Belarus’s relations with Russia, the country’s most powerful neighbor and donor, have markedly deteriorated in recent weeks. On the surface, nothing seems to be further complicating the Belarusian-Russian relationship, beyond Russia’s so-called oil-tax maneuver (making oil more expensive for Belarus—see EDM, January 14) and hardline pronouncements by Russian Ambassador Mikhail Babich (see EDM, March 19). In fact, in early April, Russia decided to issue a loan to Belarus of upwards of $600 million to refinance the latter’s accumulated debt to Moscow. Also, the seventh tranche of the credit line from the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development, amounting to $200 million, may be issued to Belarus before the end of the month (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, April 2).
But despite those aforementioned seemingly positive trends, on April 11, during his meeting with government ministers, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka chided that Russia, itself under Western sanctions, had imposed “sanctions” on Belarus and is “twisting our arms.” He further argued that, in response, Belarus should take certain measures, like starting up repairs on the Druzhba transit oil pipeline. Those repairs, which were repeatedly delayed to keep the Russian oil flowing, have been long overdue. Lukashenka stipulated that it is time for Belarus to reassert itself instead of “turning the right cheek after being beaten on the left one” (Tut.by, April 11). On the eve of this meeting, Russia’s agricultural control agency apparently suspended imports of fruits and vegetables from Belarus under the suspicion that they were actually products re-exported from Poland. Russia banned agricultural imports from European Union members several years ago, in response to EU sanctions related to Russian aggression against Ukraine.
In turn, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov suggested that, while he understands the emotions of brotherly partners, “sanctions” is not the proper word to use in this context (Naviny.by, April 11). Additionally, Nikolay Tokarev, the president of Transneft, Russia’s major oil transit pipeline operator, declared that, to his knowledge, the Druzhba pipeline is in satisfactory shape; but if not, his company is ready to send 16 repair teams to resolve the problem (TASS, April 12). Earlier, when Minsk announced its intention to increase oil transit tariffs by 23 percent to compensate for Moscow’s tax maneuver price hike, a Russian government expert explained that such a measure would only trigger further reassignments of Russia’s Europe-bound oil to the ports of Leningrad Oblast and the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk (Eurasia Expert, April 11).
Some analysts point out, however, that Minsk’s current assertive posture is driven more by upcoming transit negotiations than recent “sanctions.” For instance, Yury Drakokhrust, of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Tut.by, suspects that the true reason for Lukashenka’s current wrath is not connected to the Russian agricultural import bans. Rather, it is a bargaining chip in anticipation of the upcoming announcement of Russia’s natural gas prices for Belarus starting from 2020. According to Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Petrishenko, the country’s former ambassador to Moscow, this announcement is due on April 30 (Tut.by, April 11). Therefore, it is a matter of high importance to Belarus, which uses gas for many purposes, including at thermal stations that rely on 73 percent of imported Russian natural gas for operation. Drakokhrust reminded readers that, back in 2007, Lukashenka indeed interrupted oil transit from Russia for a couple of days and, as a result, won some concessions from Russia (Tut.by, April 12).
To further complicate bilateral relations, Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky appealed to his Belarusian counterpart, Yury Bondar, on the need to “protect the Russian language.” The pretext of that appeal rests on Russian disappearing from signs in major Belarusian cities, yielding to Belarusian and in some cases (as with the Minsk rail terminal) to Belarusian and English. In response to Medinsky’s appeal, Bondar expressed, “Nothing threatens Russian in Belarus. On the contrary, we are now thinking about state programs that would popularize Belarusian” (Tut.by, April 12).
Indeed, the context of Medinsky’s appeal makes it rather counterproductive. This is not only because Russian still dominates all spheres of communication in Belarus, but also because the degree of its dominance is perceived as awkward by some Belarusians. Of course, not all Belarusians share this sentiment. For example, Artyom Agafonov, who chairs the Civic Consensus movement, welcomed Medinsky’s statement since it aligns with petitions Agafonov directed to Minsk authorities about the necessity of retaining Russian-language signage (Facebook.com/artem.agafonov, April 13). But at least he is a citizen of Belarus. Whereas, public expressions of concern over the language on signs and posters in Belarusian cities by an official of a different country, particularly when uttered amidst serious complications in bilateral relations, testifies to a certain tone-deafness on the part of the Russian minister.
On his Radio Liberty talk show “Prague Accent,” Drakokhrust queried why Lukashenka does not take advantage of Russia’s actions to boost levels of national consolidation in Belarus. The participants of the show did not show unanimity. While some adhered to a traditional opposition point of view that in the face of external danger Lukashenka chooses to protect himself instead of protecting Belarus, Andrei Kazakevich, introduced as the director of the Minsk-based Political Sphere Institute, suggested that Belarusian authorities are neither consistent nor homogenous in their approach. That said, throughout the last five years, significant progress was made in the area of national identity, and the “national perspective” on Belarusian history made it into official discourse (Svaboda.org, April 13).
Regarding the alleged cases of undermining national consolidation, however, Drakakhrust had several examples in mind: He placed special emphasis on the removal of crosses in Kuropaty (see EDM, April 8) and a police search at the Minsk headquarters of Belsat, a satellite television channel aimed at Belarus and broadcast from Warsaw. Belsat was denied accreditation in Belarus; yet, it continues to work, enjoying a modest rank as the 20th most popular media outlet in the country (NashaNiva, December 6, 2018). This time, after authorities searched and expropriated Belsat’s computer hard drives, all of the TV channel’s hardware was returned with apologies several hours later (Svaboda.org, April 13). That gave rise to speculation that factions may be fighting each other in the corridors of power—which could even imply that Lukashenka’s visit to Poland is in the works.
A calming of passions would arguably benefit Belarusians as a whole. But for now, there is no certainty regarding this outcome.