Russia and Belarus' top political brass were locked in negotiations for most of Thursday last week at what was supposed to be a routine one-hour session of the Belarus-Russia Union State Supreme Council. The eight-hour-plus meeting in the Kremlin was supposed to expand cooperation on energy, trade and military matters, but very little headway appeared to have been made. So why have Russia-Belarus relations become so tense? And are there any prospects for a better relationship, let alone the integration of these countries in a nebulous Union State?
The decisions made on gas cooperation "at least will not create problems for our Belarussian partners," President Dmitry Medvedev said after the marathon session. But not only do these comments give away little of what went on behind closed doors, they do not come close to summing up Moscow's aggressive policy toward its former vassal state. Russia-Belarus relations have this year been marked by a raft of politicised trade spats over gas, dairy products, meat and even tractors.
President Alexander Lukashenko hoped that the export duty on Russian oil and gas to Belarus would be abolished, allowing Belarus to buy at Russian domestic prices. But the best he got was a promise from Pavel Borodin, the secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union, that prices for Russian oil and gas to Belarus in 2010 "could" be frozen at the 2009 level.
On Nov. 23, Medvedev promised Lukashenko that Belarus would pay 30 to 40 percent less than European Union states for Russian gas, but more recently Vladimir Putin said that discounted prices depend on Belarus' integration into a union state with Russia.
Christopher Langton, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Russia was using its natural resources as a tool to force Belarus into integration.
Moscow's aim is to "strengthen its alliances on the border with Europe ... Belarus, Moldova, Transdnestr and Ukraine [are] places where [Russia] can apply pressure, and the energy tool is one example of that," said Langton.
Medvedev and Lukashenko expressed hope that the union would become a platform for strengthening ties, but the prospect for such integration is small.
On Dec. 8, the union marked its 10th anniversary, but in that time it has achieved little. "These 10 years have passed very fast, much has been done and much not done yet," Medvedev said.
Both countries have interests in the union state, but they do not converge. Russia sees it as a way to reassert its control over Belarus, but Lukashenko sees as a way of "getting cheap energy resources, free access to Russia's markets, occasional subsidies, and credits from the Russian government," said Yaroslav Romanchuk, the head of the Minsk-based Mises Centre. "That is why ... they were forced to negotiate and imitate friendship and cooperation, while in reality Russian-Belarussian trade and political relations are quite sour."
After the Kremlin meeting, Lukashenko called the union state a "real, advanced formation for integration in the post-Soviet space [with] clear prospects."
But in reality, "Lukashenko doesn't want to transfer even a tiny bit of his power to this kind of sub-national body," said Romanchuk.
Lukashenko's current policy is strongly Russophobic, and this will only intensify as the presidential elections campaign kicks off toward the end of 2010. "Next year Lukashenko will definitely put more blame on Putin and on Gazprom for the deterioration of the economic situation in Belarus. ... I don't know of any single country in the world where anti-Russian propaganda is so strong," said Romanchuk.
Amid this year's disputes, trade between the two countries has dropped by 40 percent and contributed to Belarus' current trade deficit with Russia of $8 billion, RFE reported on Dec. 10.
Lukashenko has called Russian trade sanctions as a form of blackmail. In October, Lukashenko accused Putin of personally giving the order to turn off the taps to Belarus in the January 2004 gas dispute.
During last week's Q&A session, Putin was asked why he had not responded to Lukashenko's criticism, Putin joked: "Maybe it's love." Yet even if the will is there to fix the relationship, at the moment the two countries are more likely to be heading for an acrimonious separation than a second honeymoon.