Staunton, August 17 – Russian diplomatic sources tell the URA news agency that Minsk has dragged its feet about giving agrément to Mikhail Babich, the Kremlin’s candidate for Russian ambassador to Belarus because of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s fears about the role he might play there in the future.
But the diplomatic standoff between the two countries may be even more serious than that because a Belarusian source says that Lukashenka has already rejected two Moscow nominees, Vladislav Surkov and Aleksandr Tkachev, and may reject Vladimir Putin’s choice just as Ukraine did in 2016.
In an article today, URA journalist Stanislav Zakharkin says that the delay in agrément reflects Lukashenka’s concern that Babich may work to transform the Union State of Russia and Belarus into something more unified than it now is and that moves in that direction could leave Lukashenka out in the cold ().
Rumors that Putin had selected Babich began to circulate several month ago and on July 23, a committee of the Russian Federation Council confirmed the join even though Minsk had not given its approval. Since that time, Zakharkin says, “nothing is known about Babich’s future fate.”
Arseny Sivitsky, the head of the Minsk Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research, says that “Babich has the reputation of a tough administrator from Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. Minsk would like to see as the new ambassador an individual who would help overcome the economic and trade conflicts” between the two countries.
But Moscow has a different “priority,” he continues. What it wants is “a deepening of military-political integration and opposition to the West,” goals that Minsk “is seeking to avoid with all the resources at its disposal.” That conflict led Lukashenka to reject Surkov and Tkachev, and it could mean that he will ultimately reject Babich as well.
But Minsk faces “a complex dilemma: to agree to Babich’s candidacy with unknown consequences or to drag out the process of appointing a new ambassador and thus remain without one for some time, a situation which will be interpreted as a lowering of the level fo diplomatic relations,” Savitsky continues.
Russian political analyst Maksim Zharov says that the delay may be connected as well with differences over what the political successions in Russia and Belarus are probably going to look like. Some in Moscow say Putin might become head of the Union State after 2024, but only if Lukashenka agrees to a further deepening of relations.
At the same time, Zharov says, some in the Russian elite want Putin to become the head of a powerful State Council.
Lukashenka is also looking to the future. He was scheduled to run for re-election in 2020 but now has moved up that ballot to 2019. The Minsk leader in this view may be fearful about what Babich could do to undercut him in such an election, Belarusian analyst Kirill Kostinevich adds.
Senior Russian officials are playing down the delay, arguing that Lukashenka will ultimately accept Babich; but the fact that the Belarusian leader hasn’t done so now is becoming a diplomatic scandal and a personal affront to Putin that the latter is unlikely to forgive or forget, something that makes this delay even more critical for the future of bilateral ties.