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The Russian Lobby in Belarus

Earlier this month, the newly appointed Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel arrived in Minsk. The Metropolitan has no Belarusian passport or roots, does not speak Belarusian and visited Belarus only twice in his life before appointment.

The new Metropolitan owes his position to the...


Earlier this month, the newly appointed Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel arrived in Minsk. The Metropolitan has no Belarusian passport or roots, does not speak Belarusian and visited Belarus only twice in his life before appointment.

The new Metropolitan owes his position to the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, rather than to Belarusians, majority of whom consider themself Orthodox Christians.

Russia has been building up it its long-term lobby in Belarus for some time. Many people from the bureaucracy have close ties with their Russian counterparts. After leaving government service, senior officials often find new jobs in Russian companies.

The Kremlin seems reluctant to build its representation amongst the opposition, as Russia`s authorities find them to be inane. However, rumours that Russian businessmen can finance democrats in Belarus remain frequent.

The Kremlin already clear economic and energy leverage over Belarus. Today's Russian lobby is an embryo that can become an influential political force in Belarus, which will serve the Kremlin.

The Russian Orthodox Church

Metropolitan Pavel, who arrived in Belarus at the beginning of 2014, seems to be the person least controlled by Lukashenka`s regime in the Belarusian public arena. The Belarusian Orthodox Church is part of the Russian church and lacks autonomy. The Moscow Patriarchate appoints the Belarusian Metropolitan without consulting with Belarusian believers of the faith or even its priests. 

Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has appointed a non-Belarusian priest to this post for the second time in a row. At the same time other divisions of the ROC in other countries select their Metropolitans from the local clergy. For example, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which belongs to the ROC itself, identifies its head on its own. Thus, the new Metropolitan of Belarus, Pavel, remains primarily loyal to Patriarch Kirill, not to Belarusian believers.

Pavel`s assignment, however, has sparked outrage within the Church and in the Belarusian public. Many priests and parishioners were unhappy with the new appointee from the Russian city Ryazan. The new Metropolitan’s disgust towards democratic values, stemming from his interviews, shocked civil society. Lukashenka remains unexcited about the new Metropolitan as well. His official silence to Pavel`s appointment for a few days in and of itself is proof.

Though Belarus remains a largely atheistic country, the Belarusian Orthodox Church enjoys great credibility among its people. According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, the Belarusian Orthodox Church remains the most trusted institution in the country, with 63 % of Belarusians stating they can rely on it.

It remains unknown if the new Metropolitan will try to raise the level of trust and turn it into political capital or not. However if he does take a chance, it will become Russia's political capital for sure, not Lukashenka's.

Bureaucracy as a Lukashenka`s Fortress

Belarusian-Russian integration has brought about rather ambivalent results for the rising Russian lobby in Belarus. On the one hand, Belarusian officials have close ties with their Russian counterparts, which contributes to their pro-Russian orientation. Many of today's political elites have studied and worked in Russia. For example, Aliaksandr Miazhueu, the Secretaty of the Security Council, graduated from the Russian General Staff Academy

On the other hand, Belarusian officials understand Russia's imperialist intentions much better than Westerners. After all, it was the Belarusian authorities who went through the oil, gas, milk, potash wars with Russia.

During its years of independence the bureaucratic Russian lobby has decreased in its size and reach rather significantly. Most communist leaders with sentiments towards Moscow were sent into retirement. Today’s bureaucracy​ remains loyal to Lukashenka, not to anyone in Russia.

In the political environment of Belarus there appears to be a rumour that before the Presidential election-2010, one of Belarus' top officials in Moscow was offered a chance to discuss a future of Belarus without Lukashenka. After hearing these opening remarks, the Belarusian official apparently ran out of the room.

However, many Belarusians have good relations with Russian business. After leaving government service they often find jobs in big Russian companies. For example, Siarhei Martynau, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, works as a special representative of the Russian oil company “Rosneft” in Belarus.

The high salaries in corporations attract many Belarusian officials, especially representatives of the law enforcement and security bodies. Indeed it is these people that represent the Russian economic lobby in Belarus.

Because of prolonged and deep cooperation, the Belarusian army has very close ties with its Russian counterpart, so Russia's influence here also remains rather substantial. Many Belarusian servicemen and special service people were educated in Russia. For example, Chairman of the State Border Committee​ Leanid Maltsau.

However, Lukashenka's regime closely traces its cooperation with Russia not to shift their loyalty to Kremlin. Major General Ihar Azaronak, former head of the Air Forces of Belarus, received nine years in prison for lobbying the interests of the Russian military companies.

Minimum Attention to the Opposition

While Russia tries to have influence in the nomenclature circles, it shows complete disinterest in creating a lobby among the Belarusian opposition. On the one hand, Lukashenka would take it as a personal affront.

On the other hand, the Russian authorities do not know with whom they could work in Belarus. For example, the Belarusian communist Siarhei Kaliakin stands for deep integration with Russia, but the Kremlin remains reluctant to take such talk seriously.

Before each presidential campaign rumours appear that Russian businessmen or even the Kremlin are financing some of the opposition politicians. The rumours were particularly strong with Aliaksandr Kazulin in 2006 and Uladzimir Niakliajeu in 2010. However, no evidence confirm these rumours.

Although the Kremlin remains reluctant to conduct an active policy of engagement with the opposition, the creation of a Russian political force in Belarus looks like an easy task. For this, the Kremlin has constructed a network of former and current officials. Moreover, the Kremlin can always invest much more money than the West and purchase some opposition groups, real or fake. This is politics a-la russe.

Who Serves Russian Interests in Belarus?

The Kremlin lobby in Belarus, however, is still not nearly as powerful as it might seem. Lukashenka controls senior officials and ensures that they will not become loyal to Putin. The opposition remains largely pro-Western, and the Orthodox Church seems reluctant to challenge the regime..

However, this lobby can become an embryo to influence political forces in Belarus. The Kremlin potentially have a large impact on the church, the bureaucracy and the opposition. Belarus remains too energetically and economically dependent on Russia.

The Russian mass media also has a strong influence on Belarus and its public. Belarusians watch Russian television more than Belarusian television. They read Russian newspapers more often than Belarusian periodicals, and according to Gemius, an online research agency, the biggest Belarusian website tut.by is less popular in Belarus than Russian site mail.ru.

Russia has plenty of potential to create a political power which will serve the Kremlin directly.

Ryhor Astapenia
Ryhor Astapenia
Ryhor Astapenia is the founder of the Centre for New Ideas and an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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