Will Moscow Repeat “Ukrainian Scenario” In Belarus As Ties Between Putin & Lukashenko Go Sour?

Fuad Muxtarlı Interview 10 May 2019
Will Moscow Repeat “Ukrainian Scenario” In Belarus As Ties Between Putin & Lukashenko Go Sour?

The political crisis between Minsk and Moscow, overt threats from pro-Kremlin politicians against Alexander Lukashenko and the likelihood of repeating the “Ukrainian scenario” in Belarus were discussed with Ukrainian expert Alexander Khara.

- Mr. Khara, what can you say about the latest political scandal between Moscow and Minsk? What has the Russian ambassador done to displease the Belarus leader?

- Now Russia’s former ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich, set a record of brevity in his position (9 months). And this is despite the fact that his predecessor, Alexander Surikov, ranks second among the “diplomatic long-livers” (12 years in Minsk!). It is obvious that the personal qualities of Babich, who became a diplomat after being appointed to the embassy position, played a certain role. His impudently instructive manner caused the nervous reaction of the official Minsk, who hastened to indicate to the ambassador that he “simply did not understand the difference between the federal district and the independent state”.

But it is not necessary to exaggerate the personal factor. Before being sent to the “Belarussian front” in 2016, Moscow proposed Babich to the embassy post in Kiev. Considering the annexation by Russia of Ukraine’s Crimea and the fig leaves of the pseudo-republics (the so-called DNR and LNR) armed aggression in the Donbas, the Ukrainian authorities refused to issue an agrement for him. Ukrainian political analysts dubbed Babich “a professional saboteur”. The reason for such a nervous reaction lies in the Kremlin-set and aggressively implemented tasks of absorbing Belarus.

- What are the main problems that lie at the root of the Russian-Belarusian relations? Is this a political or economic issue?

- Alexander Lukashenko has long exploited nostalgia for the USSR and the “Slavic brotherhood”, receiving political and economic dividends from Russia. Like Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Lukashenko tried to balance between Moscow and the West. I even admit the idea that he harbored some illusions about the possibility of building a semblance of equal relations with Moscow. And this is despite the fact that Belarus periodically came under the weight of energy and trade and economic pressure, not to mention the aggressive information campaign.

But, the annexation of the Crimea and the war in Donbass became an alarming bell for Alexander Grigorievich. He understood that the allied status could not protect him from the Kremlin celestials, who had previously considered him with little, and after 2014, it showed a complete disregard for both accepted conceptual norms and signed documents (UN Charter, OSCE Final Act, bilateral agreements, etc.)

Lukashenko capitalized the Russian-Ukrainian war by providing a negotiating platform (Minsk hosts meetings of the Trilateral Contact Group on Donbass) and turning his country into a transit platform for goods and human flows between the belligerent states (in 2015, Ukraine cut off direct flights from Russia).

Some concessions, in particular, the release of political prisoners made it possible to break the diplomatic blockade in the western direction. Last year, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Jess Mitchell was on a visit to Minsk - the first diplomat of such a high level in the past 20 years. In 2016, the EU-Belarus Coordination Group was created, which filled the gap in relations formed after the scandalous elections of 2010. Lukashenko even revealed a desire to cooperate with NATO.

Belarus is critically dependent on Russia economically. Favorable conditions in the oil and gas sector provided Belarus with revenues of approximately 9% of GDP. But since 2015, the Russian government has been implementing a “tax maneuver,” which brings energy prices to Belarus and the rest of the world.

As a result, in three years Belarus lost almost $8 billion in revenues, and the agreement reached in 2017 only partially compensates for future losses. Obviously, in the aggregate, all this will lead to a slowdown in economic development, a decline in gold and foreign exchange reserves, and an increase in foreign debt.

In short, the “Belarusian economic miracle” ends, and with it the “social contract” - “freedom in exchange for a sandwich”. The Kremlin has a solution to this problem - the absorption of Belarus. Why do they need the governor of this dependent territory at such a price? In addition to eliminating a source of irritation, Moscow will gain complete control over the ways of exporting its energy resources and will strengthen its position in the military-strategic plan.
Three years ago, Lukashenko denied Putin the creation of an air base and the deployment of Iskander on his territory.

Not to mention the threat to Ukraine (from Minsk to Kiev 570 km.), from here Moscow will be able to threaten the Baltic states and Poland. So, the diplomatic rotation connected with the scandalous behavior of Babich is only a cover to the real drama.

- Already in the Russian expert community, on the pages of popular media through the mouth of experts, journalists and politicians, the Kremlin threatens Belarus. There are frank warnings that Russia can repeat the “Ukrainian scenario” in Belarus. What can you say about this?

- Lukashenko, being in the illusion of the possibility of peaceful coexistence with Russia (a good lesson for him!), during his rule, cleaned the social and political field from the patriotic, democratic and nationalist forces. He would have relied on them, but the voids were filled with nostalgia for the Soviet past and the Russian “world”. Thus, only 2.2% of the respondents speak Belarusian at home, about 22% speak either two languages or their mixtures, while the majority, 73%, prefers the Russian language.

44.4% strongly opposed the decommunization (renaming of Soviet names), considering them to be part of their history. During the Great Conversation (communication with the press on March 1 this year), Lukashenko claimed that if he held a referendum on joining Russia tomorrow, 98% of Belarusians would oppose. However, the survey data from December 2016 shows that 64.9% are in favor of an alliance with Russia, 19.1% are joining the EU, and only 13.9% are undecided. How many Belarusians will actually be ready to say no-one can tell before the resistance to aggressive absorption from the “brothers”?

Like other authoritarian leaders, Lukashenko relies on power structures. Sympathy towards Russia is widespread among the military, both because of studying there and from the point of view of Soviet thinking that the main threat to Belarus is the United States and NATO. Given the bitter experience of Ukraine, when key positions in the security and defense sector were occupied not only by Kremlin agents, but by personnel officers of the Russian special services, one can only imagine the degree of infiltration threat. It’s not by chance that the deputy head of the Security Council, Col Andrei Vtyurin, “got caught on a bribe”. They say that the real reason for the arrest is to work in the interests of the “union” state.

Therefore, serious threats from neighbors exist and can be implemented at any time. Whether Lukashenko is ready to effectively counter hybrid or open aggression is an open question. He would start a conversation about the democratic transit of power and enlist the support of the active part of the population. Mitigation of the regime, cessation of political censorship and persecution, democratization gave a positive signal to the West and stimulated its great support in the confrontation with Russia...

- The speculations around Zelensky’s election continue, especially in the Russian media. What exactly will change in the domestic and foreign policy of Ukraine after the change of government?

- Who is Vladimir Zelensky - remains a mystery to most Ukrainians. His election campaign is worth a close look. He was not only able to take advantage of protest sentiments, but also to combine electoral niches often with diametrically opposed views.

He advocates the fight against corruption and the liberalization of economic life. True, for this he needs to acquire a majority in parliament, since the economy belongs to the government portfolio, which is appointed by the Supreme Council. If the existing political configuration does not change, he will try to start the mechanism of early elections, not waiting for October, when the next elections should take place.

One of the vital issues is to stop the aggression of Russia in the Donbas. Even Zelensky did not pass the inauguration, as “gifts” fell from Moscow in the form of cessation of oil supplies, decisions on the distribution of Russian passports in the occupied Donbas and Crimea. In parallel, the Russian president’s godfather, Vladimir Medvedchuk, proposed a “carrot”. In exchange for the actual surrender of Ukraine, we are promised cheap gas and an end to the aggression, the return of the occupied territories. About the Crimea, of course, we are not talking. Obviously, only a political suicide can encroach on such “generous” sentences.

The factor of Russian aggression leaves no chance for Zelensky to continue Ukraine’s movement into NATO. He stated that he personally is a supporter of membership in the Alliance, but considers it necessary to hold a referendum on this matter. The president-elect did not give clarifications on the wording of the question and the time it would be held, but given his promise to occupy the highest post only one cadence and the need for serious work on approaching the criteria for membership, it can be assumed that the plebiscite will take place no earlier than five years.

The course towards integration into the EU is not being questioned either. In general, the tone and style of Ukrainian diplomacy will change rather than its strategic priorities.

We should recall that ambassador Babich, a former KGB officer, was expelled from Belarus, according to the opposition, who was trying to organize the Anschluss of this country with Russia. The deputy state secretary of the republic, the former security chief of Lukashenko, was arrested, according to information from the same sources, he was preparing an attempt on his boss. The head of Beltelecom has also been detained.

Officially for corruption, but another reason is named. According to rumors, he gave under the control of Russia all the channels of communication and traffic control. Almost simultaneously between Lukashenko and Putin at the summit in China there was a high-profile scandal. According to independent Belarusian websites, Lukashenko allegedly lost his temper, got tired, threw a chair and left the congress center with his son Nikolay, where he met with Putin, and then prematurely flew from China to Minsk.