The principal outcome of the Russian-Belarusian summit on September 9 was the announcement that all 28 “roadmaps”—now called “Union State Programs”—have finally been endorsed. Russian President Vladimir Putin disclosed that the agreed documents deal with the integration of Russia’s and Belarus’s currency systems (but short of issuing a single currency) as well as with the harmonization of tax collection. In addition, the parties are pursuing a common industrial policy and guaranteed equal access to government procurement. The formation of a single natural gas market is scheduled for late 2023.
Despite some strong opinions to the contrary (Kommersant, September 2), on the surface the integration of the two countries will proceed only in the trade, economic and military areas. No common supranational bodies are to emerge in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, Putin did not rule out that at some point the creation of new Union State bodies would also happen. In turn, Belarus’s President Alyaksandr Lukashenka pointed out that Minsk and Moscow “would instantly come together even more tightly in military and political areas, if need be.” The two leaders also declared the full, “pre-pandemic”–level reopening of all transportation links between both countries (RT, September 10).
The focus on this breaking news per se is insufficient for a meaningful evaluation of the current situation in Belarus. In his interview with ONT (the second Belarusian national TV channel), Yury Shevtsov, arguably the most sophisticated political analyst on Lukashenka’s side of the political divide, was asked the following question: “The success of Belarusian-Russian integration is something we need to thank the protest movement and the West for. What they did was what—folly, short-sightedness or provocation?” “I do not think it was a provocation,” responded Shevtsov, “rather folly and short-sightedness.” Curiously, Shevtsov also shrugged off his interviewer’s suggestion that the worsening of relations between the European Union and China—a process in large part currently spearheaded by EU member Lithuania, which decided to recognize the de facto separateness of Taiwan—might actually benefit Belarus. “Not at all,” Shevtsov replied, adding, “that would be too ‘Lithuanian’ a reaction. In fact, Belarus is a bottleneck in China’s New Silk Road to Europe, so it [Belarus] would not benefit from the worsening of these [EU-Chinese] relations.” Shevtsov also posited that whereas in the short run a neutral status for Belarus is unrealistic, “at some point, cold wars end” and Minsk should be ready for that. Importantly, he sees one crucial reason for last year’s protests: “experts and intellectuals” did not enjoy a supportive environment inside Belarus, so they rushed to fulfill the incentivized external demand (ONT, September 9).
Shevtsov’s judgments contain a dose of political realism, some of which can also be found on the other side of the barricade. Thus, Belarus’s former charge d’affaires in Switzerland Pavel Matsukevich believes only a reductions in sanctions pressure by the West can give Minsk some freedom of maneuver in the face of otherwise imminent unification with Russia (Ex-press, September 10). But most opposition-minded analysts think otherwise and use a somewhat peculiar logic to prove that.
As a case in point, when Zianon Pazniak, the founder of the Belarusian Popular Front party, argued that sanctions do more harm than good (see EDM, September 8), a vivid discussion followed on social media. According to Valer Karbalevich of Radio Liberty, Lukashenka’s attacks on civil society began well before sanctions were imposed, so sanctions are not at fault (Facebook.com/karbalevich, September 9). Then, Stas Karpau, a popular blogger, asserted that the acceleration of Belarusian-Russian integration is not worrying because the scariest things have already happened: the true national flag (referring to the white-red-white flag effectively adopted by the protest movement) is all but outlawed, while the Belarusian language and culture are allegedly treated by the authorities worse than, say, the Udmurt or Tatar languages are treated in the respective republics of the Russian Federation, so there is hardly anything to lose (Facebook.com/StasKarpau, September 9). Pavel Usov, an ardent supporter of sanctions, declared, “It is difficult to argue with the assertion that the situation that has developed in Belarus and around our country is turning to Moscow’s advantage [sic]. But the main reason for this is not the events of 2020 and their consequences […] but Lukashenka’s policy, which was aimed at the systemic denationalization of society” (Facebook.com/pavel.usov.10, September 9). The argument could be likened to breaking one’s leg and thinking this incident was not so bad compared to a broken arm last time, and blaming the situation on 27 years of the overall environment supposedly being detrimental to the integrity of one’s limbs.
In the meantime, because of EU sanctions, the Lithuanian customs service blocked the transit of Belarusian-produced heavy trucks to Chile (Belaruspartizan, September 7). And the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly denied that it had issued a visa to Yury Voskresensky (Svaboda.org, September 8), now vilified in some corners of Europe for his role in trying to open a communications channel between the Belarusian opposition and government. Apparently Voskresensky had used a Schengen visa issued by some other EU country to participate in the 30th Economic Forum in Karpacz, Poland; so the Polish foreign ministry’s denial was factually accurate.
By no means is there a shortage of irrational reactions on the Belarusian government side, however. On September 7, Minskaya Pravda, the newspaper of the Minsk city administration, published a caricature of Catholic priests that bend a cross to make a swastika out of it (Minsk Kiosk, September 7). Needless to say, at least 1.5 million Belarusian Catholics were insulted. To its credit, the Committee for Religion and Nationalities declared that the said article does not reflect the state’s official attitude toward Catholics, and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei met with Vatican representative Paul Richard Gallaher to assure him of the same (Belta, September 11).
In a peculiar way, the patently absurdist logic employed on both sides of the political divide may elicit sighs of relief. If such cases signify that the situation has finally reached a nadir, circumstances should finally begin to improve. It remains to be seen if the inflection point in the evolution of the Belarusian political crisis is around the corner.