Belarus Is Losing the Potash War
A conflict between Belarusian authorities and Russian potash giant Uralkali, by all assessments, comes to its conclusion.
Uralkali CEO Vladislav Baumgartner left his KGB-prison cell for house arrest in a hidden apartment. At the same time, a major owner and shareholder of Uralkali, the latter-day foe of Alexander Lukahenka, Suleiman Kerimov, negotiates the sale of his shares to, apparently, pro-Kremlin oligarchs.
All in all, it looks like the Belarusian side has overall been victorious. However, an unprejudiced analysis of the middle-term and long-term outcomes of this conflict indicates that Belarus as an independent state and Alexander Lukahenka personally are more likely to suffer from the consequences of the potash war.
Both Sides Prepare for a Truce
As it happens in authoritarian states, official media serve as the voice of the government, rather than of the public. It went this way in the potash conflict as well: Belarusian state TV made the first step towards reaching a truce.
They hinted that the partnership with Uralkali (who had abrogated common sales agreement with Belarusian state-owned fertilizers' producer Belaruskali, and thus made the world potash market crumble) can be restored given the Russian company changes its owner, or namely, that oligarch Suleiman Kerimov sell his assets (21.75% of the company's stock).
On 8 September it was rumored that Kerimov was going to sell his shares to pro-Kremlin banker, Vladimir Kogan. People close to the negotiations confirmed this data to a number of leading western media: the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg etc.
At the same time three influential businessmen, all close to Vladimir Putin – head of "Sberbank" German Gref, head of "Gazprom" Alexey Miller and head of "Rosneft" Igor Sechin – visited Minsk to meet with Alexander Lukashenka and to reaffirm desire for and commitment to a continued partnership with Belarus.
It happened soon after two members of the Russian government – Vice-Premier Arkadsy Dvorkovich and Chief Sanitary Inspector Gennady Onishchenko – had threatened to cut oil supplies to Belarus and to stop importing Belarusian dairy products. These two persons, together with Suleiman Kerimov are said to be closer to prime-minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Based on these controversial signals, most analysts concluded that the so-called "Medvedev bloc" stood for further confrontation, while the more powerful "Putin’s bloc" wanted to end the conflict.
On 6 September Putin himself said that Minsk and Moscow are trying to settle the dispute and try not to make too much noise about it.
Then, on the day Russian president arrived in Minsk (or to be more precise – on the night before his arrival) to partake in joint war games, Vladislav Baumgartner was released from a KGB pre-trial prison and moved to house arrest in a hidden apartment, rented especially for him. Since then he has lived with four guards and his mother, who came from Russia to be at his side.
On 4 October the Belarusian authorities handed over a part of the Uralkali criminal case materials to Russian investigators. Experts believe that Baumgartner will move to Russia the moment Suleiman Kerimov finally sells his shares in the Uralkali. In other words, the resolution of the conflict goes in line with the Belarusian side’s expectations.
Why Did the Russians Concede?
The Kremlin has a "tough guy" reputation on the international arena: it presses the weaker, seldom compromises with the stronger and resorts to a full spectrum of policies to obtain its goals. However, the Russian reaction to the impudent arrest of Uralkali CEO (after he had been invited by the Belarusian prime-minister to negotiate) appeared to be suspiciously benign.
There are a number of reasons that made Vladimir Putin concede in the potash conflict.
Firstly, the Russian public, especially Putin’s leftist conservative-patriarchal supporters do not feel much empathy towards oligarchs like Suleiman Kerimov. On the contrary, polls indicated the overwhelming support of Russian people to Lukashenka in the conflict. To go against this public attitude would harm Putin’s political image.
At the same time, Russian relations with Ukraine have become too tense lately due to Ukraine's decision to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. In these conditions, the escalation of a conflict with Belarus would be risky for Russia, first and foremost, because Belarusian and Ukrainian pipelines are a major channel for Russian oil and gas transportation to Europe.
Kremlin has no interest in a conflict with Lukashenka because on 1 January 2015 they plan to sign a Eurasian Economic Union treaty Read more
And finally, the Kremlin has no interest in a conflict with Lukashenka because on 1 January 2015 they plan to sign a Eurasian Economic Union treaty, pulling together Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and, probably, Armenia. This project remains the primary geopolitical objective for Vladimir Putin personally and for its sake he is ready to swallow an insult from Lukashenka.
Lukashenka’s Pyrrhic Victory
Though many commentators, including ones from Belarusian state media, declared Lukashenka’s, and more broadly, Belarus' victory in this conflict, this rhetoric is rather deceiving. The economic and political losses of this "victory" seriously outweigh its symbolic achievements.
The volume of direct economic damage after the breakdown of the jointly owned company, Belarusian potash company (BPC), remains unknown. After the quarrel, the Belaruskali management had to shut down two of its four potash mines and cut the working hours of its employees by 33%. The problem is rooted in the lack of Belarusian sales managers at BPC in the wake of the Russian specialists that swiftly left Minsk due to the conflict. Also potash prices on the global market have not yet bottomed out.
Another problem that has arisen after the potash conflict is tied to Russian oil supplies to Belarus. On 17 September the Russian Ministry of Energy decided to cut the volume of oil supplies almost twofold in the fourth quarter of 2013. Apparently, Belarus' chances at getting the desired volume of oil for 2014 have lessened.
Finally, the way the conflict is getting resolved implies the continued economic and political dependence on Russia, and "Putin’s bloc" in particular. The point here is that the Russian leadership hid their pride in the potash conflict by looking forward to receiving gratitude and some concessions from Minsk in the future.
Hence, Lukashenka’s room for political maneuvering is tapering away. The latest rumours about Igor Sechin’s oil company "Rosneft" obtaining a monopoly on oil supplies to Belarus (in other words – the concentrated full control over Belarus' oil supplies in pro-Putin hands) became the first sign of this growing dependence.
Given the frozen western vector of Belarusian foreign policy, any additional increase in dependence on the Kremlin on the eve of the Eurasian Union's launch bears certain risks for Belarusian sovereignty. This especially concerns the relations with the current Russian leader, who is willing to restore a lost empire and ready to concede in a local potash battle for the sake of his sacred Eurasian project.
The Old Belarusian Diaspora and New Political Exiles: How Do They Differ?
After the brutal repression of the regime that followed the Presidential election in 2010, many opposition activists moved to the West. New emigration centres, poorly connected with the old diaspora, mushroomed in Europe and the United States.
The new wave of emigration differs significantly from their predecessors when it comes to financial resources and attitudes towards politics. The West should be careful with the political ambitions of emigrants and focus on achievable results. Instead of hoping to quickly overthrow Lukashenka, it should consider realistic opportunities to improve the situation in Belarus step-by-step.
European Belarus is Dividing in the Exile
On 7 October, the leader of the European Belarus civil campaign and former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau stated that “Zmitser Barodka is not a coordinator of European Belarus any more due to a loss of confidence”.
Zmicier Barodka was one of the key activists of the European Belarus civil campaign, who as several other prominent figures from this organisation ended up in exile after the latest presidential elections in Belarus. Sannikau's statement resulted from Barodka's refusal to transfer leadership to the emigrant umbrella organisation Belarusian House in Warsaw to Sannikau's team.
The Belarusian House is an actual house in a prime location in Warsaw near the Polish Parliament. Zmitser Barodka was not the only head of the House. Ales Zarembuk, close to the For Freedom Movement and the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front, remains the House's co-director and tries to maintain his distance from these kinds of problems.
According to Barodka, Andrej Sannikau's team asked him to pass two organisations registered in Poland – European Belarus and Belarusian House – over to them, placing them under their control. Barodka agreed to transfer control over European Belarus, but refused to give up Belarusian House.
The Belarusian mass media did not write about it, but a week after Sannikau`s statement Barodka ceased to be a co-director of the Belarusian House in Warsaw. Uladz Kobets, another Andrej Sannikau co-worker, got this position.
New Centres of a Belarusian Political Struggle: Real and Fictitious
The Belarusian House in Warsaw is more than an expatriate political organisation. This House became the largest association of new emigrants, and therefore attracts far more attention.
At the same time a number of similar offices have emerged in various Western countries. Some of them exist primarily on paper, other conduct specific types of activities. In total, more than ten such initiatives have arisen in recent years.
1. Belarusian House in Warsaw (Poland)
2. Civil and political representation of Belarus in Lithuania (Lithuania)
3. Free Belarus Now (UK)
4. Belarusians in exile (USA)
5. Belarusian Tribunal (Netherlands)
6. Belarusian Center in Ukraine (Ukraine)
7. Office of Belarusian Political Emigration (Belgium)
8. The Union for Democracy in Belarus (Warsaw)
9. Coordination Centre in Riga for Belarusian Civil Society (Latvia)
10 Belarusian House in Prague (Czech Republic)
While in most European countries a number of old Belarusian organisations operate such as the Association of Belarusians in Great Britain established in 1946, the new emigration has decided to create its own structures. This at times caused misunderstandings between the old and new wave of the emigre community.
The Public Association of Belarusians in the Czech Republic Pahonia called last year's establishment of the Belarusian House in Prague a performance directed by former presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich. Many from the old emigration accuse the new emigration of being too politicised and too financially dependent on Western donors.
Differences in their approaches of how to democratise Belarus has also split organisations working abroad. Last year Brussels-based Office for Democratic Belarus (ODB) made a statement about the need to soften EU sanctions. In response, nearly ten emigre organisations publically condemned the statement and called the West to increase pressure on Belarus.
Need to Learn Lessons of the Previous Generations
According to the former presidential candidate and current political exile Ales Mikhalevich it is impossible to be a politician in exile. But for some, political conflicts in exile serve as a substitute for domestic politics in Belarus. On the other hand, political emigres do a good job by keeping Belarus on the agenda of foreign governments and raise the level of interest in Belarus among Europeans and Americans.
Old diaspora organisations, such as the Belarusian-American Association or Association of Belarusians in Great Britain, provide good examples for the new emigration. They maintain traditions, based on the Belarusian language and values of independence and democracy, which they value higher than short-term political manoeuvring. The old diaspora often has its own property and income which allows them to support projects in Belarus, such as publishing books on Belarusian history, academic journals and scholarships for Belarusian students.
To reduce internal conflicts, the new emigration should adopt the good practises of the old wave. It may consider focusing more on cultural and educational issues, developing others' knowledge of their homeland and support publishing about Belarus. These would make a real, albeit slow, impact on the development of Belarus.
Zianon Pazniak, a political refugee and leader of the main democratic movements of the 90s, is very much involved in these issues and pays special attention to them. He remains the only Belarusian politician whose public meetings in exile gather crowds of people.
The West should also be careful with the political ambitions of emigrants. Unfortunately, the longer they stay outside of Belarus the more distant they become from the problems of ordinary Belarusians. Supporting projects that have real outcomes inside Belarus should remain a priority.