Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #2

April 21, 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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APRIL 1 - APRIL 17

RECENT POLICY DEVELOPMENTS

RUSSIA OPPOSES INTERNATIONAL MEDIATION IN THE BELARUSIAN CRISIS: "FOREIGN INTERFERENCE IS UNACCEPTABLE"

On March 30, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin had a call, where the Belarusian crisis was one of the topics on the agenda. While the European leaders reinstated the need for a national inclusive dialogue and new elections in 2021, their Russian counterpart emphasized that external interference in the domestic affairs of Belarus was unacceptable.

Such conflicting statements illustrate the continuous stalemate between the West and Russia over possible solutions to the Belarusian crisis. In this context, the expectation for the Belarusian democratic forces to negotiate with the regime — with the assistance of the international community — is unlikely to materialise in the short-term. The Belarusian opposition is proceeding with consultations with European politicians regarding mediation, despite Russia's pushback. Meanwhile, the ongoing nation-wide voting on the platform Golos in favor of the national dialogue has gathered over 780,000 votes since March 19.

OFFICIAL CELEBRATIONS AND HIGH-LEVEL CONTACTS TOOK PLACE ON RUSSO-BELARUSIAN UNITY DAY

On April 2, Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin exchanged greetings on the occasion of the Unity Day between the Peoples of Russia and Belarus. The official statement by Vladimir Putin noted that allied ties between the two states are "in line with strengthening stability and security in the Eurasian region". Lukashenka made a similar statement acknowledging the success of bilateral integration processes. Lukashenka and Putin also had a call where they discussed the production of vaccines and upcoming meetings within the Union State format. According to the press-release, one aspect of the discussion was the domestic situation in Belarus and external threats "which sound clearly from the western direction (particularly from Poland and the U.S.)".

On Unity Day, the Forum entitled "Union State: opening new opportunities" was held in Minsk and Moscow. The Forum hosted discussions among state officials and experts on legal harmonization, strengthening economic ties, and common defense and security within the Union State.

In the midst of the Belarusian crisis, the Kremlin continues business as usual with the Lukashenka regime. Moscow uses "non-interference" arguments to frustrate Western efforts to solve the crisis. Russia also draws on common Russo-Belarusian interests stemming from the Union State treaties to justify Russia's special role in Belarus' affairs.

MOSCOW AND MINSK PROCEED WITH DEEPENED INTEGRATION

On April 7, a high-level meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Union State took place. Attendees discussed coordination of migration policies, customs control and economic disputes among commercial entities. Dmitry Mesentzev, newly appointed State Secretary of the Union State and former Russian ambassador to Belarus, mentioned that the Supreme State Council meeting could possibly be organized later this year.

The announced Supreme State Council meeting would likely result in signing the integration roadmaps. A deepened integration agenda is an anticipated step in bilateral relations that has taken place since 2018, a process initiated by Moscow that called for a partial unification of the economic systems of the two states. On March 30, Uladzimir Siamashka, Belarus' ambassador to Russia, stated that 21 out of 28 roadmaps are ready to be signed. This integration process envisages the creation of a common market for energy, gas, oil, transport services and single industrial and agricultural policies by January 2022.

CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE UNION OF POLES IN BELARUS

In their attempts to stamp out the civil activity and following the scandal around the celebration of "cursed soldiers" [the members of the anti-Soviet underground who fought for the Poland's independence in the second half of the 1940s. Among them were the soldiers of Romuald Rice's division, who burned five villages in Eastern Poland with their inhabitants. About 79 Belarusians died during this act], Belarusian authorities initiated the campaign against the unregistered Union of Poles in Belarus: in particular, they arrested the head of the organisation Andżelika Borys, Andrzej Poczobut, while other activists tried to track down the teachers of Polish. Lukashenka demanded an investigation into the involvement of foreign funds, NGOs supported by Western donors, and other similar organisations. The representatives of the Union of Poles themselves called this campaign an attempt to convince Russia that there are radical nationalists ("banderovtsy") in Belarus as well, and that Lukashenka is prepared to deal with this threat to enhance the integration processes. This theory is consistent with the narrative put forward by pro-Russia media arguing that Lukashenka opened the "historical front against Poland" to confront it about the occupation.

ENERGY AND ECONOMY

FINANCE

Belarus owes Russia $8.1 billion in long-term liabilities. China is the second largest creditor to Belarus. In 2019, national debt to China was $3.48 billion. Other debts include: $2.16 billion to bondholders, $923.4 million to the World Bank, and almost $15.4 million to the United States. According to the World Bank, the total national debt of Belarus was $17.1 billion in 2019.

According to the Belarusian Ministry of Finance, the external public debt of Belarus totaled $18.3 billion by March 1, 2021. In January-February 2021, external government loans stood at $129.2 million, including $114.0 million from the Russian government and $15.2 million from the IBRD and EBRD. $386.4 million was spent on servicing external public debt, including $188.4 million to the Russian government, $186.2 million to Chinese banks and $11.8 million to the IBRD.

OJSC Gazprom Transgaz Belarus paid RUB 332.6 million to its sole shareholder, PJSC Gazprom, Russia, as dividends for the first quarter of 2020. Dividends for the second to final quarter of 2020 — RUB 421.6 million, or $162 million, — will be paid in 2021. Thus, the total sum of dividends for 2020 will be RUB 754.2 million or $290 million.

OIL AND GAS

According to the Ambassador of the Republic of Belarus to Russia Vladimir Semashko, the single gas market of Russia and Belarus may become operational in 2022. A unified energy system for Russia and Belarus is a more distant matter. The first stage will be the unification of infrastructure within three to four years.

On March 15, 2021, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Alexander Novak stated that Russian reserves of motor gasoline are 1.66 million tons, which satisfies domestic demand. Consequently, Belarusian gasoline may not be required. Moreover, the current prices make gasoline from Belarusian refineries to Russia uncompetitive in comparison to gasoline exported from outside of the EAEU.

LOGISTICS

Belarus exported over 220,000 tons of oil products through Russian ports. These transshipment rates are higher than anticipated. The income of Russian companies from the provision of services amounted to about $4.6 million. "It is no longer just an export supply chain within the framework of the union state that has been formed, but, in fact, a new international transport corridor has been created", announced Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. Russian companies earned RUB 348 million on the export of Belarusian oil products (about $4.6 million), including RUB 142 million (about $1.87 million) on railway transport, and RUB 206 million (about $2.7 million).

On March 29, 2021, the head of Rosmorrechflot Andrey Lavrischev told reporters that by the summer of 2021, Russia and Belarus may decide to create a terminal for transshipment of Belarusian fertilizers in one of the Russian ports.

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION

RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT DELEGATION VISITS MINSK

On April 3, a Russian delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Overchuk arrived in Minsk. As part of the visit, First Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Belarus Nikolai Snopkov met with Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Overchuk. The two sides discussed topical issues of bilateral cooperation.

The meeting took place as part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the signing by the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation of the Treaty on the Establishment of the Community of Belarus and Russia (April 2, 1996).

The meeting between Russian and Belarusian officials was a part of a series of events which took place during the Day of Unity of the Peoples of Belarus and Russia. However, neither official nor independent Belarusian mass media provide any additional information about the meeting. It is unclear whether it was merely a routine event without an underlying agenda, or whether it was a part of broader discussions advanced by Russia surrounding deeper integration between the two countries.

RUSSIAN DIPLOMATS PARTICIPATE IN REGIONAL EVENTS INITIATED BY BELARUSIAN OFFICIALS

On April 2, the Third Secretary of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Belarus Kirill Pletnev was invited by the leadership of Mahiliou Region to attend a festive event dedicated to the Day of Unity of the Peoples of Belarus and Russia. He participated in the event along with Deputy Chairman of the Mahiliou Regional Executive Committee Valery Malashko.

The Russian diplomat thanked the leadership of the region for the invitation and congratulated the Belarusians and the Russians on the Day of Unity of the Peoples of Belarus and Russia. He stressed that Belarus and Russia are united by a heroic past and promising plans for the future.

In turn, representative of the regional executive committee Valery Malashko said that Belarusians and Russians have much in common: language, similar mentality and shared spiritual values, while the presidents of the two countries are making efforts to further strengthen and develop the Union State. In addition, the Palace of Culture of Mogilev Region hosted a cultural program with guest Russian artists.

Such events demonstrate active interaction between Russian diplomats in Belarus and Belarusian officials at the regional level. Such events are largely formal in character, but they can also provide an environment for strengthening informal ties between representatives of the Russian Embassy in Belarus and local officials. Interestingly, many Belarusian officials themselves actively support and promote such networking events and opportunities.

MILITARY AND LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

ARMY

Russia continues to bolster its military presence near its border with Ukraine, raising speculation at the intent of this build-up. Some experts suggest the Kremlin plans to launch an offensive against the Western neighbour. Simultaneously, in March 2021 Russia was conducting joint military exercises on Belarusian territory which, as some analysts argue, could signify further integration in the military sphere and the deployment of troops to threaten Poland and Baltic countries (this could happen during the military exercise Zapad 2021 in September). There have also been rumours surrounding the reconsideration of the Military doctrine of the Union State (launched by propagandist outlets), as well as the news on the establishment of three combined training centers. On April 2, Russia's delegation from Air-space forces evaluated whether necessary infrastructure is prepared in Belarus for the launch of a combined training center for the preparation of air forces and air defense forces.

LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

Belarusian and Russian law-enforcement agencies are participating in joint conferences and roundtables, where they are actively sharing experience on information security and the introduction of innovative technologies into the intelligence activities. Another instance of cooperation in this area concerns the joint persecution of citizens who fled from Belarus to Russia. In particular, Russia is looking to extradite an administrator of the "destructive" Telegram chats, who fled to Moscow. Two weeks ago, several Belarusians were arrested for participating in the solidarity actions in support of Belarusian protesters.

HEALTHCARE

According to the Minister of Health Dmitry Pinevich, the first commercial batch of the Sputnik V vaccine will be produced by Belmedpreparaty in mid-April 2021, and by autumn 4 million people in Belarus will be vaccinated. The monthly volume of vaccine production at Belmedpreparaty will be 500,000. This implies two components at once. Thus, the volumes will make it possible to vaccinate half a million people per month. It is planned to vaccinate 1 million people during April and May, and by autumn, 4 million people will have been vaccinated. Belarus has already received another 100,000 doses of the second component of the Russian-made vaccine.

Duties for the import to the Eurasian Economic Union of agents and equipment for treating COVID-19 will again be levied from April 1, 2021.

CHURCH

METROPOLITAN HILARION OF VOLOKOLAMSK SPOKE AT THE OPENING OF THE MEETING DEDICATED TO THE DAY OF UNITY OF THE PEOPLES OF BELARUS AND RUSSIA

On April 2, 2021, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of Moscow Patriarchate, spoke online at the opening of the official meeting — "Union State: Opening New Opportunities" — on the Day of Unity of the Peoples of Belarus and Russia.

In his address, Metropolitan Hilarion emphasized the spiritual closeness of the Russian and Belarussian peoples, noting that they are united by common history, the Orthodox faith, language, culture and historical memory. He also cited the words of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill: "Belaya Rus is an organic part of Holy Russia, the unity of which is based primarily on the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church". He pointed out the importance of the preservation of the spiritual heritage of their ancestors, "despite the external efforts to undermine and destroy it".

Invitations and public speeches of hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church at official events in Belarus are quite frequent. Statements such as this contain messages typical for Russian foreign policy discourse about cultural, linguistic and historical commonality of the peoples of Russia and Belarus as grounds for considering them as one people and country. They also assert the importance of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) as the basis for the unity of these peoples. Typically, in his speech, the hierarch referenced foreign enemies who allegedly threatened the unity of Belarus and Russia.

INTERNET AND MEDIA INFLUENCE

Belarus is intensifying its efforts to restrict Internet freedoms using similar arguments and measures introduced by Russia several years ago. In particular, similar to the law adopted by Russia in March 2020, Belarus is looking to introduce a bill allowing prosecutors to block certain websites without the decision of courts. This could happen if sources publish materials qualified as extremist. The new Minister of Information Ihor Lutsky explained that this is a necessity because the Internet has become "an instrument of information wars, meant to destroy social rules, moral values, and even the states". Although, only by a long stretch of the imagination would one be able to say that the law has been directly inspired by the Russian law, most likely, the Belarusian lawmakers were aware of the Russian experience.

Another sphere where Russian experience turned out to be useful to Belarusian authorities was the war against Telegram messenger. While Russia tried to block the messenger mostly via technical terms (the attack on Telegram was executed between April 16, 2020, and June 18, 2020), Belarus used both repressive and technical means: after initial measures to block the messenger between August 9 and August 12, 2020, turned out to be only partially effective (activists managed to communicate via VPN or using TOR, Psiphon or Bridgefy), they have been arresting the administrators of the Telegram chats where citizens coordinated the protest actions and discussed their aims and means. The most popular Telegram channels such as NEXTA, along with many other chats and channels, were recently recognized as "extremist" and even the reposts are qualified as wrongdoing.

Civil Society

MEETING OF BELARUSIAN AND RUSSIAN YOUTH GONGOS TOOK PLACE

Early in April at the headquarters of the Russian Union of Youth (RUY), a working meeting of the International Union of Public Organizations "Russian-Belarusian Youth Union" (RBSY) took place. As a result of the meeting, the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM), Dmitriy Voronyuk, said that it had decided to convene the supreme body of the international organization — the Conference — in the near future to discuss further cooperation within the international union. According to Voronyuk, civic-patriotic education and preservation of historical memory of the Great Victory (during WWII) should become the basis of unity of the youth of Belarus and Russia. The RBSU plans to put a special emphasis on informing about the development of relations between Belarus and Russia, as well as the youth policy of the Union State.

The Russian-Belarusian Union of Youth was established in May 2000 and operates in Belarus and Russia. The RBSM is a union of the All-Russian Public Organization "Russian Union of Youth" and the Public Association "Belarusian Republican Youth Union". RBSY activity is aimed at the development of Russian-Belarusian youth cooperation. Different international youth projects have been realized under the patronage of the Union every year since.

The BRSM is one of the largest unions patronized by GONGOs in Belarus. This and other similar organizations actively cooperate and declare their intentions to cooperate with their Russian counterparts. The initiative described above unites BRSM with a large and similar pro-governmental Russian organization. This kind of cooperation is quite formal, but it shows the pro-Russian attitude of the staff of large Belarusian GONGOs, as well as the readiness of the Russian side to support such initiatives. On the other hand, cooperation between the pro-governmental organizations is an example of authoritarian learning between Russia and Belarus.


The Belarus Watch Briefing is a bi-weekly newsletter monitoring Russian activities and influence in Belarus. It was set up by the European Values Center for Security Policy (Prague) and Internews Ukraine (Kyiv)

Belarus Watch Team

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