Staunton, October 17 – Belarusian firms are using ports in the Baltic countries rather than Russian ones in St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, a shift that helps Latvia and Lithuania make up for Russian cutbacks but one that is infuriating Moscow because it weakens Russian leverage on the Baltic countries and calls into question Mensk’s commitment to the union state.
And while the issue of a possible Russian airbase in Belarus continues to attract more attention, this shift may affect Russian elites may ultimately be more important because it affects their pocketbooks, which, in the era of Vladimir Putin, quite often seem to matter more to them than geopolitical considerations do.
In a Regnum commentary, Alyona Zelenina says that “while in Russian Kaliningrad people are making utopian plans to create a port hub for increasing the flow of Belarusian cargo, official Minsk is ever more actively strengthening its cooperation with Lithuania and Latvia, the ports of which compete with Russian harbors in the Baltic” (regnum.ru/news/polit/1992731.html).
Three years ago, she says, Alyaksandr Lukashenka promised to redirect Belarusian exports from Latvia and Lithuania to Russian ports, but since then, his government has increased the flow of cargo through the non-Russian ports. The reason? It is cheaper not only because those ports are closer but also because Russian Rail’s rates are much higher.
Belarusian shipping now makes up 35 percent of the value of goods shipped through the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda, and its share continues to rise. Indeed, Zelenina says, last month was “’a golden one’” because of the increase in Belarusian cargo being processed by Lithuanian handlers.
Vilnius is vitally interested in promoting the Belarusian flow because of cutbacks in Russian shipping via Lithuania, although the Lithuanian economy is affected far less than the Latvian one because the amount of goods and raw materials shipped from Russia to the west via Klaipeda is so much less than that going through Latvian ports.
But Belarusian exports are sufficiently large to have sparked a competition between Lithuania and Latvia, with each seeking to offer Mensk the more favorable conditions. To that end, Lithuania is building new infrastructure in its port so as to handle Belarusian exports more inexpensively.
Latvia is even more focused on attracting Belarusian exports through its ports. Belarusian exports now form 12 percent of cargo passing through Latvian ports, but because Russian cargo, which still forms 76 percent of the total, is declining, Riga is doing what it can to boost cooperation with Mensk.
To that end, the Latvian authorities have cut prices for cargo carried to the ports by Latvian railways and have agreed to sell to Belarus a dedicated terminal in the Latvian port making it even easier for Mensk to export via Latvia. As the amount of Russian cargo through Latvian ports continues to decline, the importance of Belarusian cargo will only increase.