Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #8

July 8, 2021
Read a new issue of bi-weekly newsletter with monitoring of Russian activities and influence in Belarus to know more.

Recent policy developments

Belarus briefly discussed at the Geneva summit: Biden and Putin concluded that alignment on the Belarus issue is impossible

During the Geneva summit on June 16, Joe Biden brought up the Belarusian crisis, and Vladimir Putin expressed contrasting views on what to do about the situation.

It is little surprise that Belarus was not among the top issues of the summit agenda and therefore was addressed with only minor remarks. At the same time, there were discussions in Belarusian expert circles with regards to the possible consequences of the summit. Some analysts drew attention to John Bolton’s op-ed in the Washington Post which called on Biden to take a pro-active stance in resolving the Belarusian crisis, arranging a possible exile solution for Lukashenka and a subsequent democratic transition, along with using the Nordstream 2 launch as a bargaining chip with Putin over the Belarusian issue.

Expert conclusions varied from skepticism - as Belarus is not among U.S. foreign policy priorities - to the endorsement of further coordinated EU-US sanctions against Lukashenka to apply pressure on Moscow, making the maintenance of the Lukashenka regime costly, and perhaps eventually forcing the Kremlin to withdraw its support for the current Belarusian leadership.

Minsk and Moscow maintain close contact: Russian leadership pledges support for Belarus to mitigate the effect of the Western sanctions and portrays the constitutional reform as a solution to the Belarusian crisis

On June 18, Uladzimir Makei, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, met with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. Lavrov stated that the parties agreed to coordinate efforts to strengthen the sovereignty of Belarus and Russia, “taking into consideration the aggression of our colleagues”. Lavrov claimed that both countries experience the hybrid war attacks, which include unilateral sanctions and “dirty information campaigns”. Lavrov also added that Russia expects that the ongoing constitutional reform in Belarus will put an end to speculation surrounding the Belarusian state.

On June 25, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that based on the commitments within the Union State, Russia will support Belarus’ sustainable development against Western sanctions and wouldn’t allow “the opponents” to reach their “malicious goals”.

On June 29, Aliaksandr Lukashenka met with Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev. Patrushev stated that the ultimate goal of the external forces with regards to Belarus is to change the country’s system of government. Patrushev discussed with Lukashenka the cyber- and information security collaboration between Belarus and Russia, and also highlighted the importance of screening the work of non-governmental organizations in Belarus, as well as the sources of their funding, pointing out that such organizations serve the interests of their overseas donors.

Regular official contact between Minsk and Moscow serves several purposes.

Firstly, Russia capitalizes on the weak position of the isolated Belarusian leadership. The Kremlin cites the interests and legitimacy found in the Union State agreements to justify interfering in Belarusian affairs. Secondly, for Minsk, contacts with Russian officials of various ministries and agencies serve the purpose of filling the “information gap”, given the very limited number of alternative international contacts.

Multiple meetings create the image of intense international cooperation for Belarus, also allowing for the state media to disseminate the message that Russian support would mitigate the consequences of international isolation and sanctions.

Energy and economy

The volume of trade between Russia and Belarus increased by 18% this year

According to Uladzimir Makei, Belarusian Foreign Minister, the volume of mutual trade between Belarus and Russia increased by 18% during the first four months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. The statistical bulletin “Socio-economic situation in the Republic of Belarus in January-May 2021”, provides a more detailed breakdown:

At the same time, the volume of exports and imports of services between the Russian Federation and Belarus decreased:

Imports of goods from the Russian Federation increased the most in these four categories:

The main trade partners of Belarus in January-April 2021 were: the Russian Federation — 48.4% of the total volume of trade; the EU — 20.7%; Ukraine — 7.6%; China — 6.5%; the U.S. — 1.4%; Kazakhstan — 1.3%; Turkey — 1.2%; Brazil and Azerbaijan — 1.1% each.

Of the total volume of exports of services from Belarus in January-April 2021, most went to the EU – 40.7%, while the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) countries accounted for 17.9%, of which the Russian Federation represented 16.6%. Imports of services from the EAEU countries amounted to 26.3% of total imports, of which from the Russian Federation accounted for 25.3%, and the EU 42.7%.

Another statistical bulletin sheds more light on Russia’s involvement in the Belarusian economy

In June 2021, another statistical bulletin titled “Selected statistical indicators of the activities of organizations of the Republic of Belarus with the participation of foreign capital in statutory funds for 2020”, was published by the National Statistics Committee of Belarus. It contains some noteworthy figures which depict Russia’s involvement in the Belarusian economy:

  • the number of companies with Russian capital in statutory funds is 2,315 (36% of the total number of companies with foreign capital), of which 1,130 are joint companies (40%), and 1,176 (32%) are registered as foreign companies;
  • Russian companies’ contributions to statutory funds amount to USD $595.62 million (21% of total foreign contributions) of which joint companies contributed USD $230.66 million (22%), while foreign companies have brought USD $364.82 million (20%);
  • accumulated foreign investment in the real sector of the economy from the Russian Federation totals USD $3.1 billion. Cyprus takes second position with just under USD $2 billion (16%), and the Netherlands are in third place with USD $1.1 billion (9%).

EDB expects a slowdown in Belarus' GDP growth

The Russian-dominated Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) expects that Belarus' GDP, after a 3% reduction in growth in the first half of the year, will contract significantly more in the second half of the year. Current growth is supported by export sectors amid strong external demand, namely woodworking, machinery and equipment, and vehicles.

At the same time, the drivers of recovery at the beginning of the year — potash production and oil refining (about 0% and -4.6% year on year in May) — are losing momentum for growth due to the exhaustion of the low base effect. Domestic demand also remains low: retail trade turnover, according to the EDB's calculations, is stagnating, while investments declined in January-May by 10.4% year-on-year.

The momentum for Belarusian exports will weaken as the active phase of the recovery of the Russian economy ends and the sanctions of Western countries take effect.

The EDB believes that domestic demand will be pressured by high uncertainty and increased risks, a slowdown in household income growth and an increase in the cost of lending.

Russia and Belarus continue developing common electronic document management

The Federal Tax Service of Russia and the Ministry of Taxes and Duties of Belarus signed an action plan (roadmap) for the implementation of the second stage of a pilot project for the exchange of electronic shipping documents in cross-border trade between business entities of the Russian Federation and Belarus using a trusted third party mechanism.

At this stage, it is planned to test the developed standards of interaction between operators of electronic document circulation, as well as to regulate the methods of registration in electronic shipping documents of discrepancies revealed during the acceptance of goods.

The goal of the pilot project is the transition to the exchange of electronic shipping documents and their recognition in cross-border trade between Belarus and the Russian Federation.

This will reduce the non-production costs of businesses and governments associated with paperwork, as well as minimize the interference of government agencies in the entrepreneurial activities of economic entities.

Belarus set to attract 10 Russian banks to place its bonds in Russia

On May 13, Alexander Lukashenko signed decree No. 183, which instructed the Council of Ministers to place government bonds in Russia in the amount of up to 100 billion rubles in 2021-23 with a maturity of at least 1,092 days.

Now the Council of Ministers intends to attract 10 Russian banks to place government bonds in the Russian Federation. The National Legal Internet Portal published the government’s decree No. 358 of June 24, which instructed the Ministry of Finance to conclude an agreement on the provision of services for organizing the issue of government bonds denominated in Russian rubles.

The agreement is supposed to be concluded with the following legal entities: Gazprombank, BCS Bank, VTB Capital, "CREDIT BANK OF MOSCOW", "Russian Agricultural Bank", "Joint Stock Commercial Bank for the Promotion of Commerce and Business", Sovcombank, Promsvyazbank, "AK BARS" and UNIVER Capital LLC.

Russian oil is still not being delivered to the Novopolotsk refinery

The document with the schedule of Russian oil exports in the third quarter does not provide for deliveries to the Novopolotsk refinery (Naftan OJSC), only 2.36 million tons to the Mozyr refinery. In the second quarter, the schedule indicated deliveries to the Novopolotsk refinery and the Mozyr refinery of 2.25 million tons each.

On April 19, the U.S. Treasury reimposed sanctions on the Belneftekhim Concern, its trade office in the United States and its seven-member enterprises, in particular the Naftan refinery. According to the Ministry of Finance, until the end of the 45-day period on June 3, 2021, only those operations with these companies that are necessary to complete cooperation with them were allowed. As reported, in May 2021 large Russian oil companies stopped sending raw crude oil to Naftan. The entire volume was subsequently supplied by other subsoil users (which, according to the terminology of official statistics, are not included among the main suppliers).

Igor Demin, the press secretary of Transneft, labelled as incompetent the statements made by representatives of the Belarusian oil refinery OAO Naftan (Novopolotsk, Vitebsk region) that Transneft allegedly supplies the refinery with oil. Transneft works on requests from Russian oil companies for oil transportation, while there are no such requests for Naftan for the third quarter. OJSC Naftan has been under U.S. sanctions since June 3, 2021.

Public Administration

Belarus will host the Forum of Regions of Russia and Belarus

The VIII Forum of Belarusian and Russian Regions will be held in Minsk next week. Its topic is scientific and technical cooperation between the two countries in the era of digitalization. It is expected that both sides will discuss and promote joint social and economic, youth, cultural and other projects, as well as bilateral cooperation and the conclusion of new agreements and commercial contracts between the countries. The 8th session of the Interparliamentary Commission of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of Belarus and the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation on interregional cooperation will also be held online.

The Forum of Regions is being actively promoted by Belarusian officials and members of Parliament, including Natalya Kochanova, Chairman of the Council of the Republic and Lukashenko's closest supporter.

The Forum of Regions is a formalized platform of meetings and communications for Russian and Belarusian officials, where issues of both formal and informal cooperation and interaction are discussed.

Such events obviously contribute to strengthening ties between officials, MPs and businessmen from the two countries.

At the same time, it is typical that this event receives attention mainly in the Belarusian (but not Russian) mass media, a discrepancy which is evident in its low profile in the Forum for Russia. For Belarusian officials, in the circumstances of absent relations with Western countries, such events are practically the only form of international activity.

Officials of the Gomel and Bryansk regions talk about the unity of the Russian and Belarusian peoples

On June 25, 2021, a teleconference between Gomel and Bryansk regions took place within the framework of the festival "Slavic Unity". Representatives of the authorities and pro-state public organizations of the two regions took part in the online dialogue.

Vladimir Privalov, Deputy Chairman of the Gomel Regional Executive Committee, spoke on the Belarusian side, claiming that "deep historical roots, national and spiritual traditions" unite Russia and Belarus. It was emphasized that Russia has been and remains the main foreign trade partner of the Gomel region. In response, Deputy Governor of the Bryansk Region Tatyana Kuleshova noted that Russians and Belarusians are "citizens of one great country that gave the whole world the Victory."

Meetings, communication and active interaction between Russian and Belarusian officials at the regional level are a typical example of linkages and leverages between the countries.

Typically, such meetings are almost obligatorily accompanied by ideologized pro-Russian narratives related to the unity of the peoples of both countries and the USSR victory in World War II.

In this meeting, it is noteworthy that a Russian official spoke about the one country of Russians and Belarusians. The level of formal and real consequences of such events remains unclear, but it is obvious that they contribute to strengthening ties between Russian and Belarusian regional officials.

Military and law-enforcement agencies

Belarus becomes increasingly dependent on Russia in military sphere

After the introduction of the 4th package of sanctions by the EU on June 21, the Belarusian authorities continue toughening their rhetoric. In particular, Belarus introduced “counter-sanctions,” entailing, inter alia, the recalling of its own Ambassador from Brussels and the suspension of Belarusian participation in the Eastern Partnership. This plunges Belarus deeper into international isolation, while at the same time rendering it more susceptible to Russia’s influence in all spheres, including the military one.

Russia capitalizes on these developments to strengthen Belarus’ dependence in the military sphere on Russia.

In this regard, the abovementioned closed-door meeting between Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Nikolai Patrushev is noteworthy, during which the latter suggested that Belarus and Russia should have a consolidated position on the threats in the military and information sphere faced by the two countries. Patrushev also said that the consultations of the Security Councils of Russia and Belarus will focus mainly on hybrid wars, as well as on regional and international military security, and military-technical cooperation. This whole narrative is being developed against the background of the NATO military exercise “Sea Breeze” in the Black Sea.

During the meeting, the sides also discussed the possibilities of deepening cooperation in the military-industrial sector. The same issues were likely at the top of the agenda during the military exhibition MILEX-2021: Belarus is particularly interested in buying Russia’s remotely piloted vehicles “Orion.” This matter is likely to dominate the meeting between Lukashenka and Putin in July-August. Analysts say that the enhancement of integration in the military sphere in parallel with economic integration is the process of the “same nature,” meaning that Russia is prepared to intensify the process of absorption of Belarus. The Belarusian Ambassador in Russia Vladimir Semashko said that the economic integration between the two countries is likely to be completed by January 1, 2022.

Russia seems to fully support Belarus’ drift away from any cooperation with the EU and condemn the sanctions introduced by the West (which also targeted oligarch Mikail Gutseriev).


Belarus wants to use Russian Sputnik Light jabs to vaccinate students

Belarus has made an application for the supply of the Sputnik Light vaccine to the country and expects to receive it by July, the press service of the Ministry of Health reports. It is expected that "Sputnik Light" will be used to vaccinate students.

Belarusian official explains the lack of imported drugs in Belarusian pharmacies

The head of "Belpharmacia" Sergey Litosh commented on the lack of some imported drugs in pharmacies: “Now there are changes in the procedure for state registration within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Most of the enterprises are now re-registering their drugs already under the new procedure, not according to the national Belarusian registration procedure, but according to the procedure within the EAEU. After its completion, the medicinal composition will be replenished. Unfortunately, this process is overly complicated. This is such an objective reason for the lack of some drugs”.

He also stressed that the production of Belarusian medicines is very important, and that the country's medicinal safety also depends on this. Belarus has all the necessary medicines, despite some restrictions to the supply of imported drugs. More than 50% of drugs sold in Belarus are produced domestically, and trends indicate that this number will increase.


Aliaksandr Lukashenka emphasizes the special role of the Orthodox Church in Belarus

On June 25, 2021, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, his son Nikolai, and representatives of the Government visited the main Orthodox monastery in Zhyrovichi. A meeting was held with the hierarchs of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC). They discussed the issues of inter-confessional dialogue in Belarus, the role of the Belarusian Orthodox Church in the state, and reactions to existing threats. Lukashenka emphasized the special importance of the BOC for Belarus and its cooperation with the country's authorities.

Lukashenka's meeting with Orthodox Church hierarchs demonstrates the desire of both institutions to maintain mutual legitimacy.

Currently, there is unconfirmed information about possible requests for autocephaly (independence from the Russian Orthodox Church) from some protest-minded representatives of the BOC. However, the pro-democratic representatives of the Orthodox Church themselves categorically deny this information. It is more likely that the Belarusian authorities and the hierarchs of the BOC themselves create an image of a split and a possible threat in order to suppress opposition both within Belarusian society and within the Church.

Brest hosted a conference supported by the Russian Orthodox Church and Rossotrudnichestvo

On June 22, Brest hosted the two-day international academic conference "God Gives Us the Victory", which was devoted to several historical events, including the 800th anniversary of Russian prince Alexander Nevsky and the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. The event was held at Brest State Technical University. It was attended by the Patriarchal Exarch of all Belarus Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslavl Benjamin, Archbishop Johann of Brest and Kobrin, representatives of the Belarusian government and representatives of the academic and Orthodox communities of Belarus and Russia. Among the organizers of the conference were Brest State Technical University, the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the Russian Center of Science and Culture in Brest (supported by Rossotrudnichestvo), and the Center for Eurasian Studies, a branch of the Russian Social Humanities University in Minsk. Conference participants spoke about the need to protect historical memory, traditional values and the necessity of their popularization. The great importance of the spiritual unity of the Slavic peoples for the victory over the enemies was emphasized.

This conference has a formal character but attracts attention by the composition of the participants, which includes representatives of the Russian and Belarusian Orthodox Churches and governmental officials from both countries and also the support of the Russian agency Rossotrudnichestvo for this kind of event.

It is also interesting to note the use during the event of narratives focusing on "Slavic unity," "victory over enemies," the cult of World War II, and Russia's historical military victories (using Alexander Nevsky as an example). All of these narratives are typical of the promotion of Russian influence in the post-Soviet space.

Internet and Media

Government commission now has authority to identify the pieces of information in media “threatening the national interest”

Belarusian authorities are intensifying repression against the independent media. In particular, the Inter-Departmental Commission on Information Security under the Security Council has been granted the right to evaluate content on the internet to identify the pieces of information threatening the “national interest”. After the identification of the corresponding texts, the media could be temporarily blocked or shut down completely.

This attack further marginalizes the position of the independent media, which leaves no space for objective journalism and increases the role of Russian media.

Belarusian state media say white-red-white flag is a Nazi symbol

In response to sanctions, the Belarusian state media has also increased anti-opposition and anti-Western rhetoric. In particular, the state propagandists called the white-red-white flag the symbol of traitors, “Nazis and collaborators”, while the EU has been compared to the Third Reich. The whole narrative has been used ahead of the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War in order to stir up hatred towards the opposition.

EBU Executive Board suspends Belarusian broadcaster

The European Broadcasting Union's Executive Board decided to suspend Belarusian Tele Radio Company as its member. This means that BTRC will no longer have an access to the EBU services, including sporting and music events, legal and technical research expertise, etc.

Civil Society

Belarus and Russia commemorate the anniversary of the Great Patriotic War

Belarus has held a number of events to commemorate June 22, the date of the beginning of World War II according to existing official interpretations. Many of the events were held with Russian participation. One of them was the roundtable "The Great Patriotic War: the preservation of historical memory — a moral duty of generations," where Russian and Belarusian officials and representatives of universities discussed the politics of memory.

Another example was the presentation of the book "The feat of the Soviet people is immortal...", published by the Permanent Committee of the Union State of Russia and Belarus in the framework of the current joint publishing program for citizens of both countries. The book was presented by Dmitry Mezentsev, State Secretary of the Union State.

The Belarusian Institute of Border Guard in cooperation with Russian colleagues launched the initiative “Combat Unit”, to remember the defenders of the Belarusian frontier district. All these events demonstrate the attempts by Russia to mobilize the pro-Russian population of Belarus (“compatriots”) in the promotion of the Russia-centric picture of history and culture.

Officials and pro-government public organizations, as well as educational institutions in Russia and Belarus actively promote narratives of unified historical memory of the two countries. World War II is one of the most popular topics in this promotion.

Typically, budgetary funds are allocated for this purpose and there are special programs focused on particular objectives of the Union State of Russia and Belarus.