Belarus: a dispute between two sovereigns

Only two hours later Alexander Lukashenko was able to give vent to his indignation. After all, the Belarusian President during his long press conference on Friday finally reached the discussion of Russia. In fact, these two States closest allies in the former Soviet Union. But in his tirade, which lasted almost 40 minutes, Lukashenko not a stone was left from the Eastern neighbor. According to him, Russia is afraid that Belarus will turn away from it towards the West, and therefore tries to exert pressure on the country: with gas prices, trade restrictions and the creation of border zones. “Russia kicks our international treaties in the tail and mane” — resented the Belarusian leader. In relation to the head of the Rosselkhoznadzor Sergey Dankvert he even instructed to initiate a criminal case.

Relations between Moscow and Minsk really go into the acute phase, when Russia, starting tomorrow Tuesday, as announced, for the first time since the mid 1990-ies re-enter the border zone along the border with Belarus. However, no matter how great the irritation Lukashenko, as predictable degree of verbal escalation.

In January Belarus suddenly abolished visas for citizens of 80 countries who come to the country for up to five days. This act is the West considered a commendable step towards opening access to the country. Since then, observers expect Russia’s reaction, because his decree Lukashenko has put the Russian government in a difficult position. In the end, foreigners who cross the open border without visas to get into Russia.

Russia’s reaction to Lukashenko are also expected, as pleasant as it contributes to the acceleration of the final decision of the Belarusian President by the international community. Since then, as Russia annexed Crimea and started a fight with the West, Lukashenko is concerned about the preservation of the neutral image. In 2014 he managed to achieve what the EU has lifted restrictions on entry for him, and for more than 150 his closest officials. OSCE observers, in turn, praised the positive developments in the parliamentary elections in September.

At the same time since 2014 worsen relations with Russia. First, Moscow denied the intention to place Belarus air force base. Then Minsk demanded a discount on Russian gas to buy it at the prices of the domestic market, that is 73 dollars per thousand cubic meters instead of $ 132. Since the Minsk unilaterally reduced payments to Gazprom, Russia is limited to its neighbors for delivery of oil at a reasonable price by almost two thirds. It was for Belarusians painful blow, in the end, the export of petroleum products accounts for almost half of total trade with the EU countries. A few days ago Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich assessed the debt of Belarus for gas in nearly $ 500 million.

The Belarusian economy for the second year in a crisis. In 2016, the economy contracted by 2.6%. This year, the Eurasian development Bank expects that Belarus remains the only country of the former CIS, which is undergoing a period of recession. Against this background, close to the Kremlin experts see in flirting with the West, Lukashenko first of all the usual features hardly changed during the two decades of policy towards Russia.

In fact, Lukashenko, in power for 23 years, in the mid 90-ies went to the rapprochement with Moscow, when he determined to Belarus much political future as the Russian Union state. In 1997, when the countries signed the Treaty, Lukashenko has become one of Russia’s most popular foreign politicians. In contrast to then-President Boris Yeltsin, he was associated in Russian with the order and relative economic stability.

Moscow continues to be stubborn

But when at the helm stood Vladimir Putin, Russia had its own Lukashenko as Belarusian President has lost interest in Union with Russia. Since then, any further rapprochement with the neighbor to the East the Minsk autocrat continued to receive generous remuneration. Whether it’s a cheap loans, raw materials at bargain prices or access to the Russian market. Any differences, for example, when Russia cut off Belarus gas or banned the import of Belarusian dairy products, ended with concessions on both sides. Russia promised loans, investment and lower prices, while Belarus was a growing rapprochement.

With the advent of the Ukrainian crisis a sceptical attitude towards Russia is gaining momentum. Registered in Lithuania Institute of socio-economic and political studies survey conducted in June last year, the survey among the population of Belarus has found that choosing between EU membership and rapprochement with Russia, only 42% of respondents would give preference to Russia. In March last year, voted for Russia, 48% of respondents.

Just a bluff?

Nevertheless, the impression is that the Kremlin will hardly worry about the loss of ally. A few weeks ago it was resolved that Russia will take measures against gas prices and Belarus will repay part of its gas debt. However, Gazprom and the Russian government insist on full repayment of the debt and retain the previously agreed price of gas.

Six years ago in the event of such conflict, the two States most interested would go to compromise. Then Belarus eventually agreed to membership in the Eurasian customs Union, in which Russia holds a dominant position. The result: today the country economically even more dependent on Russia than before the accession. So, in 2016, nearly 48% of the exports go to Russia, while the total volume of exported goods decreased by 13%.

Therefore, the rupture of relations with Russia could plunge the country into a state of catastrophic crisis. This fact means for the Kremlin greater freedom of action. The stubbornness of Russia concerning gas debts and the closure of the borders is meant to demonstrate to Belarus that “blackmail is no longer working,” says Gevorg mirzayan, associate Professor, Department of political science of the Financial University under the government of the Russian Federation. Obviously, Putin still not given any comment on the subject, says Lukashenka’s threats nothing more than a bluff.