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Russia is in a quarrel with Belarus The major conflicts which have contributed to worsening relations between Moscow and Minsk

14:16, 3 february 2017

Открытие границы между Россией и Белоруссией в 1995 году

Photo: Leonid Sverdlov / TASS

In early February 2017, relations between Russia and Belarus deteriorated sharply. Moscow decided to restore the border security zone on the border between the two countries. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused Russia of violating an existing border agreement and complained about Russia’s “political attacks”. The border security zone is not the only fragile point in relations between Russia and Belarus. In fact, the two countries are in conflict in regards to at least four essential questions. Meduza has the story.

1. The border

In 1995, Russia and Belarus are united in the “union state”, a measure that completely eliminated border controls. This was convenient for the residents of the two countries, but made it difficult to monitor the movement of the nationals of other countries.

The elimination of the Russian-Belarusian border security zone in 1995.
Photo: TASS

Russian Federation and Belarus have different visa rules with other countries. In January 2017, Belarus announced the introduction of a visa-free regime for citizens of 80 countries entering the country through Minsk airport, including the United States and the European Union. Citizens of these countries will be able to stay in Belarus for up to five days without visas. The visa-free regime will come into force in the first half of February. Russia has a visa regime with all of these nations. In light of Belarus’s new visa-free regime, any visitor from the countries in question can enter the Russian Federation without the knowledge of Russian authorities.

Moscow did not like Belarus’s decisions and began introduce passports checks on flights from Minsk. Shortly thereafter, the FSB demanded that a full-fledged border security zone be introduced along the border.

Russia chose to restore the border without Belarus’s approval, though Moscow claims that the new security measures will not affect the movement of Belarusian and Russian citizens. Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has accused Moscow of violating their earlier agreement.

2. Oil and gas

Modern oil-processing infrastructure and refineries were built on Belarusian soil during the Soviet era. But they process Russian oil. It is profitable for Russia to supply oil to Belarus, partly because Belarus produces relatively cheap gasoline and petroleum-based products.

Previously, Russia agreed not to charge export duties on oil delivered to Belarus. As part of the agreement, some of the oil was also returned to Russian in the form of gasoline. However, Belarus itself exports gasoline to the West and charges export duties in the process. So, in effect, Russian oil goes to Europe. The Belarusian budget receives revenue, but the Russian budget does not. “There are international treaties and agreements, and one [official] put an end to all agreements with the stroke of a pen,” said Lukashenko.

Negotiations on how much oil Russia is to supply Belarus on preferential terms and how much it gets back to gasoline are held almost every year and each time with tension.

At the same time there is a conflict in regards to gas: Belarus believes that Gazprom should supply gas to Belarus at Russian domestic prices in light of the Union State. The gas monopoly does not agree with this. Sometimes Belarus allows a significant delay in renewing gas contracts (Gazprom estimates, Minsk’s debt amounted to $340 million for just a portion of 2016). Moscow responds to this by reducing it supply of oil.

At the end of 2016, the oil and gas dispute between Russia and Belarus became especially antagonistic, with mutual accusations and the involvement of high-level politicians (Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev even made a public comment). At the beginning of 2017, Alexander Lukashenko said: “Reductions of oil supplies from the Russian Federation should be [compensated for] by alternatives.”

At a February 3 press conference, Lukashenko’s rhetoric became even harsher: “What is the point? Why grab ourselves by the throat? It is clear that we can do without Russian oil. It will be very difficult,” said the president.

3. Foodstuff

One of the foundations of the Belarusian economy is the export of agricultural products. Russian farmers often complain about the tangible presence of Belarusian goods in the local market. Sometimes, this leads to collisions such as the 2009 “milk war”.

Things became more complicated with Russia’s introduction of counter-sanctions against the West. Forbidden goods enter Russia through Belarus. Minsk has refused to impose a ban on imports. In the absence of proper borders, forbidden foodstuff is easy to deliver into Russia and has become a profitable business.

Sanctions foodstuff confiscated in the Smolensk Region after being smuggled into Russia through Belarus in June 2015.
Photo: Victor Tolochko / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

At the end of January 2017, Russia’s agriculture watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor restricted imports from two Belarusian meat-packing plants, as Moscow believes that forbidden Ukrainian beef has been entering Russia under the guise of Belarusian beef.

On February 3, Alexander Lukashenko demanded that criminal proceedings be introduced against the head of the Rosselkhoznadzor Sergey Dankvert for “damage to the state.”

Relations with the West

Belarus’s foreign policy has changed dramatically in the last decade. Earlier, Alexander Lukashenko’s rhetoric was, as a rule, pro-Russian and anti-Western. But from the second half of the 2000s onward, the Belarusian leader has been favoring Europe. In 2014, Lukashenko did not support Russia on the Ukrainian question. What is more, he tried to arrange a meeting for the signing of the Minsk agreements.

In 2015, Alexander Lukashenko agreed to pardon political prisoners, after which the European Union lifted sanctions against him. “I am no longer Europe’s last dictator. There are dictators who are worse than I am, is that not true?” said Lukashenko in an interview with Bloomberg.

By contrast, Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated. Sanctions have been imposed against Russia and Vladimir Putin’s inner circle (though not the Russian president himself) as a result of the Ukrainian conflict and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Lukashenko explicitly states that Moscow is afraid of Belarus turning towards the West, and does nothing to allay Moscow’s fears.

Written by Mikhail Zelensky and Alexander Polivanov