Russia’s double-game in Belarus

It is crucial that the EU and US simultaneously support the protestors, pressure Lukashenko and prevent Russia from growing its influence in the country, writes former Bulgarian foreign minister Daniel Mitov.
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By Daniel Mitov

Daniel Mitov was the foreign minister of Bulgaria from 2014 to 2017

10 Dec 2020

The protests that have swept Belarus since the rigged election in August have provided the first signs of hope in a generation that Europe’s oldest dictatorship may soon come to an end. Despite the terrible violence inflicted by the security forces, including the use of torture, protests continue unabated and show no signs of slowing.

In response to the crackdown and blatant human rights abuses, Europe and the United States have finally started to respond by imposing sanctions against Lukashenko and his allies, with more sanctions likely to come soon.

Sanctions are assuredly a good idea, but if applied incorrectly they also risk destabilising the fragile Belarussian economy even further, ultimately harming the people. Belarus’ outdated, soviet-era economy was already ailing before the protests, and months of strikes have brought many of the country’s key companies to the brink of collapse.

Without economic assistance from the West and the IMF to alleviate the hardships of the Belarussian people, it is very likely that Belarussian companies will have no other choice but to look to the “big brother” to the east for their survival.

“Sanctions are assuredly a good idea, but if applied incorrectly they also risk destabilising the fragile Belarussian economy even further, ultimately harming the people”

Keenly aware of this, Russia has been playing a smart and cunning double-game in Belarus over the past few months. On the one hand, Putin has taken steps to prop up the Lukashenko regime, offering support ranging from guaranteeing Belarus’ security to supplying journalists to run the state television channel.

The Kremlin cannot allow yet another dictator to be brought down via popular unrest. Yet on the other, it has allowed a handful of Russian oligarchs to support the protesters in order to create a dire economic situation, one that will allow them to take over key Belarussian companies.

For Putin, this double-game creates a win-win situation. Keeping Lukashenko in power has many advantages for Russia, but Lukashenko has at times been an unreliable partner to Moscow, notably through his opposition to the so-called “Union State” between the two countries. Securing control over the country’s key economic assets will give Putin the means to exercise far greater influence in Minsk.

So far, efforts to take over these assets have focussed on two crucial industries: oil refining and agricultural fertilisers. The oil refining sector is mostly controlled by two refining companies, Mozyr and Naftan Oil, while the fertiliser industry is dominated by the companies Belaruskali and Grodno Azot. All of these companies are in dire straits financially and have suffered from strikes that have accompanied the protests since the summer.

The oil refineries are being eyed up by Mikhail Gutseriev, a Russian oligarch with ties to both Putin and Lukashenko. Gutseriev already controls a significant portion of the crude oil supply from Russia to Belarus, thanks to his company SAFMAR, and is therefore ideally placed to take control. As for the fertiliser industry, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Belarus-born Russian oligarch Dmitry Mazepin is positioning himself to take over.

Mazepin already controls a portion of the global fertiliser market through his companies, Uralchem and Uralkali, and is notoriously trying to further consolidate his hold over the industry by illegally taking over rival company TogliattiAzot.

Both he and Gutseriev have taken steps to ensure that they are ideally placed to buy up these companies as soon as they become insolvent. Mazepin has even promised to pay for student protestors’ studies in Russia to encourage further demonstrations.

“The legal and economic tools to implement such a response already exist and should be used quickly. If not, I fear that Belarus may become permanently locked into Moscow’s orbit or even effectively annexed”

Poorly calibrated Western sanctions against these companies or their supply chains have the potential to play into the hands of the Kremlin. It is therefore crucial that Brussels and Washington take an approach that acknowledges and responds to Putin’s double-game in Belarus.

An effective response is one that simultaneously supports the protestors, pressure Lukashenko and prevents Russia from growing its influence in the country. This can be achieved through a combination of targeted economic stimulus, continued personal sanctions against human rights abusers, and additional sanctions against Russian oligarchs and their companies seeking to take advantage of the situation.

The legal and economic tools to implement such a response already exist and should be used quickly. If not, I fear that Belarus may become permanently locked into Moscow’s orbit or even effectively annexed.

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