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.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.