Nick Shchetko

“Nick is a 27 year old Information Communications Technology (ICT) journalist/editor/analyst from Belarus, with 12+ years of related experience. He works as a contributing editor (technology) for the largest Belarusian web-media, TUT.BY. Nick covers variety of topics from social issues to advanced technology breakthroughs. He is keen on mobile and web-development, translation, reading and volleyball.” Also follow Nick’s personal blog at: http://www.nickky.com/eng

Recent Posts

August 17, 2012

The Case of the Teddy Bear Drop: Two People Imprisoned, Two Countries Facing a Diplomatic Crisis

Teddy Bear Drop in Belarus

Teddy Bear Drop in Belarus

It was a really weird case from the very beginning.

So what`s the connection between teddy bears, border violations, Swedes, a diplomacy crisis and aeronautics? You`ll soon know. But let me say again, that it was a really strange case from the very start.

Let`s rewind to one month back, to July 3rd. It was Independence Day for Belarus,  and the annual military parade was in motion – a day when tanks were filing down the streets of the capital, Minsk, and warplanes were flying over the city. There were speeches to the sound of “Our army is ready to counter any threat, blah-blah-blah”.

And then, out of the blue, the next morning a Swedish media published a “sensational” articlehttp://www.thelocal.se/41816/20120704/ on a “teddy-bear drop”. This story from “The Local”, Sweden’s English language newspaper, pictured a small plane, which they said, had illegally crossed Belarusian border this morning and dropped more than a hundred teddy bears over our territory in support of free speech in Belarus.

Let us stop here for a moment. I believe there is no need to comment on the issues of freedom of speech and press in our country. Just Google it and you`ll get the picture. But why teddy bears? It`s also a bit tricky to peacefully protest in Belarus – you may well end up in prison for one reason or another (like “swearing”). So opposition activists started a sort of guerilla war, putting toys with relevant slogans on the central streets of Minsk – but they were continuously confiscated by police continuously. http://www.gazetaby.com/index.php?sn_nid=43119

Now returning to the plot. In the beginning, the story sounded TOO CRAZY to be true – and there was not a single piece of evidence to substantiate the story. The Ministry of Defense denied the violation of our border, and the Committee on Border Affairs did just the same, but then details started to emerge: the action was carried out by two guys from the Swedish PR-company Studio Total http://www.studiototal.se/teddybears/ . Photos of   teddy bears on Belarusian soil soon appeared on the web – journalism student Anton Suryapin published those in his blog http://www.bnp.by/shvedy-dejstvitelno-sbrosili-na-belarus-plyushevyx-medvedej-na-parashyutax . And organizers published a videohttp://www.youtube.com/user/PerCromwell  – more and more over time, with Belarusian landmarks clearly visible… So just in a few days it became obvious to just about everyone that IT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

Belarusian authorities  “commented” in their usual style by detaining the blogger who posted pictures of the teddy bears (July, 13) and also a guy who rented a flat to the other Swedes who participated in the event by filming the story from the ground…

The president admitted that the plane actually crossed our border and said that “it was tracked from the very beginning, but no action was taken”. That of course is why top executives at the anti-air defense unit and Committee on Border Affairs were dismissed, and a number of other top military and internal security folks were reprimanded…

But anyway, the organizers made it  back home safely while two Belarusians, most likely innocent, were detained for “helping aliens to break through the Belarusian border”. The Belarusian KGB security agency said that was is expecting Swedes to come to Belarus to participate in the “investigative actions”, following the news of which Belarusians might be released from custody. A lot of bloggers considered that action as “taking hostages” in order to lure the border-breakers back to Belarus. The Swedish PR firm rejected the offer to return to Belarus, and suggested that Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko come to Sweden for talks.

And even more, the case started an international scandal after August 1st, when the Swedish ambassador to Belarus didn`t receive an extension of work permit from the Belarusian government. In return, Swedes expelled two top Belarusian diplomats from the local embassy. Minsk then decided to recall all its Embassy officials from Sweden and effectively ordered Swedish diplomats to leave the country…

Since then, the official Belarusian state TV-channel called Mr. Bildt, the head of Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “an internet troll” http://lenta.ru/news/2012/08/09/troll/

On Wednesday August 9, President Lukashenko stated that “We`ll adequately answer on those “plush matters”, but “Let those [pilots] thank God that our wise Belarusian defense forces spared those flyers”. The President added that the plane was noticed right above the border. He accused Lithuania of providing Swedes access to an airport to pass over the border, and said that Swedish diplomats were working with the trespassers. Still, the president hasn’t commented at all on the Belarusian citizens that remain in prison for accusations a lot of observers call far-fetched.

Oh, and the story is far from over: you may follow it (in Russian, though) here:http://news.tut.by/tag/1526-plyushevyy-desant.html

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April 11, 2012

The Blast That Changed Everything – One Year Later

Belarus was always considered a relatively peaceful country. Nothing really bad happens here, we believed. We had no terrorist attacks, no interethnic conflicts, no massive catastrophes… But suddenly it all changed in a just one day. It is a day that trembles in the hearts of nearly every Belarusian man and woman, and created a massive split in society. It was the day of the blast, one year ago, April 11, 2011.

I remember that day perfectly. Early in the morning, in a hurry, I forgot my camera at home and decided just go without it. “What might happen?” I asked myself. “And if something happens, you still have your mobile phone with you, don`t you?”…

It was chilly, but spring was already in the air. I had finished my work in the studio where we were recording an interview at around 5pm, and I was preparing to enjoy a glass of “something relaxing” with my colleagues, to celebrate the homecoming of our team member Olga Loyko – she had just arrived from London. Glasses were still full when the other colleague, Alexander Chekan, stormed out into the room and shouted: “have you heard it? Check Twitter, they say it`s a blast, a blast in Minsk metro”! Celebration instantly ceased and a rush began.

I recall phoning friends and relatives then, getting to them through the busy mobile networks.   They were safe, thank God, they were not in the metro! I recollect driving frantically downtown towards the site of the blast, luckily finding a parking place near the roadblocks.

Then I remember running to the place where it all happened – “Oktyabrskaya”, the central Minsk metro station, always packed with rush hour commuters. The bomb went off at 5.56 PM, when people filled the tube to get home…

I recall the first two guys I met and interviewed with sounds of ambulance sirens in the background. Their eyes were moving rapidly and their hair was strangely “restyled” by the blast wave, not to mention dust on their clothes and bodies. “It was definitely a blast, and a powerful one”, they confirmed. “There were dead bodies, definitely”, they said.

The death toll reached 15, and around 400 officially reported injured. When I reached the station, action nearly stopped. There was no panic, but astonishment. The eyes of the people gathered around the station were telling: “It could not have happened to us, no, it`s untrue!” Dead and injured bodies, crying women and anxious men… I wish I could erase these memories not only from the memory of my Nokia, but from my own. Though it`s incredibly hard…

A lot of people thought that the blast was somehow connected with the authorities, for them to tighten the control and oppress the remnants of opposition forces – but those views calmed down soon.  The blast was not politically motivated, at least not that was ever emphasized. As soon as two suspects were found it became clear that they did not have relations to any of the political powers. It was two simple guys from Vitebsk born in 1986 – a metalworker and an electrician.  They were accused of arranging a long list of small, more or less “harmless” blasts, and the last one – the terrorist attack which took 15 lives instantly and injured around 400.

They were caught two days after the blast, and tracked down thanks to the video recordings from the metro cameras. The video showed how a guy left a big black bag at the station, and then moved away to a safe distance. However, some important parts of video were missing, and a face was unrecognizable on the public clip.

One of the suspects, Dmitri Konovalov, according to the investigation, was a “chemistry genius”, able to create a highly explosive compound from relatively affordable components.  Vladislav Kovalyov, friend of Dmitri Konovalov, according to the investigation, knew everything about what was going to happen, and didn`t break Dmitri`s plan –  he even helped  to carry heavy bag with explosives.

The trial was open and lasted more than a month, but a number of attendees did not see enough evidence that the two suspects actually committed such a terrible crime. Anyways, the judge decided that the suspects were guilty in arranging the metro blast and participating in other episodes, deciding on a verdict of capital punishment.

They both were shot dead on March, 15, 2012. The verdict was met with widespread public discussion; a lot of people were amazed and overwhelmed by the verdict, along with a swift destruction of all the evidence and a relatively quick execution.   Confusion and distrust started to crawl among society – memories were fresh of a Belarusian maniac in the 1980s, who was captured only after another person was sentenced to death and others suffered years in prison. Some experts believe it was again those same ‘maniacs’ (Kovalyov and Konovalov) who organized the blast – and that Dmitri and Vladislav are innocent due to the lack of evidence. But there is one last thing…

What’s done is done. We cannot erase,nor rewind. There is no way to resurrect those who died, no way to give new limbs to those who were crippled.  There is no way to correct a judicial error, if there was an error.  And there is no way to forget the terror of that chilly day in spring, exactly one year ago.

R.I.P.

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March 23, 2012

Youth in Belarus: vis-à-vis the EU visa challenge

Isn`t youth the best period in life to travel? Absolutely! But young Belarusians nowadays face a serious barrier when they want to go West or North, and the barrier is the “Schengen visa policy”.

For many citizens of Belarus – a small country bordering the European Union to the West and North, Russia to the East and Ukraine to the South – the Schengen visa, especially with multiple entry, has been toted to be a new degree of freedom for Belarusians. With this visa, “you can go virtually anywhere in Europe – enjoy low-cost plane tickets, take advantage of great sales in neighboring Poland/Lithuania, and meet your music idols at concerts in Europe…

So there`s nothing unusual then, that Belarus, according to some calculations based on open European Commission data  Belarus seems to be the world`s absolute leader in the number of Schengen visas issued per capita by EU embassies in the country: 470892 “C” type visas in 2010 (a number said to have grown 40-100% in 2011!) to its population of 9,6 million. This is compared, for example, with Russia`s 4,466 million visas distributed to more than 143 millions inhabitants.

For us, Belarusians, this fact is quite ironic. We`ve managed to be in the lead despite harsh requirements for issuance of the Schengen visa. Not only is the processing fee is among the highest (60EUR for Belarusians compared with just 35EUR for Russian Federation and Ukraine citizens), but we also have to provide a valid invitation and financial guaranties (around 40EUR per day in EU) in order to successfully apply and receive the visa, along with the piles of additional documents required, while waiting in massive queues for personal visa applications to “the most popular embassies”. The Polish consulate in Minsk is one of the most popular; the Embassy offers a limited amount of “slots” for applications with a waiting period of over two months. And getting a “slot” is also a challenge; you need to check and recheck the site all the time, endlessly F5-ing (refreshing the webpage) your way into the European Union.

The bureaucratic challenges are even more poignant for youth. Belarusian youth have an overall unstable income, often very limited to non-existent, and are often unemployed. In order to fly Ryanair`s 10EUR special to, say, Rome, you`ll need first to find 60EUR for the visa, 280EUR for “guarantees”, a pile of documents, a way to submit your visa application on time,  along with other related issues. Will that make some young people change their plans, and instead travel to visa-free countries? Definitely!

However, people do find routes to evade all the obstacles and get visas after all. They join cultural events which have more lenient visa procedures, cooperate with tourism agencies, or follow other paths, including even those not quite transparent, with various tricks (like borrowing money, or buying traveler cheques to show to the consulate, and then selling the cheques back for a refund).

One of the easiest ways to get a multiple-entry visa is to get an “invitation” from a big mall that you`re invited on a shopping tour, even if you don`t plan to visit that shop at all. Some even joke that you may meet your Minsk friend in Acropolis shopping centre near Vilnius (Lithuania, EU) more often, than in Minsk itself. No surprise there: Vilnius is closer to the capital of Belarus than lots of big regional cities (170 km; while Minsk is 303 km away from the second biggest city in the country, Gomel) and other bordering countries, and competitive pricing attract hordes of “thrifty Belarusians”. Despite different and sometimes questionable ways of getting visas, however, Belarusians seem to be quite welcome at the EU embassies: refusal rate is really low – from 0,16% to 3,94%. There have also not been any big scandals on EU border law violations.

There is nonetheless always the fear that political issues between Minsk and the EU will aggravate the visa process. In the last round of sanction wars (late February) Belarus expelled the EU and Polish ambassadors, and recalled its own ambassadors from Poland and the EU (Brussels) after Europe added more Belarusians to the “black list” (list of people the EU cite as being connected with repressing political opposition), and banning them from entering the EU. All other European ambassadors also left Belarus.

At present, Embassy consulates in charge of visa questions continue working as per usual, still no one knows how far the diplomatic row will go. The worst examples we`ve seen already include a few years ago, after a diplomatic battle between the United States and the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (backed by the highest political powers). The American embassy in Minsk ceased to issue visas at all – it was possible only in exceptional cases to be issued a visa. With the EU there are no such critical signs at the moment.

It`s fairly understandable that the EU opposes official Minsk, but a pitiful problem arises alongside: while declaring commitment to support civil society in Belarus on the one hand, the EU isn’t taking steps to make visas more affordable and attainable for Belarusian citizens.

The last, fundamental question, is this: why do youth (and adults as well) focus on Europe, when there`s virtually no border on the East and free admission on the South, and a host of other visa-free countries on the map? Well, lots of Belarusians, for sure, do go to Russia and Ukraine, and some go to Turkey, Venezuela, and the UAE… But, you know, the forbidden fruit is the sweetest, and in our case, it`s also one of the closest on the branch.

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March 9, 2012

A thriving slice of the Belarusian Labour Market

Skilled Information technology (IT) specialists are of high value in nearly any spot of  the world, but it seems that only in Belarus they`re officially declared as the sole leaders of the official TOP-salary list! Being paid about three times more than the country average, those programmers, project managers and other IT-staff easily outrun the former “moneybags” in the country, such as oil-industry workers and bankers.

A small country in the centre of Europe, due to a lack of state regulation of the industry (with some tax preferences granted), Belarus has shown huge growth in the IT-sector over the last five years. Sharp young minds, legacy of the Soviet education system are in demand in the West – and that’s why the salaries are extremely competitive. IT professionals in Belarus can often work remotely with global partners (as from the Belarusian Hi-Tech Park – see photo).

According to a recent report revealed by the National Statistical Committee, workers in industries “related to computers” earned around $1000 monthly salary. Independent professional websites (“local Glassdoor”) set the amount even higher – at about $1300 per month.

While this may seem low if compared to US salaries of similar professionals with the IT-giants (seven to tenfold difference, or more), in Belarus people earning that wage are considered wealthy. With monthly flat rentals for around $180-300, relatively cheap food and other living expenses, Belarusian IT-specialists live very comfortable lives.

Those young professionals have their own culture, spending habits and “environment” that drastically differs from that of their peers in different occupations. There are major earning gaps looking at other occupations; teachers earn only around $230 per month, doctors – $300-400, and social workers – $200.

Despite the relative wealth and success of the IT industry in Belarus, however, there is still no “programmer boom,” in the country among recent graduates; the arts/humanities are still of considerable value among those entering university. That value, however, does not carry over into the labour-market.

The IT-field has still brought more than $215 million in revenue (2011) to the Belarusian economy.  While a significant resource, the effect is that Belarus is heavily dependent on the global markets, and may face serious challenges if the global crisis of the current model of capitalism worsens. But for the time-being, with an over-saturated market with limited worker availability, a few people are earning serious amounts of money for just knowing a few popular IT-techniques. And those sums double or triple when combined with considerable knowledge and/or experience amounts, making IT workers among of the most asked-for and well-paid specialists in Belarus.