Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #9

July 20, 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

Putin and Lukashenka met for the fourth time this year, agreeing on gas prices and the coordinated response to sanctions

On July 13, Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin met in St. Petersburg for the fourth time this year. Previous talks were held in Sochi on May 28.

During the meeting, Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Belarus remains Russia's reliable economic partner and pointed out that despite sanctions, Belarus is managing to service its loans to Russia.

According to Natallia Eismant, Lukashenka's press secretary, after the meeting, the governments of Russia and Belarus were instructed to coordinate the response to sanctions. According to Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin's spokesperson, the parties agreed on the gas prices, and also finalized the discussions on tax and customs regulations which were previously conducted by the high-level commissions of the two countries. Among other discussion points, Aliaksandr Lukashenka called for a joint response to security threats posed by "the opponents" of Belarus and Russia, particularly pointing out the "malicious" role of the Belarusian NGOs that receive funding from abroad.

On July 14, Belarusian law enforcement conducted a crackdown on human rights defenders, as well as the Belarusian Association of Journalists, women's rights organization Gender Perspectives, BEROC Center for Economic Research, and other major Belarusian NGOs. In response to this crackdown, the media questioned whether this intensified repression of civil society could be related to Lukashenka's meeting with Putin just a day before. Expert opinion is split; while some experts argued that Putin requested to clean up the Belarusian independent civil and information space from "dissidents" to pave the way for further Russo-Belarusian integration, others stated that the Belarusian regime is targeting its opponents in order to prevent new waves of protests and other forms of resistance to Lukashenka's rule, and that such actions are not related to recent negotiations with Moscow.

Kremlin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov: Putin would welcome Lukashenka in Crimea

In an interview on the "Russia-1" TV channel on July 4, Dmitry Peskov stated that Vladimir Putin would be glad to welcome his Belarusian colleague Aliaksandr Lukashenka in Crimea. Later on, Mikhail Sheremet, an MP from Crimea in the State Duma, added that Lukashenka should formulate a clear position on Crimea's legal status, and should visit as soon as possible. Earlier this year, in response to the isolation of Belarusian airspace following the Ryanair incident, the Belarusian leadership suggested discussions with Russia regarding possible flights to Crimea, among other steps to mitigate the losses of Belarus' national carrier, Belavia.

Such statements generated discussion within Belarusian media as to whether the Kremlin currently insists on Lukashenka's recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, in exchange for economic and political support.

Currently such recognition does not seem to be a priority for Moscow, given that Lukashenka's legitimacy is questioned internationally, and thus would unlikely benefit the Kremlin's quest for the recognition of Crimea.

At the same time, requesting that Lukashenka pays a visit to Crimea and takes a clearer stance on the Crimea's status, could be a request on behalf of the Crimean authorities (as a prerequisite for launching Belavia flight routes to Crimea), who are also likely to have ideological sympathy to the "strongman" Lukashenka who opposed the "color revolution" attempts.

Belarussian PM talks "significant progress" in Union State integration programs

Prime Minister of Belarus Raman Halouchanka stated in an interview with the Belarus 1 TV channel that there is significant progress in the preparation of the Union State integration programs. According to Halouchanka, only on "technical points" are still to be figured out.

Having explained that he himself is "in close contact with the Prime Minister of Russia, and the Deputy Prime Ministers actually interact weekly", Halouchanka expressed great confidence that "in the remaining months the entire package of allied programs will be formed". He also specified that both sides "agree on how the legislation will be harmonized," how equal conditions for economic entities will be built "through the creation of a single regulation, tax administration, their structure". The Prime Minister expressed confidence that "everyone will benefit from the allied programs".

Energy and economy

Belarus and Russia get ready to "resist sanctions together"

Moscow is committed to developing multifaceted relations with Minsk, building the Union State, and strengthening integration processes in the Eurasian space, Russia's President Vladimir Putin assured on July 1, 2021.

The economies of the two countries are deeply interconnected. Russia is the main foreign investor in the republic; the Russian Federation accounts for almost half of Belarus's foreign trade.

"Strengthening unity and expanding cooperation is of particular importance," Aliaksandr Lukashenka agreed. "Russia has always been and will be a strategic partner of Belarus, and our fraternal union is a value that must be preserved and increased," he said.

The programs of unification of the legislation of the two countries are being coordinated in various fields, including tax and customs. The governments of Russia and Belarus are working on the issues of using uniform digital solutions that will significantly simplify taxation and customs clearance procedures, and increase the traceability of cargo transit. This will give impetus to the development of private entrepreneurship in both countries on an equal and non-discriminatory basis.

"Digitalization has long become an integral part of our reality ... And in the future, for sure, even more global changes await us. But all of them should be focused on the development of real industries and improving people's lives," Lukashenka said, and called for a joint digital agenda focused on practice." In this area, our interaction is just lagging behind", he said. According to Lukashenka, the programs of the Union State would be a good help for the implementation of this agenda.

Trade turnover between Belarus and Russia now exceeds pre-pandemic volumes

The trade turnover between Russia and Belarus has exceeded pre-crisis indicators, Russian Deputy Minister of Economic Development Dmitry Volvach said at the meeting of the Interparliamentary Commission on Interregional Cooperation between Russia and Belarus on June 30. In particular, in January-April the trade turnover increased by 32% compared to the same period in 2020 and amounted to USD $11.5 billion. At the same time, bilateral trade also increased by 2.8% as compared to the same period of the pre-pandemic year 2019.

This trend remained in May 2021. Trade turnover between Belarus and Russia in January-May 2021 increased by 38.5% compared to the same period in 2020 and amounted to USD $14.46 billion. In particular, exports from Russia to Belarus amounted to USD $8.61 billion (an increase of 51.8%), imports to Russia from Belarus — USD $5.85 billion (an increase of 22.8%). At the same time, the share of Belarus in the total foreign trade turnover of the Russian Federation in the reporting period increased to 5.2% from 4.6% a year earlier.

According to the data of the Eurasian Economic Union for January-April 2021, the share of the Russian Federation in Belarus's export supplies to the EAEU countries amounted to 94.2%, in contrast to 52.7% for the Russian Federation.

According to the data provided by the First Deputy Minister of Economy of Belarus Yury Chebotar, Belarusian enterprises import every fourth engine from Russia, while the share of Belarusian trucks and agricultural machinery is 27% of Russian imports.

Supply of Russian oil to Belarus increases in 2021

Russia supplied 6.22 million tons of oil to Belarus in the first half of the year, according to an operational summary of the Central Dispatch Office of the Russian Fuel and Energy Complex. Compared to the previous year, deliveries increased by 34%. At the same time, Russia supplied 104.1 million tons of oil outside the CIS in the first half of the year, which is 12.1% less than in 2020.

Belarus can get access to electricity transit through Russia

The common electricity market of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) may be launched in 2025 even without a single gas market, which was previously strongly opposed by Belarus. The countries will set a transparent transit tariff, which could theoretically open commercial supplies to Europe for other EAEU countries.

Permission for supplying energy would allow Belarus to build a payment scheme for a USD $10 billion loan from the Russian Federation for the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant (BelNPP).

After the launch of the second BelNPP power unit (2.4 GW), Belarus will become the only country in the EAEU with a surplus of electricity for supplies to third countries.

The Baltic States refuse to trade with Belarus, but the country can trade with Finland. Potentially, deliveries from one BelNPP power unit to Finland could amount to up to 10 billion kWh, which corresponds to revenues of €300-400 million.

Gazprom set to retain its control over the Polish section of the Yamal-Europe main pipeline

The main capacities of the Polish section of the Yamal-Europe main pipeline, through which Russian gas is transited to Europe, were not reserved for auction next year. This is evidenced by the data published by Gaz-System, the operator of the Polish gas pipeline network. The auction held on Monday (July 5) for the capacity of the pipeline for the 2022 gas year (October 1, 2021 - October 1, 2022) did not end with the reservation of capacity.

34.1 million kWh proposed for entry into the Polish gas transportation system at the Kondratki point have so far proved to be unclaimed. On Monday the auction platform also offered pipeline capacity until 2026. According to the results of the current bidding, the capacity after October 1, 2022 was also not booked. 

Although the Polish operator refuses to disclose the details of the bidding, experts agree that the only participant in such auctions has been, and will continue to be, Gazprom.

The Yamal-Europe gas pipeline, with a capacity of about 33 billion cubic meters per year, runs through Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany. Currently, the Polish section of the pipeline is owned by EuRoPol GAZ, a joint venture between Gazprom and Polish PGNiG, which each hold a 48% stake.

Belarus is set to sign a cooperation agreement with the Skolkovo Foundation

Belarus is preparing to sign a cooperation agreement with the Russian Skolkovo Foundation, which would allow Belarusian startups to use a number of the fund's services. This was announced by the First Deputy Minister of Economy of the Republic of Belarus Yuri Chebotar at a meeting of the section of the Forum of Regions of Russia and Belarus, which was held by video conference on June 29, 2021.

Public Administration

Forum of Russian and Belarusian Regions focuses on scientific and technical cooperation between the two states

The VIII Forum of Belarusian and Russian Regions took place from June 29 to July 1, 2021, and was organized jointly by the upper chambers of the two parliaments, namely the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of Belarus and the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of Russia. Many events of the Forum were organized via videoconference because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main theme of the Forum was the scientific and technical cooperation between Russia and Belarus in the era of digitalization. Many different events took place during the Forum, including speeches of Russian and Belarusian top officials and civil servants, thematic meetings of different levels and on different subjects, including the joint meeting of the governing bodies of the Chamber of Young Legislators under the Federation Council and the Youth Council (Parliament) under the National Assembly of Belarus. There was also a meeting of the Interparliamentary Commission of the Upper Chambers of the Parliaments of the two countries on interregional cooperation.

The Forum of Regions of Russia and Belarus is a regular annual event that brings together civil servants from both countries. In addition to formal communication and general statements, many contacts and other types of interaction between officials take place at the Forum, which lead to the strengthening of both professional and personal ties between participants.

In addition, the speeches during the Forum promote the main discursive lines of Russian foreign policy, which creates a normative basis for Russia’s influencing the sphere of public administration and officials in Belarus.

Cooperation between Russian and Belarusian universities expands

The Minister of Education of Belarus Igar Karpenka said that 76 agreements on cooperation between Belarusian and Russian universities have been signed within the last three months. Such cooperation is carried out within the framework of the formation of a common educational space of the Union State. One of the examples of "good practices" in that regard is the Belarusian-Russian university in Mahileu. This year, plans have also been reported concerning the adoption of a roadmap of scientific and educational cooperation between Belarusian and Russian universities over the next five years. Cooperation in the preservation of historical memory is named as an important area of interaction between the two states.

Interaction in the sphere of higher education in Russia and Belarus demonstrates an important channel of Russian influence which, at the same time, is supported and 'taken for granted' by Belarusian officials of the highest level.

This channel is used to promote ideas about the "unity of the Slavic peoples", as well as the common historical memory (principally about the Second World War). It is possible to say that both Russian and Belarusian sides seek to further strengthen cooperation, which makes the Belarusian educational system even more vulnerable to Russian influence.

Military and law-enforcement agencies

Belarus refuses to readmit migrants heading to the EU

After the EU introduced its fourth sanction package, Lukashenka came into further confrontation with the West. In particular, Minsk launched the procedure to suspend the readmission agreement with the EU, meaning that the country will no longer accept back migrants, who entered the EU from Belarusian territory. Shortly after that, Lithuania reported an 11-fold increase in the flow of refugees from Belarus, as compared to the previous year. Also, Lukashenka ordered the closure of the border with Ukraine which, allegedly, had been supplying weapons to Belarus.

Experts claim the migration crisis, artificially created and exacerbated by the Belarusian authorities, is set to become an element of hybrid war, led by Belarus and Russia against the EU.

In particular, Andrey Yeliseyeu, a Belarusian political scientist and investigative journalist, says that the recent unannounced visit of Lukashenka to Russia could be connected to negotiations on channelling the flow of refugees coming from Afghanistan. This, in his view, could be used as leverage in the discussion of the Belarusian case.

Belarusian officials talk of "closer cooperation with Russian partners" ahead of joint military exercises

Amid further confrontation with NATO and the West, the Kremlin has intensified attempts to integrate with Belarus, with Belarusian high-ranking public officials reiterating optimism with regards to the process. In particular, Uladzimir Makei, the Belarusian Foreign Minister, said that "confrontation with the Western countries pushes Belarusian authorities towards even closer cooperation with the Russian partners."

This whole situation provokes further discussion on the potential consequences of the upcoming military exercise Zapad-2021 because, according to some experts, Russia is set to enhance its military presence in Belarus.

Healthcare

Belarus announces visa-free visits to the country for vaccination

Citizens of 73 countries will be able to come to Belarus without a visa to receive a jab against COVID-19 starting from July 15. According to Decree №251, visa-free travel to Belarus on this basis will be open until December 22, 2022. There are 73 countries in the Belarusian list, whose citizens will be able to enter Belarus for up to five days to get vaccinated against COVID-19. A list of medical institutions, where foreigners will be able to get vaccinated, has been confirmed. At the moment there are 82 healthcare facilities on the list. The Russian vaccine "GAM-COVID-VAC" will be used (trade mark Sputnik V). The service is for a fee.

The possibility for citizens of other countries to be vaccinated in Belarus with the Russian coronavirus vaccine is one of the hybrid instruments of influence used by Russia.

Offering vaccination is, on the one hand, an attractive prospect for citizens of third countries where it is not possible to get vaccinated. On the other hand, this scheme makes it possible to legally enter Belarus for possible further travel into the EU (i.e. to Lithuania and Poland). Thus, this is a win-win for Russia, as firstly it sells the vaccine in Belarus, receiving a direct profit from it, and second, together with Aliaksandr Lukashenka, creates a threat to regional security.

Belarus and Russia launch app to facilitate movement of people amid the pandemic

Belarus and Russia launched the 'Traveling without COVID-19' app, which facilitates the unimpeded movement of citizens between the two states during the pandemic. The app helps to find the nearest laboratories where one can take a PCR test, and after the study, if the coronavirus was not detected, a green QR code is issued which can be used for travel.

Belarus will receive Sputnik Light in July

The Sputnik Light vaccine is to arrive in Belarus in July, Belarusian Health Minister Dzmitry Pinevich told reporters. Today, Belarus mainly uses the Sputnik V vaccine. According to the Minister, it is widely available in the regions. "We communicate with all regions on a daily basis. The waiting list and the availability of vaccines in stock are virtually identical," Pinevich said.

Church

The Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Belarus visited the country's main Orthodox monastery

On July 7, 2021 Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Belarus Evgeny Lukyanov visited the Uspensky Zhirovichsky Monastery.

The Russian diplomat was accompanied by the Consul General of the Russian Federation in Brest, Igor Konyakin, and representatives of regional and local authorities of Belarus (Chairman of the Grodno Regional Council of Deputies Igor Zhuk and Chairman of the Slonim District Executive Committee Gennady Khomich). The visit was conducted within the working visit of Evgeny Lukyanov to Grodno region.

This visit exemplifies the active interaction between the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), regional and local authorities in Belarus and the Embassy of the Russian Federation.

The composition of the participants demonstrates the possibility of both formal and informal interaction and strengthening of ties between the BOC, the Belarusian authorities and the Russian Embassy, although we cannot assess its quality and forms.

Head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) took part in the official celebration of Independence Day of Belarus

On July 2, 2021, the Palace of the Republic in Minsk hosted a solemn meeting in honor of the Independence Day of the Republic of Belarus and the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus during World War II. The event was attended by WWII veterans, civil servants, diplomats and artists. The meeting was attended by the Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslavl Benjamin, Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus. Aliaksandr Lukashenka spoke at the event.

According to the decision of the Synod of the Belarusian Exarchate, all churches of the Belarusian Exarchate held prayers for peace and unity among the Belarusian people. Such a decision was made due to the fact that this year was officially declared by Lukashenka as the Year of National Unity in Belarus. The Metropolitan conducted a prayer service in the central Holy Spirit Cathedral in Minsk. 

In the above example, we can clearly see the intensive cooperation between the BOC and the Belarusian authorities and even, to some extent, the servicing of the interests of the latter. At the same time, the institution of the BOC itself is in direct hierarchical subordination to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which ultimately influences the authorities in Belarus and, to a degree, the parishioners of its churches.

Internet and Media

Belarusian authorities "clear Belarus from radically-minded people"

Over the last several weeks the authorities have conducted a full-fledged attack on independent media still operating in Belarus, arresting many journalists and forcing others to flee the country. They broke into offices of Nasha Niva, Brestskaya Gazeta, Inter-press, Orshansky regional portal, Media-Polesye, bobr.by, etc. 

In particular, the Belarusian KGB informed that they "conduct a large-scale operation on clearance [of Belarus] from radically-minded people".

Some of those still continuing their activity opted for self-censorship (e.g. Onliner). Experts say that this purge will make the voices of independent media more radical while simultaneously magnifying the impact of the media promoting the Russian agenda: audiences not technologically savvy enough to use Telegram channels and/or VPN will switch to Russian media. Given that such media outlets as Sputnik and others provide quite a nuanced propaganda, it would play in the hands of Russia and further increase the influence of the Kremlin.

Russian propaganda says Belarusian NGOs are controlled by the West

Pro-Russian propagandists continue attacking Belarusian civil activists, with the SONAR2050 author Dmitry Belyakov playing an active role in this. In particular, he uses the ideological stamps employed previously by the Russian authorities to defame the NGOs: "The non-governmental Western organizations still operate on the Belarusian territory. They were designed to contribute to the formation of civil society and shed the "light of democracy", but they destroy our values and [negatively] impact young minds".

This thesis has been reproduced by the highest ranking officials and Lukashenka himself: during the recent meeting with Putin he has been referring NGOs and independent media of "implementing terroristic attacks" in Belarus. He probably referred to a recent staged assault on the state propagandist Ryhor Azaronak.

The similar position of pro-Russian propagandist media and Belarusian authorities means that the ideological narrative of the contestation between the West and the Union State of Belarus and Russia is becoming hegemonic.**

In this narrative, Belarus is no longer an autonomous state, but serves as a frontline in the hybrid war against NATO, with civil society activists and independent media being perceived as an internal threat.

Civil Society

Rossotrudnichestvo implements various small-scale projects in Belarusian regions

Rossotrudnichestvo continues increasing Russian influence in Belarus. In particular, it implements various small-scale projects in the regions. The representatives of Homyel's office organised the 'Day of Family, Love, and Loyalty', within which they awarded prizes to families who have lived a long life together. This event was designed to honor so-called "traditional values", one of the pillars of Russian ideology.

In Mahileu, in turn, Rossotrudnichestvo launched a literature competition dedicated to the memory of the famous Soviet writer Konstantin Simonov and the 80th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. It will be conducted between August 1 and 31. The event is meant to "attract attention to the events of the war, and heroic defence of Mahileu [...]." In fact, it is a continuation of the dissemination of the Russian version of history and main ideological narrative.

Belarus Watch Team

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