As a rule, countries set up unions in comparatively calm and stable times. But the durability of such integration associations gets tested in a period of emerging challenges and, god forbid, wars and time of troubles. As they say, a friend in need is a friend indeed. The genuineness of intentions and commonality of views are most vividly manifested with deeds, not words. Time has come for the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) to demonstrate in practice to peoples of the member states that nearly three decades of Eurasian integration have not been wasted and integration results will allow them to endure in the face of global problems. The latest episode of BelTA's YouTube project After the Fact: Lukashenko's Decisions analyzes what participants of the Eurasian Economic Union summit in Bishkek talked about and identifies the most important statements made by Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
What was the most important thing at the summit in Bishkek? What should NOT be in the EAEU? How did Merkel disappoint Lukashenko? How could Ukraine preserve its integrity? And what did Lukashenko really joke about when he talked about Mercedes cars? We will talk about the key things in this episode as we always do.
Kyrgyzstan hosted a session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council this year as the country presiding over the Eurasian Economic Union. It was the first offline meeting of the EAEU leaders in three years after a meeting in St Petersburg in December 2019. All the consequent meetings were arranged as videoconferences due to the pandemic. The summit's host, Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov noted that the offline format seems more effective after all. We believe that Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has always been exclusively in favor of personal contacts, can subscribe to that.
Participants of the summit talked about economy: mutual trade, manufacturing cooperation, the removal of barriers, and the creation of common markets. But in today's turbulent world the matter of politics and, if you like, the matter of values are even more important – to feel the solid shoulder of partners and friends, whom you can rely on regardless of global winds and sanctions.
Why can we say that the EAEU is still in full development process?
The Eurasian Economic Union is an international integration economic association, which members are Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. The Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) was the EAEU's predecessor.
The Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia was signed in 2014. The document was signed by Aleksandr Lukashenko, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Vladimir Putin. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan acceded to the treaty later on.
This treaty marked the transition of the Eurasian economic project to a new, deeper level of integration. It provides for free movement of goods, services, capital and workforce as well as the implementation of a coordinated, consistent or unified policy in branches of the economy.
It is important to understand that the countries are still on the path to implementing what they agreed on in Astana in May 2014. After all, back then they signed the treaty with future possibilities in mind, as if in advance, which Aleksandr Lukashenko openly mentioned right away. And Belarus has always tried to walk this path as quickly as possible, sometimes even pushing its partners forward towards closer integration.
This is what Aleksandr Lukashenko said in Astana more than eight years ago when the historic treaty was signed: “We are ready for persistent mandatory movement towards the full implementation of the agreements reached during a very difficult negotiation process. It is necessary to state that the resolution of a number of problems concerning economic cooperation and primarily relating to mutual trade between the member states has been postponed to a more distant future. The signing of today's treaty is not the end of the process. I would say it is the beginning of a serious process. The process when we have to prove to ourselves and to the whole world, first of all to our peoples, that we have taken the right steps in this direction. We believe that the economic union will become the basis of our political, military and humanitarian unity in the future.”
What Lukashenko's joke began the meeting of heads of state and what do Aurus cars have to do with it?
Sadyr Japarov welcomed his colleagues in the state residence Ala Archa (which is translated as “dappled archa” while archa is a local name for juniper bush). Despite the fact that Russia is about to take over EAEU presidency from Kyrgyzstan, the Belarus president came to the summit with clear proposals on advancing Eurasian integration. And the bold statements made by the Belarusian leader both at the meeting and on the sidelines once again became popular quotes. Most unexpected at times.
In the Belarusian information space news about the Bishkek summit began with the message: "The president did not drive to the meeting but walked on foot!" Soon after that the Telegram channel Pul Pervogo published a video in which the Belarus president told his Kyrgyz counterpart that he had had to walk because "Mercedes cars are weak, won't start."
Aleksandr Lukashenko's joke about the dubious reliability of German cars quickly spread on the Internet. And many even took it seriously. But later on the president's press secretary Natalya Eismont clarified the situation on the air of the Belarusian TV channel ONT and revealed new details: “The thing is reporters focused on the first part of this phrase, of this joke made by the head of state and did not hear its continuation. But during the welcoming ceremony the president continued it. He said that in view of the poor performance of German cars our allies, our friends might want to gift each of us an Aurus car [the first Russian deluxe automobile brand]. It was the second part of this joke, which the journalists did not hear because apparently they were carried away by the Mercedes cars.”
In fact, the car was fine. The thing is the weather was frosty and comfortable on the day of the summit and the meeting venue was not far. This is why Aleksandr Lukashenko decided to take a walk.
What did the EAEU leaders talk about without mass media presence?
At all such summits the leaders of countries traditionally meet in a narrow format first where they can calmly discuss the most burning issues without extra ears. So it happened this time, too. After a brief opening speech by the host of the summit reporters were asked to leave. After the end of the meeting Aleksandr Lukashenko talked to reporters and mentioned they had discussed natural gas and energy matters among other things. The EAEU countries are supposed to form common markets of natural gas, oil, and oil products in 2025.
The Belarusian head of state said: “We've agreed we will proceed calmly. We cannot do more than that. It turns out Russia is not the only country that is not ready for such drastic moves. Virtually all the countries that extract or buy, for instance, gas today, are not ready for it. This is why we've agreed [to address the relevant matters] in the bilateral format. Since the market becomes operational starting 2025, we've agreed we will not torment each other but will address this matter on a bilateral basis. We agreed on that during the narrow-participation [session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council].”
Aleksandr Lukashenko announced he would meet with President of Russia Vladimir Putin soon. Economic matters and energy resources will be discussed among other things. When reporters asked him how much Belarus is satisfied with the rather low price for Russian gas while gas prices on the European market had gone through the roof, the head of state noted: “Equal conditions are the key. Gas may be priced at $1,600 as it is priced in Europe, god forbid, of course. But equal terms in Russia and Belarus. It is an important thing for us.”
Time for contemplation. Will a political crisis befall the West?
It is worth noting that during the expanded-participation meeting Aleksandr Lukashenko decided to present the talking points he had prepared for the narrow-participation meeting. Debates during narrow-participation meetings are as a rule hotter and more practical while expanded-participation meetings are more generic. These talking points were not presented during the first part of the negotiations. The leaders of the countries primarily focused on discussion. The Belarusian head of state decided to talk purely about essential things in his usual style. And he started with Western sanctions.
Aleksandr Lukashenko said: “We see that the primitive stamping by the collective West of thoughtless packages of economic sanctions against Belarus and Russia is beginning to subside. Everything, which could be banned or restricted, even to their own detriment, has already been implemented by our counterparts. Now they have to recognize and evaluate the consequences. Energy crisis and food crisis are already being mentioned on every platform. You don't have to be a clairvoyant to assume that another crisis may be added to these two crises in individual countries soon. A political crisis. The symptoms are obvious.”
He remarked that domestic critical evaluations primarily on the part of the population and the private sector are becoming louder and louder in a number of Western countries. “Statements that go nearly as far as proclaiming an economic collapse in our countries have been replaced by sober assessments of observers, analysts, individual politicians, who say the sanctions have caused greater damage to those, who initiated them,” the president said.
It was no bravado. Just a statement. Belarus, Russia, and all the partners inside the Eurasian Economic Union look at things realistically, realizing that the onslaught of sanctions is unlikely to stop in the near future. Although it costs not only money to its authors but also huge reputational losses, primarily in the eyes of their own population. This is why the union's contribution to overall stability is even more valuable because decisions taken within the framework of the EAEU have allowed significantly reducing the negative effect of sanctions-fuelled pressure and supporting important sectors of the economy.
Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Igor Petrishenko also spoke about sanctions on the sidelines of the summit. He emphasized the importance of organizing work on the domestic market of the Eurasian Economic Union in order to properly counteract Western sanctions. “It is better not to allow the introduction of various barriers. Especially in the context of the sanctions confrontation and the sanctions that have been imposed on individual countries of the Eurasian Economic Union - Russia and Belarus. Most importantly, we have to take care of the internal space so that the speed of movement of goods, technical aspects, tax aspects would not interfere with the movement of our goods on the market of the Eurasian Economic Union,” he said.
What four strategic directions of EAEU development did the Belarus president suggest?
A lot has already been done but it is necessary to go on, Aleksandr Lukashenko urges his colleagues. Taking into account fundamental changes in the world in addition to dealing with routine tasks it is necessary to pay close attention to strategic directions of the union's development. So what does the Belarusian head of state suggest in the end?
First, it is necessary to really enable the realization of joint projects to create cutting-edge manufacturing enterprises. Essentially manufacturing enterprises of the future. The president identified it as a mandatory element of common economic sovereignty. One immediately sees an analogy with the implementation of Belarusian-Russian manufacturing cooperation projects. To set an example for others may be the answer to periodically arising questions about the usefulness of the Union State of Belarus and Russia!
As a result of the summit the sides laid the foundation for financing manufacturing cooperation and instructed to work out appropriate acts of the union.
“We have selected 158 projects, 25 industries worth a total of $270 billion. Now our businesses, organizations regardless of their form of ownership (state-owned, mixed or exclusively private) are given an opportunity to be included in a list of integration projects and receive appropriate support, which will be manifested as subsidized interest rates on loans roughly as much as the key lending rate,” Chairman of the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission Mikhail Myasnikovich told reporters at a briefing held after the summit.
Second, Aleksandr Lukashenko believes it is necessary to revitalize the blood system of the union by any means necessary. We are talking primarily about finance and the need to stop relying on U.S. dollars in transactions. In his speech during the summit Aleksandr Lukashenko said: “Everyone understands already that the age of the U.S. dollar's dominance is nearly over. Future belongs to trade blocs where transactions will rely on national currencies. Belarus and Russia have already stopped using U.S. dollars in main transactions. It is important for other partners to also get actively involved in this process.”
There is no other option when the United States of America is its own worst enemy because the country turns its own currency, which was once attractive to the entire world, into a tool of speculation and political blackmail. And the uncontrolled emission of American money and the growing inflation only completes what has been started.
Chairman of the International Affairs Commission of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus Andrei Savinykh made an exclusive comment for BelTA and urged not to cling to the old: “The destruction of the unipolar world is being accompanied by serious transformations in the global financial system. The point is that the U.S. dollar, which served as a world currency, has largely discredited itself. In the last few years, to say the least, the Federal Reserve System issued dollars out of control. And now they are unable to cope with inflationary trends, which indicate major economic problems in the global world order. This is why using U.S. dollars is essentially tantamount to supporting the old outgoing world.”
The third thing Aleksandr Lukashenko focused on was the removal of obstacles in the EAEU domestic market. The president stressed that as a matter of principle there must be no barriers to mutual trade inside the union because it is what the union is all about. It will accomplish the two most important tasks concerning the provision of the national markets with critical imports and the coordination of actions in the course of exporting goods of strategic importance, primarily food. There can be many meetings at times but few decisions, the Belarusian leader judged.
His Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin backed Aleksandr Lukashenko's push for lifting the barriers. He said: “Fundamental decisions meant to remove the remaining customs and administrative barriers have been made in the EAEU this year. I cannot but agree with Aleksandr Grigoryevich [Lukashenko] when he says we have to more effectively work on removing these barriers. It is true. They interfere with free trade between our countries. And we need to work hard on this.”
Vladimir Putin also agrees with the Belarusian head of state on the matter of faster transition to national currencies in mutual transactions. But is Belarus satisfied with transactions that rely on Russian rubles? Russian reporters asked Aleksandr Lukashenko this question, too. Judging from his answer, it turns out that the EAEU is becoming one family, which is united not only by close friendship ties but by quite material ones. Belarus and Russia are definitely connected like that.
While talking to reporters, Aleksandr Lukashenko said: “If you remember, we suggested using Russian rubles in Belarus-Russia trade a long time ago. But Russia preferred U.S. dollars. And we had to earn these dollars no one knows where and pay for oil and gas with them afterwards. We are now satisfied with the state of transactions in Russian rubles.”
But let's get back to the Belarusian leader's speech at the summit and the final strategic task, to task number four. It is necessary to increase international standing and the competitive ability of the Eurasian Economic Union since not everyone agrees with the continued existence of the unipolar world. Hence, the role of such integration associations as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS is on the rise. The head of state is convinced that our union should walk in step with them.
The president said that time has come to organize a summit of the member states of the EAEU, SCO, and BRICS. Individual ASEAN states may want to take part in such a meeting. Matters of economic interaction could become core items on the summit's agenda. For instance, the formation of regional trade blocs, the use of national currencies, and matters of energy and security.
Further expansion of the EAEU's free trade zones with other countries is as important. For instance, participants of the summit authorized the launch of free trade agreement talks with the United Arab Emirates, which is a landmark political step according to Aleksandr Lukashenko. Negotiations on free trade zones with Iran and Egypt are already in the final stage. Negotiations with Indonesia and Mongolia are about to begin. In addition to economic bonuses the conclusion of such agreements demonstrates the futility of sanctions-fuelled pressure from the collective West.
How did Germany's ex-chancellor Merkel disappoint Lukashenko?
The summit in Bishkek was remembered not only due to its economic topics. The Belarus president loves talking to reporters just as much as they love talking to him. And getting an exclusive comment from the Belarusian leader on hot international topics has recently become something like a must-have. Aleksandr Lukashenko commented on unexpected statements by the ex-chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel about peace talks and the Minsk agreements, which were concluded a few years ago. It turns out that all of that was just a pretext to give Kiev time to build up its power and military resources.
The Belarus president said: “I should tell you that I've expressed my view on the matter to Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]. If things happened the way she describes it, it is disgusting. But it is not so. What really happened is not simply disgusting. It is vile. Merkel… I didn't expect it either. The Russian president also said he had not expected such an attack from Angela Merkel. She acted in a petty and disgusting manner. She wants to be on trend. The Minsk agreements and Merkel's position, like positions of others, including Poroshenko, were very serious back then. Can you imagine that the whole world was saying that they had finally taken a step and signed these agreements after the Minsk meetings? The war stopped, people stopped dying. All of it was positively received.”
Aleksandr Lukashenko added: “They – Merkel and Poroshenko – want to demonstrate their significance. To demonstrate that the Ukrainian army is fighting. Look! It is resisting one of the world's strongest armies because ‘we deceived everyone, the world, Russia, and so on in Minsk back in the day'. Petty and disgusting. Not like Merkel. It is not true they did that in order to deceive. Everything was serious.”
Could Ukraine preserve its integrity?
Doesn't sound like Merkel indeed. Should we trust Western politicians after that? But if the Minsk agreements had been fulfilled, then Ukraine would have stayed whole and there would have been no war. Aleksandr Lukashenko also said that at the summit in Bishkek.
The Belarusian leader is convinced: “It was possible then. If they had acted on Putin's proposals and the treaty had been signed, Ukraine would be whole today except for Crimea. There would be no war… But they didn't opt for it. They had been preparing for a war.”
They were preparing for war while Belarus always advocates peace. And it is perhaps Aleksandr Lukashenko's most important decision in all the years of his presidency. But even the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union was not easy. Many of the matters Belarus was interested in stayed below the radar initially. But the only right decision was made here, too, with future in mind.
It is worth remembering that the process of Eurasian integration began with Ukraine's participation back in the day. We can expand upon Aleksandr Lukashenko's words: if the country had followed that path, it would be whole and would have Crimea now.
This is why here is another important excerpt from the speech the Belarus president made in Astana the day the Eurasian Economic Union Treaty was signed in 2014: “The formation of the Customs Union, the Common Economic Space, and finally the Eurasian Union was exceptionally long and very complicated. We lost someone on the way. I mean Ukraine in the time of Kuchma. The country started this heavy work together with us. But, unfortunately, the burden turned out to be very heavy for Ukraine. But I am sure that sooner or later Ukraine's leadership will understand where its happiness lies. At least, it will not lose what should rightfully belong to the Ukrainian people. We found someone on this long and difficult path. Like our friends and brothers from Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.”
This is what Aleksandr Lukashenko says always and everywhere and his words are reaffirmed by concrete actions and peaceful initiatives, the drive towards creating joint ventures, removing barriers, mutually beneficial trade, and simply good relations between countries. And, mind you, not a word about a war. But it does not mean that Belarus, if necessary, will not be able to retaliate if need be. BelTA has already produced an episode about Belarusian weapons. It is very interesting.