Russia-Belarus Relations Sour over Milk Ban

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Farmers fill a milk tanker in the village of Morkhochovschina, some 50 miles outside Minsk. Russia announced on June 6 it was banning the import of Belarusian dairy products

It had been a while since Russia pulled out the "sanitary regulations" card to ban imports over a spat with one of its neighbors. But on June 6, after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko publicly voiced his fury at Russia's raising of energy prices, Russia imposed a ban on dairy products from Belarus, sparking a so-called milk war that has seen tensions between the former allies escalate daily.

Over the past year, Lukashenko has been increasingly turning his back on Russia, slowly allying his country with the West. So far, the move seems to be paying off. Belarus was included in the E.U.'s Eastern Partnership initiative, created last year to strengthen economic and political ties between Europe and six former Soviet states. Lukashenko's travel ban to Europe — issued after his 2006 re-election, which the U.S. and the E.U. maintain was rigged — has been lifted. And Belarus secured an additional $1 billion on a $2.4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after Russia canceled its final $500 million installment.

But Lukashenko's refusal to attend a key security summit in Moscow on Monday because of the dairy ban has infuriated the Kremlin, and despite Belarus' achievements with the E.U., the price for angering Russian President Dmitri Medvedev may just be too high. "Exporting food to Russia has been one of [Belarus'] most important and reliable trade sectors," Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations, tells TIME. "The ban will definitely sting." In 2008, Russia bought 93% of Belarus' meat and dairy products, earning Belarus $1 billion.

So far, Russia has insisted that the ban is not political and simply reflects a failure on Belarus' part to meet new sanitary regulations. But Russia has a tradition of banning goods from neighboring countries at the first sign of disagreement, like the 2005 ban (which has since been lifted) of Polish meat after Poland joined the E.U. and the 2006 ban of Georgian wine after Tblisi accused Moscow of spying, leading some observers to suggest that Belarus isn't being paranoid. "That's the Russia way," says Wilson. "It has had a lot of economic rows with neighbors, and it uses the same vocabulary every time."

The economic relationship between Russia and Belarus has been steadily worsening since 2007, when Russia raised gas prices and demanded that Belarus give up control of gas transit from Russia to Europe — about 20% of Russian gas exports to Europe go through Belarus, and so Russia wants to take over Beltransgaz, the state-run operator of Belarus' gas-pipeline network.

Following last year's war in Georgia, Belarus felt pressure from Russia to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia but knew that doing so, when no country in the West recognizes either as independent, would push Belarus into international isolation. Instead, Lukashenko satisfied U.S. demands to release a large group of political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin. Last month, Russia canceled its last $500 million installment of a $2 billion IMF loan to Belarus as punishment for not recognizing the breakaway republics, Lukashenko claimed. "It's no coincidence that Lukashenko released key political prisoners within days of the August conflict," says Wilson. "He realized he had to pay his dues to the E.U. because Russian friendship came with a price."

So far, Lukashenko has been able to manipulate the tensions between Russia and the West in his favor. Belarus is the only country that has successfully asked for and received loans from both Russia and the IMF, and Russia is still Belarus' major trading partner. But Lukashenko may not be able to keep up this balancing act for long. "If he wants to survive with Russia angry at his border, then Lukashenko needs to do some more thorough [political reforms] then he is willing to admit," says Vitali Silitski, director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, pointing out that Belarus, run by a leader often referred to as Europe's last dictator, has a long way to go toward democracy. "At the moment, he is using only his survival instincts."

Those instincts told Lukashenko to skip the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) meeting on Sunday in protest over Russia's dairy-imports ban. The organization — which has been dubbed Russia's answer to NATO — consists of Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and, supposedly, Belarus and was formed to tackle drug-trafficking from Afghanistan, as well as international terrorism. "Economy serves as the basis for our common security," Lukashenko said in a statement. "But if Belarus' closest CSTO ally is trying ... to destroy this basis ... how can one talk about consolidating collective security in the CSTO space?"

Medvedev told reporters after the summit, "I hope that these milk hysterics do not in the end spoil work on the collective rapid-reaction force [the CSTO]." But the milk wars are threatening to sour further. In March, Russia and Belarus made a verbal agreement allowing Belarus concessions on the contract-listed gas prices that Russia charges. But on Monday, Gazprom spokesperson Sergei Kupriyanov told Russian daily Kommersant that the existing contract was never altered, meaning Belarus would have to pay $210 per 1,000 cu m of gas rather than the $150 that was agreed upon — a crippling amount for a country that's already $5 billion in debt. In response, Belarus is already talking of toughening up customs on its Russian border.

"Belarus could not survive without Russia," says Wilson. "But translating that into political reality has always been really difficult. At the end of the day, Belarus needs trade and resources to survive, both of which come from Russia." So for now, Belarus will have to keep up its balancing act between Russia and Europe — and hope that, soon, Russia goes back to drinking its milk.