Lukashenko strains relations with Kremlin just before signing EEC Treaty

April 22, 2016 18:50

President Lukashenko attempts to increase pressure on the Kremlin ahead of signing the Eurasian Economic Community founding treaty. So far, Belarus has not managed to ensure that Russia will fulfil her promises regarding oil duty exemptions and an intergovernmental loan as declared by Belarus’ president right after the meeting in Moscow. Lukashenko hopes to force his interests in the Kremlin by fuelling tension between Belarus and Russia.

In an interview with the internet channel ‘Dozhd’, President Lukashenko spoke about the ‘insignificant’ referenda in Donbas, and his relations with Putin, Saakashvili and Berezovsky.

The presidents of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan are scheduled to sign the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) founding treaty on May 29th. In early May, after the three presidents met, President Lukashenko announced that he had reached an agreement with President Putin on the most important issues for Belarus. So far, however, these agreements have not been fulfilled. 

The Russian government still has to finalise the decision which will set out rules for redistributing oil duties between Minsk and Moscow. Meanwhile, according to the agreements between the Russian and Belarusian leaders, the issue has to be resolved before signing the Eurasian Union founding treaty.

After his visit to Moscow, Belarus’ president also said that an intergovernmental loan from Russia would be allocated for Belarus to support her international reserves: “It will be allocated in May. I think that we will resolve the issue next week”. Meanwhile, in April, Belarus’ gold reserves decreased by USD 238 million and as of May 1st, 2014 totalled USD 5.477 billion, the lowest level since November 2011.

President Lukashenko’s hopes of receiving a USD 2 billion loan from Russia have not materialised. Russia is putting forward rigid conditions for the loan – she wants Belarus to privatise five major state assets in favour of Russian business. However, Belarus is not rushing to privatise state assets. Belarus’ First Deputy Prime Minister Semashko said that Belarus and Russia once again had failed to agree on conditions to merge the MAZ and KAMAZ enterprises.

‘Dozhd’ is one of few Russian media which openly criticises the Russian authorities. On May 21st, President Lukashenko gave an interview to ‘Dozhd’, during which he repeatedly underscored his ties and warm relations with some people who are very badly perceived by the Kremlin.

For example, the Belarusian leader spoke of his friendship with former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who is one of the Kremlin’s sharpest critics. President Lukashenko offered political asylum to Saakashvili when a criminal investigation was launched in Georgia. Prior to that, Lukashenko provided a haven to former President Bakiev, who displeased Moscow by allowing a U.S. base to be deployed in Kyrgyzstan. President Lukashenko also expressed his sympathy with former and current opponents of the Russian leadership, for instance, with the deceased oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and opposition politician and popular blogger Alexei Navalny.

In addition, the Belarusian president fully sided with official Kiev’s assessments of the recent referenda in southeast Ukraine held by separatists, which were sharply out of tune with the Kremlin propaganda: “What took place in the ‘republics’ has no meaning whatsoever from a legal point of view. During a recent roundtable, they themselves acknowledged that their referenda have no meaning from a legal viewpoint”. 

Overall, ahead of signing the EEC founding treaty, President Lukashenko seeks to win concessions from the Kremlin by sharpening his anti-Kremlin rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities do not question the signing of the treaty per se, but this integration project might follow the fate of similar post-Soviet integration initiatives.

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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.