Having closed the border, even for six weeks, Russia has taken yet another psychologically important step in the process of its estrangement from Belarus.
A row over energy prices is a sign that Belarus and Russia are set to have a cooler and more pragmatic relationship. Over the next few years, Minsk is likely to build a more balanced relationship with the West and Moscow, like that of Armenia or Kazakhstan.
Belarus’s resolution to become less dependent on Russian oil has nothing to do with its economy. Minsk is making a political statement with the aim of depriving Moscow of one of its main bargaining chips in their relationship.
So long as Serbia does not formally recognize Kosovo’s independence, it must rely on Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council. That dependency gives Russia a nontrivial degree of influence, both in the region and within Serbia itself.
The pro-Russia Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova has managed to accumulate an impressive amount of institutional power. But this concentration of power brings not only advantages, but also greater vulnerabilities, especially when there are plenty of destabilizing factors at work, from uncertain gas supplies to mass voting by residents of the breakaway region Transnistria.
Russia’s suggestion that Belarus resurrect a 1999 agreement to get compensation for Russia’s oil tax maneuver looks fairly cynical to Minsk. After all, by joining the EEU, in which single markets—including for energy commodities—are supposed to be created between 2018 and 2024, Belarus has already paid for all of its tariff preferences.
There’s no desperation or desire from the Belarusian side right now to obtain concessions from Moscow at any price. The damage to Belarus’s economy from Russia’s “tax maneuver” is serious, but not fatal. The cumulation of these losses will only anger Lukashenko and make him less prepared to compromise.
As European leaders make it increasingly clear that rapid EU membership for the Western Balkans is out of the question, there is speculation that other global powers may also reconsider their strategies in the region. Due to its longstanding ties with the Balkans and vast experience in meddling, Russia sparks particular fear in the West.
Both Belarusian officials and U.S. presidential adviser John Bolton were quick to put out the message that the visit was more about form than content. Bolton said openly that no issues had been resolved at the meeting, but that he had not expected otherwise. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said that no one was enticing Minsk over to any side, and that the two sides had simply agreed to keep communicating.
Elections in Belarus are traditionally administrative rituals. However, amid growing tensions with Russia and increased discussion of a future presidential transition in Minsk, the upcoming Belarusian parliamentary and presidential votes may be the start of cautious political change in the country.