Union State Unification Day failed to relax tension between Belarus and Russia
Despite the fact that the week began with Union State Unification Day congratulations by the leaders of Belarus and Russia, the following controversies were dominating the bilateral agenda: the ban by the Rosselkhoznadzor on supply of Belarusian boned beef to Russia and the intention of the Belarusian authorities to raise transit tariffs for Russian oil.
On April 2nd, 2019 Belarus and Russia celebrated the day of unity of the peoples of Belarus and Russia, on this day in 1996 a treaty pre-empting the Union State (creating the Community of Belarus and Russia) was signed. On this occasion, the leaders of the two states exchanged congratulations, and the Russian major state pollster, VTsIOM, published poll results, according to which half of Russians did not know about the existence of the Union State and did not see the need for the unification. In Belarus, independent media published analytical reviews mainly expressing general skepticism regarding further integration prospects.
On Union Day, public officials responsible for the Russo-Belarusian integration provided their interpretations of the ongoing processes. That said, their statements reflected the existing tension between the states. For example, the Secretary General of the Union State, Grigory Rapota, noncommittally spoke about integration prospects. Belarusian Ambassador to the Russian Federation Semashko gave an interview to Rossiyskaya Gazeta in which he reiterated Belarus’s claims to Russia regarding her compliance with the commitments within the Union State and within the Eurasian Economic Union. Russian Finance Minister Siluanov spoke about Russia's intention to allocate a USD 600 million loan to Belarus for refinancing her public debt, and, perhaps, the last tranche of the EFSD loan by late April.
Overall, the festive atmosphere had no impact on existing contradictions between the states, moreover, by the end of the week media reported about the ban on beef supplies from Belarus that Russia had introduced. Last year, boned beef export to Russia totaled some USD 310 million, making it a large item in food exports to Russia. Despite unjustified optimism expressed by a Belarusian Agriculture Ministry representative, restrictions on beef exports are likely to have a very negative impact on bilateral trade in 2019, given that most Belarusian suppliers are unlikely to have the capacity to promptly debone beef for export.
On April 5th, Belarus notified Transneft that she intended to raise transit tariffs for Russian oil by 23% (following a planned increase in tariffs as of February 1st). Apparently, such a threat is a part of the Belarusian negotiating strategy on tax manoeuvre.