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Moscow-Minsk: “They don’t listen to us, but we still help them”

The agreements reached during the last meeting of the Russian and Belarusian presidents will put the sides in their ease for some time but much here will depend on how the Belarusians will fulfill their obligations, say the experts interviewed by EADaily.

Senior expert at MGIMO’s Center for Military and Political Studies Mikhail Alexandrov says that one of the political results of the meeting is that Belarus has signed the Customs Code of the Eurasian Economic Union.

“This must have been one of the preconditions. The general outcome of the meeting is not as good for the Belarusians as it may seem at first glance. Yes, the Belarusians have repaid their debt but they have borrowed one more loan for this purpose – a loan they will have to repay. Perhaps, they hope that the new loan will be written off but they will have to offer something in exchange – for example, to let the Russians deploy an air base in their territory,” Alexandrov says.

One more good news is that a representative of Armenia has been appointed as the Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. “Before the meeting, Alexander Lukashenko objected to this and flirted with the Azerbaijanis in hope that they will give him cheap oil. But after the meeting, he stopped this game,” Alexandrov says.

“Now things will depend on Russia’s foreign political consistency. If the Russians continue being firm in their foreign policy and will not yield in Syria and Ukraine, their relations with the Belarusians will improve, but if they give in as they did after the U.S. strike on Syria, Lukashenko will counteract,” Alexandrov says.

Head of Sector at Economic Department of the Institute for Energy and Finance Sergey Agibalov says that the agreements have just frozen the conflict. He does not regard the signing of the Customs Code as a concession on the Belarusians’ part as this step will benefit them.

“The last protests and the economic crisis in Belarus must have been the key reasons why the Russians decided to freeze the conflict. But this will not last for long as no real improvement has been achieved. We continue subsidizing the Belarusians and we are ready to meet them halfway even though they often ignore our opinion,” Agibalov says.

According to him, in 2011, Russia agreed to lend Belarus $3bn in six tranches. The Belarusians have already received $2.560bn. The sixth tranche has not been transferred as the Belarusians have failed to meet their commitments. But instead the Russians have lent them $2bn under another program.

“They have carried out no reforms but we still continue lending them money. We have set rules, we must make them work. But instead we are breaking them. They don’t listen to us but we still help them,” Agibalov says.

According to member of the Russian President’s Inter-Ethnic Relations Council Bogdan Bezpalko, the agreements have changed the rules.

“We don’t know what exactly the sides have agreed on but the key result is that Belarus has repaid its debt to Gazprom. For us it was good news but in Belarus, people do not seem to be very enthusiastic. The money the Belarusians may get is not a loan yet. And even if it is lent, it will be a loan rather than a subsidy. And we may well ask something in exchange. The Belarusians have already taken some steps that strongly contrast with what they said before. One example is the signing of the Customs Code of the Eurasian Economic Union. So, as far as I understand, the future of the Belarusians’ economy depends on the political steps they will take. From now own, the Belarusians will have to make some economic and geopolitical advances to the Russians in order to be able to get economic bonuses from them,” Bezpalko says.

Senior Expert at the National Energy Security Fund Stanislav Mitrakhovich says that Russia and Belarus have reached mutually beneficial agreements on oil export.

“Perhaps, the Belarusians will be allowed to re-export Russian oil. This will make it easier for the Russians to convince their OPEC partners that they are meeting their output cut obligations. For the moment, OPEC doubts that the Russians do it – for despite reduced output, the Russians are enlarging their exports. Our formal explanation is that domestic demand is low but our partners still wonder why our exports is growing. Once the Russians start re-exporting their oil via Belarus, they will be able to say to OPEC that they are no longer enlarging their export,” Mitrakhovich says.

He doubts that the sides have reached some more specific or fundamental political agreements. “I don’t think that they have reached agreements on Crimea or the Russian air base in Belarus. Simply, Lukashenko has once again promised that he will not be as impudent as he sometimes is,” says the expert.

“Lukashenko may stop making pro-Western statements for some time but he will hardly take serious steps towards integration with Russia. He will hardly agree to transit to a single currency. He does not even need a single gas market. All he wants is that the Russians continue supplying gas on low prices and let him fix his own prices inside his country,” Mitrakhovich says.

According to him, the Russians have made much bigger concessions. “They have offered the Belarusians a discount for their gas. They have let them charge customs duties on their oil. In exchange, the Belarusians have repaid their gas debt but they did that due to one more Russian loan and may well need one more loan to repay this one,” Mitrakhovich says.

He says that the Russians’ key goal during the talks was to find an optimal scheme for their oil re-export via Belarus and also to find a way to improve their relations with the Belarusians.

“It is not the first time the Russians are acting like this. They have had a number of conflicts with the Belarusians over the last two decades and each time they made concessions and enlarged their subsidies in exchange for promises of integration. This has evolved into a kind of an algorithm and we need to get accustomed to it,” Mitrakhovich says.

On the other hand, this new reconciliation will hardly last for long. “Very soon, we may witness a new conflict – once the Russians insist on selling them stakes in some Belarusian companies or if Lukashenko joins the EU’s Eastern Partnership program. Today, the Belarusian economy is weak and needs more and more subsidies. This too may give ground for a conflict of interests,” Mitrakhovich says.

As EADaily reported earlier, in early April, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko said that all the problems existing between Russia and Belarus, particularly, the oil and gas conflict, had been resolved. Belarus has repaid its debt to Gazprom and Russia has promised it a new loan worth $1bn and the next $600mn tranche from the Eurasian Economic Union fund.

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