Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #4

May 11, 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

"Emergency" transition of powers decree: Lukashenka intends to cement his positions domestically

On April 24, Aliaksandr Lukashenka announced an intent to sign a decree that would transfer the presidential powers to the Security Council in the case of an emergency. If Lukashenka is unable to function as president, the decisions would be made collectively by the civilian and the military officials of the Security Council.

Some experts suggested that the decree could give more opportunities for Russia's control over Belarus, given that some Belarusian military officials are loyal to the Kremlin. At this point there is no substantial evidence that the decree directly serves Moscow's interests. Although some members of the Security Council could indeed lobby for the Kremlin's interests, the collective nature of the Security Council body implies that the decisions would be made by secret ballot, and the council members represent diverse interests - those chairing the parliament, national bank, KGB, the ministry of interior and other top officials.

The decree seems more likely to be an attempt by Lukashenka to secure his positions domestically and to mitigate the risk of a coup by elites and to withdraw powers from the prime minister in such a scenario. According to the Constitution, if the president is unable to perform his duties, the prime minister assumes these responsibilities. However, the announced decree would override the constitutional norm and rather give powers to the collective body, the Security Council, that would take collective decisions on governing the country. Such a move that explicitly violates the Constitution could signify that Lukashenka has concerns about the unity of the elites and the security of his position.

Constitutional reform would likely preserve the strong role of the president, restricting attempts by pro-Russian forces to assert a greater role through parliament

During the meeting of the Constitutional commission on April 28, Piotr Miklashevich, head of the Constitutional court, stated that there is no need to redistribute more powers in favor of the parliament or to make a transition towards a parliamentary-presidential form of governance.

On May 3, Ministry of Justice denied registration to the "Soyuz", a pro-Russian political party which held its founding congress in March.

Such developments could be assessed together in the context of the previous media leakages of the Kremlin's plans in the fall 2020 to solidify pro-Russian political forces in Belarus and to install them in parliament, also pushing constitutional reform in the direction of a parliamentary-presidential form of governance. Officially, Minsk seeks to retain power in the president's hands, diminishing the risk posed by consolidation of political groups, be it pro-Russian parties or the opposition party "Vmeste". While Lukashenka can hardly resist Moscow's push for integration processes, he still has the room for maneuvering domestically to preserve the structure of the power vertical.

Belarusian MFA emphasizes close ties with Russian counterpart in contrast with estranged relations with the West

On April 30, newly appointed Russian Ambassador to Belarus Evgeny Lukyanov met with Foreign Affairs Minister Vladimir Makei to mark the occasion of the presentation of their copies of credentials. In contrast, U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fischer is not able to enter Belarus, as she lacks an entry visa. Vladimir Makei stated that there is no point in Fischer being present in Minsk if the Ambassador would talk about the illegitimacy of the regime and avoid cooperation with the official government in Minsk.

In an interview for Euronews on April 29, Vladimir Makei outlined the special nature of Belarus-Russia relations, rejecting the notion that Russia sustains the Belarusian regime, yet stating that the Union State integration process strengthens the sovereignty and independence of Belarus.

The statements of the Belarusian MFA serve two purposes of the traditional balancing act of the regime. Firstly, Russia in the rhetoric of unity, reassuring Russia's foreign policy interests regarding Belarus. Secondly, they attempt to convince the West that the sanctions are counter-productive and only push Belarus towards closer ties with Russia.

Energy and economy

General

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin met with Prime Minister of Belarus Roman Golovchenko on April 28 in Kazan, Russia. He announced that an intergovernmental agreement on the export of Belarusian oil products through Russian ports had been promptly prepared and signed. "In addition, the first power unit of the Belarusian nuclear power plant has been brought up to full capacity. The construction of the second unit is proceeding normally. We are counting on its physical start-up in the near future," Mr Mishustin added. Mishustin also expressed hope for the full restoration of transport links with Belarus as the epidemiological situation normalizes. According to him, citizens of the two countries can already safely move between Minsk and several Russian cities.

On April 22, 2021, a delegation of the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Belarus headed by Deputy Minister Dmitry Yaroshevich visited Moscow to participate in a working meeting at the Ministry of Economic Development of the Russian Federation. Together with their Russian colleagues, the experts of the Ministry of Economy discussed the organizational aspects of the process of developing macroeconomic forecasts in Russia and Belarus, the tools used for such forecasts, and approaches to the development and refinement of development scenarios. They also acquainted themselves with the mechanism for the exchange of operational data between the constituent entities of the Russian Federation. A separate issue on the agenda was the possibility of exchanging information on forecasts of socio-economic development of the two countries on an ongoing basis.

Finance

The Russian-led/dominated Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) is ready to replace the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in case of termination of its activities in Belarus. This was stated in an interview with the Vedomosti newspaper by the head of the EDB Nikolai Podguzov.

The EDB's investment portfolio totaled about $10 billion last year. These were investments in Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The Bank of the Eurasian Economic Union intends to increase lending to both sovereign borrowers and corporate clients.

On April 21, the Eurasian Development Bank signed an agreement on the provision of guarantees for $24.3 million for the delivery of 77 BELAZ dump trucks to India. EDB is currently considering the possibility of providing similar guarantees for another $55 million. The guarantees ensure BELAZ's obligations to maintain the delivered dump trucks in operation for 8 years. Previously, the EBRD acted as the guarantor in such agreements.

Oil and gas

Russian oil companies may suspend oil supplies to Belarus's Novopolotsk refinery Naftan in May amid US sanctions that mandate an end to all relations with the refinery by June 3. Three more unnamed sources said that the main suppliers of raw materials to the Belneftekhim refinery, Rosneft (MCX: ROSN) and Surgutneftegaz (MCX: SNGS), are not planning to sell oil to the plant next month, as they fear secondary sanctions. The Naftan Refinery processes up to 10 million tons of Russian oil per year, which it receives via the Druzhba pipeline. The largest suppliers in that direction are Rosneft and Surgutneftegas, which supply approximately 300,000 and 200,000 tons of raw materials per month respectively. Among other suppliers to the plant are Tatneft (MCX: TATN), Russneft and Neftisa. Another source clarified that the issue of deliveries in May will be resolved in the coming days, but expressed doubt that shipments to Naftan will continue next month, since the transactions use price formulas based on international quotations and are calculated retroactively. "Russian companies have formula pricing for shipments to Belarus. It is problematic to close transactions for May shipments by June 3," a source told Reuters. The falling volumes, traders believe, will appear in the sea export program for May. According to the schedule, the export of Urals oil from the Baltic ports next month will amount to 4.9 million tons. Rosneft, Surgutneftegaz, Tatneft, Russneft and Neftis did not promptly respond to Reuters' inquiries. Belneftekhim declined to comment.

According to traders, the US sanctions against Naftan may also complicate the trade in oil products between Russian companies and the Belarusian enterprise. Russia and Belarus signed an agreement on the transit transshipment of Belarusian fuel through Russian ports in Belarus in February, but now the products produced at Naftan may leave this route, sources in the industry believe. In addition, in the event of a reduction of oil production from Naftan, the responsibility for providing Belarus' domestic market with fuel will fall on the Mozyr Oil Refinery, which will also lead to a reduction in free volumes for export, traders note. Meanwhile, in May, Naftan will continue to sell oil products on spot terms, since spot sales allow transactions to be completed by June 3, market participants noted.

On April 26, the Russian Federation submitted to the Eurasian Economic Commission a draft Agreement on the Common Gas Market of the Eurasian Economic Union. The document has been distributed to the Union members. It is planned to ratify the agreement next year. The EEC Energy Department has already prepared a detailed schedule for the agreement of the document. At the same time, it was noted that the project should be supplemented with uniform rules for access to gas transmission systems, which have not yet been submitted by the Russian side.

The common gas market of the EAEU, which unites Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, should become operational from 2025. It is assumed that the common market implies the absence of restrictions on gas trade between countries within the EAEU, whereas now Gazprom has a monopoly on gas exports via pipelines from Russia. Belarus and Armenia are interested in receiving gas at prices on the domestic Russian market. The issue of forming tariffs for gas transportation has not been settled either.

Logistics

The Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation continues negotiations on the creation of a hub for Belarusian fertilizers. Russiasuggested that Belarus has several sites that meet their requirements. A working group will be created to implement this project. Terminal in the Gulf of Finland, where there are not so many of them, these are Ust-Luga and Vysotsk (in the Leningrad region of Russia).

In April, the management board of Russian Railways decided to establish a special tariff (almost a third lower) for oil supplies to Belarus since May 1. Prior to this, Russian Railways introduced a long-term discount — by 50% until 2026 — for the supply of oil products to Belarus and for the return of empty tanks after such transportation.

Public Administration

Meeting of Prime Ministers of Belarus and Russia and integration roadmaps

On April 28, Kazan hosted a meeting of Prime Ministers of Belarus and Russia Roman Golovchenko and Mikhail Mishustin. During the meeting, Golovchenko said that the Belarusian side had approved and handed over to the Russian side drafts of 26 union integration programs, with two more still being developed.

It is noted that the deputy heads of both Russian and Belarusian governments continue negotiations on the remaining two roadmaps. The Belarusian Prime Minister also announced the schedule of upcoming high-level events between Russia and Belarus, including the Forum of Regions (a traditional high-level meeting aimed at strengthening interregional cooperation), meetings of the Union Council of Ministers and the Supreme State Council. The latter is scheduled for the fall of this year.

The announced readiness of the integration roadmaps between Belarus and Russia raised concerns among experts and politicians who see it as a probable step towards the Russian takeover of Belarus. Such developments might potentially result in the annexation of Belarus by Russia hiding in plain sight. However, the roadmaps may remain either a formality or simply nonfunctional as with other agreements previously made within the Union State of Russia and Belarus. In parallel, it should be mentioned that the roadmaps have never been published which makes their evidence-based evaluation questionable

Meeting of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council with the participation of the Prime Minister of Belarus

A meeting of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council was held on April 29-30 in Kazan with the participation of Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko. The prime ministers of the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) countriesapproved the main areas of industrial cooperation until 2025. In addition, Belarus proposed to develop a common strategy for sanitary and biological safety within the framework of the EaEU. The meeting also included a discussion on the unification of EEU member states' measures to regulate the export of sensitive food and commodities and protect the market of agricultural products.

Information regarding the internal meetings of the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) is scarce and has a formal character. Belarusian official media always reports on them in a positive manner. However, the real outcomes and achieved agreements are unknown. If previous developments of the EaEU and other Russian-sponsored integrational projects in the "near abroad" are any indication, such meetings achieve the façade of success rather than real outcomes. However, the meetings and documents do formally bind Belarusian government and officials with Russia. 

Working visit of a Belarusian delegation to the Samara Region

A Belarusian delegation led by Belarusian Ambassador to Russia Vladimir Semashko paid a working visit to the Samara Region on 19-20 April. A working meeting was held between Vladimir Semashko and Samara Region Governor Dmitry Azarov, during which a wide range of bilateral issues were discussed and agreements in such areas as automobile manufacturing, industrial cooperation, agriculture, medicine, tourism, and the IT-sphere were reached.

The members of the delegation visited some industrial enterprises and the Special Economic Zone of industrial production type "Togliatti". They also took part in symbolic actions with their Russian colleagues, including laying flowers at the Eternal Flame.

Visits of Belarusian officials of various levels to Russian regions are typical forms of cooperation between officials of both countries. With limited opportunities to visit European countries, Belarusian officials have no choice but to cooperate with, and even learn from, their Russian counterparts. In addition, such visits also enforce people-to-people connections between officials of both countries.

Military and law-enforcement agencies

Law-enforcement agencies

Over the last week, Russia has not only supported but contributed significantly to the dissemination of the narrative about the opposition's alleged attempt to conduct a military coup in Belarus. In particular, Putin and the Russian officials of the highest ranks have spoken about the necessity to oppose "foreign interference", with the U.S. being touted as the main stakeholder in the alleged plot.

These assumptions came following the arrest of Yuri Zenkovich, who has both Belarusian and American citizenships and is deemed a main organizer of the coup. The lawyer was arrested in Moscow and expelled to Belarus. The Belarusian authorities requested assistance from the U.S. in the investigation of the coup and extradition of the culprits. The U.S. Department of State dismissed an assertion of its involvement in the alleged coup. The Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev discussed this topic with his Belarusian colleague Alexander Volfovich to develop a common strategy within the Collective Security Treaty Organization. It appears that this story will be used to tighten cooperation between Russia and Belarus in the security sphere.

Military

Despite Russia's recent announcement that the military forces located near the borders with Ukraine will be returned to to their respective military bases, analysts state that the tensions have been only partially resolved. Indeed, a certain part of the military contingent (particularly artillery and vehicles from the 41 combined arms army) has been left at the Pogonovo training area in the Voronezh region, which is less than 200 km from the Ukrainian border. Russian Defense Ministry Sergei Shoigu claimed that the equipment will be used for the joint Belarus-Russia military exercise Zapad-2021, but the analysts state that this move is designed to exert influence over the region ahead of the NATO military exercise Defender Europe 2021.

Internet and media influence

The Council of Europe has published a report recognizing that Belarus continues its offensive on independent journalism (at this moment 12 journalists are behind bars and repressive measures against many employees of major outlets have been registered). This leads to the Belarusian information domain being dominated by state outlets, propagating a pro-integration narrative and materials embodying a Russia-centered worldview (not least because Russian journalists are being employed by the Belarusian state media).

In particular, RuBaltic.ru published an article outlining the apparent necessity for Belarus to deepen its integration with Russia. The authors claim that they are simply presenting a counterargument to the current "cultural hegemony" of the independent media. The central argument is that the integration of both countries would bring Belarus not only economic advantages but would also help to rebuild its identity, based on the idea of the brotherhood of the East Slavs: "the feeling of the deep ethnocultural commonality will legitimize the [further] integration between Belarus and Russia". This project will bring about many opportunities, including the enhancement of tourism, the formation of a common education space, etc. The article is yet another example of propagandist materials used to justify the alleged inevitability of further integration and the inability of Belarus to survive without a "bigger brother".

Civil society

Rossotrudnichestvo launches a "patriotic" initiative ahead of Victory Day

The sacralized victory of the USSR over Nazi Germany celebrated on May 9, is a key element of the Russian official ideology. Ahead of this day, Russia implements various projects to attract attention to this event and popularize the narrative, legitimizing the country's ambitions of great power. In this vein, the organization Rossotrudnichestvo, one of the vehicles promoting Russian endeavors in Belarus and neighboring countries, launched a "patriotic" initiative called "The Dictation of Victory". 

The participants replied to 25 ideology-themed questions relating to World War II. Overall more than 100 students from Belarusian schools took part in the action. As the authors of the project argue, the main aim of the initiative is the "formation of the solid and deep knowledge about the Great Patriotic War". These projects are usually supported by the Belarusian authorities, because they align with the messages of the Belarusian state propaganda, which places the Great Patriotic War at the center of the "neo-Russian/Russo-centric" narrative of Belarusian national identity (while almost all initiatives organized by civil society are repressed by the authorities). One can, for example, recall the Victory Parade in 2020, which was conducted at the peak of the pandemic in Belarus.

The Immortal Regiment plans to hold actions in Belarus on May 9

There is conflicting information about the conducting of "Immortal Regiment" actions on May 9 in Belarus. It is reported that representatives of the unregistered Belarusian "Immortal Regiment," as well as representatives of other pro-Russian organizations, have applied for permission to hold the march in Minsk and Vitsebsk, but so far there has been no response in the capital. In Vitebsk, according to Sputnik, no separate permit to hold the action has been issued, but local officials said that they would not ban the "Immortal Regiment" action.

At the same time, Russian and pro-Russian media outlets report that Belarusian pro-government organizations (in particular, the Belarusian Communist Party and GoNGO "Belaya Rus" which unites officials) are blocking the holding of "Immortal Regiment" actions and want them to take place within the Belarusian actions initiated and organized by these organizations themselves.

In Belarus, the organizers of the "Immortal Regiment" regularly encounter difficulties with its conduct. For example, in 2018 the authorities initially proposed to combine the march with the action "Belarus Remembers," but later still allowed a separate event. In 2019, the "Immortal Regiment" was approved, but only after a change of venue. In 2020, the "Immortal Regiment" march in Minsk was not allowed due to coronavirus restrictions.

"The Immortal Regiment" is one of the instruments of Russian soft power, which is actively used not only in the former Soviet Union, but also in other parts of the world. The situation with the "Immortal Regiment" in Belarus is ambiguous, as Alexander Lukashenka is seeking to manipulate the theme of World War II to legitimize his regime. In the previous years the Belarusian authorities tried to put the "Immortal Regiment" actions on the back burner and co-opt them into their own events, and did not register this initiative as an organization in Belarus. The intrigue of this year is how the Belarusian authorities will behave in a situation of growing Russian influence.

A team of Belarusian student squads take part in a Rosatom-supported competition in Sochi

A team of Belarusian student squads took part and won a prize in a special construction competition in Sochi. The competition was organized by the Ministry of Construction of Russia and the state corporation "Rosatom". The Belarusian team was invited by the Youth All-Russian Public Organization "Russian Student Squads Teams" (RSSO) which is a partner of the pro-governmental Belarusian organization the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM). BRSM promoted the participation of the Belarusian youth in the event. The team included students from different state-run Belarusian universities.

Pro-governmental organizations in Belarus actively cooperate with their Russian counterparts (different pro-governmental organizations) but also with the governmental institutions. Here we see an example of the largest pro-governmental Belarusian youth organization — Belarusian Republican Youth Union — participating in a competition in Russia sponsored directly by the Russian Government. The competition itself has post-Soviet roots while it promotes the idea of students' squads which were popular in the Soviet era. The whole event follows a dual objective: to encourage people-to-people contacts sponsored by the Russian Government, and to promote one of the pro-Russian grand narratives about unity of the post-Soviet countries and people rooted in a shared USSR past.


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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