Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue # 7

June 24, 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

Russia's Ambassador to Belarus stresses the closeness of the brotherly nations despite "the aggressive attempts to separate us"

On June 14, Natalia Kachanova, Speaker of the Council of the Republic (upper house of the parliament), met with Russian Ambassador Evgeny Lukyanov. The tone of the conversation was traditional for the Belarusian and Russian public officials, who usually stress the strategic partnership and friendship of the two nations. Ambassador Lukyanov referred to common heritage, stating that there are "aggressive attempts to separate" the Slavic nations of Belarus and Russia. Kachanova thanked Russia for its support in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and discussed the upcoming 8th Forum of Regions that will take place in and around the Moscow region.

This was rather a routine meeting, with no significant publicly visible outcomes.

Yet such contacts with Russian counterparts serve as a reminder that the Belarusian leadership finds itself isolated, with its only option being dependency on Russian support.

For comparison, on June 8, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makei conducted a meeting with the heads of diplomatic missions of the EU, U.S., Japan, U.K., and Switzerland. It is noteworthy that the meeting was postponed several times and the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not publish any follow up note. In response to the meeting, the diplomatic missions published a joint statement, which concluded that the crisis in Belarus is escalating, taking into consideration the persecution of the opposition, media, civil society, and society at large, including the Polish community in Belarus.

Russia's ambiguous position on Belarus: Putin publicly supports Lukashenka, yet Russian propaganda calls him an "unpredictable governor of six Russian provinces"

On June 7, Vladimir Putin in a conversation with President of the European Council Charles Michel emphasized that the sanctions against Belarus are counterproductive, as well as "any attempts to interfere in the domestic affairs of this sovereign state in general". This quote was published on Belta, a Belarusian state-owned news agency, citing the Kremlin press service, apparently in the attempt to amplify the message to the domestic and international audience that Russia supports the Belarusian leadership.

On June 11, in an interview on NBC News, Putin commented, among other issues, on the Ryanair incident. Thus, with regards to Lukashenka's decision to forcefully land the plane, Putin ambiguously noted: "Not that I approve of it. Not that I condemn it".

The position of the Russian president is consistent with previous reactions from the Kremlin regarding the Ryaniar incident and subsequent sanctions against Belarus. At the same time, Russian propaganda adopted a different stance. Anton Krasovsky, head of the Russian-language broadcast division of Russia Today (RT) criticized Lukashenka, underlining that the Ryanair plane was landed at the excuse of a fake bomb threat. Krasovsky referred to Belarus as "six Russian provinces" and called to save "our people" from "unpredictable" Lukashenka. Similarly, Sergey Ivanov of the LDPR, labeled Lukashenka as a person who conducted "mass terror".

Such statements within Russian propaganda do not necessarily lead to consequences in the short-term.

Yet, such claims coming from the RT and LDPR, media generally loyal to the Kremlin, are hardly accidental. The trick of using Russian propaganda against Lukashenka is not new. The most famous defamation case against the Belarusian leadership was launched by Russian media in 2010, on the eve of signing the Customs Union agreements between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, to which Lukashenka was reluctant. At that time, a documentary entitled "Krestny batka" ("The National's Godfather") was broadcasted on Russian TV and portrayed Lukashenka as a tyrant who physically destroyed his opponents. Back in 2010, this defamation campaign forced Lukashenka to be more receptive to Russia's integration offers.

As for the current propaganda statements, they could serve several purposes: firstly, to remind Lukashenka that the Kremlin's support could change; and secondly, to gauge public perception of such statements concerning the saving of compatriots in Belarus.

Roadmaps for cooperation between Belarus and Russia in the Union State approach their final stage

According to the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Russia to Belarus Yevgeny Lukyanov, agreement on the roadmaps for cooperation between Belarus and Russia in the Union State is at the final stage. Negotiations on 27 out of 28 road maps (now called union programs, have been largely completed). The 27th card has been generally accepted by both Belarus and Russia.  "There is still an unfinished semi-finished product, if I may put it that way, that is connected with energy resources, mutual settlements, prices, excise taxes. This map remains unfinished," the ambassador noted.

Russian citizen Sofya Sapega could be extradited to Russia

Valery Fadeev, head of Russia's Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, announced that Russia would insist on extradition of Sofya Sapega, the Russian citizen detained in Belarus together with Raman Pratasevich.

Such a statement differs from previous comments by Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin's spokesperson, who said that Sapega would receive sufficient legal protection, though her extradition was not necessary. Previously, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia Today, spoke against the forced confessions made by Sapega after her detention.

Meanwhile Sapega remains incarcerated, despite assurances from Russian authorities to help her. Recently she has been accused of incitement of ethnic hatred. The decision to leave Sofya in prison is designed to place further pressure on Raman.

Energy and economy

Russian official vows to "defend Belarus from sanctions"

Moscow will defend Belarus and help it if the EU introduces economic sanctions against Minsk, said Dmitry Birichevsky, director of the Department for Economic Cooperation of the Russian Foreign Ministry, in an interview with RIA Novosti.

According to Russian experts, by the summer of 2021, the situation around Belarus has become more than certain.

The economic model of the Republic cannot survive without financial injections, and any structural changes look too dangerous for the current leadership.

The choice between two sources of support is no longer worth it: now all responsibility for helping Minsk rests with Moscow.

Stronger sanctions could increase Belarus' dependence on Russia, say experts

"Potential new EU-led sanctions against Belarus following the grounding of a civilian airliner could reduce export earnings and lead to further drains in already-modest net central bank international reserves," S&P said on June 2, 2021. If implemented, new stricter sanctions "could have adverse implications for Belarus' already-fragile economic, balance-of-payments, and financial stability." S&P, which rates Belarus "B" level with a negative outlook, said there are numerous obstacles to harsher sanctions against Belarus, including negative spillovers to European companies and the potential lack of unanimity among member-states. "Broader sanctions would require a coordinated EU position and it is not certain that they will materialize. Should these further isolate Belarus, its economic fortunes will depend even more on Russia's willingness to provide support", S&P said.

Belarusian imports from the Russian Federation grow

In April 2021, Belarusian imports from the Russian Federation grew by USD 883.7 million compared to the same month in 2020. As a result, the balance of trade with Russia decreased by USD 450.3 million. The import/export ratio also decreased to 66.9%, versus 82% a year earlier.

This means that in April 2021, for every USD 100 of Russian imports, there was only USD 66.9 of Belarusian exports. In 2020, it was USD 82.

Russia is ready to supply gas to the Kaliningrad region via Lithuania

The Kaliningrad region of Russia does not see any risks for gas transit from the main territory of Russia through the territory of Lithuania due to possible EU sanctions against Belarus. The capacities created in the region allow, if necessary, to cover its needs autonomously.

Gazprom plans for lower Belarus transit to EU in the fourth quarter of 2021

Russian state-controlled Gazprom with its subsidiary operator of Belarus' pipeline network — Gazprom Transgaz Belarus — is set to provide much less gas to the EU through Belarus along the Yamal-Europe pipeline in the fourth quarter of 2021. This suggests that the firm had hoped to ship gas through Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany in the fourth quarter of 2021, although Gazprom could still lift its bookings through Belarus, Poland and Germany.

Gazprom plans to significantly reduce gas transportation through Belarus. This may result in a loss of about USD 350 million a year for Belarus.

Experts believe that the reason for the reduction is due to the launch of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the near future, which, like the first Nord Stream, is laid along the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

Lukashenka wants to buy Russian oil with roubles, not dollars

At a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, Aliaksandr Lukashenka stressed the need to move away from the dollar in hydrocarbon trade in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

Minsk wanted to buy oil for Russian rubles due to the serious problems with the currency associated with the internal political situation and Western sanctions. A month ago, Lukashenko signed a decree to amend the law on foreign exchange regulation, allowing the National Bank to severely restrict foreign exchange transactions in the country.

Russia reduced oil exports outside of CIS, increasing oil supplies to Belarus

Between January and May 2021, Russia reduced oil exports to non-CIS countries by 15.7%, and increased oil supplies to Belarus by 60.7%, up to 5.85 million tons.

Transneft supplies oil to refineries in Belarus in full compliance with existing agreements. In June, the oil was supplied only to the Mozyr refinery. "As for the plans for the transportation (of oil) to Belarusian refineries, our company carries out transportation in accordance with the requests that we receive from oil producers. As for June we have requests only from the Mozyr Oil Refinery," said the vice-president of Transneft, Sergei Andronov, during a conference call with analysts and investors. According to him, this situation will not affect the company's operating performance. Earlier it was reported that Transneft planned to cut oil supplies to Belarus by half, to 608,000 tons.

Public Administration

Head of the Lower Chamber of the Belarusian Parliament meets with the Ambassador of the Russian Federation

On June 1, 2021 the Chairman of the House of Representatives of the Parliament of Belarus, Vladimir Andreychenko, met with Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Russia to Belarus Evgeny Lukyanov. Andreichenko emphasized the importance of strengthening and developing cooperation with the Russian Federation in political, economic and cultural spheres, and stressed the role of Russia as a strategic partner for Belarus. Numerous joint events and initiatives at the level of the parliaments (National Assembly and State Duma) of the two countries, which strengthen cooperation between them, were also noted. Future joint Russian-Belarusian events were announced, including a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Union of Belarus and Russia (June 16), "Slavonic Bazar in Vitebsk," and that a parliamentary delegation in Belarus would observe the elections to the Russian State Duma. 

Meetings of Belarusian parliamentarians both with the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Belarus and with their colleagues from Russia are a regular event, which ensures both institutional and interpersonal interaction between officials and deputies from the two countries.

Reports on such events are of a strictly formal nature, so it is difficult to determine the tone and the real degree of cooperation between Russian and Belarusian officials.

Military and law-enforcement agencies

Belarus cooperates with internationally unrecognised pro-Russian authorities in Donbas on Pratasevich case

Several of the most significant news stories of late have related to the recent hijacking of Ryanair flight 4978. In particular, the Belarusian authorities launched an interview with Raman Pratasevich, who was captured following a forced landing. This was done to make both the West and Belarusian society believe that the former editor of the NEXTA channel feels good and decided to cooperate with the investigation voluntarily. During the interview, he said that the NEXTA channel was allegedly financed by the Russian oligarch Dmitry Mazepin, which was taken with a pinch of salt by the Kremlin.

Also in the news was that Belarus decided to invite "investigators" from the internationally unrecognised so-called "LPR" ("Luhansk People's Republic") to question Pratasevich on his alleged participation in the military conflict on the Ukrainian side (he only participated as a photographer).

Analysts claim that the step would not have been possible without mediation from the Russian military and is said to be a planned operation with the purpose of isolating Belarus and further dragging it into Russia's sphere of influence.

The "LPR investigators" recognized they had an opportunity to interrogate Pratasevich and claimed they found him guilty of the gruesome murders of Donbas citizens. Should Raman be extradited to "LPR," he will get life imprisonment. The very decision to involve the officials of an unrecognized proto-state supported by Russia led to a sharp response from Ukrainian authorities. They blocked the Belarusian TV channel "Belarus 24", while also threatening to introduce significant economic sanctions. 

Heads of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service and the Belarusian KGB meet in Vitebsk

On June 3, 2021, Vitebsk hosted a working meeting with the Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin and Chairman of the State Security Committee (KGB) of Belarus Ivan Tertel.

According to official information, the heads of special services discussed the prospects of cooperation in ensuring the national interests of Russia and Belarus. It is stressed that such cooperation is necessary "in the conditions of aggressive policy of the United States and Western countries in the Russian and Belarusian directions". They emphasized the importance of consolidating efforts aimed at strengthening the potential of Moscow and Minsk to counter global challenges and new threats to the security of the Union State.

This meeting is just another example of close cooperation between the intelligence services of Russia and Belarus. The importance of cooperation to confront "enemies" and "threats" is symbolically emphasized.

In the spirit of the Cold War, there are statements about "the aggressive policy of the West. Thus, we see both real and symbolic interaction between the officials of the security blocs (siloviki) of the two countries.

Belarus threatens not to control the migration flow to the EU

In response to the EU's decision to impose tough sanctions, the Belarusian authorities threatened to disengage themselves from the obligation to control migration flow and combat drug trafficking. Following this threat, Lithuania registered an upsurge of illegal migration, which is said to be a move within the hybrid war against the EU and an attempt to blackmail the West.

Lukashenka suggests enhanced mobilisation as Belarus and Russia prepare for joint military exercises

In continuation of this approach, Lukashenka also suggested enhancing territorial defense capability and urged the regional authorities to be prepared for fast mobilization. In the same vein, Russia and Belarus became engaged in the military exercises "Slavic Brotherhood-2021", while also preparing for the larger-scale "Zapad-2021". Within the latter, as the Ukrainian President Zelensky suggests, the allies will cement their joint military operations in order to capture Ukrainian cities.

Healthcare

Eurasian Economic Union discusses Common Markets for Medicines and Medical Devices

"The Strategic Directions for the Development of Eurasian Economic Integration until 2025 provide for the adoption of the Concept for the Further Development of Common Markets for Medicines and Medical Devices. We consider it appropriate to include in this document proposals for the creation of such a centralized agency. This would make it possible to drastically shorten the time frame for the examination of documents and inspections of production sites, unite and coordinate the efforts of specialists," Chairman of the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission Mikhail Myasnikovich said at the plenary session of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum "Drug safety as a basis for the sustainability of the healthcare system" on June 2.

Mikhail Myasnikovich praised the role of the Russian Federation in combating the spread of the pandemic.

"The Russian Federation has transferred vaccine production technologies to Belarus, Kazakhstan, where production is already underway. However, it is extremely difficult to fight the pandemic without the help of the Russian Federation in the supply of finished drugs," he summed up.

Belarus produces ingredients for "Sputnik V" vaccine

Belarus has already produced 180,000 doses of the second component of the Russian vaccine "Sputnik V" and is currently awaiting permission from the Russian Ministry of Health for its use after quality control. Currently there are more than 150,000 doses of the first component and more than 30,000 doses of the second vaccine Sputnik V in the country. The Ministry of Health did not report data on the number of doses of the Chinese vaccine in Belarus. According to the ministry, more than 656,000 people had received the first dose of the vaccine, of which more than 358,000 have completed the full course of vaccination.

On June 11, 2021, after controlling procedures were finished, the Belarusian Ministry of Health received a permit from Russia to use 180,000 doses of the second component of Sputnik V.

Church

A pro-democratic Orthodox hierarch was dismissed from his position in Grodno

On June 9, 2021, official sources of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) reported the dismissal of Archbishop Artemy of Grodno and Volkovyssk. The official reason for the dismissal was given as the "state of health" of the church hierarch, who is 69 years old. Archbishop Artemie was replaced by the Bishop Antony of Slutsk and Salihorsk. It is also reported that Archbishop Artemy has been ordered to leave Grodno and move to Minsk.

As of today, there is information that over a thousand people have signed a petition to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, asking him to reverse the decision to suspend Artemy. The Archbishop himself states that his dismissal is in fact due to his active civic position with regard to the political crisis in Belarus and the support of protesting citizens. In addition, in his interviews, he talks about the existing sentiments within the BOC in support of pro-democratic Belarusians. At the same time, he says that the question of creating an autocephalous Belarusian church is not topical at present.

The BOC, as a structural branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, is traditionally considered by many post-Soviet scholars to be one of the main institutions of spreading Russian influence.

The situation with the Diocese of Grodno in Belarus and Archbishop Artemy indicates that the institution of the Orthodox Church in the country is not monolithic, it has different interests and attitudes. Whereas the official position of the BOC and the ROC is to support Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko and their initiatives, at the unofficial level the situation is more contradictory and ambiguous. Archbishop Artemy's resignation testifies to the desire to replace him with someone more loyal to the Belarusian authorities, as well as to bring the position of the Diocese of Grodno in line with the political position of the BOC. However, it is obvious that the situation inside the BOC is heterogeneous and more complicated than both church hierarchs and the Belarusian authorities are trying to present.

Head of the Upper Chamber of the Belarusian Parliament visited the main Orthodox monastery in Belarus

On June 2, the chairperson of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus, Natalia Kochanava, made a working visit to the Uspensky Zhirovichi Monastery. During the visit, Kachanava talked to the clergy of the Novogrudok Diocese and the Zhirovichi monastery. Kachanova conveyed to Vladyka Gury a congratulatory address from Alexander Lukashenka on the occasion of his 65th birthday, and gratitude from the Council of the Republic for his "contribution to the spiritual and educational activities and the preservation of interfaith peace in society".

Natalia Kochanova is one of the officials in the closer circle of Lukashenka. Visits of this kind testify to the close ties between the BOC and the authorities in Belarus, as well as to their mutual influence on each other. By means of such influence Belarus becomes more involved in the orbit of Russian cultural affairs.

Internet and Media

Russian media labelling Raman Pratasevich as an extremist, support Lukashenka

Raman Pratasevich's interview was commented on by multiple pro-Kremlin propagandist outlets, with most of them defaming the former NEXTA editor as an extremist and a combatant (he served as a photographer and journalist in a military conflict in Donbas). Columnists from the Russia-backed Strategic Culture Foundation said that Lukashenka's actions were entirely justified because the forced landing of the civilian aircraft was executed within Belarusian airspace.  Finally, several outlets claimed that the whole operation has been designed and implemented by the Ukrainian security services.

All those arguments were designed to convince the public that Lukashenka's decision was legitimate.

Russian and Belarusian MPs discuss the single strategy on media development

Another news story regarding the media is the meeting of the Union State's Parliamentary  Commission on Information Policy, which discussed the single strategy on the development of the Union State's media. In particular, they considered the publishing process of the newspaper "Soyuz", which is supplementary to "Soviet Belarus" and "Russian Newspaper". They concluded, in particular, that the newspapers are especially valued in the regions, and that reducing their circulation is not necessary.

Civil Society

The Day of Russia was celebrated in Minsk

On June 12, Minsk held a celebration of the Day of Russia with the support of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Belarus.

The program of the celebration included a number of cultural and religious events, in which the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Belarus Evgeny Lukyanov took part. At one of the events he participated together with the Orthodox Priest Father Feodor Povny, who is considered the spiritual superior of Alexander Lukashenka. Joint statements were made about "brotherly friendship of the two Slavic peoples" and "importance of historical memory". Besides, in his interview to the media, the Russian Ambassador declared his Belarusian roots, but at the same time emphasized that his personal experience is closely connected with the experience of the USSR and the unity of the cultures of Russia and Belarus. The two countries, according to his statements, are confronting "enemies" but they need to remain united to cope with a hostile environment.

The organization of celebrations dedicated to important dates in Russia is one of the official activities of the Russian Embassy in Belarus, which is usually used to promote pro-Russian ideas and narratives.

In Ambassador Lukyanau's interviews, speeches and statements an attempt aimed at constructing an image of unity between Russia and Belarus can be clearly traced. The latter is ensured through statements about the "cultural and historical commonality", the "uniting experience of the USSR" and the need to confront "enemies" (the collective West).

The Russia-sponsored mobile museum "Victory Train" arrives in Belarus

The mobile museum "Victory Train" from Russia has arrived in Belarus. The opening ceremony of the museum was held with the participation of Russian and Belarusian officials, including Deputy Head of Presidential Administration of Belarus Igor Lutski, and Deputy Minister of Science and Higher Education of Russia Natalia Bocharova. It is expected that after Minsk the museum train will go to other Belarusian cities. The project of the train is supported by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of Russia, Russian Railways and the pro-governmental organization "Volunteers of Victory".

During the official presentation of the train, Igor Lutsky said that the initiative is meant to counter "false historical narratives".

This is yet another sign that the Belarusian authorities continue reproducing the clichés of pro-Russian propaganda. The topic of the end of World War II and its interpretations is one of the important narratives of Russian foreign policy and foreign influence.

In the case of the museum train, this narrative is expressed in an attractive form for public engagement, thus allowing to draw more attention to the ongoing project while promoting pro-Soviet (pro-Russian) narratives. We also observe that the Russian government financially and symbolically supports such projects.

Belarus Watch Team

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