Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #3

April 30, 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 18 - APRIL 28

RECENT POLICY DEVELOPMENTS

KREMLIN SIDES WITH BELARUSIAN LEADERSHIP TO EXPOSE AN ALLEGED COUP AGAINST LUKASHENKA

On April 17, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) conducted a joint operation with the Belarusian KGB in Moscow to detain the Belarusian political analyst Aliaksandr Fiaduta and the lawyer Yuras Zyankovich, a dual Belarus-U.S. citizen. According to the FSB, Aliaksandr Fiaduta and Yuras Zyankovich traveled to Moscow to meet with Belarus army generals willing to collaborate with the opposition and conduct a coup to overthrow and assassinate Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Aliaksandr Lukashenka claimed that the coup plan was approved by the U.S. special services. The alleged coup attempt was discussed among other issues in a call between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden, although no further details of the call are available.

In the presidential address to the Federal Assembly on April 21, Vladimir Putin accused the West of ignoring the coup attempt against Lukashenka, along with "attempts to impose its will to other countries". 

The news was perceived skeptically in Belarusian independent media, which rather interpreted the incident as an attempt to create a false threat to antagonize the West and to showcase Russo-Belarusian political unity. Some experts interpret the incident as the Kremlin's signal towards Lukashenka to force him into closer integration and to threaten his physical safety if he does not follow Moscow's interests. While there is no publicly available proof of the above mentioned version, it is safe to conclude that this precedent would prevent further attempts of the Belarusian opposition to establish contacts with the Kremlin, given the threat of their detention and deportation to Belarus. The incident would also allow the Kremlin to reject the suggestion of a Western-led facilitation of dialogue over Belarus, referring to the coup attempt as a malicious effort by the West to meddle in Belarus' internal affairs

PUTIN MEETS LUKASHENKA IN MOSCOW

On April 22, Vladimir Putin and Aliaksandr Lukashenka held a meeting at the Kremlin. The sides evaluated the pace of the Union State integration as satisfactory and agreed to conduct the Supreme State Council meeting in the Fall of 2021 to sign the integration roadmaps. Aliaksandr Lukashenka supported Russia's stance on the Donbas crisis.

The encounter seemed to be of symbolic meaning, aiming to demonstrate official unity between Minsk and Moscow following revelations about the alleged coup. The meeting caught significant attention in Belarus, leading experts to question whether the leaders would sign any major integration agreements or make any announcement that would affect Belarus' sovereignty. Belarusian opposition leader Pavel Latushka voiced concerns that the roadmaps were negotiated without public discussions and that Lukashenka might surrender Belarus' sovereignty. Such concerns have been raised by the Belarusian opposition since the integration talks began in 2019. The lack of publicly available information leaves room for speculation on the content of the roadmaps, ranging from the possibility of the harmonization of tax systems and the creation of a single emission center, to the creation of the supranational bodies and assigning Lukashenka an insignificant role in such institutions, taking away the powers to Moscow.

ENERGY AND ECONOMY

INTEGRATION

At a meeting with Alexander Lukashenko on Friday, April 16, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin invited Lukashenko to consider the prospects of integrating the tax systems of the two states. Lukashenko agreed.

Mikhail Mishustin also met with Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko the same day. According to Golovchenko, Belarusian and Russian experts have developed proposals for deepening economic integration. This package is "formally ready", he claimed.

TURNOVER

In January-February 2021, merchandise exports to Russia increased by 105%, and Russian exports to Belarus by almost 125%.

According to the National Statistical Committee, the turnover of the Belarusian-Russian foreign trade in goods and services in January-February 2021 totaled $5.3 billion, 11.9% more than during the same period in 2020, and exports of goods and services to Russia totaled to $2.3 billion (an increase of 2%).

LOANS

More than $800 million was directed to the repayment and servicing of the external state debt of Belarus in the first quarter of 2021.

To service its debt, Belarus is working on the previously reached agreements with Russia on a loan from the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development (EFSD), and on a Russian credit line Belarus expects to receive the second tranche of the Russian loan — $500 million by the end of June.

An agreement on providing Belarus with a Russian loan of $1 billion was signed on December 21, 2020. The first tranche of the loan ($500 million) was received on December 30, 2020 .

"We are focused primarily on returning to the Russian market, and we are also working on the Asian one... Considering that a significant part of our obligations is in Russian rubles, we are interested in the Russian market, where we can borrow funds and use them to service and repay our obligations to the Russian Federation. Colleagues are ready to work with us", said Mr Seliverstov, Minister of Finance of Belarus in his interview to Belta on April 13, 2021.

FINANCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE

Transfers to Belarus by phone call through the Rapid Payment System (RPS) developed by the Bank of Russia will be available to citizens of Belarus from mid-2022.

In addition to integrating the RPS, the regulator is working on the possibility of making card to card Russia-Belarus transfers.

LOGISTICS

When reorienting Belarusian cargo to Russian ports, Russian Railways is ready to cooperate jointly on the transportation not only of oil products, but also timber and fertilizers. This was stated by the deputy general director of the Russian Railways holding Alexey Shilo on April 9, 2021. This can be a sign of Russia's intention to control all Belarusian exports.

ENERGY

On April 19, 2021, the Ministry of Energy of Belarus reported that the nuclear fuel intended for the second power unit of the Belarusian NPP (BelNPP) had been delivered to the station.

In accordance with the technical regulations, BelNPP specialists, together with the general contractor, the Rosatom State Corporation Engineering Division, will ensure acceptance of nuclear fuel and carry out its incoming control.

On April 14, 2021, it became known that the State Atomic Inspection of Belarus (Department of the Ministry of Emergency Situations) will build a storage facility for radioactive waste on the territory of Belarus, which is being completed by the Russian Atomstroyexport. The waste will be sealed in the pool for 10 years. After that, it will be sent to Russia for processing.

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION

DELEGATION OF OFFICIALS FROM THE GOMEL REGION VISITS BRYANSK REGION OF RUSSIA

On April 14, 2021, the delegation of the Gomel Region began its visit to the Bryansk Region of Russia. The agenda of the visit included discussion on the cooperation between the regions, in particular, in construction, the agro-industrial complex (AIC), mechanical engineering and other areas.

The Gomel delegation was headed by Chairman of the Regional Executive Committee, Gennady Solovey. They met with Governor of the Bryansk Region Alexander Bogomaz and discussed the prospects of interregional cooperation. Long-term successful cooperation between the border regions of Russia and Belarus was noted.

Regional officials of Russia and Belarus actively cooperate with each other. For Belarusian officials, visits to Russia are among the few trips abroad. As a result, the Russian experience is often perceived as positive and as "best practices" which should be taken into account in Belarus. In addition, during such visits, issues of economic cooperation are discussed, which in the long-term increases Belarus's economic dependence on Russia.

BELARUSIAN AND RUSSIAN MPS SUPPORT EACH OTHER AT INTERNATIONAL PLATFORMS

On April 15, 2021, an international parliamentary conference "Global challenges and threats under the pandemic COVID-19. Terrorism and violent extremism" was conducted online. The event was organized by the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of the Member Nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States together with the Parliamentary Assemblies of the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the Mediterranean and the UN Counterterrorism Office. The conference was attended by the parliamentary delegation of Belarus, headed by Natalia Kochanova, Chairperson of the Council of the Republic (Upper House of the Parliament). Among those speaking at the Conference was Director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, Alexander Bortnikov.

Natalia Kochanova in her speech mentioned challenges of the pandemic, the initiative of Belarus to launch a global dialogue on security, as well as changes in the Belarusian legislation on national security and public order protection. She expressed her gratitude to the Chairman of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation Valentina Matvienko and the IPA CIS Secretariat for organizing the international conference.

The Belarusian and Russian authorities support each other in using any international events and platforms at their disposal to promote their own agenda. The Belarusian authorities are trying to maintain the image of a "peacemaker" in the region and together with Russia they emphasize the "inadmissibility of Nazism glorification". Thus, both Russian and Belarusian authorities are seeking to promote the idea of the necessity to suppress opposition within their countries, framing this as "the fight against terrorism". Typically enough, representatives of the political elites (in this case, Matvienko and Kochanova) actively support each other in this rhetoric.

MILITARY AND LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

ARMY

One of the latest alarming developments with regards to Russia's attempts to increase its influence over the region has been its continued concentration of forces at the border territory with Ukraine, a security issue which has been repeatedly discussed between Ukrainian and European officials at the highest level. As a result, the US and NATO expressed their unilateral support for Ukraine.

Given Luksahenka's weak position within the country due to the continuing protest and general lack of legitimacy, the Ukrainian authorities have little trust in the autonomous position of the country as regards the Ukrainian crisis. In particular, they refused to continue the negotiations within the Minsk Dialogue format and raised concerns about the ongoing joint military exercises within the territory of Belarus. They believe that Belarus could allow Russian troops to attack from its territory and that Zapad-2021 exercises, taking place in September, could be directed against Ukraine. On the other hand, the Russian forces could also be used against Lukashenka or any other leader who could occupy the office in Belarus as a result of a coup. Although unlikely (given the current developments), it remains a possibility that Russian authorities keep a foot in both worlds and increase mass support ahead of the parliamentary elections, due to take place in September.

LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

Another big news story is the cooperation between the FSB and KGB in the prevention of the alleged coup in Belarus. In particular, the FSB arrested political scientist Aliaksander Feduta and lawyer Yuri Zenkovich on the pretext of plotting a state coup in Belarus and escorted them to their home country. The Belarusian authorities also arrested the head of the Belarusian People Front Grigory Kostusev. This trio was allegedly preparing for the assassination of Lukashenka and his family.

According to the Belarusian incumbent, the Western security services (FBI or CIA) were behind the planned attack, while the plotters were instructed by US and Polish specialists. The press release, published by FSB, said the wrongdoers were determined to organise a military coup in Belarus, proceeding from the scenario of coloured revolutions and relying on the assistance of "local and Ukrainian nationalists". Zakharova, commenting on the recent falling-out with the Czech Republic (18 diplomats were expelled because of Russia's alleged involvement in the explosion at an arms depot in 2014) argued, that the whole story was fabricated to distract public attention from the developments in Belarus. This could mean that the Kremlin pushes Lukashenka into an open confrontation with Ukraine and the West, clearing the way for the potential invasion of the Belarusian territory and drawing the Belarusian president into further integration with Russia. Lukashenka's declaration that the normalization of the situation in Donbass depends only on Ukraine, could serve as an indication of Belarus losing its autonomy, as its political position on the most critical regional issue becomes a direct reflection of the Russian narrative.

HEALTHCARE

On April 14, 2021, the Sputnik V (Gam Covid Vac) vaccine, bottled at the Belmedpreparaty RUE, was approved by the Ministry of Health of Belarus. The semi-finished vaccine is produced by JSC Generium, which is part of the structure of Russian JSC Pharmstandard. An early Sputnik V vaccine produced at this Russian site has already been registered in Belarus and has been used to vaccinate medical workers.

Quality control, both an experimental-industrial series as well as industrial series, was carried out by the Rusian Center named after N.F. Gamalei together with the Belarusian company "Belmedpreparaty". It is expected that the volume of the vaccine produced at the Belarusian enterprise will reach 500,000 doses per month.

The Eurasian Economic Commission is developing an action plan to increase the provision of strategically important drugs and pharmaceutical substances for medical use for the members of the Eurasian Economic Union. The production of the Sputnik V vaccine has been launched in Belarus and Kazakhstan in cooperation with the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The involvement of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan in the joint production of the vaccine is also being discussed.

Church

ARCHBISHOP OF THE BELARUSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH MET WITH HEAD OF REGIONAL RUSSIAN CENTER OF SCIENCE AND CULTURE

On April 8, 2021, Archbishop Stephan of Gomel and Zhlobin met with the head of the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Gomel, First Secretary of the Russian Embassy in Belarus Natalia Avraleva.

During the meeting they discussed a plan of joint activities in the near future. Natalia Avraleva informed the Archbishop Stefan about the implementation of the joint diocese-spiritual and educational project - the exhibition "Alexander Nevsky Historical memory of the people", which is now held in the Loevsk central district library.

The Belarusian Orthodox Church actively cooperates with Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) Russian Center of Science and Culture, which are both sponsored by the Russian Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs. This Center was opened in 2016 in the city of Homel' (Gomel), near the border with both Russia and Ukraine. The Center is one of the three existing Centers for Science and Culture opened with the support of Rossotrudnichestvo in Belarus. These organizations are evaluated by experts and journalists as platforms and instruments of Russian soft power in post-Soviet space and worldwide.

THE ACADEMIC CONFERENCE "ORTHODOXY IN THE HISTORICAL FATE OF THE SLAVIC PEOPLES" WAS HELD IN GORKI

On April 2-3, 2021, in the town of Horki, the International Academic Conference "Orthodoxy in historical destinies of the Slavic peoples" was held (online). The event was organized on the basis of the Belarusian State Agricultural Academy (BSAA). The event was supported by the International Foundation of St. Sava of Serbia and St. Seraphim of Sarov (Serbia), the Russian Orthodox University, and the Center for Eurasian Studies, a branch of the Russian State Social University in Minsk.

The conference was attended by scholars from Belarus, Russia, Serbia, Poland and Greece, Orthodox priests, teachers of social sciences of universities and others. Deputy of the Mahileu (Mogilev) Regional Council of Deputies Natalia Glushakova moderated the event.

During the conference it was noted that the Orthodox Church is one of the most important social institutions, whose historical experience, spiritual potential and centuries-old cultural heritage have a great influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural and national traditions of the Belarusian people.

The conference included presentations by Professor Zoran Milosevic from the Institute for Political Studies (Belgrade, Serbia); Professor Alexis Ponagopoulos from Belgrade State University, as well as other speakers.

Belarusian state-run universities often conduct pro-Russian events. The Conference in Horki was simultaneously supported by the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), whose representatives engaged in it through various pro-Russian organizations, including a university and a think-tank from Serbia. Representatives of the regional (Mahileu) Council also participated in the event. Thus, the pro-Russian forum united representatives of the BOC, local authorities and Serbians loyal to Russian institutions and promoted ideas and narratives of 'Slavic unity and brotherhood.

INTERNET AND MEDIA INFLUENCE

Reporters Without Borders recognized Belarus as the most dangerous country for journalists in Europe (158th place out of 177 in the world), which is a reflection of the abysmal situation with the freedom of mass media in this country. Previously Belarus has adopted a law that restricts the freedom of mass media by facilitating the blocking of internet resources. 

During the week the authorities demonstrated they are not going to backtrack, having recognized several more Telegram channels as extremist and delivering the warning to Intex-press for publishing the interview with Sviatlana Tiskhanouskaya. In addition, they banned Euronews podcasts, which is another blow independent journalism, and suggested introducing a China-like system of internet censorship. Although independent journalists had served a valuable role in debunking fake news published by pro-Russian outlets, as well as conducting investigations, Belarus is now becoming rather prone to the propaganda and disinformation disseminated by the Russian media.

CIVIL SOCIETY

BRSM DELEGATION PARTICIPATES IN THE REGIONAL EDUCATIONAL FORUM IN THE PSKOV REGION

On April 12-17, 2021, the delegation of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) took part in the regional stage of the All-Russian Youth Educational Forum "Territory of Senses" held in the Pskov Region.

The BRSM delegation consisted of youth leaders and representatives of the students' constructive brigades (studotryad) from different regions of Belarus. The educational program of the Forum included meetings with representatives of Russian business, Administration of the region, and an elaboration of the joint agenda for the young people of Pskov Oblast and Belarus. A meeting of the Belarusian delegation with the Pskov Oblast Administration has been held, where they discussed issues of international youth cooperation. 

The event was organized by the Administration of the Pskov Region and the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs of Russia.

The Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) is one of the biggest GoNGOs in Belarus which actively unites young people and is systematically used by the Belarusian authorities for its own authoritarian legitimacy support. As with other pro-governmental and state-sponsored organizations in Belarus, the BRSM supports close relations with Russian counterparts and in some cases with Russian governmental institutions. In this piece of news, we observe how the BRSM delegation participates in the Russian-sponsored event which provides the basis for people-to-people contacts, and future personal connections.

BELARUSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER TALKS ABOUT "PRESSURE OF WESTERN COUNTRIES ON BELARUS"

Last week the Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makey said that the increasing pressure from Western countries could lead to the "nullification" of Belarusian civil society.  This announcement was followed by a set of tough measures, including the arrest of political scientist Aliaksander Feduta and lawyer Yuri Zenkovich, and led to the adoption of new repressive laws, which further undermine the position of civil society and mass media, and also permit employers to dismiss employees who served out administrative arrests or were calling for strikes. 

Analysts stress that this set of measures echoes a strategy adopted in Russia, which could be neatly summarized in the proverb "cut off the nose to spite the face": in response to Western sanctions they introduced the anti-sanctions, which did more harm to the citizens than the initiators of the sanctions.

Belarus Watch Team

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