Expert of the Eurasia Heritage Foundation, Moscow
The meeting of Belarus-Russia Union Counsel of Ministers, which was held in the Belarusian city of Brest on March 16, surprised nobody and was a routine event. Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka was absent, so at the press-conference after the meeting it was Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who looked like the host, while his Belarusian counterpart Siarhiej Sidorski resembled a guest.
Vladimir Putin made the most remarkable statements for mass media, he was disappointed at non-recognition of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali by Minsk. Siarhiej Maskevich, head of the International Committee of the Belarusian Parliament's Lower Chamber answered the Russian Premier's words. He said that the issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's recognition had not been put on the agenda of the spring session of the National Assembly. This way, the MP confirmed Minsk's previous strategy - a refusal to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia with using the officially ambiguous rhetoric that does not exclude the refusal theoretically.
On the eve of Vladimir Putin's visit to Minsk the Belarusian President went to Venezuela, which, according to all the experts, is Aliaksandr Lukashenka's intentional expression of antipathy to the Russian Premier. On the other hand, Aliaksandr Lukashenka could lose face in Brest: after he had had to sign the oil agreements in January, he had nothing to tell Vladimir Putin. President Lukashenka must as soon as possible restore his reputation in the eyes of the Belarusian elite and ordinary people, who started to feel the consequences of the recent oil agreements. The Belarusian President tried to perform this task during his Latin American trip that had been widely advertised in the Belarusian press.
Following the negotiations with Hugo Chaves, Washington's sworn enemy, the Belarusian President managed not only to become an "honourable citizen of Caracas", but also to conclude a serious set of bilateral agreements. The oil and gas agreements were the key ones. In May Belarus expects a trial oil consignment from Venezuela in the volume of 80 thousand tonnes. The oil will be supplied by sea to Odessa, then to the Mozyr petroleum processing plant (Belarus) by train. It is planned that this year Belarus can purchase 4 million tonnes of oil from Venezuela. Aliaksandr Lukashenka demanded that the supplies should be increased up to 10 million tonnes in 2010, which makes up 50% of the annual need of the Belarusian petroleum processing plants with the maximum capacities utilization.
The Belarusian President has already charged Uladzimir Semashka, First Vice Premier, with negotiating with Ukraine about Belarus' joining the Odessa-Brody oil pipeline project. However Kyiv may not give the go-ahead to do that. New Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, seeks to beat down the Russian gas price, that's why he is unlikely to annoy the Kremlin by cooperating with Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
The Russian authorities are sceptical about the prospects of Belarus' new oil projects. But Mr. Lukashenka's trip to Caracas showed that Minsk tried to compete with Moscow for the profitable oil and gas contracts in Venezuela as well as for the whole Venezuelan market: it is quite possible that the Belarusian lorries MAZ will make the Belarusian lorries KamAZ unnecessary in Venezuela.
The Belarusian President's visit to Brazil was of equal interest. Then Aliaksandr Lukashenka signed the bilateral cooperation declaration during the meeting with his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, which was the first meeting in the Belarus - Brazil relations history. The experts believe that the Brazilian market is more attractive for the Belarusian companies than the Venezuelan one.
After the South American trip Aliaksandr Lukashenka again tried to make it clear to Russia that the world is bigger than it. Following his negotiations with Si Tsinpin, potential successor to China's President Hu Jintao, it became known about grandiose joint projects and new Chinese credits that are as big as Russia's anti-crisis loans. China promises the preferential $1 billion credit to Belarus. Aliaksandr Timoshenka, press secretary of the Belarusian government, forecasts that China's total amount of investments in the country's economy will be $15.7 billion.
This way, after the Brest meeting between Siarhiej Sidorski and Vladimir Putin, Aliaksandr Lukashenka made the contacts with the "third world" and China more intense, thus making it clear to Moscow that he will do without it. President Lukashenka demanded that the Belarusian government officials should step up their efforts to develop cooperation with the various countries, not only with Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, but also with South-East Asia, India, and the Gulf countries. "I have already told the Cabinet and the Foreign Ministry: we have yet to establish the relations with Africa", said Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
However one should keep in mind that Belarus has developed the relations with Venezuela and China for a long time. Those countries have never become an alternative to Russia's market and energy resources. Russia is still Belarus' key partner and objectively depends on it in terms of trade and economic relations.
Besides the "third world" Minsk seeks to establish the relations with other countries. Spoiling its relations with the EU over repressions against the Belarusian Poles and with Moscow, Minsk said that it should improve the relations with the USA. Last week Aliaksandr Lukashenka met with heads of 10 major American companies. At the meeting Mr. Lukashenka said that Belarus was ready to let bygones be bygones and to start the fruitful cooperation with the USA. "I think that President Barack Obama's views are more adequate and democratic, he has no vestiges of the cold war and no aggressive ideological approaches to solving the international issues", Aliaksandr Lukashenka praised Barack Obama.
True, he immediately laid down a condition of restoring full-fledge relations to his U.S. counterpart: "Non-interference in the domestic affairs of each other". It is clear that such a rapprochement, as Aliaksandr Lukashenka thinks, should be implemented according to the well-tested "European scenario": the U.S. credits and the access to the U.S. market in exchange for nominal democratization and the non-committal promises. In addition, Washington is unlikely to approve the cooperation proposed by Aliaksandr Lukashenka, especially after Mr. Lukashenka's proposal to Hugo Chaves to strengthen the Venezuelan defense against the USA.
It is notable that against the background of the EU's suspending the issuing of new credits, the IMF decided to give Belarus the last credit tranche of $700 million, and in May the sides will discuss the conditions of the next credit issuing to Minsk as well as its volume. The World Bank representatives recently said that they were ready to continue cooperating with Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
This may indicate that through the IMF and the WB the West keeps the alternative ways to restore contacts with Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Neither Washington nor Brussels are willing to allow Mr. Lukashenka to stay with Moscow privately. The Belarusian President understands that perfectly well and is pushing towards the EU.
The final conclusions if Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to become independent from Russia can be drawn according to the results of the Belarusian economy development in 2010. If he can achieve the Belarusian economic growth through appearance of new markets for the Belarusian products and the Venezuelan (and Iranian) oil as well as through China's credits, his personal power will continue to exist.
If Aliaksandr Lukashenka's economic model is on the brink of failure, a color revolution may take place in Belarus, for which Russia will not be ready (since it prefers the contacts with the ruling circles like before Moldova's "Twitter revolution").
So far, Aliaksandr Lukashenka's plans to cooperate with the third world seem to be a trick on the eve of the presidential elections rather than a thought-out and realistic strategy.
In any event, it is clear that now Aliaksandr Lukashenka tries to create the "anti-Russia defense" system on a global scale, drawing not only friendly and ideologically close Venezuela and China, but also ideologically alien EU and the USA into the system.