On February 1, Russian and then Belarusian media reported some unexpected news: Moscow decided to set up a border zone between its Smolensk, Bryansk and Pskov regions and Belarus (RIA Novosti, February 1). The decision was met with an immediate negative reaction in Minsk, where officials and some commentators expressed concerns that Russia might be readying to restore the formal border between the two states, which was scrapped in 1995. The move was the latest problematic development in Belarus-Russia relations, which have been on a downward spiral for more than a year now (see EDM, January 18, 20, 31).
The Russian decrees on border zones (one for each of the three regions bordering Belarus) were signed by the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksander Bortnikov, on December 29, 2016, and will enter into force on February 7, 2017 (Pravo.gov.ru, January 27). They require that local FSB branches establish entry points and times for individuals and vehicles wishing to enter the border zones as well as to set up special road signs. A border zone is defined as a territory adjacent to an interstate border (on average, about 30 km inside a country’s territory) which has a specific entrance and movement regime (Gpk.gov.by, accessed February 6).
Immediate explanations for why Moscow needed to set up such a border zone with its closest ally were mixed, but the overriding argument contended that Russia had to protect itself from threats originating potentially from Belarusian territory. In particular, Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, Aleksander Surikov, insisted the decision is a preventive measure targeting nationals of third countries and will not affect Belarusian and Russian citizens (RBC, February 2). More specifically, he referred to the recent decision by Belarus to introduce a visa-free regime for nationals of 80 countries, including the United States and member states of the European Union (see EDM, January 18). In his words, Russia is wary of possible repercussions, e.g. foreigners without Russian visas entering the country from Belarusian territory. As the host of a talk show on Russian Channel One put it later, what if Barack Obama sneaks into Russia using this loophole (1tv.ru, February 2)?
The problem with this argument is that the Belarusian president signed the decree introducing the visa-free regime only on January 9, whereas the Russian decision to establish the border zone was formalized on December 29, 2016. Of course, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had informed the Russian side about the plans in advance, but it looks like the border zone came about as a sign of Moscow’s overall dissatisfaction with some aspects of its relations with Minsk in recent years. During the aired “Big Conversation with the President” on February 3, which lasted for 7 hours and 20 minutes, Alyaksandr Lukashenka called Russia’s decision a “purely political move” (Belta, February 3). According to him, some people in Russia are displeased that Belarus took the decision about introducing the visa-free regime on its own, without asking for Moscow’s permission (YouTube, February 3). While others became too worried that Minsk is turning toward the West.
A day after the border zone issue went viral, the Belarusian foreign ministry also made a tough statement. While asking not to dramatize the situation, its spokeswoman, Maryna Vanshyna, emphasized two important aspects (Mfa.gov.by, February 2). Firstly, Russia ignored all existing agreements by making its decision without advance warning to the Belarusian side. Moreover, Vanshyna underlined that this was not for the first time Moscow had taken a similar decision on cross-border movement. She reminded that a similar situation had unfolded at the beginning of 2016, when Russia had restricted the entrance of third-country nationals from Belarusian territory. Secondly, many in Belarus, in her words, interpreted the FSB decision as a step toward fully restoring border controls between the two countries. President Lukashenka went into even more detail on this. He expressed particular concern over the fact that the Russian decrees named specific geographic coordinates and asked whether this meant that those border areas would be the first to undergo renewed delineation and demarcation (Naviny.by, February 3). If this is the case, he said, it could easily lead to a serious territorial conflict, and, therefore, the Russians are, in his view, unlikely to make such steps.
An interesting detail needs to be mentioned in this context. In September 2014, Lukashenka signed a decree that established a border territory adjacent to Belarus’s frontier with Russia (Pravo.by, September 4, 2014). Therefore, some commentators quickly dismissed any suspicions regarding the recent FSB decision referring to the Belarusian case (Sputnik.by, February 2). However, according to the spokesman of the State Border Committee of Belarus Anton Bychkouski, there is a difference between the two terms—“border zone” and “border territory” (BelaPAN, February 2). The latter, in his words, is a wider definition, which introduces a legal framework for the work of border guards but does not imply a border regime. Regardless, even if the 2014 decree was a contingency move, no Belarusian border guards have been stationed on the frontier with Russia ever since.
What happens next on the Russian side of the border will most certainly depend on upcoming developments in the bilateral relations. On the one hand, the prospects look worrying. Lukashenka’s latest statements provoked mainly negative reactions in Russia’s political circles, and Moscow introduced yet another ban on agricultural (beef) imports from Belarus (Kommersant, February 3). It also seems that a low-intensity anti-Belarusian campaign has been launched in the Russian media. On the other hand, however, the Belarusian authorities will do their best to make sure that the ongoing conflicts do not escalate into a full-scale confrontation. Lukashenka emphasized several times during the “Big Conversation” that under no circumstances will Belarus follow in Ukraine’s footsteps and become anti-Russian (Nn.by, February 3). He also ridiculed all discussions about the possibility that Russia’s troops taking part in the Zapad 2017 military exercises this fall would occupy Belarus (BelaPAN, February 3).
The already complicated relations between Minsk and Moscow are growing ever more convoluted. It is, therefore, particularly important for observers to prevent their analysis from being driven by hot media headlines and unprofessional and poorly sourced blogging, which tries to sell such headlines as serious research.