Relations btw Russia, Belarus getting worse day by day

By Itar-Tass World Servi ce writer Lyudmila Alexandrova

Relations between Russia and Belarus, the two countries that said fourteen years ago they were setting out to build a Union State, are getting worse from one day to another.

In spite of Moscow's painstaking efforts, the Belarussian authorities have reiterated that they consider the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia to be parts of Georgia and are not going to change this position - in the short term at least.

The Belarussian Foreign Ministry issued a statement urging the country' s citizens to observe Georgian laws while making trips to the two republics. It recalled that Georgia's national legislation permits entry of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian territories only from the territory of Georgia.

Observers say such statements on the part of the ministry can only mean that recognition of the two new countries' independence by Belarus is a long way off, although President Alexander Lukashenko promised the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, back in March that the Belarussian parliament would pass a decision on the issue.

However, the problem of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence never got the to agenda of the newly elected Belarussian parliament.

Analysts tend to explain for this by pointing out some lucrative proposals that Minsk is getting from the West.

Relations between Russia and Belarus deteriorated in March after the latter country refused to accept a $ 500 million loan from Russia in rubles. Last fall, the Russian government promised Belarus $ 2 billion, of which $ 1.5 billion was made available subsequently. Following the Belussians' refusal to accept the ruble-redenominated part of the loan, Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin called into question the Belarussian government's ability to pay on liabilities.

Lukashenko asked his government in response to abstain to "making bows" to Russia.

His call was followed by a ban on imports of Belarussian dairy products, which the Russian federal consumer rights watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, imposed citing the inconsistency of Belarussian producers' documentation with the new Russian regulations.

The ban came into effect June 6 and officials managed to untangle the situation by June 18, after which the supplies resumed.

This was accompanied by a virtually full outage of deliveries of Belarussian agricultural machines to Russia, the Russian meat products to Belarus, and Belarussian pharmaceuticals, to Russia again.

In addition, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said in early July that Belaruss had incurred a debt of almost $ 244 million for Russian natural gas, in the wake of which the corporation might either sue Belarus in court or slash the supplies unless Minsk paid the debt off until the end of the month.

After this, Lukashenko made a number of statements the tough tonality of which does not have precedents. He even ignored an invitation to come to Moscow for attending the Presidential Horse Race last week.

One more incident added to the long line of problems on Wednesday when Belarus banned the operations of the Unecha-Ventspils oil product pipeline that crosses the Belarussian territory and belongs to the Russian company Zapad-Transnefteprodukt.

Officials in Minsk explained for the ban by saying technical problems were involved.

A report on pipeline's outage came at almost the same time as Russia's Federal Service for Phytosanitary and Veterinary Supervision /Rosselkhoznadzor/ restricted the supplies of meat products from Belarus's two major meatpacking factories located in the Brest and Gomel regions.

It claimed antibiotics of the tetracycline group had been found in the factories' produce.

The latter situation prompted many analysts to start speculating about a trade was between the two countries.

In the meantime, the Belarussian leader comes up with regular appeasing confessions.

One of the instances occurred Tuesday after Rossekhoznadzor had made public the restrictions on meat. Lukashenko, who received the visiting Chairman of the Russian Auditing Chamber, Sergei Stepashin, expressed the feelings of eternal friendship with Moscow.

"Whatever some people may wish to say, we'll never break away from Russia, as much as Russia will never break away from us," Lukashenko said.

He dismissed the speculations about the worsening economic and political relations between the two countries as "outright lies".

Meanwhile, experts polled by the Moscow-based Kommersant daily say the situation around the meat ban and the pipeline outage testifies to the continuing Russian-Belarussian trade war, in spite of soothing words from Minsk.

"In the future, everything will depend on how strong a nerve Moscow has, since everything related to oil and gas makes up the foundation of Russia's foreign policy and the future scenario will be entirely dependent on Moscow's readiness to put at stake the reliability of Europe-bound gas supplies via Belarus," said Belarussian analyst Svetlana Kalinkina.

Yaroslav Romanchuk, the head of a research and analysis center, agreed with her.

"Russia may wait until the presidential election of 2011 in Belarus or else it may try to compel Lukashenko to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to introduce the single currency, to accept the customs union, and to agree to the Russian businesses' involvement in the privatization of Belarussian industries," Romanchuk said.

Still, if the Belarussian president turns out excessively intransigent and unwilling to meet Moscow halfway, efforts will be made to supplant him, the expert believes.

Finam financial news portal quotes some analysts as saying Russia's relations with post-Soviet countries have grown much knottier on the background of the current economic and financial crisis.

They say these states are hard-hit already now and they would like to get some financial assistance from Moscow, while the latter is reluctant to extend direct aid to all of them.

Andrei Suzdaltsev, an observer of post-Soviet economies' problems at the Supreme School of Economics in Moscow, recalls that Russia has already extended loans to Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova but it realizes perfectly well it will never see this money come back.



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