Should the West be Wary of an Imminent ‘Union’ of Russia and Belarus?

Executive Summary

Speculation that Belarus might be the next flash-point for tensions with Russia has recurred periodically since the war in Ukraine began in 2014. The latest scenario sees Russia trying to use the twentieth anniversary of the nominal “Union Treaty” signed between the two states in 1999 to upgrade it into something more substantial in 2019, using economic pressure on Minsk to force concessions of sovereignty. Belarus was never likely to break with Russia as sharply as Ukraine, but Russia may be seeking to bind it close before it even tries. This study argues that the old pattern of relations is indeed shifting, but a true “Union” faces too many practical difficulties; that said, internal and external pressures on Belarus are likely to accumulate from 2020 onward.

Introduction

In September 2019, the Russian newspaper Kommersant published claims that Russia and Belarus planned to establish an “economic confederation,” with a common currency, customs union and supranational institutions.[1] Moreover, the paper claimed the plan would be unveiled at a special summit on December 8, 2019, on the twentieth anniversary of a previous “Union Treaty” between the two countries, signed in 1999. Belarus, the paper argued, would submit because of the threat of losing $2 billion a year from changes to Russia’s oil tax regime.

In fact, nothing was signed at the meeting, which took place in Sochi on December 7, although Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka were scheduled to meet again on December 20. Lukashenka prefaced the meeting by stating to parliament that “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”; but “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].”[2]

The proposed “economic confederation” would, indeed, undermine Belarusian statehood, making it the latest post-Soviet state to be targeted by Russia. This study, therefore, argues that Belarus will resist Russian pressure, even if it cannot claw back much of the $2 billion—but on the assumptions listed below. If any of these prove invalid or change with developing circumstances, a real threat to Belarus’s sovereignty could be possible. The old paradigm was that both sides, Belarus and Russia, obtained enough out of the relationship to want to preserve it, whilst always being frustrated that they never received everything they wanted. It is this peculiar equilibrium that will be tested in the next phase of the relationship, during President Lukashenka’s likely sixth term in office, 2020–2025 and Putin’s fourth and possibly final term, 2018–2024.

Belarus: Assumptions

The priorities of the Lukashenka regime are to protect Belarusian sovereignty and preserve the system he has built since 1994. To stay in power, in other words.

  • That means possibly ameliorating the most autocratic elements of the regime but not allowing enough political space for any serious challenge to its power. It also means preserving as much as possible of the “social contract”—welfare, jobs in state industry, etc.—that has won Lukashenka support in the past.
  • However, the Belarusian economic model is not completely self-sustaining. The regime’s sovereignty strategy is undermined by the temptation to uses its sovereignty and foreign policy as assets to trade for foreign subsidies.
  • Stability regularly seems under threat because subsidy-trading is always done hand-to-mouth. The Belarusian economy is always in need of fresh funds. Long-term strategic thinking is difficult, so long as strategies of sovereignty preservation and system preservation are what drives the regime. A division of labor has therefore appeared with the new government installed in August 2018, led by Siarhei Rumas. His job is to maximize the benefits of pragmatic reform to grow the private economy and exports to the European Union; while sovereignty strategies maintain the flow of subsidies to the old state sector, which exports to Russia or uses subsidized energy from Russia to make export profits to the West.
  • So-called “soft Belarusianization” is a regime-led strategy to bolster support for state independence and increase the breathing space for the new private economy.
  • The regime will carefully stage-manage the current election cycle: the vote for a new parliament in November 2019 will be followed by a presidential election in August 2020. The elections will not be drivers of change, but they will hold a mirror up to the dilemmas discussed in this paper.

Opposition and Civil Society, Two Economies

  • Belarus lacks an “opposition” strong enough to challenge the regime. And the regime is little constrained in its foreign policy and economic strategies by the active opposition. It is more constrained by “passive: opposition; and Belarusian public opinion is still largely Russophile.
  • As with the last presidential election in 2015, part of the old opposition accepts the argument that now is not the time to challenge Lukashenka or election fixing, considering the current threat to state sovereignty from Russia.
  • Civil society is, however, strong enough to also push “soft Belarusianization” from below. It is not entirely a top-down phenomenon.
  • The growth of the private economy, the IT sector in particular, is slowly changing the above dynamics. The regime increasingly has to balance slimming the less efficient state sector that provides necessary public support, and maintaining the private sector growth that provides necessary revenues and resources.

Belarus: Strategies and Dilemmas

Foreign Policy Diversification

The key internal challenges to what is locally called sistema (a system of informal, personalized loyalty networks that dominates administrative governance in many post-Soviet states) are economic. But preserving sovereignty is essentially a foreign policy task. The academic literature is full of specialized terms for how small states with powerful neighbors like Belarus run their foreign policy: such as balancing, hedging, bandwagoning and sheltering. Belarus does all of these, but none alone quite captures its unique situation. Russia’s foreign policy, in contrast, is driven by hyper-realism. It sees a world ruled by konkurentnosposobnost (“ability to compete”), where only strong states survive, and their sovereignty has to be earned. Russia, therefore, has a “frenemy” problem; it does not respect even its allies’ sovereignty if they are regarded as weak. In fact, they are a security threat because they can be dominated by other players just as easily as by Russia.

Belarus needs Russia, particularly economically; but a simple bilateral relationship is too unequal. Sovereignty would soon be lost. On the other hand, the act of asserting sovereignty is also dangerous. It is “an exercise in minimizing risk, but it’s risky in itself,” noted Minsk-based analyst Yauheni Preiherman.[3] The end-game of foreign policy diversification is not yet “balance.” Belarus is maneuvering in order to preserve its freedom of maneuver.

Yet, Belarus has de facto been able to trade certain aspects of its sovereignty. Lukashenka, first elected in 1994, predates Putin, first elected in 2000. Belarus made neo-Soviet nostalgia state policy before Russia, and its existence helps legitimize Putin’s version. But there is increasing Russian resentment at subsidizing a welfare model that is more generous than Russia’s, especially when the Russian economy is under so much strain.[4]

Belarus also sells foreign policy loyalty toward multilateral projects or other states, which is paradoxically the best way of forcing Russia to see the value of Belarusian sovereignty. The security relationship is still extremely close. Belarus is needed to maintain the credibility of the struggling Eurasian Economic Union (a Moscow-led regional political-economic integrationist projects that brings together Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan).

But the terms of foreign policy trade have been drastically redefined, first by the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, and then more fundamentally by the undeclared war against Ukraine since 2014. Belarus’s dilemma is now much more complex. It has to hedge its bets to avoid similar aggression—without worrying Russia that it will bandwagon with the West. That said, excessive loyalty to Russia is also a risk to sovereignty: both because Russia demands more of its friends than before 2014, and because some Russian demands would undermine other Belarusian strategies. A common currency would make it difficult to subsidize domestic industry; the appearance of Russian custom officials at Belarus’s western borders would undermine the appearance of neutrality in the Russo-Ukraine conflict.

Belarus has cautiously reached out to the European Union, the United States and China since 2014, but it has carefully wrapped its diversification strategies in multilateral moves. The country will not join the EU or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but has built on its success in hosting the Minsk Agreements in 2014–2015 to pull in other players to Minsk’s would-be diplomatic hub: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Central European Initiative, etc. The “Minsk Dialogue” project, begun in 2015, seeks to make the Belarusian capital a major part of the international diplomatic circuit.

However, a lot of this bargaining is done within, and usually settled inside, a black box. Belarus remains central to the Russian oligarchy’s opaque survival strategies, for whom Belarus is metaphorically an offshore state. Its great historical good fortune is Soviet-built oil refineries, which process huge amounts of Russian crude oil. Belarus’s geographical good fortune is to be situated between Russia and the EU at a time of sanctions and counter-sanctions. If a way of dividing profits can be found, a deal can normally be done. The details may remain obscured, however.

The current problem is that Russia is taking away $2 billion a year via the so-called “oil tax maneuver”—oil export duties replaced by a mineral extraction tax. Belarus hopes to compromise without giving away too much on sovereignty. According to Dzianis Melyantsou of the Minsk Dialogue, “[T]he level of secrecy around the negotiations on the so-called integration roadmaps is so unusually high that this makes me think that talks are harder than ever in history. But Minsk now is not in that bad a position, because of its new international image, normalization with the West, projects with China, etc. So there are leverages on this side as well. So my cautious forecast is that they will sign some limited integration plans in some areas, but [the] implementation of these documents will take ages. [The year] 2020 will be tough for Belarus as the Kremlin is seeking how to narrow Lukashenka’s corridor for maneuver. But I don’t believe in coercive scenarios, as they are too risky for Putin and no one really needs to ruin relations completely.”[5]

According to his colleague Yauheni Preiherman, the key point is that the “negotiations remain within the framework of the [old 1999] Union State Treaty… The Russians wanted to go beyond it, but then Lukashenka and Putin agreed to stay within that framework […] of parity.[6] For the time being there is no danger of Belarus losing its sovereignty […] even though many in Russia would love to use the occasion to force Minsk into agreements that will undermine its sovereignty. The real danger is longer-term—if Minsk fails in diversifying its economy and foreign relations, its negotiation position vis-à-vis Moscow will get weaker, which will inevitably lead to increased appetite there.”[7]

Soft Belarusianization

Logically, Belarus could have shifted its priorities toward sovereignty much earlier, in the 2000s. Lukashenka was first elected President in 1994; and he spent his first term as a neo-Soviet nostalgic defeating the local nationalist opposition and seeking to do the same in all-Russian politics. The West was then the enemy; true sovereignty for Belarus could only be found under the umbrella of the ‘Union State’ negotiated with Russia in 1999. But the election of Vladimir Putin as Russian President in 2000 meant that the job of Russia’s “savior” was already taken. The two men did not get on personally. Lukashenka withdrew a little and oversaw the writing of a fairly vacuous, but still neo-Soviet, “state ideology” of Belarus in 2003.

But the time was not right for more radical moves. The defeat of the Belarusian national(ist) movement in the 1990s was too recent. The dismantling of democracy—a new constitution unilaterally imposed in 1996, the delay of the 1999 elections until 2001, the “disappearances” of prominent Lukashenka opponents in 1999–2000—meant that support from the West was unlikely. The most important factor, however, was Russia’s economic boom years of high oil prices from the Iraq war in 2003 until the global economic crisis in 2008, which were also good for Belarus.

Other events shifted Belarus toward a more sovereign course: namely Russia’s wars against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine beginning in 2014. Belarus had previously bandwagoned with Russia to strengthen its security, often depicted as threatened by an expanding NATO. Now, the Russian threat to Ukrainian sovereignty could be replayed in Belarus. Russia’s more general confrontation with the West threatened Belarus’s attempts to present itself as “neutral.” Significantly, “soft Belarusianization” measures that came after 2014 were accompanied by parallel “soft securitization” measures: a small but significant increase in defense spending, stronger internal defenses against hybrid war, etc.[8] The regime needed extra props of support—not just for statehood as an abstract principle, or the social contract, expectations for which had to be adjusted downward—but also cultural and identity props.

Has Soft Belarusianization Reached its Limits?

So-called “soft Belarusianization” is different to two earlier periods of whole-hearted state support for the Belarusian language and culture—in the Soviet 1920s and in the early years of independence, in 1991–1994. Today, it involves a more eclectic approach to national identity than Lukashenka’s earlier neo-Soviet, Slavophile period. Notably, it rehabilitates certain symbols of national identity, particularly if less political, as well as campaigns in support of the native language, regional pride, etc. (“Be Belarusians!” “My first word,” “The Year of the Local Homeland”).[9] History is increasingly selectively and eclectically politicized. In 2018, Lukashenka allowed unprecedented centenary celebrations of a nationalist totem, the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic of 1918; but the state notably also celebrated the centenary of the founding of the Belarusian KGB.

Nonetheless, Lukashenka does not want to empower the opposition or enable it to set the agenda. Nor does he want to provide too many easy targets for Russian propaganda. In 2017–2019, Lukashenka halted opposition campaigns over the Kurapaty forest, a mass grave of Stalinist-era victims and a potential mobilizing symbol, and he vetoed plans for a Belarusian language university, which could generate rebellious students.

Soft Belarusianization also makes sense economically. The old and often troubled relationship between civil society and the Belarusian state is now more trilateral, and the regime allows relations between private business and non-governmental organizations (NGO) to develop, which includes support for some of the patriotic campaigns listed above.[10] Soft Belarusianization is also about national branding. Business has found that such branding is commercially useful and would not want to walk that back. Lukashenka has also found that branding Minsk as a center of diplomacy and Belarusians as a “peaceful people” (the name of yet another campaign) has helped with foreign policy diversification.

Two Elections

Nothing surprising can be expected from either national election in 2019–2020. A significant part of the opposition does not want to rock the boat, while protests against falsification are difficult to organize, as the regime’s chosen method is hiding the count behind closed doors. On the other hand, Belarus cannot democratize in a crisis—certainly not quickly enough to win the support of the West in the case of a real security threat. Minsk might, therefore, choose to make some token moves sooner rather than later.[11] But habits of domestic control remain ingrained. Indeed, the November 17, 2019, parliamentary elections showed a tentative step, not toward democracy, but toward “managed democracy.” Only 5 out of 110 deputies were elected as representatives of political parties in 2012. The regime allowed the number to go up to 15 in 2016 and to 21 in 2019. But all were members of “loyal” parties. At the same time, the two “permitted” opposition members elected in 2016 were not reelected in 2019. According to some observers, Belarus may be seeking to copy Russia’s system of “Kremlin parties.” The (so far) civic organization Belaya Rus could play the part of United Russia under such an arrangement; the Communists and Liberal-Democrats would be Belarus’s loyal opposition. A few democrats might exist around the fringes. But as Lukashenka reportedly said to the leaders of Belaya Rus, “Guys, I understand why you need me, but I am not sure why I need you.”[12]

Belarusian presidential elections tend to have a predictable formula of “1+3.” Lukashenka usually has a fake sparring partner, Sairhei Haidukevich, the Belarusian equivalent, literally, of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, as he heads the Liberal-Democratic Party of Belarus. Then, there is the opposition, but never the same candidate—the risks of running are high. The fourth candidate is the one everybody talks about, a rumored regime stooge, playing with the very idea of opposition, muddying the possibility of protest.

The Political Economy

Russia is trying to push Belarus along the road to a Union State with some tough love. Subsidies have been on a downward trend over ten years, though they recovered a little from the low-point in 2016, after Lukashenka secured a temporary deal with Putin to help defuse the 2017 protests.[13]

More broadly, Belarus’s GDP growth still tracks Russian performance,[14] although Belarus has had three major recessions since the global economic crisis: in 2009, 2011 and 2014–2015. Current growth levels do not recapture the heady levels of the 2000s. It is hard to assess how much this affects Lukashenka’s popularity (the last independent pollster, IISEPS, was forced out of business in 2016), but he probably retains some credit from previous growth.

The structure of the economy is now changing, however, resulting in a gradual shift from one-sided dependence on Russia to asymmetrical dependence on both Russia and the European Union. This was symbolized by Lukashenka’s visit to Austria, Belarus’s leading economic partner in the EU, in November 2019—his first official visit to an EU state since 1996. The private-sector workforce in Belarus now outnumbers Belarusians employed at state-owned enterprises (SOE), which produce almost half of the country’s GDP. SOEs have been kept afloat since the 1990s with state-directed credit and now account for 45 percent of national debt. After a sharp jump in recent years, that debt has stabilized at around $28 billion; but foreign exchange reserves are only $7 billion. Russia accounts for more than 40 percent of exports; but Belarus’s trade with the EU is now booming, mainly in services, up by 20.6 percent in 2018 to €10.93 billion ($12.19 billion).[15] The IT industry alone already accounted for over 5 percent of GDP by 2018;[16] the future would be murky under a more Russia-dominated economy.

Russia: Assumptions

Belarus is more interested in the old status quo. Therefore, if Kommersant’s aforementioned predictions on economic confederation come true, the pressure will have come from the Russian not the Belarusian side.

  • The Kremlin has empowered Russian nationalists to escalate attacks on Belarus, not usually on Lukashenka but on the supposed “pro-Western” faction under Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei. This serves the needs of three very different sets of strategists.
  • One faction within the Kremlin is trying to wring better value-for-money out of the relationship with Minsk: more loyalty for fewer subsidies.
  • Amongst natural hard-liners, Belarus still has allies among the Russian siloviki (security services personnel); although they have not given up on the idea of a Russian military base on Belarusian territory. The same faction that pressed for a tougher line with Ukraine is now doing the same vis-à-vis Belarus.
  • Nationalist rhetoric is often instrumental. According MGIMO expert Kirill Koktysh, there is “at least one lobbying group in Russia that attempts to fulfil its raider attack on numerous Belarusian enterprises, accusing Minsk of all possible sins, starting with the lack of loyalty and ending with suspected plans to repeat most of Ukraine’s political pro-Western moves… Russian governing elites use this group as an additional factor of pressure on Minsk.”[17]
  • Unlike with regard to Ukraine, Russian policy toward Belarus is restrained by two other factions. One is made up of the remnants of leftist and neo-Soviet parties that still see value in the rhetoric of Slavic fraternity with Belarus; this group is at the forefront of current Russian protests over pensions. Another is the sizeable group of former Belarusian ministers and businessmen-bureaucrats in Moscow, such as the Khotin family and Dmitrii Mazepin[18] they are, by definition, interested in keeping an open relationship.
  • President Putin has made a number of foreign policy gambles in recent years, but only when he perceived weakness. The annexation of Crimea was launched against a weak state, in a vacuum of local power. A mess of competing projects in eastern Ukraine in 2014 largely floundered while they awaited proper Kremlin approval. The Kremlin will similarly probe for weakness in Belarus; but the Belarusian state under Lukashenka is not hollowed-out as the Ukrainian state was under Viktor Yanukovych. Opportunism is always a factor, but there are relatively few opportunities for Russia in a state that is strategically stable and reasonably successful in juggling limited resources. The 2017 protests against the Belarusian government’s “social parasite” tax against resulted from a rare miscalculation by Lukashenka.

Russia: Strategies and Dilemmas

Most Russians see Belarus’s room for maneuver as limited. Minsk may flirt with the West, but, in the words of Kirill Koktysh of MGIMO, its underlying loyalty “is largely guaranteed by economic factors, both Russian (market) and Chinese (the Belt and Road project, where Belarus is an important logistics center).”[19] Ironically, Belarus sought out partnership with China to diversify its options, but so far the gains have been limited, and the northern overland branch of “One Belt, One Road” trade tends to transit through Russia. Koktysh continues, “That means that Russia can allow itself to take a risk playing the game ‘same level of loyalty for less expenses,’ undertaking the tax maneuver, which for Minsk will mean a loss of annual income worth about a couple of billion dollars.”[20] The savings also make sense to Russians, who increasingly resent subsidizing Belarus’s more generous welfare economy.

The counter-argument for a more fundamental rethink of the relationship is that Putin’s domestic popularity is on the slide; so he needs another “small victorious war” or equivalent. But logically this would fit the Russian rather than the Belarusian election timetable, and Russian parliamentary elections are not due till 2021, with presidential elections in 2024. Alternatively, it is argued that Putin wants to make the Russia-Belarus Union State a reality in order to become its president after 2024. But he could have done this with the Eurasian Economic Union, except that its central institutions have been left deliberately weak so it can remain a vehicle for pushing Russian national interests.[21] The idea of Putin taking the Union State Presidency was first mooted in 2007, but it was deemed too small a position for the “power-behind-the-throne.” The “castling” between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, swapping their roles of prime minister and president, became the strategy instead. Nevertheless, “the very fact of this discussion makes Belarusian elites more afraid of any further integration,” notes Andrei Skriba of the Higher School of Economics (HSE), in Moscow.[22]

Some Russians fear that the West will overreach and try and draw Belarus into a more genuinely “multi-vector” foreign policy. Lukashenka personally “never makes any geopolitical moves without understanding how at the next step he will be able to convert it into real resources. [T]he West is not going to take up the burden of financing the Belarusian economy (including paying compensation for markets that can be lost in case of Minsk’s pro-Western orientation),” according to Koktysh of MGIMO.[23] But Russia would like to lock in rivals and successors. According to the HSE’s Skriba, “Currently, Belarus-Russia relations look like a cold peace. Belarus has little chances to replace Russian economic assistance and subsidies, and military and security cooperation also seem quite stable. On the other hand, however, Russians understands that Lukashenka’s” reputation as a dictator may be a wasting asset. “To make future relations more predictable, Moscow is looking for a more institutionalized integration that could involve more economic and social aspects. [This would] make it much less possible for any future Belarusian president to change [Minsk’s] foreign policy priorities.”[24]

Information War

The main evidence for the theory of a more serious existential Russian threat to Belarus comes from the current information war. According to a recent report by iSANS, “Many of the media involved in the information attack on Belarus are sponsored and promoted by ‘patriotic businessmen’ close to Vladimir Putin or associated with the Presidential Administration.” The attacks, moreover, have spread beyond the core propaganda outlets run by the “usual suspects,” like Regnum.ru and Zapadrus.su, to social media, Telegram in particular.[25] Beginning in 2018, Russia has also been bypassing Minsk to target the Belarusian regions with new platforms.[26]

The language used is such forums is certainly extreme. It includes attacks on mestechkovyi natsionalizm (“small-town nationalism”)[27] and Bat’kiny natsisty (“Batko’s Nazis”—Batko or “father” being Lukashenka’s nickname).[28] Other commonly repeated themes are that Belarusian statehood is a historical mistake; the Belarusian language does not exist; the West wants to make a “second Ukraine” out of Belarus; “Western values” are incompatible with Orthodox values and a cover for LGBT propaganda; and more.

Significantly, however, the attacks seem to be foreign policy–led, frequently concentrating on Foreign Minister Makei and/or coinciding with Belarus not cooperating fully with Russia in foreign policy. Russia’s framing of soft Belarusianization as a threat can actually be interpreted as a warning to Minsk about too much foreign policy independence.[29] One attack lists the sins of “the Makei project” as “separation from the Russian world [Russkiy mir], withdrawal from the frontal clash between Russia and the West,” and Belarus “becoming a second Switzerland, where officials rule the quiet people and capitalize their political and bureaucratic assets. As a result of this soft play on “sovereignty,” Belarus will become, in a few years, an element of the Polish (in fact, American or Wilsonian) concept of the Intermarium” as a means of tearing it away from Russia.[30]

This information warfare is backed up by so-called “active measures.” Russian nationalist groups linked to the Orthodox Church have proliferated in Belarus in recent years, as in Ukraine just prior to and immediately after 2014. Russian “government-organized NGOs” (GONGO) are also active in Belarus, like the CIS-EMO, Soyuz (“Union”) founded in 2018, and the Belarusian Public Associations of Russian Compatriots (KSORS), all with “at least an indirect connection to Russia’s Embassy in Belarus.”[31] If Belarus were to democratize, it is not necessarily pro-Western groups that would benefit. Russian-backed groups might be better-placed to mobilize first.

The rising tide of information war and active measures tells us little about any kind of underlying strategy. They can be used by any of the three Russian groups listed above—bureaucrats concerned with lowering subsidies to Belarus, the siloviki, and oligarchic business raider groups. The figure below attempts to illustrate the situation. The Belarusian regime can keep the opposition parties largely at bay, but there are elements within civil society more broadly who cooperate with the authorities or are state-sponsored GONGOs; and there is some mutual interest in “soft Belarusianization.” The Belarusian regime want to keep its “feeding” subsidies (kormlenie in Russian) fat and generous. One faction in the Russian regime wants to cut them down. They are prepared to give “license” (in Russian otmashka) to Russian nationalist groups to pressure Belarus to give in. Combined genuine pressure on Belarus from both the Russian regime and Russian nationalists could be a real threat to Belarusian sovereignty. Unfortunately, these strategies often overlap and may look the same from outside.

The West

Both the US and EU have to juggle concerns about human rights and state sovereignty when forming their Belarus policies. The human rights situation in Belarus has improved enough since around 2015 to shift Western attention first toward “sanctions relief” (for the US in 2015, the EU in 2016), and then increasing dialogue. Minsk timed its moves well to take advantage of the West’s concerns about domino effects after the war in Ukraine began in 2014.

Belarus and the West have now reached a narrow equilibrium of balance over human rights issues and sovereignty support. Minsk calibrated its gradual crackdown against protests after its ill-judged “social parasite” tax in 2017 so as not to break off relations with the West. However, the Brussels and Washington have little to offer for the rapprochement to progress further, apart from visa facilitation and possible energy supply agreements. Neither the EU nor the US can do much to help Belarus’s struggling state-owned enterprises.

In 2018–2019, the trend in Belarus has actually reversed back toward greater autocracy, particularly with media crackdowns—in part because of Minsk’s worries about Russian moves. But Belarus will not risk isolation with an increasingly assertive Russia. The government in Minsk knows the West will support diplomatically its peaceful attempts at foreign policy diversification; but hard power support in a major crisis cannot be assumed. Possibly the most dangerous moment might be something in the middle, with Russian pressure sufficiently disguised as to excuse Western inaction.

Belarus’s Neighbors

Ukraine cares almost exclusively about sovereignty when it thinks about Belarus, rather than human rights. Ukraine could not fight a war on two fronts, if Russia was able to use Belarus to pressure it from the north. Security cooperation between the two states has been surprisingly good since 2014. Trade has kept flowing; and travel via Minsk compensates for the disrupted direct travel between Russia and Ukraine. Kyiv needs Minsk as a diplomatic hub.

This is also true, though to a lesser extent, for Poland and the Baltic States, which value Belarus as a buffer against Russia. Lithuania is an exception, as its key concern is the nuclear plant that Belarus is building just across the border at Astravets. Lithuania’s all-or-nothing opposition to the project makes constructing EU consensus on policy change toward Belarus more difficult. Both Latvia and Lithuania need Belarus to offset declining Russian trade through their Baltic seaports.[32]

Conclusions

A grand unveiling of a major new deal over the coming months is unlikely, although a “road-map” might emerge. The key risk is asymmetric expectations, and Russian pushing too far, too hard. Russian pressure on Belarus has persisted for 20 years, with each bilateral crisis longer and more serious than the last. But a deal has always been made in the end. This time, however, the two sides are increasingly looking for different things: to leave the last word to Andrei Skriba, “Minsk is looking for additional financial support, while Moscow—for guarantees of its privileged interests.” [33]

 

[1] Dmitrii Butrin, “Druzhba nalogov. Rossiya i Belorussiya namereny v 2021 godu pereity na edinyi Nalogovyi kodeks i ne tol’ko,” Kommersant, September 16, 2019, www.kommersant.ru/doc/4094365.

[2] Grigory Ioffe, “Belarus-Russia Integration Summit Ends With No Signature,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, December 9, 2019, https://jamestown.org/program/belarus-russia-integration-summit-ends-with-no-signature/.

[3] Interview with Yauheni Preiherman, November 29, 2017.

[4] E-mails from Andrey Skriba, October 31, 2019, and Kirill Koktysh, November 2, 2019.

[5] E-mail from Melyantsou, November 14, 2019.

[6] Yauheni Preiherman, “Treaty on the Establishment of the Union State of Belarus and Russia,” Minsk Dialogue, April1, 2019, http://minskdialogue.by/en/research/memorable-notes/treaty-on-the-establishment-of-the-union-state-of-belarus-and-russia.

[7] E-mail from Preiherman, November 16, 2019.

[8] Andrew Wilson, “Softly, softly Belarus,” New Eastern Europe , September 2, 2018, http://neweasterneurope.eu/2018/09/02/softly-softly-belarus/.

[9] Piotr Rudkouski, “Soft Belarusianisation: The Ideology of Belarus in the era of the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict,” OSW Commentary , no. 253, November 3, 2017, www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2017-11-03/soft-belarusianisation-ideology-belarus-era-russian-ukrainian. See also Vadim Mojeiko, Soft Belarusization: A New Shift in Lukashenka’s Domestic Policy?” Belarus Digest , April 21, 2015, https://belarusdigest.com/story/soft-belarusization-a-new-shift-in-lukashenkas-domestic-policy/.

[10] Vadim Mojeiko, “Civil society: between repression and collaboration with business,” BISS , June 20, 2019, https://belinstitute.com/en/article/3687.

[11] Artyom Shraibman, “The Path to Politics: Belarus Prepares for Double Elections,” Carnegie.ru, August 20, 2019, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/79689.

[12] Stephen Hall, “Tracing Authoritarian Learning in Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine,” pp. 72–73.

[13] The figure is taken from Olga Hryniuk, “Reality Check Non-Paper: Belarus’s Slow and Subtle Transition,” Belarus Digest, December 7, 2018,  https://belarusdigest.com/story/reality-check-non-paper-belaruss-slow-and-subtle-transition/. See also https://financialobserver.eu/cse-and-cis/belarus-economic-dependence-has-its-upsides/.

[14] “Belarusian Economic Growth Decomposition,” February 2014, www.researchgate.net/publication/265216042_Belarusian_Economic_Growth_Decomposition/figures?lo=1.

[15] See the data at “European Union, trade in goods,” European Commission, June 3, 2019, https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/isdb_results/factsheets/country/details_belarus_en.pdf.

[16] See the report ‘IT Industry’ by the National Agency of Investment and Privatization at https://investinbelarus.by/upload/pdf/IT%20industry%202018.pdf.

[17] E-mail from Kirill Koktysh, November 2, 2019.

[18] See ‘Belorusski sprut: “Khotinskii” biznes Aleksandra Lukashenko v RF’; Resursnaya Federatsiya , September 13, 2016; http://resfed.com/article-2117

[19] E-mail from Kirill Koktysh, November 2, 2019.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Rilka Dragneva and Kataryna Wolczuk, “The Eurasian Economic Union: Deals, Rules and the Exercise of Power,” RIIA , May 2, 2017, www.chathamhouse.org/publication/eurasian-economic-union-deals-rules-and-exercise-power.

[22] E-mail from Andrei Skriba, November 31, 2019.

[23] E-mail from Kirill Koktysh, November 2, 2019.

[24] E-mail from Andrei Skriba, November 31, 2019.

[25] “Coercion to ‘Integration’: Russia’s Creeping Assault on the Sovereignty of Belarus,” iSANS , 2019, https://isans.org/wp-content/docs/Belarus_report_eng_iSANS_10.03.2019_BRIEF_VERSION.pdf.

[26] Andrei Yeliseyeu, “Fundamental Shifts in Anti-Belarusian Disinformation and Propaganda: Analysis of Quantitative and Qualitative Changes,” EAST Center, April 17, 2019, http://east-center.org/fundamental-shifts-in-anti-belarus-disinformation-and-propaganda/.

[27] Kamil Kłysiński and Piotr Żochowski, “The End of the Myth of Brotherly Belarus? Russian Soft Power in Belarus after 2014: The Background and its Manifestations,” OSW Studies , no. 58, November 2016, www.osw.waw.pl/sites/default/files/prace_58_ang_end_of_myth_net.pdf, quote on p. 17.

[28] Vladimir Zotov, “Bat’kiny natsisty,” Lenta.ru, April 3, 2018, https://lenta.ru/articles/2018/04/03/belonazi/.

[29] Anaïs Marin, March 29, 2019.

[30] Yurii Baranchik, “Belarus: elita uzhe vybrala preemnika Lukashenko,”  Regnum, August 6, 2016, https://regnum.ru/news/polit/2164093.html.

[31] Andrei Yeliseyeu, “Fundamental Shifts in Anti-Belarusian Disinformation and Propaganda,” EAST Center, April 17, 2019, http://east-center.org/fundamental-shifts-in-anti-belarus-disinformation-and-propaganda/.

[32] Paul Goble, “Russia Shifting Cargo Traffic Away From Baltic Ports to Its Own,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, December 5, 2019, https://jamestown.org/program/russia-shifting-cargo-traffic-away-from-baltic-ports-to-its-own/.

[33] E-mail from Andrei Skriba, November 31, 2019.