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 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.
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 is an associate fellow with the Belarus-based Minsk Dialogue Track II initiative.
Public protests as authorities destroy people’s memorial in Kurapaty
On the morning of 4 April tractors began digging up 70 wooden crosses at the Kurapaty memorial site on the outskirts of Minsk. Police detained 15 activists that came out in protest. Later the same day around 200 people gathered in the Kurapaty forest to commemorate the victims of Stalin’s mass execution at the site, where over 150,000 people perished during the purges.
Today, more than 30 years after the discovery of the mass graves, Kurapaty still symbolises the most outrageous atrocities of the Soviet regime. Kurapaty has unleashed the potential social capital residing in Belarusian civil society and mobilised citizens to erect a people’s memorial, which civil society has preserved despite the hostility of the authorities.
Many Belarusians worry about the future of the memorial site and the recent dismantling of the crosses because it relates to the ‘sacred’ sphere of commemorating the dead, something which many view as apolitical and something ostensibly beyond the control of the state.
‘Let’s go and eat’ in Kurapaty?
After two archaeologists, Zyanon Paznyak and Yavhan Shmulakov, discovered remains of executed victims in 1987, Kurapaty soon found infamy for the mass execution of hundreds of thousands of people in 1937-41. The discovery proved that Soviet authorities committed serious crimes against their own citizens and this, along with the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, later contributed to the national awakening of Belarusians in the late 1980s.
Although, since 2004, the Ministry of Culture included Kurapaty in the national register of cultural properties of Belarus, the state has not done much to commemorate it for some time. In 2017 a private investor upset many by purchasing a plot of land adjacent to the memorial and opening a restaurant 50 metres from it.
As a result, various civil society groups including the Young Front, the Belarusian Christian-Democratic Party, as well as ordinary individuals vocally opposed the restaurant. Some activists kept protesting in Kurapaty, as well as picketing the entrance to the restaurant, hoping to make it less popular and unprofitable. Zmicier Dashkievich, a leader of the Young Front, joined several activists and began erecting crosses to mark the memorial site too.
Several public figures openly expressed their disapproval, including the Noble Prize Winner in Literature Sviatlana Alekseyevich. Recently, Archbishop Tadeuš Kandrusievich, the head of the Belarusian Catholic Church, has called for a dialogue between the authorities and representatives of civil society groups. He called for greater respect towards the religious feelings of believers while resolving the conflict over Kurapaty: “I think that it is necessary to organise a public discussion about putting things in order in Kurapaty, with the participation of representatives of various faiths.”
Siarhej Liepin, the press-secretary of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, also disapproved of the methods used
by the local authorities. He wrote in his blog: “Remember. The Devils are very afraid of the sign of the Cross of the Lord, for in it the Saviour has exposed and put them to shame.”
Who owns Kurapaty: citizens or state?
In February 2017 the Belarusian authorities became more active in relation to Kurapaty. The state-run daily Belarus Segodnya organised a round table on its future. The participants of the discussion argued that the lack of commemoration activities has led to a vacuum which was filled by political forces. Also, they recommended establishing a National Mourning Memorial in Kurapaty, which could be supported by all Belarusians. This would, in their view, prevent society from being divided. In fact, in June 2018, the Ministry of Culture announced that they had raised over 11,000 Belarusian roubles for the new monument and a special jury chose the best design.
The violent removal of crosses surprised many in Belarus. On 4 April Sviatlana Alekseyevich commented to the daily Naša Niva that Kurapaty remains a “symbol of national self-reliance, national memory. And the state does not want to accept it […].” She aptly notes the uniqueness of a national monument spontaneously raised by Belarusians.
However, the press secretary of President Aliaksandr Lukashenka, Natallia Ejsmant, has told the media that the head of the state is certain that “things should be put in order” in Kurapaty. In her words, he will do it “in accordance with the customs and religious tradition” of Belarusians. No details have emerged on how and when this will be done.
Unexpected mobilisation of Belarusians?
Around 200 people gathered at Kurapaty. This shows that, aside from fairly organised civil society groups, ordinary apolitical Belarusians care about the matter too. After all, the topic does not relate to politics but is a highly sensitive one since it relates to a social taboo – death and the commemoration of those who died. Many Belarusians continue to practice Radounica, visiting graves of relatives, a tradition which stems from the Orthodox Church and Greek Catholic Church’s ritual.
By removing the crosses, the authorities have also touched upon a sensitive religious symbol – the cross. The removal of crosses was also happening during Lent and appears highly disrespectful to many Christians in the country. This contrasts with the many official public statements in which the authorities strive to emphasise the importance of Orthodox values in Belarusian society.
Dialogue instead of pressure
The nervous and unexpected reaction of the Belarusian authorities looks rather confusing. Officially, they want exactly the same what various different civil society groups aim for – a respectful commemoration of the victims of Soviet repression. But at the same time, they strongly demonstrate their exclusive right to present their own narrative on Kurapaty and shape all public manifestations of it.
The issue of Kurapaty seems apolitical because it concerns the commemoration of a couple of hundred thousand victims of Soviet repression. Yet, the people’s mobilisation with regard to the memorial site, including marking it with the crosses, the defence of the crosses, and, finally, yesterday and today’s prayers there, came as a shock to many in Belarus and abroad.