One year after the protests began — what’s Russia’s plan for Belarus?

Foto: Shut­ter­stock, Mikel Dabbah

A year ago protests began against electoral fraud in Belarus. Dictator Lukashenko responded with a wave of harsh state violence, which led to the country being further isolated and sanc­tioned inter­na­tion­ally. It now depends entirely on Russia — but it is ques­tion­able whether the Kremlin will seek real inte­gra­tion apart from symbolic political actions, analyzes Artyom Shraibman.

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The Belaru­sian political crisis, despite being a domestic phenom­enon at the beginning, had profound foreign policy conse­quences for Minsk. Following Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal repres­sions within the country and a number of confronta­tional inter­na­tional moves, culmi­nating in forcing down the Ryannair flight to arrest an oppo­si­tional blogger, the West hit back with multi­lay­ered sanctions.

Expect­edly, Lukashenko turned to Russia for support, and to some degree, he got it. Just weeks after protests erupted in Belarus, Vladimir Putin supported Lukashenko, agreeing to deploy Russian guard police troops in Belarus “if necessary” and to provide Minsk with a new 1,5‑billion-dollar loan. After the EU hit Minsk with sectoral sanctions in June 2021, Moscow vowed to addi­tion­ally support Belarus.

Will there be an inte­gra­tion into the Russian Federation?

Observers who predicted the incor­po­ra­tion of Belarus into Russian Feder­a­tion back in 2019, when the two sides discussed deeper inte­gra­tion, have now become even more certain about the inevitability of such a merger. Yet, despite objec­tively growing economic and political influence on Belarus, Moscow seems to be neither getting many real conces­sions from Lukashenko, nor providing him with a lot of addi­tional support.

Pre-2020 pricing schemes on oil and gas remain unchanged despite the fact that Minsk consid­ered both of them unfair. The gas price of about $130 per 1000 m3 is rela­tively low, but Lukashenko insisted he should pay as little as the neigh­boring Russian regions. Yet Russia keeps refusing to provide further discounts. On oil, the Russian “tax maneuver”, which begun in the mid-2010s, keeps annually cutting down the volume of Belaru­sian profits from duty-free supplies of Russian crude oil. Minsk has been demanding a compen­sa­tion for several years, but Moscow refused and tied this issue to deeper economic inte­gra­tion. Thus, the political crisis in Belarus has not affected the most important and sensitive sector of Minsk-Moscow relations – energy.

Stage goal: A signing ceremony

In the security area also no serious conces­sions were granted. Lukashenko agreed to have a joint Belarus-Russian military training center in the West of Belarus, but he has not permitted any new permanent deploy­ment of Russian troops in the country. There is also no evidence that Moscow is demanding any such conces­sions from Minsk at the moment.

Inte­gra­tion within the so-called “Union State” remains the central issue between the two gov­ern­ments. According to officials from both sides, they have nearly completed the package of 28 inte­gra­tion roadmaps. The documents are report­edly ready to be signed in Autumn when Lukashenko and Putin plan to hold another bilateral summit. There is no clarity on what compro­mises they are ready to agree on in the most delicate areas of taxation, customs and energy markets. Two years ago the process got stuck precisely because of these disagreements.

Either way, the signing ceremony now seems more possible than it was back in 2019, when Lukashenko torpedoed the talks by simply rejecting Russian demands. In 2021 he cannot afford to slam the door.

Is it worth the paper it’s written on?

However, knowing the bureau­cratic tradition or Belarus-Russia inte­gra­tion, signing of the documents per se does not mean they will be imple­mented – imme­di­ately or at all. The Union State Treaty, for instance, was signed in 1999 and it still remains a largely  symbolic paper.

With the currently discussed roadmaps, even formally, Moscow will not get any new powers over Belarus after the documents are signed. The most important roadmaps within the inte­gra­tion package (on single tax code and energy) are planned to come into force within 1–2 years after their approval. The comple­tion of nego­ti­a­tions on these roadmaps is not the end of the bargaining, but merely a beginning of its new stage.

Priority: Nord Stream 2

The rhetoric of Kremlin repre­sen­ta­tives on this issue since the beginning of this year also suggests that Moscow is not in a hurry. Most likely, the Russian lead­er­ship realizes that Lukashenko has not yet resolved his domestic political crisis, while his inter­na­tional toxicity only grows. It means that forcing him to sign and imme­di­ately implement ambitious inte­gra­tion deals can result in inter­na­tional outcry and sanctions against Russia, as well as domestic desta­bi­liza­tion in Belarus, since the majority of Belaru­sians, according to any available poll, reject the idea of deeper political union with Russia.

Arti­fi­cially inflaming these problems is not something that the Kremlin needs now. Domes­ti­cally, all eyes are set on elim­i­nating political risks ahead of the Duma elections. Inter­na­tion­ally, another esca­la­tion of conflict with the West over Belarus may ruin the prospects of the post-Geneva dialog with the US and, poten­tially, create problems for the launch of Nord Stream 2.

Besides, it is not clear what domestic political benefits can Putin get from imposing a Russian vision of inte­gra­tion (meaning – incor­po­ra­tion) on Minsk. The Belaru­sian issue is by far not the most important for the Russian public. Any poll taken in the recent years in Russia shows that, like the Belaru­sians, Russians are satisfied with the status-quo of inte­gra­tion. Only less than 20% of them would like to see two countries merging, and about the same number of respon­dents want inte­gra­tion to deepen. [1] [2]

Putin has no alter­na­tive to Lukashenko

Finally, if Russia wanted to make Belarus its province, it must have a plan for a scenario in which Lukashenko refuses to concede. Moscow has plenty of economic, political and military levers, but it is reluctant to use them. Russia does not have the main ingre­dient for such a coercive operation – it lacks an alter­na­tive to Lukashenko. There is no evident force in Belarus on whom Moscow can bet, while secret talks with senior Belaru­sian officials are a very risky endeavor.

Besides that, no one does the job of alien­ating Belarus from the West better than Lukashenko. In this regard, putting extreme pressure on him is risky in the eyes of Putin. He cannot afford to desta­bi­lize Belarus with his own hands because of the fear that any revolt might elevate anti-Russian forces to the top, while Lukashenko is a more or less predictable partner. There are not even evident Russian efforts to build a parallel political infra­struc­ture in Belarus.

Because of all these constraints, Russia does not currently have a proactive strategy vis-à-vis Belarus. Moscow neither puts too many efforts to accel­erate inte­gra­tion, nor is it ready to provide lavish subsidies to Lukashenko. Russian policy in Belarus is reactive – until some new headache comes from Minsk, Moscow goes with the flow, giving Lukashenko just enough loans keep him from bancrupcy.

The only thing Moscow appar­ently does behind the curtains is nudging Lukashenko towards controlled political reform. Given how quickly Minsk isolates itself from the West, the Russian lead­er­ship believes they will be best placed to control the outcome of power transfer, when Lukashenko is finally ready to go. What if he decides to stay? There is no evidence Moscow has a plan for that.




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