“Utmost uncertainty” is perhaps the most fitting label summarizing the current situation in Belarus. Against the backdrop of a possible recession, international oil prices plummeted on March 9, in the wake of Russia’s decision to pull out of the so-called OPEC+ agreement with Saudi Arabia, which had previously committed these producers to cutting back on oil exports in the name of retaining reasonably high prices. At the same time, on March 10, the Russian State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) adopted some constitutional amendments that may affect relations with Belarus. Notably, the Duma deputies adopted revised text affirming the primacy of domestic law over international law. This amendment could provide Russia a pretext to withdraw from its earlier commitments within the Eurasian Economic Union (Svaboda.org, March 10), including the pledge to equalize hydrocarbon prices for all members of the Moscow-led bloc by 2025.
Prior to this double-edged watershed, three meaningful events took place. First, Belarus solicited and obtained access to some alternative sources of oil but without assurance in their long-term practicality (see EDM, March 5). Second, on March 5, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei declared that further collaborative work on integration roadmaps with Moscow makes no sense before the agreement about oil deliveries from Russia is hammered out (Naviny.by, March 5). Third, Belarus began holding joint military drills with 28 British Marines at a training ground in Vitebsk Oblast, in the north of the country. The joint drills with the United Kingdom “cannot be considered outside of the political context,” analyst Alexander Klaskovsky is quoted as saying. “The Belarusian leadership knows how Moscow reacts painfully to such a thing” (Reuters, March 3). An identical qualification—that “this is a political demonstration”—was shared by a Polish media outlet, which also stressed that the British military aircraft landed at the major international airport in Minsk as close as possible to the passenger terminal, where journalists video-recorded its arrival (Onet.pl, March 2).
At the same time, the fear of forcible incorporation of Belarus by Russia seems to have receded. Responding to the respective questions of a Lithuanian news portal, two well-known opposition-minded Belarusian commentators, Dzianis Melyantsov of the Minsk Dialogue forum and Andrei Kazakevich of the Political Sphere institute, both opined that this scenario is unlikely (Delfi.lt, March 4). According to Melyantsov, the red line for Belarus not to cross is Belarus’s exit from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). It is this that Russia would definitely not tolerate (Svaboda.org, March 8).
Two questions arise in conjunction with the aforementioned watershed events: How will the dramatic cheapening of oil affect Belarus’s trade war with Russia, and how will it and political changes in Russia (including the possibility that Vladimir Putin remains at the helm of power beyond 2024) affect Belarus’s presidential elections this summer?
As for the former question, low oil prices boost Belarus’s opportunity to negotiate a better deal from Russia. And yet, long term, Belarus is not interested in low prices on crude, because they imply lower prices for refined oil, too, which Belarus exports (Kp.by, March 10). One of Belarus’s two major representatives working in common supranational structures with Russia, Mikhail Myasnikovich, is a veteran of the Belarusian political scene. He currently chairs the Eurasian Economic Commission, which supervises the day-to-day activities of the Eurasian Union. Myasnikovich’s task is notably to make sure hydrocarbon prices are in fact equalized by 2025 and, possibly, even earlier (Sputnik.by, March 1).
As for the presidential elections, likely scheduled for August 30, Lukashenka will run against several presidential hopefuls, one of which is to be determined as a result of regional primaries conducted on behalf of five opposition leaders. The most well-known of those had been Pavel Severinets, co-chair of the still unregistered Christian Democrats. It is not certain whether the State Electoral Commission would register Severinets due to his prior court convictions. In that case, Severinets promised street protests. On March 16, Severinets suddenly declined further participation in the primaries, citing the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that members of local power structures participate in the vote (Tut.by, March 16). Artyom Shraibman, one of the most influential political commentators in Belarus, opined that the growing discontent over poverty (see EDM, February 25) and price hikes is the “wind in [the opposition’s] sails” (Tut.by, March 9).
Other presidential hopefuls will, most probably, include one of the co-chairs of the Speak the Truth political campaign, Andrei Dmitriev, and Oleg Gaidukevich of the Liberal Democratic Party. The latter is embracing approaches and ideas similar if not identical to those of Lukashenka himself, and the former has long been considered a sellout to the authorities by the older and traditionally intransigent opposition. Shraibman believes that a certain polarization is underway on the entire political scene. On the opposition’s side, it is visible in the promotion of leaders with the least appetite for concessions. The problem is these and other opposition leaders do not enjoy much popularity among the electorate. On Lukashenka’s side, polarization is reflected in the fact that the Presidential Administration is now led by Major General Igor Sergiyenko, who, prior to December 2019, worked as deputy chairperson of the Belarusian Committee for State Security (BKGB). In that former capacity, Sergiyenko actually dealt with the opposition (Tut.by, March 9).
It is unlikely that, this time around, Russia will act to support anybody from the ranks of the opposition, even though it reportedly did so in 2006 and 2010—albeit, covertly (Nashe Mneniye, February 24). Moscow Carnegie Center’s Maxim Samorukov believes that though Russia is not going to aid Belarus as much as it did before, it does not see any viable alternative to Lukashenka (Svaboda.org, March 12). And as for Putin’s would-be fifth and sixth presidential terms (see EDM, March 16), it is obvious that he is actually following in Lukashenka’s footsteps. But what Lukashenka attained in a straightforward manner by the referendum of 2004, Putin achieved as a result of diversions and red herrings—like a possible revival of the State Council and so on.
And just like in Russia, where voting for constitutional amendments may take place with much-devalued rubles in people’s wallets, likewise in Belarus, a sagging economy gives little chance to Lukashenka to deliver traditional pre-election handouts to rank-and-file Belarusians.