“Railroad War”. Belarus Watch #24

April 12, 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

New law "On Citizenship of the Russian Federation" simplifies the procedure for foreign nationals to acquire Russian citizenship

The Russian Duma adopted a new law simplifying the Russian citizenship process for people who "speak the Russian language, know the history of Russia and undertake to respect the Constitution," the new law says. The Russian language is the second state language in Belarus.

The Duma's website says that the new law will take effect for "former compatriots" who are supposed to be "former USSR citizens, and citizens of territories of the Russian Empire". Also, those who have close relatives living in Russia will be able to obtain citizenship of the Russian Federation.

At the beginning of 2022, about 720,000 residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine acquired Russian passports on the same basis. The "protection" of the interests of Russian citizens in Ukraine is used as Russian propaganda to explain and justify the Russian invasion.

"United Russia" signing a cooperation agreement with "Belaya Rus"

The representatives of the main pro-governmental Russian and Belarusian parties "United Russia" and "Belaya Rus" signed a cooperation agreement on April 1. According to Andrey Turchak from the "United Russia" party, Russia and Belarus "need to unite their efforts in a situation of increasing Western pressure". In general, this cooperation agreement looks like a formal and symbolic step, which will not have any real political implications.

CIVIL SOCIETY

The opinion of Belarusians on the involvement of Belarus in the war in Ukraine

The results from a sociological survey recently published by Chatham House say that a majority of Belarusians (67%) are against attacking Ukraine from the territory of Belarus. Also, most Belarusians do not support providing the territory of the country to Russia to facilitate its war with Ukraine. 52% of respondents are against providing Belarusian territory for these purposes, while 16% are in favour of it. Furthermore, more than 40% are against having a Russian military base in Belarus. 45% of respondents are against nuclear weapons in the country, while 12% would view it positively. The survey was conducted from 5 to 14 March.

A "Railroad war" is going on in Belarus to prevent the transfer of Russian war equipment to attack Ukraine

Belarusian railroaders have been impeding the Russian Army in its objective to use the railway infrastructure to transfer heavy military equipment. The head of Ukrainian Railways Oleksandr Kamyshin recently stated that the railway between Belarus and Ukraine no longer exists. Mr Kamyshin thanked the "honest Belarusian railroaders" for this.

Inside Belarus the Human Rights Center Viasna informs that about 11 persons were detained on the basis of railway sabotage in Belarus. The railway workers claim that this number is approximately 30 people. Accused of terrorist activity, they face about 20 years in prison. Arrests are still being made.

Other actions hindering the Russian Army in Belarus include the destruction of Russian military equipment by Molotov cocktails.

In March in Stoubzy, Minsk Region, a couple was arrested. Syarhei and Katsiaryna Hlebka started a fire on the railway line to obstruct train traffic with Russian engineering equipment.

Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen who was detained together with Raman Pratasyevich is on trial in Hrodna

Sofia Sapega and Raman Pratasyevich were arrested on May 23, 2021, after their Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk. Sofia is charged with the administration of protests on Telegram. She faces about 12 years in prison. The court hearing is held behind closed doors..

CHURCH

The Patriarch of Russian Orthodox Church Kirill congratulates Alyaksandar Lukashenka on the Day of Unity of the Peoples of Belarus and Russia

The Day of Unity of the Peoples of Belarus and Russia is marked on April 2, the date the Treaty on the Union between Belarus and Russia was signed in 1997. On this day, in his congratulatory message, the Patriarch thanked Lukashenka for support of the "rescue mission of Russian Orthodox Church on the territory of historical Russia".

Catholic priests arrested for expressions against the war in Ukraine

Alyaksandar Baran, the Catholic priest from Lyntupy, Vitebsk region was detained and spent six days in prison. The reason for the detention was showing the Ukrainian flag on the accounts on social networks in solidarity with the Ukrainian people.  After a few, Andrzej Bulchak, the catholic priest in the Pastavy, Vitebsk region stood in front of court and was forced to leave Belarus for Poland. The reason for his persecution were his statements that Belarusians are against the war.

The Priest of Belarusian Greek-Catholic Church Vasily Egorau was fined 1,600 Belarusian rubles (about $550) for the sticker on his car "Forgive us, Ukraine". The court considered it unlawful. The priest spent three days in prison.

ECONOMY AND ENERGY

Finance

In 2022-2023, the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation is planning to launch a pilot project for the participation of Belarusian banks in the system of Russian public procurement. The corresponding draft government decree is published on regulation.gov.ru. The document is a part of the Russian-Belarusian agreements on the creation of a Union state — the 28 economic integration programs were agreed upon in September 2021 after three years of negotiations. It is expected that the experiment will take place in two stages: first, Belarusian banks will be able to issue the necessary documents for working in the Russian Federation (SNILS, TIN, qualified electronic signature verification key certificates), the registration on the public services portal and in the unified public procurement information system. In the second stage lasting until the end of 2024, Belarusian banks will directly participate in the public procurement process. It is assumed that Belarusbank Savings Bank, Belvnesheconombank, Belinvestbank Belarusian Development and Reconstruction Bank, VTB Bank (Belarus) and Minsk Transit Bank will all take part in the project. They will be able to issue independent guarantees to participants.

Taxation

Belarus and Russia are preparing a draft agreement on a unified procedure for collecting indirect taxes. Belarusian Prime Minister Raman Halouchenka stated this in the program "Question number one" on the TV channel "Belarus 1". "Currently, active work is underway to integrate systems for collecting indirect taxes. You know that this was our principled position. We are not switching to some system, for example, Russian-made, which is really good. But this is the main principle in the implementation of programs — we must deal with the integration of legislation, including the integration of information systems. What is this about. By the middle of the year, we must reach a draft agreement on a unified procedure for levying indirect taxes," the prime minister said. According to him, it is mainly about value added tax.

Energy

Since April, Belarus switched to Russian rubles in gas payments, the press service of the government of the Republic of Belarus reported on April 5: "Relevant documents were signed today in St. Petersburg by the Belarusian Minister for Energy Viktar Karankevich and Chairman of the Management Board of PJSC Gazprom Alexey Miller. They noted that the price of natural gas supplied from April 1 "had become more profitable than it was provided for by the agreement in force until today." The press service has not indicated a new price for gas. So far, Belarus has paid $128.52 per 1,000 cubic meters. The government also promised to reduce the price burden on consumers for consumed natural gas in the very near future.

Transport

Minsk and Moscow are completing negotiations on preferential tariffs for transshipment of Belarusian cargo. Belarusian Prime Minister Raman Halouchenka stated this in the program "Question number one" on the TV channel "Belarus 1". He assured that Belarus would build its terminal in the Leningrad region at a "super-Stakhanovite" pace. The Prime Minister mentioned that, even at this pace, a similar terminal in St Petersburg took four years to build. Therefore, "we will work not just like Stakhanovites, but super-Stakhanovites, and we will reach the result necessary for Belarus," the Prime Minister said, emphasising that it needed to be completed in less than four years. At the same time, he noted that now this is not the most critical link.

"In principle, we have been planning to approach this for a long time, it's just that the situation has pushed us to go faster. The absence of our own port does not mean that we cannot ship our goods. Because we have enough terminals there. And in St. Petersburg, and in the Leningrad region, speaking in general — and to the north, towards Murmansk. Therefore, there are opportunities for transshipment of Belarusian goods," he assured.

MEDIA

Communications

From April 1, 2022, Russia and Belarus will cancel the fee for incoming roaming calls and are working to cancel all additional roaming charges in the near future so that the cost of outgoing calls does not change when moving between countries. As previously reported, the decision to abolish fees for incoming calls was made on March 23 at a meeting of a high-level group of the Council of Ministers of the Union State. "Thanks to this, Russians in Belarus will be able to receive calls from relatives for free. Similar conditions will apply to Belarusian subscribers in Russia," Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Chernyshenko noted. According to Dmitry Kim, Deputy Head of the Ministry of Digital Development, Telecommunications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation, there are now more than 90,000 Russian subscribers in Belarus who will be able to receive free incoming calls. As reported, work aimed at the abolition of roaming across the territory of the Union State has been underway for several years. First, the "Roadmap for the implementation of the resolution of the Supreme State Council of the Union State dated June 30, 2017 on the abolition of roaming on the territory of the Union State" was agreed and signed, as well as a joint action plan to detect and suppress fraud in the communication networks of the two countries. This roadmap was approved by the Ministers of Communications of both countries in December 2019, and in accordance with it, the charge for incoming roaming calls in the Union State was to be cancelled no later than September 2020. From September 1, 2021, Belarus and Russia switched to reduced tariffs for roaming subscribers on a permanent basis in the territory of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. This decision was taken in August by a high-level group of the Union State Council of Ministers. Earlier, telecom operators in Russia and Belarus, from November 1, 2020, in test mode, switched to a new tariffication in roaming: the interconnect rate decreased from 30 cents to 1.5 cents per minute. This made it possible to repeatedly reduce the cost of communication for clients of Russian operators in Belarus and vice versa.

Media

In a hybrid war, the subject of occupation is not only traditional infrastructure, but also include airfields, roads and railways, medical institutions, and information resources — which include individual media outlets and channels on various platforms.

The Belarusian regime has provided the Russian Federation with all resources and platforms, including informational ones. Unreliable information (fake news) distributed by Russia was posted on state-owned and pro-governmental Youtube media channels.

Attention should be paid to Lukashenka's statements at the meeting on the work of the media, held on March 25, where he openly spoke about the information war and that his regime is on the side of the aggressor country — Russia.

MILITARY AND LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

Russian forces returning to Belarus from Kyiv and Chernihiv directions

By April 2, the Russian Army had completed the full withdrawal of its units involved in battles near Kyiv and Chernihiv. In this way, the Ukrainian forces re-established their control over the border with Belarus. Immediately after returning to Belarus, part of the Russian forces (mainly airborne units) were moved to Russian territory. Apparently, these units will be re-deployed to the area of Kharkiv and Donbas. At the same time, the majority of Russian units involved in fighting near Kyiv and Chernihiv remained in Belarus. In this way, the Kremlin continues to threaten Ukraine with the next military attack from Belarusian territory when the Russian troops regroup and reinforce. The main goal of these threats is to force Ukraine to retain part of its military forces near Kyiv.

Lukashenka withheld from a direct attack on Ukraine

The full withdrawal of the Russian forces from Kyiv and Chernihiv minimizes the chances of a direct Belarusian attack on Ukraine. In this way, during recent weeks, Lukashenka managed to withhold direct involvement in the Ukrainian war despite possible demands from the Kremlin. This situation has provided Lukashenka with more possibilities for political manoeuvring as the direct Belarusian involvement in the war would have resulted in catastrophic domestic and international consequences for this country. It is important to remember that only 3% of Belarusians support  the idea of direct military intervention against Ukraine.

At the same time, it is undisputable that Lukashenka's regime provided Russia with all the necessary support for its aggressive actions against Ukraine.

Russian troops causing problems in Belarus

Russian troops in Belarus continue to cause various problems for the local population. First of all, there are repeated cases of drunk driving and traffic accidents. Only on April 1-2, there were six traffic accidents involving the Russian soldiers — possibly, one Belarusian civilian died in one of such accidents.  Russian soldiers are actively trying to send the looted goods to Russia through courier services and Belarusian taxi and bus drivers. There are regular rumours that Russian soldiers are misbehaving and harassing the locals across Belarusian cities, though most of these reports cannot be verified.

Belarusian voluntary unit formed in Ukraine

Belarusian citizens living in Ukraine formed a separate Belarusian battalion fighting on the side of the Ukrainian Army. This battalion may have up to 200 soldiers and was involved in battles fought near Kyiv. Lukashenka reacted to this news calling the Belarusian volunteers "insane citizens asking for money".

Belarus Watch Team

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