Belarus refused to attend the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Moscow on June 14. The summit made decisions to enlarge the size of collective rapid deployment forces, the scope of their missions, and the legal basis of their operations.
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka cancelled the participation of Belarus at the last moment before the summit; and his government is now contesting the validity of the summit’s decisions made in the absence of Belarus. The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, signed the summit’s documents with reservations attached, limiting Uzbekistan’s participation in future CSTO activities. Armenia’s position is not immediately clear: Moscow’s official reports do not mention an Armenian signature on the framework agreement regarding CSTO’s rapid deployment forces (Interfax, ITAR-TASS, RIA Novosti, June 14).
At the concluding press conference, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev asked "the states" that have not inked the summit documents to reconsider and sign them later. Belarus was scheduled to take over the chairmanship of CSTO’s Council of Heads of State from Armenia at this summit, in accordance with the annual rotation in Russian alphabetical order. With Belarus boycotting the summit, however, Russia took over the CSTO’s chairmanship "for the period of Belarus’ absence."
Adding insult to injury, Lukashenka did not personally notify the Kremlin about his refusal to attend. Lukashenka’s office informed Medvedev’s office and the Belarusian ministry of foreign affairs informed the CSTO secretariat on the shortest possible notice.
Moscow takes the position that Belarus’ non-participation in the summit does not invalidate the summit’s decisions. Under the CSTO’s rules of procedure, a collective decision can be blocked by an "official objection" from a member country. Belarus had participated in negotiations on the documents prior to the summit without registering official objections, according to unverified claims by Russian officials. Nevertheless, the Belarus foreign ministry note did clearly warn that Belarus’ non-participation "means a lack of approval from Belarus of the decisions that are to be considered" at the summit, as well as disavowal of decisions made at the pre-summit, ministerial-level meetings, which "consequently means a lack of consensus [by Belarus] on these decisions" (RIA Novosti, June 14).
Officially, Minsk explains its step as a response to Moscow’s restrictive commercial measures against Belarus and abusive practices in the energy sector. Tacitly, the Belarusian authorities from Lukashenka on down are loath to become involved in Russia’s conflict undertakings, whether ongoing or looming ones in the South Caucasus or Central Asia.
The foreign ministry note complained of "overt economic discrimination by a CSTO member country against Belarus. Such actions undermine economic security, which is a foundation for stability and a pillar of comprehensive security… [Belarus’ participation in the summit] would mock common sense against the backdrop of trade wars waged by some CSTO members against others. In this situation, Belarus has no choice but to cancel its participation in the CSTO summit in Moscow. Belarus will sign the package of documents on the rapid reaction force only when comprehensive security will have been restored within the CSTO" (RIA Novosti, ITAR-TASS, June 14).
Last month, Russia suspended the allocation of a promised $500 million stabilization loan to Belarus. Lukashenka publicly complained that Moscow was retaliating for his refusal to recognize the "independence" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Kremlin had pressured Lukashenka on this issue for several months, but he has all along insisted that the loan and the recognition issue must not be linked.
In recent weeks, Lukashenka and other officials criticized Russia publicly for closing its markets for Belarus-made tractors, sugar, and dairy and meat products. On the day of the Moscow summit, Belarus state television read out an indictment of Russian economic policies toward Belarus, retroactive and current: "They [Moscow] turned off gas supplies in winter; they suddenly introduced crude oil export duties; they practically introduced customs control on the border," depicting the recent restrictions on tractors, sugar, and dairy and meat products as parts of a consistent pattern (Belarus TV Channel One, June 14).
On June 13 Lukashenka asked the government to consider the possibility of reintroducing border controls on the Belarus-Russia border. On the following day the State Border Protection Committee chief, Ivan Bandarenka, announced that his committee and the State Customs Committee are discussing the possible reestablishment of border and customs checkpoints, in response to Russia’s unilateral reintroduction of 15 such checkpoints (Interfax, June 13, 14).
Lukashenka has clashed with Moscow over economic issues during most of his tenure as president. This time, however, he reinforces his arguments in that debate by refusing to cooperate with a Kremlin-cherished project on international security. Moreover, the familiar clashes over economic issues are now unfolding in an entirely new context: that of Lukashenka’s efforts to institute a balanced foreign policy for Belarus between Russia and the West.