The situation in Belarus is very fluid, volatile, and critical to European security. Belarus may also be key to Russia’s re-establishing “a” Soviet Union lookalike.
In the past few years, many of us have foreseen a Russian soft takeover, we have seen an invasion, and we have seen Belarus pressured economically. Russia, it appears, is taking a softer approach than many have predicted.
Belarusian President Lukashenko is stuck playing a balancing game between soothing Russian feathers and appeasing Western partners.
Still, Russia appears to be determined to bring Belarus back into the Russian-fold. While there does not appear to be any hard proof, the fact that recent shipments of Russian oil to Belarus were deliberately sabotaged may indicate Russian economic warfare. But, then again, it might have been a mistake on a colossal scale. But, bear in mind, mistakes of that scale are usually deliberate when it comes to Russia. Russia has a long history of inventive and unique ‘mistakes’ when dealing with its former Republics in the USSR.
On 30 April, Russia recalled its ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich, and replaced him with Dmitry Mezentsev, a former regional governor. At first glance this decision may seem abrupt – Babich had only held his post since last August – but frictions between Babich and the Belarusian authorities had been growing for some time, and they largely centred around Babich’s frequently undiplomatic actions. More broadly, Moscow’s decision to recall Babich may signify a shift in its approach to engaging with Belarus, as President Alexander Lukashenko attempts to juggle all of his relationships with Russia, China and the West.
President Lukashenko personally asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to dismiss Babich, on the sidelines of the recent Belt and Road forum in Beijing. Babich had strong ties to the Russian security services, particularly the Federal Security Services (FSB), was formerly the head of the republic of Chechnya during the Second Chechen War in 2002–2003, and is close to Putin personally. His appointment, replacing long-serving diplomat Alexander Surikov, was viewed with consternation in Minsk, as a sign that Moscow would be taking a more interventionist approach to Belarus’s affairs.
This certainly seemed to be the case. Babich played a much more obtrusive role in Belarusian politics than his predecessor, and his actions ruffled feathers in Lukashenko’s administration. This was in part because Babich was given additional diplomatic powers as Russia’s representative for trade and economic ties with Belarus. This imbued him with greater authority to negotiate on the government’s behalf and facilitate high-level meetings between Belarusian and Russian officials. However, he often went beyond his official role as an ambassador, criticising Lukashenko in the media, framing Belarus as a mere district of Russia and reminding Belarus of Russia’s economic strength. Even more controversially for Lukashenko, Babich is thought to have convened a meeting with representatives of the Belarusian political opposition, in which he claimed he discussed prospects for deeper cooperation with Russia.
Lukashenko saw Babich’s confrontational approach as reflective of Russia’s broader policy towards Belarus – to curtail any ideas that Belarus may have about greater independence. But it appears that Moscow has listened to Belarus’s complaints, and was concerned that Babich was unnecessarily damaging the relationship. As the weaker political power, most of Belarus’s spats with Russia have resulted in concessions from Belarus. While Lukashenko has in the past protested Russia’s actions with symbolic responses – such as snubbing high-profile summits – he has ultimately always fallen in line with Moscow’s demands. Russia’s slightly more conciliatory move, to recall a serious irritant to Belarus, suggests that Moscow might be rethinking its strategy toward Lukashenko’s administration.
Russia is Belarus’s main trading partner, but the relationship has been strained for years. Since January 2019, Belarus and Russia have been involved in diplomatic spat over Russia’s raising of oil taxes, which Belarus is demanding at lower rates. In recent weeks, Russia and Belarus have become embroiled in another oil-related dispute, this time over the Druzhba pipeline. Part of the pipeline located in Russia was tampered with, and a large consignment of contaminated oil was sent to Belarus, for which Belarus is now demanding compensation. To add fuel to the fire, since December there have been increasing discussions among high-ranking members of Russia’s administration about formalising the Union State, to integrate Belarus and Russia’s political systems and perhaps appoint Putin as its figurehead after his term of office as the president of Russia ends in 2024.
Lukashenko’s attempts to play off the West against Russia have also yielded little. Notwithstanding Belarus’s Eastern Partnership agreement with the EU, there are few tangible Western investments in Belarus. This is in large part due to the EU’s insistence that Belarus improve its human rights record and democratise its political system; Lukashenko would not allow any political reform that would challenge his authority. Most recently in March 2019, the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) declared Belarus non-compliant with almost all of its anti-corruption standards, including failing to improve the independence of the judiciary or law enforcement. Although the EU did ease almost all of itssanctions on 170 individuals in Belarus following the release of some political prisoners in 2016, Belarus remains a challenging investment prospect.
Instead, Belarus is increasingly approaching China as a trade partner that could offset Russia’s influence. Unlike Russia’s political interests in the region, China’s aims in Belarus are mainly economic – Belarus could be a transport route through which China can link up its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with Europe. Transporting products via Belarus would also allow Chinese companies tax-free access to the Russian market and other members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). As a sign of their deepening partnership, Chinese troops in 2018 participated in Belarus’s independence day parade, and in October Belarus and China brokered a visa-free agreement. But China’s investments in Belarus have been piecemeal, and Belarusians complain that Chinese investors are not supporting the local economy, with workers and equipment instead imported from China.
While Lukashenko will continue to try to maintain all these relationships, Russia is likely to remain Belarus’s main trade and security partner. Putin’s attempts to placate Lukashenko by replacing Babich may be a sign that Russia would like to preserve a semblance of the diplomatic relationship. Moscow and Mezentsev’s broader strategy towards Belarus may not fundamentally differ from Babich’s, but the method is likely to be softer.
BANNER IMAGE: Mikhail Babich meets with Vladimir Putin, 2017. Courtesy of President of Russia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI or any other institution.