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Belarus in a post-Crimean deadlock

The annexation of Crimea was planned as a response to the decrease in Vladimir Putin’s approval rating in Russia. Now, after the pension reform has been introduced, the president’s rating is lower than that of the military – for the first time ever. It may happen that Belarus becomes the next goal for the Kremlin’s revanchist policies.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s foreign policy towards the countries of the socialist camp extensively followed a simple formula: loyalty of its satellites was bought with cheap natural gas and oil supplies. Today, it is widely implemented by Russia in relation to its post-Soviet neighbours, and its main client is Belarus.

November 5, 2018 - Igor Gretskiy - Articles and CommentaryIssue 6 2018Magazine

Illustration by Andrzej Zaręba

From Moscow, Minsk regularly receives trade preferences, cheap raw materials and generous financial assistance in exchange for loyalty to the Kremlin’s foreign policy. It is unlikely that in the near future such a mode of interaction between the two states would undergo any observable changes. However, it is clear that Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea has triggered profound alterations in the nature of the Russo-Belarusian relations.

Russia’s most expensive ally

Despite the fact that the leaders of Russia and Belarus have always confirmed their commitment to a strategic alliance and “fraternal friendship”, the relations between the two has never been trouble-free or easy. Their usual attributes are constant trade wars and mutual accusations of violation of previously made commitments. This, however, never prevented them from getting what they wanted from each other. Moscow de facto subsidised up to 40 per cent of revenue to the Belarusian budget, and Minsk has always sided with Russia on the international arena, whether it was about voting on the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Moldova or a UN General Assembly resolution on Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

However Alyaksandr Lukashenka was never in a hurry to fully comply with the Kremlin’s foreign policy, often following a simple formula. Belarus fully supports Russia verbally or when voting on resolutions in international organisations, but avoids staking any further legally binding commitments. In his foreign policy, Lukashenka proceeds from the state of affairs of Russia’s relations with the West, trying to play up the contradictions between them and selling his “golden share” at a higher price. In other words, during the time of mutual rapprochement between Russia and the West, Belarus positions itself as a Russian window to Europe, while during periods of tension as a reliable bulwark to the expansion of western influence. That was the case, for instance, after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Russia had persistently urged Belarus to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in exchange for a two billion US dollar loan and a significant reduction in the price of natural gas. The Belarusian president received the money but delayed a final decision. As it turned out, non-recognition cost more and Lukashenka managed to resume co-operation with the IMF to get a loan of 3.6 billion dollars. When he asked Russia for another two billion, the Kremlin decided to withdraw the issue from the agenda.

Immediately after the annexation of Crimea, Lukashenka acted in a similar manner. He stated that Crimea was a de facto Russian territory and Kyiv would never be able to get it back. But the Belarusian president still did not officially recognise Crimea as a Russian territory, and on Belarusian maps the peninsula still belongs to Ukraine.

Although the Russian authorities see the issue of international recognition of Crimea as a principled matter, the possibilities of putting pressure on Minsk are now very limited. Belarus took an equidistant stance in relation to Russia, Ukraine and the West to receive considerable advantages. First, by enjoying its membership of the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus started to re-export EU goods to Russia that are banned by Russia as a counter-measure to western sanctions. Second, Belarus is no longer Europe’s number one pariah. After the annexation of Crimea and the introduction of international sanctions, this status was inherited by Russia. Today, practically no one talks about Lukashenka as the last dictator of Europe and the Belarusian president and his entourage successfully got the EU to withdraw sanctions that were in place since 2010. Having established more constructive relations with the West, Minsk also managed to expand the list of its potential creditors. For the Belarusian government the problem of external debt is becoming more and more relevant, as in 2019 it will have to pay almost four billion dollars.

A fatal blow to Moscow-led integration

The idea of ​​sacrificing national sovereignty and independence for the sake of membership in the Kremlin’s integration project has always been perceived by the post-Soviet republics with great scepticism. Territorial integrity and inviolability of borders is the most sensitive issue for those relatively young political formations, and therefore the Kremlin’s neo-imperial sentiments made them cautious and wary. The only exception to this was Lukashenka. Of all the post-Soviet leaders, he was the only one who saw the potential for a political future in new integration structures. Many Belarusians perceived the energetic and ambitious Belarusian leader, who managed to preserve the “island of communism” in his country, as the only hope to return stability. Responding to this demand, Lukashenka vehemently called for overcoming the “artificial split between the fraternal peoples” and criticised Moscow for being slow on this issue. These slogans found the most vivid response in the hearts of many post-Soviet citizens. And in the late 1990s if they had to choose a single president of a restored USSR, then undoubtedly Lukashenka would have had every chance to gain the majority of votes.

However in 2000, after the change of power in Russia, everything has changed. When still considered Boris Yeltsin’s successor, it was extremely important for Vladimir Putin that his claim to power be supported by the Russian elite. He was able to achieve this, in part, due to the popular and unifying rhetoric of restoring the Soviet Union, which he made one of his foreign policy priorities. The law on ratification of the Union State Treaty with Belarus, for example, was among the first documents signed by Putin the day after Boris Yeltsin stepped down. Not surprisingly, Putin paid his first foreign official visit to Minsk.

Lukashenka’s relations with the new ruler of Russia went immediately sour and their conversations were often heated. Putin yanked pro-Soviet rhetoric away from Lukashenka and immediately launched an offensive. He insisted on the inclusion of Belarusian territories into Russia and to hold a presidential election for the whole Union State in 2004. Of course, the young and popular new Russian leader would easily have won. Therefore Lukashenka answered with a categorical refusal, claiming that Belarus would never become the 90th province of Russia. A wave of post-Soviet colour revolutions overshadowed the frictions between the two leaders and made the Kremlin take a softer tone in dialogue with Minsk. However it became clear that Moscow failed to fully integrate Belarus through its initiatives.

Nonetheless, the most serious damage to the idea of ​​the Union State of Russia and Belarus was inflicted by the Kremlin’s foreign policy adventures. Ironically, while planning the annexation of Crimea and the military operation in Donbas, Putin’s inner circle had no intention to involve its Belarusian ally in the process. Hence, it is no wonder that the leader of the fraternal state did not want to share responsibility for the decisions taken by the Kremlin alone and share the burden of western sanctions. Russia’s decision to annex Crimea violated a number of treaties concluded within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in order to guarantee the territorial integrity of its members and to tackle separatism. This led to a devaluated significance of not only the CIS as an integration project, but of any Moscow-led integration initiatives. After all, the spring of 2014 showed that for the sake of illegal territorial acquisitions, the Kremlin can easily sacrifice economic co-operation with neighbouring countries. For years Ukraine was the largest market for Russian gas, but even this was ignored by the Russian leadership. It can be said that after the annexation of Crimea, the post-Soviet era of international relations in the region has ended.

Will Belarus be the next?

Lukashenka has always had a universal explanation for the causes of any territorial dispute, inter-ethnic clashes and armed conflicts in the post-Soviet space (be it Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia or South Ossetia). Those conflicts are “a natural consequence of the criminal demolition of the USSR”, which Lukashenka, agreeing with Putin, considered to be the biggest geopolitical catastrophe. Like Putin, Lukashenka regularly exploits nostalgia for the Soviet Union to legitimise his political regime.

Yet in the case of Crimea, the story is different. In response to the actions of Russia in Ukraine, Lukashenka, for the first time ever, made no reference to the Soviet Union. Instead, he claimed that Ukraine had itself to blame for the annexation as: “You did not fight for Crimea – it’s not yours then,” he stated. This is a fundamentally different logic. Even more importantly Lukashenka since 2014 publicly admits the threat of Russian aggression in Belarus. He is well aware that loyalty to Moscow and active participation in Moscow-led integration projects are no longer a sufficient guarantee of the territorial integrity of Belarus.

Lukashenka is trying to behave in such a way as to not give rise to Russian criticism. At the same time, he tries to take measures to challenge hybrid threats from the east. For instance, he called the Russian language a Belarusian people’s patrimony, but at the same time he increased support for Belarusian in schools and kindergartens. His effort to make Belarus more open is also very noticeable. Last year, a visa-free regime was introduced to more than 80 countries which caused a lot of irritation in the Kremlin. Belarus also introduced restrictions on the use of black-and-orange ribbons – the symbol of the Russian Spring – during the celebration of Victory Day. And this year a ban was imposed on the holding of Immortal Regiment marches – commemorations of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Minsk also resists the deployment of a permanent Russian military base on its territory.

The annexation of Crimea was planned as a response to the decrease of Putin’s approval rating in Russia. Now, after the pension reform in Russia was introduced, his rating is lower than that of the military – for the first time ever. It may happen that Belarus may become the next goal for the Kremlin’s revanchist policy. After all, the Kremlin’s idea of restoring historical justice does not recognise the norms of international law. For Belarus, therefore, maintaining relations with the West and avoiding international isolation is not just an effective way of acquiring loans. Not to be isolated one-on-one with Russia has become a strategic necessity for Belarus.

Consequently the prerequisites for adjusting Belarus’ foreign policy and its rapprochement with the West – namely, with NATO – are now taking shape. There is no doubt that the Belarusian army is ready to fight for its territory, but it is unlikely it has a clear idea of ​​how to respond the hybrid threats. Lukashenka has always been an opponent of NATO’s expansion in the east. Such rhetoric brought him popularity among those who longed for the Soviet Union. Yet unlike Russia, NATO has never had territorial claims against post-Soviet states. Therefore the fate of Belarus and the Lukashenka regime strongly depends on whether Belarus can effectively co-operate with the West.

Igor Gretskiy is an associate professor at the School of International Relations at St Petersburg State University.

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