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.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.