Belarus suffers from the “last dictatorship in Europe” image
The external and domestic information policy of the authorities is highly vulnerable – that was demonstrated by the reaction of the media to the recently entered into legal force amendments to the Administrative Code. It implies that the Belarusian authorities failed to shake off the negative image of the “last dictatorship in Europe”.
On 6 January amendments to a number of Belarusian laws envisaging penalties for violation of the use of national segment of the Internet entered into legal force. On 5 January Deputy Director of the Park of High Technologies (PHT) Mr. Martinkevich noted that due to the recent resonance in the media concerning this issue a number of foreign customers have questioned the capabilities of the PHT to provide services to its foreign partners.
Moreover, the authorities have not learned to control this image, which could jeopardize long-term business relationships (for instance, with the PHT). The PHT specializes in software development and is a subject to lighter taxation for Belarusian companies operation under its umbrella. It is marketed abroad as a role model for implementing projects in Belarus in the sphere of export of hi-tech solutions (the PHT was created with support and personal supervision of President Lukashenko).
Authorities failed to withstand the strong negative wave of publications in domestic and foreign media about the amendments to come into legal force, regardless of the fact that most of the publications were untrue and were mistaking the fears of online media for the facts.
In the meanwhile the facts are as follows.
1. Amendments to the Administrative Code have already been published half a year ago with the entry into legal force of the Decree No 60 on the regulation of the national segment of the Internet.
2. The amendments do not involve the prohibitions and penalties for ordinary citizens, and in particular, they not aim for blocking of unwanted foreign sites throughout Belarus.
3. The liability rests not on the Internet users, but on the Internet providers and businesses.
Nevertheless, the number of publications and, in particular, by the online media, as well as the high-speed of their dissemination have puzzled the authorities and threatened the PHT business ties and forced the PHT leadership and other state agencies to take a weak apologetic position.
As a consequence, the Belarusian authorities would have to retaliate for losses in the information opposition and will continue tightening screws for internet business, online media and users. Therefore the probability that the fears of the online media will eventually become a reality has increased. Moreover, data published last week implies that Belarus overcame 50% threshold of penetration of the Internet, which could become an important incentive to increase control over the Internet for the authorities.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.