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 non-Russian 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.”