Kremlin strengthens "privatization" pressure on Minsk

April 22, 2016 18:54

Belarus attempts to delay privatization of her large state-owned assets in favour of Russian business, aspiring to buy some time with keeping Russo-Belarusian relations tense. The Belarusian government uses this tactics by playing on contradicting interests of large influential groups in President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev’s teams. However, Belarus’ growing dependence on the Kremlin significantly limits her abilities to manoeuvre and eventually she will be prompted to hand over state assets to Russian counterparts.

On July 15th, President Lukashenko met with Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich.

Belarusian official media reported that Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dvorkovich visited Minsk primarily to discuss Eurasian integration issues. Interestingly, Dvorkovich’s visit to Minsk had not been announced in advance and took place after a telephone conversation between President Lukashenko and Prime Minister Medvedev “following the request from the latter”.

During the meeting Deputy Prime Minister Dvorkovich "conveyed greetings" from President Putin to President Lukashenko. It should be noted that only two weeks earlier Lukashenko and Putin met in Minsk, and that right after the meeting Belarus received a USD 2 billion loan from the Russian VTB Bank. These funds have prevented Belarus’ international reserves from falling below the level of USD 4.4 billion, or 1.1 months worth of imports – a critical marker for the national currency’s stability.

Deputy Prime Minister and member of the Russian Government’s Presidium, Dvorkovich is an important figure Dmitry Medvedev’s team. He oversees real economy, including fuel and energy complex. He carried out several successful privatization projects in Russia. In February 2013, after Dvorkovich’s visit to Minsk Belarus named five major Belarusian companies for privatisation in favour of Russian capital. Russians are interested in purchasing the following assets: MAZ, "Integral", Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MWTP), “Pelenga”, and "Grodno Azot”. In May 2014, during the World Ice Hockey Championships, Dvorkovich visited Belarus privately and looked at attractive assets in Belarusian state property.

During the most recent meeting with Dvorkovich, Belarus’ Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich said, “I know, that today during a meeting with Belarus’ President they discussed the following steps in the major integration projects. The Government, in turn, will do everything in order to meet the deadlines”. However, Belarus had failed the ‘deadlines’ before (the most recent was in late 2013) and was able to crumb the Kremlin’s ‘integration’ plans of transferring Belarusian assets to Russian companies.

It is likely, that the Belarus’ officials in their traditional manner attempt to play on Russia’s internal contradictions. Last week, Belneftekhim Head, a Russian citizen Ivan Zhilin was suddenly arrested – regardless of the concern’s good performance in the last six months. In addition, in May this year, Prime Minister Medvedev announced redistribution of power in the Russian Government. Partially, Dvorkovich might be stripped of his powers in favour of Deputy Prime Minister Khloponin (most likely those associated with fuel and energy complex). However, this is unlikely to affect significantly the Belarusian-Russian relations as regards “integration” projects.

Belarus’ growing dependence on foreign aid (mainly from Russia) is likely to prompt officials in Minsk to yield to the Kremlin’s pressure regarding privatization of some large state assets before late 2014. 

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.