The government puts off liberalization while negotiations with Russia continue
Today’s focus of the Belarusian authorities is on negotiations with Russia about economic preferences within the Customs Union and they do not intend to use the parliamentary elections as a foreign policy instrument. Preferences and direct funding, which the Belarusian authorities hope to receive as a result of negotiations with Russia within the Eurasian Union by far exceed the hypothetical benefits from the liberalization.
On June 21-22, senior government officials expressed their readiness to implement a number of joint projects with Russian investors.
As part of economic cooperation with Russia, Belarusian negotiators become more active and they not only defend their positions but also use “cautious attack” tactics. In particular, on June 21st, on the eve of the anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, Prime Minister Myasnikovich announced that Belarus was ready to buy Russian agricultural machinery manufacturer Rostselmash and merge it with Belarusian enterprise Gomselmash.
On June 22nd First Vice Premier Vladimir Semashko announced the imminent assets merger between Belarusian enterprise MAZ and Russian KamAZ. Mr. Semashko assessed MAZ market value at USD 1.1 billion, or about 30% higher than the previous valuation carried out by international experts. Clearly, these ambitious plans are in fact only a stake in the negotiations with Russia and likely to be corrected substantially. Another subject of negotiations in the near future will be amendments to the common customs tariffs on some goods in favour of Belarus and Kazakhstan in connection with Russia’s WTO accession.
Belarus’ June “offensive” on the Russian market was rather adventurous, as it was accompanied by simultaneous loss of rather important negotiating positions.
In particular, last week Belarus announced cancellation of Venezuelan oil deliveries. The economic feasibility of the project was dubious from the start, but it provided the Belarusian leadership with the necessary levers which they used to gain success in negotiations on preferential oil supplies with Russia (Deputy Prime Minister Semashko publicly confessed about this). In political terms, the closure of this project implies that Russian oil suppliers won and that Belarusian negotiating position weakened for the future.
Even more importantly, Belarusian negotiating position is compounded by the lack of clarity about the beginning of construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant. General contract was to be signed before the end of June, but recent information implies it will take place one month later. The slowdown with this project is particularly unpleasant for President Lukashenko personally, as he has already proclaimed Belarus to become a future leader on the regional energy market. In addition, ‘no’ contract means ‘no’ loan from Russia for the NPP construction, which is equally important for the Belarusian authorities.
Therefore, there are two main trends. Firstly, Belarus attempts to move away from a passive self-defense to become more aggressive in the area of economic cooperation with Russia. Secondly, ‘frozen’ dialogue with the West trend remains unchanged.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.