Diplomatic crisis as a means of protection of the power elite
On February 28, the Belarusian foreign ministry asked Polish ambassador L. Szerepka and the head of the EU delegation to Belarus, M. Mora, to go back to their capitals “for consultations”. The following day, the EU began the process of recalling its ambassadors from Belarus.
This escalation of the sluggish diplomatic crisis between Minsk and the EU mostly benefits Lukashenko and his closest power elite. It kills two birds with one stone: the continued mobilisation of the state apparatus and of businesses close to the country’s leadership, a process begun in mid-February. As a result, the president is increasingly valuable as a lynchpin in coordinating the interests of the elite: while the latter is now even more of a hostage of the unpredictable behaviour of Lukashenko and security officials close to him.
Therefore, all initiatives have now been severed for alternative negotiations to escape the political crisis that has been brewing since the presidential elections of December 19, 2010. The Polish press recently wrote about informal negotiations between Belarus and Warsaw. If such negotiations actually took place, they were probably organised by an elite group centred around Presidential Administration Head Mr. Makey, whom the president has been trusting less and less in the past year.
Minsk’s harsh reaction to the EU’s extended visa sanctions of February 27 can be explained by president Lukashenko’s desire to nip such attempts in the bud, thus weakening the alternative elite. By inflaming relations with the EU, Lukashenko is striving to increase his own influence, as well as that of law-enforcement bodies close to him and his eldest son Viktor (particularly the KGB and the Investigative Committee).
Furthermore, the Belarusian leadership is now incapable of fully guaranteeing the state apparatus’ and judicial system’s loyalty by offering financial incentives. As a result, the leadership might overestimate the risk of negative leverage, i.e. visa bans for militiamen and judges.
In turn, the power elite is cautiously establishing more active Belarus/EU contacts. In particular, the head of government signed an order on February 28 to send the KGB head, V. Zaytsev, to Rome (details not specified). Mr. Zaytsev is on the “blacklist” of officials banned from entering the EU, yet this government-ordered trip implies Belarus has found a platform to allow it to take part in events. An international organisation such as Interpol or the UN is normally used as “cover” in such cases.
The rapid acceleration of the diplomatic scandal, which led to both sides recalling their ambassadors, could be a demonstration of “burnt bridges” for businessmen close to Lukashenko, e.g. Y. Chizh, A. Shakutin, P. Topuzidis and A. Moshensky. If the EU does introduce a visa ban and/or economic sanctions against them on March 23, then it will be hard for these businessmen to initiate negotiations to rehabilitate themselves, as there are no European ambassadors left in Belarus.
Such independent negotiations would be very dangerous for Mr. Lukashenko’s influence. Similar attempts were made in the past by the oligarch V. Peftiev, after the EU imposed economic sanctions against his companies in summer 2011. The escalating diplomatic crisis is thus being used as a sort of trap, and its keys will remain in the president’s hands.
By blocking moves towards the West, president Lukashenko has also demonstrated to the Belarusian elite that he alone controls relations with Russia. On March 1, he was able to organise a visit to Minsk by the CSTO Security Council secretary and former Russian FSB director, Mr. Patrushev. For the same reason, a joint statement by the Belarusian and Russian presidents was released the week before, condemning the sanctions.
The reckoning behind the scandal is that the Belarusian oligarchs and officials who suffer will resign themselves to this no-win situation, and be equally or even more loyal to the head of state. Worldwide, this scenario is usually described as “Stockholm syndrome”, whereby terrorists’ hostages gradually begin to feel sympathetic towards their captors, and finally take their side.
Moreover, not believing that economic sanctions will be imposed, the regime currently sees dialogue as an inevitability and the heightened tension as a chance to “reset” relations with the EU on its own terms. In numerous comments and statements, the foreign ministry’s press secretary has shown Minsk’s readiness to release political prisoners. The Foreign Ministry does not make foreign policy decisions, however; so Lukashenko will decide according to his own evaluation of the in country situation and relations with Russia. If the results of the Russian elections increase the chances of a confrontation between Russia and Europe, Lukashenko might choose to further exacerbate the EU conflict.
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.