By RFE RL
By Mike Eckel*
(RFE/RL) — Belarus’s longtime ruler ordered a major shake-up of the country’s military and security command on January 20, installing a new defense minister, a new general staff chief, and a new head of the Security Council.
A few days later, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka ripped into the country’s eastern neighbor, whose oil exports are a major part of Belarus’ creaky economy. Russia had “screwed us,” he said, using an even more explicit phrase.
On January 30, Belarus’s military went on alert after the new commanders ordered snap exercises to “check combat readiness” and “their readiness to fulfill their mission in a rapidly changing environment.”
Oh, and the U.S. secretary of state arrives in Minsk on February 1 — the highest-level visit by a U.S. official since John Bolton, then the White House national-security adviser, traveled there five months ago.
Something’s up in Belarus.
“There is a general feeling that something is going on. The situation is probably more serious on the whole than before,” said Arkady Moshes, a researcher and director of the Russia and European Program at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “However, if you deconstruct all of these things…none of these things that [Lukashenka] is doing is unprecedented.”
The authoritarian Lukashenka, who has held power for more than 25 years, has no visible rival and no apparent plans to step aside willingly: He will run for a new term this year and is almost certain to win given his control over the levers of authority. He has been ostracized in the West for his government’s crackdowns on political protests, civil society groups, and independent media.
He’s also managed to oversee the evolution of Belarus’s economy into an unusual hybrid, heavy on Soviet-style central planning but allowing small-scale entrepreneurship, particularly the IT sector in Minsk.
But the economy is heavily reliant on agricultural exports to Russia, and, more importantly, cheap imports of oil from its eastern neighbor, which Belarusian refineries then process and resell at a significant markup to European markets.
Push For Integration
For years, Moscow has pushed Minsk to integrate more closely with Russia, fleshing out a Union State that exists largely on paper. Lukashenka has showed little enthusiasm, mainly because of expectations he would lose his job, or worse. His wariness increased after 2014, when Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Last year, the Kremlin signaled a new push for integration, and in December, Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in St. Petersburg to sign documents to that effect.
Since then, Russia has turned up the pressure on Lukashenka. It turned off oil exports on New Year’s Eve, then turned them partly back on five days later. Minsk then turned to Norway for oil.
On January 24, Lukashenka openly criticized Russia for its oil-export policies, in language that was blunt even for a man known for colorful language.
“Excuse me, but they screwed us with hydrocarbons,” he said, seemingly admonishing officials for failing to fight off Russian pressure.
Belarus should “spit on all these unions and so on,” he added. “And we’re trembling, like we’re afraid to protect our country.”
Heads did not roll after that outburst. But four days earlier, Lukashenka caught outside observers off guard when he abruptly shuffled three of the most senior military positions in the country.
Defense Minister Andrey Raukou was promoted to become head of the national Security Council, a coordinating body comprising several security, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. He replaced Slanislau Zas, who became head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a six-nation alliance dominated by Russia.
The commander of the country’s Western Operational Command, Major General Viktar Khrenin, replaced Raukou as defense minister. And Major General Alyaksandr Valfovich was tapped to become chief of the general staff, and Khrenin’s first deputy.
“Times are hard now,” Lukashenka said as he made the announcement on January 20. “This doesn’t mean there’s going to be a war tomorrow and we’ll have to fight someone, not at all. But a military organization cannot tolerate uncertainty.”
Lukashenka did not explain what he meant. Belarus borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania on the west and has close military and security ties with Russia. Since Moscow seized Crimea, however, he has often hinted of a threat from Russia and stressed that Belarus would defend itself to the death if attacked from any side.
Then on January 30, the Defense Ministry announced snap military exercises. The goal: To “assess the capability of the military command to control their subordinate military units and to evaluate the readiness of the military units to tackle the assigned tasks in a fast-changing environment.”
The ministry did not specify the scale of the exercises, or how many units, or which units, would be involved.
However, the ministry also issued an unusual traffic warning about weaponry and military units traveling on roads from January 31 to February 1, in the Minsk region, as well as the eastern Mahileu and Homel regions, which border Russia, and Hrodno, which borders Poland and Lithuania.
Units “will have to cross water barriers and accomplish combat training missions day and night both in forests and in population centers,” it said.
The timing of the exercises appeared to signal an effort by the Belarusian leadership to send a message to Russia.
But they also come on the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Belarus.
Rapidly Warming Ties
Though brief — he is expected to be in Minsk for just a few hours – Pompeo’s stopover makes him the most senior U.S. government official to travel to Belarus since John Bolton went there in September. And the first secretary of state to do so since 1993, before the Lukashenka era.
The visits by Pompeo and Bolton follow a notable shift in relations between the United States and Belarus. Lukashenka’s government had kicked out the U.S. ambassador and much of the U.S. diplomatic staff in 2008, as Washington hit Belarus’s main oil refinery with sanctions, and imposed financial restrictions on companies doing business with Belarus.
Belarusian state TV aired a program that alleged the U.S. Embassy was running a spy ring in the country.
Now, the U.S. administration is rapidly warming its ties with Minsk. And during his trip, Pompeo intended “to underscore the U.S. commitment to a sovereign, independent, stable, and prosperous Belarus, and affirm our desire to normalize our bilateral relations,” according to the State Department.
There is still no ambassador, however.
Yury Tsarik, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, said Pompeo’s visit shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. He and Belarusian officials are expected to discuss the return of ambassadors, possibly the purchase of American oil shipped in via Polish ports, he said.
“It won’t be a breakthrough, not something that will save Belarus from Russia’s pressure and Lukashenka understands that, so he doesn’t have overly high expectations of this visit,” he said.
Lukashenka’s colorful rhetoric isn’t out of the ordinary. It’s how he conducts diplomacy and negotiations for at least the past 15 years, Moshes said.
“He speaks this way in hopes Moscow will make concessions,” he said. “He still thinks he has an audience in Russia, in the Russian government. He’s still popular within Russia, he still thinks he has audiences that he can appeal to.”
Pompeo’s visit, Moshes said, is about signaling. Washington signals to Moscow that it’s deepening ties with Minsk. Lukashenka gets to signal to Moscow that he is important to the United States and is willing to make concessions to Washington.
But in the end, Moshes said, the money and subsidies that he needs to keep Belarus’s economy afloat will come from Russia, not the United States or Europe – and Moscow knows that.
“You can have all the meetings you want, but the money doesn’t come from the West,” Moshes said.
- Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Prague.