The Council of Europe suspends relations with Belarus. Belarus Watch #23

March 29, 2022
This newsletter does not reflect the current situation in Ukraine and Belarus, but it can serve as a helpful tool to assess how the Belarus-Russia relationship in recent weeks may have impacted the Russian position towards Ukraine now.
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RECENT POLICY DEVELOPMENTS

Lukashenka visits Moscow for the third time this year

The official reason for the meeting held in Moscow on March 11 was how to cope with sanctions. It is likely, however, that the two dictators discussed the next actions in the war against Ukraine.

The official press releases do not offer any details surounding their discussions or whether Putin insisted on the participation of the Belarusian army in the war.

Strengthening of the Belarusian border with Ukraine

Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian Minister of Defense, warned the Belarusian people about possible provocation to drag the Belarusian army in the war against Ukraine. According to Mr. Reznikov, Russia could carry out airstrikes on the settlements near the Belarusian-Ukrainian border to force the Belarusian army to respond.

The Minister's address to the Belarusian people was published on the official Facebook account of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense on March 11. A day before, on March 10 Alyaksandar Lukashenka ordered enhanced security along the state border with Ukraine “to not allow enemies to cut supply lines of the army of the Russian Federation” - Lukashenka said.

Belarusian Embassy in Ukraine evacuates all its staff

Eleven officers of the Belarusian Embassy in Ukraine and two of their family members left Kyiv for Moldova on March 11. Ihar Sokal, the Belarusian Ambassador named the two main reasons for evacuation: blocked bank accounts and death threats to the employees.

The Council of Europe suspends relations with Belarus

Condemning the active support of Russia in the war in Ukraine, the Council of Europe stopped cooperation with the officials in Minsk. The Republic of Belarus is not a Council of Europe member and was only a candidate to enter since the country has not ratified the European Human Rights Convention.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya calls for the recognition of Belarus as a territory occupied by the Russian Federation

During a meeting with EU and US ambassadors at the UN, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader, issued a call to recognize Belarus as a country occupied by Russia. She and other Belarusian opposition leaders believe that this step will help the international community to distinguish between Belarus and Lukashenka’s regime.

New Constitutional amendments come into force

Аmendments to the Belarusian Constitution that draw Belarus closer to Russia, remove neutral status, and allow the country to host a nuclear weapon came into force on March 15. The amendments have come into force following a Referendum, which took place on February 27 in a context of widespread human rights violations and its brutal repression against all segments of Belarusian society.

Sociologists mention changes in public opinion

A sociological survey that took place before the Constutional Referendum shows that about 65% of respondents believed that the new Constitution would help with the normalization of current relations between Belarus and Russia. However, 58.6% of respondents now think that the new Constitution will not help with the normalization of current relations between Belarus and the East.

The survey was implemented by the Belarusian Analytical Workroom, and results were presented on March 15 in Warsaw by sociologist Andrei Vardomatski. Mr. Vardomatski presented the results of the survey concerning the geopolitical orientation of Belarusians that were measured in December 2021 using a telephone interviewing method.

Sociologists have mentioned several changes in public opinion. Significantly, 64.9% of respondents said in 2014 that Russia's annexation of Crimea was “justifiable and defensible action”. Now, this view is shared by only 48.8% of respondents. “This is an accumulated change of public opinion. It was the first time this has happened. Now we expect explosive change [in opinion] because of recent events,” Andrei Vardomatski says.

The respondents have been asked questions to measure their preference to labor migration. In answer to the question “Are you considering work abroad and if so, where?”, Poland was chosen by 40.6%, Eastern Europe by 36.7%, and Russia by only 31.3% of respondents.

An important sign of the recent changes in public opinion were also registered following a question regarding the source of danger, where 42.8% responded Russia, followed by Poland and Lithuania with 20.7% each, and only 12.4% responding Ukraine.

CHURCH

Metropolitan Veniamin, the head of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, met with Boris Gryzlov, the Russian Ambassador in Belarus, on March 21. According to official sources, the meeting informal. The meeting took place against the backdrop of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and the pressure on Belarus to drag the Belarusian army into the war.

ECONOMY AND ENERGY

Russia has taken unprecedented steps to support the economy of Belarus, according to Lukashenka’s press service. On March 11, 2022, following negotiations between Alyaksandar Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin, it was reported that mutually beneficial agreements had been reached in the financial sector. Lukashenka stated after the meeting that Russia had taken the most serious and unprecedented steps to support the economy of Belarus.

Prime Minister of Belarus Raman Halouchanka discussed the results of the meeting in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Mikhail Mishustin on March 14, 2022. The parties discussed abandoning the dollar in payments for energy resources, import substitution, restructuring Belarusian debt, and would switch to using Russian rubles. The parties also discussed the Belarusian credit debt. As a result of the negotiations, it was decided that Russia would restructure it, and the optimal price for Russian oil would also be jointly worked out. “A decision was made to restructure and installment plans for state loans provided by the Russian Federation, to transfer them from foreign currency to Russian rubles. In principle, this will apply to all of our agreements,” Halouchanka said.

Belarusian officials say that some sanctions against them are stronger than those against Russia, and if no action is taken, this will lead to a gap in the balance of payments, a sharp increase in inflation and a drop in incomes of the population. “Therefore, in these conditions, in our opinion, it is necessary to act quickly and in concert [...] Given the high vulnerability of the Belarusian economy to external shocks, we count on the support of the Russian Federation in this difficult period,” said the Belarusian Prime Minister. “We reaffirm our readiness to implement all agreements on economic integration within the framework of the Union State, but in the current conditions, due to a change in the situation, there is an urgent need for the prompt implementation of those support measures that were ‘for later’,” the head of the government of the Republic of Belarus added.

Finance

On March 20, the Belarusian Minister of Finance Yury Seliverstau announced live on air on the Belarus-1 TV channel that the repayment of obligations under Russian state loans has been deferred for five to six years for Belarus.

The Minister said that in fact, it is about the postponement of payments on obligations to Russia. At the same time, he made a reservation that these were “mutual payments”. The Minister did not elaborate on what exactly was at stake.

“We agreed with our partners that those payments, mutual payments, which will help us, first of all, to establish development between countries and direct resources precisely to support those sectors that will allow us to improve mutual trade, especially during this sanctions period, we must send them there. It was discussed and proposed to shift part of the payments with more preferable terms that are mutually acceptable for our countries, and to extend the repayment period by somewhere between five and six years. In fact, we have a postponement that will allow us to not divert resources so that we can service our obligations and repay them to our Russian partners,” he said.

In 2020, according to Belarusian Finance Miister Yury Seliverstau, the volume of the state debt of Belarus amounted to $21 billion.

MEDIA

"The press service of the Belarusian government stops updating its news feed on the social network Facebook and switches to the Telegram platform," the press service reported on March 12, 2022. This means that information about the most important decisions and working trips of the Prime Minister and his deputies, as well as official comments, will appear there from now on.

HEALTHCARE

On March 15, it was announced that Russia would soon lift COVID-19 restrictions on the border with Belarus. This was stated by the head of the Belarusian government Raman Halouchanka following the results of negotiations with the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Mikhail Mishustin. The restrictions on movement by air and rail links have been lifted, but it is still not possible to cross the land border freely. Belarusians can enter the Russian Federation by rail and air with the “I travel without COVID” application.

All restrictions on the movement of citizens within the Union State of Russia and Belarus are removed from March 18, 2022, stated the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Mikhail Mishustin at a meeting of the Russian government on March 17, noting that this issue was discussed with Belarusian Prime Minister at the beginning of the week in Moscow, and was also agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Freedom of movement of people is important from the point of view of developing trade and economic cooperation and humanitarian contacts between our fraternal peoples. Today, this is especially relevant in the context of increased restrictions on the part of unfriendly countries,” the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation noted.

Belarusian Health Minister Dzmitry Pinevich said on March 18 that the road transport is also open and PCR tests are no longer needed when crossing by rail and road. He clarified that the issue of abolishing mandatory testing when traveling by air is still being resolved. The border with Russia is open for epidemiological reasons.

MILITARY AND LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

Risk of direct Belarusian military intervention in Ukraine

As of March 21, the Belarusian Army is still not directly involved in the military aggression against Ukraine. From the constant rumors about the upcoming Belarusian attack, it is clear that the Kremlin is exerting heavy pressure on Belarus to support the Russian troops in attacking Ukraine.

The Belarusian authorities continue their active military blackmail against Ukraine. The constant movements of the Belarusian units in the southern part of the country are supposed to hold the Ukrainian forces in position along the Belarusian border. It seems that the Belarusian authorities deliberately intimidate Ukraine with a possible attack. For example, on March 15, Lukashenka spoke about the Ukrainian Tochka-U missile allegedly shot at Belarus and on March 19, Belarus evacuated all of its diplomats from Ukraine. Also, Belarusian soldiers have started wearing special tactical signs on their uniforms (red tape). In this way, Lukashenka tries to assist Putin’s aggression through the active military blackmail of Ukraine.

It is still possible that Lukashenka will decide to attack Ukraine – this situation will be a true catastrophe for the Belarusian Army, society and Lukashenka himself. The Belarusian soldiers have extremely low morale and battle skills – they will suffer enormous losses and avoid active fights at all costs. Before the war, 12-13% of Belarusians believed that their country should join Russia in the war against Ukraine – after the outbreak of the conflict, the number of war supporters in Belarus reduced to 3%.

Lukashenka’s statements on the war in Ukraine

Alyaksandar Lukashenka continues making various pro-Russian statements regarding the war in Ukraine. According to him, the Russian military operation in Ukraine was a preemptive strike because this country planned to attack Belarus on the same day. Lukashenka suggests that the Ukrainian authorities sign a peace agreement with Moscow as he claims Russia will win this war in any case.

At the same time, Lukashenka claims that Belarus will not be involved in the military conflict in Ukraine – he believes that Belarus cannot add anything to the ongoing conflict as Russia has enough soldiers and equipment. According to his statement from March 17, “the American attempts to drag Belarus into the war in Ukraine will fail – Belarus has enough wisdom not to intervene in this conflict”.

Belarusian military assistance to Russia

There is enough evidence to claim that the Belarusian Army is directly assisting Russian military forces on Belarusian territory. For example, Belarusian Army trucks move ammunition for the Russian forces while the Belarusian soldiers have been unloading and repairing Russian equipment. On March 17, the Belarusian independent media published a testimony of a Belarusian draft soldier who cleaned Russian military equipment from blood the and dead bodies Russian soldiers. It is highly probable that the Russian Army fighting in northern Ukraine receives some of its supplies from Belarusian Army warehouses.

Activities of Russian troops in Belarus

Since the outbreak of war, there has been regular movement of the Russian supply columns throughout Belarus – the Russian trucks deliver necessary supplies and fuel to its combat groups in northern Ukraine. So far, the number of Russian reinforcements arriving in Belarus has been comparably low. The Russian Air Force is actively using a number of Belarusian airbases for its attacks on Ukraine. Also, the Russian Army realizes regular missile strikes on Ukraine from the Belarusian territory (using Iskander and Tochka-U complexes).

There is evidence that the Chechen forces of Kadyrov are present in the Belarusian cities of Mazyr and Homyel. Apparently, Kadyrov decided to withdraw at least part of his units from the area of intense fights near Kyiv. Now, at least some Chechen soldiers are deployed far away from the front, posting “battle pictures” from safe areas in Belarus.

Partisan activities at the Belarusian railway infrastructure

In recent weeks, there has been a number of partisan attacks at the Belarusian railway infrastructure – unknown individuals destroyed railway equipment preventing its normal functioning. According to the leak from Belarusian railway workers, the authorities took a decision to organize military patrols and posts near important railway equipment in order to prevent further diversions. Recently, the KGB detained two Belarusian citizens planning to organize a railroad diversion against the train moving Russian military equipment. On March 19, the Head of the Ukrainian Railways thanked the Belarusian railroad workers for their actions, which resulted in the rupture of the railroad connection between Belarus and Ukraine. Apparently, the Russian Army planned to use existing railways connecting the two countries, but unknown Belarusian railroad personnel have destroyed important equipment.

Belarus Watch Team

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