may have a sad end because the totalitarianism is contagious,” Alyaksei Shydlouski commented on the situation.

  • Around the Region...


    From: Eurasianet
    On May 7, the Czech Presidency of the European Union will host a summit of high-level representatives of six former Soviet republics -- Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The purpose for the gathering is the kickoff of the EU’s new initiative called Eastern Partnership, the brainchild of Poland and Sweden. The initiative aims for deeper EU engagement with the six countries that, by virtue of their west-of-the-Ural-Mountains location, are at least hypothetically eligible for EU membership. Given the precarious position of these six countries, the Eastern Partnership is an urgently needed idea, although its current form is flawed.

    This initiative has a number of attractive features. For instance, it escapes the trap of military-centered cooperation that has often dominated the West’s relations with countries that are interested in NATO membership (Georgia, Ukraine) and that are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (Armenia, Belarus). The Eastern Partnership is also intended to augment activities conducted under the auspices of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). Whereas the ENP is country-specific, the Eastern Partnership strives to be more regional in its approach.

    As a part of the ENP, there is a plan to establish an inter-governmental platform to discuss democracy, human rights, and justice issues. This is a particularly welcome development since what the six countries share is a poor record of governance. None of them are classified as democracies in Nations in Transit, Freedom House’s annual survey of democratic performance in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

    Azerbaijan and Belarus are led by authoritarian-minded leaders, Ilham Aliev and Aleksander Lukashenko, both of whom recently tweaked their constitutions to shelve presidential term limits. Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan, came to power last year after troubled elections and a violent post-electoral crackdown on the opposition, which had contested the election’s results. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. And in April, Moldova held elections whose results came into question and resulted in arrests of demonstrators protesting the outcome.

    Meanwhile, Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili, while presenting himself as a friend of the West, has been allergic to holding fair elections, or in tolerating oversight of his actions by the country’s parliament. Finally, the leaders of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, have been locked in a debilitating squabble for years. They have made little progress in combating endemic corruption and, as a result, have led the country to the brink of economic collapse.

    In short, all six countries could benefit greatly from the EU’s assistance for reform in the spheres of governance and democratic institutions.

    However, during a recent trip to the region I found a great deal of skepticism about this initiative among the local non-governmental experts. In one of the countries of the European Partnership, local analysts created a caustic acronym for it, using first letters of the six countries names to spell BUMAGA, which in Russian means paper. The meaning was clear: local NGO activists believed the partnership initiative was something devoid of substance and lacking real teeth.

    Why is this well-intentioned initiative met with so much skepticism by the locals?

    First, local NGOs find it next to impossible to access the funds that the European Commission allocates for support of their activities, due to a maze of requirements and conditions. Second, they point to the lack of results in the area of democracy and human rights of the last EU regional initiative, the European Neighborhood Policy. Third, and most important, they do not believe that a strictly inter-governmental process can promote European values of human dignity, justice for all citizens and respect for democratic institutions in a region whose rulers have not shown much interest in those values. Therefore, non-governmental activists are skeptical that the experience of the European Union’s engagement and eventual enlargement in East-Central Europe, where human rights and democracy were an integral and key part of the process, can be replicated if the Eastern Partnership is left to solely to the devices of the governments involved.

    To its credit, the European Union envisages the creation of a Civic Forum within the framework of the Eastern Partnership. Yet, Brussels has been slow in announcing the details of the Forum.

    The EU better hurry: political conditions in the six countries of the Eastern Partnership are steadily slipping. European values will not spread throughout the region by virtue of closed-door inter-governmental negotiations and without regular interaction of civil society organizations from the EU and the Eastern Neighborhood. In order to ensure that this laudable EU initiative does not turn into a BUMAGA -- piece of paper with little substance or impact -- civil society should be given a meaningful role in its development.

    Ukraine will send top-level delegation to Eastern Partnership summit

    From: Bsanna
    The participation of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in the Eastern Partnership summit has been already confirmed, and participation of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the event is also highly probable, a source close to the Czech Presidency of the European Union told an UKRINFORM correspondent on confidentiality terms.

    Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka and President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova will not come to Prague on May 7, the source said. “They decided so on their own. Belarus will be represented at the summit by Vice Premier Vladimir Semashko, and Moldova by Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan. The other of the six partner countries will be represented at the presidential level,” he noted.

    Asked about the European delegation to the Eastern Partnership summit, the source said “as planned, the heads of states and governments of the majority of EU member-countries will arrive in Prague.”

    Ukraine sees biggest industrial decline, highest inflation among ex-Soviet countries in first quarter

    From: Kiev Post
    The biggest decline in industrial production among all ex-Soviet countries in the first quarter of 2009 was seen in Ukraine, where output fell 31.9% compared to the same period of 2008, the Commonwealth of Independent States Intergovernmental Statistics Committee said.

    Industrial production fell 24.2% in Moldova in the quarter, 19.5% in Kyrgyzstan, 14.3% in Russia, 9.5% in Armenia, 8.2% in Tajikistan, 4.6% in Kazakhstan, 4.5% in Belarus and 2.2% in Azerbaijan.

    Uzbekistan was the only CIS country to increase industrial output in the period, boosting production 9.9% compared to the first quarter of 2008.

    The committee does not possess statistics on industrial production in Georgia and Turkmenistan.

    The highest level of inflation among CIS countries in the first quarter was also seen in Ukraine at 20.4% compared to the first quarter of 2008. Kyrgyzstan saw inflation of 16.2% in the first quarter, Belarus - 15.4%, Russia - 13.7%, Tajikistan - 10.7%, Kazakhstan - 8.8%, Azerbaijan - 8.3%, Moldova - 3.2%, Georgia - 2.7% and Armenia - 2%.

    GDP declined 11% on average among CIS countries in the period, industrial production fell 15%, fixed capital investment decreased 11%, cargo shipments fell 18% and retail turnover shrank 2%.

    Among CIS countries that have already calculated GDP statistics for the first quarter, Uzbekistan saw the biggest increase at 7.9% followed by Azerbaijan at 4.1%, Tajikistan at 3.5%, Belarus at 1.1% and Kyrgyzstan at 0.2%. Armenia saw GDP contract 6.1% in the quarter.

    Consumer prices grew by an average of 14% in CIS countries in the first quarter of 2009 compared to the same period of 2008.

    Ukraine voters blamed for low support for Yushchenko

    In a related story, According to Volodymyr Tsybulko, opinion polls showing Pres Yushchenko’s meager approval rating are merely evidence that Ukrainian voters are still focused on tactical developments in VR and do not think in strategic terms. “If Viktor Yushchenko is supported by 3% of Ukrainians, does it mean that only 3% of voters support the Ukrainian as a state language, the entry of Ukraine in NATO and the EU, the policy of rehabilitation of the Ukrainian nation advocated by Pres. Yushchenko?” questions the political expert traditionally linked to the presidential administration.

    The union with the Party of Regions is a shot in the arm for BYUT, as BYUT popularity is rapidly dwindling due to the cabinet’s sloppy economic policy, Tsybulko opines. Regarding the Yedyny Tsentr party, its increasing popularity reveals a pragmatic, disciplined and well-organized political force able of pushing ahead its moderate pragmatism agenda, V. Tsybulko added.

  • From the Polish Scandal Files...

    Poland seizes illegal cigarette factory

    From: UPI
    Polish police said they arrested 13 people on suspicion they were running an illegal cigarette factory in southwestern Poland.

    Sixty police and Customs officers Monday raided a building in the town of Kuznica Piaskowa, in the Silesia region, and confiscated 8.5 million cigarettes and 22 tons of shredded tobacco, Polish Radio said Tuesday.

    Police said they believed it was the largest illegal cigarette producing plant ever uncovered in the country.

    Four of the 13 arrested people were Ukrainian nationals, the radio said.

    Karol Jakubowski of the Polish central police station said if the confiscated cigarettes and tobacco had reached the black market it would have cost the state budget about $4 million in lost tax revenue.

    Polish band arrested in US

    From: The News
    Five members of the Polish dance band Papa D were arrested at the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago for misbehaviour on the board of the plane flying from Munich.

    Papa D (earlier known as Papa Dance) came to the United States to play concerts for Polish diaspora. The band was arrested last Thursday at the airport in Chicago because the passengers and the crew of Lufthansa flight complained about their behaviour.

    Papa D’s lead singer Pawel Stasiak was released on bail but the rest of the group was sent back to Poland. Stasiak had to hire local musicians to play three previously contracted concerts in the US.

    Poles appear unlucky on Lufthansa flights. In February, prominent politician Jan Rokita was detained by German police at Munich airport after he became involved in a scuffle on one of the airline’s planes and was escorted back to the airport in handcuffs.

    Polish priest sentenced for persuading to suicide

    From: Polskie Radio
    3.5 years will spend in prison priest Piotr T., former parish priest from Dembnica, who was sentenced by the District Court, for persuading to suicide his teenager altar server. As a result the boy tried to commit suicide on the 16th of May 2006.

    The trial started last October is Swupsk . Accused parish priest committed the crime in 2006 in Dembnica. He tried to persuade the altar server to kill himself. The priest took the boy on a trip where he was giving him alcohol, drugs and marihuana. He was seducing the boy and tried to advise him to commit suicide. The priest did not tell anybody about this situation. Teenager came home after several days and told everything his parent and the local police. The prosecutor’s office stared an investigation. As it turned, the priest gave also drugs and alcohol other altar servers.

    After teenager’s testimony the bishop of Peplin suspended Piotr T. From ministering to his parish and sent a new priest who revealed missing money (27 thousand zloty what means 6 thousand euro).

  • Sport...

    Czech Republic blanks Belarus 3-0 at worlds

    From: USA Today
    Petr Cajanek scored twice as the Czech Republic beat Belarus 3-0 in the second round of the ice hockey world championship on Sunday.

    Patrik Elias also scored for the Czechs, who outshot Belarus 33-18. Jakub Stepanek picked up the shutout.

    Belarus qualified earlier Sunday for the quarterfinal when Canada beat Norway. Belarus will finish fourth in Group F, meaning it will face Russia for a spot in the semis.

    The Czech Republic will finish second or third in the group, depending on results Monday.

  • Endnote...

    Between the pope and the patriarch

    From: European Voice
    Pope Benedict XVI. An ally of Lukashenka?
    The public-relations plan pursued by Alyaksandr Lukashenka will make Belarus's exclusion from the EU's Eastern Partnership seem minor.

    The launch of the Eastern Partnership in Prague on Thursday (7 May) will lack one of the characters who played a principal role in the run-up to the summit: Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the president of Belarus. His absence will please many EU foreign ministers. But nor will Lukashenka mind greatly.

    Lukashenka is not used to harsh words being delivered to his face and he would probably have found too few Western leaders willing to shake hands with him for him to be able to turn the visit into a propaganda triumph.

    But there is a second reason why Lukashenka will not mind greatly: he has already achieved a public-relations coup, by meeting Pope Benedict and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Lukashenka's visit to western Europe over the past 12 years have been restricted to skiing holidays and medical treatment in Austria, so the visit to Rome was a breakthrough.

    It may also prove to be a breakthrough for him in domestic politics. Lukashenka's audience with the pope went down very well with Belarus's two million Catholics, among whom, according to independent opinion polls, opposition to Lukashenka is three times greater than it is among the country's Orthodox majority and nearly twice as great as it is among Protestants. In other words, Lukashenka may have managed to disarm the largest bloc of opposition to him in Belarusian society.

    Nonetheless, Lukashenka's visit to Rome might easily be viewed simply as Lukashenka seeking a public-relations coup to compensate for his no-show in Prague, and as a compensation that was achieved relatively comfortably. After all, the pope had little reason to deny Lukashenka an audience: Lukashenka leads a country with a sizeable Catholic community and the Vatican has long been more comfortable with rogue leaders than the EU (suffice it to recall the presence of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe at the funeral of Pope John Paul II). As for Berlusconi, a man who meets Russia's Vladimir Putin and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi has little reason to snub Lukashenka.

    But to view Lukashenka's success in Rome as merely compensation for the Prague snub would be wrong. When he met the pope, Lukashenka had a far more ambitious agenda in sight: he was pursuing an opportunity to be the man to arrange a meeting between the pope and the Russian patriarch, and thereby to mend the 1,000-year-old schism between Eastern and Western Christianity.

    An unlikely champion of ecumenism

    This might sound implausible. For much of his presidency, for political and geopolitical reasons, Lukashenka has acted as a buttress for Russian Orthodoxy. He suppressed the development of the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church from its stronghold in Ukraine, suppressed attempts to build Belarus's own orthodox church independent from Moscow and adopted a repressive law on religion that discriminated against Protestant denominations. His championing of Orthodoxy was symbolised in 2001, when he played host to the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church at exactly the same time that Pope John Paul II was paying a visit to Ukraine.

    But Lukashenka has quietly pursued a policy of building up political capital through ecumenism since at least 2002 – a year in which he explicitly declared that he would like to bring the Catholic and Orthodox churches together.

    Why the change in strategic thinking? Firstly, in 2002 Lukashenka was beginning to drop the project of integration with Russia and to entrench in Fortress Belarus. Secondly, the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 removed from the scene a Polish pope who had been a Cold War warrior, the godfather of Poland's revolution in 1989 and a powerful influence on Belarus's Catholic and Polish populations. The Catholic Church was also an important support for the development of Belarusian national identity, because the Catholic Church was – and is – the only denomination in Belarus to predominantly use the Belarusian language, the language used by many of Lukashenka's opponents. The change of guard from a Polish to a German pope gave the Belarusian authorities some assurance that engagement with the Vatican would be business-like and free of politics.

    And Minsk and the Vatican have been getting down to business. They have gradually extended contacts, resulting last year in a visit by the Vatican's secretary of state, and the Belarusian authorities in 2007 issued the first permits to build Catholic churches in 15 years.

    But the real opportunity to pursue the strategy of ecumenism came this February when Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk became head of the Russian Orthodox Church, replacing the traditionalist Aleksey II. Kirill is no traditionalist: he is polished yet outspoken, open to ecumenism, and PR-minded. Kirill previously served as head of the Russian Orthodox Church's foreign-relations department. He has already met Pope Benedict, when he was a metropolitan. For many, the question now is not whether, as patriarch, he will meet Benedict, but when.Lukashenka's entourage has rushed to explore that possibility.

    In the months before Lukashenka's visit to Rome, Lukashenka met the Catholic archbishop of Belarus and paid a surprise visit to Patriarch Kirill. Viewed in the context of Lukashenka's strategy, it now seems clear that he was trying to secure Kirill's (and Kremlin's) his consent for a visit to Rome and to discuss the possibility of a meeting between Kirill and Benedict – and, since his return from Rome, Lukashenka has mused publicly about the pope and the patriarch meeting.

    If Lukashenka manages to persuade Russia to accept a visit by Pope Benedict to Belarus – an offer to which the Vatican gave a measured response – Lukashenka would prove himself to be a master of political brinkmanship, for the Russian Orthodox Church considers Belarus to be its ‘canonical territory'. But if he manages to bring Kirill to Belarus when the pope is there, he would secure a place in a history as one of the men who ended the schism between eastern and western Christianity. That could guarantee his legitimacy for years to come, both in domestic politics and in relations with Russia.
    All roads lead to Europe

    There are many obstacles. Rome and Moscow are both tolerating Lukashenka's game at present, but it is unclear how long they will play along. The Kremlin in particular may not want to give such political capital to a man who continues to defy it by refusing to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. There are also the ecclesiastical challenges; points of discord persist and will not be removed swiftly. Last but not least, the pope and the patriarch could easily meet in Moscow or Rome. But nothing prevents Lukashenka from making such offers and building up the image of a unifier. He also has a strong marketing card to play – he can present Belarus to the pope and the patriarch as neutral territory and a borderland of eastern and western Christianity where both could co-exist in harmony.

    Lukashenka's strategy of ecumenism gives another twist to a simple fact: Lukashenka is uniquely placed to play games between the West and the East. It is nearly impossible to isolate him. Lukashenka will find his way to Europe, be it via Rome, Prague or via some other route. That is the third reason why Lukashenka will not mind not being in Prague too much.

    Nonetheless, Lukashenka would, of course, like to have as many roads to Europe as possible. By blocking off the route that leads through Prague, both the Belarusian opposition and its Western supporters have therefore lost a real opportunity to force Lukashenka into a serious dialogue on human rights, to set conditions and to extract real political concessions.

    Pope Benedict may now have an opportunity to make such demands of Lukashenka. Europe should strive to ensure that the pope, if he visits Minsk, speaks out about democracy and human rights as passionately as his predecessor did. Given that Lukashenka believes that now is the time to play the ecumenism card, Europe should start working on convincing Benedict immediately.