Belarus-Russia Integration: One More Wrangling Match

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 137

Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei (Source: RIA Novosti)

Belarus remains at the center of a geopolitically tinged maelstrom of emotions enveloping the country. And in recent weeks, that maelstrom was simultaneously fed by Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei’s latest interview with RBC as well as a telling new poll regarding Belarusian public opinion toward integration with Russia.

Makei’s recent (October 1) interview with RBC, one of Russia’s premier media outlets, dominated the news cycle in Belarus last week. The interview’s relevance was defined more by its tone than by the substance, as identical pronouncements were previously made on numerous occasions by Belarus’s president. Nevertheless, tone matters. And in this specific case, it reflected the fact that irritation over certain facets of Minsk’s relationship with Moscow had reached a fever pitch (RBC, October 1).

The interview began with a question about the significance of the announced mutual return of ambassadors to Washington and Minsk. Predictably, Makei underscored the abnormality of truncated diplomatic ties with the world’s most powerful country as well as the fact that the level of Russian ties with the United States is far superior to those between Belarus and the US. Makei’s irritation first rose to the surface when he referred to some “dimwitted and ignorant politicians and MPs [members of parliament]” of Russia who construed Belarus’s readiness to sign a visa simplification agreement with the European Union as a signal that Belarus is “leaving” Russia for the West. “We are not going to leave the place we are currently in,” exclaimed Makei. He reiterated the immutability of Belarus’s geographic location several times throughout the interview as a rationale for why Belarus needs to maintain normal relationships with all its neighbors and other countries while simultaneously recognizing that Russia is its major partner (RBC, October 1).

Makei explained that Russia itself signed an identical agreement with the EU in 2006, as a result of which Russians pay $35 for an EU visa whereas Belarusians pay $60. Therefore, “I am stumped for words to characterize” the above statements by some politicians in Moscow, the minister added. “Are such statements made in support of the brotherly Belarusian people, as they like to emphasize it in some Russian circles, or against those people? I think the answer is obvious” (RBC, October 1).

The second major issue touched upon by the RBC interviewer concerned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s confession (Kommersant, September 26) that Belarus’s rejection of a Russian airbase on its territory back in 2015 was an “unpleasant episode.” To this, Makei replied that “Belarus would never take principal decisions under pressure from without, only on the basis of the analysis of whether or not Belarus’s national interests are met.” He added, “If Belarus had located some additional military objects on its territory, I do not think that would boost stability and security in our region. Consequently, that base does not make sense, practically, politically or militarily” (RBC, October 1).

Makei acknowledged that, in the context of Russian-Belarusian talks about mutual integration, some “entirely unacceptable” suggestions were made and then rejected regarding setting up some supranational institutions of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Sacrificing Belarus’s sovereignty, according to the foreign minister, is out of the question. “Incidentally, I have a hard time understanding,” Makei acknowledged, “how the first president of Belarus who nurtured [our country] as an independent state could surrender its independence. How would he go down in history!?” (RBC, October 1).

Considering further integration with Russia, the principal goal, according to Makei, is to resolve the problems that we already know are acute; only then, further steps would make sense. Among those problems he mentioned Russia’s oil tax maneuver (which makes oil more expensive for Belarus, in violation of previous commitments) as well as the elimination of artificial barriers to Belarusian food and industrial exports. The top Belarusian diplomat also took a swipe at Mikhail Babich, former Russian ambassador to Minsk, who, since leaving Belarus, has succeeded at the Ministry of Economic Development, becoming first deputy minister. “When someone makes declarations like ‘I am no diplomat, I am military,’ that implies it did not make sense to enlist him as a diplomat in the first place,” remarked Makei, himself a former member of the armed forces (RBC, October 1).

Apparently, the ongoing complications in Belarusian-Russian relations have been chipping away at popular support for integration with Russia among Belarusian society. Whereas in mid-2017, 64 percent of Belarusians favored union with Russia, while only 14 percent would have preferred entering the EU, in January 2019, the EU option gained the support of 20 percent of respondents, while the popularity of integration with Russia remained flat. In contrast, a September 2019 poll showed markedly diminished support for integration with Russia, 54.5 percent, and a further increase in popular support for Belarus’s European integration—25 percent (, September 2019). These surveys were conducted by the polling firm headed by Andrei Vardomatski, arguably the most reputable Belarusian polling agency, especially since the elimination of the sociological service headed by Oleg Manaev three years ago (see EDM, September 7, 2016)

Makei’s interview elicited quite strong resonance in Belarusian and Russian media. In the opinion of Artyom Shraibman,’s political commentator, Makei effectively hinted that in December, Minsk may reject endorsing its integration commitments (, October 1). To wit, December 8 has been widely advertised as the day when these are supposed to be co-signed by Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin. In response, Viacheslav Soutyrin, the editor of Eurasia.Expert, an analytical portal devoted to post-Soviet integration, suggested he would not be surprised if Russia itself rejects Belarusian demands and even introduces a true border with Belarus. While Soutyrin carefully qualified this suggestion as, for now, a “fantasy,” the tone of the argument, once again, matters no less than its content (, October 4).

Finally, equally suggestive was a recent cautionary note from a Washington-based analyst on how to perceive the above developments. In this regard, the comment by Samuel Charap of Rand Corporation deserves attention. “If we want to take on Russian influence, this is the last place on Earth where we can expect to achieve an outright victory,” Charap declared. “I think it is important to have modest expectations and act diplomatically” (RFE/RL, October 3).