Belarus: Fighting for operation space

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

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When a soldier died on one of its military bases, this situation again drew attention to the contradictions among the security forces of Belarus. Yet its tensions with Russia continue to influence both the country’s economy and its behaviour on the international arena.

Domestic Policy. Conflict among security officials

The main October political developments took place in the staff field. After 5, October news that a private Alexandr Korzhych died on a military base that served as a training center for the warrant officers and junior specialists in the town of Pechy, a campaign aimed at revealing the circumstances of this case was launched in the public space. Despite this military base being notorious for some problems related to the military hazing and bullying, at first the Ministry of Defence chose a strategy of ignoring the allegations. The investigative committee of Belarus supported this strategy by declaring a suicide version as the most probable one.

Some circumstances of the situation around the Korzhych’s death signaled that the campaign against the Ministry of Defense of Belarus may not only be a demonstration of the public initiative, but also a staff attack. For instance, an important role in the crisis dynamics escalating was played by the untimely statements made by the representatives of the investigative committee, with the petition calling for the resignation of the Defence Minister Andrei Raukou published on 11, October exactly when the minister and the Belarusian President were absent in Belarus, and on top of that, it was most poorly prepared. It is remarkable that the resignation demand was not made by the opposing politicians, which, in principle, should have been interested in accumulating the political capital, but by the Gomel advocates whose activity is usually directed at solving some specific issues and problems.

In the middle of the campaign, dealing a heavy blow to the Ministry of Defence, the President Lukashenko had a meeting with the security forces representatives. During the meeting the head of the state made several serious claims to the law enforcement bodies and special forces, regarding both their professional activities and corruption amongst them. The meeting resulted in the Operative-Analytical Centre management (that deals with the electronic communication controlling) being dismissed and stopping to fulfil its obligations, and the Minister of Internal Affairs, according to the independent mass media , hospitalization for a short term.

Economy. Back to future reforms?

The negative dynamics in the relations with Russia and a present opportunity to further deepen its relations with the EU push Belarus to enlarge its own space in order to be able to maneuver and provide more solid economic stability. This imperative results in Minsk having an agenda of the economic reforms, which were temporarily rejected in the middle of 2017  when the IMF talks came to a halt. The 2016 results showed that despite the foreign economy recovery and the outrunning export growth the state sector of economy did not become more stable and successful. The debt obligations acquired earlier prove to be impossible to service under the new conditions. For example, in October a new portion of the state support was given to “Gomselmash”.

The cross-subsidies liquidation remains the main issue on the Belarusian authorities agenda. Not only is this step required by the IMF, this is also exactly what the current situation the Belarusian economy finds itself in demands. However, when solving this issue the authorities are forced to balance between the economic interests, on the one hand, and a fear of the people’s dissatisfaction resulting in protests, on the other hand.

In October Aleksandr Lukashenko had to publicly correct the government plans to increase the tariffs for housing and public utilities services. According to the President, these plans should be synchronized with the growth of wages in the Belarusian economy. This position, however, does not only reflect his care for the social and political stability but also the mistrust of the Belarusian authorities to such mechanism of the social policy as the address housing subsidies. In the course of the meeting on the housing and public utilities services, the President demanded to widen a list of reasons for providing such subsidies on the basis of a detecting principle.

In the meantime the authorities are going for the higher wages and pensions, despite the record-setting low price growth in the economy. The prices for petrol , gas  and public transport  in Minsk increased simultaneously. It is obvious that social dissatisfaction becomes one of the permanent factors for the economic and political dynamics in the foreseeable perspective in Belarus.

Foreign Policy. Preparing for new shocks

In the meantime, October was marked by the escalation of an entire range of the “old” controversial issues in the Belarus–Russia relations. Several Russian officials including Yury Chaika, the Prosecutor General of Russia, and Aleksandr Gorovoy, the Russian Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, simultaneously made a statement on the issue of the border between Belarus and Russia. According to them, an open border allegedly contributes to the drugs inflow to Russia, as well as lowers the security level with regard to the counteractions to terrorism. This is the reason why not later than May, 2018 the Russian authorities are launching the temporary border control points on the Belarusian-Russian border (with the border control points both on the highways and railways) due to the Football World Cup taking place in Russia. Such developments will hit hard the “grey economy” related transborder entrepreneurial acitivities conducted by the people living in the Eastern regions of Belarus. And this, in its turn, will facilitate a dramatic escalation of the tensions in these regions.

In order to prevent such developments Minsk can only agree to implement the general migration and visa policy, which is a step the Belarusian authorities are ready to make. The problem remains, however, that Minsk and Moscow perceive such actions in a different way. If Belarus believes that a full exchange of information on visas and residence permits issued is a sufficient measure, Russia, on the contrary, demands a full control over crossing the entire Belarusian border, as well as a tougher implementation of the Russian limitations on entrance of the third country citizens by the Belarusian side. These requests made by Kremlin are absolutely unacceptable for Belarus.

Russia demands a full control over crossing the entire Belarusian border, as well as a tougher implementation of the Russian limitations on entrance of the third country citizens by the Belarusian side

The Russian side also continued its pressure regarding the issue of the redirecting transit of the Belarusian oil products from the Lithuanian and Latvian ports to the Russian ones. Some statements made by the Russian participants  during the negotiations made an impression of Minsk being “ready” for serious concessions in this sphere. However, such steps may cause some image and international policy aftermath that is unlikely to be acceptable for Belarus.

October was also marked by the Moscow’s proactive position on its favourite field of the “trade battles”. This time the Russian authorities aimed at apples, tomatoes, meat and dairy produce  imported from Belarus. The Russian combine manufacturers also turned to the authorities for help  to protect the market from the Belarusian goods.

However, against this backdrop the relations of Belarus and the EU can be characterized as quite optimistic. The President of Belarus Lukashenko was personally invited to Brussels for the Eastern Partnership Summit on 24, November, and the Belarusian government revealed its ambitious plans to instensify the export to the EU countries. The sociological survey results demonstrated  that the people of Belarus trust the European Union more than the Eurasian Economic Union Belarus is a member of and this is a quite important telling signal.