Sergey Cherechen about the conflict between Belarus and Russia: “ We should learn out how to intercept the initiative”

Russia and Belarus has a serious quarrel over the fact that starting with 2019 the price of the Russian oil has increased for the Belarusian oil refineries, which severely influences on the Belarusian budget. Another controversial issue is – the price of gas for Belarus, it is considered to be overestimated, and in Moscow, on the contrary, it is preferential. And it seems that Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko could not solve the problems at the meeting held at the Kremlin neither December 25th, nor December 29th last year.

As a result, in order to give the political deadlock the appearance of a dot, the leaders of the countries created a “working group on controversial issues and integration”.

SPEKTR.BY figured out the opinion of the chairman of the «Belarusian Social Democratic Hramada Party» (BSDH) Sergey Vladimirovich Cherechen over the conflict between Belarus and Russia.

— Sergey Vladimirovich, today not only Belarusian and Russian mass media discuss the relationships between the two countries, but also the world mass media such as The Washington Post. The conflicts on energy topic between Russia and Belarus occur almost every year, but the conflict started to develop so sharply and so harshly for the first time. In your opinion, why does this happen right now?

—The reasons can be different. Today there are four main scenarios that might be the reason of the current situation:

First of all, it is the common lack of money in the budget of the Russian Federation, which could become a catalyst for the search of a financial mechanism for patching the holes. Frequently during the “cash deficiency” period, managers start the crisis with cost optimization. Thus the “pension reform” and the increase of the VAT rate from 18 to 20% can be referred to this maneuver. As a result, a young asset is pragmatic and guided only by numbers, but not by strategic plans. During the period of sanction pressure, this is a work version, but hardly probable. After all, Belarus has always been a strategic partner for the Russian Federation, even if it is subsidized.

Secondly, on the background of the Ukrainian events, the Kremlin could make a decision to enhance the influence on the territory of Belarus in order to prevent the Ukrainian scenario – let just suppose that they decided to get reinsured. But they did not find the comprehension of the current authorities of the Republic of Belarus and got into a principled deadlock. After all, the exacerbation of partnership relationships now for Russia is completely unfavorable position. Moreover, there is no benefit at all.

Thirdly, the business elites of Russia could show interest to the access to some rare assets of Belarus. We can see milk and meat wars, their main reason was and still remains the desire to buy our successful manufacturing enterprises at bargain-basement prices. We can see the underutilization of oil refineries and the desire of the Russian side to get controlling stakes on the enterprises. The opportunity that the basis of the events is an attempt of an illegal grabbing of the current assets, by means of temporary blocking of enterprises operation, can never be excluded. This is the norm for business and the problem for the country.

Fourthly, a «strategic option» is also possible, when over the plans by 2024 to unite Russia and Belarus into one state may be an attempt to prolong Putin’s powers by the Russian elites, but already in the status of the “president” of the union state.

— It seems that everyone has already forgotten about the essence of the conflict and the reason why it started (crude oil duty and gas price). Today mostly discussed the absorbtion of Belarus by Russia. For the first time in 16 years, Moscow has publicly made it clear that its support for Belarus directly depends on increasing integration. And Vladimir Zhirinovsky has openly declared about the entry of our country into the Russian Federation. How realistic is this political scenario?

— Unfortunately, such scenario can’t be completely excluded from the agenda. And the reason, of course, is not in the tax maneuver of Russia and the desire of the Russian leadership to extract from it maximum of bonuses neither the economic or political. This is – just the current problem, and there is no doubt that it will be solved any way. But the reasons why Belarus periodically feels vulnerable will remain.

The most important is the traditional commitment of Belarus to the policy of maneuvering and balancing between the centers of power. It worked out really well most of the time in the post-Soviet history, but the last few years, with the beginning of the Ukrainian events, has been revealing failures. Actually maneuvering and balancing in an efficient way is possible only as a reaction to other people’s actions, but it is hardly possible to act proactively. And the defense will always lose in front of the attack.

Yes, today we are really dependent on the Kremlin, this dependency is economic, and we now have no time to do maneuvers, and there is no one with whom to do that. And what have we done to balance this dependency so that the Kremlin was dependent on us? What, for example, prevented us from creation of the integration conditions that would be most profitable for us and their promotion either through the Union State or through the Eurasian Union? Indeed, in this case, both the initiative and the space for bargaining would absolutely belong to us, and we would define the rules of the game much more than it does today. After all, the basis of the independence is not an isolation, in today’s world it is simply impossible, but an interdependency and the ability not only create this mutual dependency, but also make it mutually profitable.

— How can be solved the current problems easily?

—Difficult questions, even if they have simple solutions, then these solutions, as a rule, turn out to be quite expensive. Let’s just say that the problem of a hole in a ship is not solved by pulling out the boards from another side. We are in a state of bargaining with Russia, and theoretically we can strengthen our position by two ways: either to lower the «issue price», i.e. to reduce their own dependency on oil, or intercept the initiative in today’s dialogue with Moscow. Nothing prevents from moving in both ways at the same time, but these both strategies should be prepared; they can’t arise as an impromptu.

—What, in your opinion, should Alexander Lukashenko do now?

—In order to make a decision, here is necessary an estimation of all factors and only Lukashenka knows them, I don’t know. If we proceed from the fact that now he is obviously trying to gain the time, then you can even try to hope that this pause will be used to work out the first or the second or even both strategies at once. Otherwise there is a risk that it will be his solutions, and our problems. In case when nothing happens, and we pull time just in hope that any of the external players takes the initiative, the alignment will be more or less clear and not really optimistic. So, the controllability and the efficiency of Chinese investments raises questions, it is difficult to rely on a serious game from the European side today, the EU is not at the peak of its power, but our investment climate is at the level “don’t be kidding like that anymore”.

—In any case, the presidents are not eternal. How do you think, how does the future of the Union State look like without Lukashenko and Putin?

—First of all, we are not foreigners to each other, and we have lived under one roof for a long time. We are fraternal nations, and I hope it will remain the same. But we don’t need to come together in one apartment again, it is better to be friendly families. I see our future in the Union States, and not in just one Union State. Secondly, and as a business man, I cannot underestimate this factor, that the Union State is a market for Belarusian products, which has been historically conquered and explored. It shouldn’t be lost in no case; we should fight for it, and it should be expanded. Nowadays, it’s not the situation that anyone can afford themselves their markets, especially such capacious ones as the Union State market. The base of the Union State, as far as I understand, fully allows the Belarusian initiative movement in this direction. I remember that Lukashenko promised the Ukrainians to come to them on a tractor, and this is wonderful. But why all Russia, not speaking about the Eurasian Union, still does not ride on our tractors? Does the Union State’s toolkit really limit this? Honestly, I do not believe.

— The political background of relationships between Minsk and Moscow is more than ever set by the context of the confrontation between Russia and Europe. Will Belarus have to choose between East and West all the time? Is there any other way for Belarus? Who should our country be with?

—I would say that the confrontation between the United States and Russia became key long time ago, and the Europe itself has become its object and buffer in this confrontation. Therefore, pretending to the status of another «buffer zone» between Moscow and Washington, Belarus, I am afraid, will face strong competition. But the use of the structures of the same Union State in order to realize our foreign policy agenda in the interests of the country and the region is necessary and available. The potential of the relationships developed by Belarus with Europe and the EU structures should be used to the same extent– it seems that in conditions of their confrontation with the US, a lot of sense can be gotten out of that today. The international relations teach that even under conditions of the relevant contradictions there is always a chance to find items where the interests of the interacting parties coincide. We should concentrate on them.

—The BPF suggests to limit the broadcasting of Russian channels in Belarus and replace them on channels of our own production. So how useful is this suggestion?

—  First of all, it is not democratic. And if we talk about democracy, then let’s not change our course,where everyone has the right to watch and listen to what he wants. Secondly, before the initiation of any major transformations, discuss it with the business. I am strongly doubtful about the fact that at least someone can pull the production of the Belarusian-language content in the volume of today’s broadcasting, in principle not having chances to compensate it for 10 million audience. In order to understand the depth of the problem - even in Russia, with its obviously gigantic 140 million people audience, there is not always an opportunity to talk about the compensation of the produced content, just take a look at the number of surviving players on this market. In this regard, the BPF leadership in future should be recommended to strengthen such initiatives by justification at the expense of what or whom, they can be financed.

—What is your attitude towards the problem of supplying sanctioned products by Belarusian enterprises in the Russian Federation and numerous statements from the Russian side about our dishonesty towards the laws of the partner?

— This is exactly the problem, the clarification of which is in the interests of the Belarusian side. It is well known, it was stated a lot of times that the transit of sanctioned products to the Russian Federation by Belarusian companies, and not by the affiliated enterprises from Russia, amounts maximum 5%. After all, every person connected with sales perfectly knows that buying a product is not a problem. The problem is to sell. Not one Russian networker will give his margin to a Belarusian reseller. Therefore, the transit works, but isn’t managed by us. And public clarification of this situation, by the way, would bring us political bonuses in the Russian direction that so necessary for bargaining now.

We should change the paradigm. It is time to stop sitting in the trenches, we must learn out how to intercept the initiative.