Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko yesterday agreed to a comprehensive deal on energy and debt that will put a lid on talk of Belarus’s Westward drift. Reuters:
At a meeting in St Petersburg, held while the Russian city was reeling from a deadly bombing on a metro train, Russia agreed to refinance Belarus’ debt while Belarus will pay back more than $720 million in arrears for gas supplies.
According to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, Russia will also renew oil supplies to Belarus of 24 million tonnes a year and Russia’s Gazprom will give Belarus discounts on gas supplies in 2018 and 2019.
It is an abrupt departure from their recent squabbles and suggests Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko is moving his country back toward Moscow’s orbit after a period of courting closer ties with the West.
Not long ago, it was easy to imagine that Belarus and Russia’s downward spiral could lead to some kind of permanent rift. High-profile disputes over Russian gas prices and Belarusian debt spilled over into other areas, with Russia reinstating border controls and Lukashenko rejecting Russian proposals for an airbase on his territory. Meanwhile, Lukashenko had been edging ever closer to the West since the Ukraine crisis, earning a rollback of sanctions for playing peacemaker. Reports that Belarus was considering leaving the Eurasian Economic Union only furthered the narrative of Western realignment.
Yet in reality, it looks like Lukashenko had just been driving a harder bargain with Moscow than usual, using his overtures to Europe as leverage to shake down Russia and ensure that the discounted energy keeps flowing. And he seems to have worked out a pretty good deal for himself, resolving the debt and gas disputes in one fell swoop. There may be legitimate reasons to question Minsk’s pro-Russian orientation in the medium or long term, as Chris Miller lays out here, but as long as Moscow keeps the cushy economic deals coming, a break looks less likely.