Despite official declarations to the contrary, June 21 passed by with no joint memorandum on deeper political-economic integration between Belarus and Russia. And while government-linked media outlets in Russia evince equanimity and even satisfaction about how these talks are allegedly progressing, the fact remains that clearly a final deal remains elusive.
On May 29, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s press secretary, announced, “Russia’s and Belarus’s presidents instructed the governments of the two countries to prepare a roadmap for further integration by June 21.” On June 15, following the Moscow meeting with Belarusian Minister of Economy Dmitry Krutoy, Russian Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin declared that the program of bilateral integration had been agreed 90 percent, and additional discussions at the level of prime ministers would take place in Minsk on June 21. “On that day,” he reiterated, “we will have two documents: the roadmap and a conceptual paper that will describe the principles of further integration.” Those assurances notwithstanding, it now appears both documents have been postponed until November (Svaboda.org, June 21). As per Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, “[T]here may be but a few issues left, albeit the most difficult ones, for which it will be necessary to make a determination from the international law perspective… We are now almost ready to hand over everything for consideration at the presidential level. We hope that we will be able to resolve the remaining problems in July. And if everything goes the way it [is supposed to] and the final approval of the presidents is received, then sometime in November it would be possible to sign the roadmaps for the implementation of all these initiatives” (Belta, June 21).
As stated in conjunction with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s meeting with Medvedev, the scale of economic ties between the two countries is already impressive. In 2018, the volume of Belarusian-Russian merchandise trade was worth $35.5 billion, including exports (from Belarus) totaling $12.9 billion and valued at $22.6 billion. Russia accounts for 40.9 percent of total foreign investment in Belarus. Whereas, Belarus maintains direct economic ties with 80 Russian regions (Belta, June 21). Considering the already-achieved level of integration—which, along with trade and investment, includes mutual job authorization, social benefits, and a customs union, not to mention tight military and security cooperation—what, if anything, those postponed documents will contain continues to intrigue commentators.
Artyom Shraibman of Tut.by, thinks that achieving the original targets set by the 1999 Russia-Belarus Union Treaty would be extraordinarily difficult. For example, it is impossible to administer the citizenship issues of the Union State (Article 14 of the Treaty) without a joint citizenship and migration administration. Likewise, it is unworkable to launch a single monetary policy (Article 17) without something like a Union Central Bank; and without it, it will not be possible to introduce uniform interest rates or regulations for bank reserves (Article 25). Furthermore, it is impossible to conduct a uniform tax policy (Article 17) without a joint tax-collecting body. It is impossible to create a single currency (Article 22) without determining who will print it. The Treaty, in fact, mentions a single banknote printing office, but there is no stipulation of how it would make decisions. Additionally, it is unfeasible to maintain a uniform pricing policy (Article 23) without a Union-level price-controlling agency like the Ministry of Commerce. If the aforementioned Union-level administrations are there, then someone must manage them. There can be only two models: Either Belarus and Russia manage these institutions on an equal footing, or their controlling power is set proportionally to the population and/or economic weight of each country. The former model bestows a veto power upon the smaller country. The second model means that Minsk will be forced to succumb to the Union State bodies controlled by Moscow. It is difficult to imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin agreeing to the first option; and Lukashenka is highly unlikely to accede to the second (Tut.by, June 21).
In the meantime, three processes are underway with some potential to influence the outcome of the integration talks. First, a highly agitated reaction to the would-be tighter integration continues. Thus, Pavel Usov, a Belarusian commentator stationed in Warsaw, has added poignancy to his usual alarmist language. According to him, “Minsk is going to the scaffold as a victim, and everything depends on Moscow’s sentence” (Svaboda.org, June 21). By some accounts, there are attempts to resuscitate the now defunct echo chamber between the Belarusian opposition and Washington-based democracy promoters. Thus, the abstract of the German Marshall Fund’s June 17 meeting on Belarus declares, “Belarus is in the crosshairs to become part of a Belarus-Russia Union State” (Gmf.org, June 17). To be sure, that Union State has been around since 1999. But, as per political scientist Stephen M. Walt, “[L]iberal hegemony and unceasing global activism constitute a full-employment strategy for the entire foreign policy community” (Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy, 2018., p. 112). If anything, this same strategy could end up further boosting Belarus-Russia integration.
Second, Minsk has recently shown notable responsiveness, caution, and sophistication in its public-facing policies. For example, the construction of the environmentally hazardous battery factory in Brest has been suspended in response to street protests (Tut.by, June 19). And Natalia Kachanova, President Lukashenka’s chief of staff, publicly apologized to the Mogilev-based Roma community for mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement. This minority group had been targeted as a result of unfounded suspicion of a Roma individual’s alleged involvement in the death of a traffic police officer (Tut.by, May 23). Last, but not least, the opening ceremony of the European Games in Minsk, on June 21, included a theatrical performance with scenes from Belarusian history, previously not glorified by the official (neo-Soviet, as some would call it) historical narrative. These included Léon Bakst’s costumes; paintings by Mark Chagall; as well as a showcase of Vitovt, also known as Vytautas the Great (1350–1430), the ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and his knights. The performance was accompanied by the recitation of poems written by Yanka Kupala, Maxim Bogdanovich, and Adam Mickiewicz (Nasha Niva, June 22).
Those with a non-passing interest in Belarus would probably agree that the country’s principal vulnerability is rooted in its still-crystalizing self-identity rather than the economy; and if so, recent progress in defining that national identity has been undeniable. While, in and of itself, this does not preclude putative external aggression, the positive trend nonetheless bodes well for Belarus.