No major oil concessions for Belarus from the Kremlin

April 22, 2016 18:48

Belarus has reaped some minor concessions from the Kremlin within the Eurasian Economic Community’s founding treaty. However, when it comes to oil duty exemptions - the most sensitive issue for Belarus – Russia is uncompromising. Minsk will insist on resolving the oil issue when the EEC takes effect on January 1st, 2015.

Meeting in Moscow last week, the Prime Ministers of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia could not find solutions to key aspects in establishing the Eurasian Union (Eurasian Economic Community, EEC); the decision will have to be made by the presidents.

In late May, the presidents of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan plan to sign the EEC founding treaty. During the prime ministers’ meeting, Belarus managed to find some compromise solutions to a number of controversial issues. However, it is the issue of oil duty exemptions that is at the top of Belarus’ agenda. President Lukashenko will attempt to resolve this at a presidential ‘troika’ meeting on April 29th.

If exempt from paying oil duties, Belarus would earn additional USD 3-4 bn. The Belarusian government could use this money to minimise risks during the 2015 presidential campaign. The March national poll by IISEPS suggests that President Lukashenko’s popular rating has gone up. However, the state is reducing its social guarantees to the population which may have an undesirable effect on the president’s popularity.

The president emphasised how important it was to abolish exemptions, “Since we are building a union and strive to ensure that there are no borders, there should be no exceptions and restrictions on the movement of goods, labour and capital. This is the main goal”.

Meanwhile, during the prime ministers’ meeting, PM Myasnikovich and PM Medvedev reached an agreement over the procurement of agricultural machinery. Ahead of signing the EEC treaty, the Kremlin is using this agreement to compensate for its disagreement over oil issues.

In addition, Russian Ambassador Alexander Surikov confirmed Russia’s decision to maintain oil supplies to Belarusian refineries at the same level. In 2013, these volumes were revised by Russia every quarter – after Belarus had seized oil supplies to foreign markets under the guise of solvents and diluents without paying duties to the Russian budget. The Kremlin and Minsk have agreed to keep a steady supply of oil in 2014 at 23 million tonnes.

It is worth noting that, with the Kremlin dragging other CIS countries in the Eurasian integration, Belarus’ negotiating positions have weakened. Armenia’s Economy Minister Avanesyan stated that Armenia planned to sign the Customs Union treaty with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan on April 29th, 2014. Kyrgyzstan also expressed the desire to join the Eurasian integration.

Thus, Belarus will insist on abolishing the oil duty exemptions and trade restrictions when the Eurasian Union takes effect on January 1st, 2015. Meanwhile, Belarus is waiting for acceptable compensation from the Kremlin during the transition period until the oil issue is resolved.

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.