ROAR: “Belarus tries to solve its economic problems at Russia’s expense”

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
The Russian and Belarusian presidents have exchanged criticism on the eve of the signing of the documents on the creation of the Customs Union.

The media commented on new statements of Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, who once again criticized the Russian leadership. The criticism came on the eve of Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergey Martynov’s visit to Moscow. Lukashenko’s comments also followed the interview that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave to Belarusian journalists on November 23.

Lukashenko described Medvedev’s meeting with Belarusian media as “absolutely senseless” and added that journalists who had been invited to Moscow “hate Russians.” Lukashenko told heads of state-run news agencies from the Commonwealth of Independent States on November 24 that “a negative image of Belarus” in the eyes of the Russian leadership has been created by the mass media.

Medvedev in his interview on November 23 “urged the Belarusian leader to be more self-restrained in his opinions of both the actions of the Russian government and, personally, [Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin,” Utro.ru website said.

The Russian president also stressed that Moscow wants to build a closer union with Belarus and does not influence Belarusian politics.

However, the main disagreements between Russia and Belarus “lie in the economic sphere,” Vremya Novostey daily said. “Russia has not provided us the promised loan, which we needed,” Lukashenko said, adding that “the IMF arrived and laid down terms, which we agreed to.”

Medvedev said that Russia had lent Belarus over $3 billion over the past two-and-a-half years, and that no one else receives such loans from Moscow.

At the same time, the Belarusian leader stressed that Minsk had not changed its political orientation to pro-Western, calling such allegations, “absurd and unconfirmed.”

The leaders of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are expected to sign a long-awaited deal on the Customs Union on November 27. They will meet in Minsk as part of a session of the Inter-State Council of the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) member states, and the Customs Union supreme body at the level of the heads of state. The union should start working on January 1, 2010.

Lukashenko was quoted as saying by the media that “the Customs Union means the strengthening of Russia’s positions.” He also expressed hope that “Belarus and Kazakhstan will not be left on the sidelines.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily noted in this regard that the Belarusian leader “recently said that there are a lot of things that have not been completely agreed to and infringe upon the interests of Belarus.”

The intentions of the countries signing the Customs Union are “serious,” but some problems remain, Leonid Vardomsky, head of the Center of Post-Soviet Studies, told the paper. The idea now is to start the realization of the project, he said. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan have different tax, customs and duties legislation, but all contradictions should be resolved by the Customs commission, he said.

The session of the inter-state council of the EurAsEC should strengthen trade and economic ties between the member states, said Maksim Minaev of the Center for Political Conjuncture. At the same time, the event should become “another tactical move as part of the course on pragmatic partnership” between Moscow and Minsk, the analyst added.

Some observers are not certain about Lukashenko’s tactics toward the Customs Union. Statements of Russian and Belarusian leaders allow analysts in Minsk to think that “the outcome on November 27 may be much unexpected,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote.

“Just a week before the signing of the historic document, when all principal issues seemed to have been solved, [Lukashenko] said at the special meeting with the government that Belarus is still considering the option of entering this Customs Union,” the paper said. The president told the government’s members that they had not studied well all the consequences if the country joins this organization, the paper added.

Leaders of Russia and Kazakhstan are trying to persuade Lukashenko “not to disrupt” this regional project, observers say. The very fact of the interview that Medvedev gave to Belarusian media is being treated by local journalists as his attempt “to soften the situation and demonstrate the readiness to discuss problems and the absence of deep offences,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta said.

Minsk wants to join the Customs Union, hoping to come “to an agreement with Russia about the energy supplies at reduced prices,” Vremya Novostey said, citing analysts in Belarus. “If this issue is not resolved, Minsk will not gain anything from joining the union,” the paper said.

Meanwhile analysts are arguing if the Customs Union is good for Russia itself. The idea of Russia’s joining the World Trade Organization as part of the Customs Union has been replaced recently by the possibility of Moscow joining the WTO separately, many observers say. However, Medvedev said, during the Russia-EU summit in Stockholm, that both options were still possible.

Andrey Suzdaltsev of the Higher School of Economics believes that the Customs Union project “is overloaded with political expediency.” Belarus and Kazakhstan rather than Russia will gain economic benefits from the union, the analyst told Finam.ru website.

Moscow’s partners in the union “are trying to solve their economic problems at Russia’s expense,” Suzdaltsev said. “Belarus is seeking unlimited crediting and energy supplies at reduced prices,” he stressed. “This means huge expenses for the Russian budget.”

The analyst predicts that the documents on the creation of the Customs Union will be signed in Minsk on November 27, but after it, the process of negotiating additional agreements and specifications may take a long time.

“The membership in the Customs Union will only add points to the Belarusian leader in his opposition to Moscow,” believes Olga Pavlenko of Russian State University for the Humanities. “Lukashenko since 2006 has actually developed a new foreign policy strategy – the arc between Russia and the European Union,” she told Finam.ru.

“If Russia begins to put forward demands that are unacceptable from Minsk’s point of view, Lukashenko starts talking to Moscow in the language of ultimatums,” she said. “That is why Russia makes serious concessions to the Belarusian side and seeks compromises,” she added.

At the same time, Moscow may be irritated by Minsk’s policies in the issue of recognizing two former Georgian republics, many observers think. Three groups of Belarusian parliamentarians have already visited Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Kommersant daily said. “But analysts still believe Belarus’s decision will depend on the outcome of President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s bargaining with Moscow,” the paper added.

He needs two things from Moscow – “money and guarantees that Moscow will at the very least remain neutral on the upcoming presidential elections,” the daily said, citing observers in Minsk.

“Belarus and Russia seem to be in the Union State, but we see that Lukashenko is pursuing his own policy,” Aleksandr Krylov of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations said. The Belarusian parliament sent six deputies to Abkhazia and South Ossetia and six to Georgia on November 17, the analyst noted.

Thus, Minsk made it clear that it still recognizes Georgia’s sovereignty over the two republics, Krylov said, adding that Belarus will now discuss this issue with Tbilisi. The Belarusian authorities will try to gain all possible political benefits from their steps in the issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the analyst added.

Now Lukashenko expects loans from Western countries, Krylov said. But the West in the conditions of the crisis “has considerably reduced financial assistance to post-Soviet countries,” he added.

The Russian president stressed in his interview with Belarusian journalists that Moscow had never asked other countries to recognize the former Georgian republics. “It’s the prerogative of each state whether to recognize or not,” he said.

Sergey Borisov, RT