Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko paid a surprise and unscheduled visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg on July 13.
In the fourth meeting between the two presidents just this year, all of them in Russia, the two men talked for five hours and discussed the economy and international relations, according to the Kremlin read-out.
The Belarusian president drew attention to the ongoing pressure on his country from the West and stressed that Belarus was managing to hold on amid the sanctions thanks to its ties with Russia, Tass reported.
As bne IntelliNews has reported, Belarus is under increasing economic pressure as the political crisis sparked by the disputed August 9 presidential election approaches its first year anniversary.
The country’s international reserves are shrinking slowly, making it difficult for Minsk to service its $3.3bn in international debt. Last year the population withdrew $1.9bn worth of foreign exchange, $1.4bn in August alone. This year the population have bought more dollars than they sold, reducing the country's international reserves further to $7.4bn as of June, or about 1.8 months of import cover – nearly half of the amount economists believe is necessary to keep the currency stable.
At the same time, the government is running and an estimated 30% of GDP budget deficit as the mass demonstrations and strikes have caused a major economic dislocation.
Lukashenko is very likely in St Petersburg to ask Putin for more money, but Russia has so far been very stingy in its support of Minsk. Putin has offered credits of $1.5bn to be paid out in three tranches of which two have been delivered already and the third tranche of $500mn is due only at the start of next year – but that is not enough to even cover the $2bn that the population has withdrawn from ATMs during the crisis.
Belarus’ economic position has been made worse by the EU sanctions imposed after Minsk forced a commercial Ryanair flight to land in Minsk and arrested top opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend on May 23.
At the beginning of the talks Lukashenko noted that economy is one of the key matters they should take care of, since sanctions have been introduced or been extended not only against Belarus but Russia as well. Nevertheless, he was convinced that Belarus and Russia would be able to survive the blow. “We will not simply survive. We will develop. It is not a problem. They will be unable to monopolise the international agenda and pressure us today. It won't work! The world has changed,” Lukashenko said as cited by BelTA.
The sanctions have cut Belarus off from the international capital markets and made it entirely dependent on Russia for its funding needs. The EU has also introduced sectorial sanctions targeting some of the country’s key cash cows, although for the meantime the EU is pulling it punches and has not sanctioned the most lucrative of Belarus’ exports so as to keep something in reserve in the ongoing talks.
Lukashenko also painted a picture of a country under siege by malign Western forces externally and seditious protesters internally. He promised to “find them all” and punish them, “and in a serious way at that.”
In his reported remarks Putin avoided Lukashenko's bombast and said that Belarus remains a major and reliable economic partner for Russia. He pointed out that despite external challenges, the sanctions and the pandemic, the Belarusian economy demonstrates quite a good performance. In particular, Belarus is servicing all its loans. Moreover, its external debt is declining. “Belarus is a reliable and stable partner in this regard,” Putin said.
However, none of the meat of the discussion was released and Putin added nothing to the modest financial support package that Russia has already offered.