Minsk slightly freezes Eurasian integration to make Kremlin more cooperative
The Belarusian authorities have failed the Eurasian integration deadlines in order to strengthen their bargaining position with Moscow. Minsk and Moscow have not resolved a wide range of bilateral issues; including the oil and gas dispute. The Belarusian authorities are unlikely to have any principled objections to the interstate integration document and may sign it immediately after Russia makes counter-concessions.
President Lukashenka has approved the draft agreement on the Customs Code of the Eurasian Economic Union as a basis for negotiations.
The Belarusian authorities used the last available argument and slightly froze the Eurasian integration in order to advance their interests in the Kremlin. According to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, President Lukashenka did not sign the Customs Code, but the decree on the negotiations about the draft Code. On December 26th, 2016, in St. Petersburg, four heads of the EEU states, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, signed the EEU Customs Code. By not being present at the ceremony of the signing of the Code, President Lukashenka demonstrated his extreme discontent with the increased uncooperativeness of the Kremlin on crucial issues.
Until now, Belarus and Russia have not resolved several substantial issues: the price of gas and repayment of the due debt from 2016; resumption of the oil supply to the Belarusian refineries; waver of the 'visa barriers’ for foreigners at the Russo-Belarusian border. Last week, the parties only agreed on the tariffs for the Russian oil transit through Belarus. That said, under the pressure from Russian negotiators Minsk was prompted to curb its appetite for tariffs significantly.
Minsk regards the EEU as Putin’s integration project, the symbolic importance of which will increase before the 2018 presidential elections in Russia.
Minsk has no serious objections to the content of the EEU Customs Code and is likely to sign it as soon as the Kremlin makes concessions and guarantees to resume oil supplies and reduces price of the Russian gas.
Yet the Belarusian authorities have not taken any action to prevent massive protests against the decree on ‘social parasites’. On February 26th, 2017, multiple protests against the decree were held in three Belarusian regions in Vitebsk, Baranovichi, Brest and Bobruisk (more than 4 000 people participated in total). Very likely, the authorities, on the one hand, anticipate that the decree will be abolished, and other hand, do not want to take responsibility for decisions either on the decree or on the protests.
It should be noted, that the mass street protests on February 17th, 19th, and 26th, were held in the absence of the president in the country. There are reasons to believe that the authorities did not expect such a massive action. The state propaganda responded tangentially, insisting that protests were unjustified, because ‘the state did not require a lot’, despite the fact, that the protesters primarily complained about the lack of jobs in the country. In addition, the protesters pointed to the unfairness of the requirement to pay the tax for being unemployed as the state could not provide job and money making opportunities, while people were humiliated by the need to prove to the state they were unable to pay the tax.
In the past ten days, there were several protests against the decree, which were characterised by the following: the protesters easily picked up anti-Lukashenka slogans; they eagerly shared their outrage with journalists; many protesters said it was their first time when they took to the streets; protesters were ‘common people’, i.e. not political activists; there were fewer white-red-white flags during these protests than during conventional oppositional actions; politicians, who organised protests (eg on February 26th, by the centre-right coalition and the independent trade union) did not attempt to take the lead, especially in the regions. All this gives a picture of truly popular protests.
While refraining from interfering with the meetings and protest marches, the militia on February 26th attempted to put pressure on the protest organisers in the regions by handing out reports on administrative violations after the events. Other than that, it appears that the local and central authorities are unable to respond to the massive protests against the Decree No 3, including crowded street speeches, numerous signatories of petitions (over 80 000), multiple collective and personal appeals to the authorities, and mass meetings.
That said, the authorities are unable to enforce the Decree No 3 as they do not have sufficient resources to trial some 400 000 people for non-compliance. In addition, the authorities do not have sufficient institutional capacity to exempt all those not liable for the tax from the mailing lists of the Tax authorities. The Belarusian Bar Association will provide free legal consultations on March 1st, 2017 for those wishing be exempt from the tax imposed by the Decree No 3, however, this would only slightly east the tension in society.
In addition, despite concerns expressed by some experts and the leader of the protest in Minsk on February 17th Mikola Statkevich, there were only scarce reports in the Russian media about the protests in Belarus.