ROAR: “Belarus dependent on Russia as before”

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
Moscow does not want to politicize economic disagreements with Minsk, as the Belarusian leader wants to “diversify” his country’s foreign relations.

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has criticized the Russian government once again for “unfair terms” concerning bilateral trade. Although Minsk “signs serious documents, and agrees on large-scale accords” with its strategic ally Moscow it “cannot secure transparent and fair terms of mutual trade,” Lukashenko said.

He added that his country “should diversify” relations in economics, politics and diplomacy. The Belarusian leader also made it clear that Minsk would seek to make profit where it can find understanding.

Belarus is starting to seek “other niches and countries which understand us,” Lukashenko said. He noted that it is necessary to cooperate with other regions, not only with Russia or Europe. His state “has to work in any corner of the world” that is large enough, Lukashenko stressed.

Minsk recently brought a lawsuit against Russia in the Economic Court of the Commonwealth of Independent States over Moscow’s new export duties on refined petroleum products and raw materials.

Analysts say Minsk ships to the West two thirds of the oil it receives from Russia, but only pays full import duties on the oil it exports. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said that after creating the single economic space in 2012 all internal duties should be removed.

Lukashenko made his statements after he visited Venezuela and signed economic agreements with President Hugo Chavez. The Latin American country will supply Belarus with up to 80,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

The Belarusian leader wants to develop trade with Latin American, Asian and African countries, the media say, commenting on the statement. Vedomosti daily even described the situation as “a change of friends,” adding that Minsk is ready “to make Caracas and Beijing its trade partners instead of Moscow.”

Many analysts, however, describe the announced plans only as “political statements,” the daily said, adding that Minsk is unlikely to gain much after “the diversification.” The union between Minsk and Caracas is “rather an anti-western image project,” political analyst Yaroslav Romanchuk told the paper.

“The relations between Russia and Belarus have been uncertain for a long time,” said Evgenia Voyko of the Center for Political Conjuncture. Lukashenko has criticized the Russian Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin, as there have been arguments over dairy products and other disagreements, she noted.

In addition, Belarus was the last country that joined the Rapid Reaction Forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). “Of course, such an unclear position cannot receive a positive reaction from Moscow,” the analyst said.

“It should be noted that Aleksandr Lukashenko always has the position that is more profitable for him in the country he visits,” Voyko stressed. If he is in Russia, he is positive enough about the relations between the two countries, but visiting Ukraine recently he “indirectly” criticized Moscow, she added.

Analysts also note that Minsk has been seeking to improve ties with Washington. “Belarus is trying to find someone who will give it money,” political scientist Pavel Svyatenkov said. Moscow is not interested in financing Belarus in one way or another, and Belarus wants to demonstrate its opposition, he told Regnum news agency.

This explains Minsk’s attempts to improve relations with the US or the European Union, and get loans from China, the analyst said. However, the negotiations with the EU have not been not successful “because Brussels demanded democratization,” he said.

Meeting with US businessmen on March 29, Lukashenko said Minsk is ready to be friends with Washington, the agency noted. But trying to receive economic advantages where it is more profitable, “the Belarus side may cool relations not only with Russia, but also with an old opponent of the US – Hugo Chavez,” it noted.

Belarus is “not as important for Venezuela as Russia or China” because Minsk may bring much less to the Venezuelan economy,” the agency said. Minsk cannot give Caracas “all the arms it needs,” and the friendship with Lukashenko may end for Chavez “as suddenly as it began,” it added.

Observers note that the creation of the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan has not removed economic disagreements between Moscow and Minsk. Meeting on March 30 with Kanat Saudabaev, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister and the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Lukashenko criticized Russia for breaking the agreements on the creation of the Customs Union.

According to the Belarusian leader, “the conceptual idea” of the union is being changed because Russia is putting energy trade beyond the system of duty-free trade. Lukashenko again made it clear that “the Customs Union will not exist in this format,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily said.

Meanwhile, the Belarusian leader promised his support for Kazakhstan in the OSCE. But Minsk’s relations with this organization are not very easy, as well as with other countries, the daily said. However, Saudabaev noted that Belarus is going in the direction of “further political liberalization.”

Russian observers are more interested in the development of relations between Minsk and Moscow. “Belarus has managed to secure high economic growth and retain the Soviet structure of economy thanks to receiving cheap energy resources from Russia,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta said. Now the situation in Belarus “is dependent on Russia as before,” it noted.

At the same time, Moscow has reacted calmly so far to the criticism from the Belarusian leader. Moreover, the Russian authorities was positive about the fact that Minsk had appealed to economic court to solve the problem of oil duties, Vremya Novostey daily said, citing its sources.

“This is a good example of how intergovernmental issues should be solved – in a civilized manner rather than using pressure or PR,” the paper said. “The Kremlin seems to be pleased with the fact that Lukashenko has decided not to politicize this problem, and this time the officials who are obliged to do it will work.”

However, other sources in the Russian government said that the consideration of the problem in the economic court may last for a long time “while the bilateral talks may have brought a quicker result,” the daily said.

Nevertheless, both sides have “a clear understanding of perspectives,” the paper said. As the integration process reaches the point of forming a single economic space made up of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, this issue “will be removed together with the duties,” it added.

Sergey Borisov, RT
Russian Opinion and Analytics Review