Ex-Soviet Allies Russia and Belarus Quarrel Over Military Cooperation, Economic Integration

By Dimitri Simes | November 19, 2019 | 3:36am EST
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Moscow (CNSNews.com) – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has threatened to back out of a planned integration deal with Russia over Moscow’s reluctance to provide Belarus with energy subsidies and to remove trade barriers.

Amid signs of an improvement in Minsk’s relations with the West, the two longstanding allies are also bickering over Belarus’ refusal to let Russia have a military base on its territory.

“If our key problems concerning hydrocarbon supplies, access to the markets for our commodity, the removal of barriers, etc. are not resolved, no roadmaps can be signed,” Lukashenko said on Sunday.

He said integration with Russia had so far brought only economic losses for Belarus.

“When you enter into some kind of association, you expect that things will be better every month and year,” he said. “And what are we having? [Russia] set conditions year after year. As a result, our economy sustains losses.”

“Who the hell needs such a union?” Lukashenko added. ‘So, our position is clear and the Russian president knows it.”

Russia and Belarus are scheduled to adopt a roadmap for the formation of an economic union in December. The two countries are meant to institute a common tax code, foreign trade regime, civil code, and energy policy, according to a blueprint of the deal obtained by the Russian newspaper Kommersant in September.

“The partial economic integration is on a level no less than in the European Union, and is similar to a confederacy and even a federal state on a number of issues,” the daily wrote at the time.

But Belarus has expressed concerns about Moscow’s plan for economic integration. Although it relies on Russia for cheap energy and loans, it is worried about ceding too much of its political sovereignty to its larger eastern neighbor and longstanding ally.

In an October interview with Russian business news daily RBK, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei called Russia’s proposal to create supranational bodies between the two countries “absolutely unacceptable.”

Belarus has also rebuffed Russia’s request to establish a military base on its territory.

Amid rising tensions with the West over Ukraine and Syria, the Kremlin lobbied Minsk in 2015 for permission to set up an airbase in Belarus to host its Su-27 fighter jets. The move sparked concerns among Western observers, who noted that an airbase in Belarus would provide Russia with a new military asset on NATO's eastern flank.

Belarus, however, shot down the idea, arguing that it served no practical military purpose and would only heighten regional tensions.

Moscow responded to the rebuff by refusing to provide Belarus with Russian Su-30SM fighter jets for free, which it had previously offered to do in exchange for permission to establish the airbase.

Lukashenko last week criticized the Kremlin’s decision to make Belarus pay for the fighter jets, arguing that his country served as a security buffer for Russia.

“We are protecting the Russian Federation and the people of Russia on this front. Then why not help us? Why not supply modern weapons? We know how to use them as efficiently as Russians, but we pay a lot of money for them,” he said.

The Belarusian president warned that if Russia did not reassess its position, he would not extend an important border agreement between the two countries which is set to expire this month.

“We should be ready, like we are now, to protect our interests on behalf of the Republic of Belarus, on our own,” Lukashenko said.

Amid the growing tensions, Belarus has begun repairing its relationship with the West, which has long criticized the country’s poor human rights record.

Lukashenko visited Austria last week, his first trip to a European Union member-state since the union lifted most of its sanctions against Belarus in 2016.

In August, then U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton met with Lukashenko to discuss “a wide range of topics related to Belarusian national security and sovereignty.”

The two countries then announced in September that they would exchange ambassadors for the first time since 2008. The U.S. and Belarus recalled their ambassadors at the time after the Bush administration imposed sanctions over Belarus’ human rights record.

Belarus has also turned to China as alternative source of funding. After Moscow held up a promised $600 million loan earlier this year, Belarus announced it would obtain a $500 million loan from the China Development Bank instead.


 

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