Development of Situation in Belarus in the 1st Half of June 2009: Main Events and Comments
By Andrei Liakhovich
Making use of the economic crisis realities, Russia attempts to make Lukashenka’s regime take the first step towards “the real integration”, i.e. the sales of controlling stock of a number of enterprises. The Kremlin believes that if the Belarusian government gives way before pressure on this issue, it will make another concession by means of acknowledging independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Thus, it will restrict its opportunities of holding a dialogue with the West.
The Belarusian government has prejudiced the issue of cooperation with Russia within the Agreement on Collective Security Organization that appeared to be their “know-how”. Thus, Russia’s foreign-policy prestige got stabbed. Among other, the regime agrees to have worse relations with Russia, in order to show its capability to restrain pressure on the part of the Eastern member to the West. The Belarusian governmental authorities believe that the obstinacy of Russia makes the main pre-condition as well as the main reason for stirring up the relations of the Western democracies with Lukashenka’s regime.
In our opinion, taking into consideration the recent changes (i.e. the pressure on the part of Russia), the West shouldn’t lay down absolutely unacceptable demands to Lukashenka’s regime. The Western democracies shouldn’t insist rigidly on liberalization of election legislation, on including all independent media in the state-owned press distribution system as well as on providing the opposition with radio- and TV-broadcasting opportunities.
The West should take into account that the authorities will not make concessions on these issues, as they do understand that, among other, they will create additional possibilities of pressure (including the informational pressure) on the part of Russia in this case.
The governmental authorities know pretty well a story of cooperation between Russia and a number of oppositional organizations and activists.
At the same time, the West should persist in liberating all political prisoners in Belarus. Also, the Western democracies should insist on improving the conditions for holding the civil society activities in Belarus:
1. Article 193-1 of Belarusian Criminal Code that provides for criminal liability for holding activities on behalf of non-registered NGOs and political parties has to be abolished.
2. The Belarusian authorities should improve the conditions of renting premises for NGOs as well as simplify the procedure of registration of their legal addresses.
3. There should be removed obstacles for humanitarian and educational contacts between Belarusian children and youngsters and the outer world.
In our opinion, it is too early to provide the Belarusian Parliament with the status of a specially invited guest of PACE.
Taking into account the existing threat on the part of Russia, the policy line of political liberalization in Belarus should be regarded as a forcedly slow process.
The opposition hasn’t been able to make use of this trend within a long period of time, owing to its critical state. However, the political liberalization can create supplementary opportunities for Russia.
Development of cooperation between Belarus and the European Union within the Eastern Partnership program shouldn’t be viewed rigidly dependent on the steps, taken by Lukashenka’s regime towards political liberalization. Such possibilities of cooperation with the Belarusian authorities as development of trade and economic cooperation, cooperation within the Eastern Partnership framework, and trans-boundary cooperation should be firstly used in order to strengthen independence of Belarus as well as in order to broaden cooperation between Belarus and the West.
Taking into account the present crisis state of Belarusian opposition as well as the existing threat on the part of Russia, it should be noted that the steps, taken by Lukashenka’s regime on upholding sovereignty in relations with Russia and on developing cooperation with the West have larger importance for the interests of the Western democracies (as well as for the Belarusian national interests) than the policy line of political liberalization in Belarus.
Russia closes its market. “Milk War”.
Lukashenka expressed indignation in May at Russia’s steps on creating significant difficulties for the export of Belarusian engineering products. Russian companies proposed the Belarusian official side every now and then to sell machinery plants in Belarus to them.
The Russian Consumer Protection Inspectorate banned import of almost 500 kinds of dairy products from Belarus on June 6, 2009. As of June 14, 2009, only three dairy factories in Belarus retained the right to deliver their production to the Russian market.
The formal reasons for restricting export, presented by the Russian official authorities, didn’t persuade the Belarusian side. Lukashenka noted as follows: “They stated that they wouldn’t buy our milk until we sold them the milk-processing factories. And they told these things at the Russia’s governmental level! I retorted to them: “We will not allow you talking to us like this. We will be dying of hunger, pour out this milk… But you will not be permitted to put the question this way!”
Lukashenka: “Even dying, we will not sell the industrial enterprises for a song”
Russian oil oligarchs expressed repeatedly their desire to purchase oil refineries in Belarus.
Thus, A. Melnichenko, the owner of “Eurokhim” Company (Russia) proposed Lukashenka to sell Homel Chemical Plant to him for USD 111 million on June 8, 2009.
Lukashenka arranged a press-conference on the same day and stated that the Russian businessman had “proposed the nominal price”.
The sale of industrial enterprises is just another concession, demanded by Russia in the economic crisis realities.
Lukashenka noted as follows on June 8, 2009: “Russia is chucking us out of our production market.” “They came and told me that if we acknowledged independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, they would issue USD 500 million. We will not sell our position,” he added.
Russia warns: if Belarus sells enterprises to the Western companies, the latter will face problems with entering Russian market.
Russian officials stated that deliveries of fish products from Belarus to the Russian market would be restricted. 98% of fish products, exported from Belarus, are produced by the “Santa-Bremor” Belarusian-German joint venture, working in the “Brest” Free Economic Zone.
Russia expects concession on the part of Belarus.
Knowing that the Belarusian side was short of funds, subject to the economic crisis realities, the Kremlin put a question of selling a considerable number of Belarusian enterprises. Russia made it clear that otherwise these enterprises would have problems with getting to the Russian market.
On June 13, 2009, A. Kudrin, the Russian Minister of Finance declared that Russia would issue the last installment of USD 2 billion credit in the amount of USD 500,000, if Belarus took “resolute steps on improvement of its economy.”
Russian governmental officials, including Kudrin, presented the nature of these “steps” in May – June 2009. Among other, they hinted that Belarus shouldn’t invite the Western businesses, as Russian businessmen were willing to buy Belarusian enterprises.
Scenario 2004: Will Belarus demand to withdraw Russian military bases?
“Gasprom” seized delivery of natural gas to Belarus on January 24, 2004. It was an uncommonly cold winter then. The Russian enterprise pre-conditioned the renewal of gas delivery with the sale of controlling stock of “Beltransgas” for USD 800 million. At the same time the Czech Republic sold its shorter gas-transport system to “Ruhr Gas” for USD 7 billion.
In the present situation, when the Kremlin is applying more and more the language of ultimatums in relations with the Belarusian government, the forefront of Belarusian-Russian relations becomes occupied by the representatives of Belarusian authorities, capable of talking adequately with Russia.
Deputy Prime-Minister A. Kabiakou was appointed to hold negotiations with Russia on solving the “milk problem” on June 13, 2009. It is worth mentioning, that A. Kabiakou stated in January 2004 that Belarus could request to withdraw Russian military bases, as Russia failed to act as an ally.
Two Russian military bases are located on the territory of Belarus: the “Volga” Missile Tracker Station (near the town of Hantsavichy, Brest region) and the Station of Communications with atomic submarines (near the town of Vileyka, Miensk region). They are extremely important for military protection and proper functioning of military forces of Russia. Subject to geographical position, Russia cannot find an adequate substitute to these bases. Therefore, Russia is highly interested in having these military facilities on the territory of Belarus.
Lukashenka: Russia has to pay a lot to Belarus for air defense only, not to mention other matters.
The governmental authorities do not believe that Russia is capable of exerting continuous intense pressure on Belarus, having complicated relations with NATO, the United States, and the West. Lukashenka stated in his interview to Russian journalists on June 1, 2009 as follows: “You don’t have a single soldier to the West of Moscow. What would be if the Belarusian army wasn’t here? The Air Defense System is in Belarus and so on and so forth. Do you think it has to be for free? It is priceless!”
Russia suspended delivery of natural gas to Belarus and presented the Belarusian official side with an ultimatum on January 24, 2004. Three days afterwards Belarus suspended military cooperation with Russia in the field of air defense. In this situation, the Russian “hawks”, i.e. the generals stated that Russia was obliged to help its strategic ally…
Georgia and Ukraine are going enter NATO. What about Belarus?
Lukashenka put the following question on June 1, 2009: “What would Russia do, if, like Ukraine, we pursued a policy of European security and dashed towards the North Atlantic bloc?!” In his opinion, “no strategic missiles would be needed” to exert pressure on Russia in this case, as “Moscow would be nearby, just some 300 km away.”
Lukashenka’s statements of the kind have several purposes. Firstly, they show the team, led by Putin-Medvedev, that the Russian political elite and the Russian voters won’t forgive the loss of Belarus as an ally and the appearance of NATO near Smolensk.
On June 1, Lukashenka stated to Russian journalists as follows: “Russia can lose Belarus”.
Belarus will “strangle” Kalinigrad enclave of Russia. It may demand to increase fees for transit of Russian cargos through the territory of Belarus.
On June 14, 2009, I. Bandarenka, the Head of Border Control Department at the State Border Committee of Belarus stated that following the President’s instructions, there had been taken steps on creating border and customs control stations on the border with Russia.
Belarusian customs officers and border guards started checking more precisely trucks with Russian registration numbers in June 2009. According to I. Bandarenka, the cases of smuggling commodities from Russia to Belarus became more frequent.
Following the steps, taken by the State Customs Committee, there was deteriorated communication between Russia and its Kaliningrad enclave in February 2004 and January 2007. (It is worth mentioning that a treaty with “Gasprom”, regarded as a disadvantageous one by Lukashenka, was signed on December 31, 2006.) These steps were explained with the necessity of fight against smuggling…
Lukashenka stated in February 2004 that 20 million tons of Russian cargos were transported through the Belarusian territory a year. He was highly indignant at the fact: “They go by land and by air… and everything is free of charge!”
Lukashenka’s Regime Indicates Russia Should Pay Belarus for Participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Commonwealth of Independent States
During periods of worsening relations between Belarus and Russia Lukashenka was saying: "CIS is a club of presidents". He voiced doubts in prospects of CIS. He claimed that all issues might be resolved in the framework of bilateral relations.
For the first time ever Lukashenka refused to participate in a summit of CSTO (held in Moscow on June 14). The Belarusian Foreign Ministry stated: "Security cooperation and trade wars of some CSTO members against others may not be reconciled." Russia was accused in "undermining the economic security of Belarus".
An agreement on establishing collective rapid reaction forces was adopted during the summit. The Belarusian party called this agreement illegitimate: it was adopted without Belarus' participation.
This demarche indicates that Lukashenka's regime is ready to worsen relations with Russia. Even under Russia's pressure it will not abandon its course towards improving relations with the West.
Authorities Invite Western Business
On June 10 First Deputy Chairman of Biellehpram Corporate Group (Belarusian consumer industry) U. Astrouski spoke about experience of cooperation with German, Italian and Turkish companies and announced that two major corporate group's enterprises – Orsha Flax Processing Plant and Baranavichy Cotton Amalgamation – will be reincorporated as joint-stock companies in 2010.