On April 3rd, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his Belarusian colleague, Alexander Lukashenko, in Saint Petersburg, strangely coincidentally on the same day that Saint Petersburg was shook by an Islamic terrorist attack.
Judging by the statements of the representatives of Russian and Belarusian official circles, the meeting was a success. President Putin emphasized that as of now there are no contentious issues left between Moscow and Minsk. First and foremost, the two sides managed to solve the long-standing conflict over Belarus repaying its debt for Russian natural gas. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dvorkovich stated that Belarus agreed to repay its debt in the amount of $726 million to Russia’s Gazprom.
On March 31st, literally three days before the meeting, Minsk had said that Russia’s statements on gas debt were akin to propaganda. And on the day of the meeting, the need to pay the debt was seen as tribute.
Once the debt is repaid, Russia promises to resume the supply of crude oil to Belarus in the previous volume of 24 million tons per year. The recent reduction in supplies negatively impacted the state of the Belarusian economy and finance, as the 2016 budget showed a GDP drop of 2.6%, of which 0.2-0.3%, according to Belarusian experts, is the price of crude oil.
Russia also promises to ease Belarus’ credit line and, most importantly, existing gas prices will be revised. Gas issues are set to be resolved within 10 days, and Belarus has been promised discounts on gas for 2018-2019, although the size of these discounts is so far unknown.
On April 1st, President Lukashenko congratulated the Russian and Belarusian peoples on the anniversary of the Union State, and lamented that the development of integration has stalled. Between the lines, this reads like a call to make prices for Russian gas for Belarusian consumers to be the same as for domestic Russian ones. Meanwhile, in Belarus itself, there are de facto laws which hinder the entry of Russian business and in particular its participation in the privatization of Belarusian enterprises. In the rhetoric of President Lukashenko, integration thus means deepening unilateral concessions from Russia.
The independent Belarusian experts we’ve surveyed are skeptical as to the results of the Putin-Lukashenko meeting in terms of the Union State’s future. In their opinion, Lukashenko is not going to abandon his strategic course towards the West, thus repeating the situation with Ukraine in the era of President Kuchma whose “multi-vectored” strategy in fact meant “going to the West, but at Russia’s expense.” Some Belarusian opposition liberals understand this. In one article, the author calls on the West to ignore repression, as any actions would only strengthen the positions of the coercive course in the government and the party for rapprochement with Russia. On the other hand, concessions and economic preferences would strengthen the positions of the pro-Western party and lead to a gradual thaw in Belarus’ political regime.
Such calls, however, might be part of President Lukashenko’s strategy. Belarusian pro-Western forces have long been bought off by the government and it cannot be ruled out that Belarusian authorities are attempting to get the West to lift the sanctions against the ruling regime and provide assistance to Belarus. In this case, Lukashenko would acquire the economic resources for finally splitting with Russia. But then the West wold have to assume the burden of responsibility for Belarus and partially maintain it. The economic situation in Belarus is very severe and, without foreign assistance (from Russia or the West) cannot be circumvented. Is the West ready to take responsibility for economically supporting Belarus after its failed policy of rescuing Ukraine? I prefer not to answer this question.
Returning to the results of the two countries’ president’s meeting, let us summarize: genuinely important tactical and operational resolutions were achieved and the most acute problems were relieved. But no strategic decisions have been adopted yet (or at least not announced). I am sure that Moscow fully realizes the treachery of its Belarusian ally which intends to move in the direction of the West. Lukashenko’s regime is not in a situation in which it can dictate terms to Russia. Moscow has probably taken a pause and expects Minsk to correct its own mistakes in bilateral relations. In addition to the repayment of gas debt, there is also ending smuggling sanctioned goods from EU countries and Ukraine, and releasing three arrested pro-Russian scholars.
This tactic of Moscow’s in negotiations probably rather saddened Belarus’ highest leadership. The opposition publication, Khartiya-97, drew attention to the deep sadness on the faces of Belarusian ministers during the meeting.
At the talks in Saint Petersburg, the Belarusian delegation was most likely given very tough conditions and policy preferences were said to be linked to the real steps of the Belarusian leadership. This inspires cautious optimism. President Lukashenko is running out of time and space for maneuver.
Originally published on fort-russ.com