President of Russia Vladimir Putin visited Belarus on 19 December. In general, the news about the Russian leader's working visit to Minsk caused a strong public reaction. In the Belarusian capital they traditionally prepared to welcome the foreign guests as warmly as possible. The Russian delegation was large and about 100 reporters were accredited for covering the talks. They should have taken a look at all the conspiracy theories out there: why did Putin decide to come to Lukashenko all of a sudden? But Aleksandr Lukashenko revealed the entire “conspiracy theory” of the talks several days before the visit and took the wind out of their sails.
But conspiracy theories on the other side of the western border were rampant and bordering on hysterics. “An alarming visit”. “Putin's murder in Minsk”. “Putin coming to drag Belarus into the war”. “The Kremlin wants to take control of Belarus”. “Putin coming to amuse Lukashenko's vanity”. Are you serious? Okay. If someone still believes that Belarusian-Russian relations are exclusively about military cooperation and someone's vanity, let's find out why Vladimir Putin actually flew to Minsk, what the presidents agreed on and whether Belarus should be afraid of losing its sovereignty. Details can be found in the latest episode of BelTA's YouTube project After the Fact: Lukashenko's Decisions.
Everyone knows that Russia has been and remains the main trade and economic partner of Belarus. This year the volume of mutual trade between the countries is expected to exceed last year's $40 billion. And what's most interesting? Russia is 80 times larger than Belarus in terms of territory. Russia's GDP is measured in trillions. But the countries split trade turnover almost equally.
When did Belarus and Russia decide to take integration to the next level?
As they say, it was a blessing in disguise. Western sanctions have only brought both states closer, both economically and politically. On 4 November 2021 as the Chairman of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Belarus and Russia Aleksandr Lukashenko signed the main directions of realization of the Union State Foundation Treaty in 2021-2023. Those are 28 industry-specific Union State programs. The so-called integration roadmaps. They regulate a unified policy in the credit, financial and banking sectors, unified principles of taxation, common approaches in industry and agriculture.
Additional decisions were also made back then to create united markets for oil, natural gas, electricity, and transport services. An updated military doctrine of the Union State and a migration policy concept were signed. Does it seem to you that people in the West miss something when they talk about Belarusian-Russian relations? Or they intentionally omit something?
Yes, all of it seems boring: programs, taxes, services. Who wants to puzzle it out? No one wants to think that one inconspicuous agreement can change the lives of ordinary citizens.
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Russia Dmitry Krutoi said: “Even taxes, the agreement on indirect taxes, it will eventually affect a very large section of the population. Because the agreement on indirect taxes covers the problem of obtaining a reverse excise duty by our refineries. I am talking about the problem of the tax maneuver in the Russian oil refining industry, which we have been fighting, in fact, since 2014. And the effect is divided into two parts. There is an effect for the budget: the budget will receive additional resources and will be able to raise salaries and pensions. And the problem for our refineries will be resolved, which will benefit their employees and employees of all the allied trades, so to say.”
Why do Lukashenko and Putin meet so often?
Belarus and Russia are working out a common industrial policy. They started doing joint R&D in microelectronics. They are creating a single energy market. All these issues cannot be resolved in one day even if political will at the highest level is available. Bureaucratic procedures, sluggishness of municipal officials and their fear of responsibility slow integration by a lot. The perseverance of the Belarusian president and the Russian leader's understanding of the whole situation helped put many issues to rest after all. Aleksandr Lukashenko visited Russia five times in 2021. His visits have become more frequent this year. The head of state went to visit Vladimir Putin seven times.
“You see, considering this volume of cooperation, there are a lot of matters that require constant administrative oversight at the high level or the top level. The governments deal with it practically every day. A colossal volume. They have accomplished a lot. We just have to sign off on some points but it has to be done all the time,” Vladimir Putin explained during the talks in Minsk.
In turn, Aleksandr Lukashenko added: “We had to coordinate our actions in order to act the way we did! We made it! But on the whole, someone may be envious of my meeting with Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] often. Someone may have wanted to meet with him more frequently. Well, he is open to such meetings. You just need reasons and occasions for meetings. I am just quoting his answer to [Ukraine President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy. This is why calm down! Everything will be fine! We don't idle away our time although we may find an hour or two for rest.”
Why did Putin fly to Minsk?
Why didn't the Belarusian president fly to Moscow, St Petersburg, or Sochi this time? Why did Vladimir Putin come to Minsk instead? For the first time since 2019. Only because the heads of state had agreed to do so. There is no need to look for pitfalls or invent theories. They had simply agreed to do it. If you believe in conspiracy theories, you have to understand that all your fantasies could be discussed over a regular phone call. Large delegations, red carpets, and night flights are not needed for that.
Today, as Aleksandr Lukashenko stated, the future of the Belarusian and Russian peoples is actually being determined. This is the reality, and there is not a drop of pathos in it. Belarus and Russia managed to not only survive together but also to find opportunities for the development of their economies. Moreover, unexpectedly for everyone. And above all, unexpectedly for those who created these difficulties for them.
Aleksandr Lukashenko welcomed Vladimir Putin at the airport and from there they went together to the Palace of Independence for negotiations. And not only in one motorcade, but also in the same car. What happened next was even more interesting. As a rule, the presidents meet one-on-one first. And then their delegations join them. Like, first we need to agree, and then instruct the governments to implement all of it. Things happened in reverse this time.
Negotiations were held in a broad format first. The heads of state seemed to hear reports from their ministers on the work done and immediately gave them new instructions. Aleksandr Lukashenko even referred to the negotiations as a conference. Pay attention to seating. Usually the presidents and their delegations sit opposite each other. This time Aleksandr Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin sat side by side, and members of the cabinets and ministers sat around them. Two and a half hours later the heads of state continued the meeting one-on-one in the office of the Belarusian leader.
The protocol may mean little at times but it seems to us that the resulting format of the meeting explains a lot.
What did Lukashenko and Putin discuss in Minsk?
Nobody hides that energy industry was one of the items on the agenda of the talks. And it is quite logical. Does Belarus produce natural gas? No. Or does Belarus produce enough oil to keep its refineries busy? No. And the point here is not so much in volumes, but in prices and sales of petroleum products. Belarus does not ask for discounts or for low energy prices. Belarus has always had only one wish: Belarusian and Russian enterprises need to have equal working conditions. According to the presidents, decisions on these issues have been made. Truth be told, no details have been revealed so far. All the agreements will have to be stipulated at the government level in the near future.
“We discussed price parameters in the energy sector. Let's assume that all the main parameters, including sensitive ones concerning pricing in the energy sector, have been reconciled,” the Russian leader noted.
The Belarus president did not go into details either: “I will say only one thing: we are satisfied with results of the discussion about the common gas market as a whole, about the concept and pricing for the next three years. We have fixed our price, it is profitable for us. Russia helps a lot in this regard.”
Furthermore. Nobody hides that military technology cooperation was another topic of the negotiations in Minsk. More specifically, security and defense matters. Let's be frank. Will Belarus be able to defend its independence alone, without Russia? Yes, the republic is developing the latest weapons (we talked about them in previous episodes), is modernizing the Armed Forces, but let's not delude ourselves. Everyone's capabilities have a limit.
Belarus has recently put on combat duty Russian S-400 and Iskander missile systems. Together with Russians Belarusians are training their crews to fly aircraft that carry special ammunition.
However, oil and gas, missiles and aircraft were not the main matters of the negotiations. Industrial policy was. In the past the presidents discussed it from the point of view of tactics. This time they paid attention to strategy, to a more distant future. After all, the economic security of the Union State is the keynote that determines the future of the union.
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Russia Dmitry Krutoi noted on the sidelines of the meeting: “The president received reports on every program. A fundamental decision was made. If something does not suit someone, we don't drag it into the reconciled program. It is the view of both our president and the president of Russia. Therefore, there are no pseudo-political disagreements in these programs now. If we have a strong economy, common economic space, then our sovereignty will only grow stronger thanks to this.”
Should Belarus fear for its sovereignty?
The Belarus president identified national priorities several days before the talks in Minsk: “When negotiations are not going well, many people here start whispering that Russia is putting forward unacceptable conditions for us with regard to our independence and sovereignty. I want to say absolutely frankly: despite all the difficulties, if the leadership of the Russian Federation wants to build relations with the sovereign and independent state of Belarus, if Russia perceives us as a sovereign and independent state (a very close and reliable country where everything that has to do with Russia - from the language to Russian traditions - is respected), we are ready to build such relationships. But we must always proceed from the fact that we are a sovereign and independent state. We agreed once and for all on how we will act after signing these 28 programs. None of the programs encroaches upon our sovereignty and independence.”
Negotiations between Aleksandr Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin in Minsk lasted for about nine hours. Yes, the time includes more than the official meeting. The presidents had an opportunity to discuss everything face-to-face during their joint journey from the airport to the Palace of Independence, during an informal supper, and on the way back to the airport. Moreover, as it turned out, the heads of state decided to skip the reception at the Palace of Independence. As a result, the prime minister of Belarus entertained the delegations in the Grand Banquet Hall. The thing is Aleksandr Lukashenko invited Vladimir Putin to a genuine Belarusian supper at his home. The Russian president left Minsk after midnight. Probably, the negotiations were really productive, and the decisions of the presidents were long-awaited.