Recent months have seen a progressive public airing of differences between Russia and Belarus, including at the level of their Presidents. Sovereignty and economic benefit have been the bones of contention.
The sovereignty theme surfaced shortly after President Trump announced US’ intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. A Russian Deputy Foreign Minister said Russia and Belarus had the military-technical capacity to counter an American military base in Poland (across the border from Belarus). The Russian Ambassador to Belarus went further and hinted at the possibility of a Russian base in Belarus. These statements were received with both apprehension and indignation in Belarus political circles. President Lukashenko took the opportunity of a call on him by a delegation of US think tanks to declare that Belarus does not require a foreign military base (including a Russian one) and is strong enough to defend itself.
The sovereignty theme recurred in the course of a bitter argument about Russian-Belarus economic relations. There have long been niggling economic grievances, typical for a smaller neighbour with an economically, politically and militarily stronger neighbour. In recent years, when Russia banned European agricultural and food imports (in retaliation for the post-Crimea western sanctions), Belarus exploited its customs union with Russia to become a conduit for European products into Russia. Russian customs’ actions to choke off this lucrative business caused resentment. There have been other issues on loans and subsidies. However, the major new Belarus concern was the so-called Russian oil “tax manoeuvre”. From 2019 through to 2024, Russia will gradually cut its oil export tax from the present 30% to zero, imposing instead a mineral extraction tax and further extending excise duty incentives to boost domestic oil refining. Belarus has benefited from importing duty-free Russian oil and exporting refined petrochemical products. It stands to lose, both from the reduced (reaching zero) differential in its oil procurement prices and the competition from the incentivized Russian refineries. Estimates put the consequent shortfall in Belarus revenues as US$ 8-12 billion over the next five years, with a huge impact on the country’s budgetary situation. The Belarus demand for compensation from Russia became increasingly more strident, with harsh public words from both sides, including an angry outburst by President Lukashenko at a joint press conference of the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) Summit in St Petersburg (December 6), accusing Russia of selling gas on better terms to Germany than to its ally Belarus. President Putin’s response was measured, but menacing to Belarus’ ears: he said differential treatment should be merited by closer integration.
This put back on the agenda a 1999 Union State Treaty, by which Russia and Belarus agreed to form a supranational political and economic union. The treaty remained almost entirely unimplemented, as Belarus strengthened its national identity; eventually, the creation of a customs union within EaEU shelved further progress. Russian statements – from the initial hint of President Putin to more explicit statements by Prime Minister Medvedev and Finance Minister Siluanov – have made a direct connection between preferential economic treatment and progress towards the common currency, executive and judiciary that a union requires. Belarus’ reactions have been strong, including that of President Lukashenko, who was reported to have accused Russia of trying to take over Belarus by hook or by crook.
President Putin has increasingly been devoting personal attention to repairing relations and reassuring President Lukashenko. In the last six months or so, the two have had six telephone conversations (the latest on January 31) and five summit meetings. The Belarus President has retraced his steps from open criticism of Russia and has reverted to effusive public exchanges with President Putin. He has, however, not retracted from his position that progress should be made on the EaEU agreement to create single markets of natural gas, oil and petroleum products by 2025. Negotiations continue at other levels, seeking mutually acceptable political and economic terms of a settlement – a trade-off between sovereignty and money.
The US and its allies spotted the political opportunity in this Russia-Belarus bickering, and some overtures were made to the country’s leadership. US Assistant Secretary of State A. Weiss Mitchell visited Belarus in end-October 2018 (the highest-level official US visitor to Belarus in living memory) and was accorded a call on President Lukashenko, who was reported (by the official Belarus agency) to have told him that Belarus could be a reliable, honest, and sincere partner” [of the USA] and that Belarus-US relations are still far short of potential. A delegation of US think tanks with right-wing credentials visited Belarus in November, as also a group of Europeans from the Munich Security Conference – both were received by President Lukashenko, who repeated the message that Belarus was independent, open to the world and ready for equal and mutually respectful relations with US and Europe. In a speech to the Atlantic Council in October (even before he went to Minsk), Assistant Secretary Mitchell commented, “it is the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of frontier states like Ukraine, Georgia, and even Belarus (emphasis added) that offer the surest bulwark against Russian neo-imperialism”.
President Putin’s personal attention to Belarus issues may stem from the recollection that high-level Russian inattention accelerated the alienation of Georgia and Ukraine from Russia. Besides Belarus, the US is also engaging more closely with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; in turn, these countries welcome the room for manoeuvre it gives them vis a vis Russia and China. President Putin may be conscious of the strategic reality that for Russia to achieve his ambition of a truly global footprint, it needs to first secure its hold on its near-abroad.
January 30, 2019