Tag: Belarus

A Tale of Two Protests

The artist Rufina Bazlova has used traditional embroidery to describe current events in Belarus

This past weekend, two European capitals witnessed large-scale protests. Both of them protested against the government, both carried the flags that once symbolized their state, in both cases the police was involved, and during one of them the crowd was chanting “Putin! Putin!”. If you think the latter happened in Minsk you are sadly mistaken: the crowd in Belarus is much more creative than the Neo-Nazi conspiracy theorists in Berlin. 

The 38,000-strong crowd in Berlin was doing yoga against German Covid containment policies and tried to storm the Reichstag, while the 100,000 Minsk crowd has been protesting for weeks now against mass-scale election fraud and brought a cardboard cockroach as a present to the still clinging to power Alexander Lukashenka. For the record, if you need to wear a bulletproof vest and give a rifle to your underage son, that does not sounds like you have 80% popular support.  

While Putin is not going to save the Berlin protesters from wearing a mask on the train, he can still play a role in the Belarus protests, at least Lukashenka thinks so: they already spoke 5 times on the phone and right now the de facto president of Belarus seems to be on the way to Moscow. Why does Putin care? For the same reason that he cared about the Orange Revolution and Maidan in Ukraine. For once, he is afraid that might happen to him. And secondly, as Alexander Baunov notes, Russian politics suffers from geopolitization of any domestic political action. That means that elections are not about an internal transfer of power, not about feedback between the population and the government, but an act of foreign policy defense, and their results should be treated accordingly. The same applies to freedom of assembly, press, doping investigations, Eurovision, movies, monuments, you name it.  

On top of it, 20 years of Putin have significantly eroded public faith in organic protest. For the past four Putins and 1 Medvedev all Russians heard on TV was the same conspiratorial regime change narrative. Orange Revolution – it’s the West! Georgian revolution – it’s the West! Arab spring – it’s the West! Maidan – it’s the West! According to Levada, 39% of Russians are sure that the mass protests were provoked by “foreign forces” and almost 50% believe the elections in Belarus were mostly fair. Yes, those elections where you had polling workers climbing out the windows with the protocols so the observers don’t catch them falsifying.

The protesters in Belarus, unlike those in Berlin, hope that Russia does not interfere, because by the looks of it, Putin can only be on the one side, and it is not the side that is being tortured in Okrestina police station. Really, the Berlin protestors could really learn a thing or two about governmental oppression from the brave people in Belarus. Russians have also been protesting electoral fraud for years now, but it seems that Putin and his cronies either sincerely believe that every single precinct in a city can have exactly the same numbers or they don’t care that the results are cooked. Luckily, citizens of Belarus care and hopefully, they manage to send their dictator into a long overdue retirement.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times indeed. 

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Gas pains

Gazprom has a problem.

We often read about Russia wielding its energy power as a political tool, cutting off energy supplies hither and thither to punish political foes. Last winter’s dispute with Belarus did not fit the usual template. Although the script was similar to the dispute with Ukraine–Gazprom looks to double energy prices in new contract–the scenery was rather different. Belarus has been one of Russia’s closest most reliable allies in recent years–there’s even been serious, highest level talks on unification between Russia and Belarus.

So why would the Kremlin allow Gazprom to potentially destabilize (or, at the very least, smear egg all over the face of) the Lukashenka regime?

To answer this question, you have to leave the realm of politics and head straight for economics.

Yes, Gazprom wanted to double gas prices for Belarus. But under the old contract, Belarus was paying about 1/4 of the market price paid by European customers. But, you, say, isn’t Russia an energy superpower, with nearly limitless supplies of oil and gas?

Ah, and here we arrive at Gazprom’s not-so-little problem.

See, Russia’s gas production is not only not limitless, it’s actually falling. Both domestic and export demand are rising–and some experts estimate as soon as 2010, Russia may not be able to meet both its domestic needs and its export contracts.

In this context, continuing to provide Belarus with as much gas as they can consume at 1/4 market price is clearly not a Good Thing for Gazprom. After a tense few weeks last winter, they came up with a deal: Belarus agreed to pay higher gas prices, while coughing up a significant share in its pipeline operator, Beltransgaz, to cover the costs. This suited Gazprom well, which has sought to shore up its control over pipelines (and thus over exports, which must pass through the pipelines) whenever and wherever possible.

Then last week, Belarus suddenly refused to pay the bill. A Belarusian delegation made its way to Moscow, to plead for a loan to help it make the payment. If Russia would no longer subsidize Belarus via Gazprom, perhaps they would be willing to do so directly–it’s hard to read this as anything other than an attempt to back out of an unfavorable deal. But no dice. Russia’s political arm refused to clean up after the problems created by the economic arm. Belarus then tapped reserved to pay a portion of the bill, promising to make the remaining payment by August 10. Belarus is, of course, in a tight spot. The regime is both economically and politically isolated, and, as a result, it is pretty much at Russia’s mercy. There is little outrage expended on behalf of the Lukashenka regime when Russia flexes her muscles at its expense. Russia doesn’t need to placate Belarus, because there isn’t really anywhere else to turn.

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Lukashenka shakes things up

I’ve been meaning to write something about the tit-for-tat between the UK and Russia and the strange and unfolding saga of Boris Berezovsky, but things keep changing before I get anything coherent written.

So, let’s take a quick look to Russia’s neighbor to the west: Belarus.
Belarus gets little attention in the western media. They haven’t had an exciting people’s revolution to cover. The president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, keeps a pretty tight handle on the media and on the opposition, which tends to be disorganized and ineffective, fighting amongst themselves instead of uniting in the common cause. Lukashenka is a pretty savvy politico, as well. When he was first elected president in 1994, he was a bit of dark horse. He positioned himself as a political outsider: a man of the people and an anti-corruption crusader. Once elected, he triangulated his opponents and eliminated them one by one (sometimes literally–more than one opponent has simply vanished). But Lukashenka didn’t just target the political opposition–during his time in office, not even his inner circle has been secure. He’s careful to make sure that no one has the opportunity build an independent power base–he keeps the regional governors moving around and has been perfectly willing to sic the legal system on insiders who grow too powerful. Since Belarus is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, it’s easy to charge enemies with corruption: the charges are almost certainly true…it’s the application that is politically motivated.

Now it looks like Lukashenka is going to sack his prime minister, Sergei Sidorsky. Sidorsky has been in office now for about 3 1/2 years, so he’s due to be replaced, kind of like the timing belt in your car–it’s not broken yet, but you’d better do it with that mileage. Kommersant seems downright pleased by this story: the Russians have been trying to break into the Belarusian petrochemicals markets for a couple of years now and they seem to be hoping that this will be their big break.

Kommersant also predicts that Lukashenka will tap a particularly unsavory figure as Sidorsky’s replacement: Vladimir Naumov. Currently Interior Minister, Naumov is allegedly linked to the disappearance of numerous opposition figures and is banned from traveling to the United States and western Europe.

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