Belarus has obtained gas and oil concessions from Russia: but what did Russia get in exchange?
After a meeting with Alexander Lukashenka on 3 April in Saint Petersburg, Vladimir Putin announced that all oil and gas issues between the two countries had been resolved.
The media in Belarus reported on the Kremlin's concessions extensively. However, what Minsk will provide in return remains unclear. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka provided a clue when he said that the summit dealt more with security than with energy issues.
Moscow indeed wants closer collaboration with Minsk in the realms of security and foreign policy. On 31 March, before the summit, Russia's Security Council held a meeting on Russian-Belarusian relations. The two governments clearly chose to resolve the issues critical to each of them: Russian gas and oil supplies for Minsk, Belarusian security and foreign policy cooperation for Moscow.
Nevertheless, numerous other issues continue to undermine relations with Russia. Now, even leading experts in the Belarusian government doubt the utility of Moscow-led Eurasian integration in its current form.
Horse trading between Minsk and Moscow
Assessments of the results of the Petersburg summit differed starkly among Belarusian and Russian media sources and analysts. For instance, the Russian liberal daily Kommersant argued that Moscow had ceded almost every possible position, and implied that Lukashenka came out on top. Meanwhile, many Belarusian analysts, such as Dzyanis Melyantsou, insisted that Minsk must have given something valuable to Moscow in exchange.
The media reported extensively on what the Kremlin agreed to give to Minsk: Russia will offer Belarus a discount on gas beginning in 2018 and resume petroleum supplies to Belarus at previous volumes.
However, a clue to what Minsk agreed to in exchange was provided by Lukashenka himself when he announced that national security issues were the most important subject of discussion at the summit.
Although this solution to the dispute had already been voiced last summer, it was only now that Russian leadership made the proposal. Two major international developments are likely to have influenced Putin's move.
The first is the geopolitical situation in the region. With Russia's hopes that Trump would be more acquiescent dashed and tensions in Eastern European as high as ever, Moscow needs a less recalcitrant Minsk to deal with numerous urgent problems.
In particular, Moscow needs Minsk to host a massive military power show, the military exercise West-2017. So far, Belarusian officials have downplayed the confrontational aspects of the exercise, emphasising the necessity of transparency. Minsk is extremely averse to further challenging Russia's opponents in this way.
Second, Moscow would probably like to put a stop to Minsk's latest attempt to bring non-Russian oil to the region through a regional cooperation scheme. Minsk has already succeeded in quietly bringing in Azerbaijani oil, and has recently started to purchase Iranian oil as well. In both endeavours it collaborated with Ukraine; in the latter it may even have had the help of Poland. The current Russian leadership has bones to pick with both these countries.
However problematic the results of these efforts may seem at the moment, they are not hopeless. The efficiency of such oil schemes could increase if Belarus succeeds in making its diversification attempts a collective project undertaken together with other countries of the region. Minsk understands this: its deals with Ukraine and contacts with other countries prove it.
We will soon complete the modernisation of our refineries … As soon as this is finished, the output of white oil products at our refineries will reach 95%, so the problem of petroleum [imports] will disappear by itself. We will be able to buy oil from anywhere, recycle it within the country, and make appropriate profits. The Russians also realise this.
Belarusian officials doubt the value of Eurasian integration
The most recent oil and gas dispute between the two countries lasted more than a year. Over the course of the feud, the Belarusian government took several eyebrow-raising demarches: Lukashenka refused to participate in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) summits in December, and Belarus would not sign the Customs Code of the EAEU last year.
The director of the government-affiliated Economy Institute of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, Valery Belski, harshly criticised Eurasian integration in an article written on 13 March for the largest Belarusian internet portal Tut.by. As he proclaimed, 'the value of the Eurasian Union for Belarus decreases if the prices for energy resources are not made closer [to domestic Russian prices]'.
This sentiment neatly encapsulates the conclusions the Belarusian government is drawing from its dispute with the Kremlin. For instance, Belarusian prime minister Andrei Kabyakou on 7 March emphasised that the difference in natural gas prices paid in Belarus and Russia had grown from 38% in early 2014 to 110% in 2016.
This makes Belarusian enterprises less competitive, as their products become more expensive than Russian ones. And that, of course, contradicts the agreements on Eurasian integration.
Disputes between Minsk and Moscow increase
The gas dispute also brought other matters of contention to the forefront: reduced oil supplies, disputes over Belarusian food exports, Russia's border checks with Belarus, replacement of Belarusian details in Russian industrial products, limiting access of Belarusian firms to Russian defence programmes, etc all hinder bilateral relations. Many of these problems have been festering for years.
What's more, Minsk points out that many of these issues are of a political rather than economic nature. Agricultural exports to Russia is a case in point. In November 2016, Rosselkhoznadzor, the Russian government agency which oversees agriculture, announced that it had discovered bacteria in meat imported from the Belarusian Vitsebsk Broiler Poultry Factory. It promptly banned all products from the firm on the Russian market.
In February 2017, however, Rossekhoznadzor allowed products from the same Vitsebsk firm to be presented at the Prodexpo-2017 exhibition in Moscow and awarded them prizes for high quality. Nevertheless, Rosselkhoznadzor refused to remove restrictions on Vitsebsk poultry products in Russia.
Similar problems exist elsewhere. As anonymous representatives of the Belarusian defence industries commented to Kommersant daily, 'in spite of all agreements, we remain strangers in the Russian state defence order. And the state defence order in Russia includes many categories of products: from table lamps and fabrics to trolleybuses.'
In short, Belarusian-Russian relations suffer from more fundamental problems than simply trade disputes between close allies. At the Saint Petersburg summit, the two governments resolved the most urgent issues in the energy and security spheres. However, numerous other problems persist, despite long years of declared integration. For this, the political attitudes of the Kremlin bare much of the blame. New disputes between Minsk and Moscow are sure to arise in the future.
Lukashenka and Putin, justifying repression, EEU economy back on track – Belarus state press digest
Lukashenka and Putin agreed to resolve all critical problems in bilateral relations, including the oil and gas dispute. Belarus realises its largest ever investment project abroad – a potash plant in Turkmenistan.
The official media resoundingly condemns protests against the 'social parasite tax'. Lukashenka approves the creation of a public security monitoring system in Belarus.
The number of young men attempting to avoid military conscription in Mahilioŭ Region increases. Belarus tractor manufacturers continue to face difficulties. The Eurasian Economic Union recovers from economic recession.
This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.
Lukashenka and Putin agree to resolve all critical problems in bilateral relations. The leaders of the two countries met in St. Petersburg on 3 April, writes Zviazda. According to Putin, both sides agreed to settle the oil and gas dispute within 10 days. They have been able to reach a compromise and are offering mutual concessions for the 2017-2019 period. Russia has also agreed to refinance Belarus's existing debt to the Russian Federation, promising to re-examine the ban on Belarusian food exports to Russia. Lukashenka, however, informed the public that: 'we did not start talks with oil and gas issues. The main focus was the security of our states… We agreed on cooperation in security'.
Belarus completes its largest investment project abroad. Lukashenka visited Turkmenistan on 30 March for the inauguration of the Garlyk mining and processing plant, which will produce potash fertiliser. The project was fully realised by Belarusian specialists and became the largest project of its kind ever completed abroad by Belarus. According to Lukashenka, Belarus has demonstrated to the world that it can do anything; this is because Belarus has not squandered the powerful scientific and technological potential it inherited from the USSR. The plant is expected to produce 1.5m tonnes of potash annually and become one of the world’s largest exporters.
Domestic politics and security
Major media holding Belarus Segodnia published a variety of material criticising the activities of the opposition during the 'social parasite tax' protests and Freedom Day celebration on 25 March. It wrote that the demonstrations were illegal and Minsk residents should not get caught up in provocation; Belarusians should instead attend other cultural and sporting events held on the same day.
The newspaper published numerous 'letters to the editor' condemning the protests Read more
The journalists emphasised the professionalism of riot police and accused the organisers of the demonstrations of fabricating footage for the world media rather than discussing public problems. The newspaper published numerous 'letters to the editor' condemning the protests. It also interviewed several refugees from the Donbass residing in Belarus, who argued that Belarusians should value the peace and stability in their country and not engage in protests.
There will be no colour revolution in Belarus. Colour revolutions stem from foreign interference in the form of various non-governmental foundations and non-profit organisations, writes Narodnaja Hazieta. In such countries, governments themselves were highly dependent on foreign aid. In Belarus, however, the situation is fundamentally different. The democratically elected president was quick to restrict the operations of such organisations.
The state has also managed to maintain control of the media and humanitarian sectors from the get go. A whole generation of Belarusians has been raised in a country without a massive influx of imported political values. The established social contract between the state and society has created a powerful social base which supports the authorities. The Belarusian economy, although experiencing transitional difficulties, can hardly be called weak, due to its industrial giants and booming IT sector.
Lukashenka approves the creation of a public security monitoring system in Belarus. Such systems operate in many countries, where they have already proved their effectiveness, writes Belarus Segodnia. The introduction of automated processes of threat detection and data analysis will significantly increase the level of public security. In addition, the system will go a long ways towards reducing the amount of workers and resources involved in relevant areas, thus optimising the structure of state bodies. According to Interior Minister Ihar Šunievič, video surveillance will be installed in 2,000-4,000 places within a year or two. For private businesses and citizens, this will certainly not be an imposition, but rather an opportunity.
Number of young men attempting to dodge the draft grows in Mahilioŭ Region. According to the regional prosecutor's office, this trend can be explained by inadequate military and patriotic education for youth, reports Belarus Segodnia.
Some districts provide such education on paper only. Others do not organise meetings between military officers and young people at all, and schoolchildren never visit military bases. Many schools lack the facilities for pre-army training, such as shooting ranges, training camps, arms models, and more. On top of that, police and military conscription offices often fail to pursue conscripts who do not declare themselves following personal notification, and military bodies do not cooperate enough with the police.
Belarus tractor producers continue to face difficulties. Despite the fact that the Belarusian tractor giant MTZ held 80% of the Russia market in 2012, in 2016 it only managed to retain around 40%, reports Sielskaja Hazieta. Since 2013, Russian producers have developed rapidly, tripling production by 2016.
For this reason, Belarus is trying to mitigate its dependence on the Russian market – an endeavour president Alexander Lukashenka is personally involved in. For example, after his visit to Pakistan in 2016, the country purchased 25% more Belarusian tractors than it had in 2015. Despite these difficulties, MTZ hopes to increase sales and has recently presented its products in the UK.
Eurasian Economic Union recovers from economic recession. Zviazda interviewed the Minister for Integration and Macroeconomics of the Eurasian Economic Commission, Tatiana Volovaya. In 2016 the GDP of the EEU decreased by only 0.1% – much better than the 2.3% drop in 2015. Moreover, the GDPs of Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have grown.
Trade within the EEU has grown since January 2016 and was 38% higher in January 2017. The Eurasian Economic Commission predicts 0.9% growth in the EEU in 2017. It expects the positive trend to continue in 2018-2019. As for Belarus, it shows the highest potential in metallurgy, machine building, the chemical industry, and logistical services.
The state press digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.