Belarus, a small post-Soviet republic with a population of 9.5 million and a border with Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania, is Russia’s biggest perennial military ally. This is one of the few reasons why it is on the radar of the Western media. On Dec. 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a joint military doctrine between Russia and Belarus, reaffirming that in military matters Russia and Belarus remain allies.
The same is not always true in economic and diplomatic matters. Just recently, several critical messages were directed toward Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko by two Russian officials, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Russia’s ambassador to Belarus Mikhail Babich.
The Western press immediately rushed in to try to drive a wedge between the two countries, repeating its headlines from a few years ago about Lukashenko no longer being “Russia’s dependable ally” and even claiming: “Belarus preparing for a hybrid war with Russia” (The Week).
Experts warn against this simplified black-and-white Western approach, pointing out that a composite approach is possible, consisting of healthy alternatives to “puppet state” or “hybrid war.”
“I understand that the United States and the EU want a pro-NATO regime in Minsk, and they are eager to see a looser bond between Russia and Belarus as a first step in that direction,” explains Vladimir Zharikhin, the chief expert on Eastern Slavic states at the Moscow-based Institute of the Community of Independent States (CIS). “The truth is that there has not been a dramatic loosening. Due to the need to contend with the sanctions, Russia had to reform its economy and cut expenses. So, Russia expects Belarus to shoulder part of the burden and cooperate. Unfortunately, Mr. Lukashenko is not always very understanding about this.”
In their statements, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev and Ambassador Babich merely asked for more clarity from Lukashenko regarding his intentions about what is known as the Union State, an entity which Russia and Belarus agreed to create at a Yeltsin-Lukashenko summit back in 1999.
In mid-December while Medvedev was at a working session of the Union State of Russia and Belarus Council of Ministers in Brest (a historic city on Belarus’s border with Poland), he urged Lukashenko to choose between two options. Option one is to further integration at a conservative pace within the current framework. Medvedev, however, said he preferred the second option, which is to proceed with the Union State project. That project assumes that both Russia and Belarus will preserve their state sovereignty, but couples this sovereignty with far-reaching economic and legislative integration. Since 1999, many of the Union State’s projects have been tabled, such as the proposal to establish a single currency and a joint “money emission center” (both were to be finalized by 2005). Now Medvedev is suggesting the synchronization of taxation, customs, and tariffs policies.
Lukashenko reacted to Medvedev’s suggestions nervously, seeing in them some hint of a threat to the sovereignty of Belarus. “What do we need this for? Why is this issue being raised now?.. If the idea is to divide Belarus into several regions and absorb these regions into Russia — this will never happen,” Lukashenko said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, attempting to assuage Lukashenko’s fears, explained on December 17 that no merger between Russia and Belarus into one state is on the agenda. Peskov made it clear that what is being called the Union State is actually a “format for cooperation.” “Belarus remains our biggest ally,” Peskov told journalists.
The Russian ambassador in Minsk, Mikhail Babich, however, complained that Belarus had accomplished only a “tiny fraction” of what had been planned in 1999. Babich also noted that Russia would like to improve its trade balance with Belarus.
“Right now, trade between Russia and Belarus amounts to $30 billion, which makes Belarus one of Russia’s primary trading partners, trailing only the EU and China,” Babich explained. “However, out of the $18 billion of goods exported to Belarus from Russia, almost $10 billion consists of Russian fuel exports. So, subtracting that, Russia is exporting less than $9 billion worth of finished products to Belarus. This is even less than Belarus’s non-energy exports to us, which are worth $10 billion. So, the trade balance is not to our advantage.”
Bogdan Bezpalko, the head of the Center for Belarusian Studies at Moscow State University (MGU), notes that the Western media is so eager for Belarus to follow the sinister Ukrainian example of dramatic “regime change” that it is overlooking the real changes occurring in Belarus. Lukashenko is being presented as a “pro-Russian dictator,” which he simply isn’t.
“The reality is that both in 2009 and now, in 2018, Lukashenko has been trying to make a breakthrough in his relations with the West. Between 2009 and 2010, Lukashenko was visited by the then-head of the EU’s diplomatic service, Javier Solana, who was followed by the German and Polish foreign ministers, Guido Westerwelle and Radoslaw Sikorski. It looked like the end of Belarus’s estrangement from the EU,” recounts Bezpalko. However, the EU was trying to stage a local version of the Orange Revolution as early as December 19, 2010, the day of the presidential election in Belarus,. At the time, the Western media was supporting a violent attack on government buildings in Minsk by an angry mob of “liberal” protesters, who were unhappy about the election results. Glass was smashed and doors were damaged. Lukashenko arrested and punished the perpetrators.
But he never quite forgot his dream of a “breakthrough” to the West. Between 2014 and 2018 Lukashenko mended his country’s ties with the Ukrainian regime of Petro Poroshenko and advertised the fact that Minsk had been chosen as a venue for negotiations about how to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. Western sanctions were lifted, and in 2017 Lukashenko was invited to a summit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership in Prague, an invitation he graciously refused, thus sparing the EU another round of internal discussions on this invitation to the “last dictator in Europe.”
At a recent meeting with journalists, Lukashenko praised his own efforts at mediation between Putin and Poroshenko in a way that is unlikely to please the Russians: “I told Vladimir Putin: in a few years we may be praying to God to have NATO on the border between Ukraine and Russia instead of the crazy Ukrainian nationalists with their guns.”
The Russian experts were unanimous in their criticism of such a view of the problem. “The expansion of NATO into Ukraine is unacceptable for Russia, this is understood by both the elites and the people,” explains the prominent Russian expert and head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, Sergei Karaganov. “The fact that some of the Ukrainian nationalists are indeed crazy does not make the presence of NATO in Ukraine any more acceptable for Russia.”
The question that remains is: does Lukashenko realize how dangerous it is to flirt with the West at the cost of trying Russia’s patience on integration projects? Or has the cunning Belarusian leader once again shown himself an expert at trying to have his cake and eat it too? In 2015 and 2016, Belarus profited economically on the mutually imposed sanctions between Russia and the EU, by refusing to join the fray and instead becoming a “transit zone,” but this period is reportedly coming to an end.