Those taking a stand on Russian-Belarusian tensions around the so-called oil tax maneuver (see EDM, October 1, 2018; December 12, 2018; January 14, 15, 2019) fall into two main categories: 1) ones carefully trying to examine the core of the issue and 2) politicized speculators. And in the new year, this latter group has remained vocal. “Belarusian politics is an amalgamation of Russophobes of all stripes,” declares Eurasia Daily, a Russian online portal that habitually makes political fodder out of unmasking “anti-Russian extremists” from the ranks of Belarusian Westernizers as well as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s loyalists alike. These Belarusian political factions’ main crime, Eurasia Daily habitually implies, is their simultaneous support for economic integration with Russia and Belarus-Russia cultural affinity while asserting Belarus’s national interests (Eurasia Daily, January 29). If even staunch Lukashenka loyalists who frequently appear on Russian TV talk shows are a legitimate target, what hope is there for independent Belarusian pundits like the head of the Minsk Dialogue platform Yauheni Preiherman? His “crime,” the “patriotic” nationalist Russian website IAREX alleges, is even more sinister, as he studied politics in an “Anglo-Saxon school” and is a protégé of Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, long suspected of warming up to the West (IAREX, January 30).
A more polished variety of the unmasking-enemies tradition was recently presented by the popular Russian online newspaper Vzglyad. “Will Lukashenka commit himself to the Ukrainization of Belarus”? asks Irina Alksnis, a leading columnist. “One would like to hope he will not. One would like to hope.” This repetitive wording at the very end of the Alksnis’s article reflects palpable uncertainty. Alksnis admits that while independent Belarus has never set itself in opposition to Russia, it has succeeded in creating a self-image that is not to be confused with Russia’s. Moreover, until recently, this image came across to many Russians as more attractive than that of Russia itself. Belarusian neighbors acted differently. Thus, the “we-are-not-Russia” principle became integral to the worldview of the Baltic States right after the breakup of the Soviet Union. In Ukraine, however, 25 years of Western brainwashing were required to sow the seeds of discord and hatred vis-à-vis Russia, the Vzglyad columnist alleges. Lukashenka does not have this amount of time at his disposal; whereas Belarusian nationalists and Russophobes are not numerous in Belarus. And there is one more snag. When, for 25 years in a row, Russian patriots persistently talked about the larcenous and compradorian Russian authorities that push their country to the brink of the abyss, it was strange to expect that any potential Russian ally abroad would become a faithful believer in Russia’s future. Now, however, Russia has returned to the world stage, transforming the dichotomy of “the radiant West versus a Russia on its last legs” into “the not-entirely-untroubled West versus a rejuvenated and reinforced Russia.” This is why the Ukrainization of Belarus is going to be suicidal for Lukashenka, who will not even receive refuge in Rostov-on-Don (a reference to where former president Viktor Yanukovich of Ukraine relocated in March 2014). Considering how experienced Lukashenka is, he may thus decide to stay in Russia’s orbit, posits Alksnis (Vzglyad, January 31).
The above reasoning contrasts sharply with the businesslike and ideology-free discussion of Russia-Belarus tensions that, to date, has tended to typify the Minsk Dialogue platform. Thus, in a recent article, Preiherman suggests that the reality of oil prices for Belarus exceeding those for Russian industrial customers contradicts the core principle of economic integration. He also clarifies that the gist of the matter is not so much the oil tax maneuver per se, but rather the fact of Russia compensating Russian refineries for the ensuing price hike. Consequently, if the core principle of economic integration within the Union State is to stand, there are three options for leveling the playing field: lowering oil prices for Belarus, compensating Belarusian refineries on the same level as their Russian counterparts, or canceling compensations for the latter (Minskdialogue.by, January 30).
One unnamed participant at last month’s Minsk Dialogue meeting suggested that the so-called “aggrieved Belarusians,” who fell out with the Belarusian authorities and currently work in Moscow, generate most of the agitation around the oil trade issue. This is in reference to the likes of Andrei Souzdaltsev, who, in 2006, was expelled from Belarus, and Yury Baranchik, a former associate of the presidential administration, now active on the Russian nationalistic online outlet Regnum. Meanwhile, according to Kirill Koktysh, a native of Minsk and an associate professor at the Moscow Institute for International Relations, the Belarusian government has not managed to boost the impression of Russia’s reverse dependency on Belarus in some key area, which is what Kazakhstan has been successful at. Belarus did not make a friendly gesture when Russia’s relations with the West came to a head. Koktysh, however, believes that the problem will soon be resolved and the ongoing bargaining itself derives from a mutual willingness, in both Moscow and Minsk, to come to a consensus. In contrast, he does not think that Europe will affect the negotiations by offering any meaningful financial aid to Belarus. Analyst and pundit Yury Shevtsov sees the root cause of the conflict in political psychology, with his native Belarus being excluded from Russia’s political context. The participants of the discussion collectively admitted that key Russian-Belarusian contacts are not nearly as transparent as contacts between Belarus and Europe and agreed that Minsk’s role as peacekeeper in Europe and even that of a moderator of the West’s intentions will be appreciated in Moscow. Finally, Russia and Belarus stand to gain jointly from the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to Piotr Petrovsky, Russian-Belarusian relations are not as bad as they seem sometimes. After all, in 2018, the two countries adopted a joint military doctrine; they plan to eliminate cellphone roaming charges on each other’s territories; and they have prepared a mutual visa recognition agreement (Sonar2050, January 29).
In any case, the January 2019 Minsk Dialogue briefing has once again demonstrated what may indeed lack in Russia-Belarus relations: that is, transparency and a willingness to openly debate issues.