Belarus Reinstates Customs Control on the Border with Russia: the End of the Eurasian Union?
The new food war between Belarus and Russia may signal the end the Eurasian Economic Union. In early December Belarus and Russia unofficially resumed customs control on the border, which led to Belarus responding to a Russian imposed embargo against Belarusian meat and dairy products.
The food war shows that the Eurasian Economic Union, expecting to officially launch on 1 January 2015, will be primarily a political project despite its name. Trade wars will remain the norm in relations between the two countries, in violation of numerous international agreements concluded between Belarus and Russia.
The New Economic War
Over the last decade, economic trade wars have been an important feature of relations between Russia and Belarus. They affect trade in various sectors – from milk and sugar producers to oil traders and airlines. These wars include conflicts over energy supply deliveries to Belarus that exploded in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2010. In 2009, Russia banned the import of Belarusian dairy products.
The new food war will be less visible in the media than for instance the Uralkali and Belaruskali's divorce, but can still significantly undermine the basis of regional economic integration. Although officially Minsk denies it, multiple reports suggest that in early December the Belarusian authorities resumed customs control on the border with Russia.
Now customs are functioning on both sides of the border Read more
Now customs are functioning on both sides of the border which will have a negative impact on trade between the two countries. Some trucks spend up to eight hours at customs on the border, which Belarus and Russia previously eliminated back in 2011 by creating the Customs Union.
The Belarusian authorities say that they reinstated border control to help Russians identify goods which remain under Russia's sanctions. However, the recently imposed customs control has all the appearances of being a response to the food war launched by the Kremlin on 24 November. Then Russia has imposed an embargo on the importation of goods for nine Belarusian meat processing plants.
Since then, the number of Belarusian enterprises that fell under the Russian ban increased to 23. Russia also checks trucks sent from Belarus through Russia to Kazakhstan and other countries for potential banned goods secretly destined for Russia.
During the first five days of monitoring the border, the Belarusian authorities initiated three administrative investigations on the export of goods from Belarus to Russia and 15 more for imports from Russia to Belarus.
The recent iteration of the trade war was very costly to Belarus. According to the government’s estimates, Belarus lost $160m during the first five days of the embargo alone, a sizeable hit for a small economy. Alexander Lukashenka said that ‘the Russian authorities' behaviour was not just surprising, but dispiriting. Indeed, their actions threatened to dismantle all of the agreements on the Customs Union’.
The government conducts negotiations with their Russian counterparts almost daily, but so far these talks have failed. On 10 December, Belarusian senior official Siarhiej Rumas announced that both parties agreed to solve the crisis during a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission, but time will show when the embargo will be actually lifted.
What the Kremlin Said and What It Means
Russia has two official complaints against Belarus.
First, Russia has declared that Belarusian meat and dairy products contain antibiotics, salmonella and listeria and are therefore dangerous for consumption. The Phytosanitary Service of Russia linked this with the purchase of cheap raw materials from Canada.
Secondly, Russia accused Belarus of smuggling Western goods into the country which are subject to sanctions. Officially these goods are in transit from Belarus to Kazakhstan through Russian territory, but in practise they end up in Russia. Russia is now forcing trucks with goods are headed to Kazakhstan to pass through checkpoints on the Russian border.
The true motives of the Kremlin’s policy remain obscure Read more
In practise, Russia lacks legal grounds for imposing these kind of sanctions Belarus. Russia's border checks alone cannot confirm the purportedly dangerous nature of Belarusian goods. The requirement that the products coming from Belarus to Kazakhstan through the territory of Russia should pass through border controls is also a flagrant violation of the terms of the Customs Union. Therefore, Lukashenka's recent statement that "we are not puppies to be taken up by the scruff of the neck" is not without merit.
The true motives of the Kremlin’s policy remain obscure. Minsk-based financial analyst Siarhiej Čaly cites several potential reasons: to demonstrate that Russian sanctions against the EU agricultural sector are working, to protect their own producers and improve the trade balance or simply just to punish Lukashenka for making money on Russia’s problems. Whatever the logic of the actions, the latest trade war succeeded in reaching these goals.
Are Countries Dropping the Eurasian Economic Union?
The Belarusian authorities believed that the Customs Union could deprive Russia of the means to carry out this kind of low-level economic warfare. But at the beginning of the conflict, the Kremlin basically ignored the rules of the Customs Union. Officially the Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection, not the authorities themselves, began inspecting shipments on the Belarusian-Russian border. The Kremlin often uses this institution as a political tool to conduct trade wars.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities are trying to fix their own economic problems. Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Rusy proposed to establish a unified supervisory institution, as he explained ‘not to have to constantly prove that I'm not bald’. While the countries have the same safety standards, they have not yet created a single certificate that would eliminate these kinds of issues.
However, even the patching up of gaps in the legislation of each country cannot guarantee their peaceful economic coexistence. The treaty establishing the Eurasian Economic Community is silent with regards to any possible sanctions for violating the rules of the economic union. Therefore it is not surprising if countries will continue to break the rules in the future.
For Belarus, this conflict if even more painful because of the shrinking market of the Eurasian Economic Community. The economic crisis in Russia reduces imports from Belarus and has led to the Belarusian ruble's further devaluation.
Belarusians joined the Eurasian Economic Union to become richer. Now as Russia is itself struggling economically because of falling oil prices many wonder whether Belarus made the right strategic choice.
War of Ideology: The Ukrainian Conflict Polarizes Belarusians
The Ukrainian conflict has exposed growing ideological differences among Belarusians.
When Volha Krapotsina was distributing anti-Russian leaflets in Hrodna, a fellow citizen, who empathised with the Russian side, reported her to the police. In Minsk, while some distributed stickers “We support the recognition of Novorossiya” others vandalised cars with Russian licence plates.
Belarusians clash in the social media, take their views to the streets, and even travel to fight in Ukraine.
At the time when the war in Ukraine divides Belarusians, patriotic initiatives that avoid accentuating ideological differences hold great importance.
Seeking Freedom and a Fun New Year’s
The first stream of Belarusians crossed into Ukraine to cheer for the Euromaidan in late November 2013. Politicians, activists, and ordinary citizens waved the white-red-white flags, banned by the Lukashenka regime and used as the symbol of the Belarusian opposition.
“People were driven by a desire to feel free… to participate in the making of independence, even if not of their own country,” Valiancin Tsishko of Maladzechna told Belarus Digest. Tsishko left Kiev a day before the outbreak of violence on 19 January.
“It is vital for me to protect the aspirations of those who are close to me in spirit and support people’s desire for freedom and liberty,” Dzianis Ivashyn, a civic activist from Hrodna who regularly visits Ukraine, said. “Besides, I have both Belarusian and Ukrainian roots. Ukraine and Belarus are my motherlands.”
Some Belarusians arrived in Kiev simply to celebrate the New Year and have fun with friends. Happy Tours (Vitsebsk) advertised a two-night “New Year on the Maidan” in December 2013. Priced at $180, the trip included a walking tour of Kiev, a night on the Maidan, and a visit to Kyiv Pechersk Lavra.
Ideological Struggles at Home and Abroad
Before the conflict turned violent, every firth Belarusian viewed it in the positive light, according to IISEPS March 2014 analysis. After the bloodshed, however, people began taking sides.
Monthly keyword trends provided by the search engine Yandex, popular in Belarus, illustrate this dynamic. Anti-Ukrainian queries spiked in searches from the Belarusian territory in February-March 2014. The popularity of phrases such as "Banderovtsy" and "Ukrainian fascists" shows just how much Russian propaganda affects Belarusians' views.
“Who owns Crimea” has become a marker for establishing and maintaining interpersonal contacts and communities,” said Alyaksandra Dynko, a Belarusian journalist who visited Kiev as the conflict unfolded. Two uncompromising views have emerged. Support for Ukrainian territorial integrity, as well as the mainstream and far right groups fighting toward this aim, predominates among the Belarusian opposition.
Many political activists see the war as a noble fight against Russian imperialism. Youth organisation Malady Front openly supports the decision of some Belarusians to fight against the pro-Russian separatists. On its web site, the organisation went as far as to celebrate the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which in 1943-1944 not only sought Ukraine's independence but also killed nearly 100,000 Poles in Volyn and eastern Galicia.
Pro-Russian sympathies remain popular among the masses, however. Ultranationalist groups such as the Russian National Unity have successfully recruited Belarusians to fight on the side of the separatists.
Some Belarusians have joined the initiatives with self-explanatory names such as Anti-Maidan and Orange Hunters. The identity of Belarusians who chose rally behind the pro-Russian initiatives may surprise some.
For example, the organiser of Anti-Maidan's VKontakte group is the 18-year-old son of Dzmitry Us, who served a prison term after running for president in 2010 and participating in post-election protests in Minsk. Reacting to the revelation about his son, Us told Radio Svoboda in October that the Anti-Maidan protest plans in are "nonsensical and delirious."
As IISEPS surveys of public opinion demonstrate, the Belarusian population is about evenly divided on the ideological dimension. In the October 2014 poll, 25% of respondents said they would take up arms to protect Belarus were Russia to use force and seek annexation. When the question was instead posed about the NATO threat, an identical proportion (25%) said they would take up arms against the Western military block. In each case, only 40% of respondents said they would try to adapt to the situation.
Ideological Disagreement is Everyday Life
Strong convictions on both sides create friction, which further polarises the population.
In October, Evgeny Novikov’s program "Human Rights – a look into the world" disappeared from the Belarusian state TV channel "Belarus 24." According to Novikov’s blog, his attitude toward the situation in Ukraine that is “ruled by banderovtsy and neonazi” was to blame. The government views such an attitude as far too radical.
The authorities also punish the overzealous supporters of the Ukrainian side. For example, the police did not allow the displays of the Ukrainian flag at the November 21 concert of Ukrainian band Okean Elzy.
Belarusians also increasingly resort to vigilante tactics that belie their support for one or the other side in the conflict.
In September, Hrodna’s Volha Krapotsina placed leaflets reading "Return the Crimea! Hands off Ukraine" and "Shame to the traitor who holds the tricolor flag. Putin will shake your hand as he is picking you up on a bayonet" on the windshields of cars with Russian numbers.
Not the police, but a fellow Belarusian – who clearly held the opposite view of Russia – detained Krapotsina. The man said he paid respect to the local policeman who had earlier solicited his help. On 18 November, Krapotsina received both a $400 fine and an outpouring of support from Belarusians who shared her convictions.
The diverging perceptions of Belarusian Mihal Zhyzneuski, one of the first victims of the January clashes between Maidan protesters and the police, prove that heroes for some are fascists for others.
Zhyzneuski's participation in Maidan resulted in a posthumous order of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes (Geroj Niabesnaj Sotni) award and a memorial at the site of his death in Kiev. Yet at home In Homel some people call him “a bandit and fascist,” his mother said.
Who Benefits from the Radicalised Masses?
In the long run, radicalisation of the Belarusian society as well as the possible return of the Belarusians now fighting in Ukraine on both sides of the conflict might weaken the stability of the Belarusian regime.
In the short run, however, the government stands to benefit from the growing ideological polarisation. It could win supporters among moderate voters reacting against the ultranationalist views of either the pro-Ukrainian or the pro-Russian sides.
In this context, all the more important become civic initiatives such as distributing Belarusian vyshyvankas (embroideries with national elements) and singing Belarusian folk songs. Such initiatives can bring people together around independent Belarus without accentuating their ideological differences.
Alyaksandra Dynko views these initiatives as the society’s attempt at self-preservation. The authorities’ moderate support for such initiatives indicates that the regime may also like to stem radicalisation and contain the fringe elements, she said.