Ukraine and Belarus: Friends Against Russia?
This month the EU External Action faced a stubborn unwillingness by two post-Soviet countries to listen to its advice on political reforms. As the diplomatic scandal unfolded in Minsk, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry protested against the behaviour of the EU Ambassador to Ukraine. At the same time, both countries are under increasing pressure from Moscow to participate in its new integration initiatives.
These developments should motivate Belarus and Ukraine to actively cooperate on the basis of common interests. But instead the two countries often clash with each other. For example, in March Ukraine prohibited imports of Belarusian meat and dairy products. It raises the question of whether Victor Yanukovych and Alexander Lukashenka have enough political will to improve their relations and strengthen sovereignty of their countries.
Belarus-Ukraine Trade War
Earlier this month the Ukrainian sanitary inspection suspected that Belarusian meat products might be infected by the African cattle-plague and that its dairy products might contain other harmful components. The authorities refused to implement a reciprocal ban and entered into a dialogue with Ukraine. Observers think that Ukraine did this in order to compensate losses for its dairy producers estimated at $270m annually. Earlier Russia banned exports of seven Ukrainian producers because of a high concentration of palm oil in their products.
Nevertheless, Belarusian-Ukrainian goods turnover grew by 40 per cent in 2011, with the Belarusian trade surplus reaching more than $2.1bn. Thus, Ukraine remains the third most important trade partner of Belarus after Russia and the EU.
20 Years of Friendship Despite Difficulties
Since their independence, Belarus and Ukraine have maintained good relations despite difficulties. The lowest point was right after the Ukrainian “orange revolution” in 2004. The Belarusian authorities feared the spread of revolutionary activities to Minsk and broadcasted anti-Ukrainian propaganda on state television. For several years Ukraine became the main base for offices of American and European funds that supported the Belarusian opposition and NGOs. Unlike Lithuania and Poland, Belarusians need no visas to go to Ukraine and Russian is widely spoken there.
Bilateral relations gained new impetus after the 2008 parliamentary election in Belarus when the EU started an engagement policy with Belarus. Ukraine took the role of mediator in Belarus-EU relations and became the locomotive of the EU Eastern Partnership (EaP) activities. Kiev supported the Belarusian authorities in a conflict over their representation in the EaP Parliamentary Assembly EuroNest. Then Ukraine-Belarus relations reached their highest point.
However, when Victor Yanukovich, an ethnic Belarusian himself, assumed power as a new president, several Lukashenka-Yushchenko agreements reached a deadlock. Last year Yanukovich did not invite the Belarusian to an international conference at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Kiev. This provoked a nervous reaction from President Lukashenka, and he even verbally assaulted Yanukovich. That made relations worse and impeded the resolution of the long-lasting border demarcation dispute.
No Border – No NATO Membership
Belarus has not ratified the State Border Treaty because of a long-standing debt to Belarus owed by the Ukrainian government. In 1992, several Belarusian enterprises transferred money to Ukrainian enterprises, but did not receive expected goods in exchange. The Belarusian authorities consider it as a part of Ukrainian public debt to Belarus estimated at $134m. For a long period of time, Ukraine denied such claims, taking the view that this was a debt of private companies that do not exist anymore.
When Ukraine declared its NATO aspirations, Kiev was interested in resolving the dispute with Belarus as soon as possible. All NATO countries should have stable and clearly defined borders and no territorial disputes with their neighbours. At a 2009 meetings in Chernihiv, Yushchenko and Lukashenka finally found a solution. Ukraine agreed to acknowledge its debt and committed to providing Belarus with discounted Ukrainian energy supplies as a way to repay it.
Then Belarus ratified the Border Treaty, but both sides have not yet exchanged the ratification protocols. Yanukovich planned to visit Minsk last year, but the diplomatic scandal which followed the Chernobyl conference mentioned above spoiled bilateral relations. Foreign ministries had to postpone the visit.
Future of Belarus-Ukraine Relations
Yushchenko’s political demise cut short the anti-Russian trend in Belarus-Ukraine relations, but it does not impede Ukrainian and Belarusian authorities from continuing the diversification of oil supplies. The latest Ukrainian plans include supplies of Azerbaijani oil to Poland through Belarusian territory. Previously, Ukraine allowed Belarus to use its Odessa-Brody pipeline in order to pump Venezuelan oil to the Belarusian refinery in Mazyr. However, Belarus became less interested in the transit role of Ukraine after it secured extremely beneficial oil and gas agreements with Moscow.
After Yulia Timoshenko’s imprisonment, Ukraine is no longer a great friend of the European Union; it helps Belarus look less unpleasant to European politicians. Belarus is no longer the only place in Central Europe with clear authoritarian tendencies. Today the whole project of the Eastern Partnership is under threat. Ukraine considers the option of joining the Single Economic Space of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, but Russia does not agree with the “3+1” scheme that Ukraine offers. And Ukraine is not ready to go further than 10-15 agreements within the Single Economic Space because the country is primarily interested in European integration.
The Belarusian authorities now prefer to focus on economic cooperation with prominent Ukrainian businessmen. In November Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich promised a Ukrainian tycoon Piotr Poroshenko favourable conditions for Ukrainian investments in food and engineering industries. This fosters the formation of a pro-Belarusian lobby in the Ukrainian business and political elite. But no lobby can be effective without the political will of two presidents to improve relations.
Nobody knows when exactly the long delayed meeting between Yanukovich and Lukashenko will take place. It is high time for Belarusian and Ukrainian decision-makers to realise that the strategic potential of bilateral relations is of much greater importance than temporary disagreements. And if both countries want to stay independent, they should unite their efforts to avoid isolation from the European Union and to balance pressure from Moscow.
The Role of Security Services in Belarus Politics
To understand the balance of power in Belarus it is important to understand the role of the siloviki (the security services). Although they affect political decision-making and the degree of violence in domestic politics they are not a predominant group within the ruling elite.
Modern History of Belarus Security Services
In 1999 – 2003, heads of security (KGB, Internal Ministry) and controlling (Committee of the State Control, Prosecutor's Office) bodies headed by Viktar Sheiman an old ally and friend of Lukashenka had significant influence on the foreign and domestic policy of Belarusian authorities.
Sheiman served as Prosecutor General and State Secretary of the Security Council. Regardless of what position Sheiman held, he chaired extended meetings of the heads of security and controlling bodies.
The controlling and repressive mechanisms, led by Sheiman, were directed against the opposition campaign to hold an alternative presidential election in 1999. In the same year, under Sheiman's leadership, opposition leaders, who could become dangerous rivals to Lukashenka in the presidential election of 2001, were eliminated: former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka and former Deputy Prime Minister Viktar Hanchar. Unknown persons inflicted fatal injuries to Hienadz Karpienka.
In 2001 – 2002, under the leadership of the second-ranked person in the State, Sheiman, independent trade unions were persecuted and the directorate of enterprises were cleansed of likely opponents of Lukashenka.
After January 2004, when Russia set a course for reducing subsidies to Lukashenka's regime, Sheiman began losing his positions within the main bodies of power. On 24 January 2004, Russia fully suspended deliveries of gas to Belarus. Lukashenka faced the following demands: to sell the controlling stake in Beltransgaz for $800m or to face an increase in gas prices to the market level. Survival of Lukashenka's regime was now dependent on the efficiency of the economy.
In 2007 – 2008, the group of siloviki disintegrated. On 7 July 2008, Lukashenka removed Sheiman from the position of the State Secretary of the Security Council. The significance of this position in the hierarchy declined. Lukashenka's eldest son Viktar, who is now Assistant to the President for National Security Matters, became the unofficial curator of security and controlling bodies.
In 2008 – 2011, Viktar Lukashenka replaced Sheiman's appointees amongst the leadership of the security bodies with his own trusted men. However, one can speak only figuratively about the existence of a group of siloviki under Viktar Lukashenka's leadership. Viktar Lukashenka's group includes many civilians, young businessmen and officials, with whom he studied at the Foreign Relations Department of the Belarusian State University. It is known that one of the reasons for Viktar Lukashenka's personal animosity towards Viktar Sheiman was that the latter was interfering with the development of private business.
After 19 December 2010
After the events of 19 December 2010 many experts were saying that the siloviki once again became a predominant group. Heads of security agencies involved in repression push Lukashenka towards further deterioration of relations with the West, because political liberalisation in Belarus and rapprochement with the West means a threat of prosecution to them.
There has been a certain movement towards economic liberalisation and privatisation. It means a lesser role for the controlling and law enforcement agencies in the political system in Belarus.
The siloviki do not exert pressure on the decision-making process in the Council of Ministers. The government works in a quiet mode. The discussion is not around who should be punished (as it happened frequently while Sheiman was in power), but what should be done.
Since 19 December, there were no cases of criminal prosecution of top managers of major industrial enterprises and big private businesses. The arrest of General Director of Belvneshstroj Viktar Shautsou in October 2011 is quite in line with the pattern of controlled corruption which exists in Belarus. He appropriated about $10m which was more than what is allowed.
At the same time, criminal proceedings were initiated against Deputy Interior Minister Jauhien Paludzien and General Ihar Azaronak. Personnel changes took place in the top management of the Interior Ministry.
There have been no instances of struggle between law enforcement bodies for control over state-owned companies or instances of takeovers of private businesses by the siloviki. During the existence of Sheiman's group such cases were quite frequent. For instance, top managers of the KGB and the Interior Ministry fought over top managing positions in the Zhlobin Steel Plant for their men.
Currently people from security and controlling agencies tare not frequently to positions in the Presidential Administration. In 2001, former Interior Minister Yury Sivakou (Sheiman's man) was appointed Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration on Personnel Matters. He was responsible for supervising the personnel management in the executive vertical. Now, the Presidential Administration is rather a civilian body. And this is the most important body in the political system of Belarus.
The siloviki have not received the carte blanche for widespread repression in Belarus after 19 December. After 19 December 2010 repression is much more prevalent than ever before. However, repression is directed against those opposition groups which, in the authorities' opinion, were involved in the attempts to storm the House of the Government. Repression against other opposition groups and NGOs is localised and pin-point in its nature.
After 19 December, there has been no significant expansion in the staff of security and other controlling bodies. The establishment of a new agency – the Investigation Committee – has been done by recruiting employees of the existing agencies.
Who is Pushing the Repressions?
Finally, one cannot reaffirm that these were the siloviki who pushed Lukashenka into unleashing repression on 19 December. There were background factors indicating that under certain changes in the situation, on 19 December, the authorities would stop following the scenario of liberalisation and would act according to a different scenario, a scenario of repression.
In 2009, Lukashenka said that the establishment of a public consultative council at the Presidential Administration was an initiative of Uladzimir Makiei, which he took rather negatively. In 2010, he said that he saw no sense in letting thirty opposition activists to get into the parliament, as "the West will be happy at first, but then it will ask for more anyway".
Lukashenka received many arguments to conclude that the independence of Belarus is what matters most for the West. From the context of his statements that followed, in his opinion, the West can close their eyes on many things that were happening in Belarus for the sake of its independence from Russia.
Repression of 19 December and in the following period should not be explained solely by emotions and Lukashenka's fear of revolution. Lukashenka acts and speaks in the framework of a certain contract with the nomenklatura. What Lukashenka says about opposition reflects to some extent the nomenklatura's attitude towards the opposition. A fragmented opposition represented by conflicting groups, with no leader and no program, is not only unable to speak to the majority of voters, but also to the nomenklatura and the directorate.
The West and democrats in Belarus have to deal with a nomenklatura frightened by an attempt at revolution. The Belarusian officials sometimes have irrational motives, fears and emotions. But their calculations and rational choices, including in relations with the West, play a much greater role.