Minsk strengthens negotiation capacity in talks with the Kremlin
Belarus has gained additional opportunities to defend her interests in relations with the Kremlin, which means she may resume her ‘pendulum’ policy vis-a-vis the EU and Russia. Amid confrontation with the West and dwindling resources for buying the loyalty of the allies, the Kremlin has started appreciating the Union State project. However, in exchange for the aid to Belarus, the Kremlin is becoming more demanding when it comes to coordinating Belarus’ foreign and defence policies.
Last week, Minsk hosted a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State. Official reports said, during the State Council, presidents, prime ministers and high-ranking officials of Belarus and Russia planned to discuss the Union State budget for 2016 and the Foreign Policy Action Programme for 2016-2017.
Apparently, the Kremlin has started to attach more importance to the Union State, an integration project with Belarus. Previously, only Belarus emphasised the importance of this integration union between Belarus and Russia. The Union State was mostly considered as an interstate platform beneficial for Belarus, which she used to maintain a relationship with the Russian leadership and promote her interests by the formula “oil in exchange for kisses”.
Since the mid-2000s, the Kremlin has been gradually losing interest in this intergovernmental initiative, especially in the view of other integration projects in the post-Soviet space with more participants. However, the sanctions pressure by Western capitals and falling oil prices have prompted the Kremlin to concentrate its increasingly scarce resources on priority areas. Amid dwindling state resources, the Kremlin is nevertheless prepared to support its strategic allies, including Belarus, which has the closes integration ties with the Kremlin.
The Belarusian president emphasised, that coordination of foreign and defence policies was the priority issue on the State Council’s agenda (eg most important for the Kremlin). “The ongoing military and political crises, the return to the bloc mentality by a number of states, the widespread use of sanctions as an instrument of political pressure have forced us to keep our gun powder dry. Therefore, today, special attention will be paid to defence building”, he said.
The visit of a large delegation, headed by President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev, to Belarus has removed possible speculations by the Russian media about relations between Minsk and Brussels in the view of the lifted sanctions against the Belarusian leadership. Amid the confrontation with Western capitals and the neighbouring states, the Kremlin has demonstrated to the Russian population that it has preserved its influence in the ‘near abroad’ with the key allies. Nevertheless, amid Minsk’s success in relations with the West, the Kremlin has to apply additional effort to keep the Belarusian foreign policy in the wake of Russia.
Belarus and Russia are likely to continue negotiations about mutually acceptable concessions in the defence and foreign policy in exchange for financial aid. That said, the Belarusian leadership is likely to agree to closer coordination of foreign policy if Russia provides credit support.
Following crackdown and arrests of participants in the spring protests, the authorities resumed arrests as punishment for participating in street protests in addition to fines, which for some time were the only punishment for political activity. On September 22nd, 2017, the riot police detained the Belarusian National Congress leader Nikolai Statkevich, the opposition politician was placed in detention centre on Akrestin street. On the same day, after serving seven days of arrest, another BNC leader, Vladimir Neklyaev, was released. He was sentenced for organising a street protest on September 8th against the West-2017 exercises. Other participants in the protest have been fined too. The authorities are likely to continue to use fines and arrests against political activists to punish for their protest activity.