Belarus’ state apparatus shows high level of coordination in food war with Russia
The Belarusian authorities are trying their hardest to prompt Moscow to lift the import ban on Belarusian food, and to be able to continue exporting goods on the sanctions list to third countries via Russia. Belarus has tried several methods: President Lukashenko’s personal intervention; talks via the Foreign Ministry; Russo-Belarusian intergovernmental talks within the Customs Union, Union State, CIS and EEU frameworks; pressuring Russian ‘grey’ imports via the Interior Ministry and customs authorities; and informally cooperating with Kazakhstan to disrupt Russian initiatives in the sanctions war. Most likely, the Kremlin will need to yield to Minsk’s pressure and gradually lift restrictions on imports and transit from Belarus.
Since early December 2014, the Belarusian customs authorities have detected nearly 257 tons of goods being transported from Russia to Belarus in violation of the customs legislation.
In late November, the Russian Agricultural Authority banned 23 Belarusian enterprises from importing food to Russia and transiting food to Kazakhstan due to dangerous microorganisms, African swine fever and antibiotics found in these products. Various experts from Belarus, Russia, and Europe highly value the quality of Belarusian dairy and meat products, and point to Russia’s weak position in the food war with Belarus.
At a special meeting called to discuss the Belarusian food supplies to Russia, President Lukashenko underscored that “many more goods are smuggled to Belarus from our partners in the Customs Union". Following this statement, the Interior Ministry reported mass arrests of goods imported from Russia, totalling Br 210 billion (about 62% of the total illegal turnover).
In addition, as of early December, the State Border Committee tightened control over imported goods from Russia, and demonstrated significant violations by Russia.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has initiated hearings about the situation in supranational integration bodies to which Belarus and Russia both belong: "We are preparing for hearings at the Ministerial Council of the Union State meeting on December 9th, and at the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission on December 10th. If needed, they are also ready to raise these issues at the CIS Economic Council meeting on December 12th".
That said, the Belarusian government also underscored the absence of claims in respect to exports of Belarusian products to Russia by the CU and CES supranational bodies. Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich said that Belarus adhered to all recommendations made by the CEC Council regarding exports to Russia: "We have fulfilled all the recommendations made by the Council of the Eurasian Economic Commission".
It is worth noting that Belarus’ efforts in defending her interests in the "food war" with Russia have been quite successful. Talks between Deputy Prime Ministers of Belarus and Russia Rusy and Dvorkovich led to the Russian Agricultural Authority allowing meat exports from the Belarusian ‘Kalinkavichy Meat Processing Plant’ to Russia. In addition, the Russian Agricultural Authority and its Belarusian counterpart have agreed to resume supplies to Russia from two Belarusian enterprises - "Babushkina Krynka” and Kalinkovichi Dairy Plant.
Interestingly, Russia has failed to drag Kazakhstan onto her side in the fight against Belarusian "grey transit schemes". The Russian Agricultural Authority representative Julia Trofimova noted that Astana was reluctant to meet Moscow’s requests: “Negotiations with Kazakhstan are much more difficult than with Belarus, Kazakhstan has not yet shown any desire to facilitate the prevention of the quasi-transit, which eventually never reaches them”.
Belarus has demonstrated a well-orchestrated state apparatus in defending her positions in the trade war with the Kremlin. As the Russian economy falls into recession, such trade conflicts between Belarus and Russia are likely to increase. However, most likely, Belarus will be able to somewhat protect her interests thanks to the Belarusian government agencies’ capacity to swiftly react and Russia’s weak position, including in the CIS space.
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.