Belarus the Object of Two Peculiar Tugs of War

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 170

Belarusian supermarket chain in St. Petersburg (Courtesy of Grigory Ioffe)

Although Belarus has resolved its argument with Russia about the price of natural gas, the parameters of this resolution are still subject to different interpretations. The two sides have apparently not yet reached a consensus on the scale of the price discount (if any) or the mechanism of its delivery to Belarus. On that issue, the usually well-informed is noncommittal and construes the details of the gas price deal first recounted by Kommersant (see EDM, October 17) as just one of the possibilities (, October 18). Obviously, non- disclosure of the resolution’s details contributes to this confusion. In turn, the absence of such details is the result of face-saving considerations on the part of both parties. Russia, for example, is not happy with a popular idea that Minsk always wins its price-related arguments with Moscow, and Minsk is not happy with the Russian media routinely labeling Belarus “Russia’s poor cousin.”

In that regard, the interview of Belarus’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei to a Polish daily is noteworthy as it is titled “We Are Not Dependents of Russia” (Rzeczpospolita, October 17). Based on the assumption that what you acknowledge is oftentimes less important for understanding of your identity than what you disown, Russia’s “patriotic” online media outlet Vzglyad chided Makei for even using this sort of language. The fact of Belarus’s dependency is “at the very least not obvious,” the Russian outlet declared (Vzglyad, October 19).

On the one hand, the share of Russia in Belarus’s international trade is 48 percent, and 39 percent of Belarus’s overall exports are directed to Russia. Meanwhile, Russia itself has also long benefited from a net trade surplus with Belarus: $17.1 billion in Russian exports went to Belarus in 2015, while imports from Belarus totaled only $10.4 billion that year. For Belarus, this is the largest country-specific trade deficit of all countries with which it trades. On the other hand, the makeup of Belarus’s and Russia’s exports to each other exposes the former as a more advanced economy, as it sells largely value-added goods to Russia and buys largely resources. Crude oil alone accounts for more than half of Belarus’s purchases from Russia ($9 billion in 2015). Aside from trucks and industrial machines, Belarus sells processed foods; and a network of Belarusian grocery stores operates in major Russian cities (Vzglyad, October 19). Just walking around for an hour in downtown in St. Petersburg, on October 20, this author came across two such stores.

Moreover, in the words, of Kirill Koktysh, an associate professor at the Moscow Institute of Foreign Relations, “Belarus is the locus of an irreplaceable transit route for Russia’s oil and gas. During the period preceding the current economic crisis, the amount of hydrocarbons pumped through Belarus was worth from $100 billion to $120 billion per year. So if Belarus used to receive $3–5 billion in direct and indirect (through price discounts) subsidies from Russia, these might be called just that, subsidies, but these may also be called Belarus’s legitimate fee for facilitating a large-scale hydrocarbon trade between Russia and the West… After all, you would not call a minority shareholder a dependent just because he is a minority” (Vzglyad, October 19).

Apparently, this sort of reassurance is delivered from time to time because Russia’s expert and lay audience has a pent-up demand for it. Meanwhile, the West is engaged in a different sort of game: interests versus values. When it comes to Belarus, “values” routinely imply democracy promotion, whereas “interests” suggest strengthening Belarus’s independence in view of perceived necessity to contain Russia. Interests unequivocally trumped values both when Belarus was first ostracized (1996) by the West and when rapprochement with it was underway, first in 2007–2010 and then beginning in 2014 (see Grigory Ioffe, “Geostrategic Interest and Democracy Promotion: Evidence from the Post-Soviet Space,” Europe-Asia Studies, 2013, Vol. 65, No. 7: pp. 1,255–1,274). Yet, throughout this time, the values-interests tug of war has dominated the public-relations apparatus of the West’s Belarus policies and noticeably hindered reconciliation with Minsk. Apparently, this is why the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has not yet launched its new lending program to Belarus, although all the signs of IMF’s readiness to do so have been on display for some time. Apparently, for the same reason, the United States extended its suspension of economic sanctions on Belarus but has not lifted them altogether (, October 19)—even while pledging a “gradual” normalization of its relations with Minsk (, October 18).

Sending conflicting signals about the Euronest—an inter-parliamentary assembly of the Eastern Partnership which includes Belarus—exemplifies this same policy indecision. Moreover, the fact that all the leaders of the Belarusian opposition have a voice in the pending Euronest decision (, October 19) also demonstrates a peculiar conflict of interests: Brussels could decide to accept the recently elected Belarusian parliamentarians into the Euronest, but it would be doing so at the expense of the Belarusian opposition, which has been currently filling the void. Meanwhile, legislators from Azerbaijan have never been ostracized in this same manner by the Euronest—a clear demonstration of double standards on the part of Europe. Even the harsh tone of a Polish journalist questioning Foreign Minister Makei in Warsaw—most accurately revealed in the transcript of the interview (, October 9) but smoothed over by the Polish media outlet itself (Rzeczpospolita, October 17)—reflects the fact that Belarus is held to higher standards than other countries.

Pulled in opposite directions by two peculiar tugs of war—dependency versus magnanimity from Russia and interests versus values from the West—Belarus retains composure but suffers from lingering economic decline. Thus from January to March 2016, the real income of Belarusians was 7.1 percent lower than during the same period in 2015 (, October 18). It seems that it would be in the interests of all parties involved to chart a clearer course, that is, to cut back on demagoguery and extend a helping hand. A healthy dose of realpolitik might be a good prescription for the indecision malaise.