Russia - Belarus: no surprises
Last week leaders of Russia and Belarus have been determining conditions of cooperation on gas issue for the next three years.
Belarus anticipated to use the sale of 50% of stakes in Beltransgaz and to conclude another medium-term contract for gas supply and transit in order to secure gas supplies by Gazprom.
Moreover, the Belarusian leadership hoped that such guarantees will be extended for a longer period, up to 10 years and will cover both, the supply and the price of gas. Belarus believes, the price of Russian gas for Belarus should be equal to the price of gas for Russian consumers (plus shipping costs) and on principle should follow patterns conventional for domestic market. Russia is ready to sell gas to Belarus cheaper than to other countries in the region, considering it as a fee for securing safe and stable transit through Belarus. At the same time the size of preferences for Belarus depends on the capabilities of alternative transit routes of Russian gas to Europe: the higher the capabilities the lower the preferences. Construction of the "Nord Stream" pipeline significantly reduces the value of Belarusian route for Gazprom.
Belarusian – Ukrainian relations concerning gas issue (as the primary transit pillar of Russian gas to Europe) have always been determined by the degree of concessions to Belarus (the second most important gas transit route). The general rule is that Gazprom cannot fight two fronts. Its relations with Ukraine are either not resolved or there is a danger of review of conditions, while its relations with Belarus are easier and concessions are achieved quicker. Currently Ukraine has shown willingness to revise the rules of engagement with Russia on issues of transit and gas supplies.
Preliminary agreements reached between Russia and Belarus as follows: the sale of 50% of stakes in Beltransgaz to Gazprom (de facto that would transfer the Belarusian gas transportation system under the full control of Gazprom) and the introduction of an “integration discount” for three years. During 2012-2014 Belarus will buy gas cheaper than other countries in the region, maintaining a competitive advantage in this regard. While purchasing large blocks of shares of national gas transportation companies, Gazprom usually proposed gas supplies at a reduced price for three years (Lithuania, buying 50% of Beltansgaz in 2007, Poland).
However, the final conditions of cooperation on gas transportation have not yet been defined and are still a matter of bargain, which, however, taking into account all the circumstances, does not imply surprises or violent conflicts.
Also, Russia is interested in ensuring security and stability of other types of transit - oil and inland (trains, rail transit). Therefore it is important to maintain the Belarusian economy in a state that does not allow for a full-scale social destabilization, while at the same time not necessarily being a well-being state. Therefore it would be logical to expect USD 2-3 billion loans from Russia to Belarus in case negotiations about the sale of Belatransgaz to Gazprom are dragged out.
The Belarusian authorities are attempting to strengthen some elements of the ‘Soviet’ education to ensure the ideological loyalty of new generations to the state. Most likely, one of the major tasks of the educational reform is to prevent growing discontent with the existing education system among the population. The educational reform aims to strengthen centralisation and adjust the system to the needs of the public sector.
In Belarus, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection and the Ministry of Economy would determine the university enrolment figures.
The Belarusian authorities do not seem to have a long-term vision of the educational reform. The education system changes depending on who leads the Education Ministry and has access to President Lukashenka. For instance, former head of pro-government communist party and Education Minister Igor Karpenko reintroduced some "Soviet" elements to the school and strengthened ideological components along with the de-politicisation of the curricula. Current generation of students and youth have not spoken against the authorities, unlike previous generations raised during the Gorbachev thaw and socio-political transformations of the 1990s.
In addition, the Belarusian authorities are attempting to adopt measures aiming to prevent discontent among the population with the Belarusian education system. The authorities are mobilizing those nostalgic for the USSR and propose to return to 5-marks grading system, school uniforms and reduced curriculum. The Belarusian leadership also aims to blur the growing social stratification in society and to relax social tension due to the growing income gap between the richest and poorest.
Should the authorities adopt plans to reduce university enrolment, they would re-certify universities in order to close some of them and would reduce competition from private educational institutions. The Belarusian leadership is attempting to adjust the education system to the needs of the real economy, to reduce pressure on the labour market and to cut government spending on higher education for specialists low in demand by replacing them with graduates of secondary vocational schools requiring less time to train.