On Monday, 3 April, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko arrived in St. Petersburg on a working visit. The Belarusian head is to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss a broad range of matters concerning Belarusian-Russian bilateral relations.
The focus of the talks will be on trade, economic cooperation, and interaction in integration formats. Lukashenko and Putin will once again try to settle numerous problems that have been mounting recently.
The arguement about the price of Russian gas for Belarus has been on the agenda since the since the beginning of 2016.
Belarusian debt exceeded $ 700 million, the sides have announced the settlement of the conflict at different level several times, but the issue has not resolved.
Russia insisted on compliance with the current contract for 2015-2016, while Belarus claimed that the price per 1,000 cubic meters should be lowered from $132 to $73 given the global fall in energy prices and devaluation of the Russian ruble.
Moreover, starting 1 January 2017, the price for Belarus has risen by 6.81% to $141.1 dollars.
The most recent attempt to settle the dispute was made at the negotiations of the Premiers on 30 March. There was no happy end: Russia stated that Belarus is not ready to repay its debt and the latter responded by saying that it does not owe anything.
Another side of the gas dispute are oil import cuts that are aggravating the problems of the long-suffering Belarusian economy.
Last year the import of Russian oil to Belarus decreased by 20.8% to 18.2 million tons. This year Belarus risks to get even less.
The country is forced to look for other oil suppliers – with much more complex and, therefore, expensive logistics.
Some are more equal than others
In one of the recent statements Alexander Lukashenko said that Belarus doesn’t expect low gas prices, but wants Russia to keep to its obligations.
“We have agreed that we are building a union, a single state. It means that our peoples and enterprises, our business should have equal conditions in this market. That’s what we want, and we do not want anything else,” the Belarusian president said.
The equality remains on paper only. For example, Russian officials regularly block food imports from Belarus.
Nothing has been done regarding unified policy of pricing and taxation, tariff and non-tariff regulation, the Russian ambassador to Belarus said.
Two signatures, that the parties were supposed to exchange long ago, have not been put yet.
Alexander Lukashenko did not sign the Customs Code of the EAEC. He sharply criticized it saying that “many things that were supposed to work aren’t working”.
At the same time, Russia, who tones the Council of the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development, does not give green light to a third tranche of $300 million loan Belarus is waiting for.
The official version of the delay is that Belarus needs to approve the strategy of reforming state enterprises sector and solve the problems of social sphere in order to receive the funds. But experts and officials claim that the issue has political implications.
And some politics
Political disputes between Belarus and Russia are clearly overshadowed by economic problems. Nevertheless, this horizon is far from being cloudless.
One of the key stumbling blocks are migration and border protection issues. Namely, the suspicious reaction of the Russian side to the introduction of 5-day visa-free travel; Moscow’s idea of a single visa that Minsk is not particularly fond of; and FSB’s resonant decision to create a border zone with not-completely-traansparent border crossing procedures.
Other hot topics include military cooperation between the two countires and the recent thaw in relations of Minsk and Brussels. The latter, however, is not likely to appear on Monday’s agenda, which already has enough of sencitive issues to discuss.