Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #12

November 2, 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

Independent Russian media in Belarus: last day came

A publication by Belarusian journalist Gennady Mozheiko led to both his arrest on October 2 and also the ban of "Komsomolskaja Pravda in Belarus" - one of the biggest independent media outlets. Later Russian Media Holding, the parent organisation, decided to close its Belarusian office. The situation around this journalist forced the highest political levels of Russia and Belarus to react to this case.

Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov has stated his ministry "continues to address this issue to our Belarusian colleagues". Nevertheless, he did not provide details on how Russia will exactly react. However, knowing how the Russian State treats free media inside its own country, there is no hope the officials will lift a finger for a jailed journalist and defend the popular independent media organisation exiled from Minsk.

There is another remarkable and unprecedented case related to a leak of classified information. Belarusian citizen Sergey Saveliev was jailed in Russia eight years ago. In several prisons in Russia where he served a sentence, he acquired access to video footage of state torture conducted by officers of the Federal Prison Service. Sergey Saveliev has collected evidence of systematic abuse, torture and rape of prisoners by federal officers. He has passed these videos to the human rights defenders to make it public.

This case has also affected Russia-Belarus relations. For example, it might lead to more thorough checks of Belarusian citizens living in Russia, especially those serving in governmental and military structures, airports, and border points.

The migrant crisis

The migrant crisis in Belarusian borders with Poland and Lithuania has remained a pressing problem for more than six months. The crisis has negatively impacted Belarus' relations with Poland and Lithuania — countries that have done a lot to support protests in Belarus in 2020-2021. However, it has also impacted its relations with larger European countries like Germany, where they believe that the migrant crisis on Belarusian-EU countries' borders is a manufactured plan from Moscow to weaken the EU.

On October 15, the Press Secretary of the Russian MFA Maria Zakharova reacted to a statement from the Swedish Minister of Defense, who accused Russia of taking part in the instigation of the ongoing "migration crisis" on the EU border. According to the words of Zakharova, this statement is one of many Russophobic claims of this Swedish state functionary. The Russian authorities continue to deny their role in the "migration crisis", which could not have been orchestrated by Lukashenka without the clear permission of the Kremlin.

The official Russian position on the "migration crisis" is in line with Lukashenka's propaganda (blaming the West for this situation).

Sanctions

The migrant crisis is leading to new EU sanctions against Belarus. The fifth tranche of sanctions is expected](https://news.zerkalo.io/economics/3979.html) to be  imposed in November 2021, the objective of which would be to target Belarusian state-owned companies and, secondly, to confront the Russian presence in Belarus.

Considering the situation, it is important to understand that state companies in Belarus are the largest employer in the country.

However, there are fears that a collapse in trade relations caused by EU sanctions and closed borders conditions may push Belarus towards closer political and economic cooperation with Moscow.

Public opinion

According to the results of the recent survey conducted by Russian pollster FOM, 14% of respondents are certain that integration of Belarus and Russia into a union state will happen, while 56% of respondents believe that it will not happen. If a referendum on the unification of Russia and Belarus was held today, 59% would vote for unification (73 % among the oldest citizens), and only 21% against (33% among the youngest citizens).

According to 64% of respondents, the Russian authorities are striving for rapprochement with Belarus. 54% of survey participants believe that the Belarusian authorities are striving for rapprochement with Russia. 56% think that economic integration with Russia is necessary, with 30% undecided. 32% consider that economic integration is more profitable for Belarus, while 12% believe it to be more profitable for Russia. In October 2021, 45% of respondents expressed "rather good" attitude to Lukashenko, against 37% in June 2021.

ENERGY AND ECONOMY

Energy

Ways to expand cooperation between Belarus and Russia in energy, economy and ecology were discussed in Minsk at the 25th Belarusian Energy and Environmental Forum devoted to the 90th anniversary of the national Belarusian energy system. The first power unit of the Belarusian nuclear power plant (NPP), built according to the Russian project and with the participation of Russian specialists, is already connected to the grid, and has reached the nominal power level of 1,170 MW. In total, the first power unit generated almost 4 billion kWh of electricity. The second one will be put into operation in 2022. The loading of nuclear fuel into the reactor core of the second unit of the Belarusian NPP will be completed by the end of this year.

On Tuesday, the Minister of Energy of the Republic of Belarus Viktor Karankevich declared that agreements on gas supplies from Russia to Belarus will be signed before the end of this year. The Minister explained that Belarus expects to maintain gas prices next year from the Russian Federation at the level of $128.5 per thousand cubic meters. It is much cheaper than gas prices in the European Union and the United Kingdom markets, which hit new record highs on Wednesday October 6.

According to Deputy Secretary of the Union State Alexei Kubrin, the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant in the future will be able, in particular, to ensure the operation of a high-speed railway from St. Petersburg to Minsk and further through Warsaw to Hamburg. This project has been discussed within the framework of the Union State for several years now.

The issue of cooperation in transportation has also been discussed at the Forum.  It was announced that the concept of a high-speed railway from St. Petersburg to Hamburg is in line with the more global concept of a dedicated high-speed rail corridor "Eurasia" connecting China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany.

Finance

The major shareholders of Belgazprombank PJSC Gazprom and Bank GPB (JSC) have prolonged the subordinated loan provided in equal shares for the total amount of RUB 4.96 billion ($70.3 million USD). The prolongation of the subordinated loan will ensure that the bank maintains the regulatory capital at the proper level to continue to support small and medium-sized businesses, as well as export enterprises focused on the Russian market, thereby contributing to the strengthening of foreign trade relations between the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation.

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION

Branch of the Belarusian Embassy opens in Vladivostok

On October 7, the Belarusian Ambassador to Russia Vladimir Semashko and the Governor of Primorsky Krai Oleg Kozhemyako took part in the opening ceremony of the Belarusian Embassy in Vladivostok. This diplomatic facility was relocated from the city of Khabarovsk to the center of the Far Eastern Federal District. According to Governor Kozhemyako, 30% of residents of Primorsky Krai have Belarusian roots.

At the same time, on October 21, the Belarusian MFA closed its General Consulate in New York City, which is the region with the highest concentration of Belarusian citizens in the USA.

This step in line with the demand of Lukashenka to reduce the Belarusian diplomatic presence in "unfriendly countries".

Russian Ambassador visits a Belarusian-Russian enterprise

The Russian Ambassador to Belarus Evgeny Lukyanov arrived with a working visit to the Bryansk region in Russia, where he visited the "Amkador-Bryansk"enterprise. Lukyanov claimed that this enterprise is an important example of successful cooperation between Belarusian and Russian manufacturers. The "Amkador" enterprise, and its owner Alexander Shakutin, are the targets of European sanctions because of his direct affiliation with Lukashenka. It is possible that this company will try to avoid international sanctions through its subsidiaries functioning in Russia.

Military

Meeting of the Joint Collegium of the Defence Ministries of Russia and Belarus

On October 20, the Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu took part in the meeting of the Joint Collegium of the Defence Ministries of Russia and Belarus in Moscow. According to his statement, Russia and Belarus have to react to the intensifying military activities of NATO along the borders of these countries.

The military officials approved the plan of military cooperation between Belarus and Russia for 2022, which include 139 joint activities.

Soon, the Supreme State Council of the Union State will adopt a new Defense Doctrine of the Union State, which will take into consideration increasing security threats coming from NATO actions.

"Combat Brotherhood — 2021" exercises in Tajikistan

On October 18-23, Belarusian Army units took part in three military exercises implemented within the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) "Combat Brotherhood — 2021" training in Tajikistan ("Echelon-2021", "Search-2021" and "Interaction-2021"). Recently, there has been a visible increase in Russian military activities along the border of Afghanistan, which might be viewed as the Kremlin's prepccupation about a possible destabilisation of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan by the Taliban. In this context, Belarus has to take part in various military trainings on the Afghan border because of its membership to the CSTO military alliance.

Law-enforcement agencies

Extradition of a participant of protests to Russia

A 24-year old Daniil Chemodanov, a participant of 2020 protests in Brest, was extradited to Russia following his release because he is a Russian citizen. This person spent 22 years of his life in Belarus, now he is prohibited from entering this country for two years. The Belarusian and Russian law enforcement agencies closely cooperate on the extradition of people who took part in the 2020 anti-Lukashenka protests in Belarus.

CHURCH

It is commonly believed that the Belarusian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate of Orthodox Church enjoys a privileged position and various benefits from the Belarusian State. New evidence has confirmed these suspicions.

On the 22nd and 26th of October agreements between the Orthodox Church and universities in Polotsk and Grodno were signed. The agreements include cooperation in "spiritual and moral education", "patriotic education" and "common research". Also, there is a schedule of joint events for the next five years, which are directed to consolidate the potentials of universities and the Orthodox Church in patriotic education, in developing a mature and moral personality, and to alter behavior of children and youth.

On October 14 Metropolitan Veniamin, Head of the Orthodox Church in Belarus made a statement to believers in honour of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Day. "On this holy day we see our connection with Russia, the connection with our ancestors", Metropolitan Veniamin said. In the statement, there was no word about the real situation in the country, repression, and the crisis Belarusian people faced this year. The Metropolitan Veniamin was shown on the First Channel of State Belarusian Television.

Doors of many other state and public and education institutions, as well as state media, remain open for the Orthodox Church. Its representatives are free to work in any sphere where the State's presence is strong, like education, the military, etc.

At the same time, the Catholic Church in Belarus and multiple Protestant congregations and units, which are the two next largest communities of believers, do not use this kind of privilege.

Recently a highly visible case about publishing cartoons on catholic priests in one of the government newspapers "Minskaja Pravda" came to a predictable end — the police check didn't find any violations of the law in this offensive picture.

The Minsk protestant community Novaja Zhizn continues to hold Sunday services in the parking lot near the church building. About 10 months ago the evangelical community was violently forced to leave their building in Minsk at the local authority's request.  Believers refuse to leave their property and continue to gather outside the church building, despite threats of arrest.

INTERNET AND MEDIA INFLUENCE

Internet economy

In order to further expand the integration process within the framework of the Union State, it is planned to exchange e-government services between the two countries, said Sergei Rudnev, First Deputy Director of the National Center for Electronic Services on October 11. Stressing the particular importance of "seamless receipt of e-services by citizens of Belarus in the Russian Federation, as well as citizens of Russia in the Republic of Belarus," the official made it clear that Belarus is ready for this process. Within the framework of bilateral relations, "the first stage of integration of the Russian system of interdepartmental electronic interaction with the Belarusian state automated information system (OAIS) should begin after the ratification of the agreement on mutual recognition of visas."

CIVIL SOCIETY

A civil society without representatives: yes, we can

Belarusian authorities continue to try to set up a society where any civic engagement will be controlled and predictable. More than 270 NGOs have already been dissolved by court decisions since the start of the year, and practice is still continuing. Olga Smolianko, a Belarusian NGO expert and lawyer, describes the typical ordinary day in Belarusian courts:

"Today, on October 22 Grodno Regional court plans to add 9 (!) NGOs in the list to compulsory settlement. Among them are cultural, sport and fitness NGOs as well as organizations of psychologists and families with many children," Mrs. Smolianko says.

It is noteworthy that the author of this pseudo-law system, the so-called "NGOs killer" Minister of Justice Jury Slizhevsky was dismissed October, 18. He was replaced by former Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Sergey Khomenko. This staff rotation seems to mark even more police in Belarusian justice.

HEALTHCARE

Belarus plans to start full-cycle production of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine by the end of the year, Health Minister Dmitry Pinevich told reporters. "The full production cycle of Sputnik V will begin by the end of this year on Aranskaya street at Belmedpreparatov areas," the minister said. He did not specify what volumes it is planned to produce in Minsk." Dmitry Pinevich stressed that it will not be difficult to localize the Sputnik Light vaccine. "We have purchased the Sputnik Light vaccine. Now we are actively using it. Its localization will only be needed when it becomes clear that Sputnik Light will go into wide circulation and for this there will be economic expediency," the minister added. Russian Strategic partners of Belarus, other than Sputnik Light, are also developing children's vaccines based on Sputnik V.

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