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Russian government recalls ambassador to Belarus after Minsk officials complained he treated the country like a ‘federal subject’

Source: Meduza
Natalya Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Vladimir Putin recalled Mikhail Babich from his post as the Russian ambassador to Belarus “in connection with plans to transfer him to another position.” Senator Dmitry Mezentsev, who has sat on the Federation Council as a representative of Sakhalinsk Oblast since 2015, has been appointed to replace Babich. Mezentsev’s term on the Council was already set to end in September 2019. He had previously worked as the general secretary of the Shanhai Cooperation Organization and served as the governor of Irkutsk Oblast.

Mezentsev’s appointment violated federal regulations, Dmitry Novikov, the first vice chairperson of the State Duma’s international affairs committee told RBC. The Russian law that sets out procedures for appointing the country’s ambassadors calls for a preliminary consultation with Russian parliamentary deputies. According to Novikov, a Duma committee charged with discussing matters related to the Commonwealth of Independent States should have been permitted to confirm Mezentsev’s candidacy for the Minsk ambassadorship, and publishing his name before that discussion was “a procedural violation.”

Babich worked in Belarus for less than one year. He was appointed to be the Russian ambassador in August of 2018. Sources told the newspaper Kommersant that the decision to appoint him was made within the Kremlin. Babich did not have any previous diplomatic experience: he served in the Russian military’s paratrooper division and in the KGB before taking charge of the Antei corporation and, in the mid-2000s, leading the Chechen government’s executive branch. He then worked as an assistant director for the FSB’s border patrol and ran for a seat in the State Duma. In 2011, he began working as a presidential envoy in the Volga Federal District.

The ambassador entered into public conflicts with the Belarusian government at least twice. Babich’s appointment coincided with the Russian government’s attempts to persuade Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko to speed up the political integration of the two countries. Babich traveled actively in various regions of Belarus, met with Lukashenko several times, and said that “Moscow will consider any attack on Belarus to be an attack on Moscow.” Nonetheless, the ambassador clashed indirectly with the Belarusian Foreign Affairs Ministry multiple times in recent months. The first conflict was triggered by an interview Babich gave to RIA Novosti in which he called on Misnk to determine the form Russian-Belarusian integration would take rather than exchanging barbs with Russia. The Foreign Affairs Ministry called Babich’s tone “patronizing” and said he “failed to understand the difference between a federal subject and an independent government.” Another conflict took place in April. After Babich issued a harshly worded rebuke against Lukashenko in connection with a major construction project, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said the ambassador was disturbing the relationship between Belarus and Russia.

Babich was removed from his post at Lukashenko’s request, Kommersant’s sources said. They added that the Belarusian president had spoken with his Russian counterpart about the possibility of removing Babich multiple times. His most recent request to that effect was made at the One Belt, One Road forum in Beijing. Lukashenko reportedly asked Putin to recall the ambassador and assured him that he is prepared to expediate the two countries’ integration process. “Putin agreed and gave Lukashenko a year. He promised not to interfere in Belarus’s internal handling of the process,” one source told Kommersant. Lukashenko’s official press service announced that Belarus was not opposed to the appointment of a new ambassador. The country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did not comment on Babich’s exit.

Before Babich was appointed to his Belarusian post, there were plans to make him the ambassador to Ukraine. The Ukrainian government did not accept his appointment. In 2016, plans circulated to appoint Babich as the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, but the Ukrainian government refused to accept him. They issued no official explanation for the decision, but unofficial statements indicated that Kyiv’s decision rested on Babich’s previous work for Russian intelligence agencies. Now, Russia has no ambassador to Ukraine, only a temporary representative.

Olga Korelina

Translation by Hilah Kohen