Radiation scare affects embassies and local residents
According to numerous Belarusian media reports, several foreign embassies based in Minsk are to leave the country because of reportedly high levels of radiation caused by summer peatery and forest fires. The Israeli embassy is said to be the first to evacuate staff and family members from the country. The American embassy refuses to comment on the situation. Official media refute the reports of a radiation surge as groundless. In the meantime, residents of the Belarusian capital Minsk are close to panic, some sealing windows and preferring to stay indoors.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that wild fires in Ukraine have stirred up radioactive elements remaining in the environment from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and raised radiation levels downwind in Belarus. The Chernobyl plant has reduced its power by 50 percent for repairs and maintenance. Reuters quoted plant and government officials as saying that Chernobyl is operating normally and there have been no incidents.
Lukashenko sees military group as mobilization force
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko on 17 May said the West misunderstood his earlier statements on the creation of a joint Belarusian-Russian military force on Belarus' western border. He said the 300,000-strong group he proposed will be a mobilization force to act in defense during a conflict and will not be a permanent army.
"They [in the West] have made this into a problem [claiming] that we want to increase our armed forces. We simply do not have enough resources to arm 300,000 troops today," Belarusian Television quoted him as saying. Then Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin said last month that he did not favor the creation of a joint Russian-Belarusian armed force.
Trade unions call for international sanctions
The Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions has called on Western countries and organizations to impose political and economic sanctions on the Lukashenko regime, Radio Liberty's Belarusian Service reported on 17 May. In particular, the trade unions appealed to the European Parliament, the US Congress, and the International Labor Organization to impose sanctions and use other forms of pressure on the regime in order to make it observe international law, human rights, and the country's constitution.
According to congress head Viktar Babayed, the authorities last fall launched a campaign of persecution against independent trade unions in Belarus, forcing their closure at many plants. Uladzimir Makarchuk, another trade union leader, said the authorities intend to eliminate Belarus' independent worker movement before this year's parliamentary elections.
Polish President notes setback to democracy in Belarus
Belarusian-Polish relations look normal, but Poland cannot help but react to the clear setback to democracy in Belarus, said Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski on 17 May while visiting France, according to Belarusian official sources. Kwasniewski also said that he did not understand the behaviour of the Belarusian leader, Aleksandr Lukashenko.
US Ambassador: "Threats to Belarus do not come from NATO"
"I was disappointed when I saw those statements because I think they are driven by an out-of-date view of the security threats to Belarus and Russia," US Ambassador to Belarus Daniel Speckhard told students at the Belarusian State University, commenting on Aleksandr Lukashenko's plan to form a 300,000-strong Belarusian-Russian force on the western border.
In the opinion of Speckhard, security threats to Belarus do not come from NATO, they come from "instability within Belarus" and "transnational threats" like crime, terrorism and narcotics.
"The 300,000 troops ready to take on NATO is a lot of energy focused in the wrong direction," the ambassador said. "It also creates greater tension that is unhealthy for stability and peace in the region and makes your neighbours like Lithuania and Poland very nervous."
New EU measures undermine potassium exports from Belarus
The EU Commission finally declared on 23 May the new anti-dumping measures affecting selling of potassium fertilizers on the European market.
Under the new rules, lobbied for by German suppliers of fertilizers, the previous minimal prices have been cancelled, but instead new customs duties have been put into effect at the rate of a USD 26 to 27 tax per ton. The result is that European markets for the Belarusian potassium export sector have become extremely unprofitable. At the moment, potassium fertilizers cost on average USD 130 to 140 per ton. When customs, transportation and loading costs are considered, it is obvious that Belarussian exporters are no longer competitive in the business and, in fact, lose money.
Illusions of profit fostered by domestic producers dreaming of rich clients and low transportation costs turned out to be unfounded, and the local market will have to redirect its exports to remote countries like China and Brazil.
Russia agrees to back up Belarusian ruble
The Russian daily Vedomosti reported on 24 May that Russia's Central Bank had agreed to provide Belarus National Bank with a USD 200 million loan to back up the Belarusian ruble.
In early April, deputy Chair of the National Bank Pavel Kolavr told Vedomosti that the credit would most likely be issued at the end of the summer, and stressed that Russia's Central Bank would offer a stabilization fund of USD 150 to 200 million, the amount requested by the Belarusian side.
The decision to give Belarus the loan was made despite the pessimism of Russian liberal economists. Vedomosti cited Andrei Cherepanov, the former Central Bank foreign transactions department director, as saying that that Russia should forget about providing Belarus with the credit for two basic reasons. First and foremost, he said, Belarus will never return it. Second, he noted, in backing up Belarusian ruble, Russia would worsen the conditions under which the currency exchange will take place provided the single monetary system is adopted.
Victor Lukyanow, 29 May 2000