The Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko kept Russia at a distance for decades. Today he may not have the tools anymore.
It has been more than 20 years since Belarus and Russia signed a treaty that aims to unite both countries in one state.
Since then, for various reasons, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko have failed to sign a series of roadmaps that would have led to the full implementation of the treaty.
Although there were discussions and at times even public statements that the creation of a “Union State” was imminent, the actual status of the project remained largely uncertain.
It worked for both sides for many years.
But three years ago Moscow began actively pushing Minsk towards greater integration on the basis of the many contractual clauses.
Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, is increasingly reluctant to commit to a definitive deal that could undermine his personal power and result in Belarus being swallowed up by a Kremlin-led superstate.
But since a fraudulent presidential election in Belarus in August 2020, which led to mass street protests, international sanctions and increasing isolation, he has lacked the means to oppose Moscow’s advances.
Lukashenko had traveled to Russia repeatedly since early 2021 to meet Putin, and the two men often spent long hours negotiating.
On September 9, the two heads of state and government met for the fifth time this year in Moscow, where they discussed the economic, energetic and military aspects of integration.
As usual, few more details were released. However, it is known that Lukashenko has agreed to a roadmap for closer integration; one that stops at political union.
The roadmap comprises a 28-step program that is intended to bind the two countries more closely than ever. Putin and Lukashenko are supposed to coordinate the macroeconomic policies of their respective countries, introduce common tax and customs measures and harmonize other financial controls.
The Russian President called it a “serious step towards the creation of a common economic space”, Lukashenko called it a “breakthrough”.
Minsk and Moscow will officially sign the timetable in November. After that, countries will unite their energy markets and deepen economic integration in the face of Western sanctions imposed on their two economies.
The role of sanctions
In late 2018, Russia suggested that Belarus would have to accept deeper ties if it wanted to benefit from stronger economic cooperation. The two former Soviet countries began intense negotiations in the hope of reaching an agreement by the end of 2019 on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the original Union Treaty.
But that didn’t happen.
Lukashenko’s reluctance at the time led to tensions with Moscow, which stopped deliveries of crude oil and gas. This caused a thaw in Minsk’s relations with the West, including the United States, which made its first oil shipment to Belarus in March 2019.
When Minsk’s ties to Moscow broke, Mike Pompeo even visited Belarus and was the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the former Soviet country in more than two decades.
Then came Lukashenko’s crackdown on the post-2020 elections, including the hijacking of a Ryanair flight to Minsk to arrest opposition blogger Roman Protasevich, which rekindled outrage in the West and pushed Lukashenko back to the Kremlin.
The Belarusian government continues to arrest and harass opposition officials, civil rights activists and independent journalists. Up to 715 political prisoners remain behind the bars while Lukashenko accelerates his “search” of the media and civil society, which he describes as “thugs and foreign agents”.
The sanctions have harmed Lukashenko, his closest circle and the companies associated with him. The main sources of foreign exchange in Belarus, such as potash and oil products, are badly affected.
“Without Russia, Lukashenko’s Belarus would have collapsed long ago,” says Stefano Braghiroli, Associate Professor and Program Director for EU-Russia Studies at the University of Tartu.
“Indeed, Belarus’s paternalistic economy, which guarantees an adequate level of socialist-style welfare, could be sustained in a very Soviet manner through Moscow subsidies. This is how Moscow first established the urge for political integration. But now there is an additional factor: Lukashenko is weaker and the only thing that keeps him in power is violence. Without Russia’s blessing, Lukashenko wouldn’t survive a week. “
The Western marginalization of the regime has brought Lukashenko much closer to Moscow than ever, and the 67-year-old has once again shown his willingness to sign an integration agreement.
“After last year’s elections, Lukashenko was under unprecedented pressure at home, which led to increasing dependence on Moscow and added influence to Putin,” said Pavel Havlíček, research fellow at the Association for International Affairs, a Prague think tank.
“The heads of state and government have already met five times since the beginning of the year, but the topic was one and the same: Belarus asks for financial aid and pays much more than interest: the debts are largely settled sovereignly.”
Sovereignty in danger?
However, Russia has been subsidizing the Belarusian economy for years, primarily allowing cheap oil exports to Belarus, which are then refined and sold in western markets at a substantial premium.
In addition, the Kremlin has provided at least $ 1.5 billion in loans and military aid.
All of this will have its price.
Even if Putin and Lukashenko have not publicly admitted to discussing the question of political integration, the Russian president has indicated that he wants to lay an “economic foundation” for an ever closer union.
According to Havlíček, while integration with Belarus is a strategic decision for Putin to better prepare his country for any kind of conflict with the West, the integration process could lead to “final control over the decision-making process in Minsk and the loss” of sovereignty several levels “.
Belarus will in all likelihood remain formally independent, but largely integrated into the Russian economic and legal system. But that doesn’t mean that Russia won’t politically absorb Belarus at some point in the future.
Braghiroli says Russia will make the final decision.
“The question is what is possible? Is it practical for Russia to make Belarus one of its regions? ”He asks.
“Probably not at the moment,” he replies to his own question. “Because [last year’s] Protests were directed against Lukashenko, not against Russia. For most Belarusians, Russia remains a sister nation, and making Belarus part of Russia would not really help the brotherhood between the two nations.
“I think we could witness a progressive merger. The best scenario for Russia would be to keep Lukashenko as a wounded, captured animal, extremely weak and only there for Russian protection. “
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