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Brest ultimatum: What does Russia want from Belarus?

Author : Georgiy Kuhaleyshvili

The political council of the oppositional United Civil Party, called Medvedev’s rhetoric in Brest an offer to the citizens of Belarus “to give up sovereignty and independence and involve the country in confrontation and war”
22:37, 17 December 2018

AFP

The Russian-Belarusian contradictions have reached their apogee. During the meeting of the Union State Council of Ministers (integration community of Russia and Belarus, founded in December 1999) in Brest, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in the ultimatum form offered the Belarusian colleagues a choice of two formats for the development of Russian-Belarusian relations. Either preservation of the existing nature of cooperation without deepening integration to the level stipulated by the agreement on the creation of the Union State, or deeper integration, including the creation of a single emission center (Belarus should use the Russian ruble), a single customs service, court, the Accounts Chamber.

Medvedev's statement drew criticism from the authorities and the opposition in Belarus. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko gave a press conference to Russian journalists and said that it is useless to blackmail his country and Russia will never be able to divide it into areas and include in its territory. At the same time, the Belarusian leader does not deny that both countries are supposed to follow the path of integration. The political council of the oppositional United Civil Party, called Medvedev’s rhetoric in Brest an offer to the citizens of Belarus “to give up sovereignty and independence and involve the country in confrontation and war” in the context of the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, confrontation with a significant part of the international community and failure of economic integration.

Lukashenko's unfulfilled dreams

The idea of the Union State of Russia and Belarus has been discussed since the 90s, and Lukashenko himself proposed it to former President Boris Yeltsin. In 1997 an agreement on the Union of Belarus and Russia was signed, and in 1999 sides signed an agreement on the creation of a Union State. These agreements provided for the creation of a federal-type state entity with a common parliament, government, judicial and tax systems, a common currency and a common political, economic, military, customs, currency, legal, humanitarian and cultural space. In the late 1990s, Lukashenko had ambitions to take the helm of the Russian-Belarusian federation and gain access to the natural wealth and finances of the eastern neighbor. However, the idea of creating a union state remained on paper, with the exception of the emergence of several supranational bodies and the media.

In 2005-06 Russia and Belarus were unable to agree on the introduction of a single currency. Moscow insisted that the Russian ruble should become the common currency of the Union State, and Minsk demanded solid compensation for the rejection of the Belarusian ruble. By 2011, the idea of the Union State of Russia and Belarus was ousted by the draft of the Customs Union, and since 2015 - the Eurasian Economic Union, which ideologist was President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev. The opinion of the Belarusians themselves about the Union State has changed. If, at the 1995 referendum, 83.3% of the citizens of Belarus supported economic integration with the Russian Federation, then in 2009, according to a survey of the Institute for Strategic Studies, 20% of Belarusians supported the creation of the Union State and only 14% - joining Russia.

The Kremlin began to exploit the theme of the Union State in the ideological plane as a symbol of the revival of the USSR sphere of influence to meet its imperial ambitions. There is no expediency of including Belarus into Russia, since the country is already dependent on its eastern neighbor in the economic sphere, and sits tightly on the oil and gas needle. The Belarusian economy is focused on the Russian market. Moscow is the main trading partner of Minsk, and last year its share in foreign trade turnover was 51.7%. Russia is a major creditor of Belarus and has provided $ 6.3 billion in loans (the national debt of the country is $ 16.4 billion). In the opinion of the civil campaign “European Belarus” coordinator Dmitry Bondarenko, part of pensions and wages in Belarus are paid at the expense of loan funds. Lukashenko believes that it takes $ 1.2 billion a year to service Russian loans.

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De facto, Belarus is in the orbit of the military-political influence of Russia, since it is part of the CSTO bloc, dominated by Russia. The Russian army regularly conducts "Zapad" military exercises on the territory of Belarus and since 1995 has been keeping its military facilities under Vileyka ("Antey"communications center of the Russian Navy) and Baranovichi (Volga radar station). Although the Lukashenko regime does not support Russia's aggression in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea, does not agree to the creation of a Russian airbase near Bobruisk, it does not seek to join the EU and NATO, which the Kremlin is perfectly satisfied with. The reason for Medvedev’s harsh rhetoric in Brest was not Russia's desire to annex Belarus but the existing contradictions in relations between the two countries.

The eternal gas dispute between Moscow and Minsk

Recently, relations between Russia and Belarus are experiencing another cooling due to contradictions over the price of Russian natural gas. Medvedev's statement in Brest was being made a week later after the summit of the Eurasian Economic Union on December 6, where Lukashenko disputed with Russian President Vladimir Putin over this issue. The Belarusian leader was outraged by the fact that Russia sells natural gas for Belarusian consumers at a price of $ 129 per thousand cubic meters, while in the Smolensk region, it costs $ 70. Putin said that the gas for Belarus is much cheaper than for Germany - $ 250 per thousand cubic meters, and a single gas market for Moscow and Minsk should appear by 2025.

Russians do not want to act in favor of Lukashenko. In July 2018, the Ministry of Economic Development of the Russian Federation predicted that in 2018-20 the price of natural gas for Belarus will be at the level of 132.2 dollars per thousand cubic meters, and by 2024 it will drop to 122.2 dollars. Last year, Belarus imported 19 billion cubic meters of natural gas from the Russian Federation at a higher price - $ 149 per thousand cubic meters. Russians do not see the point in making big discounts to Belarusian partners, because they don’t even try to reduce their energy dependence on Russia. In the first half of 2018, Belarusians imported over 10.10 billion cubic meters of natural gas from the Russian Federation - a record high amount since 2013 (10.39 billion cubic meters). In addition, Russia plans to invest in the modernization of the gas transmission system of Belarus to reduce the volume of transit of natural gas through Ukraine. In June, Putin promised to invest about $ 2.5 billion in upgrading the Belarusian section of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline by 2020 and invest over $ 1 billion in the construction of new underground gas storage facilities. These costs need to be recouped.

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In order to put pressure on Lukashenko, the Kremlin decided to use his rhetoric at the summit of the Eurasian Economic Union against him. Say, if the Belarusians want the price of gas the same as in Russia, then let them sacrifice their sovereignty. Putin used a similar method of pressure in 2006 when he suggested that Lukashenko should include the six regions of Belarus in Russia. Then between Russia and Belarus there was also a dispute around the price of gas. Gazprom offered Belarusians to pay $ 80 per thousand cubic meters of gas, and the remaining part of the price to cover by the transfer of company "Beltransgaz" 50% shares (in 2011, Gazprom completely bought this company). However, the Belarusian authorities insisted that the price of natural gas is the same as for the Smolensk region ($ 39.58 per thousand cubic meters for the population and $ 54.15 per thousand cubic meters for industry).

Subject for bargaining of presidents

With his statement in Brest, Medvedev created a subject for bargaining at the upcoming talks between Presidents Lukashenko and Putin on December 25. The Kremlin understands that Lukashenko will not go for deeper integration with Russia, including switching to the ruble, but will oppose the idea of acquiring natural gas at a price that Germany pays. Apparently, the Kremlin owner will twist the Belarusian president’s hands and force him to be compliant on other problematic issues in bilateral relations, in exchange for agreeing to maintain the existing gas price.

Between Russia and Belarus there is a dispute about the mechanism of compensation to the Belarusian authorities for the budget losses due to the so-called "tax maneuver." In 2019-2024, the export duty on oil in Russia will decrease from 30% to 0% and the mineral extraction tax will increase when oil is extracted by the amount of reduction in export duties. Since Belarus already buys Russian oil on preferential terms and does not pay duties, the “black gold” from Russia will be more expensive for the Belarusian oil refineries. Despite talk of the need to diversify oil imports, Belarusian refineries continue to use Russian raw materials. Because of the tax maneuver in Russia, the budget of Belarus will lose 10.8 billion dollars.

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By the end of 2019, the Russian authorities banned the sale of various types of petroleum products to Belarus, with the exception of those that are not produced at local refineries. Until recently, Russians supplied gasoline, diesel fuel to Belarusians, which they then resold to other countries, including Ukraine. In the future, it is planned to introduce duties on deliveries of dark oil products to Belarus and to reduce the export of light oil products from 2 million to 300 thousand tons per year. According to Igor Yushkov, an analyst from the National Energy Security Foundation, no more than 500 thousand tons of oil products per year are needed for the needs of the petrochemical industry of Belarus. In the first half of 2018, Belarusians bought 2.35 million tons of petroleum products in the Russian Federation at an average price of $ 390 per ton and resold them on foreign markets at a price of $ 521 per ton.

Belorussian Prime Minister Sergei Rumas believes that Russia creates barriers for Belarusian enterprises to trade, imposes bans on Belarusian products, which has led to an increase in the negative balance of $ 3.3 billion in bilateral trade over the past 10 months. The most striking example of this trend is the "milk wars" of 2009-2018. From time to time the Rosselkhoznadzor imposes a ban on the import of Belarusian dairy products. The last such ban applied to 4 Belarusian enterprises in June-July of this year. Russia acts on the grounds of protectionism and is trying to influence the reduction in the supply of Belarusian products in the interests of Russian dairy plants that can not compete in the domestic market. According to Lukashenko, Russia is leading the "milk war" to establish control over the Belarusian dairy industry. Russian journalists Nadezhda Ivanitskaya and Maxim Shveits believe that Russian business was interested in buying 12 Belarusian dairy plants in 2009.

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Possible blow to Ukraine

Demarche of Medvedev in Brest is widely highlighted in Ukrainian media. There were disturbing reports about Russia's desire to join our northern neighbor. In particular, our publications spread the opinion of the Belarusian journalist Denis Lavnikevich, who believes that Ukraine should be “morally prepared” for the appearance of Russian troops along the northern border if Lukashenko loses power.

However, this is more of the scary stories. But the real threat to the energy security of Ukraine is the prospect of Russia reducing the supply of petroleum products to Belarus and manipulating the tax maneuver. Russia is creating obstacles to the re-export of its oil products from Belarus in order to make an asymmetric blow to the energy security of Ukraine. Last year, Ukraine’s share in the export of petroleum products from Belarus was 29%. Oil products from Belarus account for 40% of the fuel import structure of Ukraine.

Ghost of Anschluss

The accession of Belarus to Russia is unlikely to occur, but this does not mean that this scenario should be written off. Until 2014, just a few people could have imagined Russia's aggression in Ukraine, but it happened. Belarusian journalist Denis Lavnikevich compared Medvedev's ultimatum with the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938) and suggests a change of power in Belarus. In 2016, Oleg Volchek, a member of the Central Committee of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, admitted the likelihood of a referendum in Belarus on changing the text of the constitution and the possible inclusion of provisions on the Union State in the main law. He called "West-2017" military exercises the quiet occupation, during which a large amount of cargo of the Russian army was moved to Belarus. According to the Belarusian journalist Alexander Yaroshevich, referring to sources from the center-right party "Belarusian Popular Front", there are about ten organizations in Belarus that are associated with the Russian embassy, which can be used to destabilize the situation in the republic before an armed invasion.

This scenario has already been worked out in eastern Ukraine, when, after the annexation of Crimea, demonstrations of the “Russian world” organized by Kremlin agents who tried to overthrow local authorities began to be held in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Odesa, Mariupol. Until the beginning of the 2000s, the right-wing radical organization “Russian National Unity” operated in Belarus, in which ranks was Pavel Gubarev, one of the leaders of the Donetsk separatists.. According to a survey by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, in the event Russia attempts to seize Belarus by force, 19% of Belarusians are ready to defend independence with arms, while 47% are going to adapt to the changes, and 15% welcome the aggressors.

The scenario of the “Russian Spring” with the introduction of Russian troops in Belarus and the subsequent inclusion of the country into Russia under the pretext of building the Union State is possible as an extreme measure if opposition liberal-democratic forces come to power in Belarus and the country's foreign policy changes in direction to the EU and NATO. There is no single opinion about this. The leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, Nikolai Statkevich, believes that the Belarusian society is tired of Lukashenko. However, all the levers of governing the country and control over the power block are in the hands of the president and his entourage, and the influence of the opposition is minimized. After 1994, the Belarusian Social Democrats and representatives of other parties have never been able to bypass Lukashenko at elections.

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