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Belarus in Focus
Online guide for journalists writing about Belarus. Find out who's who in business, society or politics, get practical tips and contacts, and read about other journalists' experiences. Got some more questions? Get in touch with us.
Opposition fails to attract more participants in its events

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Belarus’ independence, the opposition organised several events in Minsk. However, unlike the celebration... | 29.08.16 

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How to enter
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Belarus in Focus 2011
Laurent Vinatier

Laurent Vinatier researches, lectures and writes about current international political affairs. Based in Switzerland, he is affiliated to the Thomas More Institute, an independent leading think-tank in Paris. With a PhD in political science, he has specialized in post-Soviet political affairs since 2000, covering Russia, North and South Caucasus, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia. He is also an expert on Islamist issues and Turkish foreign policy.

Laurent has authored several books and articles, notably on the Chechen conflict and Russian domestic affairs. He also performs political risks assessment as a consultant for- private firms and non-governmental organizations, mainly focusing on global Islamism and Caucasian-Turkish salafi-jihadist networks. Laurent is deeply interested in the "non-mainstream processes" - actors and causes which are said to be on the wrong side of globalization.  He is a regular contributer to The Global Journal.

David Marples A very well-crafted study of the operations of private business in Belarus. It also provides useful insights into the difficulties of both the EU and the opposition in constructing a meaningful response to an authoritarian regime.
Yuliya Slutskaya An untraditional approach that touches on sensitive issues such as business connections with EU, and the tricky issue of sanctions. It also succeeds in helping an outside audience to understand the incredibly complex relations between authorities and business in Belarus – where everything is far from black and white.
Oliver Money-Kyrle Rarely covered angle of the consequences of EU sanctions on the Belarus business community. To be successful in Belarus you need to be favoured by Lukashenko, but to be too favoured invokes targeted sanctions. Business remaining choice is to invest East instead of West. Very well researched and argued article.
Polona Frelih An exciting insight into the hidden world of Belarusian oligarchs and dirty European politics. Worlds that seem miles apart are actually more intertwined than it seems.

A Dictatorship’s Success Stories

Global Journal, December 28, 2012

Aleksandr Lukashenko is resilient. The President of Belarus has stood firm against the European Union (EU) and its renewed political and economic sanctions in response to his increasingly autocratic rule. In six months, he has freed two political prisoners while a dozen remain in custody. On September 23, nationwide parliamentary elections ran smoothly in an atmosphere of total indifference from the great majority of the population. Russia, for its part, supports Belarus with financial subsidies, ready to buy out everything possible at discounted prices.

The village was still part of the Soviet Union when Yuri Chizh – today one of Belarus’ richest businessmen, with close links to President Aleksandr Lukashenko– preferred to run around in the neighboring forest rather than attend school. To get up to childhood mischief, he had to carefully avoid his family’s bright yellow home, which stood only a few meters between the school and the kolkhoz. At that time, it seems, the two intersecting streets of Sabali in Biarozovsky district, 250 kilometres south of Minsk, were full of life. Forty years later, while the petrified Soviet Brezhnev era has disappeared into history, the village has plunged into a kind of hibernation. The school has been dismantled, and families with children have fled to the cities. Most of the wooden houses lie empty – indeed, only 70 pensioners remain.

The kolkhoz holds on unconvincingly, with two or three old tractors languishing in a yard. The endless wet and flat countryside, dotted with familiar birch trees, has become noticeably sadder. The yellow house is slightly less colorful. Chizh had to leave for Minsk relatively early, in order to commence studies in electronics at the Belarusian Polytechnical Institute. From then on, everything moved quickly. He had a chance to exercise his entrepreneurial skills during perestroika, and now heads a business empire based on the Triple holding, which reprocesses and exports oil products bought from Russia at discounted prices. Chizh has also diversified into civil engineering, construction, manufacturing, restaurants, food production and a network of hypermarkets – the Prostore chain. He has been especially prominent in media headlines in recent times for building the first luxury Kempinski hotel in central Minsk, just behind the Circus and near the unchanged Sovietera Gorki Park. Although associated with the Slovenian Riko Group in the context of that project, Chizh has failed, however, to escape the EU’s sanction list.

Blacklisted since March, Chizh is undoubtedly paying for his close links with Lukashenko, and, by implication, for his impressive success. Yet in compensation for the European punishment, his boss has just granted Chizh a 99-year concession over his native Sabali village. Essentially, this means that every single square inch of the land where he grew up ultimately belongs to him. After years of fruitful wanderings in the capital, the oligarch has returned home. He has brought with him an immense sponsorship project focused on building a large complex boasting a hotel, restaurant, ethno-museum and a host of other infrastructure. In theory, Sabali will benefit as a revitalized rural center. At the very least, the faded paintwork of the wooden houses will be refreshed.

Belarus is not devoid of successful private companies. Chizh’s Triple ranks among the leaders, but many others follow close behind. Alexander Moshensky’s Santa Impex for food – particularly seafood – processing, Pavel Topuzidis’ Tabak Invest, Alexander Shakutin’s Amkodor for road-building machinery, or Anatoly Ternavsky’s Univest-M group – with activities ranging from petrochemical exports to banking, restaurants and construction –have no reason to be ashamed. Among these business leaders, only Ternavsky has been the subject of EU sanctions. Notably, the other three have significant investments in neighboring European countries. The old Belarusian economic clichés of arms traders linked to rogue states (such as fellow oligarch Vladimir Peftiev – blacklisted) and manufacturers of heavy machinery have faded away. Now engaged in more conventional enterprises, most ‘normal’ Belarusian businesses owe their success to efficient and skilled CEOs, whose first talent is to maintain close, loyal and ‘friendly’ relations with their unique common business boss: Lukashenko. Ironically, in the few remaining post-Soviet dictatorships, the Marxist economic model has been reversed. Political superstructures today prevail over the base.

The new bourgeois class of Belarus, owners of the means of production, have been reduced to acting as presidential ‘wallet persons,’ or koshelki as they are nicknamed in Russian. They cannot even pretend to stand alone as independent partners or shareholders in the national wealth. Lukashenko usually considers these individuals as simple business managers tasked with implementing his instructions. Their dependence is as prodigious as their efforts to maintain the President’s confidence. Ternavsky, for instance, has been obliged to employ Lukashenko’s daughter-in-law, Anna. He also sponsors the Presidential Sport’s Club, headed by Dmitri Lukashenko, Alexander’s son and Anna’s husband. Meanwhile, Chizh seems to prefer playing ice hockey on the same team as the President. He cannot refuse to sponsor the cultural resuscitation of Belarus’ birch-dotted countryside in the south, and when, for mysterious reasons, several of his top managers were arrested, he remained silent. The new Christian cross presented recently to Sabali by a Polish historical society, commemorating the Polish-Belarusian insurrection against Tsarist Russia in 1863 – and which will hardly be a tourist attraction in the middle of the kolkhoz – has a poignant political meaning.

In Belarus, Lukashenko decides almost all matters. The 58-year old former state farm manager assumed power in 1994, and recently described himself in a widely publicized interview as “the last and only dictator in Europe.” Though most infamous internationally as a result of accusations of torture and other human rights abuses – often focused on opposition figures – his political choices also determine business strategies. Chizh may have willingly agreed to allocate some money to his childhood village so long as he could also run his business according to his own interests and economic rationale.Now on the EU sanctions list, he has fallen as collateral damage in the President’s acrimonious relations with Europe, entrapped within Belarusian diplomatic strategies.

For Chizh, as for most of his colleagues, there are obvious advantages in developing overseas trade relationships and increasing their presence in European markets. Yet, they are increasingly prevented from doing so. Chizh is officially stigmatized, along with other not-yet-blacklisted businessmen, and seen as guilty by association. Coping with the growing gap between attractive trading opportunities in Europe and necessary political loyalty to the boss in Minsk has proven especially delicate. No leading business figures can speak out against their President – at least not yet – since they are kept divided by astute pressures from the political and security services. Consequently, some have already opted to resettle in Russia, where inflation is under tighter control and local authorities can guarantee more sustainable economic and political conditions. But those Belarusian firms in Russia also operate within a larger market, faced with – usually – stronger competitors. As a result, they are vulnerable to becoming easy targets for acquisition by more powerful rivals. Ultimately, Belarusian business needs Europe.

The EU’s reaction to the deteriorating political situation following dubious presidential elections in 2010 has been direct and demonstrative. To date, more than 200 people – mainly security and judicial officials – have been banned from traveling to Europe, and have seen their bank accounts blocked. Last March, 12 more individuals and 29 companies were added to the list, and their foreign assets frozen. Some EU member states, however, appear reluctant to enforce these restrictions wholeheartedly.

The vanguard of Lithuania, Latvia and Slovenia, for instance, intervened to reduce the scope of the second round of sanctions. The two Baltic ports profit so heavily from acting as the transit point for goods imported by Belarus that it would have been commercially self-destructive to participate actively in stemming the flow. Moshanski’s food products and a handful of Chizh’s assets related to his Prostore supermarket chain, amongst others, have thus been shielded from the European list. More discreetly, the governments of the Netherlands, Germany and Austria have also done little behind the scenes to oppose the determined Baltic negotiating stance. The Dutch are one of the main European importers of reprocessed Belarusian oil products, while the latter two countries have deep business ties in Minsk and beyond, involving some significant national actors such as banks and chemical and machinery companies. The EU cannot completely shut the door on Belarus.

The sanctions policy has had limited impact, however, at least so far as the business sector is concerned. It seems that banning (for differing reasons) Peftiev, Chizh and Ternavsky, and freezing their assets, is merely the minimum action the EU felt obliged to undertake in the current circumstances. Peftiev, believed to be Belarus’ richest business figure, was already within the orbit of American investigators for his troubled relations with non-recommended states. Chizh and Ternavsky, leading very similar holding companies, mainly work and prosper within Belarusian boundaries. Sergei Satsuk, Director of Ezhednevnik Zhurnal, and probably the most reputable business observer in Minsk, confirms that “Chizh’s interests in Europe represent only 3 percent of his whole empire.” It is likely that Ternavsky has even fewer business interests outside Belarus. As a result, the EU sanctions have hardly harmed them.

The EU could, however, have a significant impact on other European-Belarus businesses. Moshensky, Shakutin and Topuzidis all have EU-based holdings, as do many other individuals who prefer to invest in Belarus from a safe external vantage point – a practice that is spreading within the domestic community as it helps to substantially lower dependenceon Lukashenko. Consequently, through an ironic political twist, reinforcing sanctions on Belarusian businesses mainly hurts those – such as the promising young Aleksei Zhukov heading the Alyuteh Company – who are trying to escape the reaches of the President’s control. The resultant impact when it comes to foreign investor confidence means that developing interests in the EU has become increasingly difficult for such enterprises. Potential local partners in external markets have no guarantee that, sooner or later, these good willed and more or less independent figures will not be hit adversely by further European restrictions.

At the same time, alternative policies are difficult to identify. Betting on strengthening the political opposition and democratic breakthroughs is not a realistic option from a European perspective. Liberal and opposition movements are deeply divided between several leaders, none of whom stand out as obvious challengers to Lukashenko. Too ideological and radicalized, most also act, in part, from outside the country – predominantly, from Poland. This split geographical base is likely to lead to a kind of muted competition between externally based groups – especially media actors – and domestic activists. Because the latter take most of the risks in a climate of strong repression, they typically also claim the most legitimacy. Meanwhile, the external groups, with greater control over communications, try to exert some influence by favoring one faction over another. Moreover, when the wives or sisters of former presidential candidates speak as if they were representing a particular group, further confusion is added to an already blurred picture.

So far, none of these movements has been able to propose a clear, effective and realistic strategy. Arguably, it is because it would be futile to call for regime change in the current Belarusian context. As long as Russia agrees to subsidize its small neighbor, Lukashenko and his entourage will be able to resist any European pressure or public demonstrations of discontent. Minsk currently receives several billion dollars from Moscow each year to buy social peace, as well as to provide minimal economic stability. The President is therefore under no pressure to sit at a negotiating table with what he and others would suggest are barely legitimate opposition leaders. Wishful thinking and lobbying for strengthened actions based on promoting European values can lead nowhere, at least in the immediate future. Even more so as the EU has never previously shown an inclination to enforce such a moral policy elsewhere. Although the new European Dialogue for Modernization, launched last April, includes a number of very pragmatic goals, it has not, to date, proven to be well managed or coordinated. Perhaps inevitably, it has also failed to deliver any firm results.

Oddly, the demands of the Belarusian opposition do not match economic and political reality. This apparent incongruity constitutes one of Lukashenko’s major achievements. Clearly, deprived of any public platform to convey their message – whether via the media, or in an open and free political or parliamentary context – the opposition cannot be held totally responsible for its failure to appear relevant, credible and legitimate. Without the means to organize and communicate, any opposition movement would find it difficult to unify potential members and exercise a political role. The groups aligned against Lukashenko cannot count their forces, assess their audience or set achievable targets, so instead are condemned to agitate in almost empty spaces. Recent parliamentary electoral campaigns in Belarus illustrate this point. The major opposition groups – dismissed as “nobodies” by Lukashenko – boycotted last September’s elections to protest the detention of political prisoners and alleged opportunities for electoral fraud. Focused on the boycott issue, those opposition parties that did participate said nothing about economic issues, and hardly mentioned the traumatic crisis of 2011, much less propose any solutions. Unless Russia performs a U-turn, provoking a serious financial crash in Belarus, Lukashenko has ensured his political position for the next three years, while the opposition remains frozen. Well-informed independent experts in Minsk confirm that, “there is nothing more to do now than to wait for the next presidential election in 2015.”

In Sabali, meanwhile, people tend to think that even if there were no more elections, life would not change. With a pension of around $200 dollars per month, the elderly can meet all their basic needs and live quite well. Well, that is, if one discounts traveling beyond the village or eating out at nearby restaurants. Ivan, who supervises Sabali’s first small ethno-museum set up by his son in an old house nearby, was in no hurry to vote. When the ballot box arrived he inserted his ballot paper in front of the two mandated officials, whom he knew very well. Voting itself meant nothing. He and his wife will be happy either way, watching their son help local boy made good Chizh to accomplish his dream of turning Sabali into a large touristcultural ethnographic complex. If nothing else, their house will be repainted.

Article originally published:

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