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

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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 regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.

Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.

Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.

In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.

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