Russia pays a lot of attention to its integration projects. Under the facade of “economic” and “military” unions, it’s easy to find political integration projects where Russia dominates. While the Russian Ministry of Economic Development curates economic associations, they are managed by higher echelons of authority. Promoting those projects that undermine the independence of certain countries: Russia presses to unify the economic and political systems, de facto restricting the freedom of maneuver for the nations. This nature causes apparent dissatisfaction among the involved parties, e.g., Kazakhstan and Belarus.
The military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, is also losing its support. After several military conflicts, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia started criticizing the organization’s value. Moreover, the alliance doesn’t even seem to be working for Russia. In the Russian-Ukrainian war, only Belarus supported Russia, while the rest demonstrated a neutral position with signs of disapproval.
Today, there are 28 integration roadmaps (known as integration programs) that Belarus and Russia have already signed. However, their analysis is challenging: even the leaks give us raw documents requiring substantial experience in economics, law, and governance to analyze. There are around a dozen documents to come. In 2024, we can foresee the continuation of the negotiations around Russian-Belarusian integration. Presumably, the axis of the process will be the documents that weren’t negotiated in previous rounds.
Despite Lukashenka’s efforts, Russian diplomatic methods appear to be successful. Russia uses weak points of the Belarusian government, such as the lack of freedom of the National Bank, to promote its interests in the integration, and does it relatively successfully. In addition, from the Russian side, the integration is supervised by Mikhail Babich, an aggressive ex-ambassador of Russia in Belarus, who was known for disrespecting Belarusian sovereignty.
Who is in charge?
It is worth mentioning the diplomatic presence of Russia in Belarus. Traditionally, the negotiations between Russia and Belarus are made directly between Lukashenka and Putin, whereas ambassadors have an operations management role.
The parliaments of both countries practically don’t have any influence over the process. Their function is simple ratification of the documents without any discussions. Sometimes the situation becomes almost comical. To illustrate, once Lukashenka tried to cancel a program for the unification of fiscal policies of Russia and Belarus after negotiation groups and parliaments approved it.
Russian espionage – influence and fakes
Even though Russian influence on Belarus is undeniably intense, we should mention that, at the moment, there is no structural opposition against it. After 2020, Lukashenka cut the connection with western countries, constantly mentioning the danger from this part of the world. One of the causes of those accusations is the influence of Russian espionage.
Traditionally, Russian and Belarusian spy agents perform well when working inside their countries while failing the tasks outside. Despite this, intelligent Belarusian agencies often use the information from their Russian counterparts to report it to Lukashenka. Knowing this connection, Russia often generates fake messages (such as the danger of the Polish military aggression and the necessity to cut all ties with the West) to influence Lukashenka to more closely align with Russia. We can’t say that he takes this information without any analysis, but the details of his behavior sometimes can only be explained by this influence.
Militarization of Belarus – not only army
After 2020, the human resources politics of the Belarusian government drastically changed. Now, the regime infiltrates all its structures, from parliament to universities, with agents from intelligence agencies to supervise society.
In addition, to control efforts, the regime appoints more and more militarized people even to civil positions, e.g., the premier minister of Belarus, Halouchanka, has a military background. Overall, people with some army experience, past or present, are appointed to head positions everywhere, even in some factories. The motivation is simple: for Lukashenka, an essential trait is a willingness to execute orders, so, for him, people from the army and intelligence agencies suit this role the best.
Who is the head HR manager in Belarus?
The answer to this question is simple – Lukashenka.
First, loyalty is the most important thing to him, while economic prosperity and efficiency are second-plan values. There were numerous cases when economically efficient governments were changed despite their results due to signs of disobedience.
Second, several people have a significant influence on Lukashenka’s decisions. The first one is Natallia Kachanava. She has long been one of the most highly positioned person in the Belarusian government, and after 2020 her influence has even increased. Almost all her staff proposals to Lukashenka remained loyal to the regime after the protests, so now Kachanava’s reputation and power are among the highest in the system.
Access to the body
In the Belarusian political system, the influence of a person depends not on the formal position but on the ability to contact Lukashenka directly. Between a sport minister and Lukashenka’s son’s ice hockey team coach, the latter is more influential than the former: while the minister has to apply several months ahead to meet Lukashenka tete-a-tete, the trainer can quickly come to the Belarusian leader during his son’s training and resolve any queries he deems essential.
This state of affairs makes the positioning of Belarusian elites hard. In short, the Belarusian political system is almost exclusively built on non-formal communication, which means that no formal position can secure the future and status of anyone. Politics is made between people, not between structures.
An example of this is the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Uladzimir Makei. When he was alive, he was one of the most influential figures in Belarusian politics, able to affect, in specific ways partly independently, Belarusian foreign policy. After his death, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lost its position and status, so now it is de facto under the control of intelligence services. We can’t ignore that the current Minister of Foreign Affairs can change the situation, though it would be difficult for him: Makei carried his status for years, occupying numerous posts in Lukashenka’s government long before becoming the leader of the ministry.
However, there is an exception to this principle – siloviki (intelligence services, Ministry of Interior, General Prosecutor’s Office, Investigative Committee etc). Lukashenka trusts them as structures, not as separate people. Their obedience and military structure please him and make him think that they can be trusted.
Structure of siloviki
There are numerous intelligence services in Belarus: Joined Analytical Center, KGB, the Committee for State Control, etc. All of them have overlapping functions. Why so many?
Fighting internal enemies isn’t the only function of those structures. Lukashenka tries to secure himself from any conspiracy by hindering the formation of any kind of group. For this reason, the design of Belarusian siloviki is aimed at co-surveillance. Discovering intrigues inside the system is praised, and any allies between them are strictly forbidden, which doesn’t allow any center of force to form.
Army – sentiment and plans
The military failures of the Russian army impact the morale of Belarusian soldiers. They and the siloviki are presumably against the war and understand that their destiny will be dramatic in case of a conflict. However, we can’t survey the Belarusian army. This information comes exclusively from private conversations.
In addition, we can assume that the morale in the Belarusian army correlates to the sentiment among civilians. Belarusian people don’t want to participate in the war, nor does the military.
Despite popular opinion, it is hard to say that inside the Belarusian regime, there is a fight between “hawks” and “doves.” Even before 2020, the Belarusian government was highly personalistic, which increased after the protests. Of course, people in the system have different points of view on the situation, though their influence is minor. Lukashenka makes all the decisions, especially the strategic ones. Hence, other people and structures have almost no impact. Sometimes they can correct the details of Lukashenka’s plans, but only if Lukashenka accepts the direction of these changes. It requires some level of intuition to understand his ideas and mood.
Belarusian oligarchs – who are they?
The Belarusian system has a separate layer of businessmen whose existence depends on the government. People like Mikalai Varabei and Aliaksandr Zaitsau use their connection to the authorities to take advantage of the restrictions and toll policies. However, they can neither be named oligarchs nor do they possess entrepreneurial talent: their success almost entirely depends on their ties with the government.
Those “oligarchs” don’t possess money. Lukashenka perceives Belarus as his property, so their money is his money. For this reason, the “oligarchs” are often referred to as “the pockets of the regime” – they pay for the personal expenses of Lukashenka, and he can easily take their property as it happened before.
Does Belarusian business support the regime?
In short, it doesn’t. It can be observed from emigration trends. After 2020, numerous people, including those with some connection to the government, started transporting their families abroad, mainly for education. After their children and families migrated, the businessmen themselves left the country. This scheme exists to make sure that Lukashenka doesn’t think that it is a betrayal.
The regime doesn’t like businessmen either. It can be observed in the left-wing rhetoric of Lukashenka, who promotes fixed prices and pay equality. Lately, one of the government agencies published an accusing article, revealing the salaries of the heads of major Belarusian companies to cause social disapproval. Interestingly, the victims of these publications are mainly the heads of the businesses that used to have some connection and patronage of the regime.
Sanctions – to be or not to be?
Sanctions don’t work as intended. Numerous Belarusian businesses opposing the existing government suffer from them: from self-employed individuals to start-ups to tech companies. On the other hand, the damage to the regime is in doubt. “Oligarchs” don’t depend on access to western markets, they usually have other passports with other names for personal purposes. For example, Zaitsau presumably has a passport of the Sovereign Order of Malta, which helps him maneuver around the sanctions.
*This summary represents neither the opinion of Center for new ideas nor of any specific participant of the expert discussion. It reflects the main ideas and thoughts voiced during the meeting.