Minsk doubts success of Kremlin’s integration projects

April 22, 2016 18:46

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.

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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.