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The arrival of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin for a Minsk meeting with Alexander Lukashenko obviously meant preliminary coordination of Belarus’ integration agreements with Russia and the surrender of certain industrial assets to Moscow. Everything else is most likely to be formalized in writing directly during Putin-Lukashenko talks in the Kremlin. The Russian president does need Lukashenko, albeit a weakened version of him, at least until the final signing of yet another Grand Treaty.
At the same time, despite the negotiations held behind the scenes, Moscow has no intention to curtail its subversive efforts in Belarus. To put it more precisely: Moscow will not yet liquidate the opposition movement, whose front face is the “Coordination Council for Power Transfer.”
Generally, it should be understood that the wording “Coordination Council” is nothing new. It emerged back in 2012 during the protests on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, when a disaffected part of the population took to the streets of the Russian capital. Then, with the help of Kremlin experts and FSB operatives, a special operation was launched to create an Opposition Council, identical to the one we’re observing in Belarus today.
Once the organization was formed, with a number of political figures key to the Kremlin – Sobchak, Yashin, Kashin, and both Gudkovs – on its team, the task was set: to destroy from within the movement opposing Vladimir Putin.
It should be recalled that at that time, a “castling” scheme was launched in Russia –a chess-like move that marker Putin’s return to the president’s post and Dmitry Medvedev – to that of prime minister, respectively
What these “opposition figures” were doing was plotting and waging a split in the opposition. Ultimately, this all boiled down to mutual verbal attacks on cameras, while mass protest came to naught as people no longer had any distinctive leaders. By the way, it is worth noting that on another flank of right-wing forces stood another ally of Russian security agencies – Eduard Limonov. He was supposed to attract more radical protesters.
The latter were further used by Russian intelligence at the onset of aggression against Ukraine in 2013-2014, and beyond.
So today, Belarus also has its Coordination Council. It has been formed by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, which has been confirmed by its Board members.
Her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a former presidential candidate in Belarus, runs a fairly successful business in Russia with an annual turnover of some RUB 10 million. Among other things, he closely affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church. In Google cache, you can find plenty of photos showing him taking an active part in events chaired by Russian Patriarch Kirill. His friends from Ukraine’s Dnipro – Oleksandr Lutsenko and Oleksandr Dobov – both spotted occasionally visiting the occupied Crimea, are also engaged in religious work. The first has opened an Orthodox charity for social adaptation (Dnipro), also spreading the word of God in prisons in country’s east. The latter is a long-time pilgrim of the Russian Orthodox church.
Given the absolutely identical names, it is obvious that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Coordination Council was being created with the assistance, to say the least, of Russian political strategists. Perhaps, their contribution was even much more extensive.
There are two things here that are initially confusing to the eye. The first is that Alexander Lukashenko personally green-lighted Tikhanovskaya’s “escape” from Belarus. Another thing is that the power in the Coordination Council is gradually being transferred to the headquarters of Viktor Babariko, another presidential candidate, who is currently being held in custody in a pre-trial detention center.
The first thing is confusing because it becomes clear that Tikhanovskaya was indirectly in contact with the Belarus’ KGB. It remains unclear, at what stage and in what form she could cooperate with the country’s security agency. Also, it is unclear whether she was taken out of the country by Moscow and Minsk’s common agreement.
The second nuance mentioned is just as important, since it proves that today each of the forces in the opposition camp is trying to gain and make use of tactical advantage and, while acting in the Russian interests, draw the most of the attention among protesters.
Today it is already evident that political forces within the Coordination Council started competing with one another and publicly slamming each other. In the latest episode of such rivalry, Viktor Babariko released a video (obviously recorded before his arrest) announcing the launch of a new opposition party Vmeste [Together].
Besides addressing the tasks specified by the Coordination Council, the party is set to reform of the Constitution. According to Tikhanovskaya, this is a direct play up to Lukashenka from the perspective of the latter’s initiative to hold yet another constitutional referendum.
For a general understanding of the wider context, it should be clarified that Moscow would benefit from a constitutional reform in Belarus. A return to the 1994 Constitution of Belarus would mean transferring power from president to parliament (and, government, accordingly). Given an integrated form of state governance, this tool would be more than beneficial.
In fact, Babariko’s new party is being founded for two reasons. The first is simple: Moscow needs eligible participants in the Belarus’ political negotiation process. The Coordination Council is no such player. For such kind of communication, which implies funding, a political force is needed. The second reason is negotiations with the authorities, creation of a Coordination Council by the Russian example, where amendments to the Belarusian Constitution will be discussed.
As earlier noted by Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, Minsk believes the issue will be resolved within 18 to 24 months. Conditional opposition, which in fact represents Kremlin’s interests, requires a much quicker solution to the issue. Further, the question should be raised again of deeper integration of the two countries and, consequently, pseudo government control.
There is another rather interesting detail that distinguishes the approaches preached by the camp where Tikhanovskaya is a conditional leader from that led by Babariko and his team. The first sees a transit period without Lukashenko, but with an interim government formed from among incumbent ministers. The latter want to negotiate with Lukashenko, while not mentioning any transition period.
As indicated by the Coordination Council, part of the Belarus’ power bloc has allegedly sided with protesters. The fact that Lukashenko subsequently replaced KGB and Security Council looks rather curious in this context.
Before talking about the two most prominent and significant figures in the Belarusian protest movement – Viktor Babariko and Vladimir Tsepkalo – it should be worth identifying Babariko’s allies in the Coordination Council.
The key figure fit for media appearances is Maria Kolesnikova. Little can be said about her, apart from the official short CV that says she was into a music business in Germany. However, it in a couple of months she became a politician who, unlike Tikhanovskaya, is actually capable of leading a protest. Moreover, now she is the only figure able to do that. So the fact that she, along with Babariko, announced the creation of the Vmeste party, suggests that the task has been set to level the protest, while making individual opposition leaders the engine of political struggle.
She rarely communicates with Tikhanovskaya. Also, she doesn’t see her a key figure either in the Coordination Council or in the protest movement. Kolesnikova is Babariko’s devoted ally. It is rather telling that the chief of the Echo of Moscow radio station (the project financed by Gazprom’s money) gave 60 minutes of air time to speak up.
Maksim Znak, a professional lawyer, is also part of Babariko’s headquarters. Despite the fact that he had not previously been spotted in political campaigns, his company YurZnak, before merging with another Belarusian law firm Borovtsov and Salei, actively cooperated with Russian companies, including Aeroflot and Sudotechnology (affiliated with Russian Railways ). There were also media outlets, such as Argumenty I Fakty (where the controlling stake belongs to the Moscow City Hall).
Pavel Latushko, Belarus’ ex-Ambassador to Poland, Portugal, France, as well as a former Minister of Culture. His latest job was director of the Kupalovsky Theater (whose staff have recently joined protesters). After Lukashenko’s statement about the inevitable punishment of opposition, he fled the country.
He is the youngest Belarusian diplomat of the Soviet era, having graduated from the Belarusian KGB cradle, Minsk Linguistic University. From 2017 to 2021, Belarus is part of the UNESCO Executive Committee where Latushko would always vote against any initiatives on human rights monitoring in the occupied Crimea.
Latushko has been desperately trying to conceal his ties with Babariko. However, people in his entourage are aware that he is part of Babariko’s team where he supervises the foreign affairs sector.
Nobel laureate writer Svetlana Alekseevich could also be included in the list of Babariko’s suppporters. However, it was Babariko’s foundation who has been supporting releases of her books.
None of Babariko’s people on the Coordination Council’s team recognize Crimea as a part of Ukraine. In general, they evade questions related to Russian aggression in Donbas and also avoid addressing questions related to a deeper integration between Belarus and Russia, arguing that the Union Agreement has been signed between the two countries that governs the issues of political and economic cooperation.
So, from the point of view of façade faces representing Russia’s centers of influence in Belarus, it is necessary to note two figures – the aforementioned Viktor Babariko and another ex-official from Lukashenko’s team, Valery Tsepkalo.
First, let’s talk about Viktor Babariko. Since 1995, he has been an employee of the Olimp Bank, which in 1997 became a Gazprom asset. Here it’s important to recall all nuances of how this financial institution was being handed to Russia.
In 1990, when the upcoming Soviet fall was already evident, the state-owned Bank for Environmental Development was set up in Belarus. Key investors were a caste of local industrialists. Years later, when the post-Soviet countries were being torn apart by wild capitalism with little to no rules, a new bank, Olimp, emerges based on the said institution. It was the largest private initiative in Belarus at the time.
Then, in 1996, Belarus holds a referendum on the Constitution, organized by Lukashenko. In fact, this was a coup. Until 1997, all power in the country was transferred from the Supreme Council to the incumbent head of state. Moscow supported such changes, thus approving of Lukashenko’s move. In return, Moscow gained control of the Olimp Bank (now Belgazprombank), where the owner is now the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom.
It is important that Viktor Babariko worked in the bank prior to, during, and after the transfer of a major Belarusian asset to Russia. He took part in all the events related to that deal between Moscow and Minsk. Therefore, today he remains one of the pillars of the Russian energy interest in Belarus. And it’s for this reason that he has long been safe from any kind of trouble in Belarus.
According to the latest agreements reached between Lukashenko and Putin, Belgazprombank will be preserved. This means that Viktor Babariko will remain in place as well. Therefore, now Russia’s main task is to release the latter from the pre-trial detention center and to allow his further participation (through the latter’s activists) in the country’s political life.
One of the possible scenarios is participation in the struggle for the constitutional reform, where the key objective is to limit Lukashenko’s powers toward the subsequent transfer of power to Moscow.
In fact, more attention should be paid to another person – Valery Tsepkalo. He is not just a career diplomat and ambassador to the countries traditionally considered “elite” for the Soviet bloc’s diplomatic corps, including the United States… For a long time, he also headed the Hi-Tech Park, where the IT experts had been raised who are now in opposition to Lukashenko.
Besides, Valery Tsepkalo is the closest confidant of former Belarusian President Stanislav Shushkevich. It is he who, at the time of the political crisis, when power was being transferred to the Supreme Council of the already independent Republic, made a bet on Lukashenko.
It was Tsepkalo who took the then young political novice Alexander Lukashenko to Moscow to make sure the latter is considered the only pro-Russian candidate. The key mediator in those negotiations was the Russian LDPR party, headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. They were actively lobbying Lukashenko’s nomination. This, incidentally, is now influencing the relationship between the two mentioned politicians. And this separately influenced Tsepkalo’s own path up the career ladder.
In 1994, Lukashenko, upon Tsepkalo’s advice, spoke at closed meetings in Moscow in favor of a Union State of Russia and Belarus, for deeper integration. It was Tsepkalo who was and still is the key lobbyist of the idea in Belarusian politics.
One of the most important positions here is support Tsepkalo has secured from a Belarus-born Russian businessman Dmitry Mazepin. The latter now heads the Belarusian-Russian Business Council. Together with another billionaire from the Russian Federation Prokhorov, he co-owns Uralkaliy potassium giant. Prior to that, he headed by Uralkhim, and before that – the Sibur enterprise (Gazprom). In general, he has long remained in the orbit of this particular company. Separately, it should be noted that he also has ties to Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska (from Boris Yeltsin’s entourage known as Semya [Family]).
There is an assumption that the ongoing strikes at Belarusian enterprises, especially those related to the chemical industry, were initiated or partially financed by Mazepin. It should be remembered that Belaruskaliy is a direct competitor to Uralkaliy, and that the Russian Federation has long been interested in Belarusian potassium deposits.
Now major attention should be focused precisely on Valery Tsepkalo. His strategy resembles that previously chosen by Ukraine’s ex-President Petro Poroshenko. Today, just like the former head of the Ukrainian state, Tsepkalo is touring foreign states, reaching out to foreign politicians and enlisting their support.
It is also important to bear in mind that he is the only opposition figure who gave Lukashenko and his family security guarantees in Belarus. And it was also precisely Tsepkalo who promised Russia that the Union State would ultimately be created.