The Belarus—Russia relations since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis developed in a negative dynamics. The first stage of their relations worsening had a latent nature and came down to Minsk quietly refusing to support Russia’s aggressive foreign policy aspirations. However, starting from 2015 mass media began to witness more frequent cases of the conflicts between the allies. Finally, at the end of 2016 – in the beginning of 2017 both sides turned to an open exchange of reprimands and accusations in all spheres of their bilateral cooperation. And on April, 3d, after the lengthy negotiations of Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, the sides unexpectedly stated that they came to terms in all disputable points.
Increasingly Long Claim Listing
The contradictions between Belarus and Russia on the foreign policy and regional security have always been fundamental. Even though they became quite obvious after the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, they initially originated with the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007. The treaty shaped a more united and consistent European Union, as well as the basis for a more ambitious competition between the EU and Russia in the Central and Eastern Europe and in Caucasus. Institutionally the EU’s more ambitious role in these regions was framed by its “Eastern Partnership” program, which was extensively discussed in 2008 and launched in 2009.
The European Union declared an opportunity for a more active regional role for such countries in the region as Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, as well as the Post-Soviet countries in the Caucasus, provided there is their wish for cohesion policy and in some cases for the EU integration. This meant a challenge for the Russian Federation dominating in that region. Moscow immediately named it an expansionary project.
This position can be attributed to the fact that Moscow cannot compete with the European Union economically and is inevitably forced to use geopolitical and military policy arguments to consolidate its “sphere of influence”.
Belarus’ strong desire to develop the Belarusian-Russian relations in 2008–2009 led to a more active Russian pressure on Minsk already in 2010, resulted in a big political and economic crisis of 2010–early 2011. The crisis led to an archaic economic structure becoming permanent in Belarus, as well as driving back the process of Belarus—EU rapprochement and freezing it for several years. It was only in 2012 that Belarus, against the background of Russia promoting the project of the Eurasian Economic Union designed after the European Union, relying on the doctrine of “integration of integrations”, got an opportunity to begin the process of rebuilding its relations with the European Union. The Ukrainian crisis provided an opportunity for Minsk to speed up the process and add a more energetic Belarusian-American cooperation.
Minsk’s cautious perception of the Russia’s behavior in the frames of the Ukrainian crisis played a crucial role in the course of the events. The threat of repeating the “Crimean” and “Donbas” scenarios in Belarus made local authorities revise the imperatives of their defense policy, that resulted in a new defense plan and the guidelines for the state defense adopted at the end of 2014.
However, in general Belarus chose a position of a Russia’s “restraining ally” in the new geopolitical situation. The essence of this position for Minsk is in keeping all relations with Moscow in the frames of the integration structures (including military and political unions: the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Union State) and to fulfill its union obligations. However, Belarusian authorities refused to take part in the Moscow’s aggressive initiatives of any kind, be it criticizing of the Ukrainian authorities or imposing “counter sanctions” for the European partners. Belarus provided some guarantees of nonparticipation in any actions undermining regional stability and security, as well as non-exploitation of its territory for such actions, at the same time providing a space to hold negotiations in order to solve the Ukrainian crisis.
The position of Belarus as a “restraining ally” was not simply different, it fundamentally contradicted the aggressive nature of the Moscow’s foreign and military policy in the Central and Eastern Europe region. That is why the Russian authorities started demolishing this position by using for this both integration structures Belarus participated in and some unilateral actions. Moreover, Moscow used its resource dominance over Belarus in all dimensions, as well as its extensive opportunities to influence the political process of Belarus from within, through the official and unofficial channels.
The main issue of the Belarus—Russia relations at this period was around the stationing of the Russian troops on the territory of Belarus. The Russian side lobbied this by having its air base, a missile launch site and a ground forces base on the territory of the neighboring country. In August–September, 2005, Moscow unilaterally approved the intergovernmental agreement on this issue, however, then military and political authorities of Belarus publicly denied the possibility of the Russian troops stationing on the territory of the country.
In a related move, starting from the first quarter of 2016, the Russian Federation started to implement measures aimed at changing of the Belarusian authorities position. These measures included a refusal to decrease gas prices supplied for the needs of the Belarusian economy; the restriction for the third country nationals to cross the border from Belarus to Russia; and numerous restrictions on the meat and milk supply to the Russian market, beneficial for Belarus.
In this context, the Russian authorities skillfully used the wrong moves of the Belarusian officials to increase the Russian pressure on Minsk. For example, the refusal of Belarus to pay previously set yet unreasonably high price for the Russian gas supply was used by Moscow to restrict its oil supply, which, in its turn, undermined the Belarusian financial and economic opportunities.
The refusal of Belarus to deliver, in accordance with the corresponding contract, 1 million tons of oil products to the Russian Federation (due to the low prices on such products in Russia, and a low profit as well) was used as a reason to both limit the volume of the oil supply and dictate the conditions of the products export flows redirecting from Klaipeda and Ventspils to Russian Ust-Lug.
The emotional “decision” to initiate the criminal case against the head of the Russian “Rosselkhoznadzor” (the Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance) was used to stop working contacts of this service with its Belarusian counterpart, “Minselkhozprod”, and unilaterally move to introducing restrictions on the Belarusian produce supplies without any discussion with the Belarusian side. And so on.
Social protests in Belarus—Russia Relations in crisis
The increasing economic pressure on Belarus from the Russian Federation reached such a scale by the end of 2016 that together with a traditionally low efficiency in the public sector of the Belarusian economy it became a national security threat for the country.
Only in January, 2017, the shortage of the Russian oil supply led to a 1,5% GDP decrease and together with food export losses completely “compensated” for the positive dynamics in the mechanical engineering and some other sectors. The same reasons led to a growing negative balance of the external trade.
The Belarusian authorities performed a public maneuver, attempting to stimulate the Russian side to compromise and agree to more relaxed positions. However, this attempt, as expected, did not bring any results.
Given the firm pressure coming from the Russian Federation and the critical economy conditions in Belarus, the mass protests broke out. The official reason for them was the amendments made to a presidential decree on social parasites that had taken effect earlier.
The document introduced a special tax (around $240 annually, while the country’s average wages equal $360 per month) to be paid by the citizens “not participating in the financial state expenditures” on the state’s social sector (this means those whose wages do not include a tax to a social support fund), as well as those unemployed who have not registered yet (there are from 400 to 500 thousand of them in Belarus).
This being said, there were some categories of citizens who did not have to pay the tax. However, the amendments adopted in January, 2017, included as social parasites such categories as women taking care of children up to seven years old in case of their children attending childcare facilities. This step contradicted to the Lukashenko’s previously stated position and was perceived as extremely unfair.
Furthermore, the general decline of the economic situation, lower income levels among the population and quickly mounting unemployment rate became other objective reasons for the protests.
The official statistics did not reflect the changes on the labor market as it considers only those who register at the unemployment office as officially unemployed. However, a low quality of the vacancies offered at the unemployment office and ridiculously low unemployment benefits (from $10 to $22 per month) do not stimulate citizens to become officially unemployed, that, in its turn, leads to the false statistics and decisions based on such statistics. Real unemployment rate in Belarus is at least 6% (against official 1.2%), while part-time employment is even more widespread.
Despite these objective reasons, a key role in the social protests organizing belonged to the opposition and its organizing efforts. The opposing structures, from at least the beginning of the fall, 2016, openly mobilized their social base in order for the protesters to oppose the “social parasite” decree. Therefore, the fact that the high ranking military and the political officials were not ready to face the protests (when the protests started the president Alexander Lukashenko had a short term vacation in Sochi), their scale and power, is very difficult to explain by something else than a special services low quality work. Moreover, throughout the entire crisis of the anti-decree protests (from February,17th, to March,26th, 2017) the Belarusian special forces and security agencies consequently acted as a weakening factor of the high ranking officials positions.
On one hand, they were not able to provide to the president Lukashenko the true information regarding the scale of the protests, its organization structure, leaders, financing and other parameters necessary for the effective combat strategy. This created the preconditions for the strategy of “the dominant force” being used by the authorities, with all political leaders and activists potentially capable to become protest leaders subjected to being detained, including those who did not take any active part in the events at all.
This also led to a massive force use on the date of the main protest, on March, 25th, when several thousand people went on the streets of Minsk for a traditional celebration of the Freedom Day, yet without an official permit to hold a protest. The protest was broken up by the special forces outnumbering the protesters 5 to 7 times.
On the other hand, the special forces, as far as it can be seen from the free sources, provided false information on the essence of the developments to Alexander Lukashenko.
In particular, there were multiple reports providing misinformation about the alleged Ukrainian participation in organizing and financing the protests, about “the training militants” on the territories of Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania in order to organize some provocations in Belarus, financing subversive activities by the “American and German” funds, about “the sleeping terrorist cells” on the territory of Belarus (the case of “the White Legion”) and other “versions” contradicting the reality. All such reports were brought to the attention of the president of Belarus.
This “information” word for word repeated the message of the Russian propaganda, having worked on the creation of the Maidan threat illusion in Belarus since 2015. The misinformation resulted in the corresponding statements made by the president, which, in their turn, led to a negative international resonance. Moreover, it played a key role in the Belarusian authorities being determined to implement the strategy of “the dominant force” to tackle the social protests.
St. Petersburg talks results
There is no direct evidence of the Russia’s participation in the protest organized in Belarus in February and March, 2017. There is also only indirect evidence of the Russian side being involved in providing of the misinformation to president Lukashenko on the nature and scale of the protests. Nevertheless, similar to December, 2010, in the context of the active foreign pressure, the Russian Federation was the beneficiary of the Belarus destabilization.
At first sight, the negotiations of Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin taking place in St. Petersburg on April, 3rd, and lasting for over six hours, led to the numerous concessions made by the Russian side for the benefit of Belarus.
For example, in exchange for Belarus admitting its debt for the Russian gas supply (approximately $724 million) Russia agreed to refinance the Belarusian debts (totaling $740 million) to help the country pay its gas debt.
Moreover, taking into account the increasing prices on the Russian gas in 2017, Russia will provide an opportunity to re-export 6 million tons of oil in 2017, that precisely cover the additional costs for the Russian gas purchasing at a new price ($520–580 million). The overall oil supply to Belarus should be restored to a volume of 24 million tons per annum already in April, this will provide for a profit in Belarusian oil refining sector. Furthermore, Russia refused its demand to be supplied 1 million tons of the oil products per annum for the Russian market at its home price in Belarus.
It is also assumed that the oil supply volume will be aimed at its future prospects in the corresponding agreements, while Belarus will start to get some gas discounts in 2018 and 2019. However, taking into account the expected growth of the gas home prices in Russia, it is possible that a such discounts declaration is just a formality.
Both parties also agreed to renew the working contacts of “Rosselkhoznadzor” and Belarusian “Minselkhozprod” to resolve the disputable issues in Belarusian meat and milk supplied to Russia.
Such results of the meeting, by all means, raise the questions about the price Belarus will have to pay for Russian “concessions”. All the more so, as the president Lukashenko stated when asked about the results of the negotiations, the security cooperation was the main issue of the talks. Furthermore, the parties discussed the position coordination in their foreign policies, including the relations with the European Union and the USA. It is quite important to state that there was no information regarding solving the situation at the Belarusian-Russian border. It would be inappropriate to make guesses in this context. However, as of April, 5th, it is possible to say that Russia has adopted a rather tough stance on the issues that were declared to have been “solved”.
For example, on April, 5th, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Arkady Dvorkovich in the course of the interview announced that the increase of the tax-free oil supply to Belarus from the Russian Federation will be launched on April, 13th, only in the case of Minsk repaying its gas debt. This statement may mean that Belarus has to repay its gas debt using its own resources until April, 13th, regardless of its debt being refinanced by Russia. Therefore, this in fact means the Moscow’s earlier position repeated, while Minsk cannot accept it due to a huge cash deficiency created when implementing this scheme.
On the same day the head of “Rosselknoznadzor” Sergey Dankvert announced his harsh stance on inspecting the Belarusian enterprises producing food. “I do not see any euphoria in the fact that an inspection came, and tomorrow everything will be solved. Everything will be solved given the absolutely equivalent conditions. The way electronic reporting was done here, the same way it should be done by our Belarusian colleagues”, he said. In other words, the results of “Rosselknoznadzor” inspections may turn out to be different from the Minsk expectations.
It is quite obvious that Russia cannot be satisfied with only 50% of the result, that is its “concessions” to Minsk, with the lack of a certain “renumeration”, which, given the current strategic situation, can now only mean the Russian troops stationing on the territory of Belarus.
As an alternative, on April 3, Belarus could consent to sign an agreement to provide its special forces units for counter- terroristic operations on the territories of Belarus and the Russian Federation. If Moscow could gain the necessary concessions from Minsk, then this agreement could be used for creating of a wider range of reasons for paramilitary presence of the Russian special forces (including a rather numerous National Guard of the Russian Federation) on the territory of Belarus. However, there is no information yet regarding this issue having been discussed and sealed by both Russia and Belarus.
In any case, despite the Moscow’s local success in Belarus, the fundamental contradictions between the national interests of Russia and Belarus in various spheres will continue to influence on the bilateral relations dynamics.
Yuri Tsarik, the head of the Russian studies program, Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies (Belarus, Minsk)
Published at EaP Think Bridge Digest.