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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Yet Minsk has not decided on the "patriots' case" and is attempting to break new grounds in relations with the West. Meanwhile, Brussels is ready to lower cooperation levels with the Belarusian authorities in anticipation of new political prisoners to appear after the trial against former White Legion activists, irrelevant of the charges, either preparation for riots, or creation of illegal armed groups, or any other. Minsk is unlikely to cross the red line in bilateral relations with the West and new political prisoners are unlikely to appear in Belarus.

The harsh clampdown on protests and arrests this spring in Belarus are unlikely to lead to new moves by the European Union, however, the EU would closely monitor ‘some investigations’, including the ‘patriot’s case’ aka the ‘White Legion’ case.

According to human rights defenders, 17 people remain in custody, of which 16 are former members of the White Legion and one supporter of Statkevich-led the Belarusian National Committee, Sergei Kuntsevich. The law enforcement has been releasing former activists of the White Legion and members of the Patriot Club, most likely in order to mitigate criticism from Western capitals. Amid Minsk Dialogue expert conference with the participation of Belarusian and EU officials, the authorities released from custody head of the Bobruisk "Patriot" Club Nikolai Mikhalkov. In addition, the Belarusian leadership expects to ease some tension by demonstrating greater openness to a dialogue with civil society on human rights issues. For instance, for the first time the Belarusian authorities and human rights defenders held consultations on Belarus’ fifth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Belarusian leadership has attempted to mitigate the West’s attitude towards the criminal prosecution against former activists of the "White Legion" by adding charges of creating an ‘illegal armed formation’ to ‘preparing for mass riots’ charges.

Apparently, Minsk also gains from speculations about possible disagreements among the executives - supporters of stronger ties with Russia, and "pro-Western" reformists lead by Foreign Minister Makei. That said, the Presidential Administration and President Lukashenka have full control over the foreign policy agenda and the law enforcement.

Overall, Minsk is determined to develop relations with Western capitals. The Belarusian authorities are likely to take controversial actions, i.e. to demonstrate the desire for liberalization in some areas and occasionally tighten repressions against the opponents, however without creating new political prisoners.