Officials in Moscow on February 2 moved to scotch reports that Minsk is planning to pull out of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and even the union state of Russia and Belarus after a Russian online news service controversially claimed that a broad divorce was in the works.
"We hope that [the collapse of the EEU] is not real", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Gazeta.ru in response to the report by Regnum news agency that was picked up by various other media outlets. However, Belarusian envoy to Russia Igor Petrishenko stressed that his country has been and will remain an active participant of the union state and both integration organisations.
Moscow would not make "loud statements" about Belarusian preparations for leaving the groupings of former Soviet republics, Regnum quoted an unidentified source in the Russian capital as saying. Regardless of the leadership's decisions, Belarusians will always be considered by Russia as a fraternal people, the source added.
However, Regnum's reputation brought the report quickly into question. Set up as a private sector news agency in 2002, it is known for infusing its coverage with chauvinistic propaganda towards other ex-Soviet nations. In December, three pro-Russian bloggers were detained in Belarus for inciting ethnic hatred over their articles, including Regnum contributors. The Russian Foreign Ministry also criticised the anti-Belarusian slant of earlier reports.
Nonetheless, presidents Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko are soon expected to discuss deteriorating bilateral relations in person at what will clearly be a tense meeting. Their meeting is provisionally set for the first half of February, Ekho Moskvy radio reported. After Lukashenko did not attend a meeting of EEU leaders in December, Belarus' participation in this and the other joint organisations is likely to feature high in the agenda of the talks.
Belarus was a founding member of the EEU, which also has Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan as members, and came into effect on January 1, 2015. The republic joined the Collective Security Treaty Organisation in 1993, a year after it was founded by Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The agreement on the union state of Russia and Belarus came into effect in 2000.
Mired in debt and heavily dependent on Russia's good graces for its economic health, Belarus has in recent months been moving to improve relations with the EU. It has been encouraged by the removal of most sanctions against it in early 2016 after Lukashenko released his political opponents from jail the previous summer. However, Minsk's efforts to court the West do not sit well with Moscow.
At the forefront of the current tensions is Russia's insistence that Belarus pays the equivalent of $550mn for past supplies of natural gas. "We continue talks; no progress there, arguments remain unchanged," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said on January 28. "Settlement options are changing, but as yet we have not found mutually acceptable ones."
Minsk's decision to grant five-day visa-free travel to 80 countries starting on February 12 has also caused irritation in Moscow, which is concerned about third-country citizens using the amended rules to enter Russian territory via the largely uncontrolled border.
While Moscow said the decision is Minsk's internal affair, new Russian border controls are going into effect this month. The head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Aleksandr Bortnikov issued directives to set up border zones in the Russian regions of Smolensk, Bryansk and Pskov, which all adjoin Belarus, TASS reported.
The measure could be caused by Russia's intention to better control Ukrainian citizens coming to the country via Belarus, Kommersant daily commented, although the introduction by Belarus of visa-free entry is thought to be the direct cause of the tightened controls.