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.

[1] https://www.levada.ru/2020/09/17/pochti-chetvert-grazhdan-podderzhivayut-ideyu-obedineniya-s-belorussiej/

[2] https://wciom.ru/analytical-reviews/analiticheskii-obzor/belorussiya-rossiya-coyuznoe-gosudarstvo

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