Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #15

December 9, 2021
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

Lukashenka recognizes Crimea as part of the Russian Federation and is going to visit it soon The conflict Lukashenka provoked in Belarus, from local resistance, became a pre-war geopolitical crisis. November 30, he publicly acknowledged the annexed in 2014 Crimea peninsula "de jure" Russian territory in 2014.  

In practice, the recognition of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation means closer military and political convergence between Belarus and Russia. It's a radical political break between Belarus and West Europe and may provoke a new phase of confrontation with NATO. The situation increases the threat of armed conflict, in particular in Ukraine. In the case of war, Lukashenka will support the anti-Ukrainian side. He made clear his intentions by declaring: "I will be with those who want to save Ukraine and not allow it to turn the country into a hotbed of aggression."In his understanding, those who want to "save Ukraine" are probably the same people who 'saved' Crimea in 2014.

It should be noted that the Kremlin has pushed Lukashenka to recognize Crimea as part of Russia since 2014, when the annexation took place. In order to appear good in in the eyes of the West and the EU, the Belarusian dictator has bided his time. At the same time, Lukashenka reserved his recognition of Crimea as a bargaining chip in the political play with Russia. Now he has picked the moment wisely, playing the cards gainin his favour. At a time domestic political instability in Belarus, fearing losing power, Lukashenka is seeking to unleash new political battles in order to be able to demonstrate his strength and retain control of his position as president.

Migrants go home, the crisis continues

The joint attack on the EU by Belarus and Russia appears to be over. The pressure on Belarus-EU borders has decreased and migrants are now leaving Belarus. But the crisis called for significant changes in the geopolitical and internal situation in Belarus. Following this hybrid attack, Russia has succeeded in increasing its military presence inside Belarus. Over time, this may lead to the full military absorption of the country. It is also highly likely that similar attempts to undermine unity within Europe countries will happen again.

New Belarusian Constitution: No more neutrality

Alyaksandar Lukashenkaplans to hold a national referendum on a new constitution in February 2022. Some believe that through establishing a new constitution Lukashenka will seek to reset the presidential terms, allowing him to remain in power until 2035. A similar mechanism was used in Russia by Vladimir Putin in April 2021. A newly adopted law allowed him to be elected twice more.

A new version of the Belarusian constitution will probably remove a norm recognizing Belarus as a neutral county.

Activities of the Russian Ambassador in Belarus

On November 25, the Russian Ambassador in Belarus Evgeni Lukyanovmet with the Governor of the Grodno region Uladzimir Karanik. They discussed cooperation between this Belarusian region with the subjects of the Russian Federation. The main topic of the meeting was the organization of the Forum of Regions of Belarus and Russia, which should take place in Grodno in 2022. Thisevent has been organized annually since 2014.

On November 26, the Russian Ambassador Lukyanovlaid flowers by the monument of the Russian soldiers fallen at the Battle of Berezina in 1812. In this battle, Russia finally defeated the army of Napoleon during the 1812 French invasion of Russia. In the city of Barysau, Ambassador Lukyanov met with Vladimir Slesarev, a representative of the Russian Military Historical Society in Belarus — they discussed preparations for the 210 th anniversary of the War of 1812.

ENERGY AND ECONOMY

Economy/Finance

Andrei Shirokov, Managing Director of the Russian-led Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development (EFSD) has demanded that Belarus initiate reforms in order to get funding. Western sanctions imposed last year in response to widespread crackdowns on street protests made borrowing in international markets costly for Minsk, which had $8.55 billion in international reserves as of November 1. "We are negotiating with Belarus on a possible program of the government and the central bank to support its budget and balance of payments," Shirokov said in an interview with Reuters.

According to Shirokov, EFSD, a regional institution designed to provide financial support to its member states, including Belarus, can provide funds to the country on favorable terms and does not have a deadline for approving a financial assistance package. According to Shirokov, the credit limit for Belarus is $1.79 billion, but this can be altered by redistributing funds from other participating countries. It requires Belarus to implement economic reformsin order to free up funds. To this end, the Fund requires that Belarus adopt a monetary policy aimed at targeting inflation, establish a balanced budget policy setting debt limits, and reform state-owned enterprises.

After the Belarusian economy was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, political crisis and Western sanctions in August, Alexander Lukashenko asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to lend him $1 billion through the Eurasian Development Bank (EDB), which manages EFSD funds. Belarus received a tentatively approved $930 million from the International Monetary Fund shortly after Lukashenko's request to Moscow. This has made the issue of borrowing "less acute" for Belarus, but did not resolve it. According to Shirokov, Belarus risks financial deficit within the next three years, while its economy has a growth potential of only 1% per year in the medium term, after shrinking by 0.9% in 2020.

"The country cannot afford to maintain high social spending. There are two options here - either to carry out reforms to increase potential and real economic growth, or to cut costs," Shirokov said. Russia is the largest donor to the EFSD, but Shirokov said that Moscow cannot make decisions on its own. The fund was established at $8.5 billion in 2009 and has been increased by approximately $1 billion since then.

Energy

The Energy Ministries of Belarus and Russia have agreed on action plans for the implementation of union programs on the creation of common gas and electricity markets. Energy Minister Viktor Karankevichspoke about this in an interview with the Republic (Respublika) newspaper. An interstate agreement on the formation of a unified electricity market is currently being developed. Modes of joint work, conditions of interaction for sellers and buyers of electricity, and issues of infrastructure development are all being worked out.

Joint work is also carried out within the framework of the Union program in the field of nuclear energy. The first practical steps have been taken to implement it - an intergovernmental agreement was signed between the countries on the transportation of nuclear materials. The preparation of a draft intergovernmental agreement on the management of spent nuclear fuel of the Belarusian NPP is also underway. The document is planned to be prepared for signing by July 1, 2022.

Logistics and infrastructure

The administration of the Leningrad region (Russian Federation) is against the expansion of the port border in Primorsk, which is necessary for investors from Belarus to place their own terminal, said Alexander Drozdenko, head of the regional administration, in an interview with RIA Novosti. "I know that today there are active negotiations about placing Belarus's own terminal in the Primorsk region within the framework of the project that we already have. We have now taken a tough position: we don't want to create a new port border. You cannot build a coast," Drozdenkosaid.

The decision to start transshipment of fertilizers from Belarus through the ports of the Murmansk region, including the port "Lavna", has not yet been made, Governor of the Murmansk region Andrei Chibistold reporters. "We are working on this issue with our Belarusian partners, so far there are no decisions. I hope that this will become possible," Chibis said after inspecting the Lavna port under construction.

MEDIA

The Russian-Belarusian media forum "Union State: Information Space in the Digital Age" washeld in Moscow. It was organized by the Standing Committee of the Union State and news agency "Russia Today".

Speaking at the Forum, State Secretary of the Union State Dmitry Mezentsev proposed to create a program of the Union State to support the digitalization of Russian and Belarusian media. The Minister of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation Maksut Shadayev spoke about the digital transformation of the media space of the Union State. The Minister raised the issue of fake news, stressing that the fight against such toxic news is being actively pursued in Russia, including at the legislative level. Speaking about possible joint initiatives with the Belarusian side in this area, the head of the Russian Ministry of Digital Affairs noted that they are open for cooperation. Maria Zakharova, Director of the Information and Press Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, gave her assessment of the work of the union media, noting that they withstood the information competition from the largest media with gigantic budgets. The official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry is confident that the Union State should expand its information presence on new Internet platforms, including TikTok and Telegram.

Gennady Davydko, Chairman of the Standing Commission of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus on Human Rights, Ethnic Relations and Mass Media, said that it is planned to introduce legal requirements equal to mass media status for Belarusian blogs with more than a thousand subscribers.

General Director of the Center for the Study of Integration Prospects Sergei Rekeda stated that today only a third of young people know about the existence of the Union State.

The website of the news agency Sputnik Belaruswas subjected to a Denial-of-service attack (DDos) attack on November 22, 2021. The editors announced on their Telegram channe "We have a DDoS attack, but we are coping. They have been trying to put our website www.sputnik.by down for two hours already. And just at the moment when issues of Belarus - Russia cooperation in the digital era are discussed in our Moscow office. Coincidence?" - the message says.

CHURCH

Metropolitan Veniamin, the head of Belarusian Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate of Orthodox Church attacked the Greek/Catholic (Uniates) community in Belarus.

In hisopen letter to all Orthodox Bishops in Belarus, Metropolitan Veniamin named Greek Catholic believers "a group that has a negative attitude to the authority" and tries to destroy it by holding different cultural events, exhibitions, providing publicist and media activities.

The Head of the Belarusian Exarchate has mentioned a good relationship between Greek Catholics with Belarusian Catholics. He believes this communication can be a threat to the Orthodox Church in Belarus. Metropolitan Veniamin calls Orthodox bishops to defend against the propaganda of the Greek Catholicism and to report about Greek Catholics' activities.

The letter from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus comes at a time when many Russian Orthodox Church followers are disappointed by the pro-regime position of the Church and have considered converting to the confessionally similar Greek Catholicism, in order to escape the influence of Moscow.

MILITARY AND LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

Russian air force taking part in the joint patrolling of the Belarusian border

On November 25, the Belarusian Armyinformed about the need to introduce a joint patrolling of the Belarusian borders by the Belarusian and Russian air forces. This step is explained by the "increasing number of flights taking place close to the Belarusian border". On the same day, Russian and Belarusian Su-30SM fighter jets took part in this joint border patrolling.

The participation of the Russian air force in regular flights over Belarus is perceived as the next step in the development of a direct Russian military presence in Belarus. These flights are also an important element in the military blackmail of Russia against NATO member states and Ukraine.

2022 Belarusian-Russian military exercise on the Ukrainian border

On November 29, the Belarusian Minister of Defense Viktar Khrenin announced the Belarusian-Russian military exercise aimed at "covering" the Ukrainian border, which will take place in 2022. According to his words, next year Belarusian and Russian troops will take part in a number of training exercises to increase the security capability along the southern border of Belarus. This step is a reaction to the alleged "militarization" taking place along the Belarusian borders.

On November 29, Alexander Lukashenka made a loud statement that "Belarus will not stand aside if the West unleashes a war in Donbas". In saying this, Lukashenka acknowledged his willingness to support possible Russian aggression against Ukraine. This position of Lukashenka seriously undermines domestic security in Ukraine as this country has to take into consideration a possible invasion of Russian troops through the Belarusian border. Thus, the increasing Russian military presence in Belarus and the hostile position of Lukashenka on Ukraine is another element of the Russian military blackmail of Kyiv.

Statements of Nikolay Patrushev on the migration crisis

On November 23, the Head of the Russian Security Council Nikolay Patrushev presented an extendedinterview on the migration crisis taking place on the Belarusian-EU border. In this interview, Patrushev repeated the main elements of the Belarusian-Russian propaganda regarding these developments: the West is responsible for this crisis as it had destroyed a number of countries in the Middle East; the EU speaks about democracy and human rights, but it seriously violates the rights of refugees, and finally, the migration crisis is a Western attempt to interfere in domestic affairs of Belarus. Patrushev believes that the West failed to push Belarus into chaos during the recent street protests, so it decided to flood this country with refugees.

These statements from Patrushev serve as another confirmation of the Kremlin's support for the border provocations carried out by Lukashenka against Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Belarus Watch Team

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