Belarus in 2020: Five key political trends

Belarus approaches 2020 with an array of foreign and domestic political challenges, the responses to which will determine the country’s future for many years to come. In this sense, the coming year can become a turning point in a number of dimensions, including the relations with Russia and the EU, the political climate in the country and the choice of scenario for constitutional reform.

Belarus-Russia sorting out the integration

Tense bilateral talks on the future of the so-called “Union State” of Belarus and Russia were a defining theme of Minsk’s foreign policy in 2019 and it will likely remain so in 2020. The process was triggered by Moscow in the end of 2018 after Belarus repeatedly asked for compensation of tax maneuver in Russian oil industry. This reform gradually transfers tax burden from oil export to oil extraction. It has a net zero effect for the Russian budget, but the implications for Belarus are huge. The price of 24 million tons of crude oil coming from Russia to Belarus will gradually rise to the world market levels by 2024. Additionally, the Belarusian oil refineries cannot get a subsidy from Russian budget, which will be given to their Russian competitors. The cumulative damage to Belarusian economy is estimated at about 10 billion US dollars (with the current oil prices).[i]

Russian counter offer to Belarus was to integrate deeper along the lines of 1999 Union State treaty to “earn” the prolongation of oil preferences. The scope of bargaining soon expanded. Other forms of Russian support, like gas prices and credits, have also become contingent on how the deepening of integration goes.[ii] Minsk engaged in the negotiations and very soon drew a red line around sovereignty and, thus effectively removed political integration with new supranational institutions from the table.[iii]

Numerous meetings between prime ministers and presidents of two countries, supported by an intensive bureaucratic effort in a bilateral working group on integration, resulted in a set of draft documents. Key one of them is the further integration Action plan, which has 31 attached roadmaps for harmonizing and unifying national legislations in a number of areas. The phrasing of some of them, like those related to administering justice, social welfare or monetary policy, according to media leaks, seems to be vague enough for parties not to argue much about them at this stage.[iv] However, in other crucial sectors, like taxation, gas and oil markets, as of mid-December 2019, the intensive bargaining for details continues.[v]

Besides that, the order of moves is one of the main disagreements. Minsk insists on unlocking the problems in relations before signing and implementing the integration papers, but Moscow sees it the other way round. It now increasingly seems that the only feasible way for the presidents to resolve their disagreements by end of 2019 is to sign some symbolic, declaratory document with a batch of already prepared non-essential roadmaps, while postponing the negotiations about the toughest issues for 2020. The only exception would probably be a gas agreement, since the current one expires in 2019 and both sides are interested in having predictable relations in this area for the next year.

The negotiations about details of this ‘deeper integration’, which in fact is just an effort to harmonize laws, will go on in 2020. If Moscow continues to extract various economic carrots from relations to make Minsk more agreeable, that might actually have the opposite consequences. The 2020 is the year of presidential elections in Belarus. It implies increased sensitivity Lukashenko will have to Russian pokes. Outbreaks of emotions in Minsk’s rhetoric vis-à-vis Moscow are, therefore, very likely in 2020.

On some level, provoking it may well be a part of Russian negotiation strategy. If to recall previous Belarusian presidential campaigns of 2010 and 2015, Kremlin used them to exert pressure on Minsk. In 2010, it was a mix of trade wars and informational attacks, including propagandistic documentaries on Russian federal TV channels and spreading rumors about Russian support for the Belarusian opposition or possible non-recognition of Lukashenka’s victory.[vi] As a result, Minsk signed the documents on Eurasian Economic Space, a prelude to the Eurasian Economic union, two weeks before the election day only to alleviate Russian pressure. In 2015, the relations were not as tense, but Russian leadership still decided not to lose the occasion and announced its plans to deploy a military airbase in Belarus just a few months before Lukashenko’s reelection. That time he forcefully refused to compromise, raising some eyebrows in Moscow and simultaneously pleasing the Western partners.[vii]

Hence, if the integration dialog remains as difficult as it seems today, it is almost a given that Russian leadership or some near-Kremlin actors will attempt to test the Lukashenka’s patience in 2020. It may take various forms, but disinformation campaigns in traditional, online and social media seem the most obvious choice.

Normalization of relations with the US

In 2019, Belarus and the US formally decided to return ambassadors back to Washington and Minsk respectively. The two countries were in the semi-frozen state of diplomatic relations since 2008, when Lukashenka expelled US ambassador after Washington adopted economic sanctions against Minsk for crackdowns on Belarusian opposition in mid-2000s. The ambassadors’ appointment is expected in the second half of 2020. Bureaucratically, the ball is in US court, because the procedure in Washington takes more time.

The resumption of full diplomatic missions was in preparation for years. Belarusian authorities also scrapped a quota for the US diplomatic staff in Minsk, which was curtailed to only five diplomats back in 2008 and then gradually increased to 10 by 2019. When US State Department picks an ambassador for posting in Minsk, the embassy staff will also reach about 35 diplomats. It means that US will be able to engage Belarusian officials, business and civil society with far more human resources than before. Coupled with a number of high profile visits of US officials to Minsk in 2019, it creates a positive starting ground for reset of bilateral relations.

Apart from routine political and economic contacts, the progress can take place in two rather unexpected areas – energy and security. Belarusian oil trader Belneftekhim has hired a Washington-based lobbyist to ensure that Minsk can purchase American oil via Baltic ports for more efficient bargaining with Russia.[viii] First test supplies may start already on 2020, some sources indicate.

As for the defense cooperation, after 2015 Minsk has established formal military dialog with Washington, London and a number of NATO members, bordering with Belarus. In 2020 NATO and Belarus are expected to sign the technical agreement on communications’ security, which would open new cooperation opportunities. They may include even the joint exercises. According to former head of general staff of Belarus Oleg Belokonev, such negotiations are underway.[ix] Most likely, he did not mean full-fledged war games, but rather some “softer” modes, like drills of medical units, engineers or emergency services. Still, that would constitute a major development in Belarus relations with NATO and US, especially since their military dialog with Moscow is either stagnant or goes in the opposite direction.  

However, the Belarus Democracy Act – a bill adopted by US congress in 2004 – constrains the relations and will continue to play its role. This law, and the sanctions triggered by it, narrows the operational freedom of State Department when it comes to Belarus-related policies. The Act cannot be scrapped without Minsk delivering tangible human rights and democracy progress in the most sensitive areas, like freedom of assembly, media and elections. To expect all of it under the current Belarusian leadership, let alone – to expect it in 2020, would be premature.

Belarus-EU relations – ambivalent times ahead

Minsk and Brussels will almost certainly sign the long-expected visa facilitation and readmission agreements in the early 2020. The documents are ready; the EU needs to finalize its internal procedures. As a result, the visas for Belarusians will become cheaper, with more opportunities for long-term and free of charge visas. Regrettably, this is the only positive development, which is guaranteed for 2020.

Another flagship document, Partnership Priorities, has been stuck since 2018 because of disagreements Lithuania has with Belarus over its nuclear power plant less than 50 km from Vilnius. European diplomats in private conversations express cautions optimism that Lithuanian position will soften as the new president Gitanas Nauseda looks for dialog opportunities with Belarus and also after the Belarusian NPP will be launched in the early 2020. The Partnership Priorities are the cooperation framework, a rather abstract document, which will be still important for Belarus-EU relations in two ways. First, it would be the first and only formal basis of relations between Minsk and Brussels in more than 30 years. Second, it will allow European bureaucracy to switch from yearly to multi-annual financial planning for Belarus-related projects. This will undoubtedly open new opportunities for technical and other kinds of assistance, which is much appreciated in Minsk.

Apart from these expected developments, the 2020 will be a year of uncertainty in Belarus-EU relations. After notably restrictive Belarusian parliamentary campaign of November 2019, Brussels will not rush with new initiatives before the end presidential campaign of 2020. In addition, it is unclear, in which areas exactly the relations might be further developed. Some form of partnership and cooperation agreement, which Minsk has requested for a long time, seems to be out of the table for several years to come. Not least because Belarusian leadership refuses to compromise on human rights issues, like abolishing the death penalty.

Visa free agreement is even a more distant perspective, as it takes dozens of conditions to be met by the country to obtain it. The conditions have to do with the rule of law, transparency of governance, independent judiciary and even the LGBT rights – all of which are hard to imagine delivered by Minsk in the foreseeable future. Some sort of progress in trade relations and access to EU market for Belarus in 2020 is also unlikely. Minsk needs to finalize its WTO accession first, and even then, the EU does not seem to have political will to make exceptions and open itself more to Belarus in trade-related issues.

Much will depend on the conduct of the presidential campaign. It cannot possible give a positive impulse to EU-Belarus relations, because the election’s result and the manner, in which this result will be achieved, are quite predictable. But at least Brussels hopes for the campaign not to be a major setback, with mass repressions or too evident manipulations with ballot count.

A lot of creativity will be needed on both sides in 2020 to find tangible agenda to move the relations ahead.

Presidential election: test for the system

In summer 2020, Alexander Lukashenka will run for his sixth term in office. Given the degree of control over all stages of electoral process, there is no doubt he will secure another five years of presidency.

Lukashenka himself sees the upcoming campaign as a crucial stress test for the system. That is one of the reasons, why the recently formed parliament has no opposition in it. Run-up to the presidential election is not the time for political experiments, he believes. Lukashenko also appointed deputy head of the KGB Igor Sergeenko to run the presidential administration. He explained this decision by the need “to preserve the country now”.[x] Taken together with tense relations with Russia and the stagnating economy, all these developments indicate that the campaign will be held in a restrictive manner with a stringent filtering of most prominent opposition candidates, limits for meaningful observation and a traditional officially announced result for the incumbent at about 80%.

At the same time, ‘restrictive‘ does not mean ‘brutal’. If the opposition does not pose significant challenges in terms of street protests, the security forces will have no reason for crackdowns. Low-scale demonstrations of several hundred people were tolerated during the parliamentary campaign. The same approach is likely to prevail during 2020 election. Belarusian authorities still see the current more or less positive atmosphere in the dialog with Brussels and Washington as an asset, which is better not to waste.

Government is preparing to deliver at least some minor economic carrots to the public before the election. For instance, the amount of budgetary subsidies to the Social security fund will more than triple in 2020 (an increase to $950 mln from $280 mln in 2019).[xi] The scale of this politically driven spending will not be excessive, as it happened in 2010, because president, government and National bank have learned their lessons – the more money they pump into the economy before elections, the harder it is to curb inflation and devaluation of national currency after the campaign.

At the same time, the government itself may fall victim to the election year. In late November 2019, Lukashenko appointed the deputy prime minister Alexander Turchin to govern the Minsk region, and promoted economy minister Dmitry Krutoi to Turchin’s position. Meeting with both of them, Belarusian president announced a larger reshuffle of the government in 2020 before the election campaign.[xii] It is too early to tell, how deep this reshuffle will be and whether prime minister Sergei Rumas and his pro-reform team survives it. However, this is another development to watch closely, because, after 2020 election, the new government will likely have to manage the austerity measures forced upon Belarus by the decreasing Russian support.

The opposition does not come to this campaign in great shape. They are fractured, they do not have joint plans for the election, enough money and sufficient protest mobilization in society. One grouping, so-called ‘Center-right coalition’, plans to nominate one of their leaders.[xiii] Moderate opposition campaign Tell the Truth announced they would nominate their candidate as well.[xiv] Hardline opposition groups, who prefer street protests to campaigning within the rules set by authorities, plan to rally behind former political prisoner Nikolay Statkevich.[xv] He is legally barred from becoming candidate, since he still has a pending criminal conviction, so his nomination is rather a symbolic move, a pretext to start a campaign of street activity.

Without some major economic mistakes on the government’s behalf or drastic Russian financial pressure, the large-scale protests are unlikely during the campaign. Elections and manipulations during them have not triggered mass protests in Belarus since 2010.

Gearing up to the constitutional update

Preparation to revising Belarusian constitution is another trend for 2020, which will not limit itself to just one year, naturally.

Alexander Lukashenka amended Belarusian constitution twice, both times – for his political expediencce. In 1996 he vastly expanded presidential powers, in 2004 – he removed the cap on two presidential terms for one person, paving a way for a life-long rule for himself. Since then, for almost 15 years, the constitution worked well for Lukashenka and he did not see any need for experimenting with it.

The situation has changed in 2019, when Lukashenka tasked the Constitutional court with producing draft amendments to the main country’s law.[xvi] The president set the approximate five-year deadline for the change to be finished. He explained his plans by not wishing to leave the country after himself with the same president-centered model of state governance. In other words, this is a preparation for a controlled transition of power in the mid-term perspective. Delegation of more powers to the parliament and government, to the local administrations and councils, introduction of a party-based, proportional electoral system – are usually named among the possible directions for the change.

By the end of 2019, the Constitutional court judges did their job and submitted their suggestions to the president.[xvii] Lukashenko described their drafts as “not radical” and announced a second stage of the process – a broader discussion of this issue by legal scholars. This is basically the outlook for 2020: country’s senior lawyers, probably from academia, will discuss the options of the constitutional update. Given the larger circle of involved people, some details of the drafts are likely to be shared or leaked to the media.

Looking a bit ahead, the third stage of the process would be public deliberation, Lukashenka said. This will most likely take the form of some parliamentary debates, ending with a referendum, which can be coupled with local election of 2021 or parliamentary campaign of 2023.

[i] Macroeconomic forecast for Belarus. IPM research center, 5 December 2019. http://www.research.by/webroot/delivery/files/bro2019r3.pdf

[ii] Cabinet of Ministers of the Russian Federation: gas supplies to Minsk and new loans should be considered along with integration, TASS, 7 December 2019. https://tass.ru/ekonomika/7289005

[iii] Makey – on “Plan B”, in-depth integration, Kastus’ Kalinousky and Elon Musk, TUT.BY, 17 October 2019. https://news.tut.by/economics/657654.html

[iv] Friendship of taxes, Kommersant newspaper, 16 September 2019, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4094365

[v] Rumas: Presidents will have to make decisions on oil and gas markets, TUT.BY, 19 November 2019, https://news.tut.by/economics/661941.html

[vi] Has Moscow Had Enough Of Belarus’s Lukashenka?, RFE/RL, 19 July 2010. https://www.rferl.org/a/Has_Moscow_Had_Enough_Of_Belaruss_Lukashenka/2104099.html

[vii] Belarus ‚does not need‘ Russia air base – Lukashenko, BBC news, 7 October 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34463901

[viii] Exclusive: Belarus’s Lukashenka, Weary Of Russia Union, Seeks To Buy U.S. Crude, RFE/RL, 22 August 2019. https://www.rferl.org/a/belarus-lukashenka-us-oil-purchase-russia-reliance/30124113.html

[ix] Belokonev: Belarus is ready for joint exercises with NATO, negotiations are underway on possible formats, TUT.BY, 9 December 2019. https://news.tut.by/economics/664390.html

[x] Lukashenko appoints senior officials of Belarus President Administration, BelTA news agency, 5 December 2019. https://eng.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-appoints-senior-officials-of-belarus-president-administration-126477-2019/

[xi] “This budget is also difficult.” 2020 budget passed second reading, TUT.BY, 27 November 2019. https://news.tut.by/economics/662846.html

[xii] Lukashenko appoints Krutoi as first deputy prime minister, BelTA news agency, 29 November 2019. https://eng.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-appoints-krutoy-as-first-deputy-prime-minister-126314-2019/

[xiii] Center-Right Coalition Invites Belarusians to Choose Single Presidential Candidate, TUT.BY, 26 September 2018. https://news.tut.by/economics/609360.html

[xiv] Tell the Truth will nominate its candidate in the presidential election, Naviny.by, 11 September 2018. https://naviny.by/article/20180911/1536664880-govori-pravdu-vydvinet-svoego-kandidata-na-prezidentskih-vyborah

[xv] The Belarusian National Congress has chosen a presidential candidate. But he is unlikely to be registered, TUT.BY, 17 January 2019, https://news.tut.by/economics/622861.html

[xvi] Lukashenko requested to write a new Constitution, TUT.BY, 1 March 2019. https://news.tut.by/economics/628329.html

[xvii] Lukashenko presented with possible changes to the Constitution, BelTA news agency, 17 November 2019. https://www.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-predstavili-vozmozhnye-izmenenija-v-konstitutsiju-belarusi-369443-2019/