Be­larus buys U.S. oil

Minsk and Moscow have close ties, but an­a­lysts say the un­prece­dented en­ergy deal ex­poses a crit­i­cal crack in the foun­da­tion

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ISABELLE KHURSHUDYA­N isabelle.khurshudya­n@wash­post.com

The un­prece­dented en­ergy deal ex­poses a crack in re­la­tions with re­li­able ally Rus­sia, ex­perts say.

moscow — When Be­larus or­dered its first ship­ment of U.S. oil ear­lier this month, it was more than just an en­ergy deal. It was a mes­sage to Moscow: One of Rus­sia’s most re­li­able al­lies was test­ing its ties with the West.

Be­laru­san Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Lukashenko, who has ruled the coun­try with a tight grip since 1994, “is try­ing to show the Rus­sians he can sur­vive without their sup­port,” said Ar­tyom Shraib­man of Sense An­a­lyt­ics, a Minsk-based po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tancy.

Lukashenko has long bal­anced keep­ing Rus­sia close but not too close. He rarely throws up any road­blocks to Rus­sian poli­cies. But Lukashenko also has re­sisted the Krem­lin’s push for the two coun­tries to form a uni­fied state — some­thing they agreed to in 1999.

Oil is of­ten part of the po­lit­i­cal mix. Be­larus has en­joyed a sweet­heart deal with Rus­sia, and keep­ing rates dis­counted was one of Moscow’s sell­ing points to fi­nally make the unity pact of­fi­cial.

So when they failed in De­cem­ber to agree on a new price for oil Moscow sells to Minsk, Rus­sia tem­po­rar­ily cut the sup­ply. Lukashenko then vowed to di­ver­sify Be­larus’s oil sup­pli­ers. He de­liv­ered by pur­chas­ing ship­ments from Azer­bai­jan, Nor­way and Saudi Ara­bia all in the past five months, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on a coro­n­avirus-in­duced shock to oil prices.

The U.S. deal is for one ship­ment. But few other oil agree­ments are so geopo­lit­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant that they prompt a state­ment from Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, who said it “strength­ens Be­laru­sian sovereignt­y and in­de­pen­dence.”

Pom­peo vis­ited Minsk in early Fe­bru­ary, when he first of­fered to sell Amer­i­can oil “at a com­pet­i­tive price.” It marked the first trip to Be­larus by the top U.S. diplo­mat since Lukashenko took power. Then in April, the two coun­tries for­mally reestab­lished diplo­matic re­la­tions when Julie Fisher, a top State De­part­ment of­fi­cial for Europe, was named am­bas­sador to Be­larus — a po­si­tion that had been va­cant for more than a decade.

The first or­der for 80,000 tons of U.S. oil is prob­a­bly a test of lo­gis­tics. The tanker car­ry­ing it is ex­pected to ar­rive in a Lithua­nian port in early June, with Poland also act­ing as an in­ter­me­di­ary.

If things go smoothly, more pur­chases may be on the hori­zon. Trans­port­ing oil through its Baltic neigh­bors could lead to Be­larus im­prov­ing re­la­tions with them in the long-term, an­a­lysts said.

But in the short-term, per­ceived rifts with Rus­sia could have do­mes­tic com­pli­ca­tions for Lukashenko, who is seek­ing a sixth term in Au­gust. Be­larus’s eco­nomic for­tunes re­main closely tied to Rus­sia, and Lukashenko could stir wor­ries that he risk­ing too much.

Af­ter the stand­off over oil prices ear­lier this year, the two coun­tries reached a com­pro­mise agree­ment, and Rus­sian state oil com­pany Ros­neft said May 15 that it ex­pected to ship about 9 mil­lion tons to Be­larus this year — about half the amount Be­larus bought in pre­vi­ous years.

Lukashenko is also fac­ing crit­i­cism at home and abroad for his re­sponse to the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, which he has re­peat­edly down­played. Lukashenko has ig­nored the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s sug­ges­tion for phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing mea­sures, keep­ing busi­nesses open even as the coun­try’s con­firmed cases have spiked to more than 33,000.

A Rus­sian state-run tele­vi­sion chan­nel aired a re­port this month from Be­larus al­leg­ing that Be­laru­sans mis­trust their gov­ern­ment’s of­fi­cial coro­n­avirus fig­ures. The Chan­nel One correspond­ent and cam­era­man in­volved in the piece were de­ported, and the broad­caster’s en­tire film crew was stripped of ac­cred­i­ta­tion. A Be­laru­san state broad­caster said it was be­cause the Chan­nel One seg­ment con­tained “fake news” and “pro­pa­ganda.”

It’s not the first in­stance of the coro­n­avirus in­flam­ing the quar­rel be­tween Minsk and Moscow. In March, Lukashenko col­or­fully lashed out at Rus­sia’s de­ci­sion to close the bor­der be­tween the coun­tries as a coro­n­avirus pre­cau­tion, re­fer­ring to Rus­sian de­ci­sion-mak­ers as “hot heads.”

“What this par­tic­u­lar move is do­ing to him po­lit­i­cally is that he's bring­ing him and the coun­try ac­tu­ally into quite a sort of dan­ger­ous area in re­la­tions with the Rus­sians,” said Yauheni Prei­her­man, di­rec­tor of the Minsk Di­a­logue Coun­cil on In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions. “It’s not like Be­larus is turn­ing away or any­thing, but all these moves by Lukashenko, they clearly make a lot of peo­ple in Rus­sia an­gry.”

“Amer­ica is, as Lukashenko likes to re­it­er­ate, the great­est power on Earth. But the sig­nif­i­cance of Rus­sia for Be­larus in pol­i­tics is much big­ger,” he added.

Lukashenko has long lacked vi­able op­po­si­tion, but two de­clared can­di­dates in this up­com­ing elec­tion could at least make it in­ter­est­ing, said An­drei Ye­gorov of the Minsk-based think tank the Cen­ter For Euro­pean Trans­for­ma­tion.

Ye­gorov noted that the can­di­dates — Valer Ts­ap­kala, a prom­i­nent busi­ness­man and for­mer Be­laru­san am­bas­sador to the United States, and Vik­tar Babaryka, a banker and phi­lan­thropist — could “get a lot of at­ten­tion from un­usual and pre­vi­ously not po­lit­i­cally ac­tive” seg­ments of Be­laru­san so­ci­ety.

Ye­gorov said pro-rus­sian sen­ti­ments have de­clined among Be­laru­sans — in large part be­cause of state-me­dia pro­pa­ganda — with many now hop­ing for more col­lab­o­ra­tion with the West.

A rel­a­tively mod­est oil deal with the United States shouldn’t be over­stated as a full turn in that di­rec­tion, but it could be an early sig­nal of a shift­ing eco­nomic mix for Be­larus, Shraib­man said.

“Imag­ine a sit­u­a­tion where Be­larus will be buy­ing more oil from non-rus­sian sources and will be pump­ing this oil through Baltic states and Poland and will be re­ceiv­ing loans from the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund and nonRus­sian in­sti­tu­tions,” Shraib­man, of Sense An­a­lyt­ics, added. “If you imag­ine this to con­tinue, in five years’ time, Be­larus is now be­com­ing sort of depen­dent on the West fi­nan­cially. It cre­ates a com­pletely dif­fer­ent dy­namic.”

SERGEI GAPON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Be­laru­san Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Lukashenko gives a speech dur­ing a mil­i­tary pa­rade in Minsk this month. With the coun­try’s for­tunes tied to Rus­sia, in the short-term, per­ceived rifts could have do­mes­tic com­pli­ca­tions for Lukashenko, who is seek­ing a sixth term in Au­gust.

TATYANA ZENKOVICH/EPA-EFE//SHUTTERSTO­CK

Be­laru­san op­po­si­tion leader Niko­lai Statke­vich, cen­ter, wears a face mask as he walks to the Cen­tral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion of­fice dur­ing a rally in Minsk this month.

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