Russo-Belarusian alliance terms deteriorate
Minsk and the Kremlin abstain from escalating information tension in bilateral relations. Meanwhile, Moscow has not relaxed pressure on the Belarusian government and put the oil and gas dispute on hold. Despite the fact that the Kremlin has not voiced a clear position, apparently, it has serious claims to Minsk either about integration, or about privatisation.
Last week, Russian Ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikov said that all controversial oil and gas issues would be resolved in the near future.
The Russian authorities have not issued any public statements about the detention of the pro-Kremlin writers for REGNUM news agency by the Belarusian law enforcement. Perhaps the Kremlin wants to abstain from an escalation with its closest ally before the holiday season. In turn, the Belarusian authorities also did not continue the information confrontation with the Kremlin. That said, the article in the Sovetskaya Belorussia, Presidential administration’s newspaper, about Russian Agricultural Administration head Dankvert was frankly feeble.
Amid neutral information background, the Kremlin continues to exert pressure on Minsk. For instance, the Eurasian Development Bank postponed the transfer of the third tranche worth USD 300 million to Minsk. The EDB insists on the adoption of two presidential decrees: first, to raise unemployment benefits for laid off from reorganised enterprises; second, to transfer insolvent companies to trust management. These two decrees should give a start to closing insolvent companies.
Russia promised to increase oil supply to Belarus in Q1 2017 to 4.5 million tons, which in fact is a reduction as compared with Q1 2016. Only if Belarus pays out due debt for gas at USD 425 million, Russia will supply 24 tons of oil in 2017, which would still be two tons less than in previous years.
Simultaneously, Russia offered a subsidy: Belarus would be able to export three million tons of oil without processing and keep the oil duty in her budget (the duty on oil is double the duty on petrochemicals). However, this subsidy is less than the reduction in the gas price for other Gazprom clients (USD 300 million in total) and is inconsistent with the principle of netback parity stated in the agreements.
Overall, even if Belarus fully complies with Moscow’s terms, oil and gas cooperation with Russia will deteriorate in 2017, and if the dispute spins out - relations will deteriorate even more. That said, the delay in repaying due debt for gas will lead to the deterioration of the oil and gas cooperation terms. In 2016, Russia will undersupply circa 5.5 million tons of oil to Belarus and the Belarusian budget will not earn more than USD 220 million from export duties on petrochemicals.
Publicly, the Kremlin has not formulated clear requirements for Belarus to resume oil supplies and oil benefits in full. Different public officials voiced various requirements for resolving the oil and gas dispute and improving access to the Russian market for Belarusian products. Inter alia, they proposed: to introduce a single visa policy, establish a single agricultural control service of the Union State, deploy a new Russian military base in Belarus, reorient Belarusian transit via Russian North-Western ports, and resume five integration projects on privatization of Belarusian state assets (including MZKT).
Minsk is under strong pressure of the Kremlin, which refuses to accept arguments previously used in bilateral relations.
The Belarusian authorities have revived the cyclical political agenda, including preventive crackdown with the use of force during the Freedom Day rally in Minsk and a loyal attitude to the participants in the opposition events in the regions. The protest rally in Minsk has evidenced that the Belarusian society has freed from the post-Maidan syndrome and showed high self-organisation capacity during the event in the absence of opposition leaders. In the future, the authorities are likely to expand the framework for sanctioned and legal activity for the moderate opposition in order to reduce the potential for street protests.
The Freedom Day march in Minsk on March 25th, 2017 was marked by unprecedented and brutal detentions before and during the event.
The Belarusian leadership has managed to stretch in time the political cycle - liberalization followed by repressions - and move beyond the electoral campaigns. Simultaneously, Minsk has demonstrated a rather high mobilisation potential under political slogans, despite the pressure from the state media and security forces before and during Freedom Day, including the presence of armed officers and new special equipment to disperse demonstrations in the streets of Minsk. That said, in other towns (Vitebsk, Gomel, Brest and Grodno) the Freedom Day march led by the opposition, was sanctioned by the local authorities (except Vitebsk), albeit there were fewer participants than in February and March protests against the decree on social dependants.
The Belarusian leadership has depersonalised (removed leaders) the protest, preventively weakened the protest movement, and has not opted for the harsh crackdown like in 2010 with many injured and hundreds arrested. For instance, some party leaders were preventively arrested or detained (Lebedko, Rymashevsky, Gubarevich, Neklyaev, Logvinets, Severinets) before the event. Nikolai Statkevich has disappeared and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Some could not pass through the police cordons (Yanukevich and Kostusev) or participated in the rallies in the regions (Dmitriev, Korotkevich and Milinkevich).
Despite the lack of protest leaders, some demonstrators managed to self-organize and march down the Minsk centre. The march was unauthorised but gathered several thousand participants. Many were detained by the law enforcement and later released without charges. In addition, the Belarusian law enforcers used some tactics of the western riot police against peaceful protesters, allegedly in order to mitigate the criticism from Western capitals.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities have used the entire set of propaganda and power mechanisms applied during the highly politicised 2006 and 2010 elections - criminal prosecution of the opposition leaders, preventive detentions and arrests of activists, harsh propaganda campaign in the state media and, finally, the crackdown on the protest action in Minsk with the use of force.
Overall, the mobilisation potential of the Belarusian society remains high and the authorities are likely to expand the legal framework for public participation in politics in order to absorb superfluous tension.