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Russia denies putting pressure on Belarus

By Temuri Kiguradze
Wednesday, June 10
Moscow has stated that it is not demanding that Minsk either recognize the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia or risk losing Russian financial aid.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has accused the Kremlin in “trading” over the issue of the recognition of the Georgian territories. “They [Russian officials] came here and told us: if there is [recognition of] Abkhazia and South Ossetia you will get USD 500 million. But we won’t “sell out” over any question or position,” said Lukashenko, as quoted by Russian newspaper Izvestia. The USD 500 million mentioned forms part of the USD 2 billion financial aid Belarus is slated to receive from Russia.

The Kremlin reacted immediately to Lukashenko’s statement. “We have not begged and never will beg anyone to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a press conference in Moscow on June 9. “The Belarus Government stated that this issue will be resolved according to Belarus law. We respect the constitutional procedures of the Republic of Belarus and have never connected this topic with the question of our practical relationship,” added the Minister.

Russia recognized the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as ‘independent states’ on August 26, 2008, after a brief conflict with Georgia. Nicaragua has been the only country to follow Russia’s example. This recognition has been strongly condemned by the international community, including the EU, NATO and PACE. Belarus, usually considered a partner of Russia, had announced it was ready to debate the issue of recognition in its Parliament in April 2009, however the subject has not been raised yet, despite protests by the Russian and separatist Ossetian and Abkhazian authorities. “I think it is taking Belarus too long to discuss this issue. No one should press them, but the point is that a concrete date was given and it was April, that’s why we expect this step to be taken by the Republic of Belarus,” said Speaker of the Russian Duma Boris Gryzlov in May 2009.

The EU has also reacted to the question of recognition. "If they [Belarus authorities] recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia it would create a very, very difficult situation for Belarus because Belarus would be outside the European consensus," stated Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech Foreign Minister, in late February 2009. He also added that taking a decision on recognition of the regions is the sovereign right of the Parliament of Belarus but such a step would leave Minsk isolated. Schwarzenberg’s comment was made during a meeting concerning the Eastern Partnership initiative, which will extend a special partnership programme to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, enabling these ex-USSR states to establish closer relations with the Union on such important issues as trade and border procedures. Sergey Lavrov also referred to this comment at his June 9 press conference, saying that the EU was “directly connecting” the issue of recognition with the participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership Programme. The Russian Foreign Minster evaluated Schwarzenberg’s statement as “near to being a threat.”

Relations between Russia and Belarus remain difficult. Moscow banned the import of more than 500 types of Belarus milk products from June 6. Head of Russia’s Sanitary Department Gennady Onishenko stated that Belarus milk products had not passed “certain registration procedures” and that the banning of another 800 more Belarus products should be expected in the near future. The Russian media is already calling this dispute “The Milk War” and some experts regard the ban as an attempt to stop Belarus attempting to leave the Russian sphere of influence and developing relations with the West. The Belarus President clearly stated that he had such a plan at a cabinet session while discussing Russian proposals to buy several large Belarus enterprises. “Why are you trying to deal with this Russia, which kicks you away? Don’t you understand that they want to take us for free? If we are not successful with Russian help we will have to go to other places where we are welcome. We have to seek our destiny in other parts of the planet,” Lukashenko told his Ministers on May 29.

Banning imports is not a new technique for the Kremlin. In 2006 Moscow banned Georgian and Moldavian wine and mineral water, finding “dangerous additives” in them. This ban was enforced while Georgia was pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration. Later Moldavian imports were allowed again, but the ban on Georgian products remains in place. Moscow is also connects the ban on Belarus milk products with health issues. “This is not a political action, we are protecting the health of Russian consumers,” Sergey Lavrov said in Moscow.

“The prohibition of Belarus milk products has coincided with a change in that country’s policy and an unwillingness to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, so it seems that Russia, just as with Georgia, has used the old method of economic sanctions to try and get its way,” said Georgian independent expert Shalva Pichkhadze, speaking to The Messenger on Tuesday. He added that the future of Belarus primarily depends on the position of the EU, which he said should not “turn its back” on Minsk.