MP Bohdan Yaremenko: Belarus is part of Russia's defense complex. So we need to rethink security of our northern border
A member of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Foreign Policy and Interparliamentary Cooperation, Bohdan Yaremenko, told UNIAN about the prospects of Ukraine-Belarus trade war, the price Alexander Lukashenko is already paying for his latest moves, and the responsibility for the Ryanair plane diversion incident that lies not only with Minsk but also with Moscow.
A few days have passed since a passenger plane of an foreign carrier was forcibly landed in Minsk and one of its passengers, Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian founder of the opposition media effort NEXTA, was apprehended. What can you say about this whole story? What went unnoticed in the early days?
This is an interesting story, an illustrative one. And it's far from over, too. Some say it will increase Belarus' isolation and speed up Russia's absorption. I think the opposite. What happened showed the degree of Belarus' non-independence and the degree of its connection with Russia.
Unfortunately, we say "Belarus", but we understand that we're talking about a single person. Because of his fear of the opposition, the future of the whole country is at stake.
The reaction of the whole world says that such moves are considered unacceptable. And even so, Russia is not giving up on Lukashenko. Putin isn't distancing himself from Lukashenko. This is a very interesting indicator of how interconnected they are, how they are one. This shows how wrong were those who have been saying for years that dialogue with Belarus and Lukashenko is important to ensure that we aren't threatened by Belarus.
It's a bit late already, but the level of threat from Belarus needs to be reconsidered. This is a threat to our citizens, our interests, and – through Russia – it's a military threat. We need to rethink security of our northern border.
To what extent is the Russian military machine integrated into Belarus?
Everyone seems to know that these are allied states, but because of Lukashenko's successful maneuvering between the West and Russia, it seemed like a formality. But this isn't a formality at all. They have long had a joint air defense command. By the way, this puts part of the responsibility for the incident with the Ryanair plane on Russia, as Belarus isn't, in fact, independent. They have an integrated command, an integrated air defense system, so Russia is involved in the forced landing of the aircraft.
They have joint military planning at the level of joint boards of defense ministries, they have joint planning at the level of Belarusian KGB and Russian FSB. They are compatible. It's not that Belarus has the same opportunities as Russia. But Russia uses Belarus in its special operations and military planning.
Belarus is in fact part of Russia's security defense complex. Both at the level of documents and – as we already see – at the practical level. Apparently, they just can't give up on each other. We're deprived of the opportunity to consider Belarus an independent country.
In your opinion, did the Kremlin push Lukashenko to take action with the plane?
He doesn't need to be pushed. Here it's quite clear he's driven by fear of the opposition, his hate and inability to accept criticism, inability to accept those in opposition, this is uncivilized behavior… These are dictatorial traits. And now, political, too.
The point is that due to the use of physical force and the state's coercive apparatus employed against protesters, there are not only many political prisoners in Belarus, but also victims who have been killed. I don't think Lukashenko was pushed to do that. I think it was his own initiative.
Did he not understand what would happen after the plane is diverted? This is madness.
You are talking about the point of view of a normal person, but Lukashenko has long ceased to be that person. It is enough to follow his press conferences over the last 10-15 years to understand that he has a hypertrophied perception of himself. The latest claims of the assassination attempts are already on the verge of madness. If we look at the situation in terms of his fear for his life, for personal power, these actions are completely logical. He is saving his future and the future of his children. He is losing touch with reality. We saw him running around with an automatic rifle, we heard his trembling voice. Fear overcomes prudence. That's all.
Because he is an authoritarian leader, and in this state, no one around him risks explaining what his actions look like, to contradict him. It will be a threat to your career, if not your freedom.
What about Russia's reaction to the incident?
The allies, due to certain geopolitical interests and the demonstration that they are serious players who don't give up on their people, are forced to behave in a very dubious way: "He's a son of a bitch, but this is our son of a bitch." This is exactly what Russia is doing now.
But, as a person who closely monitors the Russian information space, I see the sharpest rejection by a large part of the expert community of the position of official Moscow on these events.
In Russia, there's a large number of sensible people who are also shocked over such actions by Lukashenko. They understand that Putin's regime, by betting on Lukashenko and supporting him in all circumstances, is driving a wedge between the Russian and Belarusian people. They don't talk about it directly, but it's creating grounds for what happened in Ukraine when we actually broke away after the perception of Russia by the general population changed dramatically, becoming different from that of the corrupt elite dependent on Russia They understand that Lukashenko, with Russia's full support, is inflicting image blows on their country as well – both in bilateral and multilateral relations. In fact, Putin is defending and covering up Lukashenko's rather voluntaristic (someone calls them "terrorist") actions.
Don't you think it was a terrorist act?
This could be referred to as an "act of state-sponsored terrorism", for that matter. "Terrorism" is the use of disproportionate force to intimidate. This is a more complicated phenomenon... You see, emotionally it can be called "terrorism". From the point of view of legal and political definitions, this is something else.
But here it is difficult to find the right word, this is an unprecedented situation.
And although Russian propaganda tried to draw parallels with what happened in 2016 with the landing of the Belavia plane in Zhulyany, there is no connection, nothing like that. And the level of use of force was completely different, and the reason was explained, no one hid it and no one lied. Then one of the passengers was sought by law enforcement agencies; respectively, the plane was diverted and it landed to ensure that the man is apprehended.
The government employed legal mechanisms to return the flight, and this didn't cause any questions in the rest of the world. But here Belarus resorted to deception, to insinuations, using terrorists as a screen for own act, as an excuse. This is just insane... And it was done very clumsily – the "threats" came after the order was issued to the crew to divert the plane. The only thing that has in common with the Ukrainian situation is that there were planes involved and that they landed.
This is an unprecedented situation where the government starts acting irresponsibly, believing that all methods will work, and that the law doesn't matter. This is a feature of extremist terrorist organizations.
What do you think about the EU's reaction?
The EU response is difficult to analyze. After all, this is a bloc that's based on rule of law, and very often the reaction is delayed.
The EU is always very prudent in its choice of response tools, but, as is already clear, the European Union is shocked. For them, this is completely unexpected and completely unacceptable. It is still difficult for me to predict how far Europeans will go. Any legal reaction has this feature – over time, emotions subside a bit. But Europeans are looking for a way to respond. This is a serious foul, which has a price for Lukashenko and Belarus to pay.
What could the sanctions be like?
I wouldn't guess as I'm unaware of the ongoing discussion in the EU. We saw the first reaction – a recommendation to bypass the airspace. Decrease in flight intensity means the collapse for the aviation industry in Belarus.
It is clear that with the Russian Federation they don't settle transactions in dollars, and neither do they receive income in dollars. Making a profit in hard currency is an overriding task for Belarus. The country does not produce all required goods itself so they must buy them for dollars. People will lose jobs. It will be a blow to the tourism business. From this point of view alone, Belarus is already paying a price, and, frankly, it is a nearly a billion. Further sanctions will complicate everything, but the cost is already there, and it is high.
The expectation of the speedy adoption of sanctions is a sign of political immaturity. Actions must be well considered. Any action provokes response. Ukraine's actions have already led to threats of trade wars and so on. Europeans weigh their moves, they don't like losing. The first political reaction was quick, it was uncompromising, but what will happen in terms of action? Europeans have problems with this. Sometimes a mountain gives birth to a mouse – things like that happen.
How would you comment on Ukraine's move to close the skies?
This is a decisive step that was not typical for Ukraine before. From the perspective of us demonstrating respect for law, the rejection of what has been happening in Belarus lately, it is a correct step. But did we calculate everything while acting so fast? Are we ready to face the implications of this? How sharply will Belarus react? We'll see, quite soon.
If I understood you correctly, the trade war between Belarus and Ukraine hasn't yet begun, has it?
So far, these are just threats. Personally, I can't understand whether what's happening is connected with this situation, or there are some other reasons. But we can say that Belarus will try to take it out on someone. Not only does Ukraine have significant trade ties, Belarus is talking about the reorientation of the entire product flow from the ports of the Baltic States – from Lithuanian and Latvian ones – to Russian. Some Baltic ports perform 20-30% of cargo handling in the interests of Belarus. This will not cause the economy to collapse, but for some companies, even industries, such actions by Belarus could have serious consequences.
Threats to cut off supplies may create temporary problems for Ukraine. But experts say that replacing Belarusian gasoline on the Ukrainian market is a technical issue that can be solved almost without losses.
We will settle this fairly quickly on a short notice. This could lead to certain price fluctuations. Belarus has a much worse situation with the markets where they can sell their products. If Belarusians are knocked out of their niche in our country, knocked out of other markets, then neither Lukashenko nor the next democratic government will regain these niches quickly. The losses will be immediate and significant. There are no steps on the part of Belarus that we can't survive. But will Belarus itself survive them?
And another topic that is currently being discussed is the Minsk talks. What should we do about them?
Since 2014, I've been hoarsely explaining why Minsk was wrong. Seems, people finally understood. It is by no means an independent capital. We started the interview with this: Belarus and Russia are one. To believe that this was a "neutral platform" was the height of madness on the part of Ukrainian diplomacy. Now we are tied to the fact that the site has been agreed, the process has been going on there for quite a while.
As part of covering up Lukashenko's insane moves, Russia may oppose transferring the talks. But this issue is somewhat artificial. In fact, no one comes to Minsk anyway. It is not worth expecting that the Ukrainian delegation will fly to Minsk any time soon. I'm not sure that a formal solution will ever be announced, but in fact, Minsk has ceased to be a platform for negotiations. When was the last time we had any meetings in Minsk? Years ago…
After protests were suppressed, Minsk drove itself into a diplomatic blockade, isolating itself in the international arena. It is difficult to expect that we will start playing along with Lukashenko by holding any events on his territory. There will be no return to Minsk, this is a sure fact.
Will it be difficult to find another site?
If Russia doesn't want this, it will be impossible. But, in the end, Ukraine says it is betting on the Normandy platform as the main format of talks. Negotiations in Minsk are of less interest to us. We believe though that this is a tool that can work one way or another, while the political tool that should lead to inventing a solution is the Normandy format.
Belarusians who moved to Ukraine, fleeing persecution, complain that it is quite difficult for us to legalize ourselves, obtain a work permit and a temporary residence permit. Do you know about such a problem?
This is one of the things we must do and will do to create conditions for those who suffer from the regime. There are no political obstacles – there's a lack of experience. Ukraine hasn't played these games before and there are certain "traditions" of the Ukrainian bureaucracy which has never been too fast.
We need to invest in creating a certain Belarusian hub in Ukraine, the hub of the future of Belarus. So that people who love their country could live and work in our country, staying in touch with Belarus, investing knowledge and energy to achieve change there. This is what Poles and Lithuanians are doing, while we're practically not. This will have to be done. We must help Belarusians who seek change.