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What Zelensky's victory means for Belarus

Author : Artem Shreibman

The Belarusian president has betted on Poroshenko’s victory twice, now he has slightly softened his position
17:15, 24 April 2019

Zoya Shu/112.ua

Apparently, Ukraine would have a new president soon – Volodymyr Zelensky.

What does this mean for Belarus? Let us begin with an erroneous forecast of the Belarusian president, who betted on Poroshenko’s victory twice, and only then slightly softened his position. Lukashenko’s bet is clear: he doesn’t like changes, he has a good relationship with Poroshenko. The latter is rather predictable, his enmity with Russia is the invariable status quo, against which image of a mediator could be created. Zelensky is a pig in a poke.

In another situation, Lukashenko’s mistake would be a trifle. The personal contact of the leaders is extremely important in the relations between Minsk and Moscow or Minsk and Kyiv. The Belarusian president will have to build relations with a new person not from scratch, but with awkwardness.

Before analyzing the possible consequences of Zelensky’s presidency, it is important to note: Ukrainians do not choose a king.

According to the constitution of our southern neighbor, the Ukrainian president has many powers in foreign policy and the military sphere. He can veto the laws of the Verkhovna Rada. But MPs, in turn, can block almost any important appointment of the head of state. The ruling coalition, not the president, forms the government.

Related: Belarus suspends light fuel products export to Ukraine, Baltics, Poland

If Poroshenko does not decide to retire after his defeat, he will become the leader of the parliamentary largest faction, that is, the leader of the opposition. Of course, some Poroshenko’s MPs and associates would leave the coalition and side Zelensky, but this would not be enough for the new president to be able to carry out his initiatives and appointees without problems.

Parliamentary elections in Ukraine would take place this fall. Only then Zelensky will have a chance to consolidate success and hold his party in the parliament. But most likely he would have to form a new coalition because Ukrainians rarely give the majority of seats in parliament to any one force.

Despite all this, the president is not an empty place in Ukrainian politics. The new man in this post means that a new team would come to the power and increase the weight of those who stand behind it. Here the surname of disgraced oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky is voiced most often, whose 1 + 1 TV channel has become the springboard for the showman’s political takeoff.

I am far from the idea, which is rather popular in Ukraine, that Zelensky would be a puppet of Kolomoysky. Regardless of the real degree of their mutual dependence, there are many other clans and oligarchs in Ukraine to try to rule only in the name and in the interests of one of them.

Related: Will Russia try to occupy Belarus?

Secondly, often in politics the mask becomes attached to the face. It is not that easy to control the head of state, as backstage conspirators tend to believe. Even the president, who begins his career as a protege of some elite group, having settled down in the main office of the country, increasingly asks the question: why do I owe someone anything?

Let us recall that at first, Vladimir Putin was a faceless creature of the Yeltsin “family” and several influential oligarchs. Within a few years, many of them were in prison or emigration; the rest meekly gave the president a monopoly on power in the country.

But it is reasonable to assume that Kolomoysky’s voice would be noticeably weightier than it is today. For Belarus, this might have at least two unpleasant consequences.

This oligarch controls assets of the Ukrnafta oil and gas company and Ukraine International Airlines (UIA). The first wants to reduce imports of Belarusian oil products and (so far unsuccessfully) lobbied for the protection of its refineries against Belarusian gasoline through import quotas.

The tax maneuver in Russia raises the price of our oil products, which means that in some five or six years, Ukrnafta’s problem of cheap Belarusian gas would be eliminated. But until then, new efforts to combat the main export commodity of Belarus, now from a company close to the Ukrainian authorities, could be observed.

Related: Zelensky team recommends him to avoid negotiating Putin in person

UIA, on the other hand, is losing a lot of money as there are no direct flights between Russia and Ukraine. And Minsk gets the benefits, as Russians and Ukrainians fly to each other through Belarus. Coincidentally or in anticipation of the return of Kolomoysky to the Ukrainian ruling elite, in early April, Rosaviatsiya, Russian Federal Air Transport Agency, suggested that Kyiv fully restore air traffic. If Ukraine under president Zelensky agrees on it, then Belarusian Belavia will lose the transit flow.

For Minsk, the political consequences of the change of power in Ukraine might be more significant. Attitudes toward Belarus are unlikely to change, Kyiv is interested in good relations with Minsk, and this interest does not depend on the name of the president so that the northern neighbor does not become a full eastern bridgehead.

Related: Ukrainian oligarch Kolomoysky to return to Ukraine if Zelensky wins presidential run

All the changes for Belarus (if they come) depend on the further development of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Given that Zelensky wins with 60-70% of the votes in the second round, he receives a serious mandate to determine the agenda, at least in the country’s foreign policy.

And here we come to the main issues of predictions about Zelensky, faced by all who follow Ukrainian politics, including the Ukrainians themselves. No one knows with what the elected leader has come to the country's key post. His program is abstract; his rare comments are, in essence, vague, full of populism and declarations that the country needs peace with an insignificant amount of concrete ideas on how to achieve this world.

Given this general rhetoric, Zelensky obviously plans to be a less belligerent president than Poroshenko. This is indirectly indicated by the fact that Zelensky often uses Russian and has a greater percentage of support in the east of Ukraine than in the west, and he would have to take it into account in his policy.

Related: Kolomoysky’s lawsuit on return of PrivatBank shares: Court postpones consideration for May 7

Poroshenko’s loss is not only the failure of a particular leader but also the defeat of his right-patriotic rhetoric, which over the years has become increasingly nationalistic his slogan “Army, language, faith,” his tough position that the aggressor cannot be surrendered.

In practice, this would mean trying with some kind of second blow to restart negotiations on Donbas, at least to stop the fire and exchange the prisoners. The idea of Zelensky to involve the United States and the United Kingdom in negotiations is not very realistic. Russia does not need two more opponents at the negotiations table.

But they can activate the Minsk process for some time. This is an advantage for the site that takes it. Belarusian peacekeeping is not only a trump card in relations with the West but also an important argument for a conversation with Moscow. The more Minsk is needed as a neutral ground, the easier it is to appeal to this need if Russia is too insistently demanding to become an ally. Like, do not touch us, we are trying to keep the balance, and you would also benefit from it.

Related: Zelensky explains why he called Russia-backed militants rebels

However, to dance the tango, two persons are needed. It is impossible to resolve Donbas conflict if Russia continues to support the separatists. The arrival of the president of Ukraine, more inclined to peace than his predecessor, gives Moscow an opportunity to make some reciprocal concessions without losing face.

But this is only if Russia believes that stopping the sluggish war in Donbas is more profitable than continuing it. We do not know which of the Kremlin interest groups would lobby for these scenarios to ultimately persuade Vladimir Putin. Therefore, there is no point in guessing whether these new peace negotiations would result in something new.

If we assume that yes, then any de-escalation between Russia and Ukraine (and between Russia and the West) would have contradictory consequences for Belarus. On the one hand, Minsk will lose its balancing bonuses. It is difficult to give away the West its very position if the conflict, in which Belarus tries to be neutral, fades away. They might remember about human rights again.

The less Russia feels besieged by the fortress at war with the global West, the less aggressive its foreign policy. The Kremlin hawks are becoming less in demand. Including in decisions on disobedient Minsk, which does not want to deepen the integration.

In this sense, Zelensky and his willingness to compromise can be a sedative pill for Moscow, at least for a while. Not only Ukraine, but the entire region would enjoy the benefits of this therapy.

Read the original text at TUT.BY

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or 112.International and its owners. 

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