Minsk doubts success of Kremlin’s integration projects
President Lukashenko attended the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council meeting in Moscow for head of states regarding the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union.
President Lukashenko, backed by President Nazarbayev, is increasing pressure on the Kremlin to advance his interests in the Customs Union. The head of the Belarusian state questions the implementation of the Eurasian project by conditioning its success on solving key Belarusian issues – oil and gas exemptions. Should Russia get involved in a long-standing conflict with Ukraine, the Belarusian government will hope for the Kremlin’s position to weaken, allowing Belarus to promote its interests.
A meeting between the presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia to discuss the treaty of the Eurasian Economic Union had been planned for an later date but was shifted forward The Kremlin planned to receive support of its allies as regards its activities on the territory of Ukraine.
However, both the Belarusian and Kazakh leaders have a completely different view of the crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relations. They do not support a heavy-handed approach to solving the Ukrainian conflict, fearing the increased pressure of the Kremlin on their own states, too. As was carefully stated by President Lukashenko, ‘We probably shouldn’t be glancing around, but focussing on our own business, our own states. We will then be respected and appreciated.’
In turn, Lukashenko’s main headache is the lack of progress in resolving sensitive issues related to oil and gas, although the signing of the draft treaty for the establishment of the EAU is planned in May this year. That being said, both the Belarusian and Kazakh leadership are attempting to exploit the vulnerability of the Kremlin’s position while its attention is focused on the situation in Ukraine.
So far the Russian leadership has not tackled the most sensitive Belarusian issues, namely abandoning oil and gas exemptions. As noted by the Belarusian President : ‘Our principled position is that the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union should be based on the fully-fledged Customs Union without exceptions including excise duties, quantitative restrictions or anything else’.
President Lukashenko has started to doubt the likelihood of implementing the Kremlin’s integration projects. The head of state draws parallels with other similar initiatives in the post-Soviet space noting that ‘people have been waiting for some normal steps towards the establishment of some normal relations within the CIS, but the union has not come to fruition’.
Besides, for official Minsk it is important that Ukraine participates in the EAU. At the same time the value of this integration project would decrease significantly forBelarus should Kiev sign the association agreement with the EU. It is noteworthy that official Minsk has a serious economic interest in cooperating with Ukraine. For example, last year 11.3% of Belarusian exports went to Ukraine with a huge export surplus for Belarus.
Thus, as the date of signing the treaty to establish the EAU is approaching, the contradictions between the Belarusian and Kazakh leadership, on the one hand, and the Kremlin, on the other, will grow Irrespective of oil and gas issues official Minsk will hamper and/or sabotage the establishment of the fully-fledged integration association on the Kremlin’s terms. Should Russia get involved in a long-standing conflict with Ukraine, the Belarusian government will hope for the Kremlin’s position to weaken, allowing Belarus to promote its interests.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.