Union State of Russia and Belarus needs intensive care

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Sergei Sidorsky will attend a meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Union State of Russia and Belarus in Moscow on October 15, 2010.

On October 5, an important event took place in Russian-Belarusian relations that went largely unnoticed. In Minsk, the transport departments of the two countries signed an agreement on transferring transport control to the external border of the Union State. Russia's Transport Minister Igor Levitin said that Russia will sign a similar agreement with Kazakhstan, creating a free transport corridor in the countries of the Customs Union. And so, 19 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian-Belarusian border is finally open.

The October 15 meeting will also be important. The sides will discuss the draft budget of the Union State for 2011. Sidorsky has indicated that both countries are actively working on this draft. He called it "a growing budget, despite the post-crisis conditions."

The press service of the Union State's Secretariat reported that the focus of the meeting will be on the implementation of the union's budget for this year, a number of social issues and defense cooperation. In addition, five new production programs - for farm equipment, agriculture and the Russian Federal Space Agency - will be presented to the participants in the meeting.

However, official information does not always give the full picture of cooperation between Moscow and Minsk in the Union State. Is the Union State really necessary? The answer can be found in the numbers. In 2009 and 2010, 42 economics programs were funded from the union's budget. About 180 Belarusian companies and over 250 Russian companies are involved in their implementation.

The union's economic model has largely restored cooperation between the Russian and Belarusian companies and can serve as an example for other post-Soviet states.

In the last few weeks, we have seen progress on the most difficult aspect of bilateral economic relations. On October 8, the CIS Economic Court recommended that the Russian and Belarusian governments negotiate the temporary suspension of export duties on Russian oil products supplied to Belarus. Russia's Deputy Justice Minister Vasily Likhachyov said the sides could settle this issue during discussions on the fuel balance for 2011 by the end of this year. Minsk hopes to persuade Moscow to increase its duty-free oil exports to Belarus by about a million tons. This hope was bolstered recently when experts of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) revised their forecast of Belarusian GDP growth from 2.4% to 7.2%. Belarusian Justice Minister Viktor Golovanov said that more than 70 Russian companies are sustaining losses because of the duties, and mentioned the example of a Russian company that used to buy Belarusian chemical fiber. After duties on oil products were imposed, the company had to start importing fiber from Japan at much higher costs. Meanwhile, Russia remains the largest and, in many ways, the only market for Belarusian goods. In 2010, Belarusian exports of dairy products alone amounted to 2.8 million tons. Nadezhda Kotkovets, the Belarusian minister of agriculture and food, said that Belarus is prepared to increase dairy exports by another 20%.

Putin and Sidorsky will discuss the terms of Russia's participation in the construction of a Russian-designed nuclear power plant in Belarus. The Russian company Atomstroyexport is supposed to be the main contractor. The contract is worth six billion dollars.

Social issues are very important to the union's development, as they concern the everyday life of people in both countries. The agreement guaranteeing citizens of Russia and Belarus equal rights and freedom to move and choose their place of temporary and permanent residence entered into force last year. Issues related to pensions and other social benefits have been settled as well.

Now the sides are working on the main document of the union's social policy, which calls for equal rights to employment and compensation, education, medical care and other social guarantees throughout the Union State.

Defense and security cooperation is an important part of the Union State's activities. The united Russian-Belarusian regional military force has existed for 10 years now. Its main objective is to defend the Union State's western border and the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The sides have adopted a program to install the necessary infrastructure on the external border of the union state between 2007 and 2011. A total of 2.86 billion Russian rubles have been earmarked for this purpose. This program to equip the western border of Belarus has made it possible to form the Customs Union and to discontinue transport control on the Russian-Belarusian border.

A year ago, the Union State's Supreme Council decided to unite the air defense systems of Russia and Belarus. In effect, Moscow's air defense starts in the Belarusian city of Brest, where Belarusian air defense units are deployed. Military experts estimate that Russian air defense missile systems allow these units to detect threats 400 km further west.

It would be counterproductive to scrap the Union State due to the recent political disputes between Moscow and Minsk. State Secretary of the Union State Pavel Borodin has expressed this view in very clear terms: "We are the same people. We have lived together and will continue to live together. We are one country... There is only one way to solve the problem - sit down together and reach an agreement."

Ivan Savelyev, analyst from the magazine Nezavisimy Obozrevatel Stran Sodruzhestva

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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