Analytical paper: Belarus-Russia relations after the Ukraine conflict

Since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict began, the Kremlin has persistently tried to expand its control over Belarus, a process that has had quite the opposite effect as Belarusian government policy became more independent in 2014-2015.

There has always existed a paradox in the simultaneous contingence and estrangement in Belarusian-Russian relations.

Estrangement looks the stronger of the two today, evidenced by the decrease in Belarus’ military dependence on Russia and its refusal to allow the establishment of a Russian military base on its territory; the reduction in the Russian economy’s role in Belarus; discrepancies in the foreign policy and media spheres; and conflicts between the political elites of both countries.

These are some of the conclusions found in a new analytical paper Belarus-Russia Relations after the Ukraine Conflict released by the Ostrogorski Centre today.

Background

This paper examines the integration/disintegration tendencies in Belarus-Russia relations since November 2013, when protests started in Ukraine. The ensuing Euromaidan, annexation of Crimea, and war in the Donbass have considerably altered European politics, including relations between Minsk and Moscow.

Despite close relations and the formal joint construction of the Union State, which also provides for integration processes, Belarus and Russia are becoming estranged from each other, in numerous ways. There are two reasons for this.

Lukashenka has probably never before taken so seriously the possibility of a Russian military operation inside Belarus

First, the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukraine led to a re-thinking inside Belarusian authoritative circles of the possible steps that Russia could take with regard to Belarus. Alexander Lukashenka has probably never before taken so seriously the possibility of a Russian military operation inside Belarus as he did when he claimed in May 2015 that the Belarusian army needs to be so strong that it is capable of “being thrown from Brest to Vitebsk in half a night to strike a blow”.

Secondly, the decline of the Russian economy lessens the Kremlin’s role as guarantor of Belarus’ well-being. In the conditions of slumping prices, shrinking of the domestic market, and declining GDP growth and forex reserves in Russia, diversification of the Belarusian economy has transformed from wishful thinking into a vital necessity.

Military disintegration: how to say “no” to your ally

Military cooperation has always been the “holy cow” of Belarusian-Russian integration, and the basis for journalists’ and Western experts’ statements presuming that the Belarusian army remains a part of the Russian one.

One of the grounds for such a presumption is the existence of the Integrated Regional Antiaircraft Defense System which, according to the Russian military, started functioning in 2016. The agreement on its creation was signed back in 2009 and in fact brought nothing new to Russian-Belarusian military cooperation. It looks likely that announcing the establishment of an antiaircraft defense system was aimed at making milder Belarus’ refusal to place a Russian military air base on its territory.

The refusal to create the airbase reflects a broader trend – i.e. Belarus’ attempts to reduce its military dependence on Russia. The presence of so many Belarusian military personnel in Russia has always ensured that there is a mental connection between the Belarusian and the Russian armies – it is hard to find any top Belarusian military official who has not studied in Russia.

However, the number of Belarusian military cadets at the Russian military’s higher educational establishments is decreasing: last academic year there were 447, this year only 374.

The joint Shield of the Union exercises in 2015 gathered 1.5 times fewer military personnel than the 2011 Shield of the Union or West-2013 exercises (i.e. 8,000 participants compared with 12,000). While military exercises seemed all but impossible without Russia before, today the Belarusian paratroopers practice with the Chinese every year.

Although the scope of such training exercises looks miserly in comparison with the exercises with Russia, it shows Belarus’ desire to find new partners.

China, in general, has become a noticeable partner for Belarus. This is most clearly seen in the joint development of weapons systems by Minsk and Beijing, the multiple launch rocket system fire Polonaise being an example.

Failure of the Eurasian Economic Union and economic cooperation

In many ways, Russia’s economic decay is responsible for the fact that in only its first year of existence, the Eurasian Economic Union’s (EEU) became a failure for Belarus.

First, the integration project inherited practically all the tariffs (about 600) that existed in the Customs Union. Due to such mechanisms, about two third of goods and services have been withdrawn from the common market of the EEU. Secondly, economic interaction between the countries has reduced. According to data provided by the Eurasian Economic Commission, the trade turnover of Belarusian goods with the EU countries in 2015 was only 74.8 % of that in 2014.

Thirdly, although Belarus has introduced unpopular measures like increasing fees for the import of cars, the regulations of the economic union serve Russia’s interests, as evidenced by the continuing economic wars. Fourthly, the importance of oil and gas, which were the key motivators for Belarus to join the EEU, have fallen sharply

Discrepancies in foreign policy

Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and economic decline have become one of the most important motivators for the Belarusian authorities to normalise relations with the West. Data provided by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) shows that since 2013 Belarus has intensified its relations with the European Union, and today contacts with the EU outnumber those with Russia.

The BISS data reflects the fact that Belarus started normalising relations with the EU and building up contacts with “developing countries” at the beginning of 2013. This included support for Ukraine’s European integration. This shows that the increase in dialogue with the West started not because of Russia’ expansionist policy, but for internal reasons.

It is nonetheless indisputable that the activation of Belarusian contacts with the world and deepening discrepancies in the foreign policies of Moscow and Minsk in 2013-2014 were in many respects a product of Russia’s foreign policy and economic decline.

It is important to note that Belarus’ normalisation of relations with the West is not an attempt at a geopolitical U-turn. So far, neither Belarus on the one side, nor the European Union and the United States on the other, have taken any cardinal steps in the form of big economic projects (Belarus still hasn’t even managed to obtain a loan from the International Monetary Fund) and contact in the political and military spheres remains at a low level.

Conclusion

Despite Belarus’ lessening dependence on Russia, relations seem unlikely to come to the point of a dramatic breakdown in integration.

First, Belarus remains overdependent on Russia financially - it continues to receive from Russia loans and “subsidies” – i.e. discounts for oil and gas and access to the common market. Furthermore, it remains highly important to Lukashenka that Russia acknowledges the results of the presidential elections in Belarus. Secondly, Belarus remains an important country in Europe for Russia. Therefore, the Kremlin won’t allow the total disintegration of the two countries’ relationship.

Nonetheless, the process of estrangement will continue further, and this is also connected with the generational changes inside the societies. The number of Belarusians who once lived in the same state as Russia – the USSR - is steadily decreasing and the quantity of people who identify themselves as ethnically Russian is reducing. Also a new nomenclature elite is emerging, interest in Belarusian culture is reviving, and young people are becoming more open to the world.

And the last, but important change: a political class that is accustomed to sovereign power, in which decisions are taken independently, has formed in Belarus.

Ryhor Astapenia & Dzmitry Balkuniets

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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