Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #10

July 28, 2021
Read a new issue of bi-weekly newsletter with monitoring of Russian activities and influence in Belarus to know more.
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Recent policy developments

Kremlin opposes Tsikhanouskaya’s calls for Russia’s involvement in a dialogue with democratic entities

On July 18, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya started her two-week visit to the U.S. In Washington D.C., besides high-level meetings, Tsikhanouskaya spoke at the Atlantic Council, where she pointed out that Russia could play a constructive role in the Belarusian crisis and withdraw its support for Lukashenka. Tsikhanouskaya also stated that she would welcome Russia as one of the mediators at the possible roundtable on Belarus.

Mariya Zakharova, the official representative of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded that Russia “has no desire to help to legitimize the fugitive opposition, including Tsikhanouskaya, who does not suggest any constructive agenda to overcome the crisis in the country”. According to Zakharova, the Belarusian opposition “ignores the steps suggested by the official Minsk, such as the constitutional reform”.

The Kremlin remains consistent in its dismissive attitude towards Belarusian democratic forces.

Thus, for example, in March 2020, then-Russian Ambassador to Belarus Dmitry Mezentsev labeled the Belarusian opposition as a “bookclub community”, rather than actual political force. Russian leadership also continuously voices support for the constitutional reform initiated by the Lukashenka regime as a solution to the current crisis.

As for the reactions to Tsikhanouskaya’s visit to Washington D.C., the Kremlin has so far ignored them.

However, Russian telegram channels have been critical of the visit. Nezygar, an anonymous channel notorious for publishing insider information about the Kremlin, states that Tsikhanouskaya’s visit to the U.S. is a failure as it does not include a meeting with President Biden. Similarly, another telegram channel, run by Andrei Suzdaltsev, claims that during the Geneva summit it was made clear that the U.S. essentially agreed to leave Belarus in Russia’s sphere of influence. At the same time, Belarusian experts assess that a meeting with Secretary Blinken is already significant enough and not every political leader who visits Washington meets with the U.S. President.

Russia extradites Belarusian athlete Alexey Kudin to Minsk, despite the decision of the ECHR

On July 21, the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) ruled to ban the extradition of the Belarusian MMA fighter Alexey Kudin to Belarus, as Kudin could face political prosecution and ill-treatment in his home country. Alexey Kudin was detained in Moscow in January 2021, after fleeing Belarus. The extradition was initiated by the Belarusian law-enforcement at the accusation that Kudin resisted the police during the protests in Belarus in the summer 2020. Despite the decision of the ECHR, Alexey Kudin was extradited to Belarus. Previously, Kudin had asked for political asylum in Russia.

Such a move on behalf of the Russian authorities serves as yet another indication of Russia’s position towards the Belarusian crisis.

According to human rights defenders, there are at least six more similar cases where Belarusians who sought refuge in Russia could be extradited to Minsk. At the same time, Russia does not extradite Russian citizens at the request of Belarusian law enforcement agencies.

Thus, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus requested the extradition of Angelica Agurbash, Belarusian-born singer who now holds Russian citizenship, initiating a criminal investigation into her public criticism of the Lukashenka regime. According to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, Russian citizens cannot be extradited even in the case of having committed a crime abroad. It is noteworthy to mention expert opinion based on public polls, which observe the Kremlin’s support for Lukashenka’s repressive regime as negatively influencing the perception of Russia in the eyes of the Belarusians.

Energy and economy

Russia retains the gas price for Belarus in 2022 and promises more credit support

At the meeting on July 13, 2021 in St. Petersburg, President of Russia Vladimir Putin and Aliaksandr Lukashenka agreed that the gas price for Minsk in 2022 will remain the same as this year. Russia’s President also praised the increase in trade turnover between the two countries. "The trade turnover last year… dropped a little due to coronavirus infection, by about 17%. This year, during the first 4-5 months, it has grown significantly, by over 37%. This is a good indicator," Putin stated.

Another important takeaway from the meeting was the promise of more loan support for Belarus.

This was announced by Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary of the Russian President. However, Peskov did not disclose the volume of loan support for the Lukashenka regime saying that this amount is yet to be determined. Lukashenka promised that Belarus will fulfill its loan obligations, whatever the cost.

Russian and Belarussian experts publish report highlighting economic benefits of the Union State

According to representatives of the expert community of Russia and Belarus, the integration of the two states "not only has real results for the economies of the two countries, but also ensures welfare, jobs and the standard of living of the population." This conclusion is contained in the analytical report "The Union State: Results for Citizens and Prospects", which was presented on July 14.

Experts expressed the opinion that the joint development experience accumulated by the two states provides grounds to raise the issue of "introducing citizenship of the Union State."

At the same time, authors of the report clarified that it could not be about the abolition of the citizenship of the two countries, but only about the format of the ID-card, which "would expand freedom of movement in a pandemic, facilitate access to employment and electronic digital government services." The long-term sanctions wars with the West, it follows from the report, require a whole range of measures, including the organization of a non-cash system of transactions and settlements. There is also the issue of expanding the transit of Belarusian goods through Russian ports in the Baltics. In addition, the authors of the report insist on the importance of ensuring the unity of approaches in the field of tax and customs administration.

Cooperation with Russia forms more than 50% of the GDP of Belarus, and the rejection of the Union State would lead to its fall by half.

Despite the pandemic, the Russian market remained the basis for the Belarusian economy. Exports of Belarusian goods to the Russian Federation in 2020 amounted to USD $13.1 billion, exceeding the average annual level over the past five years. For comparison, Belarusian exports to China for the same period amounted to USD $0.8 billion, and to the European Union, EUR €3.9 billion.

Trade turnover between Belarus and Russia almost doubled in the first half of 2021

In the first half of 2021, the amount of transactions between economic entities of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus at the Belarusian Universal Commodity Exchange (BUCE) amounted to USD $63 million, which is 1.8 times more than in the same period last year. The most popular Belarusian goods on the Russian market were butter, milk powder and building materials. These products accounted for about 90% of the total export volume, which has increased by 3.7 times since the beginning of the year and has reached USD $30.4 million. Ferrous metal products and coal predominated in the import of goods from Russia. The share of these items amounted to more than 85%, or USD $24.5 million, while the total amount of import transactions increased by 15% compared to the first half of 2020.

Russia and Belarus introduce cross-border direct card transfers

Russia’s National Payment Card System (NSPK, the operator of the Mir payment system) launched cross-border transfers from Mir cards to cards of the Belarusian payment system BELKART. Alfa-Bank, Russian Standard Bank, Sberbank and Tinkoff are the first among Russian banks to provide such a service to their clients. The two largest Belarusian banks— Belagroprombank and Belarusbank—are ready to receive transfers from Mir. “Belarus is one of the three countries where Russians most often pay with Mir. Thanks to intersystem integration with BELKART, we can offer cardholders not only the opportunity to pay for purchases and services and withdraw cash, but also make cross-border transfers using only the card number," said Dmitry Buvin, Commercial Director of NSPK (operator of the Mir payment system).

Russian company launches new container train in transit through Belarus

PJSC TransContainer has launched a weekly container train from Moscow to Kaliningrad, the route of which passes through the territory of Belarus and Lithuania. The first train with 57 cars departed from Tuchkovo station (Moscow region) on July 9 and arrived at Kaliningrad-Sortirovochny station on July 12. The bulk of the freight traffic was made up of building materials and consumer goods for sale in retail chains, as well as equipment required by processing industry enterprises.

Public Administration

Heads of the Russian and Belarusian governments discuss integration issues

On July 15, 2021, Prime Minister of Belarus Roman Golovchenko and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin had a telephone conversation. According to the official Belarusian news agency "Belta", during their conversation the heads of government discussed issues of bilateral relations, including trade and economic cooperation, and implementation of the agreements reached during the previous meeting of the presidents of Belarus and Russia. The agenda discussed was related to sanctions from Western countries, as well as issues of economic cooperation, which are handled by the ministries of the two states.

Different types of meetings and negotiations between Russian and Belarusian officials at various levels have become significantly more active in the period following the 2020 elections in Belarus.

Although information about such meetings and events is limited and formal in nature, the frequency of meetings nevertheless demonstrates the increasing level of interaction between the governments of the two countries.

Russian and Belarusian pro-governmental experts present a report on the benefits of the Union State

On July 14, 2021 representatives of the expert community of Belarus and Russia made an online presentation of the analytical report "Belarus-Russia Union State: results for citizens and prospects". The report contains ten thematic sections, ranging from the rights of citizens to the situation in the field of youth policy, as well as expert assessments and recommendations on the main areas of cooperation between Belarus and Russia both in the bilateral format and in the Union State and the Eurasian Economic Union. The document emphasizes the importance of the Russian market for the development of the Belarusian economy.

Pro-governmental experts of the two countries, together with public officials, are actively promoting the idea of the significance and even inevitability of integration with Russia for Belarus.

The described report is one of the tools used to promote such ideas. Typically, the report itself and its topics are formulated based on the focus on the benefits of integration, without any critical assessment of the processes taking place in the relationship between the two countries.

Military and law-enforcement agencies

Russia and Belarus continue weaponizing refugee flows against the EU

The migration crisis at the border with Belarus has shown no signs of letting up: almost every day Lithuania and Poland report the detention of another large group refugee. This situation has been characterized by Polish and Lithuanian public officials as an example of “a hybrid war” led by Russia and Belarus. The Lithuanian media conducted an investigation, saying that refugees - mostly residents of Iraq and Afghanistan – are paying between USD $10,000 and $15,000 for the possibility of reaching the EU. The EU, in addition to a number of individual member-states, has offered a plan to assist the Baltic country and in securing control of its border. Ahead of the joint military exercise “Zapad-2021”, the migration crisis creates additional tension between the EU, Belarus, and Russia.

Russia and Belarus further intensify the cooperation in the military sphere

Belarusian companies are taking an active part in the military expo MAKS 2021, suggesting their provision of services in repairing and maintaining remotely-piloted vehicles. According to some outlets, Russia decided to prolong the agreement with Belarus at its Communications Center of the Navy, situated west of the town of Vileyka and Hantsavichy Radar Station (the previous agreement expired on June 7, 2021).

Also, top generals from both sides discussed the organization of the forthcoming “Zapad-2021”, taking place between September 10 and 16, with Russia already started deploying its military on the territory of Belarus.

Healthcare

Over 130 foreigners have already applied for Sputnik V jab in Belarus

The Ministry of Health informed on July 15 that more than 130 applications for Sputnik V jab in Belarus have been received from foreign citizens, mainly from Ukraine and Lithuania. Also citizens of Latvia, Estonia, the Netherlands and Germany have applied. More than 50 organizations in each region of the country will vaccinate foreigners.

Church

Cooperation Agreement between the BOC and the Ministry of Emergencies of Belarus was signed

On July 19, 2021, a meeting took place between the Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslavl Beniamin and Minister of Emergency of the Republic of Belarus Vadim Sinyavsky.

During the meeting they discussed issues of further cooperation of the Belarusian Orthodox Church with the Ministry of Emergencies of the Republic of Belarus. The official website of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) indicates that cooperation is carried out within the framework of the implementation of joint activities aimed at "the formation and maintenance of spirituality and traditional moral values, the sense of patriotism and pride in the history of the country, and the education of a culture of interethnic communication, based on religious tolerance, respect for honor and national dignity" in the employees of the Emergency Ministry.

Following the meeting, an agreement on cooperation between the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Republic of Belarus was signed.

Hierarchically subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) has active cooperation and influence on the Belarusian public administration system. The agreement between the BOC and the Ministry of Emergencies shows practical steps towards the realization of such influence.

The statements accompanying the BOC's penetration into the system of public administration of Belarus, which reproduce the discursive foundations of Russian foreign policy related to the affirmation of "spirituality" and the importance of traditional values for the peoples of Russia and Belarus, which are presented as a whole, are also characteristic.

Internet and Media

Russia uses media to shine spotlight on joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises

While Belarusian law-enforcement agencies continue destroying the independent media sphere, journalists continue their work in the virtual sphere. At the same time, the pro-Kremlin and state media used various events to promote their agenda. For example, Russia and Belarus launched the first stage of the organization of the much-feared joint military exercise: the Russian military started being deployed in Belarus.

Some experts suggest that the exercise rather represents a good opportunity for “an information attack” against Western countries, allowing to remind about Russia’s military power and sow discord within the international community on how to handle the Belarusian crisis.

In line with this argument, pro-Russian media started building anticipation of the event, saying that the Western countries, bordering with Belarus (e.g. Lithuania), are “scared” of possible provocations. Pro-Russian and Belarusian media also have been actively referring to the migration crisis in Belarus as cause for an information war. Independent Belarusian media have already debunked several fake news stories launched by the propagandist outlets.

Civil Society

Conference of the Russian-Belarusian GoNGOs took place

On July 16, 2021 the conference "Youth for the Union State" of the international Union of public associations "Russian-Belarusian Union of Youth" (RBUY) took place in Viciebsk. The conference was held as part of the XXX International Festival of Arts "Slavonic Bazaar in Viciebsk". About 40 people took part in the event, including representatives of the Russian Union of Youth, Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU), and a number of other GoNGOs of Russia and Belarus. The conference was also attended by representatives of the Standing Committee of the Union State, members of the House of Representatives of Belarus and the State Duma of Russia, as well as State Secretary of the Union State Dmitry Mezentsev. The plans of the organization were discussed at the event. Chairman of the Russian Union of Youth (RUY) Pavel Krasnarutsky talked about the common history, culture and values as a basis for the integration and cooperation of young people in the format of the Union State.

The RBUY was established in May 2000 and operates in the territory of Russia and Belarus. Officially the RBUY activity is aimed at developing Russian-Belarusian youth cooperation, within the framework of which a number of cultural and propaganda events (e.g. the festivals "Russian Winter" and "Youth for the Union State", camp "Be-La-Rus" and others) are implemented.

Bound and financed by the governments of Russia and Belarus, GoNGOs are platforms and instruments of Russian influence.

The joint Russian-Belarusian youth organization (BRSM) is a combination of two GoNGOs (BRSM and the Russian Union of Youth). These entities publicly speak about the interests of their governments, while at the same time they jointly promote the agenda of Russian-Belarusian integration, common culture, history, and values as ideological foundations.

Russia renames its proxy party which previously was not registered in Belarus

Several months ago the Belarusian Ministry of Justice did not register the pro-Russian civic initiative “Soyuz” as a political party, which was seen by some experts as a reluctance of the Belarusian authorities to allow pro-Russian political actors into the political sphere. The initiative was launched by the proponents of the ideology of “Russian World” and the idea of deepened integration between Russia and Belarus, with its head Syarhei Lushch being the leader of the youth organization Young Rus (Rumol). On July 15, 2021, “Soyuz” was renamed as “Russian Soyuz,” and its aim is “to counter the falsification of the pan-Russian history” with an emphasis on “ideological struggle”. This could mean the narrowing down of the initial ambitions of the initiative to mere information work, instead of politically charged actions.

Pro-Russian NGO union held a conference in Viciebsk

At the same time, Russia continues to implement various initiatives in the sphere of youth and cultural policies to increase its influence. In particular, the international union of the NGOs “Russian-Belarusian Youth Union” launched a conference within the program of the “Slavyanski Bazaar” festival, taking place in Viciebsk. The conference was attended by the representatives of a set of pro-governmental organizations, such as “The Russian Union of Youth”, “Belarusian Republican Youth Union”, etc. The State Secretary for the Union State of Russia and Belarus Dmitry Mezentsev encouraged those involved to make the youth work “real, full, interesting and informal”, and to make it accessible and appealing for people “preoccupied with the interests and fate of their country.”

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