Kremlin steps up financial and economic pressure to prompt Minsk to accept its terms

March 13, 2017 9:38
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Minsk appears ready to aggravate tension in bilateral relations, presumably, in anticipation of a trade-off with Moscow before the presidential election campaign kicks off in Russia. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has increased financial and economic costs for Minsk in the oil and gas confrontation: the price of gas went up by 6.81%. The Belarusian authorities are likely to attempt to link up military-political cooperation with the resolution of economic disagreements with the Kremlin.

Belarus’ Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov said at a meeting of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council that problems in relations with Russia could affect Belarus’ participation in the EEU integration.

Yet Minsk has not managed to arrange a meeting between Presidents Lukashenka and Putin to thaw Russo-Belarusian relations. Moreover, the bilateral conflict is building up, as evidenced by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's sharp response to criticism by Belarusian PM Kobyakov about the prospects for the EEU development and the oil and gas dispute at a meeting in Bishkek. Apparently, Russia’s nervous reaction could be explained by Minsk torpedoing one of the most sensitive issues, the Eurasian integration, amid preparations for the presidential elections in Russia, which could be held in March 2018.

Moscow follows a tough line in negotiations with Minsk; it has raised the price of gas from USD 132 to USD 141.1 per thousand cubic metres, thereby increasing Belarus’ losses from the oil and gas confrontation. In turn, Minsk tactically ignores Russia’s demands regarding the gas price and refuses to pay the price proposed by the Gazprom, effectively accumulating overdue payments for gas, which, according to Russian Vice-PM Dvorkovich, totalled USD 600 million.

That said, the Russian leadership has made it clear that the financial and economic support for their partners in the Eurasian integration would inevitably reduce. Provided dwindling own resources, such support would be particularly burdensome for the Kremlin in the pre-election year. Meanwhile, President Lukashenka, in a harsh yet rather cautious manner has started challenging the benefits from the military-political cooperation with Russia, which is the most advanced form of the Belarusian-Russian cooperation.

Amid growing tension, in Q2 2017, Moscow could further reduce the oil supply to the Belarusian refineries and freeze the next tranche of the EFSR loan in order to prompt Minsk to accept its terms in the oil and gas dispute. In the long term, the Kremlin is likely to continue to reduce the financial and economic support to the Belarusian economy and step up its requirements vis-a-vis Minsk as to fulfilling the allied commitments by the latter.

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.