On March 15, the Russian and Kazakh Prime Ministers, Vladimir Putin and Karim Masimov, visited Minsk for trade and energy talks with their Belarusian counterpart, Mikhail Myasnikovich, under the auspices of the Common Economic Space (CES). Additionally, Putin held a personal meeting with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on allied relations for the first time since the controversial December 19, 2010, presidential election in Belarus that saw the arrests of over 600 people, including two Russian nationals, Artyom Breus and Ivan Gaponov – released on March 10 and fined $3,500 each (www.telegraf.by, March 11).
For the Belarusians, the meetings were important for two reasons. First, they hoped that the Russians would agree to finance the planned nuclear power plant in the Hrodna region, about 20 miles from the Lithuanian border. Second, they hoped for a restoration of “normal” relations between Moscow and Minsk after three years of wrangling and disputes over various issues, including the export of Belarusian food products to Russia, oil and gas prices for imported Russian oil, Belarusian transit prices for the energy exports to central Europe, and alleged personal animosity between the two leaderships.
For the Russians, the agenda was simpler. Given the current impasse between Lukashenka and the European Union (the latter has reintroduced a travel ban on Belarusian leaders and is debating additional sanctions as a result of the violent aftermath of the elections) Moscow hoped to promote the integration of Belarus into the Russian economic, political, and military sphere. In 2009, during discussions about the cooperation of the two states in the fuel-energy complex, the proposed program anticipated the “participation” of Russian companies in the privatization of Belarusian firms such as the Homel Chemical Enterprise, “Hrodna Azot (a producer of ammonia and fertilizers),” “Mahileu Chemical Fiber,” and others (Belorusskiy Partizan, March 14).
Evidence suggests that both sides were partially successful. A substantial breakthrough for Belarus was achieved on the nuclear plant issue. Russia agreed to lend Belarus $9.4 billion to build the station, including $3 billion for the construction of a town for personnel (www.naviny.by, March 20). Most of the building work will be undertaken by the Russian contractor Atomstroieksport while the two reactors are anticipated to be on line by 2018 (RIA Novosti, March 15).
The Belarusian nuclear power plant exemplifies Moscow’s expanding goals for the export of nuclear technology. In the same period, Russia offered a loan to India to finance a Russian nuclear plant there, and reconfirmed an existing contract with Turkey (VOA News, March 17). Moscow also reaffirmed plans to construct the Baltic nuclear power station in Kaliningrad and established a joint venture with Belarus for an inter-government joint energy system on July 1 that will have the right to sell energy produced by both countries (www.pravda.ru, March 17).
Three days after Putin’s visit to Minsk, Lukashenka held a press conference with the Russian media at the National Library to discuss a wide variety of issues pertaining to Russian-Belarusian relations. In general, although the Belarusian president maintained that there had been a significant breakthrough in improving the relationship, there was little evidence of his accepting a junior partner role, despite the division of roles into debtor and financier on the nuclear power issue.
Lukashenka asserted that while the visit of Putin was a “breakthrough,” he and the Russian prime minister had never been enemies. However, the visit had ensured the signing of agreements on the nuclear power plant that had been discussed for three years. Lukashenka announced his intention to visit Moscow for talks with President Dmitry Medvedev to resolve a number of “political and military issues” (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, March 19). Ostensibly therefore, relations have been normalized resulting in the partial fulfillment of Russia’s integration agenda.
However, from Minsk’s perspective, Belarus has made no such commitment to serve in a subsidiary role as part of a broader Moscow-run integration project. Concerning the progress of the Union State, one of three key organs of potential economic integration (the others are the CES and the Eurasian Economic Community), Lukashenka noted that no referenda to approve the union have yet taken place, despite stipulations that they must be held in both countries, nor has Belarus agreed to the idea of a single currency, the Russian ruble issued in Moscow. In essence, he continued, Russia has reneged on established agreements, including the concept of the equality of the founder nations. The union must be based on the principles of statehood rather than respective resources or gold reserves (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, March 19).
Whereas some Russians speak of food problems in Belarus, Lukashenka noted that not only is his country self-sufficient, it also exports food to Russia. Lukashenka said although Russians like to talk about oil subsidies to Belarus, “we are subsidizing every Russian.” It would be a great mistake in the president’s view to think that anyone could visit his country and “bend [it] over one’s knee.” Belarus’ geographic location necessitates close links with both Russia and the EU and it is Lukashenka’s intention to build relations with the West on condition that normal relations are in place rather than outrageous sanctions and the intrusion of European secret services in the Belarusian elections (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, March 19).
These comments suggest that despite the mending of personal relations, Russia’s commitment to exporting nuclear power technology, and Russian companies’ designs on profitable Belarusian industries, Russian-Belarusian integration will be a slow process. This will be contested at every turn by the Minsk leadership, which remains open to EU approaches despite the recent downturn in relations. Lukashenka’s obduracy continues despite his lack of obvious bargaining power and the further indebtedness of his state to its eastern neighbor.