A team of top-level Russian guests, including President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the heads of both chambers of the Russian parliament, Valentina Matvienko (Federation Council) and Viacheslav Volodin (State Duma), visited the Belarusian capital of Minsk, on June 19. This high-ranking delegation came to attend a meeting of the Supreme State Council (SSC) of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. The Union State was created by Boris Yeltsin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who signed its foundational treaty in December 1999. Meetings of the Union State SSC occur once a year, intermittently, in Moscow and Minsk.
Putin had to miss the June 19 World Cup soccer match between Russia and Egypt, played in his native St. Petersburg, in order to attend the SSC in Minsk. And several local media outlets noted this decision as undeniable confirmation of the significance the Russian head of state apparently attaches to his country’s relations with Belarus (Vzglyad, June 19). The day’s schedule of events in the Belarusian capital included a personal meeting between Putin and Lukashenka that lasted two hours, instead of the planned 30 minutes.
That said, the statements that the two leaders made to the media after their face-to-face conversation were broadly general. Neither president touched on the resolution of much-publicized bilateral issues, such as Minsk’s distancing from the ongoing showdown between Russia and the West, the lack of unified prices on hydrocarbons, the squeezing out of Belarusian exports (especially but not only dairy products) from the Russian market, and control problems pertaining to the Belarusian-Russian border (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, June 18). The latter remains transparent for the citizens of Russia and Belarus but not for citizens of third countries, although this has been fixed for the duration of the World Cup. The two sides did not even manage to eliminate mutual roaming charges for cellphone communication between Russia and Belarus, although a solution to this problem was anticipated.
Putin’s statement after the meeting highlighted the 25 percent rise in bilateral trade in 2017, up to $32.5 billion, and the 18.5 percent growth from January to April 2018. He further suggested that their trade turnover could reach $50 billion relatively soon. Putin also revealed that Russia’s accumulated investment in Belarus amounts to $3.9 billion and Belarus’s in Russia to $620 million. Aside from the nuclear power plant in Ostrovets (see EDM, June 13), the largest current industrial entities under construction in Belarus by Russian firms include construction materials and grain processing factories as well as the Carbon Black plant, whose product reinforces rubber and is used in automobile and chemical industries. Also, canceling Russian natural gas transit via Ukraine will boost the role of Belarus. With this in mind, Russia plans to invest $2.5 billion to modernize and expand the Belarusian stretch of the Yamal–Europe pipeline and over $1 billion into additional gas storages on Belarusian soil. Both investments are short-term—i.e., prior to the end of 2020 (Tut.by, June 19).
In his turn, Lukashenka expressed satisfaction that, in 2017, the 2014–2016 decline in mutual trade was overcome. Furthermore, he conveyed hope that further progress would be made by eliminating the remaining trade barriers. At the same time, however, he criticized attempts to shift unresolved bilateral problems to multilateral formats, like the Eurasian Economic Union (Tut.by, June 19).
The SSC meeting received broad media coverage, both on the eve and in the wake of the event. But the absence of clear-cut results allowed commentators to draw conclusions based on their own preconceived notions and preferences regarding Belarusian-Russian ties. Available commentaries fall into three rough categories. First, there are the articles and observations by those in favor of limiting bilateral ties for the sake of strengthening Belarus’s Western lean. Specifically, they label outstanding issues as “fundamental and not befitting allies” and claim Russian-Belarusian relations are growing “colder” with each passing day (Republic.ru, June 19). They also opine that while Lukashenka continues to rely on top-level talks to resolve every problem with Russia, this reliance is letting him down more than before (Naviny, June 19).
In contrast, the second group cherishes the Russia-Belarus relationship. As such, it underscores the ability of Minsk and Moscow to always arrive at a compromise. Proponents of this collective viewpoint underscore upcoming steps in tightening the collaboration, like this coming October’s forum of Russian and Belarusian regions, in Mogilev (Belta, June 19).
Somewhat more revealing are the commentaries of the third kind—that is, by the observers committed to underscoring the normalcy of the June 19 Putin-Lukashenka meeting. Notably, they point out the lack of groundbreaking decisions or powerful emotions accompanying the event. Thus, Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty believes that the meeting in question was ceremonial and that growth in mutual trade is all due to growing oil prices (Tut.by, June 20). Ivan Lizan, a Russian political scientist, explains that disappointments derive from expectations. Illustratively, the elimination of cellular roaming charges between Russia and Belarus ought to be preceded by the elimination of those between Russian regions themselves. Similarly, the mutual recognition of visas is difficult to accomplish because neither Belarus nor Russia wants to give up sovereign decision-making on relations with third countries. Finally, the so-called “milk war” has been conditioned by the “Belarusianization” of Russia’s agricultural policy, which involves import substitution (Sonar2050, June 21). At the same time, however, Belarus has no practical alternative to Russia’s food market; selling milk and meat to Europe would require certification of not only milk processing plants but also of the cows and pastures themselves, which would necessitate prohibitively expensive labs. Overall, the European Union is in no hurry to allow in Belarusian products, a point that Lukashenka made forcefully to Johannes Hahn, the Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy, during their Minsk meeting on June 21 (Naviny, June 21). Finally, Piotr Petrovsky of Eurasia Expert observes that Russia and Belarus essentially swapped their roles after 2014, naturally affecting their mutual relations. While Belarus ceased being a pariah in its relations with the West, Russia, on the contrary, became beleaguered with sanctions that previously used to be imposed on Belarus. Yet, the ensuing problems are being resolved (EurasiaExpert, June 21).
In summary, the last Lukashenka-Putin summit did not result in any sensational outcomes. Sometimes, events are what they seem, and there is no false bottom to them.