For Russia, the role of energy resources has always been dual, i.e. economic and political. In addition, both of these often go hand in hand, only the emphasis changes. Initially, the delivery of energy resources for other countries is viewed through the political prism – as a sign of sheer goodwill. As time passes, this is subject to change, particularly in cases when the country in question ceases to move in the direction determined by the Kremlin.
An excellent comparison can be made with drugs – you get someone hooked on needles by giving them free or ridiculously cheap drugs, the person becomes addicted and then you can use this addiction to put forward certain demands – if these demands are not met, you can decrease the dose or charge a larger amount of money, since you know they are unable to pay.
What does the poor drug addict do? There are two options: you can fight the withdrawal for some time and eventually give up the needle or you can simply do as your “master” orders.
The most fitting example is Ukraine. It was exactly the issue of energy resources that Russia used in its attempts to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence. The Ukrainians, however, had other things in mind. We all know what Ukraine has suffered and what it still suffers, but the pattern of the events that unfolded is nonetheless worth mentioning.
Prior to the “gas war”, the Kremlin launched an intense propaganda campaign to convince clients in Europe of the security of its gas deliveries and blame Ukraine for unwillingness to pay “market prices” for gas. Russian newspapers and TV channels used extensive information pressure and propaganda to make everyone believe that “Ukraine is responsible for everything”.1
The next phase followed with temporary cut-offs of energy deliveries that resulted in public discontent, as it meant the wellbeing of people was threatened. This is where the propaganda was put in motion to portray the government as the scapegoats. There were two scenarios for this – either the public becomes so dissatisfied that the government falls, giving the Kremlin the ability to push for its loyalists to be appointed or elected, or the current government will “come to its senses” and stop resisting.
However, there is also a third scenario I would call the Ukraine scenario, i.e. public discontent was simmering, but it was not widespread enough to give the Kremlin reasonable hopes that its loyalists will get elected. Therefore, it was only a matter of time for green men to appear in several regions and be welcomed by the dissatisfied people of Ukraine as heroes.
An analogous situation is also manifesting in Belarus, and former ally of Putin Alexander Lukashenko is not that excited about its prospects. Russia has tied together the 1999-signed treaty on the union between both states with economic contracts, first and foremost those concerning oil and gas deliveries. Belarus’ energy dependence is being exploited as a lever of pressure on the leadership of Belarus, which is being forced to sign integration documents. Belarus is opposed to this, and already since the beginning of 2020 we can see that this has turned into open blackmail by Russia.2
It is already evident that Belarus is being prepared for the Ukraine scenario, as I already mentioned.
Let’s briefly return to 2017: it was then reported that the Moscow-Minsk conflict on gas prices began already in 2015. Belarus felt the price is unjustly high, and both sides failed to reach an agreement on any discounts. Since January 2016, Belarus unilaterally started paying less, and by the end of the year Moscow announced that the debt of Belarus has reached USD 245 million. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that because of this Russia intends to decrease oil supplies to Belarus in the first quarter of 2017 by 12% – from 4.5 million tons to four million tons.3
And now 2020: on 1 January, Russia halt its deliveries of crude oil to Belarus, as both countries were unable to agree on the conditions of the delivery contract for this year. Due to the ceased deliveries, oil plants in Belarus are operating at minimum capacity, as was reported by the Belarusian State Concern for Oil and Chemistry Belneftkhim.4
It is not long in any situation before someone decides to employ threats. Head of Transneft Nikolay Tokarev did just that and declared that Russia can also redistribute transit oil flows via the territory of Belarus.5
What was the main reason of this change in attitude? It was, most likely, Lukashenko’s modest enthusiasm for the establishment of the Union State, and now the Kremlin has been left to its own devices. Accordingly, Russian mass media outlets have begun painting Lukashenko and Belarus in a negative light. Putin did suggest another solution, and this one does not include Belarus. And now, this solution is being hastily implemented, resulting in Lukashenko’s diminishing political value in the eyes of Putin.6
Consider this along with the fact that Russia could stop using Belarus for its oil transit and everything becomes much clearer.
What is more, an unprecedented trend has now emerged – Russian media outlets are reporting that Russophobia is emerging in Belarus.7 In addition, Lukashenko’s statement that Russia and Belarus will in no way unite is being explained in Russia with the fact that Russia no longer wants to subsidize the economy of Belarus in order to protect its own.8 And we have found our scapegoat – identically as in the case of Ukraine.
To summarize, it is expected that because of Russia’s energy resources Belarus will be faced with the slowest rate of economic development in the region: 0.9% in 2020 and 0.5% in 2021.9 This will inevitably result in decreased wellbeing of the Belarusian people, and they will inevitably blame their government and Lukashenko for it.
It is quite safe to say that the Kremlin has now done everything to further protest sentiments in Belarus, but only time will reveal in what direction the whole situation will progress.
Upon reviewing the circumstances of Ukraine and now also with Belarus, the true reasons for some Latvian political parties (Concord) to omit the issue of renewable resources from their election campaigns become much clearer. It is possible that if Latvia does nothing in regard to renewable energy, the big “friendly” bear will soon reach out his friendly paw so he can later crush us with his friendly embrace.
This also gives new meaning to the announcements by parties that concern cooperation with Russia. Again, Concord is the distinct leader, and the party has even included this text in its election manifesto: “Latvia is an active member of the EU and NATO. We represent a foreign policy course whose main goal is to increase the wellbeing of the people of Latvia. We will establish good relations based on trust with Russia and other CIS members. We will pay special attention to establishing relations with China.”10
From this, we can conclude that Concord wants relations with Russia and other members of the CIS (which is a phantom of the USSR), but does not want Latvia dealing with the issue of renewable energy resources.
Only one question should to be asked – how can a political party operate in Latvia if it is doing everything in its power to return Latvia to the embraces of the Kremlin.
*Zintis Znotiņš, is an Independent investigative journalist.