2019 Parliamentary Elections and New Constitution
In spite of the reduced oil donations from Russia’s side and imposed limitations on Belarusian agricultural exports, Lukashenka will not concede to steps of real integration (unification of currencies, creating common customs, creating supranational institutions within the union state etc.).
Currently, the statements of the Belarusian side on diversification of oil supplies is an attempt to blackmail Russia. In reality, the Lukashenka team do not take any measures aimed to diversify oil supplies. It is highly unlikely that in response to increasing US military contingent in Poland Lukashenka would agree to deploy Russian military contingent or Russian military bases.
Lukashenka will bid for the presidency at the presidential elections that are to take place in 2020, after the parliamentary elections. In the next presidential term, he will be thinking of a successor. Lukashenka speaks of a new Constitution, meaning the forthcoming hand over of the authority to a successor.
Despite the growing disagreements in the issues of the integration within the union state, the Kremlin and Lukashenka will not announce the end to the project.
Belarus-Russia Relations: disagreements on integration
On December 13, 2018, the Vice Premier of Russia Dmitriy Medvedev claimed: “Russia is ready to keep moving on the way of building up the union state, including the creation of the single currency emission centre, the unified customs, courts, auditing chamber.” Since then, practically every month the sides have been exchanging statements of strongly different variants of developments in the relations within the union state.
The Russian side suggests discussing its initiatives on deepening integration. On December 14, Lukashenka claimed: “If someone wants to pop us into Russia – that will never happen… Under the pretext of the deep integration, Moscow wants to incorporate Belarus into Russia. I understand these hints: get the oil, but go ahead, ruin the state and enter Russia.”
Lukashenka claimed that it is through Russia’s fault the union state has not yet been created. The union implies equal rights, equal conditions for economic subjects. And these conditions are getting more and more uneven. According to Lukashenka, currently, the Belarusian enterprises pay 200 USD for a thousand cubic metres of gas, whereas Russian enterprises pay 60 USD.
Commenting on the statements from Medvedev regarding the unified emission centre and unified customs, Lukashenka claimed that Russia offered “to create the union from the roof, and not from the basement”. Such basement, in his opinion, is the creation of equal conditions for economy subjects, i.e. supplies of oil and gas at home Russian prices and absence of barriers for Belarusian exports to Russia.
The problem is not about the logic or sequence of integration (basement-roof), but that Lukashenka does not want to integrate at Russian terms. He wants to be an absolute sovereign in Belarus and, in the meantime, get Russian donations.
In 2002-2003, there used to be the “basement” (as Lukashenka means it) of the union state: Belarus was receiving Russian gas at home market Russian prices; the Russian market was open for Belarusian export, there were no trade wars (dairy or meat) between Belarus and Russia.
The Russian leaders in 2002 suggested building the “roof” of the union state: unification of currency, with the Russian ruble as the currency in the territory of Belarus; adopting a Constitutional act of the union state that would envisage setting up supranational bodies with the prevalence of Russian representatives.
Lukashenka in return offered to keep building the “basement”. He offered the variant of unifying the currency systems in which the National Bank of Belarus would have the right to emit Russian rubles. And to stipulate in the Constitutional Act of the union state the obligations of Russia to supply energy carriers to Belarus at Russian home market prices. And now, every time when commenting or criticizing the initiatives of Russia to deepen the integration, Lukashenka claims that the Belarusian side supports the real integration within the union state. He expresses hope that the union state will be created.
Despite the growing disagreements, it is unlikely that the Kremlin and Lukashenka will stop speaking of the integration within the union state and give up the project. In the Kremlin, they hope that if not Lukashenka, then his successor will take steps towards the real integration, as the Russian side implies it, which would tight securely Belarus to Russia forever.
For Lukashenka, the special relations with Russia in connection with the formal existence of the union state – it is a convenient excuse for getting oil and gas donations from Russia in the past.6 And, what is more important, a justification to make bids for donations in future. The statements of diversification of oil supplies are nothing but attempts to blackmail Russia
Earlier, in the spans of deteriorations in relations with Russia, official representatives of Belarus were talking of the necessity to diversify oil supplies. At the background of negotiations with Russia concerning compensation of losses from the tax manoeuvre, again some statements were voiced about the intentions to get oil via ports of the Baltic states.
On May 23, meeting the Ambassador of Kazakhstan Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, Lukashenka said that he was conducting negotiations over oil supplies from Kazakhstan. “We’ve now been busy with the diversification of supplies. We are negotiating supplies of oil to Belarus from various sources.”7
If the Belarusian side had really applied to Kazakhstan, this address had been badly meditated and calculated. The Ambassador of Kazakhstan remarked that the prices of Kazakh oil for Belarus would be higher than of the Russian one. Since, it is to be delivered by railroad, whereas Russian oil gets to Belarus by oil pipeline.8
And it is unlikely that Russia will provide opportunities for such deliveries. Y.Yertysbayev remarked that for Russia it was unprofitable that Belarus got oil from Kazakhstan.9
According to information of the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Kazakhstan does not have spare volumes of oil to supply to Belarus: there is an increasing demand for Kazakh oil from the Chinese side.10
Just like the declarations over the intentions to get oil via ports of the Baltic states, to build an oil terminal in a Baltic port, the Lukashenka’s statements of the intention to get Kazakh oil will not bring practical results. The main goal of such statements – to show to Russia that Belarus has alternatives to get oil, to strengthen its standpoint in negotiations over the compensation of the losses resulting from the tax manoeuvre.
It is highly unlikely that in response to increasing US military contingent in Poland, enhancing the military capacity of Poland, Lukashenka would agree, under Russian pressure, to deploy Russian military base(s), as well as to deploy Russian military troops in Belarus. Most probably, as a responsive measure, Russia will enhance even more its contingent in the Kaliningrad enclave.
Russia does not have economic levers to induce Belarus to station here Russian military bases and troops.
Russia cannot cease oil and gas supplies to Belarus, as it is interested to have reliable and cheap transit of oil and gas and other cargoes via Belarus. The Russians buy Belarusian goods, including equipment (tractors, automobiles etc.) not out of personal favours, but because these goods have a good ratio of price and quality, they are competitive at the Russian market.
Russia has been reducing oil donations: Belarus is earning less on refinery of Russian oil. Among all, due to import phase-out and food self-provisioning, Russia is imposing restrictions on Belarusian food export. This has resulted in a slowdown in the rate of growth of the Belarusian GDP. But these measures have not led to worsening social and economic situation in Belarus.
A New Constitution for Belarus?
The statements of Lukashenka concerning amendments to the Constitution: in the next presidential term, he will be thinking of a successor. At the press conference on March 1, Lukashenka said he would bid for presidency for the sixth time. “Out of my current situation and of the country and the attitude to me, I can’t help seeking candidacy for the post of the president”.
Lukashenka claimed that he could not help running for the presidency due to the attitude (of the citizens of Belarus) to him… One cannot doubt that, just as before, the elections will be held according to the scenario of total falsification of the results. In the first run of the elections, Lukashenka will declare his victory with an overwhelming majority with around 80 per cent of voters have cast their votes for him. Such level of support Lukashenka declared on the outcome of the previous “elections”.
A certain sensation has been the statement of Lukashenka that within a period fewer than five years, a new Constitution would be adopted in Belarus. In his opinion, “it is necessary to strengthen the executive and the legislative branches of power”.
In April and in May, Lukashenka made several more statements about the necessity to work out a new Constitution. Lukashenka gave very few details. According to his words, the amendments would also touch upon the role of the president: “It is not the business of the head of state to drive across fields and factories”.
Every time, when speaking about a new Constitution, Lukashenka used the term “the head of state”, which is typical of authoritarian political systems. This means that, according to the new Constitution, the president (head of state) will have significantly larger powers that the head of the executive branch of power. He will control the legislative and judicial branches. Either directly, or through his assignees (there will be no elections) in parliament, the president will be assigned other top officials; among all, he will be assigning and controlling, and will have a possibility to change the Prime Minister and Ministers.
Obviously, Lukashenka wants to shift responsibility for the social and economic development of the country on the Prime Minister, so that the latter “drive across the fields and factories”. In case of necessity, the head of state could use him as the boy to beat. For years in power, Lukashenka has staged the performance in front of Belarusian citizens: “a good president – bad officials”. He counts that the head of state with the new Constitution will do this as well.
On March 1, Lukashenka said that the presidential elections would take place in 2020. When he is “elected” for the sixth presidential term, he will be 65, almost 66 years old.
Now Lukashenka is healthy. His press conference on March 1 lasted around seven hours.
However, he might have health issues. He suffered two microstrokes (in 1999 and in 2006). After the presidential elections on March 19, 2006, the chairperson of the Central Executive Commission Lidiya Yermoshina said that the inauguration of the president would take place on March 31. According to the official information, she mentioned the date “without complying it with the work schedule of the head of state”. The inauguration took place on April 8. It was the shortest official speech of Lukashenka. Many people paid attention that he was gasping and unhealthy. Lukashenka was supported by pills. In April – May 2006, Lukashenka did not turn up in public for more than a month and did not receive official representatives. In Belarus, rumours were spreading that he had died… By the end of the sixth presidential term, he would be 70 years old.
Probably, the statements of Lukashenka about a new Constitution were caused by the fact that he realizes: during the sixth term, he will have to define who his successor will be. Who guarantees him a calm and safe old age. The cost of a mistake might be very high. Lukashenka might spend the rest of his life behind bars, charged with abuse of power and official position, corruption, abductions-murders of the leaders of the opposition in 1999.
The political system of Belarus, defined by a new Constitution, has to be the most convenient for his successor, allow him keeping power.
The Constitution of Belarus of 1996 was written for Lukashenka. A new Constitution will be written upon Lukashenka’s order for his successor.
Will Russia’s new man in Minsk improve relations?
On 30 April Russia replaced its ambassador to Belarus. The outgoing Mikhail Babich, who was only appointed in August last year, repeatedly stoked controversy and this may account for his short tenure in the role.
The appointment of Dmitry Mezentsev to the post may smooth day-to-day bilateral relations, though it will not have any effect on the fundamental causes of friction in the relationship.
Babich mired in controversy
Babich’s appointment last year was interpreted by some as a signal of intensified Russian pressure on Belarus. The new ambassador’s past involved lengthy service in the Soviet KGB and subsequently Russia’s FSB, which raised suspicions about the techniques he would bring to his new role. Moreover, Babich was a cause célèbre in some circles because two years earlier Russia had tried to appoint him as its top diplomat in Ukraine – an effort that met resistance from Kyiv for breaching diplomatic protocols.
The Russian ambassador sailed close to the wind on several occasions. In an interview with RT he admonished Minsk’s policy of ‘soft-Belarusianisation.’ He said there was
a fine line between soft-Belarusianisation and de-Russification… [The former] should not happen at the infringement of the rights of the Russian language, common culture, common historical facts, and even [imply] the falsification of history.
Furthermore, his concurrent status as ‘special representative of the Russian president for trade and economic relations with Belarus’ blurred the boundaries of his remit as ambassador. As my colleague Yauheni Preiherman notes, he breached diplomatic protocols by holding business meetings in Minsk before presenting his credentials to the head of the Belarusian state.
In March Babich overstepped the mark by all-but-directly criticising Belarus’s president Aliaksandr Lukashenka. In an interview with the Russian news agency RIA Novosti Babich said that ‘there was no need to teach Russia and her government how to live’ and questioned why Belarus had raised the issue of Russia’s lease of military facilities on Belarusian territory.
Although Babich did not refer to Lukashenka by name, these and other comments were unambiguously a response to the president’s remarks during the ‘Big Talk with the President’ on 1 March. Then, on 19 April, Babich further chided Lukashenka calling the latter ‘mistaken’ about the costs of the nuclear power plant being constructed by Russia at Astravets.
Sensitive to any slights concerning Belarus’s sovereignty, the Belarusian foreign ministry spokesperson suggested in March that Babich needed to recognise ‘the difference between a Russian federal district and an independent state.’ While one might think that the rhetoric from the Belarusian side was overblown, any criticism aimed at Lukashenka is out of line with the norms of the bilateral relationship. As Preiherman wrote at the time: ‘Babich himself looks ready to continue behaving like something “more than an ambassador.”’
A more conventional appointment?
A cursory glance at Mezentsev’s biography might be interpreted to show that he is a more conventional appointment. He held the post of general secretary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) from January 2013 through to December 2015.
His history with the SCO – a regional organisation encompassing security and economic relations between China, Russia and states in Central and South Asia – should ensure that he is better acquainted with international affairs and diplomacy, and the sensitivities of states such as Belarus. Minsk itself has held observer status with the SCO since 2015.
At the same time, the bulk of Mezentsev’s previous experience has been at a regional level and inside Russia. He comes to Minsk from Sakhalin, where he has vacated the senator’s post, and earlier served as the governor of Irkutsk oblast. This reaffirms the idea that Russia views its relations Belarus more akin to appointing a regional governor since it could have appointed someone from an embassy elsewhere. Indeed, Russia’s ambassadors to most countries have a career progression more rigidly confined within the diplomatic corp.
Another line in Mezentsev’s work history is noteworthy when we consider that Babich’s handling of the media was a cause of Belarus’s dissatisfaction. In the early 1990s, according to RT, Mezentsev worked in the St Petersburg mayor’s office as chairman of the committee for the press and mass media.
One can, therefore, presume that he is skilled at handling the media. Moreover, his spell in this role coincided with Vladimir Putin’s period working as deputy mayor of St Petersburg, which suggests that the two had a working relationship then and that perhaps Putin himself looks upon Mezentsev as a reliable agent.
Outlook for bilateral relations
Nonetheless, after Babich’s fractious tenure, the appointment will most likely be welcomed by officials in Minsk. This is doubly so as the country prepares for parliamentary elections later this year and presidential elections next year. Although the results of both elections are highly predictable, they make for moments of vulnerability as the ruling elite gauges the level of interest in the opposition and a figure like Babich with his growing propensity to criticise Lukashenka would be unwelcome.
The problems in Belarus-Russia bilateral relations are structural ones and the latest dispute over the so-called has ‘oil tax manoeuvre’ typified this. The two sides have different understandings about the meanings and goals of economic integration within the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as about the rights and responsibilities of its members.
Meanwhile, economic tensions have spilled over into (and been compounded by) political and social differences governed by other institutional arrangements. Belarus’s efforts to diversify its foreign policy have drawn limited rewards and roused Russia’s ire. The ambassadorial change should help to smooth Belarus-Russia relations on a day-to-day basis, although clearly the individual diplomats are a factor of secondary significance when it comes to longer-term prospects for reducing tensions.
Ostensibly, the new ambassador has an identical role to his predecessor. Interestingly, mind, as some commentators have been quick to note, Mezentsev appears to have been appointed only to the ambassadorship. Yet Babich has also been relieved of the title of special representative of the Russian president for trade and economic relations with Belarus. Whether or not this reflects any substantive change in the expectations of, and instructions being issued to, the Russian ambassador remains to be seen.
Paul is an associate fellow with the Belarus-based Minsk Dialogue Track II initiative.