The authorities tightened the rules for officials and business
Trials and investigations against high-ranking officials and businessmen during the election campaign period will have a pacifying effect on business and will strengthen internal discipline in nomenklatura. The developments show that neither business, nor officials have effective tools to resist the Belarusian authorities.
On September 6th, former Deputy Chairman of the Vitebsk Oblast Executive Committee Leonid Kovalev was sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment in a maximum security prison with confiscation of property. On September 7th businessman Yuri Dankov was charged with covering up prostitution. On September 10th, the trial against the former head of the Council of the Republic Secretariat, Gleb Bedritsky, charged with corruption, will begin.
The aforementioned events are a random coincidence, but objectively speaking, the authorities are interested in tightening the rules before the elections, not only for the opposition, but also for the officials, to put their loyalty through a test. Therefore these three cases meant to send signals to at least two social groups: officials and businessmen.
In particular, the former deputy chairman of the Vitebsk Oblast Executive Committee Mr. Kovalev was convicted for large scale bribery while organizing mass entertainment in Vitebsk. The punishment for such a high ranking official has another dimension. In 2005-2008, Mr. Kovalev headed the Belarusian Republican Youth Union therefore the authorities will have an additional argument to strengthen control over the organization if necessary, as it is highly active during the election campaign.
The trial against the former head of the Secretariat of the National Assembly’s upper chamber Mr. Bedritsky will have a disciplinary effect not only on the future members and the staff of the Council of the Republic, but also on the Parliament as a whole. If after these elections some kind of political reform is initiated in Belarus (as Lukashenko previously hinted), the revealed corruption in the Parliament will allow the President to manage new deputies more effectively.
Finally, the arrest of a well known businessman Yuri Dankov, owner of the largest and oldest entertainment complex Dankoff Club in Minsk – irrelevant whether he is guilty or not – will be interpreted by other businessmen as a warning against excessively independent behavior (Mr. Dankov is known for his critical statements about the authorities). Moreover, Mr. Dankov’s arrest – he has long been a deputy of the Minsk City Council and even nominated for the presidency – will have a chilling effect on the former deputies who planned business careers after the elections.
All the three examples also demonstrate that the defendants in these cases have no effective tools to counter the authorities and to protect their interests. In particular, Mr. Bedritsky has written a request to the President asking for release, and Mr. Dankov has stoically accepted the beginning of the investigation and was not trying to start a public campaign in self-defense before the arrest. On the other hand, this is a traditional behavior of Belarusian officials and businessmen.
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.