While some seven or eight years ago newsworthy events pertaining to Belarus were considered rare, today they are so abundant it is difficult to choose which to focus on. Just during the last week, a lingering debate over Belarus’s integration with Russia reached a fever pitch (Kommersant, September 16); individuals looking to run in the November parliamentary elections scrambled to collect enough signatures to register for the ballot; President Alyaksandr Lukashenka declared he will sign a visa simplification agreement with the European Union (Belta, September 20); and on September 17, many Belarusians celebrated the 70th anniversary of Belarus’s unification.
Belarusian ethnonational unity was a side effect of the infamous Soviet-German non-aggression pact of August 23, 1939. That, of course, means that unity was initially achieved well before independence. However, because all the successor states of the Soviet Union originated from its union republics, the 1939 unification, when the Soviet Red Army invaded Poland from the east, effectively portended independent Belarus. The fact that the September 17 unification day is not (yet?) an official holiday is attributed, by some Belarusian historians, to the “peaceful nature of Belarusian historiography” (Belarus Segodnya, September 14).
Two seemingly unrelated events—Russia-Belarus integration and the upcoming parliamentary elections—seem to have topped the list in terms of their potential impact. First, a heated article in the Russian paper Kommersant unleashed passions in the two countries. The piece was devoted to the previously undisclosed content of the bilateral integration talks and the ensuing commitments expected to be endorsed by Russia’s and Belarus’s presidents on December 8. According to the article, both sides agreed to the unification of the two countries’ tax codes, the creation of a joint regulator for the energy market, closer cooperation of their national custom services, and a coordination of policies vis-à-vis Western sanctions on Russia and Russia’s countermeasures (like its ban on food imports from the West). Although the article is not rich in detail, it nevertheless set off a flurry of debates as a result of several key phrases found therein. For example, it talks about the “partial unification of the two economic systems beginning in January 2021” as well as boosting integration beyond the level achieved in the EU, and even predicts “establishing a confederative state by 2022” (Kommersant, September 16).
A pair of responses by Tut.by’s political commentator Artyom Shraibman (YouTube, September 16; Carnegie.ru, September 18) threw cold water on those formulations. And so did an interview with the influential Russian “political technologist” Yevgeny Minchenko on the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (Svaboda.ru, September 17) as well as comments by the well-known economist Alexander Chubrik and by Lukashenka’s press secretary, Natalya Eismont, whose reported remarks are pointedly titled, “Threat to Sovereignty Is Strongly Demonized” (Tut.by, October 16). According to Shraibman, the purported unification of the tax codes is a daunting task. First, it cannot possibly be accomplished by the end of even the next year. Second, it can hardly make sense for Russia itself, whose economy is 29 times larger than that of Belarus. Meanwhile, a joint regulation of the energy market seems even murkier; although if that implies that Belarus is finally able to pay Russia’s domestic prices for oil and natural gas, that would be a major victory for Minsk. Yet, it is far from certain this is the case. After all, Minsk has continued to demand the harmonization of the energy market within the Union State of Russia and Belarus even after the prime ministers of the two countries made the commitments (on September 6) that are purportedly described by the article in Kommersant. As for customs, a single Customs Code already exists and so do identical custom duties and information exchange. But if Russian custom officers begin to show up on Belarus’s western border, this would shatter the latter state’s “image of a neutral peacemaker that Lukashenko has cultivated during the last five years,” Shraibman writes. Finally, “if Belarus joins Russian counter-sanctions on Western food imports, it will incur the ire of the Belarusian people and void years of thawing relations between Minsk and the EU, and all prospects of continuing that process.” The overarching conclusion is that “serious strain is required to believe what is written in the paperwork” as far as Belarus-Russia integration is concerned. “The current haggling over integration is no exception,” the Tut.by commentator notes (Carnegie.ru, September 19).
A less passionate but similarly vigorous debate has recently developed regarding the upcoming (November 17) parliamentary elections. Here, the crucial question is whether to take them seriously at all. That government-friendly analysts are leaning toward such legitimacy is no surprise. What is notable, however, is that they also predict a significant growth in representation of political parties in the next legislature—well above the 16 out of 110 deputies in the Belarusian House of Representatives as a result of the 2016 elections (Eurasia.expert, August 11). The other 94 deputies are officially independents. And some opposition-minded observers suggest this year’s elections may bring additional intrigue. It is unclear whether members of the opposition parties will win any seats and how many. Currently, they have only two. But some increase in the opposition’s presence in the parliament may help to further boost Belarus’s ties with the West (Carnegie.ru, August 13). At present, practically nobody supports the electoral boycott that used to be popular among the opposition. Even the wife of 2010 presidential hopeful Andrei Sannikov, the journalist Irina Khalip, who used to be a boycott enthusiast, is now willing to register as a candidate (Novy Chas, September 8). Besides, multiple members of the Speak the Truth civic campaign are ready to run as are some members of Civic Consensus, an avowedly Russophile group. Candidate registration will begin after October 17.
It could well be that the parliament of the new convocation will have to express its views on Belarus’s further integration with Russia. And the next legislature’s statements on the matter will be especially important if the recently leaked integration commitments once more prove to be moot, as some aforementioned commentators allege they will.