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Belarus in Focus 2011

12 Nov

Gesine Dornblueth, Deutschlandradio Kultur (Germany)


462

Is the end of Lukashenka’s regime coming soon?

Sound:

A market stall with dried fruit

Author:

A market in Belarus’s capital Minsk; crowded together under a ribbed roof, there are market stalls with trousers, bras, shoes, woollen pullovers. Some of the clothes are from Turkey, the cheaper ones from Belarus. The fabrics are rough. They look shabby. The salesmen are standing around bored. At the edge of the market, there are groceries. An old man is looking at a market stall with dried fruit and nuts. He is studying the prices, kneading a 20,000 rouble bill, thinking. 20,000 roubles are equivalent of two Euros.

Sound:

“Slushayu Vas – Mne slivy...”

Author:

Eventually, he decides to take dried plums: three hundred gram for 13,000 roubles. The salesman is packing the fruit into a plastic bag.

Salesman:

“The people are poor. The prices went up but not the wages. And thus purchasing power shrinks. Take for example dried apricots: a year ago, I sold a kilo for 9,800  roubles. Now, I have to take 55,000. Or raisins: now, the kilo costs 35,000 roubles; a year ago, it was 11,000. The prices tripled.”

Sound:

Squeaking of a trolley. Voices.

Author:

Like many people under the authoritarian regime, the salesman is afraid of telling his name. He is about forty years old and stands here everyday.

Salesman:

“I have an income; but it is difficult. Before the crisis, I earned more. Dried fruit and nuts – these are not basic foods like bread or milk or vodka; this is why, many people deny themselves these things. If Lukashenka resigns it will be a celebration for me.”

Author:

Belarus faces national bankruptcy. Since the beginning of the year, the currency devalued more than 65%. Inflation increases. A few meters off, a woman sells honey.

Woman:

“The mood of the people plummets further. In the past, pensioners who came to my market stall praised the president for paying the pensions in time. Now, everyone says it is getting even worse. Anyway, I think it can’t get worse. It is already worse enough. We only cope because we work a lot. When the crisis began, we multiplied our colonies of bees. If I had continued to work in the kindergarten, we would have been in debt already.”

Author:

The woman quit her job because she could earn more money with beekeeping. Her husband is already retired. He served in the army and is getting a quite high pension; but more than half of it is spent on the apartment. On top of this, they are also financing the education of their two children.

Woman:

“At the election last December, Lukashenka promised to raise all wages. Immediately, my husband got a decent addition to his pension; but only once. The next month, the addition was cancelled again.”

Author:

The woman says that each month, they have between three and four million roubles at disposal.

Woman:

“Millions, that sounds fantastic; but the millions fade away.

Author:

The crisis is the consequence of Belarus living beyond its means for years. President Alexander Lukashenka is in power since 1994 and rules in a Soviet manner. He takes no stock in free market economy. Therefore, most large-scale enterprises are still state owned. When the economic and financial crisis escalated in 2008 and companies worldwide dismissed an enormous amount of workforce, Lukashenka continued as nothing had happened. However, Belarus had to face the consequences of the global crisis, too.

The country exports tractors and potash fertilizers. Due to the crisis, the demand for these products decreased. Belarus ran short of money. It would have been all the more urgent for Lukashenka to sell parts of the state owned companies. The philosopher Uladzimir Matskevich runs the international consortium „Eurobelarus“, a think-tank which makes political and economic analysis. Matskevich says that nobody knows how bad the economic situation really is.

Uladzimir Matskevich:

“Unfortunately, independent experts have no access to recent statistics. Because our country doesn’t have private, publicly traded, companies, we also don’t have indicators such as stock market prices. The situation is tense. This summer, the state  didn’t even have enough money to maintain the current businesses. In the beginning  of the year, Belarus still needed 2 to 3 billion Euros to stabilize economy; today, it is 9 to 10 billions. Quite possibly, it will be 15 to 20 billions next year, let it be understood, only to stabilize the situation. To stimulate economy, we would need even more money.”

Author:

The big question is where will the money come from? Russia is willing to deliver cheap oil and gas to Belarus, but only if Belarus sells its pipelines to Russia’s state controlled Gasprom in return. This summer, Russia, together with four former Central Asian Soviet Republics, approved a two billion Euro credit to Belarus; but also for that, Russia demands that Belarus sells state owned companies by preference to Russian companies. Recently, however, Lukashenka admitted Chinese instead of Russian investors to the country. In Minsk, for example, Chinese are building a five star hotel called “Beijing”. Matskevich from “Eurobelarus” thinks that Lukashenka wants to stay independent from Russia at any cost.

Uladzimir Matskevich:

“For a long time, Lukashenka dreamt of moving into the Kremlin as leader of a new state union. He thought it is his mission to establish some kind of Soviet Union again. Now, Putin has discovered this mission for himself. There is no place for Lukashenka

anymore. Therefore, he doesn’t have any interest in a political union any more; he is afraid of Russia’s ability to influence Belarus’s market because he doesn’t want to loose control over Belarus’s economy.”

Author:

To stand up to Russia, Lukashenka needs support of the European Union. In 2009, the EU facilitated a credit of over 3.5 billion US-Dollars by the International Monetary Fund. Previous to that, there had been a slight political liberalization in Belarus. Back then, the EU held out the prospect of another three billion dollars for 2011. The condition was that Lukashenka would allow democratic elections. That didn’t happen. The outcome of 2010’s presidential election in December was manipulated. Subsequently, hundreds of supporters of the opposition were arrested and dozens of  them sentenced to several years of detention. Till today, two of the presidential candidates are imprisoned.

As long as Lukashenka doesn’t ease his regime, he can’t expect any money from the EU. The state and government officials of the EU made that clear at their Eastern Partnership Summit in Warsaw at the end of September. They demand that Lukashenka releases all political prisoners. Vladimir Skvortsov runs the analytical department in Belarus’s Ministry of foreign affairs. Visibly under pressure, he struggles to defend the politics of his government.

Vladimir Skvortsov:

“What is understood to be a political prisoner is a matter of terminology. Here, the people who took part in, let’s say, these conditions, in these protests and so on which were in fact illegal - and which were quite spontaneous - even if there was some kind

of preparation work; this is why we don’t consider them to be political prisoners.”

Author:

At the same time, Skvortsov indicates readiness to talk

Vladimir Skvortsov:

“In any case, this should not hinder us to cooperate and to make a contact; and if we are seen as a partner we are of course willing to talk about several problematic cases.”

Author:

Obviously, Lukashenka tries to drive up the price for the release of his political opponents.

Author:

Aliaksandr Atroshchankau is one of the prisoners who were released from detention recently. The 30 year old man lives in a highrise estate in Minsk, not far away from the city centre. In front of the buildings there are bright flowers in autumn colours:

blue, yellow, purple. During 2010’s election, Aliaksandr Atroshchankau was the press speaker for Andrei Sannikau, a presidential candidate of the opposition. One day after the election, Atroshchankau was arrested and sentenced to four years of detention. After nine months he was released.

Aliaksandr Atroshchankau:

“Belarus is a strange country. KGB told me directly: you are living goods; you are our hostage; we will exchange you for investments and credits. Several times the Western world walked right into a trap: Lukashenka releases some of his political prisoners, gets money for that, and as soon as this money is finished he takes other political prisoners.”

Author:

His wife Darya is taking his hand. She works for a human rights organization and worked months towards the release of Atroshchankau. She remembers the days of the mass arrests.

Darya Korsak:

“Many people came to the office of our organization and brought money, toothbrushes, groceries, and drinking water for the prisoners. When I was buying warm clothes for my husband, the salesmen allowed discounts when they found out that the things were intended for a political prisoner. Some of them even gave me things for free.”

Author:

It seems that the bigger the social need the stronger the solidarity with the political prisoners and the courage to protest. In summer, thousands of people via internet arranged to meet for a silent protest.

Darya Korsak:

“The actions this summer have shown that protest is not anymore limited to political opposition. People, who would never have taken to the streets before, took part in the silent protests: young factory employees, pensioners, handicapped people, and ordinary people. They did not only protest in Minsk but in many cities; even in cities in which actions had taken place never before. That gives me great hope.”

Author:

At least partially, this hope seems justified.

Sound:

People shouting “Zhivie Belarus”

Author:

Vitsebsk, October the 8th : it’s a three hour drive from the capital. The city is east of Minsk, close to the border to Russia. Approximately 300,000 people live here. About a hundred people have gathered to hold a people’s assembly. They demand higher

wages, an end to inflation, jobs, and the release of political prisoners. It is the first time since months that dissatisfied citizens gather in Vitsebsk. Dozens of employees of the Secret Service have surrounded the peaceful gathering; they are filming the people. A prominent participant is arrested while leaving - supposedly, because of violating traffic regulations. Similar gatherings are taking place in 25 other cities, also in Minsk, at this day. In total, several thousand people are taking to the streets.

Sounds in the kitchen

Author:

Irina Yaskevich has organized the assembly in Vitsebsk. Now she is standing in the kitchen making salami sandwiches. Pans and pots are piled up on the kitchen stove. Next to it, there are preserving jars and bags for breads; Irina Yaskevich doesn’t have time to clean up. She runs a small tailor shop. Already for three years, she tries to establish a union for sole traders. For three years, this is denied because of shabby reasons.

Irina Yaskevich:

“We are former medics, production managers, tailors. We all became unemployed in the 90s. Back then, we were allowed to earn our living ourselves. In the last years, many of us have downsized their companies; and about one third shut down their businesses; all because of the crisis.”

Author:

Some of the organizers of the people’s assembly on the 8th of October where subsequently sentenced to several days of detention or penalties. Regardless to that, the next people’s assemblies are about to take place everywhere in the country on the 12 th of November. For Irina Yaskevich, it is not about overthrowing the government; yet she complains about the aloofness of the politicians. In her opinion, they don’t care a bit about their voters and their constituencies.

Irina Yaskevich:

“Our representatives have to come down to earth and look, how the people live who voted for them. They have to meet with their voters regularly so that people don’t loose the last bit of hope, which they still have: The hope for compromise and dialogue.”

Author:

Meanwhile, Lukashenka simply ignores the crisis. In the beginning of October, he told the people that at the end of the year, nobody will talk about the crisis anymore.



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