Belarus and Russia: Affinity and Dependency

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 198

Woman in Belarus reads opposition campaign material in Minsk (Source: EPA)

No two countries in the world today are as close as Russia and Belarus. This closeness has multiple aspects, one of which is structural affinity between the Russian and Belarusian societies. Both are afflicted with an internal schism, and the two resulting segments of each society have limited mutual communication. Whereas in Russia the schism is between liberal democrats (heirs to the Westernizers) and national patriots (heirs to Slavophiles), in Belarus a schism exists between those embracing the values historically upheld by Russia (state paternalism being one of them) and those leaning to the value system upheld by the West (democratic governance and market economy). The problem of the Belarusian Westernizers is in their proclivity to construe their own preferences and attitudes as those of the society as a whole.

The diametrically opposite verdicts on the September 23 parliamentary elections by the opposition-minded electorate (roughly 25 percent of eligible adults) and the rest of Belarusian society, represent a case in point. According to the opposition media, the most falsified electoral statistic was voter turnout. In most precincts it was, reportedly, well below 50 percent and below 30 percent in the city of Minsk (http://charter97.org/ru/news/2012/9/24/58902/).  Thus, according to the opposition, a new political situation is shaping up, with most people boycotting the elections and therefore expressing major disapproval for Lukashenka’s rule.

Statements to this effect were reiterated so many times that they achieved a semblance of veracity, which is why the publication of the most recent (September–October) national survey by the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies (IISEPS) became a bombshell of sorts. According to this most reputable polling firm—funded by US sponsors and registered in Lithuania after it was denied registration in Belarus (2005)—the turnout was 66.4 percent, i.e., not as high as that declared by the Central Election Commission (74.6 percent) but not nearly as low as that repeatedly alleged by the opposition media. According to the IISEPS, in Minsk the turnout was 44 percent, not by any means below 30 percent. Only 9.6 percent of those who did not vote actually boycotted the elections (http://naviny.by/rubrics/elections/2012/10/22/ic_articles_623_179641/).

Much of the opposition took offense and blamed the messenger, that is, the IISEPS. Oleg Manaev, still perceived as the IISEPS head (officially, being just an independent pollster), opined that the politicians always recognize the numbers that are to their liking and cast doubt on the ones that are not (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2012/10/25/ic_articles_112_179684/). When the polling results are disliked by the authorities, they say that the sociologists sold out to their Western sponsors. Now the opposition accuses the IISEPS of being in cahoots with the Lukashenka regime. Commenting on those survey results, Yury Drakakhrust of the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty said that “the political polarization led to the weakening of the communication between the mutually opposed camps, so most people rub shoulders with the like-minded. Hence those opposition-minded would think: Yes, everybody that I know did not vote, which is construed as ‘nobody voted.’ But the gist of the matter is in that very qualification—everybody that I know” (http://naviny.by/rubrics/elections/2012/10/22/ic_articles_623_179641/).

This delusion-prone situation mirrors the equally lousy lines of communication between Russia’s liberal opposition and the supporters of Vladimir Putin. Accordingly, those who do not take sides but instead take the risk to highlight the discord (like Leonid Radzikhovsky—see http://www.rg.ru/2012/10/23/mnenie.html) are condemned by Russian liberals much like the Belarusian opposition is now attacking the IISEPS (http://charter97.org/ru/news/2012/10/24/60431/).

Another aspect of Russia-Belarus closeness is a need to stay informed about each other. In this area, however, size and clout asymmetries are unavoidable as Russian federal TV channels are more numerous, have a longer reach than their Belarusian counterparts, and reveal biases. To counteract those, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has become the only non-Russian post-Soviet leader who has been annually (since 2003) giving lengthy interviews to large groups of Russian journalists. On October 16, about 90 journalists from 40 Russian regions were treated to a four-hour interview by the Belarusian leader after a five-day press tour across Belarus. In his interview, Lukashenka praised generous social benefits integral to Belarus’s economic system; declared his willingness to yield Belarusian refineries to Russia’s control in exchange for a concession to extract oil and gas within Russia; broached the idea of celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Union; reaffirmed his negative attitude to privatization of efficient state enterprises and yet praised private property and entrepreneurship as “the greatest assets of any society.” Lukashenka also commended the Eurasian Economic Community of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, reiterating his earlier view that the principal obstacle in Russia-Belarus integration was Russia’s decline to adopt a single constitution for a two-country commonwealth (http://sb.by/post/137969/).

According to a fresh report by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, a Minsk-based think tank sponsored by the West, Belarus has not, however, achieved any significant progress in its trade with Russia and Kazakhstan after the Custom Union came into being (2010). Thus, its trade deficit with Russia increased by $3 billion (from $8 billion in 2010 to $11 billion in 2011), and Belarus’s trade surplus with Kazakhstan ($494 million in 2011) was achieved only due to a significant decline in Kazakhstan’s imports to Belarus. The flip side of growing agricultural exports from Belarus to Russia is dumping, that is, exporting goods at prices lower than the home-market prices. To compensate losses, domestic food prices have to grow even more (http://naviny.by/rubrics/economic/2012/10/22/ic_articles_113_179652/). In addition, at the Moscow negotiations regarding oil exports from Russia to Belarus in 2013, the Russian side proposed that Belarus pay $1.5 billion to the Russian treasury to compensate Russia for duty-free export of solvents from Belarus. It is unclear at the moment if Russia is going to insist on that compensation, or if this is just a bargaining chip (http://naviny.by/rubrics/economic/2012/10/29/ic_articles_113_179721/).

To make matters worse, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) post-program monitoring group that worked in Belarus from October 18 to 29 has not made a recommendation about the resumption of the IMF’s credit line to Belarus. Such a recommendation is not precluded in the near future, but more commitment to structural reform is expected from the Belarusian government (http://naviny.by/rubrics/finance/2012/10/29/ic_articles_114_179731/). A lack of IMF credit would spell even higher levels of dependency on Russia for Belarus. At some point, Russia may decide that its aid to Belarus outweighs the geopolitical benefits of keeping it firmly within Russia’s orbit. However, this sort of outcome has been predicted many times and has never materialized, although it was a close call from 2007 to 2010. As the analyst Stas Ivashkevich, has shown in his nuanced analysis of the Belarus-Russia relationship, Lukashenka has developed a robust support system in the corridors of power in Moscow, but the Russian leaders have failed to develop a counterweight in Minsk (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2012/10/25/ic_articles_112_179688/). By all appearances, therefore, Mr. Lukashenka’s political gifts will continue to bear fruit in the foreseeable future.