The Panel of the CIS Economic Court on Wednesday began hearings into a lawsuit filed by Belarus against Russia over new oil export duties introduced in January. Belarus claims the duties violate the existing free-trade agreements between the two ex-Soviet states. Relations have been strained since late last year with Minsk insisting that all duties be lifted, something Russia refuses to accept. The two agreed upon a compromise deal under which Russia will supply duty-free oil to Belarus for domestic needs only but will keep duties for oil intended for re-export from Belarusian oil refineries.
Also, Russia imposed duties on petrochemicals exports to Belarus. Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov has said the duties will stay in force for at least two years until a full package of interstate treaties on a common economic space is signed.
Though the discussion seems to have purely economic character, some experts see also its political context because Minsk sounds critical of Moscow regarding Russian relations with Belarus, Nikolay Petrov, an expert of Moscow's Carnegie Center says.
The point is that Belarus is losing a couple of billions of dollars which Russia invested in Belarus' economy. The action proceeding on Belarus claim to Russia may take several months. Meanwhile a package of agreements to establish the single economic space is being prepared. Russia hopes that within these agreements the issue of oil duties will be settled. It is likely that the parties will agree before the court issues its ruling. But turning to court (and from July the court of CIS will be become the court of the Custom's union) is a normal civilized way of resolving conflicts.
Experts say that in the oil supplies issues Russian has obvious advantages over Belarus. It is the Economic court of CIS which is to say the last word but its decision will rather be permissive than mandatory.