Belarus: The planned elections and an unplanned crisis

Yuri Tsarik, Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies (Minsk, Belarus)

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May saw a slight decrease in foreign policy activity and intensification of domestic politics in Belarus. This is the result of preparations for the upcoming elections and the reform of the Constitution, as well as the crisis around the Ministry of Interior Affairs.

Domestic policy

Traffic cop: Kidnaping or suicide?

On May 16, social media followed by mass media reported on the kidnapping of Yevgeniy Potapovich, a traffic policeman in Mogilev Oblast, who was found dead later. Initially, the investigators suggested that he was kidnapped and murdered. Later, the law enforcers accepted the suicide version as the main one. Before this, the police (militsiya in Belarus – transl.) conducted measures of “special influence” towards the Roma community in Mogilev Oblast. These included mass arrests and “intense” interrogations, according to those involved.

Two aspects make this a remarkable incident. Firstly, the fact that social media (especially Telegram) covered it more effectively than the media (the largest Telegram channel in Belarus hit 100,000 subscribers in May). Secondly, the Minister of Interior notably refused to apologize to the Roma community outraged by the harsh police actions. The leadership of the Presidential Administration and Mogilev Oblast did it on behalf of the authorities instead. Such a “special position” of the Ministry of Interior Affairs, which is opposed to the position of the Presidential Administration, is an unusual phenomenon for Belarus. Although such “division of roles” is probably pre-agreed, the May crisis, coupled with other scandals, somewhat weakened the apparatus positions of the Interior Minister.

Constitutional reform and elections

The discussion around the upcoming constitutional reform and election campaigns in Belarus is rather atypical. In April, Aleksander Lukashenko said about the need to redistribute mandates from president to other “branches of power”, including the Council of Ministers, the National Bank and the National Assembly. In May, however, a slightly different agenda for the constitutional reform was declared by both the chairman of the Council of the Republic of Belarus and the head of the Central Election Commission of Belarus, aimed at activating local government, introducing direct elections of village councils, and possibly city councils later. Importantly, these two agendas do not contradict one another. They reflect the way the authorities view the transition of power aimed at changing the very institutional basis of government in Belarus. In terms of social policy, these proposals imply the removal of a range of the state’s obligations at the local level and a transfer of responsibility for the implementation to citizens and civil society.

According to President Lukashenko, he expects the respective proposals primarily from the Constitutional Court for the discussion of the constitutional reform, while not commenting on proposals from the Central Election Commission. The board of the Central Election Commission did not attend the meeting on election campaigns with President Lukashenko in May. And Lidia Yermoshina, the chair of the Central Election Commission of Belarus, said that she was considering leaving her post after these campaigns.

Foreign policy and economy

Under Russia’s pressure

Internationally, a pause came in the turbulent relations between Belarus and Russia. After the election schedules were changed and Russia’s notorious ambassador Mikhail Babich was forced to go back to Russia (some think that this happened after Belarus got compromising materials against Babich as a result of interrogating Andrey Vtyurin, Deputy State Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus, who had been arrested earlier), Moscow launched some changes on the Belarusian vector. Ambassador Dmitry Mezentsev was sent to Minsk with a “diplomatic” message: “there is no need to focus on what has not been done”. This means that Belarus was offered to accept that a number of the issues in its interest cannot be solved, so it should be happy with what it has.

At the same time, the Rosselkhoznadzor, Russia’s agriculture produce regulator, has done yet another series of confiscations and introduced additional restrictions on Belarusian goods.  The Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development is delaying its next tranche of $200 million under the lending program for Belarus. In addition to this, Russia’s Ministry of Finance has “hung in the air” the issuing a $600-million loan to Belarus.

Meanwhile, Russian sources are conducting a massive operation on social media. The goal is to create an impression that Belarus and Russia are allegedly actively working on serious changes in the regulatory framework of cooperation, that would lead to “deeper integration”, and, in fact, to subordination of Belarus to Moscow’s will. In reality, the joint Belarus-Russia working group is not discussing any fateful or geopolitically significant issues. It primarily talks about economic aspects of integration.

Moreover, the Belarusian side has switched to the new tactics in discussing integration issues, taking into account the lessons of the past. Minsk leaves energy cooperation in the bilateral format (given the fact that the single Eurasian Economic Union oil and gas market will not be established until 2025, and there is no special progress in that direction anyway). Instead,  Belarus links the compensation for losses caused by Russia’s oil tax maneuver to the setting of a “fair price” for Russian gas. This means that Belarus will not demand any compensation if Russia cuts the price of natural gas. At the same time, the Belarusian leadership brings the debate on access to Russian market to the EAEU forum where Belarus opposes Russia jointly with Kazakhstan, as well as Armenia and Kyrgyzstan to a smaller extent — they are also interested in unimpeded access to the Russian market and minimization of consequences caused by Russia’s counter-sanctions.

President Lukashenko followed that line at the EAEU summit in Nur-Sultan in May. So did Foreign Affairs Minister Vladimir Makei in his meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, and Prime Minister Syarhey Rumas in discussions with Russia’s PM Dmitry Medvedev. In addition, even President Lukashenko’s speech, usually sharp, was conspicuously restrained and non-confrontational. This indicates that the Belarusian side has a strategy for the foreseeable future at least.

Overall, the contamination of the Druzhba pipeline with chlororganic compounds benefits Belarus. The harsh reaction of European companies to the incident (they refused to pay for the contaminated oil) leaves Minsk hopeful that it will not be alone in its claims to Moscow.

At the same time, Belarus obviously needs to compensate for the loss to its economy caused by this incident. It forced Belarusian oil processing plants to decrease output. In April, the oil processing output in Vitebsk Oblast shrank 29.9%, followed by 15.8% in Gomel Oblast.  As a result, Belarus’ foreign trade indicators deteriorated sharply. Its trade deficit was $882.5mn in April 2019. Its exports fell 2% compared to 2018, while imports grew 10.6%. Overall, trade deficit after four months of 2019 was $1.919bn compared to $1.538bn in 2018.

Meanwhile, disturbing trends come from Ukraine. Belarusian leadership is concerned about oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi using his influence over the administration of newly elected president Volodymyr Zelenskyi to squeeze Belarusian exporters of oil products out of the Ukrainian market. Against this background positive news for Minks came from Lithuania. Gitanas Nauseda won the presidential election in Lithuania. He holds a constructive position on cooperation with Belarus. This will hardly deliver a quick change of the situation around the Belarusian nuclear power plant (scheduled to be launched this year). But this may well signal that disagreements on this will no longer block initiatives, such as the signing of the Belarus-EU agreement on simplified visa regime and readmission.