Russia pushes, but doesn't dare to force Belarus into a union state

Moscow pushes Belarus into further integration with Russia. Talks between presidents Putin and Lukashenko on 7 December failed, however, to bring about substantial progress. Minsk plays hard to get and is no longer willing to obtain economic gains at any costs. Putin could increase the pressure, but it's unlikely that Moscow’s embrace will shift from fraternal to fratricidal, argues Matthew Frear, who recently published the book 'Belarus under Lukashenka'

luka and putiPutin and Lukashenko visit the Russian Orthodox monastery on Valaam Island in Lake Ladoga in Karelia, 17 July 2019. Photo: Kremlin

by Matthew Frear

In the 20 years since the signing of the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus (USRB) on 8 December 1999, the reality of the project has not lived up to its ambitious rhetoric. Each side added clauses to the agreement that became unacceptable to the other. Plans for monetary union in the early 2000s were quietly abandoned. Negotiations on a Constitutional Act, which would form the legal basis of a genuine Union State, stalled in the face of diverging motivations in Minsk and Moscow. Russia put the issue of the USRB back on the agenda over the past year, however, and a meeting between presidents Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenko on 7 December 2019 was expected to herald a new era in deepening integration between the two states. Why has Russia sought to resurrect the moribund project, and how has Belarus responded in practice?

The days are long since gone that Moscow was happy to subsidise the Belarusian economy, through preferential access to the Russian market and cheap energy supplies, for the sake of Slavic fraternity and securing an anti-Western bulwark as a neighbour. Over time, Russia’s interest focused more on attaining economic influence over Belarus. There is a desire to control valuable strategic assets in Belarus, such as pipelines, oil refineries and potash producers. There is an expectation to see a genuine return the costs Russia sinks into its eastern neighbour, which some estimates have put at US$5 billion per year. In return for cheaper energy, Russia has demanded closer integration, for example through participation in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) launched in 2015. Nevertheless, Moscow wants to preserve the dependence of the Belarusian economy on Russia and avoid Minsk looking elsewhere, such as Europe or China.         

Minsk is expected to 'know its place' and align with Moscow

From the Russian perspective, Minsk is also expected to ‘know its place’ and align with Moscow in its geopolitical activities. Belarus is viewed as a military-strategic bridgehead, and so Russia wishes to maintain the military facilities it already had in the country, and potentially expand that to include a fully-fledged air base.

There has been speculation that the renewed interest in the USRB is to provide an opportunity for Putin to remain in power after his term in office expires in 2024. However, this is probably not the main driver. There are easier methods for Putin to stay on as president through amending the Russian Constitution. There is also no guarantee that the holder of the leadership of the Union State would be able to exercise real power, were the presidencies of Russia and Belarus to still exist at the same time. The Russian authorities will want to avoid taking unnecessary risks.  

Bad cop, good cop

Moscow strives to exploit the double dependence of Belarus on Russia as its main trading partner and traditional source of under-priced oil and gas. Furthermore, Russia is the country’s main financial creditor and foreign investor. Moscow has increased its presence in the Belarusian economy, for example through the purchase of the Beltranshaz gas transport company. At the same, it has been ready to restrict access to the Russian market for certain Belarusian goods, such as dairy products, during a number of trade wars. Russia has also sought to reduce its own dependence on Belarus in certain sectors, for example, the development of alternative transit routes for fuel that bypass the country.  

Increasingly, any solutions for these issues that Belarus might have sought have been bundled together with participation in Moscow’s regional integration projects. Initially, this was the EAEU, but with five member states, it can be difficult to target Belarus specifically. Resurrecting the USRB offers the prospect of being able to keep Minsk on a tighter leash. The appointment of Mikhail Babich as Russian ambassador to Belarus in August 2018, with his strident rhetoric and interventionist approach to Belarusian politics, ruffled feathers in Minsk. Although he was dismissed from the post in April 2019, Babich is now the deputy minister in Russia’s Economic Development Ministry responsible for former Soviet republics, which means Belarus remains within his remit.   

It is possible that Babich has been cast in the role of ‘bad cop’ to Putin’s ‘good cop’. As such all the talk of finally achieving full integration of the two countries in the USRB is a diplomatic tactic for Moscow to get what it really wants in terms of economic integration, which could be portrayed as more acceptable than the disappearance of Belarus as an independent state. The implied threat to Belarusian sovereignty reminds Lukashenko that he is not indispensable, but ultimately the goal is not the absorption of Belarus into the Russian Federation.  

Ethnic Russians make up a smaller percentage of the Belarusian population than they do in neighbouring Ukraine, and there is no equivalent of a Crimea region in Belarus, where pro-Russian sentiment could potentially be fostered. Russian is the language of convenience for the vast majority of Belarusians however, and Moscow has apparently tried to control the information agenda around negotiations. This has not yet been as severe as the information war waged against Lukashenko in the Russian media in 2010. Nevertheless, at a time when Belarusian state media was keeping silent on any deeper integration plans, the Russian perspective was widely discussed after the purported agreement was leaked to the Kommersant newspaper in September 2019.

Minsk wants a fair share

President Lukashenko has been in power for a quarter of a century and was one of the original signatories of the USRB Treaty 20 years ago. From the perspective of Minsk, both Belarus and Russia need to have equal voices in any Union State, and parity should be the guiding principle for any joint decision making over integration. Belarus is still interested in maintaining Russia as trade and security partner, but without being too strongly bound to or constrained by Moscow. While Belarus may be dependent on Russia, it still wants to keep its independence. Russian economic pressure has also seen the authorities in Minsk resort more to the rhetoric of defending Belarusian sovereignty over the last decade.

Lukashenko rather wants to be a big fish in the small pond of Belarusian politics, than be subordinate to Putin in a Union State

Integration is welcomed, insofar as it offers what Minsk terms a ‘fair’ economic relationship and stops short of complete political dependence on Moscow. Banking, energy and agriculture are particularly sensitive sectors in the Belarusian economy. Fairness from the Belarusian perspective would include the creation of the long-promised common market for energy commodities and recompense for Russia’s so-called tax manoeuvre that will potentially result in Belarus paying far more for oil and gas imports in the future.     

Lukashenko will be more interested in maintaining his status as a big fish in the small pond of Belarusian politics, rather than holding a subordinate position to Putin in any USRB. Interest groups in the elites around the president are also wary of any potential Russian competitors in their fields of activity.

Maximum concessions, minimum commitments

None of these debates about Russia-Belarus integration and the prospects for a Union State are particularly new. The first big public disagreement between Putin and Lukashenko over the issue was back in 2002. As such, Minsk has many years of experience playing a weak hand quite well, continuing to extract benefits from Moscow while safeguarding sovereignty through short-term deals on an ad hoc basis. 

Belarus has followed a pattern of seeking maximum concessions from Russia in return for minimum commitments from Minsk. Even when Belarus has been pressured to make changes, it has delayed their actual implementation for as long as possible. For example, Beltranshaz was eventually privatised and taken over by Russia’s Gazprom, but only after many years of delay on the Belarus side after the initial agreement had been reached.

In security matters, Belarus emphasizes that in effect it is the Moscow region’s first line of defence against any attack from the west and that it provides Russia with rent-free use of two small military facilities on its territory. To date, Belarus has successfully resisted pressure to host a Russian military air base, despite multiple requests over the past five years. Minsk never recognised the declarations of independent by Abkhazia and South Ossetia after Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and has supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine since 2014, while avoiding directly criticising Moscow’s actions.    

While flirting with the EU and China, Minsk remains highly dependent on Russia in economic and security matters

Domestically, Lukashenko can pose as a defender of Belarusian sovereignty against Russian oligarchs and expansionist Kremlin ambitions when expedient, promising that Belarus will not be ‘smothered’ by Moscow. A process of ‘soft Belarusisation’ has employed by the authorities in recent years, in an attempt to temper Russian influence without going too far in antagonising Moscow.   

Minsk has also been willing to play the geopolitical card, threatening to withdraw from Russia’s regional integration projects and deploying the rhetoric of Moscow betraying its closest ally when it feels it is not living up to its perceived integration commitments. Belarus pursues somewhat symbolic diversification, flirting with the EU and China, however, in reality, Minsk still remains highly dependent on Russia in economic and security matters.

Ever closer union, but no agreement

Putin and Lukashenko met for five hours in Sochi on 7 December, but despite the expectation that an agreement on enhanced integration would then be signed the next day on the twentieth anniversary of the USRB, the two sides failed to agree on the proposed ‘road maps’. Lukashenko used his usual stalling tactic, employing the rhetoric of supporting negotiations on integration but unwilling to sign any agreement that limited Belarusian sovereignty or offered uneven market conditions. Meanwhile, the Belarusian opposition held protests against Russian integration and in support of Belarusian independence on Minsk over the same weekend. While they were not sanctioned by the authorities, it is notable that they were allowed to take place without repressive actions being employed against demonstrators.    

bezoek aan konevsky klooster During a trip together to the Northwestern District in July 2019 Putin and Lukashenko visit the Konevsky monastery. Photo: Kremlin

Talks are now scheduled to continue in St. Petersburg on 20 December. Both sides insist that progress is being made and their respective positions are getting closer, however, there is no guarantee that this meeting will lead to a breakthrough. The question of oil and gas supplies remains, as always, the most serious challenge. Even if an agreement is signed, this does not mean that any of its provisions will actually be fulfilled.

Belarusian authorities will make promises that they will then avoid implementing

According to the information received by the Kommersant newspaper, the action programme on deeper integration would include a unified fiscal code, harmonisation of foreign economic cooperation and the creation of a common energy market regulator that should all be completed by 2021. In practice, even if both sides genuinely want to pursue this enhanced integration process, it would be very difficult to achieve these goals in such a short timeframe. The scale of creating a single tax code alone is too great. More realistically, Minsk’s support is likely to be half-hearted. The authorities will make promises that they will then avoid implementing while insisting that Russia fulfils its commitments that would benefit the Belarusian economy. On their part, any economic concessions by Russia are likely to be small, short-term and revocable.

Putin and Lukashenko distrust each other

The lack of progress was a failure for Putin, who would have preferred a success story demonstrating Russia’s strength as regional hegemon before the Normandy Format summit on Ukraine that took place on 9 December. Instead, Putin had to attend having publically failed to get Minsk to toe the line in integration. This could mean that serious economic measures are taken by Moscow to force Lukashenko’s hand in the coming months, which at the most extreme could mean cutting energy supplies. This remains unlikely, however.

861px major gas and oil pipelines in belarusMajor oil (green) and gas (red) pipelines from Russia through Belarus. Map Wikipedia

Lukashenko faces a re-election campaign in August 2020. While there is mutual distrust and personal dislike between Putin and Lukashenko, Moscow seems to pursue a line of ‘better the devil you know’. There is currently no obvious ‘Moscow candidate’ in Belarus to challenge Lukashenko and Russia will want to avoid inadvertently fermenting a revolutionary scenario by causing severe damage to the economy. In addition, Belarus is supposed to be the showcase ally, demonstrating the benefits of integration with Russia to other post-Soviet states. If Moscow’s embrace of its closest ally shifts from fraternal to fratricidal, it will decrease its appeal in the eyes of other countries. Russia will probably wait until after Lukashenko’s almost inevitable election for a sixth term before any tightening of the screws. Pressure is most likely to increase again before the Russian Duma elections and the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union in 2021.

Incompatible goals

Belarus is no longer willing to obtain economic gains at any cost, even independence. The Belarusian budget for 2020 assumes that there will be no compensation for Russia’s tax manoeuvre. Since the meeting in Sochi, Minsk has announced it plans to borrow more from China. While Russia remains a highly significant trade partner for Belarus, the rapid growth in exports such as IT services, which are increasingly important for the Belarusian economy, are aimed at non-Russian markets. Lukashenko has outlasted many predictions of his inevitable subjugation or fall from power under pressure from Moscow during his 25 years in office. Belarus might be able to muddle through and adapt to increased energy prices. 

Finally, it is worth noting that the full unification of Russia and Belarus is not necessarily a vote-winner in either country. Public opinion surveys conducted during 2019 have indicated that only a minority of either Belarusian or Russian citizens actually want full integration of the two states. Less than half of Russian respondents were aware that the USRB even existed. The vast majority of Belarusian wanted good-neighbourly relations with Russia, but with both remaining independent states. For the time being, the Union State is likely to remain stillborn, as both sides continue to exploit the idea of it to push their own mutually incompatible goals.

Matthew Frear is a lecturer at Leiden University teaching Russian and Eurasian politics and international relations, as well as comparative authoritarianism.