Minsk has relaxed tension with the Kremlin, but conflict potential in Russo-Belarusian relations retains
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.
Last week, Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei participated in the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Eastern Partnership and Visegrad Group initiative hosted by Warsaw. The Belarusian FM emphasized Belarus' interest in cooperation in the transport sector, which could be due to Belarus’ desire to export electricity surplus after Belarus finished construction of the nuclear power plant in Ostrovets. Minsk expressed concerns about Warsaw’s stance on the Belarusian NPP, as it refused to buy electricity from Belarus and supported Vilnius’ protest on this issue. Following accusations by the Belarusian leadership and the state media against western states, including Poland, of training "nationalist militants", Minsk did not agree on the visit of the European Parliament deputies from Lithuania and Germany to Belarus and to the NPP construction site near Ostrovets in particular. In addition, the Belarusian authorities have stepped up efforts to enforce education in Russian in Polish-language schools in Grodno and Vaukavysk. Should a rift in Belarusian-Polish relations persist, the Belarusian authorities are likely to step up the pressure on the Polish-speaking minority in Belarus.