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The implications of gas crisis between Belarus and Russia

Published on July 26, 2010 by: in: Economy

Paweł Luty: Recently we have experienced a huge crisis between Belarus and Russia over natural gas. Belarus owed Gazprom millions of dollars. Minsk answered that Russians also had not settled their debt for the transit of LPG. Apart from the economic reasons, do you see any other source of the conflict?

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Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski: Of course, we can only guess rather than know if the economic reasons were not the deciding factors. We should not forget that Gazprom requires capital as it is the main subsidiser of much energy-consuming Russian economy. As much as 70% of Russian natural gas is consumed in Russia. Gazprom sells LPG on the Russian market at a very low price, so it has to squeeze out the foreign receivers as much as it is possible.

Till March 2006, because of political reasons, Belarus had been subsidised by Russia. When Lukashenko won the presidential election, Moscow thought that the scenario of the “Orange Revolution” was much unlikely to come true. Therefore, they decided that financing Belarusian economy is not essential to keep the regime.

On the other hand, Lukashenko is still resisting Russian endeavours to take over the transit infrastructure of gas and oil on Belarus territory. During the last 2 years he has shown that he does not necessarily follow the Moscow’s guidelines for the foreign policy. After all, Minsk has not acknowledged the independence claimed by Abkhazia or South Ossetia and has lately granted diplomatic asylum to the president of Kyrgyzstan – Kurmanbek Bakiyev – who was overthrown with the support of Russia. We can figure out that the last crisis is just an element of Russia’s pressure on Lukashenko to change his foreign policy.

P.L.: Is there a chance of Lukashenko’s losing  this year’s presidential election because he has sunk in Moscow’s and perhaps his own nation’s estimation? Can this crisis result in the change of regime in Belarus?

P.Ż.v.G.: I do not think so. I believe that Moscow does not have such a sound substitute. I do not mean that I have some unusual fondness for Lukashenko, but we must remember that from the Russian point of view the most important is to make Belarus stay in the sphere of influence of Moscow and to stop it from entering the Western sphere. Lukashenko guarantees that, thereby there is no need of change and taking unnecessary risks.

On the other side, Lukashenko’s regime does not pose any systemic challenge for the domestic Russian policy. The “orange” government in Ukraine was such a threat, which ideologically undermined the order in Russia. Russians largely perceive Ukrainians and Belarusians as Russians, which in my opinion is wrong. However, it has its effects on Russia’s domestic policy. Namely, if it turns out that the Western democratic model succeeds in Kiev or Minsk, it may be successful also in Moscow. And that would be against the Kremlin who promotes the native model of controllable democracy. Thus, there are no ideological reasons for fighting against Lukashenko’s regime as it does not threaten the position of Putin and Medvedev in Russia.

To my mind, Moscow does not sense any rivalry from the European Union in this sphere, thus the most important for Russia is to reduce the costs of maintaining its domination in Belarus.

P.L.: Can we then perceive any serious change of Russian policy towards Belarus?

P.Ż.v.G.: I think that Moscow could bring on a palace revolution if it wanted to. What is more, the external conditions are much favourable for the Kremlin as they could accomplish the revolution in disguise of Belarus’s democratisation. Such an operation could be supported by the European Union and the US. The West would gladly believe in the Russia’s interpretation of overthrowing the dictatorship. I believe it to be completely technically and politically doable. Albeit, I do not think it would pay off.

In my opinion, Lukashenko did not support the Russian intervention in Georgia in fear of such a scenario. Nevertheless, Minsk is still implementing Russian strategic goals, what can be proved by last year’s massive manoeuvre “Ładoga”, when Belarus showed that it is just a part of Russian strategic forces, not an autonomic military agent in the international relations.

P.L.: Since we cannot see any changes in Moscow-Minsk relations, we should consider the implications for Poland of the crisis.

P.Ż.v.G.: I fear that we can experience only the negative results. The countries of the European Union, especially Germany, will press for a hastening of the investment of the construction of Nord Stream. Poland can make use of a certain psychological trend for hurrying up the law alterations of the EU system of energetic  safety. The Polish government should rise the issue of the EU solidarity in case of another gas crisis, but we should keep in mind that the efficiency of such solidarity is decided by the transit structure rather than signed pacts. Thus, till some transit connections sending gas to the EU through our territory are designed, we will not be able fulfil even our earnest promises of help. But we cannot expect any huge investments because of the crisis in Greece and the need of the eurozone stabilisation. Simply, there is no money for that. However, we can expect some serious political declarations. What is more probable is the appropriation of funds by the biggest EU actors to building the Nord Stream under a veil of getting rid of the threat for the gas transit of another Ukraine or Belarus versus Russia conflicts. And that would be disadvantageous for Poland.

P.L.: You have mentioned the possibility of improving our energetic safety in the EU. So, what our energy policy towards our Eastern neighbour should be like? Should we cooperate with Lukashenko’s regime or perhaps promote the democratisation of Belarus? Is Belarusian “Orange Revolution” probable?

P.Ż.v.G.: The prospects of the democratisation of Belarus are not promising. The spirits of the nation do not serve it well. The presumptive economic destabilisation of Lukashenko’s regime could open the path of democratisation, but we are not facing such a situation today. Having said that, Poland should truly support the democratisation of Belarus more than the deal with the dictator. Even though he is currently against Russian intents, it is not a tenacious and firm trend. Truly pro-Western option in Belarus can appear only among strong democratic opposition, nonexistent yet. The anti-Lukashenko movement is still too weak, although it is pro-Western. Only in the democratic environment Belarus can turn to the West not temporarily but permanently. Currently Moscow holds a variety of means of control of Lukashenko which can make Minsk return to implementing the Kremlin’s policy, which can put him in his place.

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About Przemyslaw Zurawski vel Grajewski

Lecturer at the University of Lodz, visiting professor at the Belarussian University in Villnius, member of the European Insitute in Lodz and European Centre Natolin. Previously worked in the Ministerial Office of Defence and European Integration, he was alo a specialist in the European Parliament on the Eastern policy.

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