Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #18

January 17, 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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POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT

Putin welcomed Lukashenka for the sixth time in 2021 on December 28-29 in an official meeting in St. Petersburg, the highest number of official encounters the two leaders have had in one year. At the same time, in 2021 Aliaksandar Lukashenka did not meet at all with any Western country officials. Analysts believe that the Western direction of Belarusian international policy has been destroyed.

Vladimir Putin said he is satisfied with the Union State integration process. In 2021, 28 joint programs on deepening economic, political and military cooperation were signed. For now, Belarus has the second-highest number of agreements with Russia, after Ethiopia.

In terms of military cooperation, a crucial component of negotiations, parties have agreed to hold joint military exercises on Belarusian territory in February-March 2022.

New Constitution will open more opportunities for Russian influence in Belarus

The new version of the Constitution rejects the idea that Belarus is a neutral nuclear-free state. Instead, it currently includes only a point that Belarus excludes military aggression from its territory to other countries (art. 18).

The new law also bolsters the power of the president. The president becomes “untouchable”, which means he cannot be prosecuted for acts committed when implementing his/her presidential mandate.

The constitutional changes appear to be designed to protect Lukashenka himself. Through the removal of the neutrality clause from the new Constitution, he is apparently trying to please Russia. However, in general, the draft seems to render the possibility of the transfer of power from Lukashenka to another person rather improbable, which reflects a different scenario to the one that Russia had previously considered (art. 89).

The draft of the new Belarusian Constitution receives positive feedback from Moscow

Andrey Rudenko, Russia’s deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs gave a positive assessment of the new draft of the Belarusian main law.

When commenting on other recent international developments, he supported the intention of Aliaksandar Lukashenka to visit Crimea.

Mr. Rudenko said that Moscow opposes interference in internal Belarusian affairs and “does not support any imposition of international mediation” in the dialogue with opposition. The dialogue that Russia supports should take place inside the country.

The Russian official did not refer at all to the opposition inside the country that has been brutally suppressed. There are more than 1000 political prisoners in Belarus now, and thousands of activists have been forced to leave the country.

CIVIL SOCIETY

At the start of the year, the Council of Ministers adopted a new “Program of patriotic education of population for 2022-2025”.

The Program sets out bilingualism (the equal status of Russian and Belarusian languages) as a direction to form a Belarusian national identity. Among other things, it names as equally important the membership of Belarus to the UN, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Eurasian Economic Union, and Union State with Russia. The Day of Unity with Russia (Nation Unity Day) in the Program is considered the same as Independence Day and Victory Day.

CHURCH

During Christmas, the heads of Catholic, Protestant and Ortodox confessions addressed believers with Christmas messages. Bishops of Catholic and Baptist Churches delivered Christmas greetings in the Belarusian language. Metropolitan Veniamin, the Head of the Belarusian Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church spoke in Russian and has called Belarus “White Russia” (Belaya Rus’).

Metropolitan Veniamin was recently interviewed by state media, where he endorsed his support for the unity of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine: “Our peoples have fraternal and spiritual unity. At the same time, in the frame of political reality, we see a separation ... We are aware of the good grounds, on which we built our states. We can, and we must return the unity of our countries, our three peoples”, said Metropolitan Veniamin.

ENERGY AND ECONOMY

New Russian financial assistance

The Belarusian authorities are considering the option of applying for a Russian loan of $3.5 billion through the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development. This development has been caused by Western sanctions, said First Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Nikolai Snopkov. Restrictive measures have become a direct risk to the possibility of debt refinancing.

In December 2021, the US government imposed sanctions on the refinancing of Belarusian national debt. The authorities banned American investors from purchasing Belarusian state bonds. Most international financial organizations now refuse to cooperate with Belarus, and there are no other ways of attracting investment, reported Snopkov, adding that “the only source of development and economic growth are internal resources and internal reserves.”

As of December 1 2021, Belarusian National Bank reserves (gold and foreign currencies) amounted to $8.7 billion. While more than half of that amount is constituted by gold and illiquid assets, the remainder of $3.9 billion, which is in foreign currencies, is barely enough for a year of payments on foreign loans.

According to Snopkov, $3.5 billion will be needed in order to compensate for the shortcoming of European debt refinancing funds. In 2022, Belarus must pay off $3.3 billion of its external debt, and in 2023, the government will need to pay $4.7 billion due to external borrowings.

Energy

Belarus and Russia are currently negotiating an interstate agreement on the formation of a unified electricity market of the Union State. This was stated by the Minister of Energy of Belarus Viktor Karankevich on December 20, 2021.

“In accordance with the union program, approved by the integration Decree of the heads of states of Belarus and Russia on November 4, 2021, the unified electricity market of the Union State will be put into operation on January 1, 2024,” said Karankevich. He also noted that from January 1, 2027, a transition to deeper integration of the electric power sector is envisaged, which implies a convergence of business conditions for market participants.

Nuclear energy

The second power unit of the BelNPP will be put into operation by the summer of 2022. This was communicated to reporters by Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko during his visit to the BelNPP, where the loading of fresh nuclear fuel into the reactor of the second power unit began. “This is a serious step towards strengthening the energy security of Belarus”, he added.

Another nuclear power plant in Belarus?

On January 8, 2022, the Russia 24 TV channel reported that the Head of Rosatom - Alexey Likhachev said that Belarus and Russia were negotiating the construction of another nuclear power plant in Belarus.

Currently, Belarus is completing the construction of its first nuclear power plant near Astravets in the Hrodna region under the Russian VVER-1200 design. It will consist of two power units, each with a capacity of 1.2 GW. The general contractor for constructing the nuclear power plant is the ASE group of the Russian state corporation “Rosatom”. A Russian state loan amounting to $10 billion was attracted to finance the construction of the nuclear power plant.

“Less than ten years have passed [since the beginning of construction], one unit [of the Belarusian NPP] is already working steadily... And the first question that the government of Belarus asks us: how will we act if we are to build another nuclear power plant in the Republic of Belarus? We remember with great warmth everything that happened over the years, but the appetite comes with eating, and we are already discussing the construction of the second station” Likhachev said.

Earlier, at the end of December 2021, it was reported that Belarus was considering the possibility of building a second nuclear power plant. According to Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko, the government is working out the issue following the order of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Transport

Belarus has completed all the procedures for ratifying an agreement with Russia on the transit shipment of oil products through the ports of the Leningrad region. The agreement concerns the transit shipment from Belarus of more than 9.8 million tons of petroleum products: fuel oil, gasoline and oils in 2021-2023. However, back in spring, Belarusian supplies surpassed the agreed volumes for 2021.

Media

The Moscow-based telecommunications corporation operating under the Akado brand, plans to sell its stake in the Belarusian Internet provider Kosmos TV for RUB 300 million ($4 million USD). The corporation justifies its decision on the basis of the “optimization of the asset portfolio.”

The Belarusian agency Interfax-Zapad announced that it stopped working on January 1, 2022, since its sole founder is a foreign company, the Russian Interfax, which violates Belarusian legislation. Interfax-Zapad will cease its work on January 1, 2022, according to a statement on the website of the Belarusian company. The message explains that “in connection with the amendments made to the law on the mass media of the Republic of Belarus in May 2021, the Interfax-Zapad news agency, the sole founder and owner of which is the Russian JSC Interfax, is unable to continue implementing its activities as a media”.

HEALTHCARE

Covid-19 medicine

The Ministry of Health of Belarus has issued a permit for the import and use of the Russian drug "KoviVac" against coronavirus. This inactivated whole-virion concentrated purified vaccine is intended for the prevention and elimination of the consequences of epidemic diseases. Since December 13-15, 2021 over 300,000 doses have already been sent to all regions of Belarus. The manufacturer is the Federal Research Center for Research and Development of Immunobiological Preparations named after V.I. M.P. Chumakov RAS. The documents submitted by the manufacturer have passed the certification procedure.

Sputnik V vaccine

A series of Russian vaccines against coronavirus "Sputnik V" and "Sputnik Light" has started to be produced in Belarus as a pilot project. The first validation series of vaccines were released on December 22, 2021, according to the press service of the Ministry of Health. On December 23, 2021, these batches of vaccines were sent to the developer for quality control, to the Gamaleya Institute in Russia. In addition to the vaccine imports from Russia to Belarus, since the spring of 2021, the Russian Sputnik V vaccine has also been bottled in Belarus.

Belarus paid $442.1 million for the supply of Russian vaccines against coronavirus infection during first 10 months of 2021. The government plans to purchase at least four million further doses of the Sputnik V vaccine this year, said Tatyana Runets, Chairperson of the Standing Committee of the Council of the Republic on Economy, Budget and Finance. The drug will continue to be produced at the Belmedpreparaty plant in Minsk, and the authorities will allocate about 240 million rubles ($93.2 million) for its purchase.

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION

A possible appointment of Boris Gryzlov as a new Russian Ambassador in Belarus

On December 23, 2021 the Russian State Duma Committee on CIS Affairs supported Boris Gryzlov’s nomination for the position of the Russian Ambassador to Belarus. The possible arrival of a new Russian Ambassador to Minsk is quite surprising as the current Ambassador Evgeni Lukyanov started his mission in Belarus not so long ago, in March 2021. If Gryzlov indeed arrives in Belarus, he will become the fourth Russian Ambassador to work in this country since 2018.

The talks about Gryzlov’s appointment may be used by the Kremlin as another tool of political pressure on Lukashenka. The candidacy of Gryzlov is very unusual since earlier all the Russian Ambassadors in Belarus were professional diplomats or relatively unimportant state functionaries. Boris Gryzlov is a Russian political heavyweight, so his presence in Belarus may be very worrying for Lukashenka.

Telephone talk between the Belarusian and Russian Prime Ministers

Prime Ministers Roman Golovchenko and Mikhail Mishustin discussed the issues of bilateral cooperation during the telephone talk on December 29. The main topic of their talk was the progress in the implementation of integration documents signed in 2021. According to the words of Halouchanka, the societies of the two countries still do not have a full understanding of the ongoing integration process because Belarus and Russia are just starting to implement the 28 integration programs. Another topic of their conversation was the introduction of unified principles for calculating pensions for Belarusian and Russian citizens. Prime Ministers paid attention to the fact that the trade exchange between Belarus and Russia increased by 36% in comparison to 2020.

Meanwhile, despite the regular statements about the progress in bilateral integration, Belarus and Russia cannot solve the urgent problems in their relations such as the withdrawal of travel restrictions (travel of personal cars between Belarus and Russia is still seriously limited due to the epidemic restrictions).

Possible establishment of the Union State Parliament

The Head of the Russian Federation Council Valentina Matvienko spoke about the possible establishment of a Parliament of the Union State. According to her, this institution may be created if Belarus and Russia take such a decision. So far, the Belarusian and Russian Parliaments cooperate through joint regional forums, which take place every year.

MILITARY AND LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

Military

Deployment of the Belarusian Army unit in Kazakhstan

The Belarusian Army directly taking part in the CSTO “peace-making” operation in Kazakhstan. On January 6, 2022, Belarusian “peacekeeping” forces (part of the 103rd airborne brigade from Vitebsk) were deployed in Kazakhstan as a part of the CSTO multi-national contingent. In total, there are about 70 Belarusian soldiers present in this country, and are involved in the protection of a local military airfield.

This situation is the first such foreign operation of the Belarusian Army since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For decades, there was an unofficial “agreement” between Lukashenka and society that Belarusian soldiers would not take part in any operations abroad. In theory, the CSTO involvement in Kazakhstan opens the way for future deployment of the Belarusian soldiers in other risky areas (such as Tajikistan or Uzbekistan).

Next deliveries of new Russian weapons to the Belarusian Army

During recent weeks, the Belarusian Army received further deliveries of new Russian weapons. At the end of December 2021, the Russian Uraltransmash company completed the delivery of modernized “Akatsia” howitzers to Belarus, as part of a contract executed in 2020-2021. In 2022, Belarus plans to purchase a number of modernized Tor-M2 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia. These deliveries are a component of the program of modernization of the Belarusian Army. According to Lukashenka, by 2025, Belarus will receive Russian weapons amounting to about $1 billion.

First joint flight of the Belarusian and Russian air forces in 2022

The Belarusian Army announced the first joint air patrolling of the Union State borders in 2022. Belarusian and Russian pilots carried out a two-hour long patrol in Su-30SM fighters covering more than 1,150 kilometres.

BELARUS WATCH TEAM

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