Moscow not interested in long-term guarantees for Lukashenko
President Lukashenko’s efforts were in vain – the Kremlin has neither supported his (and the Kazakh President’s) proposal to create a single energy market, nor to abolish oil duty exemptions. Belarus has been prompted to start bilateral negations with Russia on oil supplies, putting her economic, foreign policy, and military independence at further risk. With each new stage, Eurasian integration fails to bring any financial benefits for Belarus, the costs only rise.
On April 29th, Minsk hosted the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council meeting, which gathered presidents of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan.
The SEEC Summit in Minsk was the last decisive trilateral meeting, during which the presidential ‘troika’ was anticipating to close all controversial issues before signing the Eurasian Economic Community’s founding treaty in Astana on May 29th. The Eurasian Economic Community’s founding treaty is scheduled to take effect on January 1st, 2015. However, during the Summit, the allies could not agree on oil duty exemptions, the most sensitive issue for Belarus.
If exempt from paying oil duties, Belarus would earn additional USD 3-4 bln. The Belarusian government could use this money to minimise risks during the 2015 presidential campaign, amid reduced social guarantees for the population.
Nevertheless, the Summit participants have agreed that the existing restrictions on trade in oil and oil products between the Customs Union countries will remain until 2025. President Lukashenko, however, using strong language, has repeatedly underscored the critical importance of abolishing oil duty exemptions and trade restrictions for Minsk. He even challenged the need to establish the EEC in the near future: “It seems to me that we should raise the issue of the Eurasian Economic Union in ten years, if we are not ready now”.
Statements by Belarus’ president had no effect on the Kremlin as regards establishing a common market for energy products. Moscow has no interest in providing long-term guarantees to Lukashenko. He could not even achieve a compromise, i.e. to reduce export duties on oil products to the Kazakh level from almost USD 400 per tonne in Russia to USD 80 in Kazakhstan.
Belarus still has a slim chance of notching a point on oil duty issues. Viktor Khristenko, Chairman of the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission, emphasised that the issue of export duty on petroleum products was “the subject of bilateral agreements and until after a common market is created, will continue to be the subject of bilateral settlement”. Meanwhile, the Kremlin might consider some targeted compensations to Minsk.
When the time comes, the Belarusian government will sign the EEC founding treaty in a timely manner and on the Kremlin’s terms. Moscow reserves the right to control Minsk’s foreign policy by providing ‘hands-on’ support to Belarus, i.e. in small doses at the last moment.
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.