Belarus-Russia integration: how to avoid brotherly hugs
In early October 2018, Belarus and Russia settled the agreement about oil supplies for the remaining part of 2018 and for 2019. Unexpectedly, the Russian leadership abandoned pressure on Belarus.
While in August-September, the Kremlin believed that they could force Lukashenka into making concessions in the matters of genuine integration, later they backed down. There exist several possible explanations for the Kremlin’s tactical retreat: the threat of autocephaly of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the interest in laying a gas pipeline, and the approaching talks on the extension of the lease of military facilities.
Why Belarus matters to Russia
Belarus is an important participant of integration processes with Russia (CSTO, EurAsEc, and CIS); moreover, it is the only European participant of these projects.
An intensive flow of freight goes across the Belarusian territory, including that of Russia, delivering to the West around 60m tons of oil and around 40bn cubic meters of gas. Meanwhile, this is a cheap transit. Belarus communicates Russia to its Kaliningrad enclave, supplying the land with gas and electricity.
Lukashenka once said that 10 million Russian citizens worked at Russian enterprises that were connected with the Belarusian technological chain, supplying component parts. Perhaps, the figure is too high. However, this factor is not to be ignored.
High-technology production of Belarusian enterprises of the military industrial complex is important for the Russian military industry. Especially, after losing manufacturing cooperation with Ukraine, at the background of tension with the West. And especially, if Russia proceeds in the arms race with the West.
The central region of Russia is shielded by the Belarusian air-defence system. In the territory of Belarus, there is a missile launch tracking station and the station of radio electronic intelligence Volga (near Hantsavichy town, the Brest region) and the communication centre for atomic submarines Antey (near Vileyka town, the Minsk region).
One should also take into account the Russian home politics factor, the factor of public opinion. The Russian society wants to see Belarus as an ally, especially at the background of the strained relations with the West.
How Belarus resists Russia’s attempts of “closer” integration
There are several reasons that explain why every time when the Kremlin was about to tie Belarus to Russia securely, after a period of pressure Russia always stepped back.
This happened in 2004 (gas conflict), in 2010 (oil conflict), in 2012 (dairy conflict). The latest one, the energy conflict lasted from May 2016 to April 2017.
Every time Lukashenka responded to pressure by pressing on Russia’s sore spots. Belarus impeded Russia’s communication with the Kaliningrad enclave, cutting off its supply with gas and electricity.
It ceased cooperation in the air defence sphere. It raised the prices for the transit of the Russian oil. Lukashenka made statements that led to assume that Russia had to pay for participation in the CSTO, EurAsEc, and even for the Union State.
In these time spans, Belarus intensified political contacts with the West, to demonstrate to Russia that it could get support there, in particular, in the form of the IMF loans.
Oil concessions to Belarus: Deal or no deal
In August-September, the Kremlin believed again that they could force Lukashenka into making concessions in the matters of genuine integration. In August 2018, events unfolded according to the usual scenario. Russia cut off the supplies of tax-free oil. The Russian information propaganda machine activated its work against Lukashenka. The President of Belarus was very poorly received in Sochi on 22 August. However, after a shower of pressure on Lukashenka, Russia backed down again.
In October, agreements were reached meaning even bigger oil donations to Belarus from Russia. Russia admitted Belarus’s right to receive income from oil refining larger than previously in case oil prices on the world market rise. According to the Russian energetics expert V. Tanurkov, within the agreement on supplies of Russian oil in the volume of 24m tons per year at price $75 per barrel, oil donation to Belarus comprises around $3.3bn per year.
In fact, Russia could have cut oil and gas donations and talked to Lukashenka about the necessity of real integration (as it happened from May 2016 to April 2017). One could make a number of assumptions why Putin put it to a halt such talks already in October.
Fears of Belarusian autocephaly?
First, the Kremlin probably admitted the likelihood that Belarus would follow the Ukrainian example, setting the process of creating an Autocephalous Orthodox Church, independent of the Moscow Patriarchate. The decision of the Constantinople Patriarchate has set up the ecclesiastical law basis for a Belarusian Autocephalous Church, too.
Moreover, autocephaly will not be strongly opposed to with the Belarusian society. According to the opinion poll, held by tut.by portal in October 2018, only 20.12 % supported the Russian Orthodox Church, whereas 26.54 % supported the decision of Constantinople. An informational campaign at the governmental level would shift the ratio in favour of autocephaly supporters.
Or negotiations on pipelines and military bases?
Second, Belarus and Russia might be negotiating gas pipeline installation across Belarus territory. There is unofficial information that in the first half of 2018, Belarus and Russia started talks on increasing the export capacity of the gas transmission system of Belarus.
Laying a new gas pipeline through Belarus territory, alongside with the construction of the pipeline Nord Stream-2, will allow Russia to refuse totally from the gas transit via the territory of Ukraine. One can assume that the Belarusian side will insist that the new gas pipeline should be a state property of the Republic of Belarus.
Third, Belarus and Russia will negotiate prolongation of the lease term for the Russian military objects currently deployed in Belarus. On June 7, 2021, the term of agreements expires concerning the deployment of the missile launch tracking station Volga and the communication centre for atomic submarines Antey. The Belarusian Minister of Defence Raukou said that before June 6, 2020, Belarus might report on its intention to refuse from the prolongation of these agreements.
It looks like the talks on the prolongation of the lease term for the Russian military objects will not be easy. The Belarusian side will try to take the most of the economic profit from the Russian military objects staying in Belarus territory. Lukashenka personally claimed that there are military objects in Belarus that are important for Russia and for which Russia does not pay. “If the president of Russia forgot about it – it’s high time to remember.”
Belarus’s next five years: stability above all
On 13 September the Centre for New Ideas published a pilot Index of the Future covering Belarus’s next five years. According to the index’s authors, Belarus can expect a stagnant economy and decreasing research potential. On the other hand, minorities’ rights may improve and the national identity strengthen.
The Centre for New Ideas surveyed 26 analysts and adopted 20 different indicators to describe Belarus’s near future. The two authors, Ryhor Astapenia and Andrei Kazakevich, interpreted qualitative indicators in the context of ongoing trends in Belarus’s development. Overall, they suggest that Belarus should avoid either significant progress or strong deterioration. They conclude that the notorious notion of Belarusian “stability” will continue to dominate economic, socio-demographic, educational and public administration spheres.
As Astapenia explained to Belarus Digest, the Centre for New Ideas launched the project because “many people see Belarus’s future as too abstract or made by one person [the president], while actually it is shaped by an elaborate tangle of long-term trends.”
A stagnant economy and rising debt
The Centre for New Ideas predicts slow economic growth of 1.5% – 3% per year, which in practice means stagnation. The average salary will probably rise from its 2017 level of $422 to at least $500 by 2022, with the top level suggested at $700. This means that Belarus might realise its nationwide struggle for “five hundred dollars to all.” At the same time, Belarusian external debt will likely grow due to increased external debt payments, making the Belarusian economy less stable.
A substantial dependence on the Russian market might remain among the major threats for the Belarusian economy, raising the possibility of trade wars and exposure to Russia’s increasing susceptibility to economic crises. Belarusian dependence on the Russian market may only slightly decrease, falling from 44% of exports in 2017 to 35-40 % in 2018-2022. The index foresees the number of countries receiving more than 5% of Belarusian exports growing by between three and five countries. In this way, the long-proclaimed diversification strategy of the Belarusian government might achieve partial success.
Longer life expectancy, yet fewer babies
While the life expectancy of Belarusians born after 2017 might increase by approximately 10 years, their demographic load should rise as well. The experts predict a slow decrease of the Belarusian population from 9.5 million in 2017 to 9.25-9.4 million in 2022. Accordingly, Belarusians born today will most probably have to work longer in comparison with their parents to support the over-burdened pension system.
As for social equality, currently, Belarusians practically equal Scandinavian nations in terms of income distribution, evaluated by the Gini coefficient. According to the experts, the disproportion between the wealthy and the poor in Belarus will most probably stay the same in the next five years.
Belarus’s standing in gender equality remains comparable to that of many Western European nations, as Belarus ranks 26th in the world’s gender equality rating (evaluated by the Global Gender Gap Index). Furthermore, the Global Gender Gap Index for Belarus might even improve over the next five years.
Though various Belarusian minority groups (including the disabled, sexual, religious and other minorities) currently face systematic obstacles, they might expect positive changes. The experts predict a slight improvement of minorities’ rights on the institutional level, though their dissociation may continue
Decreasing education and research expenses
Belarus’s education and research expenses will most probably stay at the present low level. Currently, Belarus spends only 0.5% of its GDP on research and development. In comparison, European states such as Norway or the Netherlands spend about 2% of their GDP on R&D. Nevertheless, the experts predict almost the same level of R&D expenditure in Belarus. As for the national education expenses, currently, Belarus spends on education almost as much as Germany, although the experts foresee a decrease in the coming years.
The index expects more Belarusian universities to enter the top 500 best universities in the QS World University Rankings. At present only the Belarusian State University makes the QS World University Rankings, where it occupies the 334th place. The experts expect the inclusion of additional two or three Belarusian universities in these rankings within the next five years. At the same time, despite the predicted success of Belarusian universities, the number of foreign students should only minimally increase. Apparently, Belarus has already fully employed its marketing potential to attract foreign students.
The authors see the number of patent applications remaining the same or slightly decreasing in the next few years. A slow decline of patent applications represents a worrying trend for contemporary Belarusian science. While in 2008 Belarusian scientists submitted 1500 patents a year, this number dropped three-and-a-half times over the subsequent decade. At present Belarusians submit approximately 400 patent applications annually and this number might fail to improve within the next five years.
No victory over corruption and passive civil society
The national battle against corruption will most probably fail to end up in a decisive victory. Though Belarus fares better in international corruption ratings than Russia and Ukraine, the experts expect the country to fail to achieve any radical progress fighting corruption. Belarus’s international corruption standing should still lag behind the majority of Western nations.
The development of Belarusian “e-government” awaits a limited progress. Though internationally Belarus ranks well according to e-government services available online and its telecommunications infrastructure, the citizens’ ability to operate e-government fails to keep pace due to governmental leniency. Hence, Belarus occupies an only 39th place in the global e-government index without significant prospects of rising higher in the near future.
The Belarusian national identity should strengthen slightly, and the conditions for civil society development might also improve marginally. Currently, the Belarusian non-profit sector remains in a rather complex condition due to the long-standing authoritarian regime, which hinders any progress in civil society development. Belarusian civil society will most probably remain conserved in the present state of passiveness.
In conclusion, the index for the future of Belarus attempts to evaluate Belarus’s near future in accordance with long-term trends and a range of qualitative indicators. Assuming that the Belarusian regime persists, the index foresees few major changes. The Centre for New Ideas predicts that Belarus awaits moderate economic growth, rising external debt, stagnant demographics, slightly reduced R&D expenses, and only slow progress for civil society.