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Energy deals point to thawing of Belarus-Russia relations

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Asked whether he and Russian president Vladimir Putin were “on the same political team,” Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko was unequivocal.

“They pushed us tightly into one team, for the rest of our life,” he told Russia’s state television channel, in a comment broadcast on Tuesday that underscored his desire to portray both the strength of their relations and the role that the rest of the world had played in cementing them.

Yet Mr Lukashenko has some work to do, to restore relations between Moscow and Minsk that cooled significantly during 2020.

Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has faced massive street protests and unprecedented public anger since he claimed victory in last August’s presidential election, a vote that western countries said was falsified.

His regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters and political opponents prompted the US, EU and UK to impose sanctions against Minsk and even sparked anger in the Kremlin, which blamed its longtime ally for failing to mollify public demands and misjudging the country’s febrile mood.

Moscow was already losing patience with Mr Lukashenko early last year for dragging his heels on integration projects, and relations hit a nadir after Belarusian security services arrested 33 Russian mercenaries in July and accused them of being part of a plot to destabilise the country ahead of the poll.

Moscow had been losing patience with Mr Lukashenko since the beginning of last year © Alexander Zemlianichenko/EPA-EFE

But a series of agreements struck in recent days suggest a change in attitude from Russia, whose leverage over Belarus has only grown as western countries turned their back on Minsk, amid continued efforts from Mr Putin’s administration to closely bind the country with Russia.

“The events of July and similar irritants noted earlier in bilateral relations should not be disregarded, but it would be a serious mistake to overestimate them,” said Nikolai Mezhevich, head of the Centre for Belarusian Studies at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Russia’s readiness to accept economic and political benefits [regarding Belarus] is absolutely obvious.”

“Both the collective west and Russia see political problems in Belarus,” he added. “[But] the Republic of Belarus occupies not only a special, but a unique place in the system of Russian foreign policy and foreign economic priorities,” he added.

Kremlin-controlled gas producer Gazprom announced on December 24 that it had agreed a new gas supply contract with the Belarusian government, and five days later Minsk said it had struck a deal for oil supplies — ending a stand-off that predated Mr Lukashenko’s alleged fraudulent election and the ongoing crisis.

This week Russia’s deputy prime minister Alexander Novak said that Russia was exploring ways to help Belarus export oil products, and circumvent ports in the Baltic states that have imposed sanctions against Minsk and have been some of the fiercest critics of Mr Lukashenko. The countries are also discussing to restart some cross-border travel suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Protests against Mr Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus have begun to show signs of fatigue © AP

The oil and gas deals end months of uncertainty for Minsk, which relies on Russian gas for its energy needs and props up its budget by importing cheap Russian oil and selling on petroleum products to Europe.

The agreements also come as the anti-Lukashenko rallies in Minsk and other cities show signs of fatigue and the impact of sustained police violence against protesters has lowered the number of participants.

From a precarious position a few months ago, Mr Lukashenko now looks more stable, even if he is more reliant on Moscow than ever before.

“The protests have lost steam of late, another reason why Moscow doesn’t need to play such ‘hardball’ with Lukashenko to show its displeasure with how he’s handling the situation,” said Chris Tooke, associate director at GPW, a political risk consultancy.

“What Moscow is currently trying to work out is an exit strategy for Lukashenko. It wants to help orchestrate a managed transition of power to a new leader who would be amenable to Russian interests,” he added. “Support for Lukashenko would risk him getting toppled in the exact people’s revolution-style scenario that Putin wants to avoid . . . so I don’t think abandoning Lukashenko was ever really on the cards, the threat was more for leverage.”

Mr Putin offered Mr Lukashenko both moral and financial support in a crisis meeting in September, as the protests were reaching their peak. But the Russian president’s attitude towards Mr Lukashenko still appears to be a little strained: Mr Lukashenko held a telephone call this week not with the president but with Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin’s predecessor and current deputy on the country’s security council.

“Despite all the difficulties of the outgoing year, the joint efforts of Russia and Belarus have managed to achieve significant results in various areas,” Mr Putin said in a New Year’s Eve telegram to Mr Lukashenko. He also “expressed hope for the continuation of work in the coming year to build up mutually beneficial bilateral ties”.

Mr Lukashenko has hinted that he could step down if Belarus agrees on a new constitution, but has not laid out a timetable for such a step. And while the scale has decreased since the autumn, protests against him continue. On Tuesday, while visiting the headquarters of a white goods manufacturer, he said: “I am not an enemy to my own people.”

“There’s no doubt that he still needs Russian support,” said Mr Tooke. “At any moment the protests could gather momentum again, especially once spring approaches.”



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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus

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EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.



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Britain’s wrong-headed approach to refugees

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UK immigration updates

Thanks to the bravery of volunteers who run towards storms at sea to rescue ships’ crews, few British institutions command as much respect as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The charity, however, has recently had to negotiate a different kind of storm, over its efforts to help refugees who get into difficulties crossing the Channel from France. Nigel Farage, the former Brexit party leader, accused it of running a taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs. Last week, the RNLI said it had received hundreds of thousands of pounds of extra donations in response.

The RNLI has become embroiled in a now familiar story when the summer months allow more small boats to make the Channel crossing. Compared with the flows to other countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, only a handful of migrants attempt the journey. That makes the UK’s inability to control the border in an effective and humane way — and shabby treatment of those who do make it across — no less of a scandal.

Britain’s strategy for stemming the flow has relied mostly on paying the French authorities to limit the number of boats crossing and return any that leave to France, while deterring would-be migrants through the unwelcoming environment that awaits them. Just as EU countries are dependent on their neighbours for keeping entrants down — whether Morocco for Spain or Belarus for Lithuania — the UK needs French co-operation to control the mutual border. Diplomatic spats, whether over Brexit or extra Covid quarantine restrictions on arrivals from France, have made that harder.

The UK approach manages to be simultaneously ineffective and cruel. Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, wrote last week to home secretary Priti Patel to complain of unacceptable conditions in the holding facility for migrants who make it to the Kent coast. A recent unannounced visit by MPs found most of those remaining in the overcrowded facility sitting on a thin mattress on the floor, with women and children in the same room as adult men.

Earlier this year, the High Court ruled that “squalid” conditions in the Napier Barracks, a temporary centre set up last year to house asylum seekers during the pandemic, were so bad as to be unlawful. While arrivals have declined since the peak seven years ago, cutbacks have led to a backlog in processing claims, leaving more in a legal limbo.

Since the start of the pandemic Britain has shut down other paths into the country, ending a resettlement scheme. This has ceded the ground to people traffickers. The “push factors” of the risk of violence and torture at home and “pull factors” of higher living standards mean many are still willing to resort to risky and illegal methods to try to reach the UK. Creating a harsh environment for those who make it has done little to dispel the widespread belief among migrants that Britain is a better destination than other European countries, and stem the flow.

That will not stop the government trying. Barristers have warned that a clause in draft border legislation could potentially make it a crime to help asylum seekers arrive in the UK, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment; at present it is illegal to do so to earn a profit. The Home Office says the clause is aimed at criminal traffickers. But along with a suggestion to set up offshore processing centres, the provision has rightly earned criticism from human rights groups. If the government is unwilling to create safe and legal routes, its only option is to prevent people from coming in the first place. That, ultimately, will mean relying on France.



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Olympic organisers investigate after Belarusian runner seeks refuge

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Tokyo Olympics updates

A Belarusian runner due to compete at the Tokyo Olympics was taken to the airport against her wishes after making complaints about her coaches, according to media reports on Sunday night.

The International Olympic Committee, the Games organisers, said it had asked for clarification from the Belarus team about the status and whereabouts of Krystina Tsimanouskaya, who is due to compete in the women’s 200m sprint on Monday.

Belarus’ dictatorial leader Alexander Lukashenko and his regime are widely seen as international pariahs after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then embarked on a brutal campaign to suppress protesters and supporters of his rival, which has seen thousands beaten and jailed. 

Images and video circulated on social media sites by Belarusian opposition activists appear to show Tsimanouskaya at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where she refused to board a plane and instead sought refuge with Japanese police.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya took part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed qualifying for the semi-finals © Aleksandra Szmigiel/Reuters

The IOC said it “has seen the reports in the media, is looking into it and has asked the [Belarus] national Olympic committee for clarification”.

Japanese police did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Belarusian Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but a statement attributed to the body suggests she had been removed from competition by coaches on the advice of doctors advice about her “emotional, psychological state”.

Late on Sunday, Tsimanouskaya shared a screenshot of that statement on Instagram with the message: “This is a lie.”

“I am asking the International Olympic Committee for help, they are putting pressure on me and they are trying to take me out of the country without my consent,” Tsimanouskaya said in a video message reportedly recorded on Sunday evening from the airport and posted on social media.

A person close to Olympic officials said there remained “confusion” around the incident, adding they had been told that Tsimanouskaya had boarded a coach to the airport and had gone through the departures area to board a plane to Istanbul, where she then sought Japanese police to ask for asylum.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya tweeted that she was grateful to the IOC for its quick reaction. “She has a right to international protection and to continue participation in the Olympics. It is also crucial to investigate Belarus’ NOC violations of athletes’ rights,” she said.

Tsimanouskaya on Friday appeared to criticise her coaches and team management in an Instagram post that said she had been “ignored” and that “people in higher ranks should respect us as athletes”.

The 24-year-old had taken part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed on qualifying for the semi finals of the event. She is listed on official Olympics sites as due to compete in the first round of the 200 metres at the Olympic stadium on Monday morning.





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