Belarusian authorities unable to resist external influences amid crisis in Ukraine
Thanks to the crisis in Ukraine, Belarus is upping her importance in the Kremlin-led regional collective security system. Meanwhile, the split in Belarusian society over events in Ukraine is widening – also due to inconsistent and contradictory actions by the Belarusian authorities and the failure of the Belarusian ideologues in the information space. In the future, volatility might increase, as well as the influence of external forces on the situation inside Belarus.
The Kremlin has signed an agreement to supply the C-300 missiles to Belarus free of charge. In addition, Belarus is taking advantage of the Russo-Ukrainian crisis to gain economic benefits. For example, the Belarusian MAZ won the tender to supply 44 vehicles to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s military units. Simultaneously, Belarusian and Ukrainian defence industries are developing cooperation. For instance, Orsha Aircraft Repair Plant, assisted by the Ukrainian company ‘Motor-sich’ has modernised an Mi-8 helicopter (the latter refused to cooperate with Russian companies).
In addition, private initiatives of Belarusians indicate a deep split in Belarusian society – Belarusians support both sides in the conflict.
The Belarusian authorities negatively react to Belarusians participating in the armed conflict in the eastern Ukraine. For example, there were recent media reports on a criminal investigation launched by the Belarusian KGB against a Belarusian citizen fighting on the pro-Russian separatists’ side. This is not the only case of Belarusians participating in the armed conflict on the separatists’ side, albeit most combatants attempt not to advertise their presence in southeastern Ukraine and preserve incognito.
Earlier Ukraine’s Security Service reported about arresting Belarusians in Odessa for raising funds for Odessa’s ‘Anti-Maidan’ and mass protests against the Ukrainian government. Later, however, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry refuted this information.
There are reasons for the Belarusian authorities to be concerned. According to the IISEPS poll, 65.5% of Belarusians assess events in south-eastern Ukraine as a popular protest against an illegitimate government. 57.7% believe that the use of armed force by the Ukrainian authorities to restore control over Donbas is a war crime against their own people. 54.1% do not agree that members of armed protests in eastern Ukraine are "terrorists”.
Meanwhile, evaluating the potential threat to Belarus’ territorial integrity from Russia, almost one-third did not believe that ‘Russia would annex Belarus as a whole or partly’; 36.4% believe such a scenario is possible, but unlikely, 26.3% - very likely, and 4.4% - inevitable. To a direct question about their readiness to defend Belarus’ independence and sovereignty ‘with arms’ only 14.2% responded positively, 47.7% ‘would adapt to the new situation’, and 16.5% ‘would welcome these changes’. Interestingly, the majority of those who do not mind a hypothetical change to Belarus’ constitutional status support the incumbent president.
Ukrainian media reported about a volunteer battalion called ‘Pahonia’ being formed in Ukraine, mainly consisting of Belarusian nationals. According to preliminary information, about 50 persons are undergoing trainings to take part in the armed operations in south-eastern Ukraine (earlier media reported only about 5 volunteers). Interestingly, Belarusian and Ukrainian nationalist youth organizations have long-standing relationships, established in national-patriotic sports camps. Recently, ‘Malady Front’, a Belarusian nationalist youth organization, jointly with Ukrainian nationalist ‘Youth Congress’ have announced a call for participation in the next meeting of a sports-patriotic camp to be held near Poltava in Ukraine. The opposition youth organizations in Belarus were most influential in late 1990s – early 2000s. Today their activities are limited to some large cities and have local impact.
So far, the Belarusian authorities have not particularly reacted to the increased involvement of Belarusians in the military activities in south-eastern Ukraine. So far, the Interior Ministry has only warned about potential unpleasant consequences for Belarusian combatants in Ukraine: “The bulk of Belarusians who participate in the hostilities in Ukraine might face criminal charges under Article 133 of the Criminal Code’s (Mercenarism). Those who recruit our citizens to participate in the confrontation in Ukraine shall be held liable too”.
As the opposition generally supports the Belarusian authorities’ assessments, they have not come up with any possible ways for Belarusians to support Ukrainians. The opposition believes that the developments in Ukraine in many ways will affect the future of the Eastern European region, including Belarus. In their viewpoint, consolidating power in the hands of a pro-European government in Kiev and succeeding in restoring social and economic development will have a positive impact on the European choice and transformational changes in Belarus.
Official Minsk still has no response to the Kremlin’s aggressive campaign promoting the so-called ‘Russian World’. The Belarusian government will take conflicting steps to safeguard national security.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.