Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #5

May 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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Our team closely monitors the developments around the attack on Raman Pratasevich and the hijacking of the Ryanair flight FR4978 by the Lukashenka regime. We stand in solidarity with Mr Pratasevich and his close ones. We assess all available information related to possible Russia’s role in the operation, including the alleged participation of the Russian agents who left the plane upon its landing in Minsk. Should this information be confirmed, we will provide you with the updates in the next briefing issue.

In this regard we have gathered comments of experts on this particular issue, which we share below.

Katsiaryna Shmatsina, Rethink.CEE fellow at German Marshall Fund of the United States, research fellow at Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies:

Lukashenka's regime scales up the repressions to prevent the repetition of the protests in the summer. Repressions happen on a daily basis, even though they might not catch the eye of international media. 

The case of TUT.BY is the most noticeable one, yet there are multiple less famous instances during last week: police broke into the studio of the independent TV channel Belsat during the recording of a show on politics; Dmitry Kulakovski,a former police officer, was detained after the interview where he explained his decision to leave the criminal investigation department due to unwillingness to prosecute the opposition. Political prisoners are held in unbearable conditions: Press Club director Julia Slutskaya loses her sight; Vitold Ashurak died in prison with the alleged heart attack.

The incident with the Ryanair flight is a powerful move to demonstrate Lukashenka's ability to challenge the West and to get away with it, and also to sow the seeds of fear among those Belarusians who had to flee the country at the fear of prosecution.

It is important that this incident would be properly retaliated by the EU, beyond just the condemnation rhetoric."

Tatsiana Chulitskaya, a researcher at Vytautas Magnus University: 

"The attack on Tut.BY and Protasecivh from general positions indicates a continuation of the attack on freedom of speech and the repressions of civil society in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities are trying to cut off any information channels through which people can get non-ideologized news that helps them better understand what is happening in the country and in the world. 

At the same time, in the unprecedented case of Protasevich's arrest after the forced landing of a plane, I would highlight the motive of personal revenge and hatred. Alexander Lukashenka probably pursues all those whom he personally blames for the anti-corruption investigations, as well as promoting the mobilization of the population of Belarus after the rigged elections of summer 2020.

Assessing the situation with the hijacking of the Ryanair plane on which Protasevich flew, we can assume that only Belarusian special services were involved in this operation, which hardly have enough skills and resources to conduct such complex operations. With a high degree of probability, we can assume that they were assisted by their Russian colleagues. However, we do not yet have sufficient facts to conclude on this point."

Recent policy developments

Lukashenka on the occasion of accepting the Ambassador's credentials: there would be a joint response "if someone dares to challenge Russia or Belarus"

On May 13, Aliaksandr Lukashenka accepted the credentials of Ambassadors of Iraq, Nicaragua, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, and Sierra Leone. Besides commenting on Belarus' relations with each of the above-mentioned countries, Lukashenka stated that the constitutional reform effort is ongoing with broad public discussions, although "not everyone abroad likes this".

Lukashenka also underlined the strategic nature of relations with Russia, stating that Belarus and Russia do not coalesce against other countries, yet if someone dared to challenge either Russia or Belarus, there would be a joint response. Lukashenka also mentioned that the dialogue on integration is proceeding at full speed, aiming to provide equal conditions for the economic entities of the two states.

The ceremony of accepting Ambassadors' credentials is particularly important for Minsk in the current circumstances of isolation between Belarus' and the West. The Ambassadors of France, Greece and Luxembourg only handed over the copies of credentials to the Belarusian MFA, avoiding direct contact with Aliaksandr Lukashenka given the context of the post-electoral crisis in which the leader's legitimacy is in question. U.S. Ambassador Julie Fischer was not granted a visa to Belarus due to U.S. criticism of the regime. In such a context, the ceremony demonstrates that there are countries that recognize the current leadership and also sends a message to the states that might hesitate to introduce their Ambassadors to Minsk in the midst of the political crisis.

Lukashenka also highlights the special role of Russia, signalling to the international community that Moscow sides with Minsk in terms of political support and common security issues.

References to constitutional reform convey the message to the international community that Lukashenka seeks ways to solve the political crisis and quell the protest moods by taking into consideration public opinion on changes to the constitution. However, based on the comments of the Constitutional commission to the press, the reform would most likely not result in a significant redistribution of power. Thus, Piotr Miklashevich, head of the Constitutional court, stated that there is no need to limit the president's right to issue decrees that are above parliament's laws. In the background of ongoing repressions and increasingly aggressive anti-extremist legislation, it is possible to expect that the announced 14 amendments to the chapter on basic rights and freedoms could further limit civic freedoms. At the same time, constitutional reform was discussed on several occasions between Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin. Russia would likely publicly endorse the reform, stating that Lukashenka sought ways to mitigate the domestic crisis, thus declining the offers of the West for mediation and dialogue.

State Secretary of the Union State Dmitry Mesentsev criticizes G7 communique on Belarus

On May 9, State Secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union State Dmitry Mesentsev critically assessed the G7 Communique on Belarus which called for a national dialogue and OSCE mediation, and denounced the repressions. Mesentsev noted that "it is inadmissible to impose the will of just one country, which is seeking to build a unipolar world, either on Russia, or on Belarus".

Such a statement from the representative of the Union State is consistent with Russia's position to side with Belarusian leadership, avoiding the criticism of human rights violations, and also labelling attempts by the collective West to address the Belarusian crisis as a malicious action against the Union State.

Lukashenka will meet with Vladimir Putin for the third time this year

According to the Russian newspaper "Kommersant", Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin are planning a new meeting by the end of May. "Kommersant" quotes several confidential sources close to Minsk and the Kremlin, who confirm that Lukashenka and Putin would likely discuss integration documents, which are now called "union programs", replacing the previous integration roadmaps.

If the meeting takes place, that would be the third time Lukashenka and Putin meet in person this year. Previously, counterparts met in Sochi in February and in Moscow in April. Given that the content of these conversations is confidential, the meetings generate public speculation on whether Lukashenka might agree to some sovereignty trade-offs in exchange for the Kremlin's political support in the current post-electoral crisis. If the counterparts indeed discuss the details of the Union State integration, as reported by the presidential press service, that signifies that the negotiated issues are of high significance and thus require continuous high-level contacts and cannot be settled by the integration commissions and relevant ministries of the two countries.

Belarusian MPs discussed preparations for the Forum of Regions of Russia and Belarus

On May 5, 2021 the Upper Chamber of the Belarusian Parliament (the Council of the Republic) held a working meeting on the preparation for the 8th Forum of Regions of Russia and Belarus. The main theme of this event, dedicated to bilateral cooperation in the Union State, will be "Scientific and technological cooperation between Russia and Belarus in the era of digitalization". The event will be held in the Moscow region and will include six sections, as well as the Youth Forum of the two countries. Key issues related to the organization of the Forum were discussed at the working meeting in the Parliament.

The Forum of Russian and Belarusian Regions is a traditional annual event attended by politicians, civil servants, officials, parliamentarians and public figures of the two countries. It is in many ways a formal event, which, nevertheless, is a platform for formal and informal communication between representatives of the two countries, which contributes to the establishment of trust and additional ties and networks between them. It is important that, in addition to the Forum itself, a separate event for young people is planned, which is aimed at forming a positive image of Russian-Belarusian integration.

Energy and economy

Oil and gas

During the upcoming meeting between Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin, the parties are set to discuss when the price of gas for Belarus will be reduced. The topic of compensation for tax maneuvers (tax maneuver is the Russian policy in the oil sector which implies a reduction of crude export duties and simultaneously raising the mineral extraction tax) in the oil sector is also in the spotlight. Now Minsk buys Russian gas at a price of $128.5 per 1,000 cubic meters and would like to reduce it to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters from January 1, 2022 — until the unification of customs and tax systems planned for 2024. It is assumed that negotiations on the two issues will take at least 2—2.5 years.

Investments

From January to March 2021, foreign investments in the real sector of the economy (except for banks) totalled USD $3 billion. The main investors were business entities of the Russian Federation (37.4% of all incoming investments), Cyprus (18%), Ukraine (6.7%) and the United Kingdom (6%). The inflow of foreign direct investment amounted to $2.5 billion, or 84.5% of all incoming foreign investment.

Finance, international loans

Russian Bank TKB acted as the authorized lead organizer and bookrunner for a syndicated loan for Belagroprombank OJSC (75 million euros for a period of 1 year with the possibility of prolongation for a subsequent similar period). The loan was provided to the borrower for general corporate purposes and financing of trade contracts of the borrower's clients. The authorized Lead Arrangers of the transaction were TKB BANK PJSC and PJSC Promsvyazbank. The leading organizers of the syndicated loan are also JSC ROSEXIMBANK, JSC JSCB INTERNATIONAL FINANCIAL CLUB and Bank ZENIT. This is the 16th syndicated loan organized by TKB for Belarusian banks. Thanks to these projects, about 2 billion euros have been invested in the Belarusian economy in recent years. The organizers closed the order book for Belagroprombank in a fairly short time and under dynamic market conditions.

According to the Presidential Decree No. 183 of 13 May, 2021to the Council of Ministers, loans in 2021—2023 should attract external government by issuing government securities in the territory of the Russian Federation as government debt in the amount of up to RUB 100 billion (now $1.35 billion) with a maturity circulation of at least 1092 days. The placement of securities will be carried out "in order to refinance the external state debt of the Republic of Belarus." The decree provides for the possibility "if necessary, to fix in the emission documents the waiver of the Republic of Belarus from immunity", including "from the application of offset of counterclaims, litigation and arbitration processes and proceedings, enforcement of court and (or) arbitral awards, as well as in relation to preliminary security of a claim and enforcement of judicial and (or) arbitral awards in disputes related to the issue, circulation, redemption and servicing of government securities and (or) arising from issuance documents ". According to the decree, the funds received from the placement of government securities in Russia will be credited to the bank account of the Ministry of Finance opened with Gazprombank.

Foreign trade

During the 1st quarter of 2021, the export of Belarusian goods to Russia increased by 8.3%, while imports from the Russian Federation to Belarus increased by 32.7%. Due to the prevailing growth of imports, the negative balance of foreign trade has multiplied. If in 2020 it was minus $447 million, then in the first three months of 2021 it dropped to minus $1.373 billion. A significant increase in imports has led to an increase in imbalances in foreign trade with Russia. In January-March 2020, for every $100 of imports from the Russian Federation, there were $87.7 of exports to Russia, and in January-March 2021  this figure was only $71.5.

The imbalance in trade with the Russian Federation has consistently deteriorated throughout 2021. As a result, the trade balance with Russia is worsening every month (see more details in the table below).

Foreign trade of Belarus in goods with the Russian Federation in 2021 (million USD)

The share of Russia in the commodity trade of Belarus increased from 47.7% at the end of the 1st quarter of 2020 to 48.7% in the 1st quarter of 2021. The reasons are:

  • the effect of the rise in oil prices. According to the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation, the average price of Urals oil in the 1st quarter increased by 24.1% by 2020. Also, in 2021, supplies of Russian oil in physical terms increased significantly.
  • imports are pushing Belarusian goods off the shelves. Due to the size of the flows, goods from the Republic of Belarus are losing the competition to cheaper and higher-quality imports from Russia.

Logistics

In May 2021, it is expected that 673,000 tons of crude oil will be supplied to Russia's neighbouring countries via the Transneft system. At the same time, oil supplies to Belarus will decrease more than twice as much as compared with the April figure, from 1.325 million tons to 608,000 tons. However Belarusian prime-minister Golovchenko insists: "But, as it were, we buy oil not from the United States, but from our partner — the Russian Federation. All contracts have been signed; oil is supplied in accordance with the terms of these contracts."

The discussion on the further reorientation of Belarusian cargo to Russian ports continues. The supply of petroleum products through them has already begun. Now fertilizers, woodworking and mechanical engineering products can also pass through Russian harbours. The main condition is that enterprises should not lose because of the increase in logistical costs.

Public Administration

Minsk hosted a meeting of the Advisory Committee of the Heads of Legal Services of the CIS Foreign Ministries

On May 6, 2021 the CIS Executive Committee in Minsk hosted the 30th session of the Consultative Committee of the Heads of Legal Services of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of the CIS Member States. Representatives of the legal services of the foreign ministries of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as representatives of the legal department of the CIS Executive Committee took part in the meeting.

The participants of the meeting finalized and coordinated the draft of new methodological recommendations on the elaboration of international treaties concluded within the framework of the CIS. The Committee listened to the information on the elaboration of the Convention on the legal status of the delegations sent to the CIS member states as well as other issues regarding the application of international treaties and other CIS documents. The next meeting of the Advisory Committee will be held in September-October 2021 in Minsk.

The event is a typical formal activity within the framework of Russia-supported integration initiatives in the "near abroad" (in this case, the CIS). The meeting was devoted to legal aspects of CIS regulation and discussions on legal projects, but not lead to agreement on any specific decisions. Such events are hardly significant in terms of real political influence, but nevertheless, they are supported by the authorities of Russia, Belarus and other CIS states, and unite officials of these countries.

Military and law-enforcement agencies

Ukraine remains on alert, despite Russia's recent announcement that it had withdrawn military forces that had been located near the country's eastern border. In particular, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine said that "the threat of military intervention has not disappeared", a point echoed by military experts at the international roundtable on security issues, who consider that Belarus is becoming the Western vanguard of Russian aggression. 

In characteristically bellicose language, the Belarusian high-ranking military officers condemn the activity of NATO forces: The First Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian Armed Forces Igor Korol said that NATO Strategic Air Forces practice the attacks on the Union State near the territory of Belarus. He stressed that the joint forces of Russia and Belarus are prepared to repel military aggression.

Healthcare

On May 6, 2021, Belarusian Minister of Healthcare Dmitry Pinevich announced plans to purchase and manufacture Sputnik Light. This is the first component of Sputnik V, recently registered in Russia as a separate drug. The vaccine is approved for use by people between the ages of 18 and 40. However, according to the minister, it will enter circulation only in 2022.

On May 8, the Minister reported that another batch of the Belarusian-made Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine has successfully passed quality control in Russia, and another 358,000 doses of the first component of the vaccine were shipped to the Belpharmacia enterprise, which delivers the vaccine to the regions.

On May 13, 2021, Mr Pinevich also announced that the full production cycle of the Sputnik V vaccine will begin at Belmedpreparaty in October 2021. He explained that two joint projects with Russian companies on technology transfer are being implemented for that purpose.

Church

The delegation of the Belarusian Orthodox Church participated in the churchwide congress on the social role of the Church in Moscow

On May 13, 2021, the 10th Churchwide Congress on Social Service, the largest charity forum of the Russian Orthodox Church, began in Moscow.

A delegation from the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), headed by Archpriest Kirill Sholkov, chairman of the Synodal Department for Church Charity and Social Role of the BOC, took part in the opening of the congress. The Congress was attended by 1.500 people from different countries. The event is devoted to the 30th anniversary of charities in modern Russia and to the revival of the social service of the Church.

It is known that the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), both formally and informally, is part of and hierarchically subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church. In general, representatives of the BOC frequently participate in events in Moscow and Russia. This interaction attests to the hierarchical relationship between these parties and contributes to a common agenda (in this case, a social one) between church institutions in Russia and Belarus. 

Seminars on the implementation of the new cooperation strategy between the Belarusian Exarchate and the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Belarus were held in the Diocese of Homel

On May 13, 2021, a series of practical seminars on the realization of the new strategy of cooperation between the Belarusian Exarchate and the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Belarus were held in the Diocese of Homel. Archbishop Stefan of Gomel and Zhlobin held a meeting with the heads of education departments of the Homel Regional Executive Committee; the management of the Homel Regional Institute of Education Development; rectors of regional universities and the administrations of special and professional secondary education institutions.

The Chairman of the Synodal Department of the Belarusian Orthodox Church for Cooperation with Secular Educational Institutions, Archpriest Feodor Povny, made a report on "The Development Strategy of the BOC Synodal Department for Cooperation with Secular Educational Institutions". There were also discussions between representatives of the Church and students at the Homel State University named after Frantsysk Skaryna. 

This event is a typical example of intense interaction between the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) and the Belarusian authorities. In this case, we can observe an example of such interaction at the regional level. However, the same cooperation can be seen at the national level when, for instance, Alexander Lukashenka personally congratulated the Easter Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. It is typical that not only public institutions and officials, but also state-controlled educational institutions (universities and secondary educational institutions) are involved in events under the auspices of the BOC. Thus, we see how structural connections are established and maintained between the Orthodox Church as a Russian institution in Belarus; Belarusian officials; and the educational sphere. Interestingly, the seminars in Homel were attended by Archpriest Fedor Povny, who is considered to be from Alexander Lukashenka's inner circle.

Internet and Media Influence

During the latest meeting between Putin and Lukashenka (April 22, 2021), both presidents reported on the advancement of negotiations in building the Union State. In particular, Lukashenka said that the parties agreed on the majority of the roadmaps, with only two to three still under consideration. 

Nevertheless, Russian-backed propaganda website Sonar2050 stated that current development in the Union State is unsatisfactory and suggests a comprehensive report meant to convince the population about the appealing character of the Union State. The report is biased and full of inaccuracies, with one of the highlights being that Belarusian labor migrants are said to be the channels of Russian investment into the economy of Belarus (p.4 of the report).

Civil Society

A number of pro-Russian events were held in Belarus on May 9

On May 9, several events were held in Belarus which were directly or indirectly supported by Russia.  Several civil society organizations (CSOs) in Minsk applied to the Minsk City Executive Committee for permission to conduct an action ("Immortal Regiment") on May 9. City authorities refused the application on the pretext of the coronavirus but offered the participants the option to join the official events, which they did. Similarly, representatives of the "Immortal Regiment" joined the official events in Brest, Hrodna, Homel and Vitebsk.

Brest also hosted several exhibitions supported by the news agency "Sputnik".  There was also the start of the Belarusian CSO "Russian Society" and the auto race Charity Fund "Brest Fund of Assistance to War Veterans" on the "Brest - Irkutsk - Brest Commonwealth: from Bug to Baikal" route, which declared its goal to be "the preservation of memory about the feat of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War". The rally is supported by the Memorial Complex "Brest Fortress-Hero"; the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Belarus; the Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in Russia; the Russian Center of Science and Culture in Brest; Brest Regional Executive Committee; and other state and public organizations of Belarus and Russia.

The National Academy of Sciences of Belarus and Russia launched the study guide for history teachers entitled "Russia and Belarus: Essays on Joint History". The guide is meant to "reveal the Russian and Belarusian historical approach to World War II and the Great Patriotic War, as well as to the contribution of the peoples of the Soviet Union to the common Victory." All in all, this is an ideological project to prevent "the history of victory in the Great Patriotic War" from being rewritten and to promote the Russian-centered version of history.

May 9 (Victory Day) is an important symbolic component of Russian foreign policy narratives related to the desire to restore Russia's status as a great power and leader in the international arena. In addition, this day is also a part of the narratives focusing on demonstrating the unity of "Russian compatriots" abroad, in the countries of the former Soviet Union. The events held in Belarus in 2021 show that, on the one hand, Russia manages to initiate events connected with the 9th of May (for example, the motor rally) which are supported by a certain part of Belarusian society. On the other hand, we also see that the Belarusian authorities try to use Victory Day for their own ideological purposes. Due to the latter circumstance, the actions of the "Immortal Regiment" in Belarus were incorporated into the official events initiated and held by the Belarusian authorities.

Pro-Russian movement publishes report about "Western influence on Belarusian opposition"

One of the instruments used extensively by Russian propagandists was the defamation of the Belarusian opposition. The latter is said to be sponsored by the Western countries and willing to create a negative image of Russia in the eyes of the Belarusian population. One of the notable efforts implemented by Russia in this regard was publishing the report entitled "Mushroom Spawn. Goals and Methods of Financing of the Belarusian opposition", which was prepared by the pro-Russian movement "Civil Concord" and presented in Minsk on May 15. The Belarusian civic actors are named as direct beneficiaries of the Western donors, the main aim being to "represent Russia as an aggressive and dangerous neighbor, threatening the state sovereignty of Belarus". The authors denounced Western countries for unleashing the "hybrid war" against Russia and provoking the current crisis in Belarus.


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

Belarus Watch Team

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