Minsk needs its “Minsk process”.
The latest events in Belarus prove that, in the context of Lukashenka’s highlight declarations and attempts to demonstrate own independence (from Moscow firsthand), the clouds are piling up over the ruling regime in Minsk more and more. This is connected not only with the factor of the pressure from the outside.
Today, the acting governor of Belarus has no support of the country’s population. The opposition, the business and the ordinary people stand against him. In turn, the ideas of the national statehood, democracy and European values are supported by about 3-4 million people in Belarus. Herein, a number of the officials of the current regime remain adherents of these ideas, and they are in fact waiting for the system to change so that they would be able to visit Europe freely after legalization of their capitals abroad. This is confirmed by the words of former assistant to Lukashenka Kiryl Rudy, that the government’s people remain more interested in drastic reforms in the country, than the opposition, and this concerns not just the economic reforms.
At the same time, a considerable part of the Belarusian society has sympathy for Putin, which is the result of the strong influence of the Russian propaganda on the country. Sadly, most people of Belarus have limited access to the alternative information about the situation in Russia and the actions of the Russian authorities. Therefore, this does not come as a surprise that the Belarusians lay their hopes on Putin when they want change of the government in their country.
Also, a significant part of the local law-enforcement structures appears to have the pro-Russian moods. They watch Russian TV-shows, news, they know how much their Russian colleagues earn, and so, they are not exactly the patriots of Belarus.
Lukashenka’s attempts to carry out periodical clean sweeps in the force structures and replenish them with young staff do not give the desired results, as the key motivation of the young hawks is not protection of their Homeland or the current regime, but earning money by providing criminal cover racket or other schemes. As for the army, there is a great number of those who can’t wait to get the Russian salary, which is 3-5 times higher than in Belarus.
As for the economic situation in the country, it remains burdensome today and it tends to getting worse. The key reason for that is that Russia appears incapable of rendering help to Lukashenka’s regime in the scope it used to, and the West’s aid cannot recompense that. As a result, starting from the year 2012, the country’s GDP practically stopped growing, and the drop thereof has been recorded in the last two years, by 3-5% in average.
Despite the fact that during the second half of 2016 Belarus short-received from Russia 6 million tons of oil, the officials say that, in the first half of 2016 the GDP fell by 2,5%, and upon the results of the past year – by only 2,6% (which means, the GDP in the second half of 2016 fell by only 0,1% supposedly). In fact, the actual decline of the GDP in Belarus amounted to about 5% for the full year. There has been no such difficult economic situation in the country since the days of perestroika.
Therefore, Belarus today has problems with payment of pensions, wages (the pensions of the ordinary citizens make $50-150, the wages offered at labor registry offices make $100-200, not $500, as claimed officially), there is the mass reduction of the number of jobs, the growth of the official and unofficial unemployment and the government’s attempts to find money, also among the unemployed.
To become an unemployed citizen officially, one needs to get registered at the labor registry office, after which they would get $15 per month as an unemployment benefit. Herein, they are obliged to serve several dozen hours of public works. If they do not agree with that, search for a job independently and try to survive by their own efforts, they are supposed to pay $ 400 to the state upon the results of the year. Lukashenka’s so-called “social parasites decree” caused mass outrage in the Belarusian society, as over 400 thousand citizens received the letters with a demand to pay the said tax, from the tax inspectorates.
Also, one of the options to get the money Lukashenka’s regime so desperately needs is selling lands (both in the cities and the big hunting areas). Officially, this is called land-lease, for a period of ten years or more. For example, about 120 thousand Ha was put on the tender in Karelichy district of Hrodna region. A similar situation is observed in Asipovichi district of Mahileu region, as well as in the districts of other regions. The major customers are large Russian companies, including "Gazprom" and some Russian oligarchs. By the way, millions of hectares of forest land with the appropriate infrastructure, possessed by the Russians (given the absence of the Belarusian border control), represent an excellent opportunity for the secret shift of the Russian special operations troops.
As a result of the difficult economic and social situation in the country, there are strong protests in the society, and the population has an understanding that the prospect of changing the current government is quite real. And, despite the fact that the police totalitarian state with a large number of police, security services, and informants has been built in Belarus today, despite the fear of losing their jobs, people still go out to the protests. And this year the protests in Belarus will be more extensive than before - in number, in diversity, and in geography.
As for the authorities’ reaction to such protests, it is not as harsh as it used to be. If just recently, people got detained for up to 30 days for participation in a protest action and could even become subjects in criminal proceedings, today the most common punishment for protesters is a fine. This is connected with the regime’s need to show the West the results of liberalization of the state to get financial aid. In turn, such situation seems favourable for the activity of the Belarusian opposition, the members of which can participate in the protests more freely now.
Thus, at present, the “Belarusian National Congress” (the major opposition force in the country), one of the leaders of which is Chairman of the Belarusian Social-Democratic Party “People’s Assembly” Mikalai Statkevich and which includes the civil campaign “European Belarus” (led by Andrei Sannikov), the movement “For Statehood and Sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus” (led by Uladzimir Niakliaeu), the party “Belarusian Social-Democratic Assembly” (led by Stanislau Shushkevich), the “Young Front” (led by Zmitser Dashkevich) and the Independent Trade Union of the Radio-Electronic Industry Workers (led by Henadz Fiadynich), as well as a number of other organizations and 15 regional coalitions started forming military commissions in the regions, for the defense of the country in case of the external aggression. Also, the Congress sent a letter to the Minister of Defense of Belarus, which said that in the event of a military threat to the country, the military oath will come in force and the citizens and the authorities will be obliged to conduct armed resistance to the aggressor. And if earlier the response to such letter would be some repressive measures against the opposition, now it hasn’t happened, and the Defense Minister even publicly responded to the letter of the Belarusian National Congress, which suggests that the government is interested in certain co-operation with the opposition.
Apart from this, the opposition will openly struggle against conducting of the joint Belarusian-Russian military exercise “West-2017”, which is scheduled on autumn 2017. Leader of the Belarusian Popular Front Aliaksei Yanukevich has announced launching of such campaign.
As for the readiness of the Belarusian people to fight back the external aggression, in case it happens, it’s worth mentioning that today there are many people in the country who are ready to defend the Belarusian independence with deadly force. Important to note, Belarus occupies one of the first places in the world with regard to the number of military men who served in the special formations. There are many such people among the Belarusian patriots now. There are also patriots among the young officers in the Armed Forces of Belarus. In general, as of today, Belarus has several dozen thousand people who are ready to resist to the aggressor with deadly force.
In addition, the Belarusian patriots hope that if the people of Belarus demonstrate the willingness to confront the aggressor, the Ukrainian volunteers will help them, the same way the Belarusians and the citizens of other countries are fighting for Ukraine today.
As for changing the state power, this process can be considered running. There are a number of indicators confirming that. Thus, after the conversation between Putin and Lukashenka in Moscow in late November last year, the latter replaced the Head and the 1st Deputy Head of his administration – the chief governing body in the dictatorial country - the first thing after return. He also replaced the 1st Deputy Head of the General HQ of the Armed Forces of Belarus, the 1st Deputy Minister of the Interior, and the Head of the Presidential Security Service.
Then there were the arrests of the “Russian world” adherents. Simultaneously, the “father with a gammadion” – the ideologist of the different national teams of Belarus in strength sport, who is believed to be connected with the secret services of Russia – was arrested. The reason for hunting for the "Russian world" activists, most likely, is that Lukashenka’s environment explained to him the direct danger posed by these organizations and showed the network of the Russian agents. As a consequence, today the activities of pro-Russian organizations have been limited, although not suspended, and they can no longer act so openly and brazenly, as it was before.
Lukashenka’s refusal to go to St. Petersburg for the event, which was rather important for the Russian authorities, in the framework of which they planned to carry out the festive ceremony of signing the Customs Code of the EurAsEC, seems quite illustrative as well. Moreover, he demonstratively held a session with the force structures instead, and declared that the most important thing for him was his country’s security during the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
In turn, Russia also started active measures against Lukashenka’s regime. Thus, it significantly reduced the volume of the oil supplies to the Belarusian oil refineries, became tenacious in the negotiations on payment for the shipped Russian gas to Belarus (at present, the Belarusian side should pay $550 million to Russia). Russia reinforced the measures for checking the quality of the Belarusian products. The Russian Federation also announced the further reduction of the oil supplies to Belarus to 12 million tons per year (in 2015, 24,6 million tons were shipped). The Russian Federal Security Service unexpectedly introduced the border zone at the border with Belarus, which caused a blow to the contraband of the Ukrainian and European goods to Russia. In addition, the Russian propaganda began information attacks on Lukashenka. The Belarusian ruler has become a huge financial problem for Russia due to his mismanagement of the country's economy.
Speaking about the possible options of changing the power in Belarus, we should not omit the military option with the Russian occupation of the country. However, an attempt to resolve the issue through political means seems more real.
The Russian leaders realize that, especially after the war in Ukraine, there is a danger that the military intervention to Belarus, given armed resistance of the Belarusian people, would jeopardize Russia’s export corridor to Europe. Before the military actions in Ukraine, 70% of the Russian export to Europe went through Belarus. Today, this figure is 80%.
In turn, the democratic West should also be interested in a stable situation in Belarus and in the security of transport communications on the east-west line, because if the Russian army occupies the territory of Belarus, the military situation for the West will change radically. First of all it will be a direct threat to Poland and the Baltic States.
It should not be excluded that, in this case that, after the occupation of Belarus Russia might want to organize a direct connection with Kaliningrad region through the so-called “Suwalki corridor”. Also, the subversive activities held by Russia in the Baltic States today, indicate that the Russian Federation will not stop on the occupation of Belarus.
The situation is developing in such a way that, to keep the stability in the strategically important region both the West and Russia are interested in controllable and peaceful change of the state power in Belarus. It may seem a paradox, but Minsk unexpectedly adopted the need for its own “Minsk process” – the direct political dialogue between the government and the opposition, with the participation of the EU countries, Russia, and possibly Ukraine. As for the terms of conducting the above-mentioned political dialogue on changing the state power in Belarus, it might start already this year, the theme being new parliamentary election under the international control.
The West with the new US administration may explain to the leaders of Russia the threat of the military actions at the territory of Belarus and the profitability of the peaceful resolution of the Belarusian crisis for all parties. Then it is possible that Russia will become an active participant in this process. The West and Russia together seem quite capable of explaining to Lukashenka the need for such a dialogue as the best option for him personally and for Belarus.
In turn, today, the Belarusian opposition is ready to take part in the negotiations with the current regime on the new elections and gradual change of power in the country. In this case, despite the fact that the opposition is basically pro-NATO and pro-Western, it may agree to the option of a neutral status for Belarus (which, besides, is written in the Constitution of Belarus), which would satisfy all participants of the negotiation process.
Zmitser Bandarenka, coordinator of the civil campaign “European Belarus”, exclusively for the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies (Ukraine)