Andrei Liakhovich. Development of the Situation in Belarus in the First Half of May 2012: Main Events and Comments

May 25th, 2012 | By | Category: Belarus, Politics

Lukashenka’s regime is trying to capitalize on worsening of relations between Russia and the United States caused by the issue of the anti-missile defense. It is unlikely that the government is able to get the maximum, i.e. expansion of Russia’s economic support. However, the authorities receive additional guarantees of maintaining the economic support at the current level. At least this year, Russia will not revive sensitive issues in its relations with Belarus.

Introduction:

Lukashenka’s address to the nation and the parliament on May 8 is a program of foreign and domestic policy for 2012 (http://news.tut.by/politics/287942.html). Moreover, taking into account the presidential election in Russia, it is a policy program for quite a long-term period.

In order not to overload this quite lengthy report, I will not comment here on the idea of creating a government in exile announced by some opposition politicians. Opposition in its current state is not a player in the development of situation in Belarus.

Summary:

Lukashenka’s regime is trying to capitalize on worsening of relations between Russia and the United States caused by the issue of the anti-missile defense. It is unlikely that the government is able to get the maximum, i.e. expansion of Russia’s economic support. However, the authorities receive additional guarantees of maintaining the economic support at the current level. At least this year, Russia will not revive sensitive issues in its relations with Belarus.

The authorities get possibility to continue the cold war with the West. It is important for Lukashenka that, after Andrej Sannikau and Zmicier Bandarenka, other personalities who position themselves as leaders, i.e. Mikalaj Statkievich, Paval Sieviaryniec and Zmicier Dashkievich, write petitions for pardon. The government wants to get assurance that no groups within opposition are able to ruin its game with the West, which is possible in not-so-near future, a game similar to the one which was played in the second half of 2010.

Continuation of repression does not mean that the authorities burn bridges in their relations with the West. Lukashenka wants to persuade the West that the latter will not have other partners in Belarus and that cooperation has to be developed on his terms, without asking for major steps towards political liberalization.

The calculations of the authorities are based on the belief that the EU will never agree on expanding the economic sanctions.

News signals about contradictions in relations between Russia and the West: Lukashenka’s reaction

It was announced officially that Lukashenka will make his annual address to the nation and the parliament on April 19. However, two days before April 19, it was announced that the speech was postponed because Lukashenka had dismissed the draft and sent it back for revision. As the press service of the President explained, he ordered revision of certain provisions related to issues of privatization of state property and the country’s foreign policy.

People were the last possible addressee of the speech. In 2011, when the prices rose more than twofold and the average salary shrank to the same extent, the electoral rating of Lukashenka, according to independent sociologists, dropped to the 20% mark. However, even in 2011 Lukashenka was saying that he had been supported by more than 80% of voters at the presidential election on December 19, 2010, and the following year, taking into account “certain worsening of the socio-economic situation”, he estimated his rating at 70%.

The parliament is also not among the first addressees of the speech. During the entire history of existence of this institution after the referendum held on November 24, 1996, the parliament rejected only one draft law submitted by the Presidential Administration. When Lukashenka needed to speed things up, the parliament (de facto, a branch of the Presidential Administration) adopted laws, which were handed down from the Administration, within three days.

The first addressees of the program document, which included the principal ideas of foreign and domestic policy for 2012, were the West and Russia, i.e. the main foreign partners. As it happens rather often in today’s Belarus, the postponement of the address was accompanied by information leakage organized by the authorities. The government tried to do its best so that those who study the development of situation in Belarus – analysts, diplomats, politicians – received information that Lukashenka had found the speechmakers-drafted theses related to privatization to be too liberal. And he allegedly considered the theses on relations with the West to be too confrontational.

Currently, Western companies do not intend to participate in privatization of Belarusian state property. The privatization of assets in 2012 for the amount of USD 2,500,000,000 was one of the terms of the agreement with the Anti-Crisis Fund of the Eurasian Economic Community (which is fully controlled by Russia). The sale of controlling shares of Belarusian enterprises to Russian companies is now the main issue of Russia’s foreign policy towards Belarus.

The announcement that Lukashenka was not satisfied with theses on privatization created suspense: what will be the final decision regarding privatization of major enterprises in 2012? In other words, will the government make steps towards genuine integration, as it is seen by the Kremlin?

This speech of Lukashenka had to be made in the time of the presidential election in Russia. Lukashenka’s address contains some signals to Russia and Putin, not only for 2012, but also for a longer term. Lukashenka’s statements on privatization and relations with Russia and the West were intended for his new old partner Putin for his next presidential term. And taking into account Putin’s intentions and authoritarian trends in Russia, they regarded not only his immediate presidential term.

Probably, the postponement of Lukashenka’s address for rather a long term was related not only to the objective to create suspense and define and highlight the key points, but also with intention to gather more information, first of all, data about the first foreign policy steps of Putin’s administration. Usually, the first steps, including the first official visit abroad, have special significance and reflect foreign policy priorities.

The first foreign policy steps of Putin fully confirmed the opinion of Lukashenka’s team that:

  1. In 2012, Russia will not revive sensitive issues in its relations with Belarus.

Even if Russia talks about Russian companies’ intention to buy Belarusian enterprises, it would be rather in the form of probing than demands.

2. Those levers of pressure on Russia, which Belarus always used, will be efficient during the current (and possibly, the next) presidential term of Putin.

On the eve of Lukashenka’s address, at least three important points of vulnerability of Russia’s and Putin’s position in relations with Belarus were revealed:

– during quite a long period of time, Ukraine will be the priority direction of Russia’s foreign policy activities;

– importance of the Belarusian foothold for Russia increases in light of the deployment of the US anti-missile defense sites in the territory of eastern member states of NATO;

– the Kremlin places primary responsibility for failure of the plans to speed up the creation of the Eurasian Union on the leaders of Kazakhstan; certain cooling in relations between Russia and Kazakhstan is another reason for Moscow not to revive sensitive issues in its relations with Belarus.

Ukrainian issue

Lukashenka’s team has reasons to believe that the main foreign policy issue for Putin’s administration in 2012 will be the relations with Ukraine. Russia will endeavor to prevent or, at least, complicate to the maximum possible extent Ukraine’s movement (while quite a lengthy one) into the EU.

In April – May, Lukashenka’s advisors had probably conveyed to him that ways of putting pressure on Ukraine were being discussed in Russia. In particular, the expert community discusses the figure of twenty billion dollars – this is the sum at which Ukraine estimates its gas transportation system. Ways to force Ukraine into significantly reducing this price are being discussed. And it is only the first arm-twisting act towards Ukraine, which turned out to be defiant and unappeasable even under Yanukovich, to the indignation of the Kremlin.

Conflicts on the issue of anti-missile defense

During his election campaign, Putin used to say that one of the major point of disagreement in relations with the West and the USA was the deployment of anti-missile defense sites in the territory of eastern member states of NATO.

On May 3 and 4, the international conference “The anti-missile defense factor in formation of a new security space”, organized by the Ministry of Defense of Russia, was held in Moscow. High-ranking military men from Belarus attended the conference together with representatives of fifty states (including twenty-eight member states of NATO).

Official representatives of Russia – former President Dmitry Medvedev, Secretary of the Security Council Nikolay Patrushev, Minister of Defense Anatoliy Serdyukov and Chief of General Staff Nikolay Makarov – voiced theses that the deployment of the anti-missile defense inevitably entailed retaliatory measures and created conditions for confrontation and costly arms race.1

A few days before the conference, some high-ranking military men pointed out that the Belarusian foothold would play an important role among the retaliatory measures.

Anti-aircraft missile systems “S-400” capable of intercepting the US interceptor missiles could be deployed in the territory of Belarus.

Also, it was pointed out that the territory of Belarus was the best place to deploy the short-range missiles “Iskander” designed to hit the anti-missile sites located in Poland.

Earlier, such declarations about possibility of deployment of “Iskander” over the Bug River were accompanied by claims of other Russian high-ranking military men in mass media that Lukashenka was an inconsistent ally. This was why Russia would not transfer sophisticated offensive weapons, including the tactical systems “Iskander”, to Belarus.

However, now in Moscow, they talk almost unanimously about possibility of deployment of the export version of tactical systems “Iskander-E” in Belarus. In comparison with the systems “Iskander-M”, with which Russian units are equipped, these systems have two times smaller range – about 200 km. However, it is sufficient to threaten the anti-missile defense sites deployed in Poland.

Finally, a network of military airfields, which are capable to receive the Russian long-range bombers “Tu-22M3”, is available in Belarus from the Soviet era. The deployment in Belarus increases efficiency of these bombers against the anti-missile defense sites, including against US Navy ships used for anti-missile defense.

In order to create and sustain the threat of use of the Belarusian foothold, including against the anti-missile defense sites, Russia will not revive sensitive issues in its relations with Lukashenka’s regime.

Cooling of relations between Russia and Kazakhstan

May 25 marks the anniversary of signing of the treaty on friendship and cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan. On the eve of Putin’s inauguration, it was widely believed among Russian politicians and in expert community that Putin would make his first official visit to Kazakhstan.

However, it was announced on the eve of Putin’s inauguration, which took place on May 7, that Putin would make his first official visit to Belarus on May 31. Even if Putin visits Kazakhstan on May 25, this visit would be informal, i.e. lower in rank.

Lukashenka: ‘Neither Russia, nor Putin have resources to smother Belarus’

Lukashenka refrained from making critical statements in relation to the Russian leadership that could generate discontent in the Kremlin for a long period of time after the Presidential election on December 19, 2010. He was trying to make the West believe that Belarus – Russian relations develop in the best way possible.

Lukashenka’s team considered it to be relevant to tell the newly elected Putin that they would’t make concessions. Lukashenka’s speechwriters included a number of quite clear signals in his speech that wouldn’t please Moscow anyway. The theses were delivered in Lukashenka’s folk-kolkhoz style at that. Therefore, the form of expressions appeared to be quite offensive to Putin.

Some malevolence was present in Lukashenka’s statements about the Belarus-Russia relations. “If somebody hopes that as soon as Putin comes back, they will start smothering us and strangle a loose around our necks, it is just the matter of vain hopes”. Following Lukashenka’s expressions, it appears that his team doesn’t have new illusions regarding the targets of Putin’s administration in respect to Belarus. In other workds, Putin would like to strangle Belarus. However, Putin won’t suppress Belarus this year, since it has restricted resources and opportunities.

Just another time, Lukashenka noted that Belarus wouldn’t follow the requirements, installed by the Anticrisis fund for Belarus as far as the sales of enterprises is concerned. “We have rejected all lists of enterprises to be privatized. However, it was not done to humiliate the workers of enterprises. People react in a highly painful way. They put a question: “Don’t you need us anymore?”

Talking about concrete enterprises, Vice-Premier Vladimir Semahko noted as follows: “Belarus will never ever sell the controlling stock of “Belaruskaliy” shares. According to him, it would be a crime against the state.” Also, Semashko reiterated that Belarus wouldn’t sell the controlling share of Minsk Autumobile Plant.

Regarding the Belarus-Russia relations, Lukashenka has good grounds for optimism within this year and later. He can surmise that Putin would be bogged down in Ukraine and that the problem of installment of anti-missile system objects would be up-to-date etc.

Motto for Europeans and Americans: You can’t break us. You can bury us”

On May 8, Lukashenka stated as follows: “Let’s be frank! When we had very high costs for energy carriers, Russia understood that another year of implementing such a policy would push Belarus from Russia forever. Therefore, they carefully retreated. Would you like to say that Putin will trigger the same backflash? No, he won’t.”

He is cunning. Apparently, his team understands pretty well that the main tool of pressure on Russia is to improve relations and further develop cooperation with the West.

Despite the failure of attempts to improve relations with the West in the second half of 2010, the policy was partically a success, since Lukashenka managed to convince Russia that he would be able to change the existing situation in relations with the West. Therefore, the Kremlin made certain concessions on the energy carriers etc. In some experts’ opinion, it also paid the unreasonably high price for ‘Beltransgas’.

On May 8, 2012, Lukashenka stated that he wouldn’t make concessions to the West and called the parties to a dialogue at his/her terms. “It is useless to make attempts to break us, to bend us, to step with a knee or a whole foot on the throat.”

He didn’t deliver any statements, concerning the fate of political prisoners during the speech. However, he ordered the government “to prepare quickly a draft bill on amnesty to be dedicated to the main state holiday – Independence Day, celebrated on July 3rd.

Some colleagues of mine have noted that apparently the authorities would release the political prisoners by July 3rd. Valer Karbalevich noted as follows:

On the one hand, Lukashenka will meet the EU demands. On the other hand, the public attention won’t be so focused on the release of political prisoners, since the latter will “dissolve” among two-three thousands of other prisoners. And it will be possible to state that Lukashenka didn’t take any personal decisions, regarding the release, and that the political prisoners were liberated by law.”

I wish I were mistaken, but I have less optimistic forecasts, regarding the release of political prisoners in 2012.

Lukashenka put the whole blame on the opposition for breaking down a dialogue between the official authorities and the West in the second half 2010 in his speech on May 8, 2012.

We developed the so-called civil society, supported the public dialogue, ensured transparent and free conditions for participation in elections, as well as complete freedom for candidates. We hoped to deepen the dialogue with Europe, the United States of America etc. We hoped to reform the so-called civil society, to improve the political system. However, the West and the ‘fifth column’ decided the other way round. Not only did they reject the dialogue. They started an attack on the country through “the firth column” and sanctions.”

Lukashenka stated that an appeal for mercy would be a pre-condition for liberation of political prisoners. Apparently, he considers such a step as a certain guarantee that the Square leaders – 2010 won’t spoil his game. People won’t follow them. At the same time, the atmosphere of fear, created and supported by him in the society prevents other leaders from growing up.

1 In particular, Patrushev said that already by 2020 the European layer of the American anti-missile defense would be able to intercept Russian missiles. According to General Makarov, the US military continue to rapidly improve information means and firepower of this system – they are increasing their range and the speed of interceptor missiles and improve their pointing accuracy. At the same time, the deployment sites get closer to the Russian borders.

CENTERFORPOLITICALEDUCATION

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