Foreign and security policy: Wearing several hats
Throughout the year, relations between Minsk and the Kremlin were tense over energy supplies with periodic exacerbations, albeit without information wars typical for the Belarusian-Russian relations. In H2 2016, Moscow reduced the supply of oil to the Belarusian refineries in retaliation for incomplete payment for gas supplies by Belarus. For the first time, Russia linked oil and gas supplies. The Kremlin ignored all Minsk’s attempts to reach an agreement about resuming the oil supply and reducing the gas price, albeit repeated assurances of the prompt dispute resolution.
The lingering dispute between Minsk and Moscow over oil and gas supplies has put an end to the previous model of the Russo-Belarusian relations.
Throughout the year, the Kremlin remained deaf to the economic, legal, ideological and brotherly appeals by Minsk and did not lower the price of gas; moreover, it reduced the oil supply in H2 2016.
In 2016, Minsk made efforts to create a positive image of the Belarusian NPP construction for the international community and attempted to neutralise criticism from Vilnius by engaging in a dialogue with the Lithuanian authorities. Inside the country, the authorities managed to reverse the people’s attitude towards the nuclear energy, which, however, was undermined by an attempt to becloud an incident at the construction site. Incidents at the NPP construction site mobilised Belarusian society to put pressure on the government to enforce safety rules, but not to abandon the project.
In 2016, Belarus' relations with Ukraine somewhat cooled. Kyiv was displeased with Minsk’s stance (pro-Kremlin) on some sensitive issues for Ukraine. The lack of political trust between the two states affected their cooperation in the security field. Ukraine failed to transfer some important technologies to Belarus.
Appealing to geopolitical arguments, Minsk managed to prompt Poland to pragmatic cooperation,
relaxed pressure on representatives of the Polish minority organisations and promised to facilitate the access of Polish business (including products from the sanctions list) to the Eurasian market. Many representatives of the Belarusian civil society regard this as the main reason why the Polish authorities reduced support for the Belarusian independent media.
After a long break (since November 2014) and after Western capitals lifted sanctions against the Belarusian authorities, the latter resumed executions. Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities demonstrated readiness to engage in a dialogue on the abolition or a moratorium on the death penalty with the European institutions, albeit, apparently, without the intent to change the practice. Simultaneously, Minsk attempted to put human rights issues at the bottom of the Belarusian-European agenda by prioritising regional security and geopolitical confrontation issues.
Minsk aimed to improve communication with the White House and right the ship of Belarusian-US relations with full diplomatic missions in both capitals. Simultaneously, Belarus sought to maintain a visible distance from the Kremlin's military preparations in a confrontation with NATO, while retaining close defence cooperation with Russia within the Union State. This precluded any positive achievements in Belarus’ relations with the US and NATO.
Washington continued monitoring the situation in Belarus and the United States’ stand on the Belarusian authorities remained tough.
Meanwhile, the role of China as Belarus’ military and political partner, increased. China is becoming a source of technology and finance in implementing programmes having strategic importance for national security.
Yet the Belarusian authorities have not taken any action to prevent massive protests against the decree on ‘social parasites’. On February 26th, 2017, multiple protests against the decree were held in three Belarusian regions in Vitebsk, Baranovichi, Brest and Bobruisk (more than 4 000 people participated in total). Very likely, the authorities, on the one hand, anticipate that the decree will be abolished, and other hand, do not want to take responsibility for decisions either on the decree or on the protests.
It should be noted, that the mass street protests on February 17th, 19th, and 26th, were held in the absence of the president in the country. There are reasons to believe that the authorities did not expect such a massive action. The state propaganda responded tangentially, insisting that protests were unjustified, because ‘the state did not require a lot’, despite the fact, that the protesters primarily complained about the lack of jobs in the country. In addition, the protesters pointed to the unfairness of the requirement to pay the tax for being unemployed as the state could not provide job and money making opportunities, while people were humiliated by the need to prove to the state they were unable to pay the tax.
In the past ten days, there were several protests against the decree, which were characterised by the following: the protesters easily picked up anti-Lukashenka slogans; they eagerly shared their outrage with journalists; many protesters said it was their first time when they took to the streets; protesters were ‘common people’, i.e. not political activists; there were fewer white-red-white flags during these protests than during conventional oppositional actions; politicians, who organised protests (eg on February 26th, by the centre-right coalition and the independent trade union) did not attempt to take the lead, especially in the regions. All this gives a picture of truly popular protests.
While refraining from interfering with the meetings and protest marches, the militia on February 26th attempted to put pressure on the protest organisers in the regions by handing out reports on administrative violations after the events. Other than that, it appears that the local and central authorities are unable to respond to the massive protests against the Decree No 3, including crowded street speeches, numerous signatories of petitions (over 80 000), multiple collective and personal appeals to the authorities, and mass meetings.
That said, the authorities are unable to enforce the Decree No 3 as they do not have sufficient resources to trial some 400 000 people for non-compliance. In addition, the authorities do not have sufficient institutional capacity to exempt all those not liable for the tax from the mailing lists of the Tax authorities. The Belarusian Bar Association will provide free legal consultations on March 1st, 2017 for those wishing be exempt from the tax imposed by the Decree No 3, however, this would only slightly east the tension in society.
In addition, despite concerns expressed by some experts and the leader of the protest in Minsk on February 17th Mikola Statkevich, there were only scarce reports in the Russian media about the protests in Belarus.