Recent events around Belarus draw attention to a chasm between the Belarusian policies pursued by Russia and by the West.
This month, Russia agreed to retain an unprecedented scale of duty-free oil deliveries to Belarus. Under the current deal, Russia exports crude oil to Belarus, which in turn exports refined oil products back to Russia. During the second quarter of 2013, Russian duty-free oil exports to Belarus will reach 5.75 million tons. This is equivalent to 23 million tons per annum which is exactly as much as Belarus wanted to receive in 2013. Such a level of deliveries is maintained despite malevolent commentary in the Russian media. For example on March 12, Kommersant Daily wrote that the inflow of Belarusian gasoline impels Russia’s domestic producers to reduce their own prices (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2144069). But according to Stas Ivashkevich, an analyst from Naviny.by, this is unlikely as Belarusian gasoline accounts for only 1.3% of Russia’s domestic consumption (http://naviny.by/rubrics/economic/2013/03/20/ic_articles_113_181188/print/).
What is truly interesting about the Russian-Belarusian oil connection was not actually picked up by Kommersant. First, Belarus’s deliveries of refined oil products to the Russian market in February have not exceeded one-third of the mutually agreed level, and yet Russia’s export of crude oil to Belarus continued at full-throttle. Second, Belarusian refineries have never processed 23 million tons of crude a year. For example, in 2011 and 2012 when Moscow agreed to ensure “full capacity” work for those refineries, the volume of Russia’s oil export reached 21.5 million tons. According to Ivashkevich, the actual full capacity is shrouded in mystery. He believes that even 21.5 million ton was a slight overestimate intended to cover up a re-export of some 1.5 million tons of Russian crude by Belarus (http://naviny.by/rubrics/economic/2013/03/20/ic_articles_113_181188/print/).
One of Ivashkevich’s earlier pieces was devoted to a suspicious loading of Belarusian refined fuel oil into tankers intended for crude oil in the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda (http://naviny.by/rubrics/economic/2011/12/22/ic_articles_113_176255/). The same analyst also suggests that Andrei Gaidukov—a fitter from the Novopolotsk-based Naftan, Europe’s largest refinery, who on November 8, 2012, was arrested on suspicion of espionage—worked for Russian intelligence and disclosed to it the actual amount of processed Belarusian oil (http://naviny.by/rubrics/society/2013/03/12/ic_news_116_412509/;
According to Ivashkevich, now that the loophole that allowed Belarus to sell lubricants and solvents and avoid paying export duties to the Russian treasury has been closed (see EDM, January 10), Russia decided to compensate Belarus by allowing it to re-export a certain amount of Russian crude. The decision was probably taken by the Russian presidential administration, not by the Russian government; but the Kremlin may be playing a good cop/bad cop game with Minsk.
If Ivashkevich’s analysis is on target, bonds between Russia and Belarus in the area that, until recently, was subject to trade wars are unusually strong. Apparently they could have been even stronger had Alyaksandr Lukashenka become president of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. That this was a seriously considered possibility follows from the just-published March 2000 interview that the late Boris Berezovsky gave to the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/24937681.html). Berezovsky gave this interview after the first case against him was dismissed (in November 1999) and prior to the opening of the second case. According to Berezovsky, who is credited with the enthronement of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin, Lukashenka would have been a much stronger Union State presidential candidate than Yury Luzhkov, Yevgenii Primakov and Gennady Zyuganov, but not as good as the then-acting President of Russia Putin.
Compared with the greatest ever duty-free deliveries of Russian oil to Belarus, developments on its western flank have been arguably less significant. On March 19, Justas Paleckis, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Belarus, made a statement that Minsk is ready to release the remaining political prisoners (http://belsat.eu/en/wiadomosci/a,13134,paleckis-minsk-is-prepared-to-release-political-prisoners.html). The statement followed his four-day visit to Minsk and was immediately rebuked by Andrei Sannikov, a 2010 presidential hopeful living in the United Kingdom after being granted asylum. Sannikov, whose freedom was sought by the West, was released from prison after he petitioned for Lukashenka’s pardon. According to the Belarusian opposition figure, Paleckis “got involved in the dirty game” (http://www.charter97.org/en/news/2013/3/20/66868/).
On March 14, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei met with Andrejs Pildegovics, deputy state secretary in the Latvian foreign ministry and former Latvian ambassador to the United States (http://www.belta.by/ru/all_news/politics/Makej-provel-peregovory-s-zamestitelem-gossekretarja—politicheskim-direktorom-MID-Latvii_i_627327.html). Also, Belarus’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchina made an evocative appearance on France’s International News Channel France 24, suggesting that Lukashenka is Belarus’s nation-builder, that Belarus is transitioning to a democracy at its own pace and that the European Union’s sanctions are frowned upon by ordinary Belarusians (http://www.france24.com/en/20130321-interview-alena-kupchyna-belarus-deputy-foreign-minister-alexander-lukashenko-human-rights-eu-sanctions).
On March 22, the Italian ambassador to Belarus, Arnaldo Abeti averred that a dialogue with Minsk is necessary. Abeti suggested that Foreign Minister Makei be removed from the EU list of Belarusian officials under travel sanctions (http://naviny.by/rubrics/eu/2013/03/22/ic_articles_627_181218/print/). Sannikov’s web resource Charter97 dutifully slammed Abeti as a Lukashenka lobbyist (http://www.charter97.org/en/news/2013/3/22/66968/). Sannikov has repeated the same accusation against anyone trying to reach out to Belarus to improve relations, including the Jamestown Foundation after it led a fact finding mission to Belarus earlier this year to obtain information about the Belarusian role in allowing NATO and US supplies to be transported to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) (http://www.jamestown.org/press/pressreleases/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=40385&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=e6cf100da57ebb87e400479cdbff5b85).
According to the Italian ambassador, in 2012, Italy issued more than 40,000 visas to Belarusian citizens, including 18,000 visas to children on recreational programs. In this regard it is noteworthy that Belarus remains the world leader in the number of Schengen visas issued to it per 1,000 citizens (73) for the third year in a row. In 2012, Belarusians received 693,425 short-term Schengen visas, of which 291,827 visas were issued by Poland, 193,219 were issued by Lithuania, and 65,809 by Germany (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/24933902.html). Information about Belarusians’ frequent trips to the West is rarely invoked by the politically correct analysts, for if Belarus is a dictatorship, it is supposed to maintain isolation from the outside world.
Yet, despite Belarus’s frontrunner standing on visas to the EU, it is difficult to shrug off the impression of a stark contrast between how Russia and the West deal with that country. Whereas Russia continues to be in touch with the actual decision-makers in Minsk and offers tangible economic benefits to Belarus, the West proudly refrains from both and yet pretends it has a principled Belarus policy. No wonder that in the words of Alexander Klaskovsky, a veteran journalist, “there is no alternative to Belarus’s soft drift to the East into a trap of Putin’s Eurasian project. And there is no guarantee that the point of no return will not be reached at some point” (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2013/03/19/ic_articles_112_181180/).