Is Russia Changing Gear on Belarus? Unpacking the Importance of  the Union State for Russia
High-level presidential meetings, increasing rhetoric from the Kremlin and the growing use of Russia’s soft power levers all indicate that Moscow is adapting its approach to Belarus amid a changing political climate.

Over the past year, a succession of prominent meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, has brought discussions about Belarus’s political future to the fore. Economic pressures in Russia and serious political tensions between Russia and the West have prompted Moscow to rethink its foreign policy approach to traditional allies such as Belarus. This has meant a slight shift in their diplomatic relationship, from a historically uneasy but peaceful coexistence to one characterised by Russia’s variable but persistent pressure on Belarus, in an attempt to ensure it remains in the fold.

There has beengrowing media speculation that Putin is intent on formalising the Union State – a loose integration project between the two countries that exists mainly in name. It is thought that this could be a way for Putin to maintain control over the political scene after his presidency ends in 2024. Senior officials in the Russian government have added their voices to the Union State discussion in a more serious way, suggesting that the idea is not just supported by fringe elements of society. And despite repeated assurances from the Russian government that any integration with Russia would ring-fence Belarusian sovereignty, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in his end-of-year interview with journalists a few weeks ago, acknowledged that the Union State idea would naturally restrict Belarus’s autonomy.

But notwithstanding the frequency of these meetings and statements, the output of the discussion is slim – Putin and Lukashenko’s meetingon 7 December in the Russian city of Sochi yielded few tangible results, without the two even holding a joint press conference to mark the discussion. This is most likely because of fundamental disagreements about how to amalgamate two complex legal systems, a process likely to take many months or even years to formulate. It is therefore worth attempting to unpack Russia’s intentions towards Belarus, to assess how and why Russia has shifted its policy approach and what the consequences might be for Belarus’s political future.

Lukashenko: Formerly Russia’s Dependable Friend

Russia has had long-standing military, political and cultural interests in maintaining a close relationship with Belarus since the Soviet Union broke apart. In security terms, Belarus is Russia’s chief military ally – their armies routinely conduct training exercisestogether, and their intelligence services are thought to share information, although not as often as the Belarusian KGB would like. The Kremlin has also sought to portray Belarus as an extension of Russia’s cultural and linguistic world – an approach that is a source of serious tension with Belarus.

Belarus’s close relationship with Russia used to be facilitated by Belarus’s poor relationship with the West. Until 2016, Belarus was isolated by Western sanctions over its human rights record, and it had few meaningful options other than economic and political dependence on Moscow. Belarus developed an economic model reliant on refining Russian oil and pocketing the profits from onward sales of oil products. By 2011, the Belarusian state had yielded full ownership of gas transit pipeline operator Beltransgaz to Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom. Russia also sought to buy up Belarusian defence companies, as they supplied vital components to the Russian military. The profitable enterprise Belaruskali, which produces potash fertiliser, bucked a trend when it broke its links with Russia in 2013 when its Russian partner Uralkali pulled out of their joint venture because of a disagreement over pricing. But that disagreement was not a clean break, and had a serious impact on the potash market and their bilateral relationship. It Is is clear that Moscow still has designs on several of Belarus’s strategic assets.

Despite the occasional spat, Russia was relatively content with the early years of Lukashenko’s domestic politics, which tended to bolster Russia’s popularity in Belarus. After coming to power in 1994, Lukashenko moved to elevate the status of the Russian language, and banned any political displays of the white-red-white flag and the country’s official emblem, the Pahonia – both used in the first years of independence in the early 1900s. Lukashenko’s Belarus evidently chose to forget these more nationalist historical narratives and instead took pride in its Soviet heritage. Indeed, more than 20 years ago Lukashenko himself used to highlight Belarus’s close cultural and social links with Russia, particularly when he described Belarusians as Russians ‘with a quality mark’.

Russia had trusted Lukashenko to run Belarus as a tight ship, designed to keep Western political influences away from a country so close to Russia’s border. In the November 2019 parliamentary election in Belarus, no opposition candidates gained seats in the new parliament, a move which Russia is likely to have tacitly approved after the symbolic inclusion of two opposition MPs in the previous parliament in 2016. Those opposition MPs were elected a matter of months after the EU eased many of its sanctions on Belarus, and Lukashenko’s temporary allowance of opposition figures was most likely an attempt to demonstrate to the West that Belarus’s political system did appear to contain democratic elements. However, the most recent parliamentary elections were a much clearer signal that Lukashenko does not intend to offer even tokenistic opportunities to opposition groups.

Russia’s Gear Change

Russia has had to reassess its approach to Belarus several times, but the relationship underwent a more fundamental shift in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its subsequent military intervention in Eastern Ukraine.

The first reason for this shift was political. Lukashenko’s criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Belarus’s hosting of the Minsk peace agreements, which are designed to find a political solution for the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and Belarus’s increasing attempts to attract foreign investment from the West, have all seriously damaged the diplomatic relationship with Russia. This is coupled with Lukashenko’s occasional snubbing of high-level meetings of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, ongoing rows with Russia over gas prices and a more serious dispute with Russia over the oil tax manoeuvre, a tax adjustment which Belarus complained would lose the country $400m annually. Belarus’s nascent involvement in these international affairs has prompted Russia to increase its scrutiny over the country.

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The second reason behind Russia’s shift is rooted in economics. Western sanctions against Russia for its actions abroad and the concurrent oil price fluctuations prompted a recession in Russia, from which it is now emerging, but with only modest economic growthof around 1.8% expected in the coming two to three years. While Russia had begrudgingly agreed to subsidise Belarus’s economy, Russia’s involvement in expensive conflicts in Syria and Eastern Ukraine, as well as its ongoing financial support for Crimea, have made the additional support of Belarus’s economy an unwelcome expense. Much has been made of Belarus’s attempts to rebrand itself as an IT and business hub, but there has been very little Western foreign investment in the country. Russia is still Belarus’s main trade partner, responsible for almost half of all investments there, ensuring Belarus’s political and economic dependency.

Subsidising Belarus is certainly an irritant for Moscow – Putin has recently questioned the long-term sustainability of financing Belarus in the same way that Moscow finances its own regions, which could signal a possible reduction in Russian financial support. But Russia has never viewed its relationship with Belarus as purely an economic opportunity. Instead, it is Belarus that has tended to frame the relationship in economic terms, as it pushes for larger or better export opportunities, or reduced gas prices. Russia sees Belarus more as a strategic ‘younger brother’ and an important keeper of Slavic culture, as well as a useful buffer against Western political and cultural influences.

But even this significant cultural aspect of the relationship appears to be changing. Moscow can no longer rely on Lukashenko to promote the ‘Russification’ of Belarus to his people. Since the early 2000s, Lukashenko has been preoccupied with establishing a national ideology to define Belarus as a nation state distinct from Russia, and he repeatedly invokes the idea of Belarus’s ‘sovereignty’ whenever the Union State is mentioned. This was in response to comments Putin made in August 2002, when he remarked that the Union State should be based on the Russian constitution, prompting concern in Belarus that the country would be subsumed entirely into Russia.

More recently, on 19 December, Putin gave his annual end-of-year press conference, and it is indicative of the increasing media attention around the issue that the Union State was mentioned. As part of the discussion, Putin reiterated the fact the he viewed Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians as one ethnic people, an opinion he has voiced on many occasions. Given this rhetoric from the Russian administration, which Lukashenko perceives as an attempt to sideline Belarusian national identity, Lukashenko has over the past 10 years allowed and even permitted the resurgence of Belarusian symbols, historical memories and language.

Religion and Diplomacy

Amid Belarus’s attempts to reassert its distinct national identity, Russia has increasingly used a variety of tools to counter Belarus’s political, economic and cultural pushback. The careful use of diplomacy and the social and symbolic role of the Russian Orthodox Church are two of the most important but often overlooked ways that Russia can exert variable amounts of pressure on Belarus.

Russia’s choice of ambassador reveals much about the Kremlin’s attitude to Belarus. In August 2018 ,Mikhail Babich was appointed Russian ambassador to Belarus, but he lasted less than a year. He was a controversial selection, with a strong KGB background that signified Russia might be increasing its security scrutiny over Belarus. During his short tenure, Babich met openly with Belarusian opposition groups, a move which the Belarusian administration considered somewhat underhand, and often gave interviews to the Russian media in which he stridently criticised Belarus and Lukashenko personally, all of which was viewed as beyond the boundariesof diplomatic decorum.

As tensions between Belarus and Russia mounted, Lukashenko stepped in and personally asked Putin to intervene – Babich was subsequently replaced by Putin loyalist Dmitry Mezentsev, whose main experience comes as a regional governor in Russia but lacks the strong security service background of his predecessor. There is no evidence to suggest that Mezentsev is pursuing a fundamentally different tack than Babich, but his method is much less confrontational. He has been actively involved in discussions about the ‘roadmap’ for Belarusian and Russian integration, and has pursued a positive rhetorical line emphasising how both countries’ manufacturing industries will benefit from deeper economic coordination.

The Kremlin can also call on organisations such as the Russian Orthodox Church to endorse Russia’s political views in Belarus when required. The close relationship between the Church and the Russian government has been well documented,and it plays an important supportive role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy by promoting Russia’s cultural and occasionally political interests abroad. When the Ukrainian Orthodox Church announced its intended split from the Russian Orthodox Church last year – in a bid to distance itself politically and culturally from Russia – the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, visited Minsk soon afterwards, cautioning Church leadersin Belarus against following suit or even recognising the split.

At the time, Metropolitan Pavel, leader of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, was also careful to emphasise the Church’s enduring links to the Russian Church, suggesting that the Belarusian Church’s strong connection to Russia is unlikely to change. It is relevant that Metropolitan Pavel is a Russian citizen who does not hold a Belarusian passport, although Lukashenko had previously mandated that all priests must be Belarusian citizens. Lukashenko granted Metropolitan Pavel a special waiver, suggesting that he has significant influence in Belarus as a representative of a powerful community. Kirill will visit Minsk on 20 May 2020 as part of a series of events to mark a 500-year celebration of the construction of the Zhirovichi monastery – one of the main centres of Belarusian Orthodoxy. Events of this kind are designed to reinforce the cultural and religious links between Moscow and Minsk and are instrumental in ensuring that the Belarusian Orthodox Church remains loyal to Russia. These increasing religious and diplomatic activities are all indicative of the Kremlin’s much more active approach to Belarus in recent years and suggest that the Kremlin has renewed its focus on Minsk.

Looking out for Number One

But all these discussions about the cultural significance of the Belarus–Russia partnership, the importance of the Union State and Putin’s place in it seem to leave Lukashenko out in the cold. Lukashenko’s primary goal is his own survival and his enduring legacy. While there are no suggestions that his departure is imminent, vocal discussions around Putin’s role in the Union State rarely include a mention of Lukashenko’s longer-term political future. It is not clear where (if anywhere) the Belarusian leader fits into Russia’s plans, which is likely to cause him considerable consternation. Belarus is scheduled to have presidential elections this year, and while Lukashenko is certain to prevail, he will be preoccupied with the election campaign, which may put him on the back foot in negotiations with Moscow in the coming year.

All this rhetoric and activity from both sides should be viewed with a note of caution. Although the frequency of meetings and discussions about the Union State gives the veneer of progress, Putin himself has acknowledged that more than 90% of the agreements still need to be sorted out. Deadlines for specific integration processes have already been repeatedly missed and extended, and there are no clear instructions or project indicators for what the ‘roadmap’ to integration would look like, or how its success can be judged. The recent spat in January over Russian supplies of crude oil to Belarus – during which Russia temporarily halted oil transfers – indicated the many issues that lie ahead for deeper economic integration. Despite conducting numerous negotiations on this throughout December, Putin and Lukashenko were unable to reach an agreement on oil prices.

And while Russia has certainly pursued its political, economic and cultural interests in Belarus more vigorously of late, the idea of developing the 20-year-old Union State is not entirely new. In 2006–2007, Russian officials were speaking more positively about the idea of the Union, chose to increase its budget and proposals for integration gathered momentum. But that was a different political time, and Russia could tolerate the subsidised energy prices it charged Belarus. In today’s geopolitical climate, the importance of the Union State is to serve as a stark reminder to Belarus – and any potential Western partners – that Russia sees Belarus’s future as firmly wedded to Moscow.

Emily Ferris is a Research Fellow in the International Security Studies department at RUSI.

Paul Hansbury is an Associate Fellow with the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution. (Source: https://rusi.org)

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