On February 3, 2017, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko delivered an address, in which he claimed that Belarus can manage without Russian oil. He added that even though alternative oil suppliers may not be cost-effective, independence and freedom are numerically incalculable (See Appendix II).

Tensions between Belarus and Russia started when Russian authorities decided to create a border security zone along the Russian Federation’s border with Belarus. In January 2017, Minsk announced the introduction of a visa-free regime for citizens of 80 countries, including the United States and the European Union. However, Russia has a visa regime with all of these countries. Hence, visitors from the 80 countries in question can enter Russia without the knowledge of Russian authorities. For this reason, Russia started checks on flights from Belarus (See Appendix I). According to Belarus, introducing a border zone without warning Minsk contradicts the agreements on the border protection between the two countries.

However, the border zone is not the only problematic matter. Oil and gas are another  of the four main areas of disagreement between the two countries. The independent media outlet Meduza.io explained the issue in detail: “Previously, Russia agreed not to charge export duties on oil delivered to Belarus. As part of the agreement, some of the oil was also returned to Russian in the form of gasoline. However, Belarus itself exports gasoline to the West and charges export duties in the process. So, in effect, Russian oil goes to Europe. The Belarusian budget receives revenue, but the Russian budget does not… Negotiations on how much oil Russia is to supply Belarus on preferential terms and how much it gets back to gasoline are held almost every year and each time with tension. At the same time there is a conflict in regards to gas: Belarus believes that Gazprom should supply gas to Belarus at Russian domestic prices in light of the Union State (See Appendix I).

A third problem is that Russia’s Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance Rosselkhoznadzor, restricted imports from two Belarusian meat-packing plants, as “Moscow believes that forbidden Ukrainian beef has been entering Russia under the guise of Belarusian beef” (See Appendix I). The fourth source of discord is Minsk’s foreign relations with the West. Lukashenko may be tempted to steer his foreign policy towards the West, and choose a confrontational relation with Russia. However, several Russian analysts see this possibility as a remote one.

After Lukashenko’s speech, Russia and Belarus tried to find an understanding on the oil and gas issue. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said: “We haven’t completely agreed the issue, but indeed the sides have got closer in approaches and currently we’re at the stage of reporting to the leadership since there are issues left that require top-level decisions… But this does not mean that the sides have completely accepted the text since it still contains issues that we at our level are not entitled to solve.”[1]

Below are Russian media reactions to the Belarus-Russia tensions:

Description: Image result for lukashenko putin
Lukashenko and Putin (Source: Kremlin.ru)

Gazeta.ru: Without Russia, Belarus Is Doomed To Fail Financially

According to an editorial in Gazeta.ru, Lukashenko’s public statements prevent the conflict from subsiding quickly. An “orderly divorce” appears in the making, says the editorial. Lukashenko is not interested in completely disengaging from Russia, since the West is uneager to support the Belarusian economy. Therefore, Belarus without Russian economic assistance is doomed to financial crisis. Hence, Lukashenko won’t play geo-political games without external guarantees that he presently lacks.

(Gazeta.ru, February 3, 2017)

Aleksandr Zharikhin, deputy Director of the Institute of Former Soviet Union countries, commented: “It’s Lukashenko’s style… He provokes some waves in press and political establishment. Liberals begin to say that ‘even Lukashenko is drifting away from us, we will be left alone with only North Korea, we are such a criminal regime.’ Communists sing a different tune and say ‘oh no they are again offending Belarus that preserved the Soviet Union and they should give them things for free.’. Then he comes to Moscow, accompanied by such a choir, to conduct negotiations on oil and gas prices and trying to obtain better terms. Sometimes he even succeeds in that. I think we should not be dealing seriously with this kookiness – Everyone clearly understands, that he has nowhere else to go to “.

(Mk.ru, February 3, 2017)

Russian Journalist Kolesnikov: ‘Psychologically, Lukashenko Is Closer To Ukraine Rather Than To Russia’

Russian journalist Andrey Kolesnikov, senior associate and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, took a different approach. Kolesnikov believes that Belarus is drifting towards the West and if Lukashenko were removed it could even wind up in the EU. Therefore, the Russian formula “He [Lukashenko] has nowhere to go to aside from us” no longer appears to be working. Kolesnikov wrote: “For Belarus’ President it is obvious that the Putin elites treat his country as they treat Ukraine – a fragment of the ‘Russian world’, ‘crippled state’. That’s why he is so sensitive for the hybrid war of the Russian satellites with Ukraine, and that’s why he treats the Ukrainian independence with care. Psychologically, Lukashenko is closer to Ukraine rather than to Russia – this, nevertheless, won’t cause him to curb the political maneuvering since this is the sole means of [assuring] his political existence and survival.”

(Rbc.ru, February 3, 2017)

Editor-In-Chief Of Echo Moscow Venediktov: ‘Lukashenko Understands That Belarus May Be Taken Over’

According to Alexey Venedictov, editor in chief of Echo Moscow radio station, Lukashenko feels that Belarus’ sovereignty is at stake. Venedictov stated: “You have to realize that if Putin considers Russians and Ukrainians to be the same nation, then for him Russians and Belarusians are definitely the same nation. This means that Lukashenko understands that Belarus may be absorbed by Russia first economically and then politically. Lukahsenko’s most recent actions, after Russia has demonstrated its desire to accumulate lands are to flee backwards to the West while looking Putin straight in the eye. I mean he was nodding to Putin while moving back. His mission was to prove that Belarus is a sovereign accomplished state… ”

According to Venedictov, Lukashenko does not want to repeat the fate of Ukraine with separatists in Eastern Ukraine– he is fully aware of Russian troops stationed in his country. “The Belarusian leadership, I think, feel a very serious threat to their country’s independence: foreign troops on the ground, economics is dependent, energy supplier refuse to negotiate. Thus, they demonstrate their desire to move to the West without averting their faces from Russia.”

(Echo.msk.ru, February 2, 2017)

Konstantin Zatulin, first deputy chairman of the State Duma committee for the CIS and relations with Russian nationals abroad and Director of the Institute of Former Soviet Union countries, commented: “The presence or absence of borders is a matter of trust. If there is a trust – there is no border, and vice-versa. In recent years, the Belarusian leadership is ruining the existing trust. [Belarus] did not support Russia regarding the Abkhazia and South Ossetia issues [with Georgia], in 2014 it distanced itself from our position regarding prevention of a genocide of the Russian population in Ukraine. If he [Lukashenko] will continue his path towards ruining the relations between Russia and Belarus, he won’t become a hero for Europe, but will become the Moor who has done his duty and [the Moor] can go.”

(Mk.ru, February 6, 2017)

Political Scientist Korgunuyk: Lukashenko Achieved What He Wanted In The First Place

Yury Korgunyuk, head of the political science department of the INDEM Foundation, thinks that Lukashenko managed to emerge victorious from the recent tension. Korgunyuk stated: “Lukashenko sets the bar high, then makes small concessions, and in the end achieves a significant part of what he wanted in the first place… The Kremlin realizes that the Lukashenko regime can’t function without these subsidies [gas prices], and he will have to be subsidized to avoid another Ukraine.”

(Rbth.com, February 16, 2017)

APPENDIX I – Russia Is In A Quarrel With Belarus The Major Conflicts Which Have Contributed To Worsening Relations Between Moscow And Minsk – Meduza.io, February 3, 2017.

Independent media outlet Meduza.io prepared and extensive background analysis on the rising tensions between the Russia and Belarus. Meduza.io wrote:

“In early February 2017, relations between Russia and Belarus deteriorated sharply.Moscow decided to restore the border security zone on the border between the two countries. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused Russia of violating an existing border agreement and complained about Russia’s ‘political attacks.’ The border security zone is not the only fragile point in relations between Russia and Belarus. In fact, the two countries are in conflict in regards to at least four essential questions:

1. The border

“In 1995, Russia and Belarus are united in the ‘Union State’, a measure that completely eliminated border controls. This was convenient for the residents of the two countries, but made it difficult to monitor the movement of the nationals of other countries.

“Russian Federation and Belarus have different visa rules with other countries. In January 2017, Belarus announced the introduction of a visa-free regime for citizens of 80 countries, including the United States and the European Union, entering the country through Minsk airport. Citizens of these countries will be able to stay in Belarus for up to five days without visas. The visa-free regime will come into force in the first half of February. Russia has a visa regime with all of these nations. In light of Belarus’s new visa-free regime, any visitor from the countries in question can enter the Russian Federation without the knowledge of Russian authorities.

“Moscow did not like Belarus’s decisions and began introducing passport checks on flights from Minsk. Shortly thereafter, the FSB demanded that a full-fledged border security zone be introduced along the border. Russia chose to restore the border without Belarus’s approval, though Moscow claims that the new security measures will not affect the movement of Belarusian and Russian citizens. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has accused Moscow of violating their earlier agreement.

2. Oil and gas

“Modern oil-processing infrastructure and refineries were built on Belarusian soil during the Soviet era. But they process Russian oil. It is profitable for Russia to supply oil to Belarus, partly because Belarus produces relatively cheap gasoline and petroleum-based products.

“Previously, Russia agreed not to charge export duties on oil delivered to Belarus. As part of the agreement, some of the oil was also returned to Russian in the form of gasoline. However, Belarus itself exports gasoline to the West and charges export duties in the process. So, in effect, Russian oil goes to Europe. The Belarusian budget receives revenue, but the Russian budget does not. ‘There are international treaties and agreements, and one [official] put an end to all agreements with the stroke of a pen,’ said Lukashenko.

“Negotiations on how much oil Russia is to supply Belarus on preferential terms and how much it gets back to gasoline are held almost every year and each time with tension.

“At the same time there is a conflict in regards to gas: Belarus believes that Gazprom should supply gas to Belarus at Russian domestic prices in light of the Union State. The gas monopoly does not agree with this. Sometimes Belarus allows a significant delay in renewing gas contracts (Gazprom estimates, Minsk’s debt amounted to $340 million for just a portion of 2016). Moscow responds to this by reducing it supply of oil.

At the end of 2016, the oil and gas dispute between Russia and Belarus became especially antagonistic, with mutual accusations and the involvement of high-level politicians (Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev even made a public comment). At the beginning of 2017, Alexander Lukashenko said: ‘Reductions of oil supplies from the Russian Federation should be [compensated for] by alternatives.’

“At a February 3 press conference, Lukashenko’s rhetoric became even harsher: ‘What is the point? Why grab ourselves by the throat? It is clear that we can do without Russian oil. It will be very difficult,’ said the president.

3. Foodstuffs

“One of the foundations of the Belarusian economy is the export of agricultural products. Russian farmers often complain about the tangible presence of Belarusian goods in the local market. Sometimes, this leads to collisions such as the 2009 ‘milk war’.

“Things became more complicated with Russia’s introduction of counter-sanctions against the West. Forbidden goods enter Russia through Belarus. Minsk has refused to impose a ban on imports. In the absence of proper borders, forbidden foodstuff is easy to deliver into Russia and has become a profitable business.

“At the end of January 2017, Russia’s agriculture watchdog [Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance] Rosselkhoznadzorrestricted imports from two Belarusian meat-packing plants, as Moscow believes that forbidden Ukrainian beef has been entering Russia under the guise of Belarusian beef. On February 3, Alexander Lukashenko demanded that criminal proceedings be introduced against the head of the RosselkhoznadzorSergey Dankvert for ‘damage to the state.’

4. Relations with the West

“Belarus’s foreign policy has changed dramatically in the last decade. Earlier, Alexander Lukashenko’s rhetoric was, as a rule, pro-Russian and anti-Western. But from the second half of the 2000s onward, the Belarusian leader has been favoring Europe. In 2014, Lukashenko did not support Russia on the Ukrainian question. What is more, he tried to arrange a meeting for the signing of the Minsk agreements.

“In 2015, Alexander Lukashenko agreed to pardon political prisoners, after which the European Union lifted sanctions against him. ‘I am no longer Europe’s last dictator. There are dictators who are worse than I am, is that not true?‘ said Lukashenko in an interview with Bloomberg.

“By contrast, Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated. Sanctions have been imposed against Russia and Vladimir Putin’s inner circle (though not the Russian president himself) as a result of the Ukrainian conflict and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Lukashenko explicitly states that Moscow is afraid of Belarus turning towards the West, and does nothing to allay Moscow’s fears.”

APPENDIX II – Lukashenko’s Press Conference

On February 3, the Belarus President delivered a 7.5-hour-long press conference, an extensive part of which was devoted to deteriorating relations with Russia. The meeting was dubbed as Big Conversation With the President. The official presidential web-site failed to provide the complete read-out of the press-conference either in Russian or in English. However, the presidential website provided a summary of the most important quotes:

1. Lukashenka said: “You know these tensions – it’s not the first time they are happening. Russia for numerous times tried to make advantage of oil or gas pipelines (i.e. used oil/gas issue as a means of coercion). After these conflicts, even if unpublicized, I was always told: sorry, we’ve been a bit heated up a bit… Ok, heated up, but… why do [you] hold us by the throat? We will manage without Russian oil – it’s clear. They will say, another path [oil suppliers] is not cost-effective, not effective at all, but the independence, freedom – you can’t calculate their value in cash it is numerically incalculable. It’s non-comparable. We will find our way out anyway. Russia, unfortunately, does not understand it.”

2. “I never look for troubles. I’ve tried it all and have gotten burnt. I may be flexible and retreat when needed, but when they insult my country and my people, I can’t live with that. ”

3. “During the press conference Lukashenko suggested to his Minister of Interior [Igor Shunevich] to initiate a criminal investigation against Russian Agricultural Agency head that banned import to Russia of Belarus food products. The criminal investigation should be convened under the premise of ‘causing extensive damage to the state’.”

4. “Speaking about contraband, through Belarus (mainly foodstuff banned for import to Russia as a counter measure to the Western sanctions), to Russia, Lukashenko accused the Russian customs of total corruption. According to him, Belarus has provided documents to Russia regarding corrupt practices and persons, but nothing has been done.”

5. “We are not Ukraine; We are not anti-Russia. We do not aspire to join NATO. We strictly keep our mutual agreement for [joint] defense of our [mutual] land space. I do not know this conflict to get from the up to bottom. That’s why I’m asking you – never offend Russians. They are our people. They come here for vacations. Presidents come and go – people stay. That’s the main point. And eventually we’ll get to the agreement.”

6. “If someone thinks that Russia is ‘bringing its troops’ here they will load a few thousand railroad wagons and occupy us, don’t be naïve. …You can’t wage a war on the railway platforms… During the upcoming drills (West-2017) the troops will be deployed to certain fire ranges. They will set up a camp, deliver a certain amount of rounds in order to hit the targets during exercises. Their camp – and our camp. It’s all under control. Russia will never occupy Belarus. And we will hold the drills because the defense of our motherland is a sacred duty.”

(President.gov.by, February 3, 2017)

The Russian RBC news agency provided a slightly different quotation on the issue: “If someone thinks that Russia is already loading a few thousand railway wagons [with soldiers and equipment] and will occupy us by deploying its forces – don’t be naïve. What, Russia has gone nuts and forgot how to wage a war? How could you fight with railway platforms? The forces will be deployed and they will leave the same way. We don’t even talk about this possibility at the moment [of occupation]…. Everything is under control.”

(Rbc.ru, February 3, 2017)

RBC provides more quotes by Lukashenko: “Russia is concerned that we waived visas for foreigners to visit Belarus. Russia is concerned that some undesirable may enter Russia through Belarus, but Russia itself provides entrance to various people, including former terrorists. We don’t want to impose visas. We think that from their visit we will earn more money. We restore contacts, we position ourselves as the center of Euroasia – this is normal and civilized. How can that center be isolated?”

On Russia, Trump and Jews: “I’m surprised by the [Russian] motivation – “Trump took the office, so, you Belarusians should not count on too much” I said many times – including to the Russian leadership – don’t you make things worse for Trump… When we discussed this problem with Putin I told him: “Imagine, we sit at the negotiations table – you, me and Trump. And he has this slogan: “Make America great again”. So, what wagon you’ll be sitting in? They won’t let you to the first class – will you agree to sit in wagon number 27? No. I would also not agree. Then, how do we react? You, nominated Trump for president and now he is bad? Obama was bad, and now Trump is also bad? You have to understand that America elected the pro-American president – not a pro-Russian or pro-Belarusian. He is not such a stupid person as many think. There lots of clever people in America – 80% are Jews, you can’t say they are stupid. This nation is far from stupid.”

(Rbc.ru, February 3, 2017)

The independent media outlet Meduza.io reported also the following Lukashenko’s quote, regarding border controls: “As far I’m informed this has to do with some certain points on the ground – points of reference. So, there is a question – did Russia begin demarcating the border? This is a matter for negotiations. This may lead to a serious conflict. We did not agree how it’s going to be implemented on the ground …you definitely don’t want to grab other’s territory.”

(Meduza.io, February 3, 2017)

APPENDIX III – Comment By The Kremlin’s Press Service On Russian-Belarusian Relations – Kremlin.ru, February 3, 2017

On February 3, the Kremlin press service published on its website the following comments on Lukashenko’s speech: “In connection with the recent statements made by Belarusian leaders, the Press Service of the President of Russia notes that Moscow prioritizes the tasks and objectives of continuing the integration processes. Moscow also emphasizes the continuing development of the Union State of Russia and Belarus.

“Russia has provided and continues to provide wide-ranging economic, political and other assistance to Belarus, considering the special allied nature of our relations. From 2011 until 2015, between 18 million and 23 million tons of oil was supplied to our Belarusian partners duty free. As a result, during that period, the Russian budget was off by $22.3 billion. All of this is nothing if not direct and indirect support for Belarus.

“In addition, $2.5 billion worth of loans were extended to our Belarusian colleagues via the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development.

“Any economic or commercial disputes that may have arisen will be dealt with calmly through business-like negotiations. Russia hopes the current economic disagreements will be resolved in the course of such negotiations.

Moscow is certainly puzzled by claims against the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Supervision (Rosselkhoznadzor) and the decision by the President of Belarus to open a criminal case against its chief, Sergei Dankvert. This federal service performs its functions meticulously and efficiently.

In connection with a number of critical remarks regarding the Russian-Belarusian border, it should be noted that no border regime has been imposed. This only concerns the introduction of border zones in areas adjacent to the border. It is related to the need to regulate visits to border areas by citizens from other countries.

“This step has no and can have no consequences for the citizens of the Union State, that is, citizens of Russia and Belarus. A corresponding order by the Federal Security Service was published after thorough analysis and coordination with the Ministry of Justice on compliance with Russia’s international obligations and treaties.

“This decision is nothing new. On September 4, 2014, the President of Belarus signed Executive Order No. 433 that regulates the establishment of border areas within territorial-administrative entities adjacent to the Russian-Belarusian border. The signing of this Executive Order was necessitated by the interests of ensuring border security, as well as ensuring a corresponding level of cooperation in countering illegal migration, drug trafficking and smuggling.

“This argumentation is absolutely just and well substantiated, and in this case the Russian Border Service follows the same path. It would therefore be a mistake to associate these measures with a violation by Russia of its international obligations, international or interstate treaties. Moscow hopes that the timeframe for holding a meeting of the Union State Supreme State Council will be coordinated in the foreseeable future in order to discuss the entire range of issues on the agenda.”