Why Lukashenka Wants to Make Friends with the New Ukrainian Government
On 12 March at a meeting of the Security Council of Belarus, Lukashenka confirmed that Belarus would maintain contact with the new Ukrainian government. He emphasised the close economic ties between Belarus and Ukraine and gave guarantees to Ukrainian business that their fruitful relationship would continue unscathed.
Belarus' large stake in trade relations with Ukraine can be seen as the primary motivation for Lukashenka's affirmation of continued good will. Ukraine, after all, is Belarus' third largest export market with around $5bn in annual trade. As Ukrainian oligarchs continue to play a role in Ukrainian politics and Ukraine's economy, Lukashenka will have no choice but to work with them, despite the political orientation of the new government.
80% of Belarus' exports to Ukraine, however, come from refined petrol products that are made with Russian oil, making Belarus' lucrative oil scheme vulnerable to Russian pressure.
To mitigate this and other possible threats that may arise as a result of a potential disagreement with Russia over the Ukrainian crisis, Lukashenka is trying to play the military card and raise his anti-NATO rhetoric game to appease Belarus' ally to the east.
We are Ready to Support the Ukrainian People
Lukashenka's recent public addresses demonstrate that he is trying his hand at playing a rather peculiar role in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. Despite giving an order to conduct military manoeuvres and let more Russian fighter jets to be stationed in Belarus as a response to NATO's own manoeuvres in neighbouring EU countries, he also stated that the position of Belarus towards the Ukrainian situation remains unchanged, or in other words, Belarus continues to support the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Moreover, Lukashenka has made several comments on the economic interests of Belarus in Ukraine and expressed his readiness to work with the new Ukrainian government to maintain the economic ties of the two countries. Lukashenka, at a recent Security Council gathering, stated:
Currently in Ukraine some politicians are trying to tackle the nation's problems. We, by no means, are going to interfere with them. Moreover, we have not broken any ties with Ukraine, especially not our economic ties. We have always done our best to meet the demands of Ukrainian business and still do so…We supplied Ukraine with energy resources and food, amongst other things. We are ready to support the Ukrainian people in this difficult situation.
Oil and Energy Trade at Stake
Ukraine is an important outlet for Belarusian exports, and is its third largest market after Russia and the Netherlands. Both for Ukraine and the Netherlands, refined petrol products make up an overwhelming majority their imports from Belarus. Petrol products remain the most lucrative market for Belarusian exports. In 2012, Belarus sold oil and petrol products to the Netherlands for $5.6 bn and sales reached $4.2 bn with Ukraine according to national statistics.
Over recent years, the export of petrol products grew to two-thirds of Belarus' overall share of exports to Ukraine. Belarus itself depends on Russia to supply its oil refineries. Belarus has increasingly become more and more dependent on trading refined Russian oil, while other formerly strong sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing of heavy machinery, are lagging behind and have become non-competitive abroad.
Furthermore, Ukraine is Belarus' fourth largest import partner, with electric energy topping the list of imports, giving Belarus also depends on Ukrainian energy supplies. This middling position places Belarus in a doubly difficult position, as it depends on continued oil exports and electricity imports. Lukashenka has little choice then but to do business with the current Ukrainian government, despite any political inconvenience that it may cause. This role, however, is not entirely unfamiliar for the Belarusian ruler, who has typically put the Belarusian economy before any political considerations in the past.
New Government, Old Oligarchs
According to Lukashenka, and something that he has oft repeated as of late, the Ukrainian corrupt oligarchic political system was the primary reason for Maidan and the subsequent Crimean crisis. According to Lukashenka, a Belarusian Maidan is unthinkable, if not impossible, due to stark differences in the two nations' political system and the substantially lower level of corruption in Belarus.
Indeed, Belarus does appear to have a stronger grip on corruption, and the trials of corrupt officials are a regular event in Belarus. The World Bank estimates that corruption in Belarus in 2012 is two and a half times lower than in Ukraine.
The difference between these two cases can be explained by the countries’ internal development over their respective periods of independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Ukraine, vast privatisation schemes created a group of oligarchs who gained control over whole industries that were formerly state property. The oligarchic elite also acquired new influential institutions like media outlets and banks.
Before Maidan, oligarchs and the Yanukovych "family" (a group estimated to be around 100 persons in all) controlled 80% of the nation's wealth. In reality, oligarchs became the main force in Ukrainian politics long ago, and their business interests defined the nation's political dynamics domestically and even externally.
After the ousting of Yanukoych, Ukraine's oligarchs, far from disappearing, have been able to reaffirm their roles Ukrainian politics and its economy, though a noticeable shift towards more "opposition" friendly (opponents of the Yanukovych regime) oligarchs gaining power has occurred.
Some of them recently received posts in eastern regions of Ukraine to help the new government defend the nation's territorial integrity and quell pro-Russian uprisings, a move that many consider very clever on the part of the new Ukrainian leadership. Others, like Rinat Akhmetov and Viktor Pynchuk, have voiced their public support for the new government and Ukraine's territorial integrity.
In fact, Ukrainian businessmen are the main partners of Lukashenka's oil trade. And as long as Ukrainian oligarchs remain in power, Aliaksandr Lukashenka will have to deal with them, regardless of their political leanings. So long as they buy Belarusian refined oil and petrol products for the vast Ukrainian market, they will remain friends of Belarus.
Lukashenka's Oil-Defence Game
It is beginning to appear that, given Lukashenka's own recent speeches and actions, that he is trying to elaborate his own policy towards the Ukrainian crisis. On the one hand, he does not support the Russian invasion of Crimea, fearing that such precedent can create grounds for an intervention in Belarus in the future.
To compensate for his diplomatic dissent with Belarus' closest ally, Lukashenka has invited additional Russian fighter jets to equal those of NATO on Belarus' border. By doing so he is symbolically showing his loyalty to Russia within the existing defence agreement.
However, Belarus' economic interests force Lukashenka's hand to continue to build good ties with the new Ukrainian government and to continue the export of oil to Ukraine and the import of Ukrainian electricity.
This arrangement remains quite vulnerable, as Russia can try to manipulate oil prices and supplies to Belarus in order to force Lukashenka to support its military excursions. Therefore Lukashneka will continue to try to trade military cooperation, coupled with anti-NATO rhetoric, for cheap Russian oil.
Falling Lenins in Ukraine, Minsk’ Position over Crimea – Belarus State TV Digest
Belarus State TV reporters are preoccupied with the removal of communist-era monuments throughout Ukraine – over 50 Lenins have been recently been torn down.
Alexander Lukashenka has named the reasons for the upheavals taking place throughout Ukraine: the nation's economic collapse and the corrupt conduct of its authorities. Recently, Belarusian state TV reported on decreasing levels of corruption in Belarus, which, in their view, proves that there are none of the necessary preconditions for a similar revolutionary scenario in the country.
Belaruskali is back on the global market. State TV reported that they were hopeful that this time around the Belarusian company would not create a new potash cartel with the Russians.
Harsh reforms in Ukraine to overcome economic difficulties. While their Western partners promised to provide loans to the country, Kiev will still have to pay them back at some point. The new government has already prepared a package of unpopular reforms to save the state budget and meet the conditions for the loans that the West asked of them.
The EU leadership discusses Russia and Ukraine. The leaders of EU member countries gathered in Brussels to discuss the events unfolding in Ukraine. They are considering imposing sanctions on Russia. “Even before the summit began, observers noted there was unanimity between them,” one state TV journalist pointed out.
One reporter provided commentary on some bit of news that sent ripples throughout Internet – the content of the leaked phone call between the Estonian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Urmas Paet, and Catherine Ashton. According to this conversation, the snipers who were firing at the activists on Maidan were both supporters and opponents of the opposition.
‘Leninopady’. Why are Ukrainians tearing down communist-era monuments? Over the last four months Ukrainians have removed more than 50 monuments commemorating the nation's Soviet past.
Ukrainians have taken down a large number Lenin monuments in the central part of the country and in a few of its eastern regions. The north-eastern region and Crimea were able to avoid what has been deemed in the media “leninopad” (literally “Lenin falling”). In the western regions of Ukraine, people have removed these and other Soviet monuments long ago, a process that began in the early 1990s. Recently, Ukrainians in the nation's western regions removal of monuments was confined only to Russian Genernal Kutuzov monuments.
“Now Kiev has decided to embark on the path of European integration. In liberal Europe, it is not customary to destroy monuments,” one reporter explains. Even in the Baltic countries, which do not celebrate the Soviet period of their own history, they have protected these soviet-era monuments in special parks set aside for their preservation. In the rest of Europe, various monuments stand regardless of the political views of the country’s leadership, he concludes.
Minsk’ position on Crimea remains the same – Lukashenka reaffirmed Belarus' position during the State Security Council's latest session. The Belarusian ruler emphasised the traditionally positive economic ties between Belarus and Ukraine. “There are politicians who have decided to the solve problems of their people. We will not interfere in this [process],” he said. He also offered his own help help achieve stability in Ukraine.
Lukashenka is not afraid of a Maidan-like scenario in Belarus. “There will be no Maidan in Minsk. There is no place for a Maidan here,” he said. In his opinion, “there are conceptual reasons for similar revolutions,” to happen elsewhere. Lukashenka pointed out a few times that the collapse of the Ukrainian economy and corruption had led Ukraine to overthrow its (now -ex) government officials.
The head of state also commented on the fact that the Western press was regularly covering him to see what his reaction would be. “The EU is threatening me all the time,” he stated. In his words, nobody has put any pressure on him with regard to the current Ukrainian conflict. “We are one nation with the Russians. As well as the Ukrainians. We are Slavs and we will be together forever,” Lukashenka said.
Threat coming from NATO, not from Russia. In its coverage, state TV has given the impression that it was the West which had intensified the Ukrainian conflict. According to one reporter, "the rising level of NATO's participation was the cause of the events that are currently taking place in Ukraine."
Lukashenka noted that all of Belarus' neighbours, including Poland and the Baltic States, recently carried out military exercises. Similar actions had also taken place in the Black Sea. “They say that these exercises had been planned in advanced,” stated one journalist, with a tone of scepticism.
The presence of NATO is unsettling to the Belarusian leadership. “What should we do? Should we just watch it go on?”, Lukashenka said and called for an appropriate response from both Belarus and its ally, Russia.
Belaruskali will not revive a joint venture with Uralkali. With the advent of several recent contracts of Belaruskali being successfully concluded in China and Indonesia, it has once again attracted the attention of Russian companies. “Will Minsk, having learned a bitter lesson last year, move towards a new alliance?”, prompts one journalist. In his opinion, the new owners of Uralkali will return and will once more try to invite Minsk to create a potash cartel with them.
According to state TV, the Russians have already changed their tone a few times when commenting on the Belarusian Potash Company in the media in the past months. “In Autumn they said – the Belarusians will not be able to sell potash without us. In Winter – BPC established its own foothold in China and signed a unique contract in Indonesia,” they noted, when reporting on Russian media coverage of Belarus' success.
“We will not establish any joint companies in Moscow. If anywhere, if a similar company was created, it would be in Minsk,” Lukashenka stated during a meeting with Belarusian officials. Belarus' national interests should be considered to be of primary importance, the journalist emphasised.
79% of Belarusians trust Alexander Lukashenka. During a regular evening broadcast programme, information on the results of a societal survey conducted in Belarus were presented. The programme did not state who conducted the survey.
According to the survey, the vast majority of Belarusians, 74%, are happy with their life. 31% of respondents think that their financial situation had improved over the last three months. Fewer people, around 22%, stated that it had deteriorated.
The state TV reporter emphasised that 81% of Belarusians saw the social – political situation of Belarus as being stable. Only 2% of them stated that would participate in protests if they were ever to take place. Significantly fewer people (40%) trust the government and parliament. According to state TV, an increase in salaries was one of the main reasons for the positive attitudes of Belarusians.
Lukashenka, Putin and Nazarbayev discuss the Eurasian project. Lukashenka noted that the countries should remove all barriers that are keeping the countries from establishing a common market. The heads of the state also discussed Armenia's potential membership. According to Putin, it is long overdue and they should begin to prepare an agreement with Armenia right away. One state TV journalist stated that on the same day of the Eurasian project meeting, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich criticised his own ministers for delays that have continued to obstruct Belarus' ability to conclude the final steps necessary to integrate into the economic union.
The state is successful in combating corruption. State TV reports that that over the last three years the number of offences related to corruption has seen a significant decline. Corruption is most prevalent in the educational, industrial and health care sectors.
“Corruption and economic offences pose the biggest threat to the country,” Lukashenka stated during a meeting with officials. He stressed how much the authorities have done to combat the problem. State TV commented that according to [unnamed – BD] experts, that thanks to the ongoing “daily battle” with corruption, there are no economic, social and political preconditions that would allow corruption to flourish in Belarus.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.