Russia’s Economic Pressure on Belarus Escalates to Trade War

by Alexander Melikishvili

On Friday, June 5, in a three-hour interview given to the chief editors of the mainstream Russian news publications – the newspapers Izvestia and Zavtra and journals Rossiiskaya Federatsiya Segodnya (Russian Federation Today) and Soyuznoe Gosudarstvo (Union State) – the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko presented the list of grievances and focused on the sources of tensions in the bilateral relations with Russia. In a bold move, President Lukashenko spoke openly about the fact that Russia linked the postponement of the $500 million loan to Belarus with Minsk’s continued refusal to recognize the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In particular, when asked when Belarus plans to recognize the independence of Georgia’s separatist territories and whether this was a painful topic in the relationship between Belarus and Russia, President Lukashenko responded:

“You say that this is a painful topic and question. But to me all Russian leaders tell me: ‘This does not really matter. Well, if you recognize – that’s good, but if you don’t – that’s fine too.’ First of all, of course, for Russia this is not even an issue. Whether we recognize them or not, say, now, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Compared to what is happening around Belarus – that’s not that important. But, yes, we do understand that this recognition would not be redundant for Russia. However, I often say that we have our own history of relationships with those republics, and in particular with Abkhazia. With Ossetia, of course, we almost had no such relations, even though we met with people and so on. This is my position…By the way, when we met within the framework of the C.I.S. [Commonwealth of Independent States] everyone told Medvedev: ‘No, we have our own problems.’ And I was the last one to speak and I said: ‘If you do not want to recognize, do not look for motivation under the table. You simply do not want to do it, you are afraid and so forth. And why should not we express support? This is our only ally, we want a lot from it and so forth.’ Ask Medvedev, ask him this question about my position. And I told the Russian leadership how we intend to resolve this problem. They had no more questions. But nonetheless…We reached the point that they arrive and say: if [you deliver on] Ossetia and Abkhazia – this means that there will be $500 million. You know, we do not want to ‘sell’ any issues and positions. We never had that in our history and we never will. We will resolve this issue by ourselves. More so because we met with the leader of Abkhazia Bagapsh, and after that we met with Kokoity. They do not have any questions for us. They understand our position.”

At times equally cryptic and combative, President Lukashenko spoke with palpable frustration and provided a number of responses that will surely fuel speculations about the continuing rift in relations between Minsk and Moscow. On the possibility of Belarus becoming another subject of the Russian Federation Lukashenko’s remarks actually contained a warning and a veiled threat:

“We, as leaders, must calculate the consequences of such a move. Even I, let’s imagine that I make such a decision, and what about tomorrow? Do we have shortage of conflicts in the Caucasus? Today Russia is being ‘bombed’ for the fact that it ‘imperially,’ with armed force squashed and subdued…And what about here? From this point of view the President of Russia says: ‘Yes, you are absolutely right…This will be absolutely harmful for Russia.’ On the other hand – we have our own ‘morons,’ there are a few of them, even if they constitute two, or, say, three percent, but they are the most active, the most ambitious, the most ‘moronic’ in any society. They are ready to unleash ‘national-liberation war.’ They need a pretext. At present everyone makes fun of this. And you think that they will not have anything to fight with? Tomorrow they can receive from Ukraine, the Baltics, mainly from there, from Poland, where they maintain channels. The weapons will surface instantly, explosions, the situation will be destabilized and many in the society will think: listen, they fight for independence, for what is sacred. Here, in Belarus, our people are not dumb, they think exactly the same as the Russians: ‘our land, we will never give up, they will tear their shirts and go.’ They are similar to Russians in that. Do you want to create one more Chechnya here? I don’t.”

Meanwhile the ever inventive head of the Russian Federal Consumer Protection Service, Gennadiy Onishchenko (one of the chief architects of the economic embargo imposed on Georgia) announced a comprehensive ban on imports of Belarusian milk products to Russia, which will surely hit Minsk hard economically considering that Belarus exports 40 percent of the milk it produces and 95 percent of it (worth $1 billion) goes to Russia annually. Even though the Russian government went to a considerable extent to deny any political pretext and the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the notion of tacit economic sanctions against Belarus and insisted that the ban stemmed from the concern for the health of Russian consumers, the closer examination of imposed measures clearly indicates otherwise. According to The Moscow Times, the ban on Belarusian milk products is formally predicated on the technicality – the failure by the Belarusian manufacturers to comply with the new regulations for the dairy industry products that went into effect in December, which include requirements to provide additional information on packages. However, the dairy industries of other neighboring countries, including Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine, also, by and large, do not meet the new regulations and yet their products have not been affected by the ban thus far.

Moscow’s bullying appears to have produced a rare moment of opportunity for Minsk’s rapprochement with the West. At the meeting on Monday with the Deputy Chairman of the House of Representatives of the Belarusian National Assembly, Valery Ivanow, the special rapporteur on Belarus for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (P.A.C.E.), Andrea Rigoni stated that Belarus was invited to participate in the P.A.C.E. session on June 23, which will include the discussion of the question of restoring special guest status for Belarus. In addition, the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) announced today that the loan to Belarus has been increased by $1 billion to $3.5 billion, which must still be approved by the executive board of the I.M.F. It remains to be seen whether increased Western attention and efforts to engage Minsk will indeed result in the multi-vector foreign policy by President Lukashenko. It is clear though that the ultimate litmus test of whether Minsk will bow to Moscow’s pressure will be the issue of the recognition of Georgia’s breakaway provinces.