Minsk expects new economic benefits from Kremlin for its anti-Western rhetoric
In its rhetoric, official Minsk has supported the Kremlin in its confrontation with the EU and the US, and the Russian elite’s vision of the events in Ukraine. Officially, however, the Belarusian government does not share the pro-Kremlin propaganda approach to the events in Ukraine and will adjust its rhetoric concerning the conflict in Ukraine to the situation and audience. But despite their tough anti-Western statements, the Belarusian authorities will seek to avoid being drawn by the Kremlin into a confrontation with the Wes, as far as their economic and military dependence on the Kremlin will allow.
At a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, President Lukashenko said that hopes for stability to return to Ukraine following the parliamentary elections had not materialised.
Talks between Lukashenko and Lavrov focused primarily on Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov insisted for the Minsk process to continue, underscoring that Minsk is a “very convenient place for negotiations over Ukraine”. And Lukashenko attempted to demonstrate his loyalty to his eastern ally by voicing his thesis on the events in Ukraine, close to the Kremlin’s position.
During the meeting with Lavrov, President Lukashenko adhered to traditional anti-Western rhetoric: "In recent years, the situation around our borders, of the Union State, is alarming. We cannot agree with the activity which is now being undertaken by the Western states on the western borders of our Union State. We cannot agree with the trending deterioration of the situation in Ukraine, not only in the Donbass and Donetsk regions, but also throughout Ukraine”.
The Belarusian leadership understands that Russia needs true allies amid the condemnation of the Kremlin by the international community over Ukraine. And in response to its show of loyalty, official Minsk hopes to get concrete economic benefits. For example, the Belarusian government expects Russia to reduce the gas price in 2015, which, according to First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko, was de facto agreed: “The current contact will expire by the year-end. Now we need to agree on gas supplies for 2015-2017, almost all the nuances have been agreed”. During the meeting with Russian Foreign Minister, the Belarusian president said there were no problems in Russo-Belarusian relations at that stage.
However, immediately after the Foreign Minister’s departure from Minsk, Rosselkhoznadzor banned meat and dairy supplies on the Russian market from 12 Belarusian enterprises due to safety considerations. The Russian agency thus attempted to limit the re-exports from Belarus of western products on Russia’s sanctions list. It is worth noting that previously, at a debriefing with the government the president underscored the need to protect Belarusian producers, regardless of any integration agreements: “No excuses that we have obligations under the Customs Union, the Eurasian Union shall be accepted”.
In 2015 President Lukashenko’s support ratings strengthened considerably, largely thanks to his balanced peacekeeping stance in relation to the events in Ukraine. It is unlikely that Lukashenko will revise his assessment of the events in Ukraine for the domestic audiences before the presidential campaign in 2015. In addition, the Kremlin has fewer means to demonstrate generosity to its western ally for his loyalty, which means that the Belarusian authorities will be prompted to enhance its western policy direction in the search for funds.
Thus, the Belarusian government will continue manoeuvring between Moscow and West, attempting to avoid being drawn into the Russo-Ukrainian conflict on the Kremlin’s side. However, Belarus is too dependent on Russia in terms of economy and military activity to be able to sustain an independent foreign policy, should the Kremlin decide to step up the pressure.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.