MOSCOW – The Kremlin has not had a good week with its putative allies. Russia’s ban on imports of Belarussian dairy products (under claims they failed technical requirements) has stirred a strong political response from Minsk.
The excuse of their failure to meet technical requirements has stirred a strong political response from Minsk. President Alexander Lukashenko skipped the Moscow summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and Minsk declared all summit decisions illegitimate due to Belarus’s non-attendance. Minsk even rejected the conference agreement to create a collective rapid response force.
The Moscow-Minsk standoff is growing. In response to Minsk’s demarche, Moscow is hatching a new attack on Lukashenko. This time the plan is to use the natural gas leverage, like they have on Ukraine. Moscow maintains that Belarus has run into debt for this year’s gas supplies: as of the first quarter of 2009, Moscow has hiked the price from $128 to $210 per 1000 cubic meters of natural gas. For their part, Minsk is continuing payments according to the previous tariff schedule. As a result, Moscow believes Belarus owes Gasprom over $70 million.
The Kremlin seemed to temporarily lower the price to $150. But to turn up the heat on unruly Lukashenko, Moscow has reverted to $210, which is a crushing blow to Belarus.
It looks like Lukashenko is determined to stand his ground. The other day, Minsk unveiled the likelihood of introducing border and customs controls on the Russian border. This move actually signifies an end of the unified state project. Lukashenko is clearly looking to the EU’s support in his standoff against Moscow and is counting on the Kremlin’s deep appreciation of Belarus’ geopolitical position and military potential to contain NATO. No matter the Moscow-Minsk standoff’s outcome, Russia is clearly losing its chief and only ally in Eastern Europe.
The Kremlin also has run into serious difficulties with the German leadership that used to back Russia up in promoting its objectives in Central Europe, primarily concerning the implementation of Nord Stream gas pipeline construction project.
Last week the German Defense Ministry unexpectedly voiced its objections to the pipeline. It maintained that the pipeline would be laid too close to their sea testing ground near the island of Rugen. The governments of Poland, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Lithuania also voiced their objections to Nord Stream, citing adverse environmental effects.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier who was ranked among Nord Stream’s staunchest supporters, alongside his SDPD colleague, ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, visited Moscow last week. For once, he was more careful with his statements. The German Social Democrats’ poor showing at the European parliament elections weakened their positions in the autumn national elections. This has forced the SDPD leaders, including Steinmeier, to distance themselves from this unpopular project, despite the Kremlin’s and Gasprom’s pressing. Speaking before Moscow’s public audience, Steinmeier was somewhat critical of Moscow’s present stance in the U.S.-Russian relationship and recommended that the Kremlin should be more active in reciprocating U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to improve the relations.
Thus, SDPD electoral concerns are forcing its leaders to play a political game that Moscow is unlikely to appreciate. The Kremlin could hardly expect their all-round support. Clearly, this would weaken Russia’s positions ahead of the July Medvedev-Obama summit and the G8 summit in Italy.
Moscow’s unexpected change of heart over WTO has done nothing to help the Kremlin win more allies from this organization. Russia’s decision to abandon its separate WTO bid and start accession talks to join WTO in the framework of a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan has been like a bolt from the blue to its partners. Only a week ago the Russian negotiators continued in-depth discussions of the terms of Russia’s WTO entry with their Western counterparts, but kept mum about the fundamentally new framework for negotiations. They even succeeded in winning some concessions and assurances of the US and EU’s support of Russia’s WTO bid.
Russia’s volt-face questioned the credibility of Moscow’s pledges and the sincerity of its drive to join WTO anytime soon. When the Moscow-Minsk relations demonstrate unpredictability and standoff, the West wonders if a Russia-Belarus common policy in the WTO talks is at all possible. Presumably, Moscow’s new negotiating stance has put off its accession to WTO to an indefinite future.