By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
The latest energy crisis between Russia and Belarus followed a yearly routine, with partners discovering at the end of December that new contracts for energy deliveries have not been signed for next year. As usually, disagreements concern the prices that the producer wants to obtain and those the clients is ready to pay. From gas deliveries, the clash extended to oil.
If the scenario is old, this year’s context was different. The crisis reveals three changes in regional politics in this part of the European continent.
First, president Lukashenko has been confronted with the limits of his multi-vector foreign policy. The game of smiling to the West to show independence from Russia, and vice-versa, is proving more complex in the current geo-economical era. Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey said in an interview with Izvestia, during the Munich Security Conference in mid-February that Belarus cannot be drawn “into some sphere of influence” (referring to US influence) “because of geography”. He added that Belarus “has never been and will never be friends with someone at somebody else’s expense”. But obviously pressures are increasing, making more difficult to keep the balance.
Second, the West is more fragmented than ever, complicating the balance. Recent visits by US and EU high level officials demonstrated they do not see an “opening” of Belarus in the same light and do not link their cooperation to the same conditions. Even EU members, tied by the 2015 single European energy market, stepped separately into Belarus-Russia quarrels in pursuit of their own political goals of reducing Russian influence in their region. For instance, Lithuania, Poland and even Ukraine (not a member of EU) are involving themselves in Belarus affairs, and not only in energy matters.
Third, Russia’s energy diplomacy has been in full evolution since the 90s. The crisis with Belarus gave a new emphasis to the prominent role of private companies in energy-linked international relations. Of course, these companies continue to act in synchro with the Kremlin’s orientations, but with a look on returns and by competing against each other. Hence the oil crisis being settled by discussions at presidential level coupled with the decision of 5 private companies to accept reduced tariffs (with compensation from the state) in exchange of shares in energy infrastructures – this time for industrial reasons, not for Russia’s political returns as previously. Even the Gazprom monopole is not what it has been. Partly because its tactic of using a mixed shareholding system, acting sometimes in capacity of a state company sometimes of a private one, has reached its limits. Partly because the Kremlin cannot ignore accusations of rigidity and lack of strategic vision. In fact, a company still commonly described as the energetic arm of the Kremlin has proved itself a poor diplomatic tool.
But the crisis of 2020 would had been different if Belarus had not been gearing towards presidential elections to be held no later than 30 August this year.
Lukashenko is certain to be reelected, if only thanks to the persistent incapacity of the opposition to unite around a single credible candidate. Fears of chaos and a still good level of popularity ought to be enough for his reelection. But he will not be satisfied with victory, he wants proofs of big support, reduces risks of results’ contestations, and for the first time he detects a potential electoral bonus coming from the West.
Last year, he had begun to smell a popular demand for more opportunities and a Western readiness to engage with the “last dictator of Europe” so long as he distanced himself from Russia. The problem is that EU, and more clearly NATO and the US, are saluting his Western openings as a sign that their dream of taking over this geopolitical asset can be fulfilled sooner than expected. Vladimir Putin did not help Russian cause by insisting on closer cooperation – on Russian terms. He seems to be one of the last believers in the future of a Belarus-Russia Union. His aggressive stances, during a serious crisis, helped Lukashenko to put on the clothes of a brave David confronting Goliath.
In the same time, he has enough political experience and realism not to saw the branch on which he is sitting. The oil or gas that other neighbours are offering to replace Russian deliveries will not flow tomorrow, nor will they be cheaper. In the meantime, the national economy continues to depend on deliveries of cheap energy, for families, agriculture and industry. The last includes the profitability of its 2 refineries whose benefits, and its contribution to national budget, depend on the possibility to sell, at world prices, transformed products bought from Russia at a discount price.
For this reason, Lukashenko has been keen to present Belarus’ decision to “explore alternative sources” as a way to strengthen his position in the negotiations process with Russia. His neighbours are part of a number of options, each of them having – he did add – to be tested to identify the best interest of Belarus. It has already received oil shipments from Norway; it received offers from the traditional anti-Russian front for using Baltic sea ports to supply his country (Poland and Lithuania would upgrade infrastructures and create conditions for using the Druzhba pipeline in a reverse mode); and it has contacts with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US.
By projecting his image of “defender of Belarus sovereignty”, including against a bully Russia, he hopes to consolidate its electoral support. But he does not forget potential reverse effects if this translates into bankruptcies and social misery.