When Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka bid farewell to the outgoing Russian ambassador, Alexander Blokhin, on July 5, he remarked that the past few years have been an especially fruitful time for bilateral relations, and particularly the most recent year. His comments raise the question how far the relationship can develop through the Russia-Belarus Union (RBU), and whether the Union represents a threat to Belarus or to Lukashenka personally.
In late June, the Russia-Belarus Union Parliament resolved that a constitutional draft of the RBU would be offered to both Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the fall, at a session of the intergovernmental Russia-Belarus Council and the Supreme Council of the Union State. At the same time Lukashenka declared that the Union (originally founded in 1996 and solidified in 1999) was already demonstrating its benefits in the form of 35 intergovernmental programs and a rising trade turnover that amounted to $17.6 billion in 2004 (RIA-Novosti, June 24).
Commenting from the perspective of the market, Arkady Medvedev and Sergei Ptichkin maintain that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, those who became managers in high-technology industries recognized that the development of their industries depended on strong integrated structures. The domestic Russian market, in their view, was too limited for the activity of inter-state financial and industrial groups, and thus by the late 1990s there were attempts to involve enterprises of the CIS countries in their work. It led to the creation in January 2000 of the interstate financial and industrial group “Defensive Systems,” created by the Russian and Belarusian governments, which today involves 13 Russian and six Belarusian companies. As integration deepens, so the Union State becomes more powerful. Several Ukrainian companies are now in a position to join the interstate financial and industrial group, while others from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have also shown interest (Belarus segodnya, July 7).
There are a number of perspectives on the issue of the Union. Some observers are quite reticent. Alexander Zaitsev considers the Union little more than an “integration trap” for Lukashenka from which it will require all his abilities at political games to extricate himself. He notes that many experts consider that the proposed September meeting between the two presidents will be the critical event in the protracted process of integration. Russia remains the only power that is still willing to deal with the Belarusian authorities. He cites political scientist Andrei Suzdaltsev’s remark that Putin’s intention is to replace the 2006 presidential elections in Belarus with a Constitutional Act. The Act would make it possible to form Union institutions, including some that have executive power (Svobodnye novosti plus, July 6-13).
Suzdaltsev’s view (as cited by Zaitsev) is that Putin’s variant of the Union State does not include Lukashenka at all, and the scenario presupposes the disappearance of the Belarusian president from the political arena, with guarantees of his personal safety. If Lukashenka refuses to take part in this political game, then the State Union and support from Moscow would be lost. If he agrees, he is reliant on the abilities of the Belarusian elite to compete with its Russian counterpart. In short, the Union State would bring about Russian control over Belarus, based on an unequal partnership, and without the presence of the troublesome Belarusian leader.
Undermining Suzdaltsev’s comments, the personal relationship between the two presidents has improved since the low point of 2002 when Putin proposed that the Union State should operate on principles similar to those of the European Parliament, whereby the heads of state can ratify decisions made in the parliament, which then become international law. The turning point may have been the Sochi summit last April (RIA-Novosti, April 4), followed by the guarantees that gas prices in Belarus in 2006 would not rise above the level of the previous year, and that were Russia to join the WTO, Belarus would still receive preferential treatment as its close partner.
None of these arguments belie the fact that on crucial issues — such as a common currency and installing real power in the Union Parliament — the RBU has never lived up to expectations. And while Lukashenka has always espoused Russian friendship, the internal dissemination of the Russian perspective in Belarus has become increasingly limited. In a recent letter to Information Minister Uladzimir Rusakevich on current violations of the Belarusian Constitution, General Valery Paulau made reference to the closure of the office of RTR, the cessation of Radio Mayak, Yunost, and Rossiya stations, as well as overtly hostile depictions of life in Russia on Belarusian Television (Narodnaya volya, July 15).
How does one explain this apparent contradiction? The answer may be that the RBU has both advantages and disadvantages for Lukashenka’s regime. It brings economic relief in the shape of cheap oil and gas, but it brings the danger of increasing Russian control over Belarus. Lukashenka therefore must retain Russia’s support, while limiting its influence, and convincing his own citizens that he is the only guarantor of economic and political stability. The RBU is useful as long as it is relatively powerless. Thus some very difficult negotiations lie ahead from the perspective of the current government of Belarus.