Belarus tries to follow in Moscow’s steps and team up with the European far right

On 21 May 2018, Belarusian far-right politician Oleh Haidukevich published on his Facebook a message that said that his party, the misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus (LDPB) led by his father Siarhei Haidukevich, started preparations for the “Congress of Patriotic Parties in Europe” that would take place in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

In his post, Haidukevich mentioned that the LDPB had invited representatives of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), French National Front (FN, renamed into the National Rally on 1 June 2018), Alternative for Germany (AfD), “United Russia” and 15 unnamed parties. He also posted two scanned copies of invitations addressed to FN’s president Marine Le Pen and the FPÖ’s leader Heinz-Christian Strache. The invitations were dated 26 April 2018 and said that the congress would discuss “patriotism, conservatism, national conservatism and social-conservatism”, “the right [sic!] renaissance”, “perspectives of identity and traditional values”, preservation of “national traditions and mentality [sic!]”, “the problem of Islamic fundamentalism”, “the crisis of the European Union and NATO”, European and Russian (counter-)sanctions, “the idea of the Greater North from Antwerp to Vladivostok”, “the Great North as a single civilizational and cultural space of great Europe”, “the crisis of the family and family values” and “alternative media self-organization and promotion experience”, among other topics.

A copy of the letter addressed to the FPÖ’s leader HC Strache and posted by the LDPB’s Oleh Haidukevich

The posted copies of the invitations did not mention the date of the planned congress, but some media reports say that the congress can take place in the second half of 2018. However, it is not the first time that the LDPB is trying to organise a far-right conference in Belarus. Like its Russian sister party, the misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDBP has been obsessed with an idea of inviting European far-right politicians to Minsk for quite some time. On 28 October 2014, a day after the leadership of the LDPB met with the delegation of the FPÖ in Minsk, Oleh Haidukevich said that they were going to hold a conference of “right-wing parties” soon, but no event seemed to have taken place. On 5 April 2016, as Oleh Haidukevich was meeting with Italian fascist Roberto Fiore, as well as Latvian far-left politician Normunds Grostiņš and Polish right-wing activist Sławomir Ozdyk, the LDPB said that it would hold the “patriotic congress” in Minsk after the parliamentary elections in Belarus. The elections were held on 11 September 2016, but no congress took place afterwards.

(left to right) Normunds Grostiņš, Sławomir Ozdyk, Roberto Fiore, and the LPDB’s Oleh Haidukevich meeting in Minsk, 5 April 2016

The LDPB claims to have contacts with a number of the European far-right parties. According to Oleh Haidukevich, the LDPB cooperates with approximately 30 parties and signed agreements on cooperation with the FN, FPÖ and Italian Social Movement – Tricolour Flame led by Attilio Carelli. After the 2016 parliamentary elections, in which Siarhei Haidukevich won a seat in the Belarusian parliament, the LDPB claimed that it received compliments from the FN, AfD and FPÖ. The LDPB’s contacts with the Austrian far-right party seems to be especially active: on 30 March 2017, Siarhei Haidukevich visited Vienna upon the invitation from the FPÖ and met with Johann Gudenus and Johannes Hübner. According to the LDPB, Siarhei Haidukevich discussed “specific issues of inter-parliamentary, cross-party and interstate cooperation” with the representatives of the FPÖ. After the parliamentary elections in Germany, the LDPB’s leader sent his compliments to the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and AfD, and also invited representatives of the AfD to visit Belarus.

(left to right) Johann Gudenus, Johannes Hübner, unknown woman and the LDPB’s leader Siarhei Haidukevich meeting in Vienna, 30 March 2017

The LDPB holds a special place in the Belarusian authoritarian system. According to Andrew Wilson, the LDPB is a fake opposition party, the purpose of which is to side-line the real opposition. In his book Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship, Wilson writes:

“The [Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus] was named after its Russian equivalent, led by Vladimir Zhirinovskii, and [Siarhei] Haidukevich’s allotted role was similar to that of the notorious Russian provocateur. Haidukevich was prominent on Belarusian TV, constantly making over-the-top comments that distracted attention from the real opposition. […] Like Zhirinovskii, Haidukevich was far from serving up a plague on all houses and spent most of his time, as he was instructed, attacking [Belarusian President Aliaksandr] Lukashenka’s opponents, […] with one of his attacks, only days before the election, featuring suspiciously prominently in the state media.”

Among the experts on Belarus, there is also an understanding that Siarhei Haidukevich’s LDPB is a party, through which the regime is doing things it does not want to be associated with. One especially notorious instance of the LDPB’s doing the regime’s dirty work goes back to 2001-2002 and is related to the LDPB helping Saddam Hussein’s regime to circumvent the international sanctions against Iraq.

Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka

In 2005, a Belarusian newspaper published a photocopy of the letter from the Iraqi authorities addressed to the LDPB. The letter, presumably, read: “We are still waiting for your actions to meet your commitments in accordance with the above-mentioned contract. We solicit that you return to us the amount of USD 996,798.060 that you owe us”. Haidukevich sued the newspaper and eventually won the case. However, during the court proceedings, more details about the contract emerged. During one of the proceedings, the former deputy head of the LDPB Aliaksandr Rabotay claimed that the LDPB fulfilled the contract on 2 million barrels of Iraqi oil by having formalised and sold it. According to Rabotay, the “kickback” was 30% and it had to be returned back to Iraq, but the money was not sent. Rabotay had a warrant signed by Haidukevich personally that allowed him to do business with the Iraqi authorities on behalf of the LDPB.

Oleh Haidukevich

At the end of 2005, after Haidukevich sued the newspaper, an anonymous group that presented themselves as Belarusian intelligence and security officers published a letter that provided further details into the LDPB’s dealings with Hussein’s regime. With a reference to the publication in question, the group said the money that the LDPB owed Iraq “was most likely resting in one of the Austrian banks, where the daughter of [Siarhei Haidukevich] lived in the city of Klagenfurt […]. Probably she was the manager of the Austrian accounts, into which S.V. Haidukevich supposedly deposited USD 1.5 million”. The letter continued:

“According to the information provided by our sources from the law-enforcement agencies, S.V. Haidukevich has long been working with the [Belarusian] Presidential Administration as to profiting from the deals with Hussein’s regime. The official Minsk did not work directly in this field, so S.V. Haidukevich was allotted a central role in this scheme. The transactions were carried out via the infamous Infobank that was blacklisted [by the US] for its activities related to the laundering of money received from the oil trade deals between the regimes of Lukashenka and Hussein. S.V. Haidukevich’s wife, Maria Haidukevich, works in this bank.”

(For further details about the Infobank’s role in circumventing the sanctions imposed on Hussein’s regime see the Duelfer Report.)

More information on these presumed deals is provided by the notorious WikiLeaks. One of the leaked US diplomatic cables dated 9 June 2006, in particular, reads:

“[Independent analyst Vladimir] Podgol went into greater detail about Gaidukevich’s oil-for-food schemes […]. Gaidukevich reportedly cheated dozens of people out of their share of the money, including from his LDPB deputies. One of those who he stole from is Russian oil man Vladimir Grigorivich Stepanov […].”

The leaked diplomatic cable suggested that Haidukevich was close to President Lukashenka and that Haidukevich might have also been involved in other corruption schemes:

“During [the 2006 presidential election], Lukashenko and his cabinet were angry with Gaidukevich for his laziness and failure to steal the desirable number of votes from the opposition. But now Gaidukevich is one of the most protected and untouchable men in Belarus. According to another Podgol source, the Presidential Administration forbade security services from investigating, following, or conducting surveillance on Gaidukevich. Therefore, Podgol suspects Gaidukevich is laundering Viktor [Lukashenka’s] weapons-trade money through channels in Europe, particularly through his daughter, Anya, who is a “student” living and studying in Austria.”

Siarhei Haidukevich

Now, it is important to note two interesting facts:

First, the Austrian city of Klagenfurt, where Anna (or Anya) Haidukevich lived according to the anonymous Belarusian group, is the capital of the federal state of Carinthia. From 1999-2008, the governor of Carinthia was Jörg Haider, the leader of the FPÖ and, later, the right-wing Alliance for the Future of Austria. Haider was involved in the deals with Hussein’s regime too. As I write in my book, Russia and the Western Far Right,

“Haider travelled to Baghdad three times in 2002. He actively remonstrated against Washington’s sanctions against Baghdad and apparently organised humanitarian medical aid to Iraq, while another member of the FPÖ, Ewald Stadler, founded the Austrian-Iraqi Society. Documents found in Baghdad after the demise of Hussein’s regime have revealed that Haider and Stadler, during their visit to Baghdad in May 2002, signed an agreement with the Iraqi authorities. According to that agreement, Haider and Stadler would act as Hussein’s lobbyists in Europe and receive $5 million for their services ($1,250,000 for Haider and $3,750,000 for Stadler).”

Jörg Haider (left), the leader of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria meets Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (right) in Baghdad, 12 February 2002.

Second, Zhirinovsky’s sister-party to the LDPB, i.e. LDPR, was also had dealings with Husseins’ regime. Quoting from the Duelfer report,

“According to Iraqi officials and Iraqi Ministry of Oil records, 73 million barrels were allocated in the name of Vladimir Zhirinovsky […].
According to Iraqi officials, Mr. Zhirinovsky received oil allocations because it was believed that he would advocate for political positions favorable to Iraq. […]
Throughout the sanctions period, Mr. Zhirinovsky opposed the sanctions regime and military actions against Iraq. Mr. Zhirinovsky was a frequent visitor to Baghdad and to the Iraqi Embassy in Moscow’. During his visits, Mr. Zhirinovsky often advocated for the interests of Russian companies in Iraq.”

Vladimir Zhirinovsky (left) meets Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (right) in Baghdad, 29 December 1999.

But what does the LDPB have to do with the European far right today, especially the FPÖ, AfD and National Rally? All the three parties are known for their pro-Kremlin positions; in particular, they oppose the EU sanctions imposed on Putin’s Russia for the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine, as well as justifying Moscow’s foreign policies in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere. Belarus is also sanctioned by the US and EU for its authoritarian practices; while many sanctions were lifted after 2015, some sanctions still remain in place. It is difficult to deny that, in the Belarusian authoritarian system, the LDPB can only operate with the permission from the Belarusian Presidential Administration, so it is most likely that the Presidential Administration gave the green light to the LDPB’s initiative. As the FPÖ and other far-right parties have been known for their criticism of the international sanctions against Hussein’s Iraq and, these days, against Putin’s Russia, Lukashenka’s regime may also benefit from the European far right calling for the lifting of the remaining sanctions against Belarus. If the “Congress of Patriotic Parties in Europe” indeed takes place, it will be interesting to see what narratives the European far right will promote afterwards.