Minsk has relaxed tension with the Kremlin, but conflict potential in Russo-Belarusian relations retains

April 17, 2017 12:35

Minsk was prompted to make the first step to resolve the lingering oil and gas dispute and repay the gas debt. The Belarusian authorities have accepted the diminution in gains from the Eurasian integration and demonstrated a commitment to close relations with the Kremlin. Minsk is likely to attempt to gain more benefits from the Kremlin, which could once again cross the interests of Russian partners on gas and food markets, and eventually lead to tension in Russo-Belarusian relations.

According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, the discount on gas for Belarus in 2018-2019 would be "less than 20%".

Minsk has repaid its USD 726 million debt for Russian gas within the 10-day period stipulated at the meeting in St. Petersburg. Yet it is unknown where the money came from. That said, the agreement on the terms of Beltransgaz privatization has been amended and the clause on Gazprom monopolistic deliveries of natural gas to Belarus has been removed, which creates a potential for a lower gas price. As agreed, Russia has resumed 24 million tons oil supplies to Belarus for 2017, of which 6 million tons will undergo customs clearance and will not be processed at Belarusian refineries to compensate for gas costs.

The Kremlin has defended its position regarding the introduction of a single energy market as of 2025, while Minsk insisted on earlier deadlines. Moscow has agreed to refinance, not to write off, its loans issued to Minsk, thereby increasing Belarus' financial dependence on Russia. Rosselkhoznadzor has initiated the creation of transport corridors to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Iran and Belarus, which could potentially reduce Belarus' revenues from transit and processing of European produces. In addition, border controls, unilaterally introduced by Russia at the Belarusian-Russian border were not called off.

There are no media reports about possible negotiations between Russia and Belarus over the deployment of a Russian airbase in Belarus, nevertheless the military-technical cooperation between the states remains very close. In addition, Minsk has demonstrated its commitment to the Eurasian integration and President Lukashenka attended the EEU Summit in Bishkek in person. Moreover, Minsk signed the EEU Customs Code before the Summit in Bishkek, which prevented a crisis in the Kremlin's integration project.

Overall, Minsk and Moscow have broken tension in bilateral relations; however, the potential for confliction retains and could manifest itself already this year.

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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.