The veil of uncertainty (see EDM, March 17) surrounding Belarus’s short- to medium-term socio-economic prospects continues to thicken. Alexander Chubrik, a reputable economist, writes about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who have arrived in Belarus at the same time (Tut.by, March 16). They represent complications in the oil trade, protectionism, COVID-19 and external debt. Plummeting oil prices have played the first fiddle in this quartet, as they have undermined the revenues Moscow planned to extract in 2020 and consequently dashed all hopes that Russia’s demand for Belarusian goods would grow. The collapse in oil prices slashed the Russian ruble, and that immediately increased the dollar prices of Belarus’s exports to Russia. In turn, that made the devaluation of the Belarusian ruble inevitable because without it, Belarus’s export would have declined even more rapidly.
One more outcome of sharply declining oil prices is going to be an equally sharp drop in natural gas prices on the spot market. That will depress Russia’s revenues and further curtail Russia’s demand for Belarusian goods, while at the same time effectively making the previously agreed upon “low” price for Russia’s natural gas to Belarus one of the highest in the region. Furthermore, when Russians start losing wages and jobs, they will forget about integration entirely and double down on protecting their market from foreign competition.
As for COVID-19, it caused a global recession (which many were expecting in 2021) to occur much earlier. Consequently, exports will be hurt—and not just exports to Russia. Already in the first quarter of 2020, export of refined oil alone declined by 70 percent compared with the first quarter of 2019 (Svaboda.org, March 20). With much smaller inflow of hard currency due to falling exports, the problem of repaying the existing external debts will be more difficult to resolve. When hard currency will only be obtainable in exchange for Belarusian rubles, that will cut back on the state’s social obligations. The only hope of alleviating the aforementioned problems is in restarting the credit line of the International Monetary Fund, Chubrik believes (Tut.by, March 16).
Writing for the Moscow Carnegie Center, Artyom Shraibman reflects on how oil trade and the COVID-19 pandemics are finishing off what remains of mutual trust between Minsk and Moscow (Carnegie.ru, March 20). With each passing day, the still unresolved oil price argument with Russia looks less as a matter of sheer bargaining and more as a political choice for Belarus. And yet on Saturday, March 21, like a bolt from the blue, news emerged that Russia said yes to all of Belarus’s suggestions pertaining to the oil supply (Belta, March 21) and to even larger discounts than originally requested (Tut.by, March 23). Whether this sudden agreement was solely the result of plummeting market prices or something else remains to be seen.
On March 18, Russia closed its border with Belarus (until May 1) without consulting with the latter but citing Belarus’s non-compliance with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) coronavirus guidelines, a statement that Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei called “delirious” (Naviny, March 23). That measure made it difficult for Belarusians to return home from remote foreign countries via Russia, a traditional transit route for many. It also precluded shopping trips across the eastern border for those residing close to Russia. Most importantly, it aggravated President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s sore spot, as it was he who had solemnly removed an ersatz barrier on the border with Russia back in 1996 together with late Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin. “How can one take such a decision!” exclaimed Lukashenka, “Without consulting us but confronting us with the accomplished fact!” Instead, according to Lukashenka, Russia should have assisted Belarus in “safeguarding our common border in Brest,” especially considering that “we take guidance from the same school of thought in virology” (Vzglyad, March 16). In response, Moscow stated that Belarus has more COVID-19 cases per 1,000 people than Russia and that Lukashenka grew emotional in view of the upcoming elections (Carnegie.ru, March 20). In its turn, Minsk sent hundreds of Belarusian border guards to its eastern border and barracks for them are now being built. Overall, the closure of the border manifested the triumph of the “logic of sovereignty”—that is, of looking out for oneself in the first place. “Whereas for Russia’s powers that be, this is a barely noticeable phenomenon […] for Belarus, this is a new self-perception paradigm,” believes Shraibman, because the ruling elite and the part of society that looked to Russia are coming to terms with the idea that the country must rely on itself as there are no unconditional friends anymore.”
Finally, unlike all of its neighboring countries, Belarus did not suspend face-to-face instruction in schools and did not resort to mobility limitations. Belarus did not initiate border closings, its neighbors did. Moreover, a national soccer championship began in Belarus, with no limitation for spectators. “The most closed country in Europe has turned into Europe’s most open country overnight,” exclaimed sociologist Aliaksei Lastouski (Lastouski, March 17). On March 16, the political commentator Alexander Vlaskin declared that Belarus was in a good company, as the only two other European countries that refrained from mobility restrictions were Switzerland and the United Kingdom (Vlaskin, March 16). By now, however, the UK has left this exclusive “club.” Alyaksandr Lukashenka opined that “the world became deranged because of coronavirus” and suggested that a would-be closure of schools would send children of working parents to their grandparents, who are the most vulnerable group; so unwarranted closures do more harm than good (Naviny, March 20). Seemingly paradoxically, members of the Belarusian opposition, who are self-proclaimed democrats, are urging Lukashenka, whom they label a dictator, to impose restrictions along the lines of other European countries, leading some observers to claim that, in Belarus, the world has turned upside down (Svaboda.org, March 19).
Certainly, that sense is being felt all over, not only in Belarus. But this country’s new geopolitical loneliness is making future developments even less predictable than elsewhere.