Belarus, Russia locked in bitter diplomatic dispute over anti-Russian rhetoric

Belarus, Russia locked in bitter diplomatic dispute over anti-Russian rhetoric
Mikhail Babich, Russia's ambassador to Belarus caused a row by accusing Minsk of anti-Russian rhetoric
By Sergei Kuznetsov in Kyiv March 15, 2019

A bitter diplomatic row between Russia and neighbouring Belarus sparked on March 15 following an interview of Moscow's ambassador Mikhail Babich, who has accused President Alexander Lukashenko of using anti-Russian rhetoric with the aim to mobilise Belarusian voters "against some imaginary enemy".

The diplomat also warned Minsk elites against "lecturing" Russia and its government on how to act in bilateral relations. "All the more so as there are a lot of those wishing to teach us in the world," the ambassador said in an interview with Russia's news agency RIA Novosti on March 14, commenting Lukashenko's growing anti-Russian rhetoric.

According to Babich, Lukashenko's statements "are used to merely mobilise [Belarusian] voters against some imaginary enemy". "It is not quite sensible to use this technique at the expense of relations with your closest ally and brotherly nation," the diploma added.

"Ambassador of war"

Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Babich as Moscow's new ambassador to Belarus, as well as the Russian president’s special envoy responsible for the development of trade and economic cooperation with this country, in August 2018.

Two and a half years ago, Babich was considered as a candidate for the position of ambassador to Ukraine, but the Ukrainian authorities rejected his candidacy. Since then, Ukrainian media dubbed him "the ambassador of war".

Kyiv explained that Babich had approved the 2014 illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea by Russia as a member of Russia`s Security Council. On the top of that Babich has links to the Russian FSB security services. Ukrainian political analysts described him as a "professional subversive," who would be used by the Kremlin to maintain contacts with pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region.

Earlier, Babich served as Putin's envoy to the Volga (Privolzhsky) Federal District. He also headed the government of Russia’s Chechen Republic in 2002-2003.

Minsk strikes back

On March 15, Belarusian Foreign Ministry issued an insulting statement, in, which Minsk accused Babich of not being able to understood "the difference between [Russia's] federal district and an independent state", adding that the diplomat could demonstrate "respect" to independent country.

The ministry's spokesman Anatoly Glaz believes that Babich's public statements "are all similar, with the patronising style never changing much".

"I can say that the relations between our countries and peoples are much deeper and more comprehensive than an artificial, manufactured set of numbers, which the Russian diplomat regularly cites," state news agency BELTA quoted the spokesman as saying. "But it is up to him to set the bar that turns him into an accounts clerk or a promising accountant."

"It would be advisable to devote more time to looking into the specifics of the host country, to study its history and show a little respect," Glaz added. "Sometimes such work ethics yields much better results than taking on the role of a ‘public diplomacy' enthusiast, which is so uncharacteristic of the Russian diplomatic school, which has long-standing traditions. In my opinion, for his short time in Belarus, he simply has not understood the difference between a federal district and an independent state."

Looming economic crisis

The diplomatic crisis erupted as Belarus faces a new economic crisis if Minsk fails to secure full compensation from Russia for losses triggered by the latter’s new energy taxation system (the so-called tax manoeuvre). According to the Belarusian finance ministry, the country’s budget revenue losses from the tax manoeuvre in 2019 alone were estimated at BYN600mn ($300mn), and that the losses might total $2bn by the end of 2024.

However, in December, Lukashenko's spokesperson said in a televised interview that Minsk already lost $3.6bn due to Russia's cut of energy subsidies to Belarus. Due to Moscow's 'tax manoeuvre' Belarus will lose extra $11bn within the next four years, the spokesperson added.

The tax manoeuvre shifts the tax burden from export duty on oil and petroleum products to mineral extraction tax (MET) on oil production. It envisages a gradual reduction in the rate of export duty on oil and petroleum products from 30% to zero in the period from 2019 to 2024 and a proportionate increase in MET.