Belarusian government shifts responsibility for economic failures to Customs Union
Speaking at a joint session of the National Assembly’s two chambers, First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko said, “In view of imperfections in the Customs Union and Common Economic Space’s legislative framework, with its numerous exceptions and exemptions, we bear heavy costs and often lose Customs Union markets”.
The Belarusian government aspires to shift the blame for the economic failures onto external factors. Irrelevant of the Customs Union’s imperfect legislation, Belarus has gained more benefits than suffered losses in the Customs Union. Belarus attempts to improve its positions and receive additional benefits from the Kremlin by playing on potential conflicts between Belarusian and Russian manufacturers.
Both President Alexander Lukashenko and President Nursultan Nazarbayev talked a lot about the shortcomings of the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Community legislation during the recent CIS summit. They noted a large number of exceptions and exemptions, which prevent Belarusian and Kazakh producers from penetrating the Russian market.
For example, up to two-thirds of transportation and other services fall within the exemptions. However, when Belarus signed the Customs Union agreement with Russia and Kazakhstan back in 2010, it received oil and gas at preferential prices. Oil and gas rent and subsidies from Russia are estimated at 15-17% of Belarus’ GDP, which heavily compensates the losses from inadequate CU legislation.
Meanwhile, Belarusian products lose a competitive advantage on CU markets, which cannot be compensated even if legislation changes. Belarus is losing the Russian market mainly due to the Russia’s WTO accession, which has negatively affected Belarus’ economy. Nevertheless, to avert president Lukashenko’s rage, the Government explains Belarus’ export failures by poor Customs Union legislation. On his side, Alexander Lukashenko warned government officials against lies about stocks at warehouses, “All these lies about unloaded warehouses … will result in prison terms for some”.
Claims by Russia and Belarus regarding the protection of their markets are mutual and constantly ongoing. For instance, Vladimir Semashko has mentioned a Russian regulation (No 1432, December 27th, 2012), which effectively shut the Russian market to Belarusian agricultural equipment Meanwhile Russian agricultural producers say the same about the Belarusian market. Rostselmash co-owner Konstantin Babkin said, “We haven’t sold a single grain harvester [to Belarus] for 5 years, although, perhaps, Russian combines still make up the core of the park. There is a state barrier. At the same time, the Russian market is open for Belarusian agricultural machinery, about 70 % of Belarusian agricultural equipment is sold through Russian government companies by using state banks and Rosagroleasing loans”.
Even if Customs Union and EurAsEC legislation improves, the Russian market wil continue to slip away from Belarusian producers as it opens up to manufacturers all over the world within the WTO. However Belarus uses these risks to demand additional ‘integration’ compensations from the Kremlin.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.