The top stories on Belarus from the past year collectively tended to feature four major interrelated refrains, listed in descending order of frequency: relations with Russia; the national character, including national identity, collective memory, and a growing sense of the need to defend Belarusian sovereignty; relations with the West; and, as always, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his flamboyant but meaningful rhetoric.
The ultimatum issued by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during his December 2018 visit to Belarus defined the letter and spirit of Belarus-Russia dialogue throughout the subsequent year. Neglecting the usual decorum, Medvedev had conditioned the outcome of bilateral talks about oil and natural gas prices on Belarus finally realizing its commitments listed in the Russia-Belarus Union State Treaty of 1999 (see EDM, January 14, 2019). At that time, Minsk had agreed to such provisions as a common currency and empowered supranational institutions of the Union State. Much water has flowed under the bridge since 1999, however. Among other things, the appreciation of Belarus’s statehood increased in value—enough to realize that following through on those commitments would unequivocally sacrifice sovereignty on the altar of Belarus-Russia integration, particularly considering that Belarus’s economy accounts for only 3.6 percent of Russia’s.
Throughout 2019, especially since the summer, Belarus’s and Russia’s government teams worked on 31 road maps for further integration, aiming to sign the overall integration blueprint on December 8, when the 20th anniversary of the Union State was to be marked. However, no final document was ever signed. Minsk balked after not receiving any commitment from Moscow to compensate Belarus for Russia’s so-called tax maneuver, which effectively makes oil prices more expensive for Belarus. Instead, a new contract on natural gas prices was signed just two hours prior to the New Year, but only for the scope of two months, during which 2019 prices will remain. The stalemate led to the termination of Russian oil deliveries to Belarus’s two refineries on January 1, 2020, and only a stopgap measure whereby Russian oligarch Mikhail Gutseriev’s oil company Russneft will provide Belarus with crude oil throughout January at a price amenable to Minsk (Tut.by, January 4, 2020). It is unclear what happens next and whether or not the Belarusian government will resort to the alternative oil supply channels that Lukashenka disclosed in his December 24 interview to Ekho Moskvy, Russia’s liberal media outlet (Ekho Moskvy, December 24, 2019). Specifically, Lukashenka floated the idea of operating at least one of the three Druzhba (Friendship) transit pipelines, currently used to transport Russian oil to the West via Belarus, in reverse so as to deliver oil to Belarus from the Polish seaport of Gdańsk.
Throughout the second half of the year, alarmism on the part of many media outlets, especially but not only those of the Belarusian opposition, reached a fever pitch. Multiple pundits suggested that Russia’s annexation of Belarus—by hook or by crook—was imminent. Yet, those alarmist predictions have not materialized, at least in part due to Minsk’s intransigence. The current oil-and-gas squabble, however, is by no means unique. In 2006, for example, the bilateral natural gas contract was signed two minutes before New Year’s Day 2017, and Belarus had to sell 50 percent of its shares of the natural gas transit pipeline operator Beltransgaz to Russia. Yet another conflict arose in 2010–2011, when Russia conditioned the price negotiations on Belarus signing the Customs Union Treaty (very much akin to Moscow’s demands for tighter integration arrangements this time around). In 2012, a scandal erupted when it became known that Belarus was re-exporting Russian crude oil disguised as refined oil products. In 2016, as a result of Russia’s currency crisis, domestic Russian gas prices declined, putting Belarusian gas consumers at a bigger disadvantage compared to their Russian counterparts. Consequently, Belarus began to unilaterally pay less for gas, whereas Russia sharply limited supplies of oil to its western neighbor beginning in the third quarter of 2016; it took six months of negotiations to finally resolve the issue. With each subsequent crisis, however, Russia was willing to yield less and less (IPM, January 8, 2020).
That said, Russia’s willingness to make concessions is evidently not yet entirely exhausted. Quite likely, the aforementioned January 2020 oil supply stopgap measure was actually approved by the Kremlin so as not to escalate tensions beyond a certain threshold. Concomitantly, it is unlikely Gutseriev would risk President Vladimir Putin’s wrath if the Kremlin did not approve.
Minsk’s intransigence as well as the termination, in April 2019, of the tenure of Mikhail Babich as Russia’s ambassador to Minsk because he “has not yet grasped the difference between a federal district [i.e., Russia’s administratively defined oblasts and republics] and an independent state” (see EDM, March 19, 2019) have everything to do with Belarus’s growing self-awareness and appreciation of its sovereignty. The same goes for Minsk’s increasing willingness to call things by their proper names, such as Lukashenka’s vocal reference to Moscow’s fear of losing Belarus the way it previously lost Ukraine (Ekho Moskvy, December 24, 2019). Throughout 2019, multiple pronouncements were made testifying to Belarus’s willingness to eventually cut the umbilical cord connecting it with Russia. Suffice it to mention Lukashenka’s statement about Belarus falling victim to wars fought by external powers (see EDM, November 13, 2019); Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei carefully allaying the fears of the pro-Western Belarusian opposition that Belarus might lose its statehood (see EDM, October 22, 2019); public acknowledgments by some prominent domestic critics of the Lukashenka “regime” that it actually has been favorable for Belarus on several crucial counts (see EDM, March 19, 2019); the adoption of a new Information Security concept, which notes the importance of developing Belarus’s own view of history (see EDM, April 4, 2019); insisting on Belarus’s own ways to celebrate victory in World War II (see EDM, May 15, 2019); and of course, intensifying contacts with the West.
Following the negotiation marathon lasting since 2013, Belarus finally, on January 7, 2020, signed a visa simplification agreement with the European Union that will come into force in June (Belta.by, January 8). This, of course, only underscores how far behind Belarus was in its relations with the EU, even compared with Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, not to mention Georgia and Ukraine. But signing the agreement is certainly a positive outcome for both sides. In 2019, contacts also intensified with the US, when John Bolton, then the White House’s National Security Advisor, paid a visit to Minsk in late August. Following that trip, the national security advisors from Poland, Ukraine and Belarus jointly met in Warsaw, also with Bolton’s participation (see EDM, September 3, 2019). To be sure, Belarus-US contacts would have culminated on January 4, 2020, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was supposed to visit Minsk; nonetheless, a subsequent phone conversation between him and Makei suggests that a face-to-face meeting will still take place sometime soon (Belta, January 6, 2020).
Finally, 2019 also marked the 25th anniversary of Lukashenka’s rule. And in late August 2020, he will run for the office of president of Belarus for the sixth consecutive time. Considering the extensive duration of his rule as well as justifiable accusations of his authoritarianism and even dictatorship, delivering praise to Lukashenka often comes across as scandalous in the West. And yet, even some dedicated critics of autocracy are willing to call Lukashenka “the father of Belarusian independence” (see EDM, July 15, 2019). Moreover, there is a growing sense that Lukashenka has been the single biggest antidote to Russia’s expansionist appetite. After all, when the current Belarusian head of state first came to power, the majority of rank-and-file Belarusians were in favor of unification with Russia (US-Belarus Observer, October 2017); whereas now, no more than 5 percent apparently share that view. Growing Belarusian self-awareness and assertiveness can, therefore, rightly be named the major trend of last year. That course is unlikely to waver in the coming months.