On April 25–27, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka paid a visit to China to participate in the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, devoted to the Chinese government’s continental strategy of infrastructure development and investments in 152 countries in Eurasia and around the world. The first such forum took place in May 2017 and drew 29 foreign heads of state and representatives from more than 130 countries (Gov.cn, May 12, 2017). This time, 37 national leaders attended, including Vladimir Putin of Russia and the heads of four out of five Central Asian states. Belarus is positioned to serve as one of the main logistics hubs in this modern incarnation of the Silk Road—notably, the country hosts the Great Stone, a 90-square-kilometer Chinese-Belarusian Industrial Park, near Minsk. Lukashenka used the visit to hold bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the Forum with Chinese, Russian, Uzbekistani, Serbian, and other leaders.
At least two issues came up during his talks with Putin. First, Lukashenka demanded that Ambassador Mikhail Babich of Russia be replaced. And several days later, on April 30, Russian media announced that high-profile sources confirmed the envoy was being recalled from Minsk (Kommersant, April 30). Babich, who was appointed ambassador in August 2018, managed to repeatedly incur the wrath of Belarusian authorities during his short tenure (see EDM, March 19, April 17). Reportedly, his probable replacement will be Dmitry Mezentsev. Like Babich’s predecessor, Mezentsev is a former provincial governor (RBC, April 30). The second issue discussed during Lukashenka’s meeting with Putin was an accident at the Druzhba oil pipeline. According to the Belarusian state oil company Belneftekhim, the Mozyr oil refinery found that samples of crude oil delivered to it from Russia exceeded their permitted levels of chlorine-organic compounds by 100 times. These compounds are highly corrosive and can clog heat-exchange equipment. About one million tons of this unusable oil was headed to the Mozyr refinery; the damage to the refinery’s equipment could cost tens of millions of dollars to fix (CTV, April 20).
According to Lukashenka, Putin assured him that the issue would be subject to serious investigation (Belta, April 27). Indeed, on April 26, Russia’s monopoly pipeline operator Transneft filed criminal charges against Samaratransneft-Terminal, a private company that was supposed to verify the quality of the oil. Premeditated wrongdoing is under suspicion (Kommersant, April 26). On April 26, four-party negotiations took place in Minsk between Transneft, Belneftekhim, and downstream oil transit operators from Poland and Ukraine (Naviny, April 26).
Alexander Klaskovsky, a Belarusian opposition-minded journalist, rejected popular conspiracy theories that Russia sent this corrosive oil to Belarus as punishment for Lukashenka’s previous pledge to suspend oil transit due to repairs and to increase the transit fee Russia would need to pay by 23 percent (see EDM, April 17, 26). Moscow sustained significant damage as a result—both material and image-related, he noted. Moreover, now Minsk can take advantage of the situation and double down on its demands that Moscow compensate Belarus for Russia’s oil tax maneuver (Naviny, April 26). The Russian “patriotic” online daily Vzglyad confirms this line of reasoning. “Belarus […] judiciously made a mountain out of a molehill. Still, chlorine-organic compounds were discovered and Transneft did acknowledge it; so Putin began to question how, under such complicated relations, could you hand such a gift to Belarus?” (Vzglyad, April 26).
According to Alexander Chubryk from the Minsk-based Institute of Privatization and Management, the current predicament is beneficial for Belarus as it pushes it to diversify its sources of hydrocarbons (Svaboda.org, April 24). However, Artyom Shraibman of Tut.by suggests current seaport and transit infrastructure in Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine precludes Belarus from replacing much Russian oil in the foreseeable future. The latter is also going to be cheaper until Russia’s tax maneuver eliminates this advantage within five years. Nevertheless, Shraibman believes that because of difficult relations and accumulated mutual claims, a seemingly technical problem may become a new focal point of confrontation for Belarus and Russia (Carnegie.ru, April 25).
The episode exacerbates the view of some post-Soviet analysts that no amount of loyalty to Russia is enough to prevent trauma in bilateral relations (NM, April 18). Russia, however, is learning from its mistakes and exceedingly using soft power. According to Andrei Eliseyev, a contributor to the web-based International Strategic Expert Network for Security, today there are about 40 active websites devoted to post-Soviet developments, 15 of which are entirely devoted to Belarus (Tut.by, April 18). A report analyzing this initiative observes that Russia’s soft power is currently affecting Belarus the way it previously influenced eastern Ukraine (Reform.by, April 23). Whether true or not, this is a mirror reflection of what “patriotic” Russian sites like Regnum and Eurasia Daily charge the West with doing to “hoodwink” Ukraine and how it is allegedly baiting Belarus today.
To be sure, the universe is full of symmetries; but as some scientists observe, “there’s a sense in which symmetry is the opposite of information. If I showed you one wing of a butterfly, you could easily sketch the other […] so by contrast, if we want to represent or store new information, we need to find ways to break the symmetry” (Aeon, April 10, 2018). Case in point: “Mentally, for Both Lukashenka and Zelensky [Ukraine’s president-elect] Moscow Is the Capital,” reads a headline of the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (Svaboda.org, April 20, 2019). Yet, this exemplar of symmetric thinking seems misleading and counterproductive.
Much more credible are the asymmetries between the two leaders and their respective countries. Suffice it to recall that Zelensky’s victory was conditioned by the world’s lowest trust in the government—only 9 percent of Ukrainians expressed faith in their leadership. This is far below the regional median for former Soviet states (48 percent) as well as the global average (56 percent) in 2018 (Gallup.com, March 21). While there are no synchronous estimates for Belarus, the fact that Lukashenka has been repeatedly named the most popular foreign national leader in Ukraine is telling. As the Ukrainian research center New Europe put it two months before the elections, Ukrainians want “a leader that would be much like Lukashenka, only a Euro-integrator”—i.e., able to facilitate Ukraine’s accession to the European Union (UkrPravda, February 14).
Staying away from contagious clichés, therefore, is highly desirable. Despite all the imperfections of its political system, Belarus continues to exceed expectations. And the prompt replacement of the Russian ambassador in response to Lukashenka’s demand is yet another confirmation of Minsk’s political leverage.