On January 16-17 in Moscow, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov reviewed the implementation of the Union state’s programs last year and the outlook for 2001. Lukashenka sought, furthermore, assurances of the Kremlin’s support ahead of the presidential election, which is due in Belarus in mid-2001.
Borrowing former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s derogatory label for the Brezhnev era, Lukashenka described the Russia-Belarus union as “stagnant.” Last October the Russian government had approved a US$100 million loan, and Russia’s Central Bank loan of 4.5 billion rubles, to stabilize the rapidly depreciating Belarusan ruble. Yet neither loan is being disbursed, even as the Belarusan ruble continues its nosedive.
For its part, Minsk paid out only 30 percent of its share of the Union’s budget in the year 2000. Moscow, however, for the first time fulfilled–indeed overfulfilled–its commitment to that budget by paying 101 percent of its share. The burden-sharing ratio of 7:3 clearly disadvantages Belarus. Under the circumstances, the budget fell short of covering even the two top priority joint projects. Those are a cynescope plant in Belarus to develop the new television set Soyuz (“Union”) and a joint venture of the Minsk Automobile Plant and Russia’s Yaroslavl engine plant to produce the “Eurotruck.”
The Union’s state secretary, Pavel Borodin–the official who had helped launch Putin’s Kremlin career–outlined again his grandiose vision of a Paris-Berlin-Minsk-Moscow transport corridor, which would–via Russia’s capital–link up with the Trans-Siberian railroad. Borodin has both the Russia-Belarus Union and his native Siberia in mind. He hopes that the link to Europe via Belarus would ensure the survival of the Trans-Siberian railroad, which is currently being used at only 30 percent of its capacity. During the Putin-Lukashenka meeting, Borodin claimed that American, German and French banks have expressed interest and might underwrite the estimated US$12 billion to US$15 billion cost of the project. For his part, Russia’s Transportation Minister Nikolai Aksenenko used an understatement in terming the project “unrealistic for the time being.” Borodin’s arrest in New York today on corruption charges would seem to puncture that fantasy project. And it seems retrospectively to vindicate Lukashenka’s initial resistance to Putin’s nomination of the already compromised Borodin as state secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union (see lead stories in this issue).
Belarus, meanwhile, serves as a transit corridor for a growing share of Russia’s exports of natural gas. That share is slated to increase when the second trunkline of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline is commissioned on Belarusan territory this year. The Belarusan transit fees are substantially lower than the Ukrainian. By the same token, Minsk pays less than US$30 per thousand cubic meters of Russian gas consumed in Belarus. That price is less than half of what Ukraine and other East-Central European countries pay. In this sector at least, the Russia-Belarus Union is putting in place a system of indirect mutual subsidies, reminiscent of Soviet Union’s center-republic arrangements.
Russia-Belarusan integration shows some real progress in the military sphere. The consortium Oboronitelnye Systemy [Defense Systems], created last year, is currently modernizing the Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft gun system. Moscow and Minsk plan jointly to modernize some weapons systems for the former Soviet Union’s client countries. On the eve of Lukashenka’s visit, the Russian government approved a Russian-Belarusan agreement to establish a military-industrial consortium named Aerospace Equipment. The consortium unites seven Russian plants and a bank and the Belarusan instrument-making plants in Barysau and Ivantsevichi (Minsk and Brest Regions, respectively) under Russian authority. As with Oboronitelnye Systemy, the Aerospace Equipment consortium marks a step toward merging Belarusan industrial capacities with those of Russia. Lukashenka is resisting such absorption in the civilian industrial sector, but appears willing to promote it in the military industrial sector.
The Russian early warning radar near Baranavichi in Belarus is due to become fully operational this year, with Russia using it rent-free. Last September, Russian strategic bombers practiced using Belarusan airfields as part of hypothetical crisis and war-fighting scenarios. By now, the air defense system of Belarus forms part of a joint system with the air defense forces of the Moscow military district and of the Kaliningrad exclave.
Meanwhile, Lukashenka faces three declared rivals in the upcoming presidential election. One of them, former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, was in Moscow at the same time as Lukashenka, seeking support from elements in Russian political and business circles. On January 15-16 in Minsk, a coalition of opposition forces launched the presidential candidacy of Syamyon Damash, a former head of the administration of the Hrodna Region. Uladzimir Hancharyk, the influential leader of the official Federation of Belarusan Trade Unions, also announced his intention to run for president.
As the campaign gets under way, Lukashenka will increasingly need tangible support from the Kremlin. For now, he has received the endorsement of the Belarusan branch of Russian National Unity (RNE), the self-described neofascist organization based in Russia under the leadership of Aleksandr Barkashov. Its Belarusan leader, Andrei Sakovich, declared in Minsk that RNE shares Lukashenka’s ideas about uniting Belarus with Russia and adding Ukraine to form a Slavic union (RIA, Itar-Tass, Russian Television, January 15-17; Agentstvo Voyennykh novostey, January 11, 15; Vremya novostey, January 16; Kommersant, January 17; Belapan, January 15-16).
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