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Losing Russian transit, Belarus looks for European and Chinese alternatives

On 1 February Belarus will raise tariffs for the transit of Russian oil via pipelines crossing its territory by 6.7 per cent. Transit constitutes an important source of revenue for the country, while control of pipeline routes also gives...

On 1 February Belarus will raise tariffs for the transit of Russian oil via pipelines crossing its territory by 6.7 per cent. Transit constitutes an important source of revenue for the country, while control of pipeline routes also gives Minsk a bargaining chip in relations with Moscow.

Seeking to expand its transit role, the government has announced plans to double its revenues from transit and transportation services. The ambitious plans aim to partly offset Russia’s increasing tendency to route cargo and passengers around Belarus.

Regional crises drive growth in transit via Belarus

In 2016 Belarus earned about BYN3.2bn (more than $1.5bn) from transit and transportation services. That meant a growth of 40.8 per cent from 2015. According to an assessment published by Belarus Segodnya, the main media outlet of the Belarusian government, Minsk received $150m for oil transit, $476m for gas transit, and $879m for transportation services in 2016.

The Belarusian government aims to double revenues from transit and transportation services in next 12 years, taking 2016 as the baseline. This conforms with the Concept of Development of the Logistical System of Belarus covering the period through to 2030, which the Belarusian Council of Ministers approved on 28 December.

The newly adopted Concept lists among key priorities the development of transit between Europe and China (including as part of China’s “One Belt, One Road initiative”), integration with EU markets, facilitation of logistical integration between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), as well as integration with global logical and transport companies.

Is it realistic? Belarus’s transit role in various sectors has grown in recent years. Transit flows increased after the start of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, as Kyiv minimised its rail transportation with Russia. On 12 December, Ukraine’s minister for infrastructure, Volodymyr Omelyan, announced that plans to completely halt rail transport to Russia are under consideration. If realised, this would mean that even more passengers and cargo between Ukraine and Russia would cross Belarus.

Anatol Husarau, general director of Belavia, the national airline. Image: CTV.by

A similar situation has developed in air transport. According to official information from Belavia, the Belarusian national airline, transit passengers now account for almost every second passenger on its regular flights. Speaking to TUT.by on 15 December, Anatol Husarau, general director of Belavia, attributed the increase in transit passenger numbers to the war in Eastern Ukraine. According to him, following the halting of air links between Belarus’s neighbours,

the main transit flow for Belavia and the National Airport Minsk is that one between Ukraine and Russia. I think this is about half of the total transit flow. That’s why we began to fly more [frequently] to Ukrainian airports.

The visa-free regime that Minsk introduced for citizens of eighty countries in February 2017 also facilitates passenger transit through Belarus. The probable increase in the duration of the visa-free regime, recently discussed by foreign minister Uladzimir Makei, can be expected to further promote transit.

Nord Stream pipeline threatens Belarusian interests

At the same time, a series of growing problems seriously undermines these transit developments for Belarus. Most acutely, other developments threaten gas transit – more profitable and politically crucial than oil transit. Despite the efforts of Russia’s opponents, especially Poland and Ukraine, Moscow continues to lay additional pipelines as part of the Nord Stream project. The pipeline brings gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic sea, circumventing Belarus and other Eastern European countries.

As early as January 2007, Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenka, called the plans for Nord Stream “Russia’s most foolish project.” His consternation hardly surprises, Minsk traditionally collects not only transit fees from Russian gas exports but also uses its capacities to regulate these transit flows as a leverage in political disputes with the Kremlin.

Minsk may lose more than gas transit. In September, the Moscow-based Kommersant daily newspaper reported that Russian shipbuilding firms were beginning to construct huge railway ferries to connect mainland Russia with the Kaliningrad enclave. If implemented, this move will relieve Russia of dependency on the region’s countries, including Belarus, in its land communication with Kaliningrad enclave.

Belarus can develop its transit – but only together with its neighbours

Integration with Russia and members of Russia-led EAEU very little helps Belarus to attract transit flows. Russia’s effective closing of almost the entire border with Belarus for nationals of third countries in October 2016 dramatically illustrated this, as did the introduction of border control zones in February 2017.

Wider Eurasian integration has brought even fewer results in the sphere of transit and transportation. The head of managing board of Eurasian development bank, Dmitri Pankin,  admitted this at the 12th International conference on Eurasian integration in Moscow in October. He stated that analysis of 30 major projects between EAEU member countries in the transportation sphere revealed a comprehensive lack of coordination.

Bogies exchange operation necessitated by the difference in the track gauge of Belarusian and Polish railways. Image: Nikozhmegov, Wikipedia.

The different width of railway track gauge between the former USSR and countries to the west of them constitutes part of the problem, requiring Belarus to change train undercarriages on the border. Moreover, according to Pankin, while Chinese containers move on Belarusian and Russian railways at a speed 40−50 km/h, after they cross Polish border their speed falls to just 15 km/h and the trains have to be shortened due to different transportation standards.

Minsk looks to solve these issues: after all, it has long desired to become a mediator between the Eurasian and European integration blocks. At a meeting of foreign ministers for Eastern Partnership and Visegrád Group members in Warsaw on 12 April 2017, Belarusian foreign minister Makei emphasised the importance of achieving better interaction between the members of both groups on transportation. According to him, this could be achieved in particular by ensuring better compatibility of standards in the region and ensuring international financing for infrastructural projects in Eastern Europe. Yet so far, no material results have followed from these discussions.

In recent years, Minsk earned more from transit and transportation services, in particular, due to the traffic of passengers and cargo which had earlier circulated directly between Ukraine and Russia. However, the situation with transit looks precarious for Minsk: Moscow works to decrease major gas transit flows via Belarus, establishing links to the Kaliningrad enclave that bypass Belarus, and otherwise sidelining Minsk and the entire region in its communications links to European countries.

The losses for Minsk from these Kremlin policies will be considerable both economically and politically. The Belarusian government apparently wants to compensate by providing Belarusian transit routes for new passenger and cargo flows’ between regional countries, the EU and China. And, last but not least, Moscow’s attitude will inexorably further alienate Minsk from the Kremlin.

Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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