Will a downsized foreign ministry hurt Belarusian diplomacy?
In January 2018, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs completed the largest part of a major “optimization” – a euphemism for unprecedented cuts in its staff and resources. Its personnel has been cut by one third, five diplomatic missions will be soon closed, and the diplomatic service has seen its financing reduced by 15 per cent.
The ministry’s top officials try to present a brave face. However, the stressful downsizing may seriously undermine the diplomatic agency’s efforts to strengthen Belarus’s international position at a time of increased Russian assertiveness in the region and economic difficulties at home.
Major downsizing revealed
On 18 January, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei went public about the development, which had been stirring the ministry for the last six months. “The [job] cut has already taken place. The headquarters has been downsized by roughly one third, and missions abroad by 15 per cent”, Belarus’s top diplomat told the media after a working meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka.
Makei tried to sound business-like and unperturbed: “We have been told to rely on skills rather than numbers… However, this in no way allows one to say that the efficiency of our activity has decreased.”
Meanwhile, people familiar with the inner workings of the ministry assert that Makei has been far from happy about the imposed “optimization.” A source in the Belarusian diplomatic service claimed that Lukashenka originally intended to cut between 10% and 15% of the ministry’s staff. Makei allegedly objected, but this only enraged Lukashenka who responded by increasing the target figure.
Indeed, at the beginning of his meeting with Makei, Lukashenka mentioned the foreign minister’s request to discuss the optimisation and agreed to hear about its “discrepancies” and “inconsistencies.” However, Lukashenka quickly proceeded to emphasise that he cared much more to hear about the ministry’s efforts to promote Belarus’s foreign trade.
Besides the job cuts, the foreign ministry has begun reducing Belarus’s diplomatic presence in foreign countries. In 2018, Belarus will close down its consulates-general in Odessa (Ukraine), Gdansk (Poland) and Milan (Italy). Two more diplomatic missions in unnamed countries will face the same fate; it is rumoured that one of them could be Belarus’s embassy in Australia, which only opened in 2014.
Lack of media interest and scarce information
Few public details have emerged about the foreign ministry’s optimisation. Its press service did not respond to Belarus Digest’s request for clarification beyond citing its workload as preventing it from comment.
The Belarusian media – state-run and independent alike – has shown minimal interest in this development. Their readership responded to the official announcement with mostly malevolent remarks; many view the ministry as a mere branch of Russian diplomacy or Lukashenka’s obedient servant busy with the preservation of his autocratic regime.
Another source told Belarus Digest that about one hundred diplomats had lost their jobs during the optimisation process. The figure could be higher were it not for the fact that cuts included unfulfilled job vacancies and employees long due for retirement. The ministry’s departments charged with bilateral foreign relations have apparently suffered the most.
Numerous diplomats coming home from completed postings abroad have been put on standby without date; for many, this means an effective dismissal. The Belarusian diplomatic service has virtually stopped recruiting new staff including graduates of the country’s diplomatic school.
Singled-out for financial cuts
Certainly, the foreign ministry has been neither the first nor the only governmental agency affected by the current optimisation programme. The president demanded better efficiency with fewer officials and promised pay rises for those that remained at their desks. Belarusian diplomats received the same promise and await February’s pay day impatiently. (The pay raise will not apply to diplomats working on assignments abroad).
However, the severe cut in budgetary allocations for the foreign ministry for the 2018 financial year casts serious doubts on the size of the expected pay raise. Moreover, the overall efficient functioning of the Belarusian foreign service will be affected.
Belarus’s total budget expenditures will increase by 18% in 2018 (compared to 2017), from BYN16,739m ($8,382m) to BYN19,751m ($9,917m). Budgetary allocations to national security and law enforcement agencies will also grow in the range of 17-26%.
The Administration of the President of Belarus has reportedly undergone an optimisation similar in scale to the one implemented in the foreign ministry. Nevertheless, in 2018, it will still receive a 5% increase in financing compared to 2017.
The opposite trend applies to the diplomatic service. In the current year, the spending on the foreign ministry will be cut by 13%, and on its missions abroad – by 15%.
Some in the ministry share the feeling that Vladimir Makei has suffered a setback in his behind-the-scenes face-off with the Belarusian siloviki. Many view the foreign minister as the leader of the “liberal” faction in the Belarusian government, and nationalist commentators and politicians in Russia routinely accuse him of steering Belarus towards the West, away from Russia.
Extreme stress or business as usual?
A senior foreign ministry official told Belarus Digest that “no disaster” has happened and that the department he heads continues its work “just as well.” Another diplomat deplored the “extremely stressful” atmosphere brought to the diplomatic service by the optimisation.
The job cuts have taken place against the background of dramatically increasing workload. The normalisation of relations with the West and unceasing efforts to boost foreign trade have multiplied meetings, visits and paperwork. The ministry may now simply lack “hands” to continue operating efficiently.
The working bureaucratic mechanism, which has been set up and tuned over the years, risks being disrupted and slowed down. The ministry needs the continuity of generations and a steady inflow of young promising staff to work in a sustainable and efficient way. Now, the middle management, facing staff shortages, will prefer to keep those they know rather than recruit new inexperienced people.
The ministry’s new institutional design has consolidated its departments. This resulted in the abolition of many divisions (the basic units within the ministry), which served as good incubators for future ambassadors and senior diplomatic staff.
While any country should contain the growth of its bureaucratic apparatus and strive to streamline operations, the radical downsizing of the foreign ministry seems unwarranted, disproportionate and harmful to the national interest. This is especially true in today’s geopolitical context, where Belarus needs to strengthen its sovereignty and seriously improve its international positions.
Losing Russian transit, Belarus looks for European and Chinese alternatives
On 1 February Belarus will raise tariffs for the transit of Russian oil via pipelines crossing its territory by 6.7 per cent. Transit constitutes an important source of revenue for the country, while control of pipeline routes also gives Minsk a bargaining chip in relations with Moscow.
Seeking to expand its transit role, the government has announced plans to double its revenues from transit and transportation services. The ambitious plans aim to partly offset Russia’s increasing tendency to route cargo and passengers around Belarus.
Regional crises drive growth in transit via Belarus
In 2016 Belarus earned about BYN3.2bn (more than $1.5bn) from transit and transportation services. That meant a growth of 40.8 per cent from 2015. According to an assessment published by Belarus Segodnya, the main media outlet of the Belarusian government, Minsk received $150m for oil transit, $476m for gas transit, and $879m for transportation services in 2016.
The Belarusian government aims to double revenues from transit and transportation services in next 12 years, taking 2016 as the baseline. This conforms with the Concept of Development of the Logistical System of Belarus covering the period through to 2030, which the Belarusian Council of Ministers approved on 28 December.
The newly adopted Concept lists among key priorities the development of transit between Europe and China (including as part of China’s “One Belt, One Road initiative”), integration with EU markets, facilitation of logistical integration between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), as well as integration with global logical and transport companies.
Is it realistic? Belarus’s transit role in various sectors has grown in recent years. Transit flows increased after the start of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, as Kyiv minimised its rail transportation with Russia. On 12 December, Ukraine’s minister for infrastructure, Volodymyr Omelyan, announced that plans to completely halt rail transport to Russia are under consideration. If realised, this would mean that even more passengers and cargo between Ukraine and Russia would cross Belarus.
A similar situation has developed in air transport. According to official information from Belavia, the Belarusian national airline, transit passengers now account for almost every second passenger on its regular flights. Speaking to TUT.by on 15 December, Anatol Husarau, general director of Belavia, attributed the increase in transit passenger numbers to the war in Eastern Ukraine. According to him, following the halting of air links between Belarus’s neighbours,
the main transit flow for Belavia and the National Airport Minsk is that one between Ukraine and Russia. I think this is about half of the total transit flow. That’s why we began to fly more [frequently] to Ukrainian airports.
The visa-free regime that Minsk introduced for citizens of eighty countries in February 2017 also facilitates passenger transit through Belarus. The probable increase in the duration of the visa-free regime, recently discussed by foreign minister Uladzimir Makei, can be expected to further promote transit.
Nord Stream pipeline threatens Belarusian interests
At the same time, a series of growing problems seriously undermines these transit developments for Belarus. Most acutely, other developments threaten gas transit – more profitable and politically crucial than oil transit. Despite the efforts of Russia’s opponents, especially Poland and Ukraine, Moscow continues to lay additional pipelines as part of the Nord Stream project. The pipeline brings gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic sea, circumventing Belarus and other Eastern European countries.
As early as January 2007, Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenka, called the plans for Nord Stream “Russia’s most foolish project.” His consternation hardly surprises, Minsk traditionally collects not only transit fees from Russian gas exports but also uses its capacities to regulate these transit flows as a leverage in political disputes with the Kremlin.
Minsk may lose more than gas transit. In September, the Moscow-based Kommersant daily newspaper reported that Russian shipbuilding firms were beginning to construct huge railway ferries to connect mainland Russia with the Kaliningrad enclave. If implemented, this move will relieve Russia of dependency on the region’s countries, including Belarus, in its land communication with Kaliningrad enclave.
Belarus can develop its transit – but only together with its neighbours
Integration with Russia and members of Russia-led EAEU very little helps Belarus to attract transit flows. Russia’s effective closing of almost the entire border with Belarus for nationals of third countries in October 2016 dramatically illustrated this, as did the introduction of border control zones in February 2017.
Wider Eurasian integration has brought even fewer results in the sphere of transit and transportation. The head of managing board of Eurasian development bank, Dmitri Pankin, admitted this at the 12th International conference on Eurasian integration in Moscow in October. He stated that analysis of 30 major projects between EAEU member countries in the transportation sphere revealed a comprehensive lack of coordination.
The different width of railway track gauge between the former USSR and countries to the west of them constitutes part of the problem, requiring Belarus to change train undercarriages on the border. Moreover, according to Pankin, while Chinese containers move on Belarusian and Russian railways at a speed 40−50 km/h, after they cross Polish border their speed falls to just 15 km/h and the trains have to be shortened due to different transportation standards.
Minsk looks to solve these issues: after all, it has long desired to become a mediator between the Eurasian and European integration blocks. At a meeting of foreign ministers for Eastern Partnership and Visegrád Group members in Warsaw on 12 April 2017, Belarusian foreign minister Makei emphasised the importance of achieving better interaction between the members of both groups on transportation. According to him, this could be achieved in particular by ensuring better compatibility of standards in the region and ensuring international financing for infrastructural projects in Eastern Europe. Yet so far, no material results have followed from these discussions.
In recent years, Minsk earned more from transit and transportation services, in particular, due to the traffic of passengers and cargo which had earlier circulated directly between Ukraine and Russia. However, the situation with transit looks precarious for Minsk: Moscow works to decrease major gas transit flows via Belarus, establishing links to the Kaliningrad enclave that bypass Belarus, and otherwise sidelining Minsk and the entire region in its communications links to European countries.
The losses for Minsk from these Kremlin policies will be considerable both economically and politically. The Belarusian government apparently wants to compensate by providing Belarusian transit routes for new passenger and cargo flows’ between regional countries, the EU and China. And, last but not least, Moscow’s attitude will inexorably further alienate Minsk from the Kremlin.