Belarus has finally decided on the date of the parliamentary and presidential elections. Russia has recalled its notorious ambassador, but its economic pressure continues.
Domestic policy: Elections and personnel purging
In April Belarusian authorities decided on the election campaigns in the country. Contrary to expectations and projections, the parliamentary election will be held first in mid-September 2019. The presidential election will take place “as scheduled”, according to President Lukashenko, which most likely means August 30, 2020. Many observers thought that it would make more sense to hold the presidential election in 2019 as financial, economic and other consequences of Moscow’s pressure remain relatively constrained and predictable. In his speech, President Lukashenko mentioned this point and said that he would not try to use this comfortable situation.
The news about parliamentary election in 2019 pushed some experts to suggest that the authorities might conduct a constitutional reform in the period between elections, using the powers of the newly-elected Belarusian parliament to that end. Lukashenko once again spoke about the reform in his address to the Belarusian people and the National Convention (the reform entails redistribution of powers from president to government, National Bank and parliament, greater role of political parties). However, Belarusian leader said earlier that the Constitution would be amended in the course of five years, and that he would run in the upcoming presidential election. Therefore, the most likely scenario is for the transition to take place after Lukashenko is elected in the 2020 presidential election.
The experience of Kazakhstan shows that this formula is the safest one.
The implementation of the Kazakhstan-style transition, however, takes a lot of efforts in consolidating Belarusian elites. The past month has shown that this is not yet perfect.
The arrest of Andrey Vtiurun, Deputy State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus, was a sensation in the country. The move was allegedly triggered by the bribe this top security official received for dealing with the delivery of equipment for the state-owned Beltelecom telecoms plant (its director general was detained too). But the Russian background and Vtiurin’s pro-Russian political position played a role in this decision. Lukashenko realizes that the Russian influence on the government apparatus and security/law enforcement agencies is the main vulnerability of his regime. He is likely to continue actions to eliminate that vulnerability.
Another important factor is that pro-Russian sentiments prevail in Belarusian society. The population is unlikely to support Lukashenko’s attempts to criticize Russia. Therefore, Lukashenko avoided direct accusations of Moscow in his annual address and tried to gain support of his traditional, largely pro-Russian electorate. It is increasingly difficult to do so with the Kremlin’s aggressive actions in the background.
April was marked by further escalation of restrictive measures in trade applied by Russia against Belarus. Moscow continued the policy of rough restriction of sanctioned produce re-export schemes through the Belarus territory. Russia’s restrictions hit both the grey and the fully legitimate businesses. The decision to stop the imports of bone-in beef without the certificate on mad cow disease from the World Organization for Animal Health hit 70% of Belarusian beef exports to Russia.
Meanwhile, attempts to diversify its foreign trade and decrease its dependence on the Russian market are so far moving slowly, alternating between success and failures. Belarus has managed to significantly increase export to China and decrease the share of potassium fertilizers in it. Further progress in Belarus-Chinese cooperation largely depends on progress in Belarus-EU relations. In this segment, Minsk still has little to boast about: while the EU is willing to allocate more resources to programs in Belarus, the key agreements between Minsk and Brussels remain unsigned.
Given the 2019-2020 election calendar announced by Lukashenko, however, real money presently matters more for Minsk than strategic prospects. Therefore, the placement of US $500mn-worth five-year bonds at the Irish Stock Exchange by the state Development Bank at 6.75% per annum can qualify as an important victory of the Belarusian government (and of the country’s Ministry of Finance and National Bank). Especially as the loans (US $600mln as interstate loan and US $200mn under the program of cooperation with the Eurasian Fund for Stabilisation and Development) from Moscow have been approved in rhetoric, but “frozen” in reality.
Ukraine was a source of concern for the Belarusian authorities in April. Among other things, Minsk worries that Volodymyr Zelenskyi, the winner of the presidential election supported by “oligarch” Ihor Kolomoiskyi, will serve the interests of his sponsor. Given that Kolomoiskyi lobbied for restrictions of Belarusian (and Russian) oil products to Ukraine back in 2018, this may lead to serious financial losses in Minsk. Moreover, Kolomoiskyi-owned Kremenchuk Oil Refinery is in a perfect position with the exports of Belarusian oil products curtailed recently after contaminated unprocessed Russian oil got into the Druzhba pipeline.
Illusions and reality of victories
The key foreign policy news in April was probably the suspension of Mikhail Babich as Ambassador of Russia to Belarus and Russia’s special envoy for trade and economic cooperation with Belarus. The decision was preceded by numerous exchanges between Babich and Belarusian MFA, public criticism of the Russian diplomat from Lukashenko, and a wave of rumors and speculations on the movement towards “deeper integration” which the Russian side launched with active engagement of Babich. He was replaced by Dmitri Mezentsev, member of the Federation Council and former governor of Irkutsk Oblast. The position of special envoy for trade and economic cooperation in Belarus remains vacant. Rumor has it that Babich will replace Vladislav Surkov as the assistant to Russia’s President in charge of the “unrecognized states”, including “republics” in South-Eastern Ukraine.
Given the sharpness of the exchange between Babich and Belarusian authorities in January-March 2019, unprecedented in the diplomatic practice, many commentators see his withdrawal as Lukashenko’s victory. At the same time, experts point to the fact that Babich was only fulfilling the Kremlin’s instructions, while its “offensive” strategic priorities with regard to Belarus remain unchanged after his withdrawal. This means that the new appointee will conduct the same policy of increasing pressure on Minsk, even if in a softer format compared to his predecessor.