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A major diplomatic row between Minsk and Moscow explained

On 21 March 2019, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an official comment regarding the major diplomatic row between Minsk and Moscow. Belarusian and Russian diplomats have exchanged mutual reproaches in a rather undiplomatic manner. Whilst the Russian...

On 21 March 2019, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an official comment regarding the major diplomatic row between Minsk and Moscow. Belarusian and Russian diplomats have exchanged mutual reproaches in a rather undiplomatic manner. Whilst the Russian Ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich, told Belarusians “not to teach Russia how to live,” the press secretary for the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Anatol Glaz, blamed Babich for misunderstanding “the difference between a federal district and an independent state.”

Though Belarus-Russia relations have deteriorated due to the clash over oil revenues, the recent diplomatic row might also signal a deeper crisis in the relations between the two states. While Russia is hesitating to compensate Belarus for the losses resulting from Russia’s changing policies (the so-called tax “manoeuvre”), Minsk is getting more nervous. According to several Belarusian analysts, as Moscow decreases indirect financial aid to Minsk, the Belarusian economy will inevitably learn to adjust. As a result, the post-Lukashenka Belarus will eventually end up being less dependent on Russian markets and money.

Babich’s scandalous interview: “never teach Russia how to live”

In August 2018, Vladimir Putin appointed diplomat Babich, former Chairman of the Government of the Chechen Republic, as Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, two years after an unsuccessful attempt to send Babich as an envoy to Ukraine. Upon his arrival in Belarus, Babich immediately started raising financial aspects in the relations between the two states. However, it was Babich’s latest interview to RIA Novosti that caused the major uproar among his Belarusian colleagues.

In his scandalous interview on 1 March 2019, Babich commented on Lukashenka’s statements made during the so-called “Great Talk with the President”. In particular, Babich rebuked Lukashenka’s recent criticism of the Russian leadership which “lobbies oligarchic groups”: “All I can say is that no one should teach Russia and its government how to live, especially since there are [already] enough in the world who want to do so.”

In addition, the diplomat commented on Lukashenka’s statements regarding the high cost of Russian credit resources for Belarus. According to Babich, President Lukashenka was simply let down by the aides, who provided the wrong statistics. The diplomat further splashed numbers in relation to Belarus’s exports to Russia: “Out of $5 bn of exports of Belarusian agricultural products that our friends are so proud of, 4 billion stays in Russia, which is 80%,” he calculated.

Anatol Glaz. Source: belarus.by

Finally, Babich referred to recent talk about the Russian threat to Belarus’s sovereignty as “electoral technology.” According to Babich, it was hardly reasonable to implement such technology at the expense of relations with its closest ally – the Russian Federation.

Belarus’s MFA responds, brands Babich a “promising accountant”

Soon Anatol Glaz, Belarus’s foreign ministry press secretary, harshly commented on the assessment of Belarus-Russia relations voiced by Mikhail Babich:

Honestly, there is not always enough time to read all the interviews of Mikhail Babich: all of them are quite similar, and the mentor line of reasoning does not change much… Without reading, I can say for sure that the relations between our states and our nations are much deeper than a fraudulent set of numbers that a Russian diplomat regularly provides. Yet this is his right to set a bar for himself that turns him into a bookkeeper or a promising s accountant.

Moreover, Glaz advised Babich to devote more time to understand the specifics of the host country and get acquainted properly with its history. According to Glaz, Babich “simply misunderstood the difference between a federal district and an independent state.” In addition, Glaz promised to give detailed comments to the Russian partners regarding the Ambassador’s statements on Belarus-Russia relations.

Babich quickly reacted to Glaz’s comments and partially tried to downplay the conflict:

We, in contrast to these commentators [Anatol Glaz], have enough time to read and analyse all the information… I am sure it all comes down. The most important thing is that both the Russian and the Belarusian side have an opportunity to make objective evaluation of different arguments and elaborate mutually acceptable solutions for the benefit of the two nations. All the rest is chatter. We take it very calmly.

Yet, a reaction followed from Kremlin. Grigory Karasin, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, made an official statement that Russia expected a more respectful attitude to its Ambassador from the side of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus.

Subsequent reaction in Belarus and Russia

The diplomatic row immediately attracted the attention of the Belarusian and Russian press. As for the Russian media, the majority of media outlets praised Babich as the “new style of Russian diplomacy”. At the same time, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs subsequently tried to settle down the diplomatic scandal. On 21 March, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued an official statement that “Belarus remains Russia’s chief strategic partner” and “the inter-state dialogue should always stay professional and correct”.

Grigory Karasin. Source: EADaily

Several Belarusian analysts have also provided their commentary. In his article to Naviny.by, Aliaksandr Klaskouski mentions that Babich stays calm and ironic because Kremlin perfectly understands all of Lukashenka’s weaknesses. By declaring unity and friendship once more, Russia pinpoints Belarus on its vassal dependence.

According to Artyom Shraibman, writing for Carnegie Moscow, despite the bold rhetoric, Minsk has little space for manoeuvre; hence, Lukashenka will continue sticking to Russia and simultaneously preparing for potential separation. The Belarusian economy will eventually adjust to the decrease of Russia’s indirect financial support. Consequently, the post-Lukashenka Belarusian authorities might obtain a favourable opportunity to ditch the Union State with Russia.

In conclusion, the undiplomatic exchange between the diplomats clearly signals an upcoming shift in Belarus-Russia relations. Apparently, Minsk and Moscow have grown tired of each so much that even diplomats – people whose job remains to calm conflicts – start getting engaged in a battle of words. Nevertheless, the diplomatic conflict will most probably fade away, and neither Babich nor Glaz gets punished for overstepping the boundaries of diplomatic etiquette. At the same time, further battles between Minsk and Moscow might soon recur on a different front taken into account Russia’s reluctance to compensate Belarus’s upcoming losses in oil revenues.

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Olga Hryniuk
Olga Hryniuk
Olga Hryniuk holds degrees from Coventry University and the European Humanities University. She is based in Minsk, Belarus.
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