Why Belarus matters now? Minsk-Moscow crisis and the opportunities for EU and China

Major oil and natural gas pipelines in Belarus (Credits: Homoatrox, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The recent crisis between Russia and Belarus due to the oil supply has shocked the geopolitical dynamics of the Eurasian chessboard and opened new opportunities for the European Union and China in case Moscow and Minsk will not find an agreement in a short time.

Russia, Belarus and the never-ending oil supply confrontation have characterised the international agenda’s last days. This is what we have read and monitored in newspapers since the beginning of the new year. Initially, the situation looked like the classical back and forth, which characterised and classified Moscow – Minsk relations. Still, it soon became an international issue that interested the Baltic republics, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the European Union, with possible consequences for China.

Minsk expressed discontent about Moscow’s condition in receiving Russian oil and aimed at finding new solutions with a lower price. The Russian Federation could not satisfy Belarus’ request, and the negotiations reached a stall point. Since Moscow and Minsk could not find an agreement on the oil supply, Russia stopped oil furniture to Belarus on January 1st, 2020 but partially restored it on January 4th, 2020.[1]

A possible Belarus new strategy for energy imports

Due to this problem, Belarus is studying a strategy to differentiate its import of 18 million tons of oil annually and reduce Minsk’s dependence on Moscow’s export. Looking at the map and considering the recent events, it could be possible to conclude that Minsk is evaluating a plan to import nearly 30% from Ukraine, another 30-40% from the Baltic republics and the rest from Russia, some European suppliers. In fact, on January 14th, 2020, the First Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus, Dmitry Krutoy, informed the media that the Belarusian Government started evaluating oil imports from Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Poland, Kazakhstan and the Baltic countries.[2]

Latvia tried to exploit this situation, suggesting Belarus use the Latvian ports to import oil from around the world. On January 16th, 2020, during the meeting between Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš and Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenko it was highlighted the significant role of the Baltic republic in transport and logistics and Minsk’s possibility to cooperate with Latvia to export its products abroad and differentiate oil supplies (in 2019 Latvian ports allowed Belarus to import 3.7 million tons of oil products). According to Kariņš, the Latvian Government expressed interest in developing business opportunities with Belarus, although the modalities and the specific timing rely on the companies and the entrepreneurs.

In the Caucasus, the Republic of Azerbaijan wants to use this situation to strengthen its role in the energy market and secure its position in the EU Energy Security Strategy and Eastern Partnership Strategy. This is what emerged from the words of the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev at the World Economic Forum in Davos when he highlighted that taking into consideration Baku’s contribution to global and European energy security, the Caucasian republic has continued to implement energy projects, including the Southern Gas Corridor efficaciously. Regarding the Russian – Belarus oil supply dispute, on January 14th, 2020, the deputy head of the Public Relations and Event Management Department of the Azerbaijani State Oil Company (SOCAR), Ibrahim Ahmadov, reported to the local media that Azerbaijan has the potential to export oil to Belarus and diversify Minsk’s energy import. Last week SOCAR confirmed the possibility of supplying oil to Belarus, asserting that Azerbaijan’s state company is considering the Odessa- Brody pipeline as an option to export oil to Minsk.[3]

Belarus is a logistics hub which plays the role of a transit country between the West and the East. For this reason, Beijing is investing a substantial amount of money in the Belarus market, supporting the creation of the Industrial Park Great Stone as a special economic zone (SEZ) in the territory of Smolevichsky district near the Minsk National Airport. Suppose Belarus accomplishes its strategy to diversify its oil supply and decrease its dependence on the Russian Federation. In that case, the country will be more open to foreign investors and new commercial partnerships, so China might upgrade its presence and role inside the country by supporting the Belt and Road Initiative.

The fact that Beijing has been investing a considerable amount of monetary funds in Central Asia, Belarus and possibly also in Ukraine can alarm the Kremlin, which has always considered these countries as part of the Blizhnee Zarubezhe or ‘near abroad’, the area constituted by post-Soviet republics where the Kremlin still wants to play a significant role imposing its influence and requesting the membership inside the Eurasian Economic Union.

Conclusion

At the end of 2019, media reported that Belarus could have become part of the Russian Federation allowing the Kremlin to fortify its position in Central-Eastern Europe and support its demography considering the recent problems registered inside the country. On December 25th, 2019, in an interview with Russia’s Echo Moskvy radio station, Belarus President Lukashenko rejected the ‘union state’ project warning that a possible future Kremlin’s powerful effort to transform Belarus into a part of Russia could result in a confrontation and military hostilities with the West.[4]

January is close to the end, and Moscow – Minsk dispute has not found a solution. Belarus matters because of its strategic position in Eurasia, a region which, according to geopolitics, might shape the destiny and the future of the world. Since not only the Russian Federation but also the West and China have interests in Belarus, this dispute’s outcome might bring Minsk closer to Brussels and Beijing and align with other post-Soviet countries such as Latvia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

The Kremlin has yet not counteracted Minsk’s attempts to find new partners and oil suppliers. However, some Russian experts and advisors have underlined that the price of Russian oil is lower than that of Azerbaijan, Ukraine or the Baltics. If Belarus diversifies its energy supply, this action might negatively affect its economy.

Sources

[1] Ekaterina Venkina (2020) Россия прекратила подачу нефти в Беларусь, Deutsche Welle. Link: https://www.dw.com/ru/россия-прекратила-подачу-нефти-в-беларусь/a-51875190

[2] Khartija 97 (2020) Вице-премьер Крутой: Беларусь и Россия не договорились по нефтиhttps://charter97.org/ru/news/2020/1/14/362331/. Link:

[3] Grodzenskaja Prauda (2020) Тема недели: Визит премьер-министра Латвии в Беларусь. Link: https://grodnonews.by/news/novosti_belarusi/tema_nedeli_vizit_premer_ministra_latvii_v_belarus.html

[4] Vot Tak (2020) Минск ищет нефть в Азербайджане. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Va13-s1bN1M

[5] Kommersant (2020) «Александр Лукашенко проиграл стратегически». Link: https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4206887


Author: Silvia Boltuc, Giuliano Bifolchi