By David Marples
The press services of the presidencies of Russia and Belarus have announced that the leaders of these countries, Dmitry Medvedev and Alyaksandr Lukashenka, will meet in Brest on June 22. It will be the first bilateral meeting of the two presidents. Reportedly, the meeting is taking place on Russia's initiative (Itar-Tass, June 10), though it is also speculated that Lukashenka invited his Russian counterpart earlier to take part in the ceremonies for what is known as the Day of Grief and Memory, the day that the German army invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 (Belorusy i Rynok, June 16).
The symbolism of the summit is all too evident. One of the few tangible results of the so-called Union State to date has been the production of a documentary film under the working title "Krepost'" (Fortress) at a cost from the Union budget of about $9 million (BG Delovaya Gazeta, June 13). The defense of the Brest fortress in June and July 1941 lasted more than six weeks and remains one of the few examples of Soviet resistance against the enemy in the early stages of the German-Soviet war. Lukashenka visits there regularly, and the Orthodox cross at the Fortress was consecrated by Metropolitan Filaret, the Patriarchal Exarch of Belarus, on May 12 (BelTA, May 13).
But why is Medvedev coming to Belarus now? In early June when Lukashenka attended the CIS summit in St. Petersburg, the new Russian president held meetings with several CIS leaders but notably not with the Belarusian president (www.charter97.org, June 10). Officials suggested that the two had little to discuss and that relations were "normal," but such diplomatic niceties could hardly conceal the coldness between the former fraternal countries as the two sides have failed to reach agreement on elevating the Russian ruble as the common currency of the Union State or on the future of gas prices and the possibilities for Russian businesses in Belarus.
On paper, Lukashenka's state is thriving. The Ministry of Statistics reports that between January and May, GDP rose by 10.4 percent over the same period last year. Industrial output increased by 13.3 percent compared to an annual target of 8-9 percent, and food production by almost 15 percent (BelTA, June 16, http://news.belta.by/en/news/econom?id=234573). Beneath the facade of growth and progress, however, the energy issue and relationship with Russia is threatening to undermine Belarus.
For one thing, the price of gas is not stable, despite the five-year agreement reached with Russia some 18 months ago, which proposed that the Belarusians should move gradually to payment of world prices to Gazprom by the year 2011. The predicament was illustrated in a press conference given by Russia's ambassador to Belarus, Aleksandr Surikov, for Russia Day (12 June).
Surikov noted that the Belarusians may still not be paying the highest prices by 2011, because they will not pay customs tariffs or transport expenses as, for example, the Poles will. In 2009, he continued, according to Gazprom's website, Belarus will pay $200 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas, but in the Belarusian budget only $140 has been allotted for this purpose. Currently, the Belarusians are paying $128 per 1,000 cubic meters and there may be one further rise this year. But the Belarusian side would prefer to return to the earlier price of $119 (Belorusy i Rynok, June 16). Gas prices will clearly play a critical role at the summit. The ambassador made reference to Russia's decision some years ago to transform its former state-run system to a market economy. Belarus has failed to follow suit. With time and the appropriate changes in Belarus, however, he anticipates that Russia could be purchasing Belarusian tractors at world prices without problems.
It is also prognosticated that the summit will broach military-security questions, following up on the meeting between former president Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka last December. The Russians are currently competing for the tender of the announced nuclear power station in Belarus, though to date no site has been selected for this enterprise.
Are the two leaders on a fence-mending exercise? Medvedev has no doubt noted the latest EU overtures to Belarus, which include a Polish-Swedish plan for an "Eastern Partnership" program that would encompass this formerly isolated country and offer assistance toward future EU membership, provided that the Belarusian side indicates goodwill and progress toward democracy (Belorusskie Novosti at www.naviny.by, June 2). Lukashenka has also declared his intention to run for a fourth term as president in 2011 (www.charter97.org, June 14),
It is evident therefore that despite official frustration with the situation in Belarus, it is in Russia's interests to hold a bilateral meeting at this time. It will be only the second public meeting between the two leaders and will initiate future relations between two personalities, who are likely to head their nations in the coming years, while serving to counter new initiatives toward Belarus from the EU. One can posit that Russia will need to move carefully in political relations, while encouraging Russian companies to exploit Belarus's profitable oil refining, sugar and machine-building enterprises.
As for Belarus, Lukashenka uses such high-level meetings to enhance his prestige and to demonstrate his strength vis-a-vis Russia. Amid a longstanding diplomatic dispute that he has initiated with the United States (whose embassy staff has been reduced to just five people), he also needs Russian support. Yet the summit is likely to have more symbolic than real significance as neither side is likely to move far on crucial issues.