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Will Russia’s new man in Minsk improve relations?

On 30 April Russia replaced its ambassador to Belarus. The outgoing Mikhail Babich, who was only appointed in August last year, repeatedly stoked controversy and this may account for his short tenure in the role. The appointment of Dmitry...

On 30 April Russia replaced its ambassador to Belarus. The outgoing Mikhail Babich, who was only appointed in August last year, repeatedly stoked controversy and this may account for his short tenure in the role.

The appointment of Dmitry Mezentsev to the post may smooth day-to-day bilateral relations, though it will not have any effect on the fundamental causes of friction in the relationship.

Babich mired in controversy

Babich’s appointment last year was interpreted by some as a signal of intensified Russian pressure on Belarus. The new ambassador’s past involved lengthy service in the Soviet KGB and subsequently Russia’s FSB, which raised suspicions about the techniques he would bring to his new role. Moreover, Babich was a cause célèbre in some circles because two years earlier Russia had tried to appoint him as its top diplomat in Ukraine – an effort that met resistance from Kyiv for breaching diplomatic protocols.

The Russian ambassador sailed close to the wind on several occasions. In an interview with RT he admonished Minsk’s policy of ‘soft-Belarusianisation.’ He said there was

a fine line between soft-Belarusianisation and de-Russification… [The former] should not happen at the infringement of the rights of the Russian language, common culture, common historical facts, and even [imply] the falsification of history.

Furthermore, his concurrent status as ‘special representative of the Russian president for trade and economic relations with Belarus’ blurred the boundaries of his remit as ambassador. As my colleague Yauheni Preiherman notes, he breached diplomatic protocols by holding business meetings in Minsk before presenting his credentials to the head of the Belarusian state.

In March Babich overstepped the mark by all-but-directly criticising Belarus’s president Aliaksandr Lukashenka. In an interview with the Russian news agency RIA Novosti Babich said that ‘there was no need to teach Russia and her government how to live’ and questioned why Belarus had raised the issue of Russia’s lease of military facilities on Belarusian territory.

Although Babich did not refer to Lukashenka by name, these and other comments were unambiguously a response to the president’s remarks during the ‘Big Talk with the President’ on 1 March. Then, on 19 April, Babich further chided Lukashenka calling the latter ‘mistaken’ about the costs of the nuclear power plant being constructed by Russia at Astravets.

Mikhail Babich. Source: TASS

Sensitive to any slights concerning Belarus’s sovereignty, the Belarusian foreign ministry spokesperson suggested in March that Babich needed to recognise ‘the difference between a Russian federal district and an independent state.’ While one might think that the rhetoric from the Belarusian side was overblown, any criticism aimed at Lukashenka is out of line with the norms of the bilateral relationship. As Preiherman wrote at the time: ‘Babich himself looks ready to continue behaving like something “more than an ambassador.”’

A more conventional appointment?

A cursory glance at Mezentsev’s biography might be interpreted to show that he is a more conventional appointment. He held the post of general secretary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) from January 2013 through to December 2015.

His history with the SCO – a regional organisation encompassing security and economic relations between China, Russia and states in Central and South Asia – should ensure that he is better acquainted with international affairs and diplomacy, and the sensitivities of states such as Belarus. Minsk itself has held observer status with the SCO since 2015.

At the same time, the bulk of Mezentsev’s previous experience has been at a regional level and inside Russia. He comes to Minsk from Sakhalin, where he has vacated the senator’s post, and earlier served as the governor of Irkutsk oblast. This reaffirms the idea that Russia views its relations Belarus more akin to appointing a regional governor since it could have appointed someone from an embassy elsewhere. Indeed, Russia’s ambassadors to most countries have a career progression more rigidly confined within the diplomatic corp.

Another line in Mezentsev’s work history is noteworthy when we consider that Babich’s handling of the media was a cause of Belarus’s dissatisfaction. In the early 1990s, according to RT, Mezentsev worked in the St Petersburg mayor’s office as chairman of the committee for the press and mass media.

One can, therefore, presume that he is skilled at handling the media. Moreover, his spell in this role coincided with Vladimir Putin’s period working as deputy mayor of St Petersburg, which suggests that the two had a working relationship then and that perhaps Putin himself looks upon Mezentsev as a reliable agent.

Outlook for bilateral relations

Nonetheless, after Babich’s fractious tenure, the appointment will most likely be welcomed by officials in Minsk. This is doubly so as the country prepares for parliamentary elections later this year and presidential elections next year. Although the results of both elections are highly predictable, they make for moments of vulnerability as the ruling elite gauges the level of interest in the opposition and a figure like Babich with his growing propensity to criticise Lukashenka would be unwelcome.

The problems in Belarus-Russia bilateral relations are structural ones and the latest dispute over the so-called has ‘oil tax manoeuvre’ typified this. The two sides have different understandings about the meanings and goals of economic integration within the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as about the rights and responsibilities of its members.

Meanwhile, economic tensions have spilled over into (and been compounded by) political and social differences governed by other institutional arrangements. Belarus’s efforts to diversify its foreign policy have drawn limited rewards and roused Russia’s ire. The ambassadorial change should help to smooth Belarus-Russia relations on a day-to-day basis, although clearly the individual diplomats are a factor of secondary significance when it comes to longer-term prospects for reducing tensions.

Ostensibly, the new ambassador has an identical role to his predecessor. Interestingly, mind, as some commentators have been quick to note, Mezentsev appears to have been appointed only to the ambassadorship. Yet Babich has also been relieved of the title of special representative of the Russian president for trade and economic relations with Belarus. Whether or not this reflects any substantive change in the expectations of, and instructions being issued to, the Russian ambassador remains to be seen.

Paul Hansbury

Paul is an associate fellow with the Belarus-based Minsk Dialogue Track II initiative.

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