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Belarus: Minsk Says Mandatory Car Insurance A Breach Of 'Special' Ties With Moscow

Starting next year, Russia will introduce mandatory car-insurance payments for all visiting foreigners. Moscow is making no exceptions -- not even for Minsk, its on-again, off-again partner in the Russia-Belarus Union. Belarusians say Moscow's rates are too high, and will have a negative impact on cross-border travel. Analysts, meanwhile, are questioning what the new measure means for the future of Russian-Belarusian integration.

Prague, 23 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- From 1 January, Belarusian drivers will have to pay the equivalent of $30-- nearly a third of the average monthly salary -- to cross the border into Russia.

As of the new year, Moscow is imposing a mandatory car-insurance fee for all foreign cars passing into Russia. The rates are the same regardless of nationality. And this, Minsk says, is unfair.

Most Belarusians cannot afford to buy the new insurance. Nor do they feel they should have to. As Minsk pursues greater integration with Moscow, many Belarusians argue they deserve special status.

The change is likely to have a massive impact on cross-border travel and trade between Russia and Belarus. Russia is the favored destination for most Belarusian travelers, and nearly half of Belarus's population is believed to make the trip at least once a year.

Oleg Manaev heads the Minsk-based Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies. He told RFE/RL that some 4 million Belarusians travel to Russia every year. "We have an adult population of some 8 million, some 7.7 million. And imagine -- this new measure affects some 4 million people [who travel to Russia every year] in difference combinations," he said. "Some go to Russia once a year; others on a weekly basis."

Belarusians travel to Russian for a variety of reasons, but most are cross-border traders, and it is they who are likely to suffer the most under the new plan. Yaroslav Romanchuk, president of the independent, Minsk-based Mises Center economic think tank, told RFE/RL: "Speaking about $30 for insurance, it is a serious economic blow to those families who live in the eastern regions of Belarus and regularly go to Russia for cross-border trading. They are buying gasoline, food, and beer [in Russia] and selling these products on the territory of Belarus."

Visitors' insurance remains in effect for just two weeks, meaning traders will be using most of their profits to buy additional insurance each time they want to return to Russia.

Larger companies also stand to lose under the new system. Viktar Tarasau, who heads a truck and shipping company in Minsk, says businesses like his will be hit hard. "Truck insurance will cost $100, a van -- $200. The profit we make on such a trip is less than what they [take away from us]," he said.

Officials from the Belarusian state insurance company Beldiziarstrach say Russia's move upsets an existing principle of parity. Russian van drivers pay only $65 when crossing into Belarus, as opposed to the $200 Belarusian van drivers must pay. Moreover, the new Russian tariffs are substantially higher than those which Belarusians pay to their other neighbors. Ukraine charges $5, Poland eight, Lithuania $16, and Latvia $17.

For many Belarusians, the move is also seen as a political brush-off. Why would Russia put Belarus on a par with Ukraine or Latvia when it is Minsk alone that is pursuing a union with Moscow? "It is Belarus that has signed a treaty [with Russia] to create a union state of two [states]," Romanchuk of the Mises Center said. "Meanwhile, Ukrainian relations [with Russia] are on the basis of two states that do not have this kind of relationship. It is clear that the Ukrainians are foreigners. But Russians are indicating that Belarusians, contrary to all signed treaties, are also becoming foreigners. To tell you the truth, they never stopped being [foreigners]."

Minsk and Moscow made little progress toward further integration this year, despite plans for a currency union due to go in effect in 2005. Speaking last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted there were setbacks in the unification process, and said Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was dissatisfied with progress. But Putin stressed that Moscow remains interested in creating a union of two states.

"Today, total unification between Russia and Belarus is not acceptable. That's what we've been told. I don't consider myself to have the right to insist on unification processes that are not acceptable to our partners. We have to do only what our partner would like to do, to do what [our partner] is ready to do. And imposing our will is simply senseless," Putin said.

But Oleg Manaev of the Minsk Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies says Moscow's move to introduce mandatory insurance illustrates just the opposite. Such measures, he said, "indicate growing political pressure by the Kremlin to hasten the integration and to do it on Moscow's terms."