Belarusian Officials Criticise Eurasian Integration
On 31 October Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka, while speaking in parliament, claimed that Belarus was suffering losses due to systemic exemptions in the Russian-dominated Customs Treaty and Common Economic Space.
These losses might increase – in January Russia is introducing a recycling tax on cars. The losses for Belarusian trucks producers might allegedly reach as much as $350m.
The Belarusian government is not only quarreling verbally with Kremlin, it is changing the conditions of its agreements with Russia or refusing to effectively implement them – for example by ignoring its obligations on privatisation, which Moscow imposed as a precondition of loans.
Moreover, Minsk constantly discusses the dangers of energy dependence on Russia and displays little interest in Putin's further Eurasian integration plans.
Nuclear Power Replaces Russian Gas
Belarusian officials openly discuss their grievances concerning Russia. For example, member of Belarusian Parliament Dzmitry Kharytonchyk said, “We hope that after 1 January, when the signed agreements will enter into force, they [Belarusian enterprises] will get an opportunity to buy the necessary fuel and energy resources at prices found on the internal Russian market.”
Meanwhile, the state-run ONT TV reported, “the Government calls dependence on national enterprises on Russian gas “dangerous.” It assured that the situation would change after the launch of a Belarusian nuclear power plant and the volume of Russian gas used would be reduced by a third.
Lukashenka himself leads this wave of criticism. In early October, according to the Interfax news agency, Lukashenka said, "Putin has promised – beginning 1 January – to remove all exemptions and restrictions with trade. Otherwise, we will not be able to stay in the Customs Union, since we would not see any economic benefits from it.”
More bluntly, Lukashenka hopes that Russia will abolish its excise tax on Belarus export duties for petroleum products produced from Russian oil. He claimed that Belarus annually pays into the Russian state budget about four billion US dollars, and if not for these hefty payments, “we would already have built the Emirates here.”
Since 2011, Belarus has been importing duty-free Russian oil to reproduce at its own refineries. These petroleum products partly are sold to third countries. For these exports Minsk pays duties directly to the Russian sate budget: in 2012 – $3.8bn, in 2011 – $3.07bn. Meanwhile, Minsk believes that Moscow should not demand this money from them as Russia owes Belarus something for being its close ally.
The Belarusian government's expectation that Russia should pay for cooperation is predictable. Three years after establishing the Customs Union in July 2010, it looks contradictory. Most importantly, the negative consequences of the economic union have an impact on ordinary people and threaten to foment discontent.
It is precisely this union that has caused Belarusians to lose the opportunity to buy used cars in the EU, as average car prices have been increased by 40%. In addition, they have faced rising prices for petrol and food. The Ministry of the Economy explained that prices have grown because of the need to “equalise prices with Customs Union countries.”
Belarus joined the Customs Union in order to maintain Russian markets for Belarusian products – first and foremost for its food products and automotive industry. Yet hopes for expansion have not materialised. Belstat reported that in January-August, industrial production in Belarus fell in comparison to the previous year by 4.8%, and the profitability of enterprises fell by 37.2%.
Of course, Belarus has received benefits from membership in the Customs Union in the form of discounted prices for Russian oil and gas, as well as other economic preferences which have been granted mostly by Russia. Furthermore, Minsk entered the Union after facing economic difficulties in 2010 and Belarus had no choice but to join in order to get urgently needed loans from the Anti-Crisis Fund of the EurAzES.
Ideological Differences with Russia
Trade with Russia makes up about 47% per cent of Belarusian foreign trade, while the share of Kazakhstan in Belarusian foreign trade is approximately 1%. Although the volume of trade with Russia is gradually decreasing, Russia still dominates Belarusian foreign trade and is the major source of support for Belarusian state. Hence, Minsk had little choice but to accept the Russian-designed Union.
Russia evidently wished to create the Union extending beyond Belarus. An expert of the Polish Center for Eastern Studies, Adam Eberhardt, when talking on Polish Radio emphasised, “for Moscow, the Customs Union remains an integration priority, as it is important to demonstrate other states, e.g., Ukraine, that it is not such a bad idea to cooperate with Russia.”
Actually, the Kremlin's plans go even further than this. Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, the constituent members of the Customs Union, agreed to establish by 1 January 2015 the Eurasian Economic Union. In writing about the Common Economic Space in 2011, then Russian Prime Minister Putin spoke of a “new integration project for Eurasia” and the possibilities for “change in the geopolitical and geo-economic configuration of the entire continent.”
Putin resorts to the Eurasian project to find a new place for diminishing importance of Russia. Read more
Putin resorts to the Eurasian project to find a new place for diminishing importance of Russia. Renowned philosopher Lev Gumilev – popular not only with some Putin's advisers but also in Kazakhstan – defended Eurasianism as the grand strategy for Russian national development. He said, “If Russia can be saved, she can do it only as a great Eurasian power and it will happen only through Eurasianism.” Eurasian ideology is growing stronger. So it was not entirely a shock when, at the Customs Union summit in October, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan discussed the possible membership of Turkey in the economic bloc.
Belarus, on the contrary, does not have any serious proponents of Eurasianism as far as the projects ideas of Slavic-Turkic cooperation are concerned. An ideologist of the Belarusian regime, Siarhei Kizima, openly expressed his doubt in the state-owned daily Zvyazda that Turkey could join the Union. Belarus sees itself marginalised in such continental designs, moreover these designs might dangerously expose it to global confrontations.
If Lukashenka ever had an ideology, it was that of Soviet restoration. He has little affinity for Eurasian ideas. Belarusian and Russian leaders follow different geopolitical visions and hold different worldviews.
Belarus and Russia: Marriage of Convenience
The differences between Moscow and Minsk are not verbal ones. The Belarusian leadership clearly is challenging Moscow whenever the Kremlin threatens its vital interests. Recently, it not only detained the CEO of Uralkali, at move that irritated many in the powerful quarters of the Russian business community and government. Minsk has also managed to change the terms of its loans received from Russian-controlled Anti-Crisis Fund of the EurAzES.
Initially, Moscow gave these loans with the condition that wide-scale privatisation would be carried out in Belarus. Then the privatisation clause was transformed into more humble plans for five integration projects which would effectively takeover the best, most profitable Belarusian enterprises by Russian businessmen. Among these Belarusian businesses were MAZ, MZKT, Integral, Peleng, Hrodna-Azot.
The negotiations, however, led to no tangible results and after the Uralkali affair, Russian truck producer KAMAZ said it had no plans for a merger with MAZ.
Essentially, relations between the Belarusian and Russian regimes are more a marriage of convenience than a genuine partnership or union of like-minded political elites. Calling Lukashenka's regime “pro-Russian” does not reflect the realities of the huge differences between Minsk and Moscow in almost every regard.
Top Officials Dismissed, The October Revolution, Belarusians in Antarctica – Belarus State TV Digest
Last week the state TV channel 1 devoted much attention to high-level dismissals in the Belarusian government and the celebration of the 1917 October Bolshevik Revolution. On this occasion the state opened over 50 nurseries, houses, sport and health centres and gifted them to residents.
Belarusians, alongside Russians, entered the international arena where they will participate in talks on Antarctica. The 6th Belarusian expedition will soon begin and, it is just a matter of time, according to State TV, before various countries will start exploiting the riches of Antarctic lands.
Lukashenka dismisses top officials for failure to implement his orders. State television covered the dismissals of several high level officials for their failure to modernise Borisovdrev – a major woodworking factory not far from Minsk. Lukashenka angrily scolded officials for their failure to manage massive investments directed by the state at modernising the enterprise. The Minsk regional governor, head of state concern in charge of woodworking and a deputy head of presidential administration all lost their jobs. State TV showed in detail how neglected the enterprise was and how much money was directed at its modernisation.
The October Revolution celebrated in Belarus. According to one reporter, Belarus has taken the best traditions and experience from its Soviet past, and cultivated them as a sovereign country. Each year, around the anniversary of the October Revolution, the authorities launch important social projects, such as nurseries, schools, sport and medical centres. This year, in total, the state opened over 50 new socially-oriented facilities.
State TV showed a happy family that on this particular occasion was getting keys for their own brand new flat. The report pointed out that also over 300 families, who in most of cases had many children, got flats as well. This helped them to solve one of the main problem in their life – housing. The coverage also showed also an older Belarusian lady who finally would not have to live alone any longer. Thanks to the opening of temporary shared accommodation, she and other elderly people can stay together over the winter, but perhaps even longer.
New schools, nurseries, sport centres, train – all for ordinary Belarusians. TV devoted more attention to the new facilities opening as "labour gifts" to Belarusians which are to be seen as proof of Belarus' successful development. A new Swiss-made electric train that started operating between Minsk and a town near the city was portrayed as an example. “Ordinary passengers have already appreciated Swiss punctuality, reliability and speed”, a reporter commented. The train is not only for that particular region, but rather another investment in the country, worth a few million dollars. This and others gifts that the authorities gave to Belarusians on this occasion became the object of real festivities for several Belarusian regions whose residents will be using them on a daily basis.
International investors to modernise Belarusian companies. Another journalist reported on the session of the National Council on Labour and Social Matters. The first vice prime-minister, Uladzimir Siemashko, stated that long-term the modernisation of Belarusian enterprises should take place with the participation of international investors. The politician specified that Belarus is already open for international loans. The country has taken a loan from the Chinese investors to modernise and upgrade its cement production, but also a 28-year loan for the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Belarus.
Brotherly relations between Minsk and Kiev. A Belarusian state TV journalist showed celebrations surrounding the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Kiev from Nazi Germany. TV reminded that on 6 November the Soviet army entered the city and aftermath the heavy fighting and a battle for Dnieper, it forced its enemies to abandon the city. On this occasion, Ukrainian diplomats organised celebrations in Minsk. Mikhail Jezhel, the head of the official Ukrainian delegation to Belarus, talked to journalists about very good relations between both countries. In his words, “from relations as partners we have now come to have brotherly relations”.
Belarus is interested in developing relations with Turkmenistan. Lukashenka visited Ashkhabad earlier this month. State TV underscored how positive relations between both countries are at present. It mentioned that trade turnover between them has increased five times over. They are also co-operating in the areas of education with more Turkmen students coming to Belarus. State TV also emphasised that the Turkmeni head of state, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, was meeting Lukashenka as a friend. Minsk, it was reported, also supports the transition of Turkmenistan from a raw materials-based economy to one of innovation and diversity.
The 6th Belarusian expedition goes to Antarctica. Three people from Belarus will take part in the expedition. Belarus plans to establish the first Belarusian polar Antarctic base. A state TV reporter spoke of the importance of signing an inter-governmental agreement between Belarus and Russia in March 2013. In his words, it has significantly strengthened the position of both countries as actors on the international arena. Exploitation of natural resources is currently forbidden there. “But it is a matter of time, you do not have to be a prophet to know that mining, sooner or later, will begin”, the journalist concluded.
How to deal with the increasing costs of energy? According to state television not only Belarus is having problems with energy and heating. State TV researched the situation in Estonia. According to experts, the prices for these utilities have risen by 25-40% over the last five years there. In particular, when the authorities privatised the state company, the prices faced considerably higher increases. This all occurred despite the fact that that the real income of Estonians has practically remained the same. It is rather difficult to deal with the increasing prices, but increases in energy efficiency are feasible. Most of Estonia's energy infrastructure emerged from the Soviet Union. State TV went on to compare prices for the energy in France and Estonia, making prices in Belarus looked quite favourable.
Moscow is celebrating a parade of the Soviet army. Belarusian state television reported on the reconstruction of the parade of the Soviet army that took place on 7 November 1941 in the Red Square prior to the fights near Moscow with fascist forces. In the words of the reporter covering the story, the whole event commemorated one of the most memorable parades in Soviet history. Journalist explained that back in those days, one of the main goals of the parade was to increase the morale of the army and of everyone throughout the whole country.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). 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.