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10 January 2017

Has Moscow come up with Lukashenko’s successor?

The 2017 agenda in Russian-Belarusian relations

A gargantuan banner advertising a show featuring Vladimir Solovyov, a popular Russian TV host, the mouthpiece of Kremlin propaganda, to be held at the Palace of the Republic in the Belarusian capital was on show in the hall of Minsk airport throughout November last year. “An evening with Vladimir Solovyov” went ahead on November 25 although, according to the presenter, it was marred by plots of the organizers, the Belarusian KGB and protesters from the local “Young Front” group who advised the famous journalist thusly: “Suitcase! Railway station! Moscow!”

Incidentally, a few weeks after the evening with Solovyov in Minsk, three journalists from the Regnum portal were detained in Belarus over a three day period: Yuri Pavlovets, Dmitry Alimkin and Sergey Shiptenko. The Regnum news agency was labeled “patriotic press” as the reporters were charged with “incitement of ethnic hatred” under Article 130 of the Penal Code of Belarus. The suspects – an assistant professor, a school janitor and former employee of the Management Academy – could be sentenced to between 5 and 12 years’ imprisonment. All three undermined the legitimacy, not only of the Belarusian state, but also the Belarusian language and even the Belarusian people through social media posts. Such “journalists” are innumerous in Russia. However, the decision by Minsk to stand up to the Kremlin and defend Belarusian national identity is rare by today’s standards.

By New Year’s Eve, the above-mentioned events were supplemented by the traditional confrontation between Moscow and Minsk over Russian oil supplies to Belarus. Although Russia planned to supply 24 million tons of crude oil per annum from 2016-2024, due to a failure to pay oil bills (the Belarusian debt amounted to 340 million dollars during the first nine months in 2016) and under-delivery of petroleum products to Russia (petrol in the first place, produced by Belarusian refineries), Belarus ultimately took delivery of only 6 million tons last year. 

According to the latest reports, the worst is yet to come as Transneft has decided to cut oil supplies to Belarus during the first quarter of the current year from 4.5 to 4 million tons in the hope of forcing Belarus to repay its debt.

In turn, Minsk has unilaterally decided to hike prices for the transfer of crude from Russia to Europe from February 1. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities have announced that they would like to purchase gas at the Russian domestic price even though Alexander Lukashenko shunned the EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union) summit in St. Petersburg at the end of last year and hence did not put his signature on the Customs Code of this organization. The authorities in Minsk believe this document requires amendments which could include provisions related to the supply of Russian gas to the parties to the above-mentioned agreement.

All the aforementioned events have culminated in a situation whereby relations between Moscow and Minsk remain sub-zero in early 2017. As a result, articles entitled “Who will replace Lukashenko as president?” sprouted like mushrooms in the Russian and especially Belarusian media, as if the issue of a presidential successor had become a major news story. Solovyov’s name cropped up again in this regard: tricksters posted an invitation to various experts and political scientists on behalf of a producer of a program devoted to the topic of Lukashenko’s successor. It later transpired that this was a hoax with the TV host himself tweeting the same.

Nevertheless, a certain information field for discussion about the future of Russian-Belarusian relations against the backdrop of a possible shift in power in Belarus has been created, especially since these relations have gone through ups and downs for over two decades. Although all previous crises have been dealt with, we could be facing fresh, fundamental challenges.

Such challenges may in fact be associated with the changes of the leading actors in the series “The Union State”. However, we are talking here about the Russian element of the cast: although Lukashenko has a guaranteed presidential seat until 2020, the Russian presidential election is set to take place in 2018. Therefore, as regards relations between Moscow and Minsk, a lot depends on whether the Kremlin changes its host and if so, who Putin’s successor will be.

Early on, Lukashenko apparently had his sights firmly set on becoming Yeltsin’s successor after the “tired” Yeltsin stepped down. The idea of the Union State did not turn into fiction back then as it has now. Needless to say, Lukashenko was disappointed by his colleague’s choice. The Belarusian president looked down on Putin initially and regarded him as an arriviste. With time, the Russian leader earned his respect having displayed an ability to adopt drastic measures with respect to both domestic and foreign policy and consequently, dialogue between two presidents became more congruous. When Putin carried out a reshuffle and Dmitry Medvedev took his place, everything began anew. Lukashenko went on and on grumbling about the arrogance of his new Russian peer while the 2010 energy conflict between the two countries, which broke out during Medvedev’s presidency, proved to be the most serious squabble of all, almost putting an end to Russian gas supplies to Belarus.

Upon Putin’s return to the Kremlin and the onset of the implementation of the Customs Union project, which has gone on to become the EAEU, the parties tried to steer clear of serious confrontation although Western sanctions against Russia, Moscow’s retaliatory measures and Lukashenko’s desire to benefit from that, resulted in lengthy trade wrangles between the customs authorities of each state. This did not blight the overall picture of friendship, though. Although the West lifted some of the sanctions against Belarus, which revived discussions about the European vector of the country, and the Belarusian president refused to agree to the establishment of a Russian military base on Belarusian territory, unprecedented levels of activity will be undertaken by Russian personnel in Belarus this year. The Russian Ministry of Defense plans on 4162 return train journeys to Belarus for wagons carrying personnel and military equipment in 2017. These types of shipments totaled as few as 125 and 50 wagons respectively in 2015-2016.

Perhaps, this can be explained solely by this year’s joint “West-2017” drills. Or perhaps there are some secret agreements in place between Putin and Lukashenko to store the loads carried by these trains in Belarus for the long term. In such a case, should there be a shift of power in the Kremlin (provided that Putin wants to take a break again), the new Russian president, be it Medvedev or Shoygu or Volodin, will have far more leverages by which to affect Minsk than are available today – irrespective of the level of contempt Lukashenko has for him.

Loans and energy resources are still the main leverages at play: the news about the discovery of the new oil field in Belarus is overstated as the volumes there are incommensurate with what is extracted in Russia. Further rapprochement with the West will not help Lukashenko get off the Russian oil-and-gas hook. Should Lukashenko decide to repay all outstanding loans, every citizen of the country would have to contribute several thousand dollars each, including the elderly, the infirm and even infants.

The controversies surrounding Lukashenko’s successor are meant to throw him off his stride or at least, get in his hair. And it should be pointed out that Russia’s special services may not necessarily be behind them. They might have been cooked up by individuals from the entourage of the Belarusian president himself such as the former head of his administration and incumbent Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vladimir Makei, who has previously been accused of plotting against his boss.

Only inveterate dreamers will ponder with any seriousness as to who is poised to take Alexander Lukashenko’s seat should he step down, which is neither planned nor envisaged by the constitution (according to which, the same candidate can be elected an unlimited number of times as president). Neither Viktor, Dmitry nor even the beloved son Nikolai who played the Beast master in the New Year’s Eve performance are anywhere near to being a shoe in for national leader. For some reason, Russia’s money is on Viktor, who might lack his father’s “fantastic charisma”, but enjoys his uttermost trust and is capable of holding on to his family’s “privileges”.

In fact, the knack of transferring a dictator’s power in the post-Soviet space is yet to be mastered. Even in those rare cases in which a former USSR republic has eventually buried its eternal leader (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), he has been replaced by an official from the deceased’s inner circle and not by his son, brother, co-father-in-law or daughter (the kinship between the deceased Turkmenbashi Saparmurat Niyazov and incumbent president of Turkmenistan has never been confirmed). The daughter of the President of Kazakhstan, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who has long been involved in domestic politics, stands a better chance of inheriting her father’s power. The son of the President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev-junior also stands a chance of becoming a successor to his father’s throne. However, the former Soviet republics have a long way to go before they can boast of a tradition on a par with the North-Korean Kim dynasty. This is especially true when it comes to post-Soviet countries which strive to pass as democratic states. 

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