|LUKASHENKO: RUSSIA’S ALLY OR SPONGE?
MOSCOW. (Andrei Suzdaltsev for RIA Novosti)
Taken aback by the Kremlin’s harsh reaction, Belarusian President
Alexander Lukashenko has cancelled a transit levy of $45 per metric ton
for Russian crude introduced in late 2006. His press service has announced
that the January 12 talks in Moscow will end in success for Minsk.
The Belarusian prime minister has brought to Moscow a long list of issues
for immediate discussion. The most important of them is the customs duty
on the export of Russian crude to Belarus, which amounts to $3.6-$3.8
billion a year. The Russian budget will lose it if the Kremlin makes
concessions to Minsk.
Belarus annually imports 21 million metric tons of Russian crude, although
it needs only 7-7.5 million. It refines the rest and sells the products to
the European Union. Belarusian companies can refine no more than 18
million metric tons a year. Nearly 3 million metric tons of crude are
resold to Lithuania and Poland unrefined at dumping prices. Average annual
revenues from that transaction amount to at least $550 million.
(Belarusian GDP amounts to $35 billion.) Minsk also sells 11 million
metric tons of petrochemicals refined from the duty-free Russian crude.
Moreover, the resale of Russian crude has a destabilizing effect on
Russian crude export to Europe.
Russian natural gas, the cheapest in Europe, allows Belarus to save huge
sums by reducing the prime cost of its output and to “buy” the
sympathies of the electorate. Annual pensions in the country total $2.1
billion. Gazprom’s gas price concession for Belarus in 2007 amounts the
same sum, $2.1 billion, and, taken together with the customs duty, exceeds
Russian gas mostly allowed Lukashenko to save money, whereas the tax-free
Russian crude earned Minsk billions of dollars deposited with Belarusian
and Western banks.
Petrodollars were used to create an image of a prosperous republic in the
West, and to finance the media and political structures. It is Russian
crude that is the earnest of Lukashenko’s political longevity.
When the Russian leaders decided to convert relations with Belarus to
market principles in May 2006, they disregarded the fact that economic
relations with Russia are the foundation of Lukashenko’s power. Moscow
was not prepared for a fierce battle with Lukashenko, who has since shown
that he would not stop at anything to ensure his political survival.
But the Belarusian president has made a mistake. For the first time in 12
years of his relations with the Kremlin, he has received a coordinated
response from the Russian executive authorities. The Kremlin rallied the
state mechanism against Belarusian blackmail within hours, and the
legislative branch quickly abandoned its illusions regarding the
Belarusian “ally.” The Russian media refused to respond to a
large-scale information war initiated in Minsk.
As a result, Lukashenko has lost nearly all his footholds in Russia.
Thinking that he would deal with a Russian political class busy settling
accounts and establishing coalitions against each other, the Belarusian
leader struck out, only to find himself face to face against a
consolidated Russian elite.
Russia has lost one more, possibly its last, ally on January 10. But this
is a minor loss, since Lukashenko has never been a real ally. Under him,
Belarus has moved further away from Russia than it ever was since the
dissolution of the Soviet Union. Getting huge economic privileges from its
partner in the Union State, Lukashenko failed to use them wisely. He has
not reformed the Belarusian economy, modernized its enterprises, or found
effective points of growth.
Belarus has long become a sanitary cordon dividing Russia from the West,
because the Belarusian market is closed to part of Russian goods, Russian
business is not allowed in Belarus, the joint air defense system is a
phantom, and Russian transit goods can be confiscated by Minsk any moment.
Belarus has not supported Russia in the issue of transit to the
Kaliningrad Region, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea. Russia has become
bogged down in Belarus, slowing down the pace of its potential economic
expansion in the Baltic countries and Poland.
The Belarusian leaders have turned out to be impossible to talk or strike
deals with, and Minsk cleverly avoided implementing agreements and
But enough is enough. Lukashenko has exhausted the trust of the Russian
leaders and proved useless to the main part of the Russian opposition
(with the exception of the Communist Party). The Belarusian president has
found himself in a tighter isolation than ever before. Nobody wants to
talk with him.
Lukashenko most likely did not intend to use the oil transit levy for
filling his country’s budget. He wanted “an absolute argument” for
bargaining with Russia according to his scenario and from positions of
strength. Minsk believed that Moscow would accept the unfair exchange and
cancel the crude export customs duty.
Since January 3, the Belarusian media has published many interviews with
members of the government and leaders of energy departments, who said
Minsk would cancel the transit levy if Russia pledged to continue
supplying it with cheap and tax-free crude.
Instead, Moscow demanded that Belarus immediately cancel the transit levy
if it wants to talk, and Minsk had to sheath its only, and seemingly
It has no tools left for blackmailing Moscow now. Unfortunately, Minsk has
turned its economic problems with Moscow into an international scandal. As
a result, the issue of oil transit safety has acquired political
significance, requiring top-level interference.
Lukashenko deliberately provoked the oil conflict in bilateral energy
relations, thus unwittingly initiating processes that will destroy the
Russia-Belarus integration project. I doubt that he has scrutinized a
head-on collision with Russia for all possible consequences to his
Andrei Suzdaltsev is an expert at the Higher School of Economics.