By Andrei Liakhovich
According to Tacciana Manionak, an independent energy expert, the Lukashenka regime will get $2.2bn in subsidies from Russia thanks to discounted natural gas prices in 2012 and at least $700m thanks to the refinement of Russian crude oil. Independent economic expert Leanid Zaika estimates the volume of Russian oil and gas subsidies in 2012 at about $ 4bn. Russia was guided by political motives when it paid generously for Beltransgaz. Then more loans were received from Russia. This permitted raising of the volume of gold and foreign currencies reserves of Belarus to $ 79bn.
The level of Russian subsidies is impressive. But Lukashenka stated repeatedly that the discounted prices for gas and crude oil and all the advantages of the economic cooperation with Russia were the price Russia paid for the union and for the great service Belarus renders to Russia. According to him, if one calculates what Belarus does for Russia, it turns out that Russia owes more to Belarus than Belarus owes to Russia.
Military Cooperation as Justification of Economic Subsidies
In all cases when Lukashenka calculated what Russia should pay Belarus for, he puts the military component of cooperation first. He often emphasises the role of the Belarusian army as a shield for the central part of Russia from NATO and the importance of the Belarusian air defence and Russian military bases.
Only afterwards does he speak about cheap transit, ten millions of Russians employed at businesses linked by technology to Belarusian companies, and communication between Russia and its Kaliningrad enclave and its supply. In extreme cases, during his most bitter disputes with Russian leaders, he lays out his other trumps on the table: he speaks about participation of Belarus in Russia's strategic integration projects and dependence of the Russian ally from the stable functioning of high-technology enterprises of the military and industrial complex in Belarus.
In late April 2010, commenting on the agreement concluded between Russia and Ukraine extending the stay of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, Lukashenka said that Russia had paid about $40bn to Ukraine for the sites which had less importance for Russia than the missile attack warning centre near Hantsavichy (Brest region) and the nuclear submarines communication centre near Vilejka (Minsk region).
The talks between the United States and Russia about conditions of deployment of joint missile defence facilities in the territory of eastern members of NATO failed. In late November 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a special television address that they were not able to come to an agreement with the United States and NATO. Russia cannot accept weakening of the Russian deterrent capability and has to take special measures.
Deployment of Iskander Missile Systems
Also in November, the Russian news agency Interfax reported, citing a source in the Kremlin, that if the talks with the United States on missile defence failed, Russia could deploy missile systems Iskander in the territory of Belarus as well.
In the first week of February 2012, several web sites, citing a source in the Presidential Administration of Belarus, published information that the issue of deployment of missile systems Iskander in the territory of Belarus had been discussed during the visit of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigoriy Karasin to Minsk on 30-31 January 2012.
On 8 February, answering questions from journalists regarding the topics of conversation between Head of the Presidential Administration Uladzimir Makiej and Foreign Minister Siarhiej Martynau and the Russian envoy, Head of the Foreign Policy Directorate of the Presidential Administration Maksim Ryzhankou said that the outcome of the talks between Russia and the United States on missile defence had been discussed among other matters for which "it was important for Russia to enlist support of its like-minded friends".
On 6 February, Lukashenka met with State Secretary of the Security Council Leanid Maltsau and Minister of Defence Jury Zhadobin. Lukashenka said: "I sent a letter to Medvedev about the necessity to look for additional funds for the Belarusian military… The two countries have basically a single army and similar tasks that they are facing".
On 9 February the mass media spread around Zhadobin’s explanations of Lukashenka’s opinion: “Actually, it was underscored that military cooperation between our countries could become one of arguments for getting preferences in economic matters, e.g., regarding oil and gas supplies, which could be used to increase the national budget funds and augment our military men’s money allowances.”
It is hardly probable that Russia will dare deploy the Iskander missile systems in Belarus. Lukashenka will not agree to deploy Russian military detachments on the territory of Belarus, except for the military bases near Hantsavichy and Vileyka. Also, Russia will not entrust Lukashenka with efficient offensive weapons, let alone the missile systems. Some Russian generals believe that Lukashenka is not consistent enough as an ally. They do not have any guarantees that the supplied Iskanders be turned to the East.
Anti-Western Rhetoric in Common Interest
However, Russia and Lukashenka’s regime share common interests of convincing the West in the reality of deploying the offensive armaments, including Iskander missiles systems on the territory of Belarus. It is a constituent part of Russia’s plan of reaction to deployment of the US Anti-missile defence system in Europe.
Lukashenka treats the mere update of the Iskander deployment talks, as a counteraction to the United States and NATO, as a sufficient means of putting pressure on Russia’s policy. He will urge Russia to pay for the mere statements about the targeting of NATO military facilities, located close to the Belarusian border.
According to Zhadobin’s statement, which was clearly authorised by Lukashenka, the Belarusian government intends to coerce Russia into introducing more beneficial conditions of economic cooperation for their Belarusian ally. Particularly, it concerns the issue of energy carrier supplies.
In the least, the Belarusian government would like to force Russia to restructure the Belarus’ foreign debt to its eastern neighbour, including the country’s financial obligations to the Anti-crisis Fund of the Eurasian Economic Community.
Andrei Liakhovich is a contributing author. He directs the Center for Political Education in Minsk.