Moscow erects border with Belarus, undermines its links with Ukraine and the Baltics
On 16 February, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin's press secretary, announced that the Kremlin does not plan to introduce a visa regime with Belarus. His statement comes in a context of increasingly harsh measures on behalf of Moscow towards Belarus over the past half year, beginning when Russia decided to partially reinstate its border with Belarus, which had been abolished in 1995.
The Kremlin is also working to undermine economic ties between Belarus and its other neighbours, paying special attention to the energy and transportation sectors. Results have been tangible: Belarus has already decided to stop importing Ukrainian electricity. Moscow is also doing whatever it can to convince Minsk to use Russian ports rather than ones in the Baltic countries.
Russia accuses the West and its allies in the region of undermining links between Eastern European countries. However, its own policies pursue exactly the same aim. Minsk must fight hard to resist these efforts by the Kremlin.
Not a Joke: Russia Worries that ISIS could infiltrate Belarus
According to a version of the story widely circulated in the Russian media, probably also supported by the Kremlin, Moscow had to partially restore its border because of Minsk's negligent policies. First, for years Minsk has been re-importing sanctioned commodities from the European Union. Secondly, the absence of border control between Belarus and Russia has allowed persons unwanted by Russia to enter its territory via Belarus. Thirdly, President Lukashenka's introduction of a five-day visa-free regime on 9 January for nationals of 80 countries has critically compromised Russian security.
Only the first of these claims can be seen as legitimate, albeit with serious reservations. The rest are highly dubious. After all, any real border control between Belarus and Russia disappeared in 1995; unwanted people have been able to enter Russia through Belarus for years. Even though the Russian government has not reported any gross violations or crimes since, this has all of a sudden become a problem.
Explanations from Russian officials regarding why Moscow suddenly decided to partially close the border seem ridiculous. On 10 February, Russian ambassador to Minsk Aleksandr Surikov stated to TASS news agency that Moscow is establishing border control zones along the border with Belarus to prevent extremists from Syria, specifically ISIS terrorists, from entering Russia through Belarus.
Belarus-Russia border checks: Who started it all?
The timing of the decisions taken by Minsk and Moscow further undermines Russian claims that it is merely responding to moves by the Belarusian government. Last autumn, Russia – apparently without prior notice – shut down its border with Belarus for third-country nationals. This seriously hurt Belarus, which is striving to become a major transit hub.
Next, towards the end of December, the director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksandr Bortnikov, signed orders establishing a border control zone in Russian regions adjoining Belarus. The orders remained secret until 1 February, creating an impression that he was responding to Lukashenka's decision to liberalise the visa regime. In reality, the opposite could have been the case: Lukashenka could have made his decision after learning about the FSB move.
This seems more logical. Minsk had been reluctant to liberalise its visa regime for years – most probably because it worried about Moscow's possible response. However, following the FSB's decision, the Belarusian leadership realised that it had nothing more to loose.
the reputable sociological institute VTsIOM has shown that 78 per cent of Russians are in favour of introducing visas for Belarusians Read more
Both the closing of the border for third-country nationals and the establishment of border-control zones coincides with increasingly negative media coverage of Belarus in Russian. The latter factor leads to more Russians supporting the former. Last week, the Russian mainstream media gave much airtime to the results of an opinion survey conducted by the reputable sociological institute VTsIOM, which showed that 78 per cent of Russians favoured introducing visas for Belarusians.
Moscow seeks to redirect energy and transportation flows
Russian government officials and political commentators have criticised the EU and former Eastern-bloc countries for destroying decade – even century-old links – in the region, as Eastern European countries integrate with the EU. Although this criticism sometimes rests on facts, the Kremlin's behaviour makes such complaints seem hypocritical.
On 8 February, Belarusian Deputy Energy Minister Vadzim Zakreuski announced that Belarus agreed to purchase more Russian electricity. At the same time, despite available opportunities to buy electricity from Ukraine, Minsk failed to reach an agreement with Kyiv on prices.
Belarusian purchases of Ukrainian electricity had been falling since 2014, due both to the unreliability of the Ukrainian energy sector and Russia offering lower prices. Thus, in 2015 the Russian energy giant Inter RAO doubled its annual deliveries to Belarus from 1.4m MWh to 2.8 MWh. This was mostly connected by reducing purchases from Ukraine.
Russia resorts to similar, seemingly economic mechanisms to redirect Belarusian export and import flows to its own ports in Leningrad Province. Since 2006, Moscow has urged Minsk to stop using Lithuanian and Latvian ports and switch to more distant Russian alternatives.
Minsk realises the dangers of Moscow monopolising its connections with the outside world and has so far resisted such proposals. Yet the Kremlin continues in its efforts to deprive the Baltic states of transit revenue. Last October, the Russian Railways granted Belarus a 25 per cent 'unprecedented discount' to redirect its oil-product exports away from the Baltic states to Russian ports.
Commenting on this proposal, the Moscow-based Kommersant daily conceded that the move could be political. It implied that the offer emerged after plans to suppress transit through the Baltic states had been discussed by special representative and confidante to the Russian president Sergei Ivanov. At a conference he held in September, various Russian firms and government agencies reportedly discussed how to convince Belarus to commit itself to using Russian ports.
Yet Putin's attempts to drive a wedge between Belarus and its neighbours have produced scanty results. A case in point are Moscow's efforts to take over Belarusian export flows – Minsk has resisted them since 2006.
On 24 January, Sputnik-Belarus, a media source associated with the Russian government, commented that: 'A discount was given to Belarus [to facilitate its export through Russian ports] yet to no avail.' Minsk's actual investments and plans clearly demonstrate its willingness to keep working with the Baltics. For instance, Belarusian Potash Company has been buying up shares in Klaipeda port facilities since 2013. Moreover, Minsk would probably use Latvian ports if it wanted to bring Iranian oil to Belarus.
In other words, the Kremlin only has limited leverage with Minsk, despite the Russian leadership's interest in convincing Belarus to use Russian ports. After all, the ports in question are reportedly owned by personal friends of Vladimir Putin.
Minsk is aware of the risks of decreasing diversification in its links with the external world. Even the decision to stop purchasing Ukrainian electricity may have more to do with instability in Ukraine than willingness to obey Moscow. The Belarusian government adamantly refuses to side with any party in ongoing regional conflicts. The situation with the Russian border shows the price Minsk must pay for this position.
The Kremlin actively contributes to undermining the legacy of Soviet and pre-Soviet integration between Belarus and its neighbours, including Russia itself. The collapse of links between states in the region increases the risk of instability and conflict and guarantees the deterioration of living standards.
Environmentalists confront Catholics in a construction conflict
A recent construction conflict, lasting from May 2016 to January 2017, has divided Belarusian civil society. Residents, along with environmental activists, were able to halt the erection of a Catholic church in a Minsk park. Eventually, the Archbishop of Belarus even accused environmental NGOs of persecuting the Catholic Church.
Even according to official data, the population of Minsk is increasing by around ten thousand people every year. This growth is naturally accompanied by the building of housing complexes, malls, hotels, and even a new metro line. However, over the past years, Minsk has witnessed several construction conflicts. Residents of the capital often oppose construction and rally together to confront both developers and local authorities.
Development in Minsk
Minsk is one of the most rapidly growing cities in Eastern Europe. Currently, the population of the Belarusian capital is estimated at almost 2 million. But urban growth in Minsk has its own unique characteristics: according to Minsk's general development plan, the city must not expand beyond its current limits until the year 2030.
Urban development will continue at the expense of areas within the city proper. Neighbourhoods of wooden cottages and older two or three-storey houses are up for demolition. Despite the fact that some of these buildings have historical value, shopping malls, apartment complexes, and related infrastructure are appearing in their place. Obviously, this provokes conflict between local residents and environmentalists and construction companies and the authorities.
This problem could be solved if the authorities permitted the building of new residential areas outside city limits. However, Aliaksandr Lukashenka himself rejects this idea. He has stated many times that land outside the city should be used only for agricultural purposes, and more compact construction inside the city is possible.
For this reason, Minsk authorities have no qualms about making the city ever denser. Even public parks are not immune from development. For example, in 2010 the authorities permitted construction of a hotel in the Central Children's Park in the very centre of the city. The huge glass building spoiled the panorama of Independence Avenue – Minsk's main street and a unique monument the the Stalinist Empire architectural style.
When the media reports on such cases, commentators usually criticise the authorities and condemn overbuilding. However, a recent case regarding a Catholic church in a park has divided public opinion.
Catholics against Environmentalists?
Why did a construction conflict between local residents and the Catholic Church receive so much attention in the media? First and foremost, for once the locals were successful and the developer was forced to change plans; this happens rarely. The developer – the Catholic Church, whose relations with the Belarusian authorities can be characterised as strained, was on the same side as its habitual antagonist.
The conflict started in May 2016 when inhabitants of the cottage district of Sialgaspasiolak learned that in just a few days, the authorities planned to cut down part of the local Kotauka Park. The local Catholic parish of Peter, Paul, and Eugene De Mazenod had received permission to build a church there in 2011. According to parish priest Dzmitry Zaniamonski, Kotauka was the only the place local authorities had proposed.
Sialgaspasiolak already has experience dealing with developers. In recent years, a large part of the district was demolished and replaced by high-rise residential blocks. To protect the park from development, local activists sought assistance from the environmental NGO Green Alliance. This led journalists to cover the story as a conflict between Catholics and Environmentalists.
A few days later, on 23 May, tractors arrived in Kotauka and the felling started. However, locals and environment activists managed to set the workers back. Eventually, public protests forced the authorities to stop cutting down trees in the park. On 31 May, they announced that the felling would pause until 15 August due to birds nesting in the trees.
The authorities operated as usual. Residents were only informed about the construction just before it began. Usually, local activists are not able to resist builders and the authorities because time is so short. However, in this particular case, the local community was successful. Meanwhile, representatives of the Church supported the actions of the authorities. Priest Dzmitry Zaniamonski claimed that a public hearing on construction of the church took place in spring 2011. However, the park defenders knew nothing about the event.
According to civil activist and publicist Yulia Halinouskaya, construction of the church was really the only way to save the park, as it would occupy only one-tenth of its area. Felled trees would be replanted in a different location. In the long run, thanks to the church, the park would be well-maintained and available for recreation.
In the very beginning of the conflict, environmentalists and local residents requested that developers move the construction site to another place. They insisted that construction on park land is illegal, and thereby allocation of land for a church in Kotauka should be impossible.
The Sialgaspasiolak incident is hardly an isolated case. Environmentalists claim that six similar conflicts occurred in Minsk in 2016. At present, they have filed ten lawsuits against local authorities countrywide to stop park destruction. They assert that preservation of Kotauka is crucial for local residents. Many are convinced that after the park is destroyed, authorities will not consult residents before demolishing their cottages.
According to Green Alliance coordinator Yaraslau Bekish, the NGO had tried to act as a mediator between the locals and the Catholic Church, but Church officials were not interested and continued to operate side by side with the authorities. In the beginning of December, tractors and bulldozers arrived once again. This time, in order to neutralise the activists, municipal workers used force against dozens of park defenders, while the police simply stood by. Nevertheless, activists able to defend the park. In the beginning of 2017, the authorities announced that construction would be halted, and they proposed another location to Catholics.
Civil society divided
Shortly following the clashes in the end of December, the leader of the Belarusian Catholics, Archbishop Tadeush Kandrusievich, claimed that he sees the incident at Kotauka Park as a new form of persecution against the Catholic Church, this time by the 'greens'. He went as far as to compare environmentalist NGOs with a totalitarian communist regime.
It should be noted that according to the Analytical Centre of the Presidential Administration, 10 per cent of the Belarusian population identifies as Catholic. Among them, many cultural figures see the Catholic Church as an ally in strengthening national consciousness and promoting the Belarusian language. The Catholic community remains much more active in the country than the Orthodox majority.
The archbishop's statements added fuel to the fire. Catholic activists lambasted ecologists on social networks, even though they knew the church would be erected at a different location. Some commentators blamed environmentalists for conspiracies and even collaboration with the Putin regime.
In the end, Catholics, the local community, and NGOs were unable to reach a compromise. In this way, both sides lost. Environmentalists made enemies in the Catholic community. In turn, many residents of Sialgaspasiolak no longer want Catholics in the area. According to surveys, 30 per cent of the residents of Sialgaspasiolak are now against a Catholic church in their district no matter the location.
The Kotauka conflict shows that Belarusian civil society struggles to cooperate in crisis situations. This is a shame, as engaging in dialogue remains a crucial element for changing an authoritarian society into a democratic one.