U.S. Government Employees Depart from Belarus. Belarus Watch # 20

February 15, 2022
Read a new issue of a bi-weekly newsletter with monitoring of Russian activities and influence in Belarus to know more.
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RECENT POLICY DEVELOPMENTS

On the brink of military exercises in Belarus: the departure of U.S. government employees

On January 31, 2022, the U.S. Department of State ordered the departure of family members of U.S. government employees from Belarus. The official reason for the departure is "the arbitrary enforcement of laws, the risk of detention, and unusual and concerning Russian military buildup along Belarus' border with Ukraine".

The US Embassy in Minsk is under pressure inside the country. The Belarusian Ministry of International Affairs demands that the U.S. fire all Belarusian citizens working at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk. Given these circumstances, it is probable that the U.S. Embassy in Minsk will close soon. It should also be noted that Julie D. Fisher, the United States Ambassador to Belarus, now works from Vilnius, Lithuania.

Belarusians abroad will not be able to vote on the Constitution Referendum

On the referendum on a new Constitution Law that would bring Belarus even closer to Russia, Belarusian citizens who live outside the country will have no chance to vote. The Ministry of International Affairs decided not to establish the polling stations at Belarusian Embassies and Consulates, because of "low number of Belarusian citizens abroad, low amount of consulate departments workers, the security of consulate departments workers and epidemiologic situation", a spokesperson for the Ministry of International Affairs said.

In the last election campaign, in August 2020, Belarusians abroad supported en masse an alternative Presidential candidate. Many Belarusian diplomats have expressed their position against falsification, and supported the protests.

On February 7 Lukashenka spent more than two hours speaking to Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov. The interview has been widely quoted by Russian and Belarusian media.

During the interview, the Belarusian dictator made several political statements:

Regarding the Union State with Russia, Lukashenka said that it will be a union of sovereign states, not independent states.  "Maybe there will be a single currency. Maybe... But centrally the common defense space, — we can see it right now", Lukashenka said.

Talking about the current war exercise with Russia on the border with Ukraine, Lukashenka did not deny that the exercise might be directed against Ukraine and NATO.

The dictator also mentioned that "he was more than ready" for a war with Poland because of the situation on the border in October-November last year. In relation to Crimea and its recognition by Belarus, Aliaksandar Lukashenka did not directly answer the question of when this might happen.

CIVIL SOCIETY

There are 12 new recognized political prisoners in Belarus and more than 1000 in total.

The Russian Human Rights Organisation "Memorial" has recognized as political prisoners Belarusians Jana Pinchuk and Vadzim Duboiski, who now are in prison in Russia. These Belarusians have been persecuted and arrested for taking part in protests against Lukashenka's regime. Now they are facing extradition from Russia.

Closure of NGOs means unchecked power of the dictatorship

In 2021 the Belarusian regime implemented a massive campaign to eliminate almost all NGOs and civil initiatives in Belarus. Labelling activists "agents" and "destroyers of the State", courts have made hundreds of rulings to liquidate around 300 NGOs. As a result, the instruments that allowed democratic procedures like election campaigns, freedom of expression and association have been completely destroyed. The State now totally prevails over civil society in Belarus. With that in mind, the upcoming referendum can not be considered as a democratic campaign for the free expression of a citizens' will. The referendum on the Constitution low will take place on February 27.

Liquidated NGOs might replace Russian propaganda

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Minister of International Affairs, commenting on the situation around the closed office of Russian media "Komsomolskaja Pravda in Belarus" and its arrested journalist Gennady Mozheyko, said Minsk is ready to open any Russian media offices, under one condition: only Russian citizens will work there.

CHURCH

Metropolitan Veniamin, the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus,compared the existance of borders between Russia and Ukraine with the division of Germany into Eastern and Western parts in the 20th century. In a meeting in Minsk on February 3 with Ambassador of Germany in Belarus Manfred Huterer, Metropolitan Veniamin, expressing the position of the Orthodox Church on the current political situation, spoke about the trinity and unity of Slavic peoples of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine around its common historical identity and faith.

ECONOMY

According to Lukashenka, Belarus' GDP will grow by more than 2% per year due to the country's further integration with Russia.

The Belarusian Deputy Minister of Economy Dmitry Yaroshevich said that the implementation of the Belarus-Russia Union program will "enhance the synergy of the economies of Belarus and Russia and bring their competitiveness to a qualitatively new level. The key part of the program is the introduction of unified approaches to the strategic planning.

This, in turn, will require a universal approach to the formation of statistical information based on international standards. Harmonization of insolvency and bankruptcy systems will simplify procedures and involve professional companies in anti-crisis management.

Support and development of small and medium-sized businesses will consist in bringing together regulatory mechanisms, ensuring the possibility of concluding special investment contracts, etc. Within the framework of the programme, the analysis of the legal framework of the parties in the field of strategic planning was carried out; a number of documents on insolvency and bankruptcy issues have been prepared. Draft Decree No. 10 has been updated, providing the possibility of concluding special investment agreements.

In addition to that, two international treaties should be developed and approved. It is also required to make a number of changes to the legal framework of the parties: at least six legal acts are subject to adoption or amendment in Belarus, and three in Russia.

The Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus will create a Center for monitoring of customs operations within the Union State.

The plan was articulated by the chairman of the Belarusian State Customs Committee Vladimir Orlovsky.The Center will start functioning from July 1, 2022. The experts of the Center will monitor operations passing through customs and will conduct risk analysis in areas related to customs control and law enforcement. According to Mr Orlovsky, integration in the field of customs regulation will continue. Thus, an agreement on basic aspects of customs services integration has already been developed. On the basis of this agreement, new regulatory legal acts in this area will be developed and adopted.

Trade turnover

The trade turnover between Belarus and Russiaincreased by 34.4% in 2021 as compared to 2020 and totaled $38.4 billion, according to the Federal Customs Service of Russia. Exports from the Russian Federation to Belarus totaled $22.8 billion (an increase by 42.7%), while imports to Russia from Belarus amounted to $15.6 billion (an increase by 24%). At the same time, the share of Belarus in the total turnover of foreign trade of the Russian Federation decreased to 4.9% in 2020 (in 2019 it was 5%).

Transport & Infrastructure

A private investor from Belarus is building a terminal for transshipment of potash fertilizers to the Russian coast. This was stated by Lukashenka to confirm that Russia does not have free capacity for transshipment of Belarusian potassium. "You [Russia] will not be able to [transship] all 12 million (tons of potash fertilizers per year) due to the lack of port facilities. We are building [the facilities], we were provided with a building site and so on [...], we are building it at our own expense", Lukashenka said in a recent interview. Lukashenka has not specified which company or who is building the terminal, when construction began, when construction is expected to be completed, or the cost of the project.

There are currently no alternative potash transportation options. A route through Russia, which Minsk has been discussing with Moscow for several years, looks impossible. Russia does not have free capacity for that (a maximum of 2—3 million tons per year instead of the required 11 million tons), and Russian companies do not want to be subject to sanctions. The risks of being blacklisted by the US Treasury exclude all other options like the purchase of Belaruskali, the creation of a joint trader with a Russian or Western company, transshipment of Belarusian potash through coal terminals in big bags or a swap deal with Russian potash.

Energy

Gazprom and its subsidiary Gazprom Transgaz Belarus have signed amendments to contracts for gas supplies to Belarus and its transportation through Belarus. Additions extend contracts until the end of 2022, and define volume and cost.

Gazprom will pay $250 million as transit fees for gas transportation through Belarus. Gazprom will supply gas to Belarus in the amount of $2.44 billion. In December last year, the Russian company and the Belarusian government signed a protocol on the procedure for setting prices for gas supplies, according to which 1,000 cubic meters of gas will cost Belarus $128.5 in 2022.

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION

Beginning of the diplomatic work of Boris Gryzlov in Minsk

Alexander Lukashenka received credentials from the new Russian Ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov. According to the words of Ambassador Gryzlov, his work in Minsk will be focused on the diplomatic assistance to implementation of the signed integration documents — the Union State agreement, 28 integration roadmaps and the military doctrine of the Union State. In this way, Ambassador Gryzlov starts his diplomatic mission to Minsk as a "heavyweight supervisor" over Lukashenka, making sure that the Belarusian authorities make progress in the practical implementation of the signed integration documents.

Visit of the Governor of St. Petersburg Alexander Beglov to Belarus

The Governor of St. Petersburg Alexander Beglov visited Belarus on February 1, 2022, where he had a meeting with Alexander Lukashenka and Ambassador Gryzlov. The main topic of the talks was the economic cooperation between Belarus and St. Petersburg -- their trade exchange reached $1.87 billion (during the first three quarters of 2021). The purchasing of the Belarusian MAZ buses is one of the most important examples in their cooperation — the city has already bought 400 MAZ buses and plans to purchase an additional 889 buses from Belarus. The share of Belarus-made buses in the municipal transport of this city is 21%.

MILITARY AND LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

Continuation of the unprecedented deployment of Russian troops in Belarus

Since January 17, 2022, Russian military trains and truck columns have continued to enter Belarus on an unprecedented scale. The total number of Russian soldiers currently present in Belarus is about 30,000. The scale of the Russian military presence in this country is the largest since the Soviet era. It appears that the Kremlin has decided to deploy in Belarus between 60% and 80% of the forces of the Eastern Military District. This massive re-deployment of troops from the Far East to Europe is unprecedented even for the Russian Army. Officially, all these forces are supposed to take part in the upcoming Union Resolve exercises, but it is clear that such a massive arrival of the Russian Army in Belarus poses a direct security threat to Ukraine and NATO countries.

Beginning of the "Union Resolve" exercise

The active phase of the "Union Resolve" drill will take place on February 10-20, but the Russian and Belarusian Army units have already started the initial stage of these exercises. The "Union Resolve" drills will take place on the five training grounds and four airfields in Brest, Grodno and Minsk regions. Despite this fact, significant forces of the Russian Army are still concentrated in the Gomel region, posing a direct threat to the Ukrainian capital.

Meeting between Lukashenka and Shoygu

Alexander Lukashenka met with Sergey Shoygu on February 3 — the Russian Defense Minister arrived in Belarus to oversee the "Union Resolve" drill. According to Shoygu, the large-scale re-deployment of Russian troops from the Far East to Belarus was achieved in a brilliant way. Alexander Lukashenka proposed to establish the military training facilities, where the Belarusian Army personnel would train on how to use the most advanced Russian weapons. Lukashenka noted that Belarus was ready to purchase all the modern Russian military equipment which had arrived in Belarus for the drill. Sergey Shoygu spoke about the upcoming participation of the Belarusian Army units in the large-scale military exercise in the Far East in 2022 ("East 2022").

Issue of the military occupation of Belarus

The unprecedented arrival of the Russian troops to Belarus has opened a discussion on whether this country is currently facing the beginning of direct Russian military occupation. Belarusian officials claim that all the Russian units will leave Belarus after the end of the drill, but it is still possible that particular forces (such as S-400 complexes based at Luninets) will stay. In any event, it is clear that the quick and unexpected return of the Russian troops to Belarus may repeat at any time in the future. It seems that Lukashenka's dependency on Putin has increased so much that the Kremlin has begun making all the strategic military decisions on Belarus without consulting the Belarusian authorities. Lukashenka covers this dramatic political defeat with militaristic anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western slogans, but it is clear that the Russian troops arrived in Belarus because of the decision of Putin, not Lukashenka's appeals.

Belarus Watch

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