As the December 8 deadline to sign the so-called roadmaps for further Russian-Belarusian integration drew closer, anxiety reached a fever pitch among politicized Belarusians. On Friday, December 6, Prime Ministers Sergei Rumas of Belarus and Dmitry Medvedev of Russia met in Sochi; and the next morning, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka left Minsk for that Black Sea resort to meet in the afternoon with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. However, on the same day of the two presidents’ scheduled negotiations, 500–700 residents of Minsk rallied against further integration with Russia. While the December 7 rally was not permitted by the authorities and displayed plenty of red-white-red flags (official from 1992 to 1995, but replaced by the current green-red flag in the wake of the May 1995 referendum), the police did not interfere, even though the demonstration lasted five hours (Tut.by, December 7). Protests resumed on Sunday and reached the Russian embassy, where activists unveiled an anti-integration petition. Again, police did not interfere (Reform.by, December 8). Still, some skepticism regarding this event prevailed on Belarusian online social networks, perhaps in part because of the persona of the rally’s organizer, Pavel Severynets, a fairly inflexible fighter for the Belarusian language and against same-sex marriages. As some commentators hinted, the demonstration played directly into Lukashenka’s hands, politically bolstering his long-standing intransigence to the idea of sacrificing Belarusian independence at the altar of economic benefits (Svaboda.org, December 7).
Prior to his departure to Russia, Lukashenka delivered a speech before the members of the Belarusian House of Representatives (both newly elected legislators and the outgoing deputies of the 2016 convocation). Two prominent statements he made while addressing the parliament stand out. First, he noted, “Putin is now subject to the toughest anti-Belarusian pressure” at home—that is, against any concessions to Belarus’s demands regarding a joint energy market and others. Moreover, “having lost Ukraine, Russia is extremely leery of losing […] Belarus, so Russia feels it cannot support Belarus without advance knowledge of what kind of policy Belarus will conduct” (Belta.by, December 5). His second statement was even more colorful: “I am no kid who has only worked three–four–five years as president, so I do not want to sacrifice what we have done, creating a sovereign independent state, by putting it in a box with a cross on top [i.e., a coffin]” (YouTube, December 5).
One week prior to Lukashenka’s public pronouncements, the Russian daily Kommersant published the results of a recent survey conducted by the prestigious Moscow-based Institute for Foreign Relations. Accordingly, almost 90 percent of Belarusians favor either “allied” or “partner” relations with Russia. The survey was reportedly based on 7,000 telephone and 500 face-to-face interviews conducted in all regions of Belarus (Kommersant, November 28). Six days later, the organizers of that survey were snubbed by the Institute of Sociology (IS) of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences. First, the IS published “corrected” survey data: 49.9 percent of Belarusians support partner relationships with Russia, i.e., relationships between two sovereign states, whereas 36.1 percent additionally approve of establishing supranational institutions of governance, and merely 7.7 percent favor Belarus actually joining the Russian Federation. Second, the IS also suggested that only polling firms accredited in Belarus can survey Belarusians (Belta.by, December 4). That latter criticism directed at the Russian pollster curiously mirrored the rebuke Belarusian authorities had persistently leveled against the former Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS). IISEPS had for years conducted quarterly surveys and published the results, enabling interested parties to focus on long-term trends in Belarusian society, not just on snapshots of public opinion. The irony of the present situation is that no polling firm has so far filled the niche vacated by IISEPS after it was terminated in 2016 (see EDM, September 7, 2016).
According to Minsk-based entrepreneur and political commentator Mikhail Malash, only a few people in Belarus distinguish between “allied” and “partner” relationships anyway. Belarusians simply want some sort of togetherness with Russia, without thinking much about its actual format (Facebook.com/michail.malasch, December 5). Because, however, the anxiety about the bilateral integration talks was palpable among certain segments of Belarusian society, as few facts were disclosed by the authorities, independent political commentator Artyom Shraibman decided to provide some clarifying responses to, as he put it, “paranoid questions” about the process (Tut.by, December 5). These questions tended to fall within two main categories—panic (Will we become part of Russia on December?) and practical considerations (Where should I go to exchange my passport into a Russian one?)—while regularly punctuated by categorical rejections of the situation (I do not want to live in Russia).
Shraibman’s clarifications boiled down to four main assertions. First, Belarus will not join Russia as neither the authorities nor society want that to happen. Belarus’s authoritarian government by no means wishes to be demoted to a provincial level (inside an enlarged Russian Federation). And notably, there are no pro-Russian attitudes in Belarus of the kind that existed in Crimea, whose residents were also displeased with their pre-2014 national government. Second, on the eve of its annexation by Russia, Crimea was part of a state that had set out to undertake a geopolitical about-face within the post-Soviet space, whereas present-day Belarus is not contemplating anything of the sort. Third, Shraibman declared, if Belarus is deprived of Russian subsidies, it will become only a little bit poorer, but no catastrophe is likely. Finally, tighter integration than the current status quo is unlikely because Belarus and Russia are in different (demographic, economic, etc.) weight categories, so a dual-state level playing field would be extremely difficult to establish and sustain (Tut.by, December 5).
Lukashenka left Putin on the evening of December 7, following five-hour-long negotiations and without making any statement for the media. No agreements were signed on December 8. Russia’s Minister of Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin announced the two presidents will meet again on December 20, in St. Petersburg. He added, “Russia’s and Belarus’s positions on oil and natural gas [prices] have become considerably closer as a result of Putin-Lukashenka negotiations.” Also, the sheer number of issues on which Russia and Belarus were at odds with each other has diminished. If need be, the two leaders may speak again prior to December 20 (Svaboda.org, December 7).
The integration discussions notably diverged somewhat from previous such long-running negotiations, when extended periods of mutual recriminations and behind-the-scenes bargaining ultimately resulted in a summit during which all problems became miraculously resolved—largely to Minsk’s satisfaction (see EDM, October 1, 2018). It does not seem that this is what happened this time around. At least not yet.