Five things to know in order to not freak out over the upcoming Putin-Lukashenka meeting
This weekend, the Union State of Russia and Belarus marks its 20th anniversary, which the authorities decided to celebrate with a supposedly historical meeting. Despite the prolonged history of the project, the Union State has never become a shadow of what it was meant to become upon its establishment.
Nevertheless though, Belarus’s dependence on Russia still ended up immense and recently the Russian side has called for its formal legalisation. This weekend, Alyaksandr Lukashenka will meet Vladimir Putin in Sochi to discuss the new integration deal, which impels many to fear drastically over the future of Belarus as an (in)dependent state. Yet here are some reason why those concerns may be unnecessary.
1. Fear of unknown
By definition, one often is afraid of what is shrouded in mystery. The precise text of the integration agreement remains unknown to the public and although a number of leaks provide at least a limited representation, this is not enough to overcome the wariness. Trust in both Russian and Belarusian governments is notoriously low, which is why neither the public nor political columnists could be sure that the meeting brings no unfortunate surprises. Mere uncertainty though should not be enough to foster hysteria.
2. New is old
When looking at the leaked provisions of the integration agreement one should speak of “rebranding” rather than “rethinking”. For example, it is difficult to imagine which major shifts could be accomplished under the framework of a “common customs policy” like the Eurasian Economic Union does its integration job already. Common foreign policy directives, in turn, do not explain what exactly is expected from them and most importantly, do not explain how they are different from the old scheme where Belarus supports Russia on the international arena in exchange for financial assistance. Overall, the supposed provisions are vague in their own phrasing, providing a significant leverage for both parties to manipulate them upon desire.
3. Non-binding bonds
The history of the Union State as such proves unambiguously that whatever is signed may not necessarily be fulfilled. Belarus-Russia relations have seen many agreements that did not go past the paper and there is no evidence to suggest that this time it will be different. Many issues still lack any sort of agreement and some provisions seem impossible to fulfil. For example, Belarus and Russia have significantly different tax codes and institution systems: to an extent that would make their unification (as planned) plausible only in the long run, if ever. Structural issues also surround, for example, integration of military units. This suggests that regardless of the formal provisions that are due to be signed, there is absolutely no guarantee that these will be followed.
4. Some polls are not to be trusted
One of the fresh fears associated with the matter concerned the recently published opinion poll claiming that 90% of Belarusians favoured further integration with Russia. The poll, however, drastically manipulated the statistics it worked with and produced unreliable data in the first place. It had an excessively small sample of participants, flawed data collection technique and provided limited representation: the researchers called random phone numbers and could only speak to those who replied, which were few. Also, those who approved a mere partnership were put into the same category as those in favour of a single state creation. As the result, even the Belarusian Academy of Sciences criticised the entire fact of how the research was done, calling it unlawful. The alternative data suggests that half of the country’s population supports full independence of Belarus and co-operation with Russia only under the international agreements. Just seven per cent would welcome the further integration to an extent of mergence.
5. Nothing has happened yet
In the end, the most crucial component of this conversation is that no deal has been signed yet. The upcoming meeting is scheduled for a reason and its format suggests that this reason is the further discussion. Although two presidents may indeed sign an agreement after it, we may also see what has already happened many times with previous deals: delay. Lukashenka’s opinion on further integration has been clear the whole time: integration is welcomed on the premises of equal conditions. As Russia clearly has not ever been ready to fulfil this request, the integration game stretched across two decades. If the currently suggested document is signed over the weekend, it would indeed be an important step towards further talks on the matter. But the very fact of its signing remains very much of an open question.
Yahor Azarkevich is a freelance journalist and an MA student at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. He is also an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe.