Is it really harmless for official Belarusian political structures to work with their Russian counterparts and what threats does the “deep integration” of political forces of the two countries pose against the backdrop of the Kremlin’s desire to merge with their neighbor? Read more in a mini-investigation from iSANS’s expert network.
The function of modern political parties in the domestic politics of Belarus has been reduced for the most part to secondary or tertiary roles. This is true not only for opposition structures but also for totally loyal authorities and fully controlled parties embedded in the state system. Their main function, from the point of view of the existing system, is to support the regime, create the appearance of certain political processes in the country, and maintain contacts of various kinds along party lines.
Historically, pro-government parties were automatically pro-Russian and built their international partnerships primarily with similar alliances in Russia. This course was offered by Alexander Lukashenko himself through signing an agreement on the creation of a union state with Russia.
Kremlin parties as an instrument of foreign policy
Since then, the situation in Russia itself has changed a great deal. The State Duma ceased to be a «place for political debate,» democratic parties were purged, and all seats were taken by those loyal to Putin’s regime and the party’s imperial leanings. This creates an appearance of a political spectrum – United Russia (the party of vertical and state bureaucracy), A Just Russia (a kind of Social Democratic double), Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Zyuganov’s Communist Party of the Russian Federation (the Communist Party).
The State Duma has become a servile extension of the power vertical in Russia, performing a set of specific functions. Among them, internally, are support and implementation of tasks of the Putin regime and, externally, implementation of Putin’s foreign policy.
Among these are participation in operations of influence in other countries. It is no coincidence that those who are members of both the party and inter-factional groups (e.g., the Inter-Factional Group for the Protection of Christian Values) are people with a history of using force and include representatives of the Malofeev and Yakunin funds.
The most famous international activities of the LDPR involve mobilizing support for far-right European parties. Zhirinovsky has his own institute for this that receives state support. The Institute of World Civilizations, established in Moscow by Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the LDPR, received state funding of 350 million Russian rubles in 2020. In 2018, the Russian government handed him a 14-story building near the center of Moscow.
The work of A Just Russia and the Communist Party with the left wing of the Social Democratic party is less publicly visible but is also very active.
In our report “Revival of the Empire,” iSANS dealt with several areas of the Russian Duma leaders’ activity in Belarus.
The party dimension of “deep integration”
In Belarus, Russian party leaders work on several issues:
- Creating elite support for “deep integration.” This is carried out, among others, through the activities of the public chamber of the Union State, the structure and work of which we analyzed in the report “Revival of the Empire. Behind the facade of the Union State.” The engine driving this is the inter-factional group of the State Duma of the Russian Federation for the protection of Christian values, the chairman of which is the communist Gavrilov. Here we add that individuals associated with science, culture, the security forces and business representatives are considered part of the elite.
- Synchronization of the party structure of Belarus and Russia. This is necessary for the unified parliament of Russia and Belarus provided for in the framework of deep integration. The Kremlin is interested in the manageability and loyalty of the Belarusian segment, which, according to plan, should be smaller than the Russian portion (parity principle). The presence of mirror and partner parties should increase the manageability of a single parliament, effectively transposing a model of the existing Russian State Duma. According to our sources, this kind of synchronization was intensified in tandem with the “deep integration” campaign launched by Moscow.
- The use of organized Belarusian parties (which is crucial, as it gives their activities a visible international legitimacy) in solving the Kremlin’s international tasks, including legitimizing the annexation of Crimea and supporting the Kremlin’s position in the Donbas. It should not be forgotten that Belarus’s de facto non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea (in addition to non-recognition of separatist regimes that developed earlier with Russian intervention) has for some time irritated Moscow, which requires support on this issue at the international level. Minsk made a crafty political move, proposing itself as a neutral peacekeeping platform to resolve the situation in the Donbas. This de facto led Minsk out of a unified connection with the Kremlin on the issue of Ukraine.
Relationships with Belarusian parties are built by Russians along the same lines as contacts with parties in other countries, including the EU. On the left then are the Republican Party of Labor and Justice, the main partner for A Just Russia, and on the right is the LDPR-LDPB link.
The left wing
On the left, A Just Russia’s partner is the Republican Party of Labor and Justice (RPTS), a center-left political force. It is represented in parliament and is one of the largest parties in Belarus.
Among its current members are activists who have direct relationships with Russian structures of influence in Belarus. First of these is a structure called the Russian Community Council (RCC), which unites various pro-Russian organizations in Belarus through the Russian Embassy. The RCC is an instrument of Russian “soft power” – the council’s site is filled with propaganda materials supporting the annexation of Crimea, Donbass separatists, and the organization essentially denies Belarusian history, language and culture. You can read more about this in our report.
Within the RPTS a regional group of party members from Vitebsk and the Vitebsk region with a long history of pro-Russian activity stands out. The RCC is headed by Andrei Gerashchenko, a former official who was dismissed from the civil service for ambiguous statements about Belarusian language and culture, in which Belarusization is equated with de-Rusification. He was the head of the Vitebsk regional RPTS and is still an actively involved member of the party.
Since 2015, the Vitebsk regional organization has been headed by Alexander Lukashok, a businessman from Novopolotsk. He is quite eloquent in an interview, in which he speaks out against the promotion of the Belarusian language and culture and, more generally, actively supports the integration of Russia and Belarus.
Through his activities can be found a thread of pro-Russian activism:
Lukashok takes active part in promoting the Immortal Regiment initiative. In autumn 2019, he spoke at the conference “Memory of the Victors” in Belgrade, where the coordinators of the procession of the Immortal Regiment from 55 countries participated.
Lukashok is a member of the RCC and is the founder and head of the Avangard Union Business Club, which aims to develop business cooperation with the Russian Federation.
His main place of work is as a chief engineer at the Gidropress factory. Among contractors for the factory are Russian defense plants, which, apparently, also assists him in establishing useful contacts in Russia. For example, among his interesting connections it is worth noting a meeting with senior FSB retirees and General Alexander Osadchim, about which Lukashok discussed through his own social networks.
An important marker of the pro-Russian orientation of the RPTS is cooperation with the pro-Russian movement Civil Accord (Grazhdanskoye Soglasie), created by the former Belarusian opposition leader Artem Agafonov, who is also the editor of the pro-Russian portal Politring.
Elvira Mirsalimova receives a RPTS membership card from the hands of Alexander Lukash. Photo: rpts.by
Elvira Mirsalimova, RPTS Deputy Chairperson for Youth Policy, is also deputy chairman of Civil Accord. Mirsalimova is known for her Stalinist views and is a frequent author of articles published through a network of pro-Russian sites in Belarus and Russian propaganda resources (for example, Politnavigator, NewsFront and others).
Statements and materials of RPTS members are regularly published on information resources affiliated with Civil Accord.
The leaders of A Just Russia and the RPTS are in constant contact, regularly exchanging mutual congratulations and statements and holding joint events. In March 2019, not long before the day of unity of the peoples of Russia and Belarus, a forum called “Moscow-Minsk: friendship without borders” was held in Polotsk.
Forum «Moscow-Minsk: friendship without borders.» Photo: rpts.by
Interestingly, A Just Russia was represented there not by the party leader Sergei Mironov, but by his deputy Alexander Romanovich. This is a former vice speaker of the State Duma of the 6th convocation – a career soldier who served as a translator for the leaders of the Communist parties of South America and as a military adviser in Angola and Mozambique. In 2018, together with Sergei Mironov, Roman Bernatsky, head of the International Department of the Central Office of A Just Russia, came to meet with the leadership of the RPTS, who, according to Russian journalists, lived in the department building of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.
The RPTS has filed a request to join the Socialist International, an association of left-wing organizations headquartered in London. There is a history of contacts between RPTS and Socialist International, and plenty of the opportunities to promote and support Russia’s position at the international political level.
As we wrote above, for the Kremlin one of the important areas of work regarding the West is the recognition of separatist enclaves by the international community. RPTS became the only party in Belarus that openly supported the Russian annexation of Crimea. The day after the Crimean referendum the chairman of the Republican Party of Labor and Justice, Vasily Zadnepryany, recognized the results. A few days later he congratulated the new head of Crimea, Sergei Aksenov, on the peninsula’s entry into the Russian Federation.
Subsequently, Vasily Zadnepryany reaffirmed his position on Crimea and expressed regret that there is no direct airline connection between Belarus and the peninsula. And in the summer of 2018, a representative of the Vitebsk regional organization, Ivan Epishin, visited Crimea, where he met with the head of the A Just Russia regional branch in Sevastopol, Evgeny Dubovik.
The right wing
In Belarus, right-wing ideas are traditionally not very popular, because right-wing parties in their classical sense do not exist. The right-wing populist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is working in this field, offering a blend of market liberalism and jingoistic patriotism.
The Russian partner of the LDP is Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR. Zhirinovsky himself plays an interesting role in relations between the Kremlin and Belarus, voicing radical ideas – a kind of “scarecrow” on the theme of Russia and Belarus unification. There were several such proposals made during 2018-2019, and they were accompanied by coinciding sensational “opinion polls” about the “integration” of the two countries in popular groups on social networks. Back in the 90s, Zhirinovsky often traveled to Belarus, where he emphasized that the goal of the liberal-democratic movement was «an immediate unification with Russia with a single president – and in Belarus there should only be a governor.»
In 1994, Belarus registered its own Liberal Democratic Party. Since 1995, Sergei Gaydukevich has been the sole party chairman. In 1996, Gaydukevich called the collapse of the USSR “the collapse of a great country” and the day the Belovezhsky Agreement was signed was “an unhealed wound of the Slavic peoples.” In his opinion, «the US plan is to turn Belarus into a semi-colony filled with NATO troops.» At one point Gaydukevich supported Zhirinovsky’s idea of restoring a common territory with Russia and creating a single currency.
In 2010, before the presidential election in Belarus, Gaydukevich went to Moscow to consult with Zhirinovsky.
In 2012, the liberal democratic parties signed a cooperation agreement. “We signed a unique political agreement that has no equivalent in Belarus. This is the way to Russia. We are the only party in Belarus that has contacts with Russian parliamentary parties,” said Oleg Gaydukevich, the party leader’s son. According to him, the agreement is “full-sized.” “It spells out specific points of political support for the Belarusian LDP from the LDPR.”
Gaydukevich senior has advocated for recognition by Belarus of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In addition, the LDP signed a cooperation agreement with the People’s Party of South Ossetia. At the same time, on the issue of Crimea, the party adheres to the official position of the Belarusian authorities, which is neutrality.
Recently, Sergei Gaydukevich transferred control of the Liberal Democratic Party to his son Oleg.
The party advocates integration with Russia. In 2018, Oleg Gaydukevich took part in the founding congress of the Soyuz civic initiative, which included representatives of most pro-Russian forces. The purpose of the initiative de facto is the real implementation of the provisions of the agreement on the Union State. Co-chairs from the Russian side were Sergey Baburin and Stanislav Byshok; from the Belarusian side were Lev Krishtapovich and Sergey Lush.
Oleg Gaydukevich speaks at the founding congress of the Soyuz Scientific Institute. Photo: rosbelsoyuz.su
It is significant that in April 2020, the well-known Rumola activist Andrei Sych, a journalist working through a network of toxic portals that mimic regional ones, joined the party. Their activities have been written about repeatedly, but despite obvious toxicity, Sych’s entry into the party was approved – a definite marker of the party’s ideological position.
The party has ties with both the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the European right. In particular, there have been active contacts with the Austrian Freedom Party, and attempts were made to establish contacts with Marine Le Pen’s French National Front.
Participation in events organized by the Liberal Democratic Party contributes to further contacts and cooperation. As such, in July 2019, Gaydukevich took part in the Second International Congress of Peace-Keeping Forces, organized by the LDPR. The congress was attended by ultra-right parties from around the world – the National Democratic Party of Germany, the Polish Phalanx, and the Italian League of the North, among others.
Where does the Kremlin plan lead?
We are by no means trying to accuse registered and officially acting political parties of working for foreign states and their special services. However, we are talking about the fact that the Kremlin has conducted and continues to actively conduct work in Belarus, including building party infrastructure of the Union State, which would be loyal and manageable if “deep integration” plans are implemented.
The statements and actions of Russian partners of Belarusian parties clearly indicate the rejection of the idea of equal partnership between Russia and Belarus and the de facto rejection of the idea of Belarusian sovereignty and statehood.
In addition, work on the lines of parliamentary and party partnerships is a convenient way to legally work with the elites, which is also aimed at organizing broad support for deep integration.
The situation is even worse than in the information and civic spheres since the political forum in Belarus has not even had limited opportunities for normal multi-directional development that the media and civil society have had.
And here we can say that the stagnation of the Belarusian political field, the initial orientation towards Russia and its political system, and the lack of normal democratic political competition is becoming another factor that threatens Belarusian sovereignty.
The situation is even worse than in the information and civilian fields since the political sphere in Belarus did not even have limited opportunities for normal multi-vector development that the media and civil society had.
In the light of possible political reform with a potential strengthening of the role of parliament, this issue is especially acute for Belarus. There are doubts that appointed state bureaucrats and party leaders with pro-Russian ties will be able to become effective defenders of Belarusian sovereignty.
This article is also available in Russian on Reform.by.
Материал доступен на русском языке: Зачем Кремлю беларусские политические партии?