Lukashenko interview followed by setback in Russia-Belarus Union State talks

Today’s scheduled meeting of the Russia-Belarus Union State Supreme State Council has been cancelled. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was expected to come to Moscow for this meeting. The two sides have been unable to reconcile their views on how the Union State should develop.

Yet another dispute has broken out between Moscow and Minsk – at the very highest level this time. According to our sources, today’s scheduled meeting of the Russia-Belarus Union State Supreme State Council has been cancelled. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was expected to come to Moscow for this meeting. The two sides have been unable to reconcile their views on how the Union State should develop, so the meeting has been postponed indefinitely. A Russian-Belarusian common air defense system agreement was to have been signed today; this has also been postponed.

In the lead-up to the meeting, there were plenty of hints from both Russia and Belarus that it would be “a breakthrough in the history of the Union State.” A high-ranking source from the Russian Foreign Ministry told us that in the course of his Moscow visit, President Lukashenko was expected to sign at least one important document: the agreement establishing a joint air defense system for Russia and Belarus.

Belarus was also heating up the suspense. Lukashenko said in November: “Union State relations should be raised to new heights by the end of the year. It would be worthwhile for us to develop several programs – or perhaps one program – enabling us to achieve a more substantive relationship.” Pavel Borodin, secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union State, said after a recent meeting with Lukashenko: “The agenda for the Supreme State Council meeting will be changed and strengthened substantially.” Borodin’s staff were working overtime on the weekend of November 29-30 to complete preparations for the State Council meeting and finalize its agenda. The “stop” command didn’t reach all the negotiators until the evening of November 30.

To all appearances, it was the agenda that eventually led to the Supreme State Council meeting being postponed indefinitely. Sources close to the Belarusian leadership report that during preliminary talks, it was decided that the agenda would include some principally important matters such as adopting a constitution for the Union State and making the transition to a common currency. Belarus was most insistent that these issues should be considered at the meeting.

In an interview with AFP last week, President Lukashenko complained that the lack of a constitution obstructs decision-making on many Union State development issues. According to Lukashenko, several drafts of a constitution have been written; but the version proposed by Russia “is much weaker than the current treaty establishing the Union State.”

Lukashenko didn’t specify exactly which draft he finds so objectionable; but it is known that Borodin’s staff prepared three versions of a constitution last year. According to two of them, the title given to the head of the Union State is “president”; the third calls this person the head of the Supreme State Council. The first draft says that the president of Russia becomes the president of the Union State, with the president of Belarus as vice president. The second draft proposes that Russian and Belarusian citizens should vote to elect a president, in universal direct elections; the presidents of Russia and Belarus would become vice presidents of the Union State. The third draft proposes that the Supreme State Council should be the central governing body; its members would be the presidents, prime ministers, and parliamentary speakers of Russia and Belarus – subordinate to a directly-elected chairman of the Supreme State Council.

One way or another, this statement from Belarus didn’t pass unnoticed in Moscow. A Kremlin source told us: “Minsk’s statements are yet another lie. It’s not the first time they have tried to substitute lies for a real negotiation process. Russia has repeatedly confirmed its wish to deepen integration, but Belarus has not met us half-way.” According to a presidential administration source, Moscow is prepared to hold the Supreme State Council meeting at any time – “but on the condition that some concrete decisions are made at this meeting,” since “nobody needs a State Council for its own sake.”

Aside from the abovementioned complaints, Russia has some other questions for Belarus. One of them was raised again last week by Alexander Surikov, Russian Ambassador in Minsk, who reminded the Belarusian government of its promise to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Surikov said: “It was stated earlier that the question of recognizing or not recognizing these two republics would be considered by the Belarusian parliament after the elections. So we are now waiting for the parliament to start considering this matter.” It’s worth noting that this reminder was issued after Russia issued $1 billion of its promised $2 billion loan to Belarus. According to our sources, Moscow’s decision to pay out the first billion took account of Lukashenko’s promise to support Russia by recognizing the two Caucasus republics. But Lukashenko has already hinted that he doesn’t intend to heed Moscow’s opinion on this issue. In the AFP interview, Lukashenko said: “If we make a decision on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it will be our own decision – not a decision made under pressure from Russia. And I wouldn’t tolerate any pressure in that regard.”

Under the circumstances, the Kremlin has evidently decided that a visit from the Belarusian leader would be inexpedient at this point. Moreover, the possibility of some corrective sanctions against Belarus cannot be ruled out. On November 7, the Federal Agricultural Inspectorate (RosSelKhozNadzor) issued a press release: “The quality control system for products of animal origin in Belarus is incapable of guaranteeing the safety of products supplied to Russia.” So Russia may well impose an import ban on Belarusian agricultural produce.