Because interpreting news from Belarus has been challenging for outsiders, some verifiable background information about the country may prove useful. For example, for the eighth straight year, the former “last dictatorship of Europe” leads the world in the number of Schengen visas allotted per 1,000 people (75 in 2017) (Schengenvisainfo.com, accessed August 31). And with 35.9 private businesses in Belarus per 1,000 people, the country ranks between Germany (37) and France (35) and far ahead of Russia (11) and Ukraine (16) (Pavel Daneiko, “The Role of Context in the Development of SMEs in Belarus,” 2017). In Belarus, the most frequently visited online news portal, with almost 89 million visits a month (for a country of 9.5 million), is Tut.by. The site is privately owned and features articles critical of the authorities on a daily basis. The also private portal Onliner.by is second, with 38.5 million visits. For comparison, Belta, the government’s official news agency, ranks sixth, with 4.6 million visits to its website each month (Nasha Niva, January 6). In fact, the number of opposition media outlets in Belarus visibly exceeds demand as well as the productivity of their contributors. Consequently, these outlets often recycle each other’s stories. And yet, an article that appeared last month in the Washington Post asserted that “Belarusian media is on the edge of survival,” which some Belarusian newscasters labeled “one more piece of hogwash from WaPo” (Belnaviny.by, August 5).
In many ways, however, the situation inside Belarus is indeed confusing and allows for disparate assessments, especially if those providing them are not immune to political bias and inertia. August 2018 was full of such events that had the potential to generate multiple polarized opinions. For instance, on August 14, during a seemingly routine visit to the city of Orsha, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka excoriated local officials, fired two government ministers and pledged to dismiss more (Naviny.by, August 15). Within days, he replaced Prime Minister Andrei Kobiakov with Sergei Rumas as well as swapped several other officials, including three deputy prime minister (Tut.by, August 19). Rumas is Belarus’s seventh head of government since independence. He served as deputy prime minister from 2010 to 2012; prior to that job as well as thereafter, he worked in the banking sector, his most recent position being chair of the state-run Development Bank. Usually described as a champion of the private sector, Rumas was trained as a financier at a military academy in the Russian city of Yaroslavl. He worked in Russia’s Far East before returning to his native Belarus following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
These recent personnel changes reduced the average age of Belarusian government ministers by ten years. Also, not a single minister can now be called a retrograde dirigiste manager (Carnegie.ru, August 21). Whether or not the latest cabinet reshuffle signifies pending economic liberalization is unclear. But Kirill Koktysh, a Moscow-based foreign policy expert born and raised in Minsk, believes that Rumas, who participated in the creation of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), ought to be seen as someone able to breathe new life into the EEU as well as revitalize its interfacing with China’s New Silk Road project. “Minsk has invested too much effort retaining its industrial capacities initially designed to serve a huge Soviet market […] to not have serious plans for a large Eurasian space,” Koktysh believes (Izvestia, August 21).
Relationships with Russia, however, have been causing headaches for Lukashenka. Thus, on August 8, in Gomel, he again resorted to harsh rhetoric, accusing Russia of “barbaric behavior.” “They keep on issuing demands,” exclaimed Lukashenka, “as if we are their vassals, but they do not want to abide by their own obligations in the EEU” (Tut.by, August 11). While this tirade was exclusively about economic ties, the increasingly impatient language in response that emanates from Russia’s mainstream media outlets transcends economic concerns. It brands every deviation from historical memory heretofore shared by Russia and Belarus as treasonous (Lenta.ru, August 5, July 17) and at the same time suggests Belarus cannot survive without Russian aid (Lenta.ru, August 22). This argument is conspicuously comparable to that Russia repeatedly leveled against pre-2014 Ukraine. Sometimes this leads to awkward exchanges between those Russian and Belarusian experts supremely loyal to their respective governments. For example, Russia’s Bogdan Bespalko recently criticized Belarusians for erecting a monument to Thaddeus Kościuszko who, Bespalko contended, is actually a Polish and American hero, though born on Belarusian soil. In reply, Belarus’s Piotr Piatrouski retorted that a street named after Kościuszko exists in St. Petersburg (Piatrouski, August 23). Whereas Alexei Dzermant, who is as decidedly pro-Russian as Piatrouski had to acknowledge that Western soft power is more efficient than Russia’s precisely because “the Westerners never tell you that your economy is a non-entity and your language does not exist” (Dzermant, August 23).
Against this backdrop, Belarus’s opposition media has devoted heavy speculation to the rumor that the candidacy of Mikhail Babich for Russian ambassadorship does not suit Minsk (see EDM, August 8). Their argument is that this same person, who has a strong military background, was once denied agrément as Russia’s would-be ambassador to Ukraine. On August 26, Lukashenka dismissed the rumor that Babich was imposed on him by President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Sochi on August 24. According to Lukashenka, he actually said yes to Babich’s candidacy some 1.5–2 months ago (Naviny, August 26).
Unquestionably, the most troubling piece of news from Belarus has been the August 7 arrest of 18 Belarusian journalists, mostly but not only from Tut.by, in addition to police searches of Tut.by’s headquarters and some of the journalists’ homes. The journalists stand accused of reading fresh news stories from Belta without paying for a subscription. Everybody has since been released from detention and all are now back at work while their case is open in court. But all those accused have been temporarily blocked from leaving the country (Tut.by, August 27). Multiple theories regarding the episode have been unearthed, and some bizarre aspects of the accusation were discussed in the media (Tut.by, August 9, 16; Ej.by, August 9).
Whether or not this episode justifies ranking Belarus on par with the Congo and Rwanda when it comes to press freedom, as Reporters Without Borders recently did (Tut.by, August 22), is certainly questionable. Nevertheless, this is certainly grist for the mill of those ever ready to castigate Minsk.