by Maryna Rakhlei
Now. I am really, honestly looking forward to it. The sooner we have the presidential election, the better. It's getting hotter every day - any tensions, internal or external, any conflicts escalate in this climate.
Minsk has five days to pay back a $200 million debt for Russian gas deliveries. Or rather, four and counting. Yesterday, Medvedev asked Belarus to consider future steps and warned he would take severe measures. He also said that Lukashenka explained the debt with the difficult financial position in Belarus.
There has been zero official reactions from Minsk so far. More than that, there is a news blackout: neither the TV nor the state newswires have reported on the ultimatum.
Belarusian stand on this gas issue is that Russia itself doesn't keep to all the terms of the contract. But Gazprom feels underpaid and the Kremlin agrees the gas debt will hit $500 million by the end of the year. Deputy prime minister Igor Sechin said last Friday that Russia is not interested in getting Belarusian enterprises in return: just give us our money, please.
The last time Medvedev appeared on TV wasn't long ago. On 11 June Lukashenka met his Russian counterpart and then met with Putin in Moscow. The only public statements of the Belarusian president were that he wasn't offered any dinner, and that it is possible to resolve all the problematic "knots."
It's been a year now that Belarus has been trying to find a way to get crude oil from Russia without export duties. The Customs Union project with Russia and Kazakhstan is one shaky attempt. Moscow says that Belarusians now get enough duty-free oil to cover domestic consumption (3 million tonnes). Minsk says there shouldn't be any duties within the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
Another difficult question for Belarus is the import duty on cars, applied to individuals, which is to be raised within the Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan.
Meanwhile, the external debt of Belarus has grown to $22,24 billion dollars (as of 1 April), so that every Belarusian now owes the world $2,350. Several strategic enterprises, like the pipeline operator Beltranshaz (50 percent of which belongs to Russia), the oil refinery in Mozyr and the potash company Belaruskali could now be open to privatisation. Very symbolic is the intention of the National bank to sell several of its collective farms, among them the cradle of the president himself, the farm in Alexandria (so called before Alexander Lukashenka was born there).
Moscow has never been really interested in political change in the country on its western borders. It would prefer economic control, stability and loyalty. Neither would it risk its reputation in Europe of a reliable energy supplier. Minsk needs money and no conflicts for the forthcoming elections.
So if nobody wants problems, why quarrel? In the pre-election time such spats might be the beginning of something bigger. What are Medvedev's severe measures? What if Moscow starts an anti-Lukashenka-campaign in the Russian media? Or even not only in the media:
For Lukashenka, looking at his relationship with both Russia and his voters, the truth is the same: no money, no love.
He was last re-elected in March 2006. It'll be his fourth time now. By law, the next election should take place after the end of October 2010 but prior to the beginning of February 2011.
November is a perfect date: the seasonal agricultural routine is over, the end of the year is yet to come (Belarusians expect to have average wages of around $500 dollars by then, whereas now they are around $350), the never-easy energy talks with Moscow could be still ongoing.
Problems are always aplenty and the election will take place anyway. But better sooner than later!