Belarus’s standoff with Russia over natural gas prices and the corresponding arrears continues. And so does Russia’s ensuing punishment of Belarus by way of cutting back on duty-free oil. Meanwhile, there is also no end in sight yet to the public rallies against the presidential decree on taxing “social parasites” (see EDM, February 21), although no more than 10,000 Belarusians have so far participated in these demonstrations across the entire country.
What appears exceedingly clear is that, like on so many previous occasions, Belarus’s present-day conflict with Russia can only be settled with a face-to-face meeting of the two presidents. Indeed, following their umpteenth round of negotiations, deputy prime ministers Vladimir Semashko of Belarus and Arkady Dvorkovich of Russia reported that a new agreement on gas prices was ready—though it required a decision at the highest level. The current dispute over the gas price had originally stemmed from both sides acting unilaterally: Minsk alone decided to pay $83, not $132 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas as previously agreed, and Moscow then retaliated by reducing the deliveries of duty-free oil to Belarus by 20.8 percent (for the year 2016). So if the prescribed rules of mutual relations are murky and/or contradictory, only a willful decision at the highest level can cut the Gordian knot. When, on February 20, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s trip to Sochi was announced, it seemed that his intention was to waylay Vladimir Putin, who regularly frequents his Sochi residence and was there on February 17. It is unclear when exactly Lukashenka flew to Sochi. Putin, however, decided to avoid Lukashenka, and no agreement ever materialized (Naviny.by, February 20). Previously, as a minor affront, Belarus announced that it bought 80,000 tons of oil in Iran (Tut.by, February 16). This deal came after Baku reportedly rejected Minsk’s offer to buy Azerbaijani gas for $30 per barrel—that is, the discounted price at which Russia sells oil to Belarus (Echo, February 20).
In the atmosphere of growing tensions along the Minsk-Moscow axis, scores of unwanted fear-mongers both at home and abroad began to issue warnings about an imminent economic catastrophe for Belarus (e.g., Csfps.by, February 22) and an equally imminent Russian aggression against its small neighbor along the lines of the Crimea operation. Thus, on February 22, President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine warned that Belarus should be ready for a surprise from Russia (Tut.by, February 22). Meanwhile, for many members of the Belarusian opposition, it seemed like a serious anomaly that the rallies against Lukashenka’s aforementioned tax decree (see above) have not yet been dispersed by riot police armed with truncheons and paddles. To these conspiratorially minded individuals, such an anomaly can only mean that Putin’s “Little Green Men” (a.k.a. the “Polite People”) already operating inside Belarus (Facebook.com/vbobrovich, February 26). Meanwhile, Belarusian Minister of Defense Andrei Ravkov took trouble to dispel the “hysteria of some experts” about the possibility that Russia will occupy Belarus, particularly in conjunction with the joint military exercise Zapad 2017, which will take place in September. He connected this hysteria with a “desire of some marginal structures to gain attention by exploiting the topic of Belarusian-Russian relations” (Tut.by, February 23).
To be sure, even some reputable opposition-minded commentators suggest that “alarmism about the Kremlin’s plans regarding Belarus seem inflated.” First, the several thousand Russian troops to be deployed to Belarus for the Zapad exercises would be insufficient to occupy the entire country of 9.4 million people. Second, all the deployments and redeployments will be under Belarusian control. Third, Moscow appears to lack the energy to undertake yet another round of confrontation with the West; rather it wants to persuade Europe and the United States to lift their sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing Crimea and for facilitating the war in Donbas (Naviny.by, February 24).
Still, there are signs of Belarus’s vacillation over Russian actions in Ukraine. Just a couple of weeks ago, one Ukrainian author was ordered to leave Belarus only to see this order reversed (see EDM, February 14). Likewise, Russia’s decision to recognize the internal passports of residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” initially elicited the unequivocal rejection of these documents by Belarus (Lenta.ru, February 20); but two days later, a less rigorous approach was taken to treat each bearer of those passport individually, on the basis his or her living situation (Vzglyad, February 22).
At the same time, bickering with the Russian agricultural import-controlling agency continues. Its boss, Sergei Dankvert, whom Lukashenka has threatened to sue, is now threatening to expand Russia’s ban of Belarusian milk powder. However, the Eurasian Economic Commission has called these Russian claims into question (Belta, February 22).
As if Belarus’s simmering confrontation with Russia were not enough, two other troublemaking events have come along. First, Lithuania suddenly intensified its lingering and most probably losing battle with Belarus over the latter’s nuclear power plant, currently under construction. On February 23, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė called this nuclear plant “a Russian geopolitical project bent on doing harm to Lithuania.” She further asserted that the project’s ultimate goal is to “exert influence on Lithuania and obstruct its synchronization with the West” (Belapan, February 23). In their turn, Belarusian authorities expressed the view that Lithuania’s demonization of the plant across the border is caused by the fact that Lithuania failed to attract international investors for its own nuclear power facility, which would have replaced the former Soviet-built station at Ignalina. Once Belarus went ahead with its own project, it is unlikely that the neighboring country will ever obtain its own nuclear plant (Sputnik News, February 23), as regional electricity needs are going to be met by the Belarusian one.
Second, a skirmish erupted in Kuropaty, the burial place of victims of Stalinist-era purges, located just across the Minsk Ring Motor Road, next to the northernmost Minsk neighborhood of Zelyonyi Loug. Young opposition activists have organized a protest to a plan to erect a five-story business center just 50 meters from the burial place (Journalby.com, February 26).
It is not that Belarus was spared times of trouble before. It is just that some sources of trouble appear to be of Minsk’s own making. Indeed, the skirmish in Kuropaty and the decree on taxing “social parasites,” apparently adopted without sufficient preliminary research, are now having unintended consequences. Such self-inflicted wounds distract Belarusian society from consolidating in the face of the country’s lingering economic slump—rooted, in part, in Belarus’s relationships with its powerful neighbors.