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Integration impasse

Since the early stages of the creation of the union state between Belarus and Russia, leaders of both countries have exhibited distrust towards one another. This was even more visible in recent years, especially since the annexation of Crimea. The last few years have seen more differences emerge which could actually close any path to full integration.

Despite being considered a pariah in Europe, Belarus belongs to many international organisations. In addition to being a member of the OSCE, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Eurasian Economic Union, it participates as a member (or observer) in lesser known organisations such as the Non-Aligned Movement or the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. It was also a signatory of an agreement with the Russian Federation which, in 1996, established a formal union between the two states. This moment is annually commemorated by both countries (every April 2nd) as the Day of Unity of the Peoples of Russia and Belarus.

March 4, 2019 - Maxim Rust - Hot TopicsIssue 2 2019Magazine

A meeting of the Supreme Council of the Union State of Russia and Belarus Photo: President of Russian Federation (CC) http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/54917

 The 1996 agreement establishing the union of Belarus and Russia was concluded by presidents Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Boris Yeltsin. It served as an important milestone of the two states’ integration, which was cemented in December 1999 with the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus (i.e. in other words, a confederation).

Early years

In the early stages of the union state, Lukashenka was the main supporter of integration. His primary goal was to acquire and increase Russia’s support and role in the Belarusian economy, which he needed in order to avoid painful reforms. In the longer-term perspective, Lukashenka planned to become the president of the entire union state – one that would be the largest state in the world. Back then achieving this goal was quite plausible. Lukashenka was popular in Russia, especially when compared to the frail and ailing Yeltsin.

For Yeltsin the union state was also an important project. He needed it as a tool in some internal games that he played with Russian communists, who at that time held the majority in the Duma (Russia’s parliament). As they were fiercely criticising Yeltsin for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the establishment of a union state with Belarus was a sign that the first steps had been taken to recreate the fallen superpower. Hence, the Kremlin needed Belarus in its orbit of geopolitical influence.

Lukashenka’s primary goal was achieved. Multi-million dollar subsidies from the Russian budget reached the Belarusian economy and thus stability was ensured. Such was the state of affairs up until the early 2000s. The long term perspective was more of a dream, however, one that Lukashenka had to abandon when Vladimir Putin came to power. With Putin in the Kremlin the Belarusian president had no choice but to change his focus from the earlier proclaimed pan-Slavism ideology to independence and sovereignty. Along the way, the integration process slowed down. Despite pompous declarations of mutual friendship and integration made on both sides, action spoke much less in this regard. And the previous decade in particular revealed that the confederation of the two states was more theoretical than practical.

After 20 years of the establishment of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, it is worth analysing its achievements and failures. To do so, let us start with the assumptions of the founding document. It states that the two states would undergo a gradual integration and unification of economies, customs systems, currency and military forces. However when examined today, it is quite clear that, in any of these areas, there has not been any significant unification. Nor has the union state created its own flag or coat of arms –something that was stipulated in the founding document (not to mention the constitution). Consequently, the political institutions of the union state are now limited to a Supreme State Council, the Union Parliament, and the Standing Committee of Union State. Their role, however, is largely symbolic and has very little impact on the functioning of both states.

Integration slipping away

From today’s perspective, the introduction of a single currency (based on the Russian rouble) appears further out of reach than two decades ago, especially after taking into account the number of economic conflicts that have taken place between Russia and Belarus – mostly in relation to energy or commodity disputes. The union state may have been established to create a common market, yet the truth is that the brethren are constantly fighting; if not over petrol and gas, then over meat and milk.

Since 2015 the post-Soviet space has seen a new integration project take hold in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (of which Belarus is a member). The initial assumptions of this initiative included greater integration of the post-Soviet space which, nonetheless, did not translate into the strengthening of ties within the union state. Thus Belarus has proved apt at exploiting economic integration as a pretext for preferential pricing of Russian natural resources and to have unlimited access to the Russian market. This instrumental and one-sided treatment of the integration process by the Belarusian authorities has come under criticism from the Kremlin and generated greater political pressure on Minsk.

However, we can see development in some areas of integration. This is primarily true for military and defence sectors. Integration in these areas would advance even further had it not been for the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, which has clearly shaken the Belarusian authorities. Since then Minsk has exhibited aversion to any activities that could lead to the establishment of a Russian base on its territory. Belarus’s updated military doctrine includes terms like “hybrid warfare” – a clear allusion to the Kremlin’s activities in Ukraine.

Certainly, success is not a word to describe the common foreign policy of the union state. The Belarusian authorities never recognised Abkhazia or South Ossetia – the Kremlin supported breakaway republics in Georgia. And regarding the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war in eastern Ukraine, Belarus has called for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and it does not recognise the annexation of Crimea as legal. Instead, Lukashenka tried to play a more neutral role as peacemaker, hosting international negotiations in Minsk aimed at regulating the situation in Donbas. The decision to offer space for dialogue, rather than taking a side in the conflict, has paid off for Belarus quite well. The EU waived its sanctions against the Belarusian regime and a new stage of normalization of relations with the West followed. Lukashenka, inspired by this success, wanted to take it one step further: for Belarus to express a desire to support its long-term economic partner, Azerbaijan, in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The other side – Armenia – is backed by Russia and is also member of the Eurasian Economic Union.

The last few years have seen even more differences emerge between the two states which could actually close any path to full integration. Clearly the Kremlin’s revisionist foreign policy, aimed at Russia’s greater dominance over the post-Soviet space through escalation of tensions in the region, is in conflict with Minsk’s recent opening to the West and its attempts to become partially independent. Russia certainly did not approve of Belarus’s introduction of a visa free regime with citizens from over 80 states, including all EU states and the United States.

At a standstill

Since the early stages of the union state, Belarusian and Russian leaders have exhibited distrust towards one another. This was even more visible in recent years, especially since the annexation of Crimea and the introduction of western sanctions against Russia which were followed by a decrease in gas prices. The gas dispute that emerged earlier this year has clearly shown that economic factors are actually of secondary importance, and that disagreements are more political in nature. At the same time, the belief that this conflict would put an end to Belarus’s independence proved to be far-fetched; the highest officials of both states said there were no perspectives for a real unification. Thus, Belarusian-Russian integration is today at a standstill. Seemingly, both states are partially content with this situation. Belarus wants to keep the flow of Russian money coming in while Russia needs an ally (even if only a declarative one) in its western neighbourhood. Other reasons for integration are running out fast on both sides. As a result, there are no signs of a political will to return to intense integration talks. Nor are there any resources for it.

The union state, which has been a political project for two decades now, does not really exist and nobody – neither the ruling elite nor the public – believes in its future success. And yet there are even some risks and threats that come with the formal existence of a union state. First, there is the possibility of a different interpretation of the language of the founding document. The reading of the stipulations within the document also depends on the tendencies that, at a given moment, dominate in the relations. For example, when Minsk authorities talk about the union state in the context of an economic conflict, then Moscow can always flip the argument around to say that the union state was meant to be a form of statehood and not a source of cheap subsidy. The Russians have increasingly referred to the political and integrational aspects of the agreement which, in the Kremlin’s view, are being scuttled. Second, nobody knows what Russia’s true intentions with regards to Belarus really are. What we are only seeing is that, since 2014, Lukashenka’s 2014 policy of “petrol and gas for kisses” is less and less effective.

The third and probably most important thing is that the union state, which at the time of its creation was strongly supported by Lukashenka, could actually one day turn against the Belarusian president. Thus the question that emerges is if, in the current arrangement of power, there could be room for the Belarusian president and his circle in a union state with Russia? This will probably remain a rhetorical question, at least for the movement.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Maxim Rust is a Belarusian political scientist researching political elites and transformation processes on the post-Soviet space. He is also a PhD candidate at the University of Warsaw and contributing editor to New Eastern Europe.

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