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The renaissance of Russia-Belarus relations

Why should we not care about the Confederacy between Russia and Belarus?

December 5, 2019 - Monika Bickauskaite - Articles and Commentary

President Putin and President Lukashenka in 2015. Photo: Presidential Adminstration of the Russian Federation (cc)

This September Russian media outlet Kommersant leaked a document stating that Russia and Belarus are planning to form an economic confederacy by 2022, with the precise plans to be announced on December 8th of this year. The idea of confederacy dates to the 1999 Union State Treaty that was supposed to tie the two countries into a common Soviet-like union. Ever since the treaty was signed, the idea of the union has re-surfaced on numerous occasions. However, it has never materialised. And yet, the recently-announced plans seem to carry more weight as the announcement comes at a crucial time.

As President Vladimir Putin is reigning over his last term, he seems to be willing to do anything to maintain the grasp of his power. Creating a union between the two countries could open a backdoor to the Constitution that prevents Putin from re-election in 2024. Such union would entail a common legal system, foreign policy, joint defense and energy regulations. Additionally, it would mean a prolonged Russian border for NATO countries Lithuania and Latvia, and a new extended Russian border for Poland. This could simultaneously result in more Russian military facilities or troops in Belarus. In fact, the ambassador of Lithuania to Poland, Eduardas Barisovas believes that the formalisation of the union state would indeed lead to further military integration. Simply put, a buffer between Russia and the EU would no longer exist. More importantly, Belarus would lose the last traces of its sovereignty.

These prospects seem to be raising concern to the leaders of both, Eastern and Western Europe. For Russia observers, however, the process of slow but irreversible russification of Belarus has not been disrupted with the collapse of the USSR—rather, it has continued and intensified under the leadership of Putin.

How Europe lost Belarus and did not realise it

Undoubtedly, Belarus has been forced to integrate into Russia in a hybrid manner for the past two decades. Throughout the years, Russian propaganda masterminds have been aiming to indoctrinate Belarusians with the idea that Belarusian culture, language and even history are fake. Russian propaganda narratives claim that Belarusians as a nation do not exist—they are simply a branch of Great Russian people. Similarly, Russian spin doctors portray Belarusian as “corrupted” Russian, rather than an independent language. To ensure the success of such ideological integration, Moscow is applying continuous pressure on Belarusian social and mass media by using fake news and propaganda, coopting Belarusian journalists and bloggers to spread a pro-Russian message. Additionally, Russian propaganda methods are institutionalised, with the three main Russian “soft power” foundations: Rossotrudnichestvo, Russkiy Mir and The Gorchakov Fund. These Moscow-led organisations are taking over independent media in Belarus and are continuously spreading an anti-Western, imperialist information.

When it comes to the Kremlin’s narrative, it evolves around the Soviet past, Orthodox beliefs and greater pan-Slavism. Moscow is trying to emphasise unity and homogeneity between the two nations. As surveys from the Belarusian Yearbook 2019 explain, such strategy has been rather effective. In 2018, a quarter of Belarusians believed that the source of Belarusian statehood is the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. The percentage of people who support such notion has doubled since the survey was first taken in 2009. Moreover, almost half of Belarusians believe that Soviet names in public places should never be replaced since it is a part of Belarusian history. Such statistics illustrate the effectiveness of Russian propaganda.

Simultaneously, Russia is targeting the most resilient group—the youth—that cannot relate to the Soviet past equivalently as the generations that lived through it. To do so, Kremlin is integrating pro-Russian ideas into educational programs. For example, Centre for the Study of Integration Prospects organises a youth competition called the “Union League of Debates.” This contest is targeting university students, and is aimed at bringing them closer to the Russian culture and believes, showing that the two countries come from one branch of history.

Surprisingly, Moscow benefits from the fact that Belarus does not receive geo-targeting from international internet corporations. Currently, Belarus does not enjoy geographical localisation of internet services on platforms such as Google or Apple. As a result, Belarusians receive targeted news of the neighboring Russian-speaking countries, rather than the local outlets, diminishing country’s information sovereignty. On cyber-space, Belarus is simply treated as Russia, even by the Western tech giants. This facilitates Russia’s ability to spread disinformation in Belarus, and prevents Belarus from correcting the narrative.

Another issue is engrained in the anthropology of Belarus itself—today very few people speak their native language. The majority of Belarusians (49 to 78 per cent) use Russian language in their everyday life. Meanwhile, only 3 per cent say that they speak Belarusian daily, regardless of the 48 per cent considering it a native language. Correspondingly, the working language in most kindergartens, schools and universities in Belarus is Russian. Since language is an essential part of one’s identity and formation, the Belarusian youth is socialised to adapt to the Russian perspective from an early age.

High price for cheap oil

Furthermore, Belarus is highly dependent from Moscow economically. Russia is the first trade partner of Belarus and the trade deficit between the two countries is at an all-time high, 10 billion US dollars. The issue is amplified by the energy sector, as Belarus is depending on Russian oil and gas. For years, Belarus has been buying Russian oil at preferential prices, and selling it to the rest of Europe at world prices. As a result, savings on oil supplies in 2018 alone were 8.5 billion US dollars , accounting for 13.7 per cent of Belarus’ GDP. However, in 2018 Russia introduced a gradual tax maneuver, aiming at abolishing export duty and raising mineral extraction tax. When the maneuver is completed, it will cost Belarus anywhere from 2 to 12 billion US dollars. Yet, if Belarus was to join a full-fledged union with Russia, Minsk could avoid such costs—a classic example of Moscow’s energy diplomacy. Hence, formalising the economic integration with the union state might be the only solution to save the county’s budget.

The scenario of confederacy is further reinforced by the ideology of the two leaders. Both, Putin and Lukashenka want to rule indefinitely. In fact, while a union with Russia seems to be a clear path to Lukashenka’s political suicide, his former political opponent Andrei Sannikov proposes an alternative view. According to him, Lukashenka had plans to become president of the union state when he originally signed the agreement back in the 1990s. Political activist furthers that Lukashenka has been continuously destroying Belarusian identity by taking away its language, culture, and history, and by doing so he is selling Belarus, piece by piece, to Russia. At this point, backing down might simply be too late for Belarus given the state of the current integration.

An agreement with Putin may be the only way forward if the country wants to survive economically, and even ethically—considering that Russian information games have succeeded in watering down the concept of Belarusian identity. For Lukashenka, Belarusian independence means personal power supported by Russian subsidies. In fact, one could speculate that if Putin does not find a way around the constitution in 2024, Lukashenka could imagine himself assuming the leadership of the newly-formed union (even if one could question how much de facto power an official role would bring him).

Simultaneously, prominent figures in the Kremlin have been developing a masterplan of restoring the glory of the Russian Empire for a long time. Alexey Kochetkov—one of the key ideologues of the unification between Russia and Belarus—has been repeatedly promoting the idea of a union state between Russia, Belarus and Serbia. But his agenda does not end here: in the future, he believes the “Russian bloc” will inevitably include new members, like Macedonia, Montenegro or “sobered-up” Ukraine. Such remarks by one of the Russian strategists reveal that for the Kremlin, integrating Belarus is just one of the first steps of its grandiose plan. Based on Russia’s previous actions in Georgia and Ukraine, one could conclude that Russia is not going to let go of its ambitions so easily.

In fact, Moscow has already established an infrastructure that would allow for a Crimean-like scenario in Belarus. This plan is led by the Public Chamber of the Union State—an organism that was created to facilitate the implementation of the confederacy. Indicatively, the Chamber is composed of numerous individuals related to the Russian security services and previous Russian imperialist projects, like the one in Ukraine. As December approaches, the body is working restlessly to enhance Moscow’s ties with Belarussian administration, business, security agencies and cultural elites. As furthered by the iSANS experts, the Chamber is trying to gather public support for a Crimean-like scenario when the parliament (led by pro-Russian parties) votes in favor of the Constitutional Act of the Union State. If the document is passed by the Parliament, it will still require a significant pressure for Lukashenka to sign it.

Shy protest and Lukashenka’s balancing act

Indeed, while the Kremlin has been blatantly clear about its goals and directions, Lukashenka has been selling Belarus to Russia quietly, and many of us Western observers failed to notice it. For years, Lukashenka, often called Europe’s last dictator, has engaged in a balancing act—maneuvering between Russia and the West. Such strategy allowed Lukashenka to gain concessions from both sides, increasing his personal power. At the times when Lukashenka needed support from the West, he has expressed shy protest against the Kremlin to be able to continue navigating between the two sides.

When the confederacy plans were leaked to the public, Belarus’ minister of foreign affairs Vladimir Makei undertook Lukashenka’s modus operandi and publicly stated that “[Russia’s] initial proposals stipulated the inclusion of certain provisions that were unacceptable, particularly for Belarus.” Such statements allow Lukashenka to portray Putin’s Russia as the sole culprit, and continue receiving support from the West.

Undeniably, Belarus has been trying to enhance agreements with the European Union, particularly, when it comes to credit and investment. In 2018, the first agreements were signed between Belarus and the European Investment Bank (EIB) for a 160 million euro investment. Moreover, Belarus has signed an agreement with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) on a 42.45 million euro loan for a reconstruction of the P-80 highway.

Simultaneously, appeasing the West, Minsk has demonstrated their protest and declined to accommodate a Russian air base, refraining from enhanced Russian military presence in the country.

However, these expressions of shy protest are simply means to cover reality, and make numerous observers believe that the formalisation of the union state will not take place. Yet, whichever outcome we are faced with in early December does not change the fact that Belarus is already integrated into Russia—socially, and economically. That rather than the promised December 8th announcement should represent our primary concern.

Is there any hope left for Belarus?

Therefore, if we acknowledge the deep state of Belarus’ hybrid integration with Russia, and refuse to care about the confederacy plans, we cannot help but wonder, is there any hope left for Belarus? The answer is—yes—because Belarus is more than Lukashenka, it is the Belarusian people. 77 per cent of Belarusians have positive or neutral image of the EU, indicating that the Belarusian people might prefer joining the European, rather than the Russian union. Contrarily, only 12.4 per cent of Belarusians believe that Belarus and Russia should unite into one union state.

Such statistics are far from surprising since Belarus, just like any other country, is part of a globalised world. A world in which investigative journalism can still expose Russia’s true actions in Syria and Ukraine, and offer a counter-narrative to the Kremlin’s propaganda. Additionally, Belarus has a young generation—one that does not reminisce the Soviet times since it did not live it, one that envisions their country sovereign and free. This generation has traveled abroad, has been exposed to foreign cultures and has had access to internet. In fact, 5,3 million of Belarusians are active users of the Web. Furthermore, a part of this new generation resides abroad: Poland, the U.S. the UK, and the list continues. These Belarusians and forward-looking and understand the benefits of liberal democracy. And so, this generation will not rest as they see their country—the free country that they know—being absorbed into Russia.

Certainly, the Belarussian youth has been active throughout Lukashenka’s rule—standing up against the regime, despite of its repressions. Youth activism was particularly strong in early 2000s, and after the 2006 Presidential elections, when youth structures “Young Front”, “Zubr” and “Hopits!” organised a series of protests. While it is uncertain if we see similar surge of activism today, Belarus cannot escape the effects of globalisation, including openness, and social media that allows for fast mobilisation and opposition from within the country and from abroad.

Just recently a prominent Warsaw-based Belarusian blogger Stsyapan Svyatlou (NEXTA) has used the power of his social media to organise a picket in Minsk’s Freedom Square. It was the first time that bloggers, rather than political opposition, gathered in a square and urged fellow Belarusians to express their opinion and speak up against the atrocities of the government.

Even more importantly, social media allows for a peaceful protest—that expressed by modern means of opposition. In Belarus, individual opinion leaders and activists have been successfully using social media platforms such as Twitter to assure that the public opinion of Belarusians is heard. When in 2015 Russia insisted on building a new military base in Belarus, Belarussian bloggers have started a hashtag #noRussianBaseinBelarus that rapidly became number one trending hashtag in Belarus, and number five in the world. Such activism urged both, local and international media to cover the issue, asserted pressure on Lukashenka and successfully prevented the construction of the military base.

Evidentially, the young generation is channeling their opinion and a hope for more liberal and democratic future. The Belarusian youth is asking the same questions as their counterparts in France, the UK or Poland. They worry about Brexit, climate clanged, populism and the future of the European Union. They are longing for a way to connect with Europe and the world, and are hoping for their basic rights of democratic dialogue within the country to be restored.

Therefore, the question that should be asked is not what will the December 8th announcement bring but what happens next—after Lukashenka ends his reign? While the current leader feels comfortable maneuvering between Russia and the West, the new leadership of Belarus will have to re-evaluate its foreign policy options, given the rapidly-growing openness of the Belarusian people. Hence, the upcoming formalisation of the union state will not have a significant impact. A new chapter of the Belarus—EU relations can only be opened after Europe’s last dictator ends his rule.

A look forward

Consequently, foreign ministries of European countries should be already asking how to approach this new leadership and assure that Belarus chooses westward direction once the time is right—and a choice can be made.

Not caring for the Russia-Belarus confederacy does not mean not caring for Belarus itself. On the contrary, we should acknowledge the reality in which Lukashenka’s Belarus is already absorbed into Russia in the hybrid manner, and is dependent on the Kremlin economically and even identity-wise. Today, Belarus has limited choice.

However, acknowledging that, we should not cease thinking about tomorrow, in which post-Lukashenka Belarus can change its direction. European countries must find ways to facilitate this transition, rather than helplessly waiting for the Kremlin’s next announcement.

Finding efficient ways to aid Belarus is not always easy, and yet the European Union should continue to engage in smart and conditional assistance, pursue its efforts in public diplomacy and offer educational projects and exchanges. It is paramount to communicate a message to Lukashenka, assuring that the European assistance comes only together with his commitment to pursue economic and social reforms in the country.

Additionally, Western partners should find better ways to support grassroots organisations, NGOs and independent opinion leaders in Belarus. With a rapid technological change, a prominent Twitter account or a YouTube channel can reach a broader audience than most of the newspapers and opposition parties. Since Russia has been integrating Belarus in a hybrid manner, it is essential to build resilience in cyber-space and adapt modern strategies (such as social media visuals) to create a lasting impact.

Finally, the West should increase its support to independent Belarusian media and independent civil society—the two bastions of hope for Belarus. Partly, such support should come from the international business sector. It is essential to recognise Belarus as a separate market and have geographical localisation of internet services. Localising the services helps to fight the Russian propaganda machine and augments the echo of local voices. A country of 9 million people needs to be heard and cannot be neglected, regardless of the current reality.

Monika Bickauskaite is a graduate of Sciences Po Paris and University of Southern California (USC), with a master’s degree in International Security. She is currently working at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), Warsaw office.

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