By Yuri Polyakov
Russia is certainly the closest and the most important partner of Belarus. They both share common cultural, economic and political ties. In fact, Belarus was the only country in the post-Soviet space who actively encouraged further integration of its political and economic system with Russia. Perhaps Alexander Lukashenko played a prominent role in fostering ties with Russia since he became President of the Republic of Belarus in 1994. However, his recent remarks about Russia and President Putin astonished the Russian political and business establishment.
During a seven-hour press conference, Lukashenko attacked Russia for the cuts in oil supply and the closure of the 30km border zone. There is therefore a high chance that Russia will also embrace a hostile stance. This article argues that Belarus officials used these factors to publicly accuse Russia of being a status-quo state, to create the false impression of being willing to shift policies closer to the West. Obviously, their objective is to revise the current gas and oil treaties with Russia, both within the consideration of Belarus financial interest and beyond.
The Great Game
Belarus’ wellbeing depends on the security of raw materials supply from Russia. For example, Belarus uses Russian oil and gas as the principal means of energy generation for its households and industries. However, Russia threatened to cut oil supplies to Belarus from 4,5 million to 4 million barrels in January 2017 if Belarus does not pay its $ 425 million debt for the supplies. Therein, it represents a security threat to Belarus if it does not manage to find alternative markets.
On the other hand, Belarus is trying to play a different card. Lukashenko stated that the original dispute was related to issues that did not deal with oil. Furthermore, he added that Belarus took the case to court because Russia did not inform Belarus of its determination to cut oil supplies. However, he has not specified which court is going to address the resource trade dispute.
Belarus struggled to gain support from Western states in January – February 2017. The majority of European political and business leaders are afraid to deal with Lukashenko personally because he has a reputation for being the last dictator of Europe. Luckily for him, Iran’s Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani proposed to strengthen economic ties between Belarus and Iran, and the Belarus government signed a contract with NIOC (National Iranian Oil Company).
Sergey Bogdan acknowledges that Belarus views Iran as a strategic partner. Bogdan believes that Belarus champions the partnership, but it does not have the appropriate industrial base to benefit the local economy. Thus, the oil agreement is a rapid answer to Russia who tries to set new rules in the resource sector, changing the enduring structure of trade that satisfies Belarus authorities. Moreover, Vitaly Petlevoy takes a note of Lukashenko’s comments, calling the Russian stance as humiliating for nations that are closely related to each other. Petlevoy subsequently argues that Belarus would not benefit from using oil from Iran because it would increase the revenues of their oil refineries by making them less profitable. It is widely acknowledged that Belarus was almost free from paying fuel duties on Russian oil and gas, and their refineries could also sell oil products into Western Europe. Leonid Radzikhovsky, on the other hand, implies that Belarus uses such rhetoric against Russia as a way to extract more from its powerful neighbour. If Russia does not interfere with Belarus domestic and foreign policy and steadily invests money into Belarus’ economy, Lukashenko is happy with the current state of affairs. However, if Russia stops doing one of these things, he immediately attacks Putin and polishes it with the narrative of brotherhood between nations and ordinary people. Hence, the situation is clear – Belarus understands that it does not have the alternative partner who will be pumping as much money into them as Russia.
Brief History of Problems
Firstly, Russia and Belarus intended to create a Union State with bilateral political and financial institutions, but it did not happen because of the lack of consensus on the allocation of certain responsibilities and roles. Secondly, resource disputes have had a long history, as they began in 2002. For instance, Lukashenko announced plans to cut all relations with Russia with Donald Trump’s temperament in campaign rallies. Likewise, Gazprom had disputes with its Belarus counterparts, and it took them a long time to reach the agreement before both parties signed the contract two minutes before New Year’s Eve in 2006. Besides that, Belarus managed to obtain freedom from duties in 2007. Thirdly, as soon as Putin gave the well-known Munich Conference speech, Lukashenko said in his interview to Die Zeit in 2007, that Belarus shares a common history and roots with European countries. However, he added that Belarus has a different national interest to those of their colleagues from Western Europe. Russian press noticed that Lukashenko changed his public after he hired Timothy Bell as his political consultant. Simultaneously, trade wars affected the farming industry, particularly after the Russian ban on milk products from Belarus in June 2009. Furthermore, Belarus tried to disguise problems in the domestic sphere in an attempt to postpone the announcement of devaluation until April 2012.
What does it have to do with current problems?
The answer is straightforward. Belarus is trying to fight its recession, and Russia is the only viable partner who will eventually agree with their terms. The economic sanctions on Russia have a domino effect on its partners. They have severely affected Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus. The GDP of Belarus declined by approximately 40 percent in 2014-2016, despite growth in some export sectors – such as the food sector, as Russian customers saw Belarusian shrimps in domestic shops after the ‘Medvedev’ counter-sanctions against North American countries and the EU.
The negotiation strategy of Lukashenko is all about negative PR. Thereby, he uses the public attacks before countries have got a scheduled meeting. It provides him with a strategical advantage before upcoming negotiations. Russia, however, delayed them until February because it considered the middle of February as the best time for the beginning of the discussion. Arkady Dvorkovich assured there is a high possibility that the Russian side will release new price reviews one or two weeks after the meeting on February 10 between him and Vladimir Semashko, who represented Belarus. In a similar manner, another dispute over gas is steadily coming to its usual ending – Russia will probably agree with the terms of Belarus because it does not want to lose its long-term partner. Bearing in mind that Putin and Lukashenko uphold a friendly relationship and can occasionally be seen doing alpine ski in Sochi or playing ice hockey on the same team, they will reach an executive decision.
Lukashenko will inevitably cause another dispute because this is the basic feature of the new configuration in Russia-Belarus relations. Bearing in mind that the world is changing, Russian isolationism that will potentially substitute Putin’s rule after his departure will heavily affect all spheres of Belarus politics. Belarus is the last country to embrace nationalism amongst CIS countries. Lukashenko understands that following the rise of nationalist groups inside Belarus after 2014, he will have to surrender to the interests of those who advocate the Anti-Russian stance. Even if Belarus secures supplies of Russian gas and oil, there is a high probability of social changes inside Belarus. These could alter the entire scheme of business countries, as the Russian-Ukrainian confrontations have recently demonstrated to the world. For instance, by changing political system, Belarus will face an uncertain future to which their producers will have to adapt. Not through the prism of the state TV or through a certain kind of mutual antagonism, but through new trends in political economy between neighbours.
Special thanks to the UDF and SNOB editorial boards for the free access to the essential materials about this topic.
Bordachev, T. (2015). The International Relations Theory in the 21-st century.