Why is Russia Sticking it to Belarus, its Closest Ally in Europe?

Belarus, which is known as "the last dictatorship in Europe," has long been Russia's most faithful ally and client state.

With the advent of the novel coronavirus crisis, though, that might just be changing.

To start, Russia seems to be inexplicably squeezing its only ally in Europe, and at a time of trouble. The crisis has caused major drop in energy prices, but Russia keeps refusing to reduce the costs of its natural gas to Belarus. The two countries recently signed an agreement on prices, leaving one to conclude that Russia does not seem to be willing to keep subsidizing Belarus's Soviet-style economy any more.

Failing to find common ground with Russia on oil prices, Belarus recently started importing crude from countries such as Norway, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan. It's a sign that Minsk aims to cut down on imports of Russian oil to about 40 percent, which may have a strong impact on the Belarusian economy, as Russian crude is much cheaper than other imports, with lower transport costs. Until now, Belarus has always benefited from buying subsidized oil products from its neighbor and re-exporting them, just as Cuba has done with its Venezuelan oil imports.

In May, Russia banned imports of refined oil products, including gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel to protect its refining industry from cheap imports, including imports from Belarus. Belarus will be heavily affected by this measure, as the country had been refining Russian oil and then selling it back to Russia. Clearly, the Kremlin does not intend to make any concessions to Minsk.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently rejected the possibility of imposing a unit gas price for members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) price because "it can only be implemented in a single market with a single budget and a single tax system." Both Russia and Belarus, are members of this entity that exists mainly on paper. In reality, the two countries, as well as Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, have numerous disputes and can hardly agree on some very basic issues such as common prices, taxes, and tariffs, let alone big geopolitical topics. Russia has been using the EEU as a tool in order to solidify its influence over Minsk, Nur-Sultan, Yerevan and Bishkek, the capitals of these member states.

However, it does not treat all the EEU member-states equally. For Moscow, energy-rich Kazakhstan has far greater importance than Belarus, which many Russian policy makers see as a client state, or even some sort of an energy vampire since it constantly demands lower energy prices from Russia.

Gazprom chief Alexey Miller said that the Russian gas giant will be ready to negotiate gas deliveries to Belarus in the period starting 2021 only after the issue of Belarus' gas debt, which amounts to $165.6 million, is settled. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, on the other hand, accused Moscow of selling natural gas to Europe at the price under $70 per thousand cubic meters, while Belarus has to pay $127. Armenia, another Russian ally, is paying an even higher price - $165 per thousand cubic meters. That way Russia is clearly demonstrating its policy of double standards. It often makes concessions to rich Western nations, yet at the same time charges its closest allies extremely high prices. The Kremlin is quite aware that countries such as Belarus and Armenia are heavily dependent on Russia and that they can hardly make any political maneuvers that would push them away from Russia's geopolitical orbit.

In the case of Belarus, Russia remains its primary trade and energy partner. The Eastern European country serves as an important transit route between Russia and Europe, hosting the world’s largest oil pipeline, Druzhba, which goes from Russia to Western Europe. Most Belarusian exports go to Russia, and the country also hosts two Russian military bases. Even though the two countries are allies through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow also has reportedly refused to work with Belarus on missile development.

The rhetoric from Belarus's leader has been getting negative, too: “Do not kneel in front of Russians. By refusing to collaborate in developing this missile and by refusing to provide even a testing area they are sending us a signal,” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said.

In an attempt to show Russians that Belarus has an alternative to its alliance with Moscow, Lukashenko expressed his desire to discuss possible cooperation in rocket construction with China's President Xi Jinping. Due to Lukashenko’s flirting with China and the West, some analysts have speculated that Russia might eventually turn Belarus into another Ukraine, either by invading and annexing the country or else by trying to destabilize it. The cultural and linguistic similarities between the two nations is closer than even that of Russia and Ukraine, and talk has been rife for years about merging the two countries.

But this point, Minsk's leaders see no risk of becoming another Ukraine. Even if Lukashenko radically shifts away from Russia, or if the nationalist anti-Russian opposition ever somehow comes to power in Belarus, the perception in Belarus is that it is very unlikely that Moscow will ever militarily intervene in it the same way it did in Crimea and the Donbass. For Russia, the Donbass region, in eastern Ukraine, is significant due to its energy resources, primarily coal. In Crimea, Moscow controls vast offshore oil and gas resources in the Black Sea, estimated between 4-13 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Since Belarus does not have any natural resources, a land grab in Belarus is unlikely to be one of the Kremlin’s priorities, because its policy decisions are primarily driven by economics.

As long as Lukashenko is in power, Moscow and Minsk will likely stay formal allies. But on the ground, Belarus will have no choice but to find ways to diversify from Russia, as the Kremlin is unlikely to change its energy policy to benefit Belarus. Without that cheap oil and gas, the Belarusian economy is expected to weaken, and it could get even worse for the country if relations with the Kremlin deteriorate: Russia also could easily close its market for Belarusian goods, which would create even more economic hardship for Belarus.

If that happens, Belarus's export-oriented economy will be in trouble, and Lukashenko may face social unrest. That, however, does not mean the Kremlin will use the situation and invade the country, as that would mean feeding additional nine million people. Instead, Russian officials will likely keep pressuring Belarus to make concessions regarding a deeper integration into the Russia-Belarus Union State. Finally, the Kremlin may insist that Lukashenko sell some of Belarus's most successful state-owned companies to Russian oligarchs, which is something he has been refusing to do for the past two decades.

Given the fact that the coronavirus has already brought many changes to international politics, relations between Belarus and Russia will not be the same as they were before the “war against the invisible enemy.” Even though Alexander Lukashenko is expected to win the presidential election scheduled for August 9, a battered economy with little reason to expect better may mean that his sixth term in office could be his last one.

Nikola Mikovic is a Serbian freelance journalist. He has written for CGTN, Tsarizm (reprinted at RealClearWorld), Global Comment, and Weekly Blitz, among others. Nikola is also a regular contributor to KJ Reports YouTube geopolitical channel. He mostly covers the foreign policies of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, as well as energy issues.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain


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