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Russia and Belarus: The Power Play

Nikola Mikovic discusses how energy will define relations between Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Russia and BelarusThe Power Play

Nikola Mikovic discusses how energy will define relations between Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

The Western-backed opposition of Belarus is still holding regular protests demanding President Alexander Lukashenko’s resignation, claiming that the country’s August election was rigged. Lukashenko, meanwhile, has said he will only step down once the eastern European nation has a new constitution following a nationwide referendum – but has given no clear indication of when that might be.

Even before the election, Lukashenko had announced constitutional changes, but appeared to be in no hurry to implement them. Now that he is being pressured by both the opposition and the Kremlin, he will eventually have to find a way to leave his post. His term ends in 2025, but since Moscow is strongly pushing for the transformation of the Belarusian political system – from presidential to parliamentary – it would not be improbable for Lukashenko to step down earlier.

That, however, does not necessarily mean that the opposition led by Lithuania-based Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claims to be the rightful winner of the election, will come to power. Even though there has been speculation that the Belarusian opposition made contact with Moscow, the Russian Foreign Minister has denied such claims. 

Essentially, the future of relations between the two countries relies on energy. Although Belarus does not have any natural resources, it serves as a reliable transit country for Russian natural gas and crude oil.

The Terms and Conditions

Now he can no longer balance between Moscow and the West – the key goal of his foreign policy for more than two decades – Lukashenko is completely dependent on the Kremlin’s support, and is expected to make some significant concessions to Russia, primarily in the field of energy.

The EU imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and several Belarusian officials after their crackdown on anti-Government demonstrations. Minsk subsequently decided to downgrade its participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, and has drafted a blacklist of Ukrainian officials who may be sanctioned, retaliating against their decision to join EU sanctions against Minsk.

At the same time, Lukashenko intensified cooperation with Russia. Following a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 26 November, Lavrov declared: “We can call it in different ways but we have the same goal: to move towards the mutual benefits for our peoples, the countries and the Russia–Belarus Union State.” He went on to explain that the main task was to “secure concrete agreements regarding the effective implementation of the two countries’ joint program in the field of foreign policy.”

In the past, the countries have experienced energy disputes, the most recent one in January this year after Russia halted oil supplies to refineries in Belarus. Putin and Lukashenko have met multiple times to discuss gas and oil prices for Belarus, but to this day the issue has not been completely resolved. Reports suggest the Belarusian state energy company Belneftekhim recently notified Russian pipeline operator Transneft that it wanted to increase the transit tariff via the Druzhba pipeline for Russian suppliers by almost 25% from 1 January 2021 – a decision that could worry Russia.

In return for a place in its orbit, Russia insists on cheap energy – and the Belarusian President doesn’t appear hostile to the idea. “Time has shown that we cannot escape very close and friendly relations”, said Lukashenko after meeting with Lavrov, noting that Belarus is ready to strengthen ties with Russia.

Indeed, Lukashenko’s room for political manoeuvre is limited after the EU imposed sanctions. It seems he recognises he will need to acquiesce to Russia’s terms and conditions.

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Thus, Russia is expected to keep supplying its ally with fossil fuels, but the price of Russian energy will depend on Belarus’ further integration.

On 7 November, Belarus officially opened its first nuclear power plant built by Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation. This burgeoning alliance signals that little will change after Lukashenko’s departure. In fact, Belarus may become even more reliant of Russia – beholden to the country for its energy supplies, and forced to service ever-mounting debt repayments

Although it remains unclear what exactly Lukashenko and Lavrov discussed behind closed doors, energy issues will likely remain top priorities for both countries. The coming days and weeks will expose the energy deals struck between Russia and Belarus. It is likely this will be the first step in resetting relations between the two allied states.

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