On July 17, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for the fifth time since the beginning of 2019. Earlier this year, they spoke in Minsk, Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), Bishkek and Sochi. This time, the venue for their meeting was the ancient Christian Orthodox monastery on Valaam Island, on the northern end of Lake Ladoga and 101 miles (in a straight line) from St. Petersburg. From July 16 to 18, the sixth Forum of Russia’s and Belarus’s Regions was taking place in that city, and both leaders decided to attend (Eurasia.expert, July 17). Yet, besides proximity, the choice of the Valaam Monastery for Lukashenka and Putin’s latest summit was meant to symbolize the cultural closeness of Russia and Belarus.
Those close ties notwithstanding, multiple bilateral problems continue to await resolution. Minsk has failed to extract concessions from Moscow for the increased price of Russian oil, related to Russia’s so-called tax maneuver. So far, Belarus has received no compensation for the infusion of one million tons of contaminated Russian petroleum into the Belarusian segment of the Druzhba pipeline. Furthermore, new prices on natural gas—to be introduced in 2020—have not yet been determined, and Russia’s pre–approved $600 million loan to Belarus to refinance its debt to Russia has not been issued. Moscow now says the solutions to all the above problems, except possibly compensation for the dirty oil, are contingent on progress in bilateral integration that may include a common currency and new common institutions.
Nine days prior to the Valaam summit, Lukashenka held a meeting with the secretary of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, Grigory Rapota. Lukashenka’s public statement during that meeting underscored the alarming state of the ongoing integration talks conducted by multiple intergovernmental commissions. The essence of his concerns distilled down to questioning the kind of progress in mutual integration that can be discussed before “clearing the debris.” In articulating this, Lukashenka referred not only to compensation for the heightened oil price but also to the end of a suspension of deliveries from 80 Belarusian food processors to the Russian market (Lenta.ru, July 9).
Artyom Shraibman of Tut.by believes that the seemingly new disagreement between Moscow and Minsk is about the sequence of steps with respect to integration. From Minsk’s perspective, both sides must first pay attention to current issues and then to “lofty matters” (i.e., integration); Moscow insists on the inverse. This contradiction, however, has been around for at least 20 years and is rooted in a more profound discord: whereas Minsk wants to stabilize and extend its fiscal advantages (such as price discounts), Moscow’s goal is to consolidate and enhance its political influence at the cost of some (ideally) insignificant concessions. This dispute does not seem to have a solution, so Lukashenka’s statement during his meeting with Rapota was engineered to justify yet another excuse for one more failure of integration talks (Tut.by, July 17).
Under the current situation, Belarusian exports to the West depend critically upon Belarus’s continued ability to cheaply purchase Russian hydrocarbons. In the first quarter of 2019, Belarusian exports of refined oil declined by 19.9 percent, or by $564.8 million, as compared with the same period in 2018; the drop was pretty much entirely attributed to the recent accident with contaminated Russian crude oil (Naviny.by, July 18). Shraibman opines that, given the level of its dependency on Moscow, Minsk will only start serious attempts to diversify international trade when Russian actions begin to penalize Belarus in earnest. This has already begun, and so he forecasts further pauperization of Belarusians and continued distancing from Russia. Both trends are likely to be gradual but steady (Svaboda.org, July 9).
Following the Valaam talks, Lukashenka declared that the two sides “arrived at some principal agreements to be clarified later” (Bfm.ru, July 18), but most analysts believe that this delay in clarification is a sign of the opposite. Thus, Yury Shevtsov opined that, at present, “bilateral relations may be airlifted to a different plane only by some kind of a shake-up, like a significant worsening of the international climate”—i.e., disturbed relations between the big actors (Kommersant, July 19). Earlier, Belarusian government–friendly expert Alexander Shpakovsky, arrived at a similarly pessimistic prediction regarding the upcoming Valaam summit (Sputnik.by, July 12).
At the same time, several sources reveal that the attempt to extend Putin’s tenure by making him the leader of a tightly integrated Russia-Belarus Union State has been recognized as a failure. Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty refers to a recent article in Bloomberg that not only spells out this specific outcome but also floats the suggestion that the new-old way of extending Putin’s tenure is likely to be a castling move resembling that in 2008, when Dmitry Medvedev became president while Putin assumed the post of prime minister (Bloomberg, July 12). A slew of Russian Telegram channels also shifted gears, no longer predicting unification with Belarus as the means to retain Putin at the helm of power beyond 2024 (Svaboda.org, July 14).
Perhaps more than a footnote to (or a digression from) the main theme of the summit is that the Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, the chairperson of the pro-Russia political organization Ukrainian Choice, briefly joined Putin and Lukashenka in St. Petersburg. Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter Darina (born in 2004). And Medvedchuk has been a stable channel of communication between Kyiv and Moscow. The Ukrainian leadership has viewed this effort with suspicion, though it repeatedly succeeded in releasing Ukrainian military forces captured in Donbas (Sputnik.by, July 19). It is unclear what Medvedchuk’s mission was this time, in Valaam.
Returning to the theme of integration, it is worth quoting Russian foreign affairs expert Fyodor Lukyanov’s 2006 analysis. He then wrote that the true possibility for Russian-Belarusianunification existed only in the late 1990s. In those years, however, the most probable leader of the single state would have been Lukashenka (Neprikosnovennyi Zapas, No. 3, 2006). Recently, former (1996–2011) Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky expressed a nearly identical idea (Svaboda.org, July 15). This leads one to hypothesize that, barring unforeseeable regional or global circumstances, the Russian-Belarusian unification chapter is most probably over. A new chapter in bilateral relations has been opened, but its narrative remains a work in progress.