On July 18, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev paid an official visit to Minsk. Medvedev’s visit was somewhat clouded by the July 4 penetration of Belarus’s airspace by a light Swedish plane that took off in Lithuania and dropped 1,000 toy teddy bears carrying human rights slogans over the Belarusian town of Ivyanets. Russia and Belarus have established a joint air defense system, which is why the penetration of Belarus’s air space is perceived as having implications for Russia. On July 31, Chief of the Belarusian Air Defense and Air Force Dmitry Pakhmelkin and Chairman of the Border Control Committee Igor Rachkovsky were fired by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (http://democraticbelarus.eu/files/bulletins/new/BelarusHeadlinesIX.pdf).
Medvedev’s pronouncements during his visit revealed that while Belarus’s economic attachment to its eastern neighbor may have reached an apogee, the relationship with Russia is not without problems. For example, Medvedev mentioned that “the Belarusian partners will not be able to dodge” the privatization of Belaruskalii, a potash producer and a crown jewel of the Belarusian industry whose production chain, unlike that of the two main state-owned oil refineries, is entirely controlled by Belarus due to its vast reserves of potassium. Russian tycoons have long set their eyes on Belaruskalii, but President Lukashenka did not sell it even during the harshest financial crisis. The second wakeup call was Medvedev’s pledge to get to the bottom of the solvents problem (see EDM, June 7) whereby Belarus may have re-exported Russian oil disguised as solvents and by doing so avoided paying oil export duties to the Russian treasury. The third signal of Russia’s eagerness to get hold of Belarus’s most lucrative assets was Medvedev’s statement that the project of the MAZ and KAMAZ merger is almost completed. The firms in question are producers of heavy trucks and tractor trailers in Minsk and in Naberezhnye Chelny, Russia, respectively. At the same time, Russia’s Deputy Minister of Finance Sergei Storchak announced that, before the end of the year, Belarus is going to receive the fourth $440 million tranche of Russia’s anti-crisis loan. The third tranche of the loan was transferred to Minsk during the May 31 visit by Vladimir Putin to Minsk, despite the fact that Belarus had not delivered on its privatization commitments – a condition set for disbursement of the anti-crisis loan. Finally, the signing ceremony of the general contract to build a nuclear power station in Belarus took place during Medvedev’s visit. The contract, worth $10 billion, will be implemented by Russian firms (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2012/07/18/ic_articles_112_178517/).
Analyzing an unusually high level of Belarus’s economic dependency on Russia, Yaroslaw Romanchuk, a 2010 presidential hopeful, likened the bilateral relations with Russia to those between Israel and the United States. By various accounts, US aid to Israel is worth between eight percent to 15 percent of Israel’s GDP. “If all forms of Russia’s support are monetized,” writes Romanchuk, “they would account for 18 percent to 20 percent of Belarus’s GDP from 1995 to 2012.” According to Romanchuk, the major preoccupation of Belarus’s leadership with respect to the multilayered Belarusian-Russian relationship is to wean the Kremlin off from ever treating Belarus as a “normal economic partner” whereby costs and benefits of bilateral exchange are subjected to scrutiny
(http://naviny.by/rubrics/opinion/2012/07/25/ic_articles_410_178583/). It is the occasional bouts of temptation on Russia’s part to subject its relationship with Belarus to cost-benefit analysis that prompt Minsk to revive its ties with the EU.
On July 23, Belarus’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Martynov paid a visit to Brussels and took part in the meeting of foreign ministers of the European Union and Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries. Considering that the previous such meeting in September 2011 was boycotted by Minsk (see EDM, October 14, 2011), Martynov’s recent participation may be looked at as a step in resuming the EU-Belarus dialogue (http://naviny.by/rubrics/eu/2012/07/24/ic_articles_627_178569/). Following the visit to Brussels, Martynov proceeded to Rome where, on July 25, he met with the newly elected Chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Riccardo Migliori. A program of the visit also included meetings of the Foreign Minister with representatives of the Italian Parliament and state authorities, as well as with the management of Italian companies interested in implementing joint projects in Belarus (http://www.mfa.gov.by/en/press/news_mfa/ad1d132e9cfe7fa1.html).
Apparently, Italy remains Belarus’s closest partner in Western Europe. But it is evidently Lithuania that makes the utmost effort to return Belarus’s relationship with the EU to its pre-December 19, 2010 level. On July 15, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite stated that Lithuania wanted the dialogue between the EU and Belarus resumed, calling for equal, constructive and mutually-beneficial cooperation on a bilateral ties. She stated her position after presenting the credentials to Lithuania’s new ambassador to Belarus, Linas Linkevicius. “Belarus is an important neighbor for Lithuania, with which we share versatile relations; therefore, we should ensure that the cooperation is equal, constructive and mutually-beneficial,” Grybauskaite said in a press release circulated by her press service (http://www.15min.lt/en/article/world/lithuania-wants-eu-belarus-dialogue-resumed-529-234241).
“Europe must come up with other language than ultimatums and sanctions for communicating with Belarus,” Lithuania’s new Ambassador to Minsk Linas Linkevicius said on July 17. In an interview with the Baltic News Service (BNS), the diplomat emphasized that Belarus was a very important economic partner for Lithuania, adding that political interference could affect business relations. BNS questioned the ambassador about whether, in his opinion, the earlier EU strategy of applying sanctions on Belarus did not prove entirely effective. Linkevicius responded, “We should understand that the introduction of certain restrictions could push them [Belarus] to absorb other influences. Let us say we restrict economic relations with EU countries and restrict the communication. This will force them into stronger and closer economic relations with other countries. I do not know if this yields a result. We should carefully weigh everything” (http://www.15min.lt/en/article/world/lithuania-s-ambassador-to-minks-linas-linkevicius-we-must-find-ways-to-talk-with-belarus-without-ultimata-529-234757).
It appears that the geopolitical tug of war over Belarus is not going to end any time soon despite Russia winning the opening battle.