RE-EMERGING PROTESTS IN MARCH
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her campaign repeatedly asserted that protests would re-emerge in March, calling on Belarusians to increase pressure on the regime by participating in collective action. Earlier — during his meeting with law enforcement representatives on March 11 — Lukashenko countered that he will wage war "from within". KGB head Ivan Tertel warned of increasing terrorist threats — allegedly, KGB officers found a stash with explosives — and said that he is awaiting provocations.
THE OPPOSITION LAUNCHED A NATIONWIDE ONLINE VOTE FOR MEDIATED NEGOTIATIONS
On March 18, Tikhanouskaya launched a nationwide vote on the online platform Golos to solidify popular support in favor of mediated negotiations with Lukashenka's regime to solve the crisis. She stressed that participating in the vote would urge decisive steps from international organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
According to expert assessments, the vote would not only showcase how much support the democratic opposition actually has among Belarusians, but also signal to the international community that there is popular demand to initiate national dialogue. As of March 26, over 700,000 votes were submitted to the platform.
In a statement from the OSCE's Permanent Council, the EU Delegation expressed support to the ongoing voting initiative and emphasized the need for both national dialogue and new, transparent elections with the participation of ODIHR observers. The U.S. mission to the OSCE also endorsed the democratic forces' call for national dialogue and new elections.
The first calls for mediation were voiced in the beginning of the crisis in August 2020.The OSCE offered to mediate while Emanuel Macron and Angela Merkel talked to Vladimir Putin about facilitating inter-Belarusian dialogue. However, no progress has been made since then. On March 22, Charles Michel and Vladimir Putin telephoned and, besides EU-Russia relations, they discussed the Belarusian crisis. In order for the OSCE's mediation to take place and effect, Russian participation is crucial given its interest in the region — it treats Belarus as a sphere of influence — otherwise, it is unlikely that Lukashenka's regime would agree on negotiations and a lasting agreement.
CONSTITUTIONAL REFORMS EFFORTS: THE FIRST MEETING OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL COMMISSION
On March 17, Alyaksandr Lukashenka conducted the first commission meeting to work on constitutional reform. The Commission comprises 34 members, including the prime minister Roman Golovchenko; head of the presidential administration Igor Sergeenko; and head of the Constitutional court Petr Miklashevich. The reform stipulates a two-term limit to presidential mandates; and redistribution of some presidential powers between parliament and government. Another amendment would define the constitutional status of the All-Belarusian People's Assembly — the latter gathers regime supporters and is portrayed as "one of the most important forms of direct democracy". Critics called the Assembly a Communist Party congress "of the Soviet era". Since its inception in 1996, the Assembly takes place every five years and has merely a symbolic role: a gathering of representatives of state-owned enterprises and pro-governmental organizations. It most recently took place in February 2021, Lukashenka's attempt to orchestrate an image of national unity. Experts suggest that Lukashenka might use the Assembly to transfer power: possibly paving a way to resign from the presidential post and assume as head of the Assembly.
On March 22, the Russian president's spokesman Dmitry Peskov defied journalists' assumptions that Lukashenka promised Vladimir Putin the transfer of power. Rather, Peskov stated that Russia does not interfere in Belarusian domestic affairs and that Lukashenka informed him of constitutional reform plans. Previously, on March 19, Alyaksandr Lukashenka commented that his decision to conduct constitutional reform was made independently - without insistence from Moscow.
Nevertheless, Russia indeed pressured Lukashenka into amending the Constitution in such a way that Belarus would become a parliamentary republic, wherein political parties — not the president — play a key role. Moscow's strategy is to count on Belarusian pro-Russian parties later on.
INITIATIVE TO CREATE PRO-RUSSIAN PARTY IN BELARUS
On March 6, the pro-Russian party's founding congress — "Soyuz" (Union) — took place in Minsk with 135 participants, 15 from each region other than the 35 from Minsk. The decision to create the party was made earlier in October 2020. "Soyuz" calls itself the opposition faction — favoring tighter Belarusian-Russian integration. It elected a chairman and a co-chairman, Sergei Lusch and Gleb Volkov respectively. The former has a long-standing pro-Russian reputation in the country: previously heading a civic initiative under the same name ("Soyuz") which promoted ideas of integration with Russia and real implementation of the Union State's agreement provisions. During the 2020 protests, Lusch called Russia to "play a more active role in stabilizing the [Belarusian] situation." Meanwhile, another chairman of the initiative, Gleb Volkov (political sciences candidate), emphasized that Belarus-Russia cooperation is just one of many future partisan activities. To be officially registered in the country, "Soyuz" must submit all required documents to the Belarusian Ministry of Justice by the beginning of April, 2021.
Information about the arrival of the "Soyuz" party provoked intense discussions in the Belarusian and foreign expert communities. Some see it as an attempt to institutionalize pro-Russian political influence in the country while others see it as a local initiative of pro-Russian Belarusian activists seeking Russian support. In any case, the party supports Russia and might become a pro-Russian promotion tool in the country. As for now, the important question is whether the initiative will be registered by the Ministry of Justice.
RUSSIA CHANGES ITS AMBASSADOR TO MINSK
On March 19, Russia's Ambassador to Belarus, Dmitry Mezentsev, was removed from his position by the Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was appointed to Belarus less than two years ago in April 2019. On the same day, Mezentsev was appointed State Secretary of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. He replaced Grigoryi Rapota who has held this position since 2011 (the previous State Secretary was Pavel Borodin). Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova emphasized that Mezentsev will ensure deeper relations between the two countries (Russia and Belarus) which he efficiently facilitated as head of the Russian diplomatic mission in Minsk. The new Ambassador of Russia to Belarus will be Evgeny Lukyanov who currently heads the Russian Embassy in Latvia.
This marks the third change of Russian ambassadors to Belarus within three years. Such reshuffling might demonstrate Kremlin intent to find the person most suited to their interests during the current political crisis in the country. Allegedly, Mezentsev was not strong enough to provide an efficient solution to Russia. Having experience in Latvia and being well aware of the regional geopolitical situation, Lukyanov might be a better candidate for intervening in the Belarusian political crisis, providing favorable outcomes to Russia.
RUSSIAN ECONOMIC INTERESTS IN BELARUS
Belarus and Russia will sign a protocol amending the procedural Agreement on tariff price setting for natural gas supply and transportation through pipelines. The corresponding resolution — No. 147 of March 15 — was adopted by the Belarusian Council of Ministers. Said protocol provides loan restructuring conditions beneficial to Belarus: a two-year loan extension period postponing the start date of the principal loan repayment from April 1, 2021, to April 1, 2023; and changing the current "mixed" interest rate on the loan to a fixed interest rate of 3.3% per annum. The "mixed" rate assumed that, of the loans used, 50% of each amount received a fixed interest rate of 5.23%, while the remaining 50% of each amount — at the LIBOR rate for six-month deposits in US dollars — increased by 1.83% yearly. The average value of the interest rate on the loan for the entirety of the agreement is 4.11% per annum.
Russia is still believed to be the largest investor in Belarus. As stated by the Russian president, Putin, during the meeting with his Belarusian counterpart Lukashenka — in Sochi on 22 February, 2021 — Russian companies invested over $4 billion in total in the Belarusian economy.
A Russian loan of up to $10 billion was provided to Belarus in 2011 to finance the supply of goods, works and services to construct two power units of the nuclear power plant. As of September 1, 2020, $4.5 billion had already been used. The cost of building the Belarusian nuclear power plant - with a total capacity of 2,400 MW — was estimated at $6 billion and, considering the entire infrastructure, the estimate rose to $9 billion. The payback period was assumed to be 15 to 20 years: 90% of the construction funds were Russian loans originally set to reach full maturity by 2035.
The Russian State Duma ratified the protocol on amending the Belarusian-Russian intergovernmental agreement on the provision of a state export loan to the government of Belarus for the construction of a nuclear power plant dated November 25, 2011. The period for using the loan has been extended until the end of 2022. Accordingly, the start date of the principal debt repayment has been postponed from April 1, 2021, to April 1, 2023. The floating interest rate on the loan has been replaced by a fixed rate of 3.3% per annum. Both moves can be assessed as another form of support for Lukashenka. The application of the reduced interest rate on the loan will officially begin from the date of the next interest payment (April 1 or October 1). Prior to its entry into force, the Belarusian side will have to make payments for servicing the loan on the original terms, that is, at an increased interest rate.
At the beginning of March 2021, Belarus began shipping oil products through Russian ports for further transit, while previously routes through Lithuania had been considered more economically viable. This switch from Lithuanian ports is a reaction to Lithuania's support for the Belarusian political opposition.
RUSSIAN MPS URGE BELARUSIAN COUNTERPARTS TO OPPOSE 'FAKE NEWS'
On March 22 a meeting of the Commission on Information Policy of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Union of Belarus and Russia was held. At the meeting the members of the Assembly were presented with information on the implementation of the priorities of development of the Union State for 2018-2022 in the field of formation of the common information space of Belarus and Russia. The deputies noted that joint work is currently underway in accordance with the action plan to create a common information space of the Union State for 2021-2025. According to the parliamentarians, Belarus and Russia face new challenges and are under unprecedented pressure in the global information space.
The Deputy Head of the Commission, and Deputy of the State Duma Vladimir Afonsky, pointed to the need to develop a unified policy to counter information threats in the Union State. He also emphasized that such news must be immediately removed by Roskomnadzor and the similar governmental institutions in this sphere in Belarus. Afonsky said that there are a lot of questions about the activities of broadcasting in Russia's and Belarus' foreign media. "The task of the parliamentarians is to prevent the existence of distorted information and rewriting of history, as well as to create the conditions for these media, which have non-Belarusian and non-Russian jurisdiction, not to distort the historical truth and not to try to disbalance the situation in the countries. It is necessary to adopt a legal framework that will allow, in the case of such information, to make decisions that exclude the news which rewrite history, and glorify fascism".
Both Belarusian and Russian officials are concerned about the control of their national informational space. They use different mechanisms of censorship and control over the media; however, this task is more and more challenging for them in the times of immediate and transborder spread of information. Nevertheless, officials from both countries try to find and implement different approaches to increase control of information. This development demonstrates an attempt to introduce additional legal and institutional restrictions to the spread of information and media freedom. Typically, they intend to present the new mechanisms of censorship with a normative coverage of struggle with 'glorification of fascism'. Cooperation of Belarusian and Russian officials on such ideas within the Union State of Russia and Belarus represents an example of autocratic learning, when two autocrats share 'best practices' with each other.
Against this background, there is news about the common military exercises, organised in the territory of Belarus and Russia. In particular, Russian airborne forces and Belarusian special operations forces conducted the training at polygon "Polyvno" in Ulyanovsk region between March 9 and 20 and at polygon "Asypovichy" in the Minsk region, with the participation of 90 military officers from Russia and 400 from Belarus. The latter, launched ahead of Freedom Day (March 25), in particular raised anxiety among the activists, especially amid growing evidence of deepening cooperation between Russia and Belarus in the military sphere and Russia's continuing support to the Belarusian regime.
One of the news stories attracting the attention of experts has been the political reshuffles within Russia. As mentioned,the authorities have replaced Ambassador of Russia in Belarus, Dmitry Mezentsev. Instead of Mezentsev, who became the State Secretary of the Union State (purely formal post), came Eugeny Lukyanov, who has close ties to Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev and links to Belarusian "siloviki". Some experts claim this could mean the deepening of integration, particularly in the security sphere.
Another issue which highlights the close cooperation between Russia and Belarus in the security sphere, is the arrest and extradition of Belarusian activists, who fled from Belarus following the persecution from the authorities. Also, civic initiative BYPOL published an investigation, revealing that the Belarusian law-enforcement agencies widely used Russian weapons and ammunition to repress the protests.
"One Russian vaccine costs $19. Calculate how much you need. I have made a deal with them that we will produce this vaccine using their technology. It is a good vaccine. We will start producing it in just a week," Alexander Lukashenko said when publicly defending Sputnik V.
The Ministry of Health approves the maximum selling price for the Sputnik V vaccine: the two-component drug will be sold at a price of 1,942 Russian rubles ($25.42 USD). At the end of November, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), together with the Gamaleya Center, participated in the development of Sputnik V, and announced that one dose of the vaccine for other countries would cost less than $10 USD (742 Russian rubles at the time). Two doses that are required for proper vaccination should thus cost no more than $20.
BELARUSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH PUBLISHES OPEN CALL FOR GRANT SUPPORT FROM RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH
On 16 March 2021, the official website of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) published an open call for small-scale grant proposals "Orthodox Initiative — 21" supported by the Russian Orthodox Church. The call is held with the blessing of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. According to the published text, the following entities can take part in the competition: "canonical divisions of the Russian Orthodox Church; non-profit organizations registered as legal entities; national and municipal institutions; non-state organizations in the field of education, culture, healthcare, social protection and others, including organizations created by the Russian Orthodox Church or with its participation; mass media; commercial organizations and individual entrepreneurs". The duration of the projects' implementation is three months. The funding sum for one project is 120,000 rubles (around 25,000 €).
As an official structural part of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), the Belarusian Church serves as a tool of implementation of the ROC's diverse programs, projects and events within Belarus. The call for grant support is just one of the many instruments which ROC can officially use in Belarus. The amount of the grant support is a modest one, however, the very opportunity to get direct funding creates additional leverage for Russia. While any funding opportunities of civil society initiatives, mass media or other organizations from abroad are heavily regulated by the Belarusian state, the Russian Church can dispense money without restriction.
VASIL MAGHLAPERIDZE AS A DEPUTY CHAIRPERSON OF THE RULING PARTY
Lukashenko's idea to use the Chinese experience in the digital sphere and launch the body that will oversee and control the digitalization reform in the country, has been taken with a pinch of salt by independent media and the expert community. This is believed to be the response of the regime to the critical investigative documentary on Lukashenka's corruption, shot by Stepan Putsila, Editor-in-Chief of the leading popular Telegram channel NEXTA. This initiative is just another attempt of Belarusian authorities to cut Internet access during the protests, and imprison bloggers and local chat administrators. It should be noted that, while China uses its "Great Firewall" to block undesired content, Russia also used similar methods to restrict access to a list of web resources in 2014 and launched a large-scale attack on Telegram messenger between 2018 and 2020. While it remains to be seen what the practical implementation of this idea will look like, the Belarusian authorities may also draw on the Russian experience, because it is likely to be the fastest and most resource-intensive way of reaching its desired objective, as compared to the expensive Chinese Firewall.
NETWORK OF RUSSIAN PROPAGANDIST WEBSITES
It has been reported that as early as 2017, Russia launched a network of propagandist websites to influence the agenda in Belarus. In particular, the websites are known to publish both the more or less objective information on the current developments in Belarus and also the distorted or outright fake reports. Ahead of Freedom Day (March 25), widely anticipated to be a date of protest revival in Belarus, they published several materials (1,2, 3), devoted to the collective actions. In particular, the authors suggested that the Belarusian revolution ended in defeat, while opposition activists are depressed and passive, unable to suggest a viable strategy for further struggle. There is an abundance of incorrect citations (the words of Tsikhanouskaya, allegedly, admitting the opposition "lost the streets" for example), distorted information ([...]"Belarusians are completely disappointed in the protests"), pure speculations ("Belarusians are not tired from Lukashenka enough to risk with freedom and future of their children") and misinterpretation of facts ("slitting wrists is a traditional way for the opposition leaders to attract attention to themselves"). While this list of articles is not likely to be a coordinated strategy, launched by the Russian stakeholders, they represent elements of discourse put forward by the Russian media with regards to the Belarusian situation. Within this narrative, the Belarusian opposition is represented as a passive, inept group of people, who are unprepared to struggle amid the harsh repressions implemented by the regime. At the same time, Tsikhankouskaya is said to acknowledge her weakness and try to shift the responsibility on other people, while Belarusian society returns to its passive state when stability is valued above all else.
The Belarus Watch Briefing is a new 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)