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.
The Belarusian authorities have revived the cyclical political agenda, including preventive crackdown with the use of force during the Freedom Day rally in Minsk and a loyal attitude to the participants in the opposition events in the regions. The protest rally in Minsk has evidenced that the Belarusian society has freed from the post-Maidan syndrome and showed high self-organisation capacity during the event in the absence of opposition leaders. In the future, the authorities are likely to expand the framework for sanctioned and legal activity for the moderate opposition in order to reduce the potential for street protests.
The Freedom Day march in Minsk on March 25th, 2017 was marked by unprecedented and brutal detentions before and during the event.
The Belarusian leadership has managed to stretch in time the political cycle - liberalization followed by repressions - and move beyond the electoral campaigns. Simultaneously, Minsk has demonstrated a rather high mobilisation potential under political slogans, despite the pressure from the state media and security forces before and during Freedom Day, including the presence of armed officers and new special equipment to disperse demonstrations in the streets of Minsk. That said, in other towns (Vitebsk, Gomel, Brest and Grodno) the Freedom Day march led by the opposition, was sanctioned by the local authorities (except Vitebsk), albeit there were fewer participants than in February and March protests against the decree on social dependants.
The Belarusian leadership has depersonalised (removed leaders) the protest, preventively weakened the protest movement, and has not opted for the harsh crackdown like in 2010 with many injured and hundreds arrested. For instance, some party leaders were preventively arrested or detained (Lebedko, Rymashevsky, Gubarevich, Neklyaev, Logvinets, Severinets) before the event. Nikolai Statkevich has disappeared and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Some could not pass through the police cordons (Yanukevich and Kostusev) or participated in the rallies in the regions (Dmitriev, Korotkevich and Milinkevich).
Despite the lack of protest leaders, some demonstrators managed to self-organize and march down the Minsk centre. The march was unauthorised but gathered several thousand participants. Many were detained by the law enforcement and later released without charges. In addition, the Belarusian law enforcers used some tactics of the western riot police against peaceful protesters, allegedly in order to mitigate the criticism from Western capitals.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities have used the entire set of propaganda and power mechanisms applied during the highly politicised 2006 and 2010 elections - criminal prosecution of the opposition leaders, preventive detentions and arrests of activists, harsh propaganda campaign in the state media and, finally, the crackdown on the protest action in Minsk with the use of force.
Overall, the mobilisation potential of the Belarusian society remains high and the authorities are likely to expand the legal framework for public participation in politics in order to absorb superfluous tension.