Minsk slightly freezes Eurasian integration to make Kremlin more cooperative
The Belarusian authorities have failed the Eurasian integration deadlines in order to strengthen their bargaining position with Moscow. Minsk and Moscow have not resolved a wide range of bilateral issues; including the oil and gas dispute. The Belarusian authorities are unlikely to have any principled objections to the interstate integration document and may sign it immediately after Russia makes counter-concessions.
President Lukashenka has approved the draft agreement on the Customs Code of the Eurasian Economic Union as a basis for negotiations.
The Belarusian authorities used the last available argument and slightly froze the Eurasian integration in order to advance their interests in the Kremlin. According to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, President Lukashenka did not sign the Customs Code, but the decree on the negotiations about the draft Code. On December 26th, 2016, in St. Petersburg, four heads of the EEU states, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, signed the EEU Customs Code. By not being present at the ceremony of the signing of the Code, President Lukashenka demonstrated his extreme discontent with the increased uncooperativeness of the Kremlin on crucial issues.
Until now, Belarus and Russia have not resolved several substantial issues: the price of gas and repayment of the due debt from 2016; resumption of the oil supply to the Belarusian refineries; waver of the 'visa barriers’ for foreigners at the Russo-Belarusian border. Last week, the parties only agreed on the tariffs for the Russian oil transit through Belarus. That said, under the pressure from Russian negotiators Minsk was prompted to curb its appetite for tariffs significantly.
Minsk regards the EEU as Putin’s integration project, the symbolic importance of which will increase before the 2018 presidential elections in Russia.
Minsk has no serious objections to the content of the EEU Customs Code and is likely to sign it as soon as the Kremlin makes concessions and guarantees to resume oil supplies and reduces price of the Russian gas.
The Belarusian authorities have revived the cyclical political agenda, including preventive crackdown with the use of force during the Freedom Day rally in Minsk and a loyal attitude to the participants in the opposition events in the regions. The protest rally in Minsk has evidenced that the Belarusian society has freed from the post-Maidan syndrome and showed high self-organisation capacity during the event in the absence of opposition leaders. In the future, the authorities are likely to expand the framework for sanctioned and legal activity for the moderate opposition in order to reduce the potential for street protests.
The Freedom Day march in Minsk on March 25th, 2017 was marked by unprecedented and brutal detentions before and during the event.
The Belarusian leadership has managed to stretch in time the political cycle - liberalization followed by repressions - and move beyond the electoral campaigns. Simultaneously, Minsk has demonstrated a rather high mobilisation potential under political slogans, despite the pressure from the state media and security forces before and during Freedom Day, including the presence of armed officers and new special equipment to disperse demonstrations in the streets of Minsk. That said, in other towns (Vitebsk, Gomel, Brest and Grodno) the Freedom Day march led by the opposition, was sanctioned by the local authorities (except Vitebsk), albeit there were fewer participants than in February and March protests against the decree on social dependants.
The Belarusian leadership has depersonalised (removed leaders) the protest, preventively weakened the protest movement, and has not opted for the harsh crackdown like in 2010 with many injured and hundreds arrested. For instance, some party leaders were preventively arrested or detained (Lebedko, Rymashevsky, Gubarevich, Neklyaev, Logvinets, Severinets) before the event. Nikolai Statkevich has disappeared and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Some could not pass through the police cordons (Yanukevich and Kostusev) or participated in the rallies in the regions (Dmitriev, Korotkevich and Milinkevich).
Despite the lack of protest leaders, some demonstrators managed to self-organize and march down the Minsk centre. The march was unauthorised but gathered several thousand participants. Many were detained by the law enforcement and later released without charges. In addition, the Belarusian law enforcers used some tactics of the western riot police against peaceful protesters, allegedly in order to mitigate the criticism from Western capitals.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities have used the entire set of propaganda and power mechanisms applied during the highly politicised 2006 and 2010 elections - criminal prosecution of the opposition leaders, preventive detentions and arrests of activists, harsh propaganda campaign in the state media and, finally, the crackdown on the protest action in Minsk with the use of force.
Overall, the mobilisation potential of the Belarusian society remains high and the authorities are likely to expand the legal framework for public participation in politics in order to absorb superfluous tension.