Minsk tries to maintain exceptional status in relations with Kremlin

April 22, 2016 19:03

Tensions between Belarus and Russia over economic interests tend to rise before important documents come into effect. This time, it is about the Eurasian Economic Union. Despite attempts by some Kremlin-loyal media to build up pressure on Minsk, there is no common position among the Russian authorities about how to resolve the ‘food war’ between Belarus and Russia. At the same time, the Kremlin is trying to lower Minsk’s status in integration projects with former Soviet countries by starting the process of shutting down the Belarusian-Russian “Union State”.

Regarding the meeting on economic development, president Lukashenko stated that Belarus was not responsible for the limitation of food exports to Russia

As expected, with the agreement on the Eurasian Economic Union that comes into effect on January 1, 2015, and the worsening economic situation in Russia, both Russia and Belarus are increasingly worried about protecting their economic interests. .

Russian politically biased media try to present the attempts of Minsk to protect their interests in the ‘food war’ as a kind of ‘information war’ against Moscow as well as an aspiration of pressuring the Kremlin by threatening to break up the Eurasian integration process. At the same time there is no common position among the Russian authorities on how to resolve the ‘food war’ between Belarus and Russia.

For instance, IA Regnum, a website close to the Kremlin, accuse the Belarusian authorities of initiating “another ‘information war’ with Russia, trying to show the ‘trade war’ as an attempt by Russia to limit the volume of exports of ‘inexpensive and high-quality’ Belarus-made food to Russia, but not as an aspiration of Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance to limit the illegal traffic of dangerous food.”

Russian analysts are attempting to accuse Minsk of trying to break up one of the most important achievements of Belarusian-Russian integration – the absence of border and customs control between the two countries. After Russia introduced transit freight control, Belarusian authorities stepped up border checks of cars. At the same time, Belarus denies re-introducing customs control at the border with the Russian Federation, claiming that there is a travelling customs control. The Belarusian customs officers’ claims are supported by an announcement given by the head of the Federal Customs Service, Belyaninov: “It is inaccurate to say that the border has been re-introduced.This is wrong. Now we are trying to develop a common way of controlling freights, we don’t have any problems with the Belarusian customs service.”

At the same time, the Kremlin is attempting to limit Minsk from using tools, such as the Belarusian-Russian “Union State, to promote its own interests,” Analysts at IA REGNUM underline that “the Union State” is losing its appeal to the Russian authorities, claiming that: “Using our mistakes as well as our, at times, inexcusable gullibility, Minsk is turning the negotiation platform into a weapon of intimidation towards Russia”.

It is quite possible that the Kremlin has already started the process of shutting down this Belarusian-Russian project, which has become irrelevant for the Russian authorities due to the launch of a new integration project – the Eurasian Economic Union, and  also serves as an additional tool for protecting Minsk’s interests in Moscow. Upon Russia’s suggestion, the Eurasian Union’s summit meeting, slated to take place on December 23rd, will be combined with two more summit meetings – the heads of the Union State and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.   

Regarding  Russia’s initiative, President Lukashenko commented: “I don’t want to hide it from society: we have some disagreement about the offer – I am thinking about the Russian side’s proposal to hold everything in one block on December 23rd - the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Eurasian Economic Union, Higher State counsel, and so on and so forth.Well, if it is just about checking the box I think that it is useless to hold it. If we are holding it, then we need to do this thoroughly. As a chairman, I cannot propose that everything goes in a block, in one day and so on. Even now, both in Belarus and in Russia, there is not very much support for the formation of a full-scale Union State.” The Belarusian president hopes to use its status as a close ally to maintain the support of the Belarusian economy by the Kremlin at a high level and guarantee open access to the Russian market.

Therefore, the Kremlin is likely to increase informational pressure on Minsk during the presidential elections of 2015. At the same time, the Russian authorities do not see  actively participating in the election campaign of 2015 on the side of one of president Lukashenko’s opponents as likely.

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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.