Authorities’ concerns about public safety increase
There have been several accidents of late in the Minsk metro. On September 23rd, law enforcement agencies exercises were held in the metro without warning. On September 24th, ‘Vostok’ metro station was closed due to a short circuit in the electrical panel. On September 25th, around noon ‘Traktorny Zavod’ metro station was closed by sappers following unattended box reports. On the same day, a woman fell on the tracks at ‘Academy of Sciences’ station, and on September 26th, a 90-year-old gentleman fell on the tracks at ‘Pervomayskaya’ station.
Belarus’ authorities are demonstrating their readiness to deal with potential socio-political disruptions. The ripening economic crisis may result in a repeat of the full scale crisis from 2011. The authorities’ stake on preventive measures is meant to demonstrate their increased control and concerns for public safety.
In 2011, Belarus experienced an acute currency crisis, which compounded apathy in society caused by the crackdown on opposition protests and prosecution of leaders and activists. At some point, President Lukashenko, as well as the National Bank and the government, stopped interfering with foreign exchange market operations. The authorities were confused and unable to offer a solution to the deteriorating economic situation, which was multiplied by their failure to ensure public safety in the centre of Minsk. In the midst of the currency crisis, an attack in the Minsk metro was carried out during rush hour. It was symbolic that the terrorist attack was carried out at the busiest metro station, ‘Oktyabrskaya’, not far from the Presidential Administration.
The authorities have previously linked the currency crisis and the terrorist attack. In April 2011, Alexander Lukashenko said, that “even before the presidential elections we anticipated that pressure would be put on us to destabilize the situation purposefully and methodically. And so it happened: firstly, on the foreign exchange market, on the food market, and then there was an explosion in the metro. [It was] a whole chain”.
Since mid-2013, along with overstocked warehouses and problems with Belarusian exports to Russia (Belarus’ main market), there has been talk of the Belarusian ruble’s possible devaluation. The ‘potash conflict’ has exacerbated the situation with Belarus’ foreign exchange reserves. These trends have triggered expectations of devaluation among the population and, simultaneously, have sent a signal to the authorities about likely disruptions to public safety if the Belarusian ruble were to sharply devalue.
Thus, the growing economic crisis in the country has encouraged the authorities to pay more attention to ensuring public safety. On the one hand, the authorities are demonstrating their readiness to prevent destabilization and tensions from increasing within society. On the other hand, these developments stimulate people’s distrust of the national currency and multiply rumours about the imminent devaluation: public opinion links the accidents in the metro with a potential crisis on the currency market.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.