In recent months, Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko has held several rounds of talks with President Putin to discuss further integration between Belarus and her neighbouring giant, but the results were not as good as expected. As new generations roll out into Belorussian politics, is the feeling of closeness between the country and Russia fading out?
On December the 7th, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko left Minsk to discuss with Putin an agreement on further integration with Russia. The meeting was preceded by moths of negotiations, and — it comes without saying — of heated debate within Belarusian public opinion, which feared possible losses of sovereignty. Accordingly, the day of the meeting, hundreds of protesters took the streets in Minsk rallying for the independence of Belarus. In this context, the long awaited summit resulted in a “no-deal” , and a further meeting was agreed to be held on December the 20th. Again, the streets of Minsk were inundated by protesters and no conclusive deal was agreed. The two summits having failed, a big question hangs over Belarus: how close do Belarusians want to be to their neighbouring giant?
Ever since the dissolution of USSR, relations between Belarus and Russia have been amongst the closest in the post-soviet space, a fact that is reflected by widespread feelings of sympathy and trust towards Russia in Belarusian public opinion. According to the Pew Research Centre, in 2017 at least half of Belarusians (mostly from older generations) viewed the dissolution of USSR as a bad thing for their countries. The same survey by PRC reported that by that time 47% of Belarusians favoured stronger ties with Russia, 30% wanted their country closer to both Russia and Europe, whereas just 17% saw stronger ties with Europe as a priority. Finally, 62% of Belarusians were reported to see Russia as a protector. Clearly enough, the special relationship between the two countries, and in particular between the peoples of Russia and Belarus, is still alive and kicking. Yet, this feeling of closeness by no means implies that Belarusians would be ready to give up sovereignty to their neighbour.
What does Belarus think about integration?
According to a survey by the Sociological Institute of the National Academy of sciences of Belarus, 49,9% of Belarusians believe that the country should maintain fully independent relations with Russia — in other words, friendly “partnership relations” — and 36,1% of Belarusians believe that the two countries should unite under the framework of a supranational authority designed according to the principle of an equal union (“allied relations”). Surprisingly enough, 7,7% of Belarusian are reported to support outright unification, but this number is likely to decline over time, as new generations take over Belarusian politics. Therefore, against the very vocal minority of protesters who took the streets of Minsk, it appears that most Belarusians favour stronger ties with Russia, and, in case equal partnership was guaranteed, at least a third of the population would be ready to accept further integration. Yet, it is hard to imagine such wishes would ever come true, as equality of partnership appears almost impossible to achieve.
In order to achieve a better understanding of the issue, it is best to make some clarity on the stakes and the scope of the negotiations. Talks about further integration were first presented as a possible solution to Russia’s claim that they could no longer subsidise lower energy and gas prices to Belarus — which extensively relies on such subsidies. In order to overcome the problem, Russian officials suggested that closer economic integration between the two countries would logically result in lower energy prices.
Such an idea is not new, and it is not by chance that the summit was held on the 20th anniversary of the signature of The Treaty on the Creation of a Union State of Russia and Belarus. Signed on December 8th, 1999 the Treaty aimed at creating a federation like the Soviet Union, with a common head of state, legislature, flag, coat of arms, anthem, constitution, army, citizenship, and currency — and, on the economic side, a shift to unified tax legislation and the creation of common oil, gas and electricity markets. Pursuant to the treaty, Belarus and Russia would even establish a single parliament and government with certain powers.
Yet, while both parties have agreed and ratified the Treaty, and both are working to achieve the 31 “road maps” for deeper integration, Minsk insists that such integration must be based on equal partnership, which appears highly unlikely. In fact, the huge weight-gap between the two countries both in economic and political terms makes a peer-to-peer playing field virtually impossible to achieve and sustain. In particular, in the latest meeting, Lukashenko and Putin failed to reach agreement an on three of the 31 “road maps,” — namely gas, oil, and tax issues.
All things considered, an agreement seems quite unlikely. Apart from that tiny 7%, which is bound to get tinier and tinier in upcoming years, neither the authorities nor society want Belarus to become a province of the Russian Federation. On the other hand, those who would welcome further integration, would do it on the basis of a condition which is impossible to materialise in current status quo. Secondly, while Belarus would certainly suffer from high energy prices, the losses would not amount to an economic catastrophe of any sort, and wouldn’t certainly be high enough to justify mutilations in the country’s sovereignty.
As declared by Lukashenko, Belarus and Russia will remain “fraternal nations”, but, in present conditions, nothing more than that.