Belarus-Russia: Optimistic Rhetoric and Unsolvable Contradictions
Last month Vladimir Putin published an article dedicated to the integration of the post-Soviet space in a major Russian daily, Izvestiya. Among other things, Putin underscored that Russia does not propose to restore the Soviet Union. However, he noted that “close integration, grounded on new values and a new political and economic foundation, was a call of the times”.
“We suggest a powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world and serving as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. This project also implies transitioning to closer coordination in economic and currency policies in the Customs Union and the Single Economic Space, and establishing a fully-fledged economic union”, Putin wrote. How does Belarus fit into the new integration architecture?
Judging from Putin’s words, Russia supports transforming the Customs Union into the Single Economic Space and the Euroasian Union later on. The supranational bodies are expected to gain more and more power. They will be formed in accordance with the ‘weighted representation’ principle, i.e. with the dominant role of Russian representatives. Belarus and Kazakhstan are the first objects of Russian integration plans, to be followed by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In Putin’s opinion, integration means among other things free penetration of Russian business into the economic space of partnering states and the buying up of assets there. The program suggests strengthening Russia’s economic and political positions in the Single Economic Space states and in the Eurasian Union later on, as well as the partners’ closer connection to Russia.
Putin’s long-term project suggests including any other willing post-Soviet states into Russia’s sphere of influence, i.e. the Eurasian Union, in the long run. He mentioned Ukraine among other countries in this context.
Alyaksanr Lukashenka published his response to Putin’s suggestions in Izvestiya on 17 October. He noted that he fully agreed with the Russian Prime Minister’s opinion and specified that the article could be regarded as Putin’s “foreign policy election pledges”.
Lukashenka positioned himself as a convinced supporter of integration in the post-Soviet space. "I’ve never concealed my opinion that the collapse of the Soviet Union is the most tragic mistake of the twentieth century. It should and could have been developed, modified, but not destroyed. When all civilized countries had been following the difficult path towards unification for decades, we destroyed at one stroke our greatest asset - the unity and cooperation, to please someone’s ambitions and interests", stated Lukashenka.
Lukashenka also voiced his approval for the idea of creating the supreme integration body in the form of the Eurasian Union.
“It is not an easy task to construct such a union. After all, when reaching the ultimate level of economic integration, we will face the need to create solid social and political institutions with common values, legal frameworks, living standards and benchmarks. We will not be able to avoid a gradual consensus-based development of some supranational bodies, including political bodies. We accept the need to consider introduction of a single currency. Time will show,” Lukashenka said.
However, Lukashenka’s opinion contradicted Putin’s program of getting Russia’s neighbors involved in the sphere of its influence and imposing its will on them, by holding a domineering position in the supranational bodies.
Lukashenka reiterated the notion of ‘equality’ in his article. According to him, integration with Russia means the Eastern neighbor’s open market for Belarusian commodities and equal conditions for economic entities. Among other things, it presupposes getting Russian energy at Russian domestic prices and canceling customs fees for oil and oil refinery biproducts imported to Belarus.
Once again, Lukashenka aired a totally unacceptable idea for Russia. He noted that by joining the Single Economic Space Belarus will have the opportunity to import Kazakh oil through Russian pipelines.
When speaking about the foundation of supranational bodies, Lukashenka underscored the necessity to keep to the principles of equality and the consensus of stakeholders (i.e., ‘one country – one vote’). However, in this case, the broadening of integrated space will mean that Russia will have smaller proportional representation in the supranational bodies. Thus, if Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan join the Single Economic Space, Russia will account for 1/5 of general representation in the supranational bodies only. Thus the neighbors of Russia will have more opportunities to block the Kremlin’s unattractive initiatives.
Lukashenka’s statement about the necessity “to consider the issue of introducing a new common currency from a practical standpoint” within the framework of the Eurasian Union will not evoke much enthusiasm in the Russian government either. It is worth mentioning that Lukashenka used to state that he supported the introduction of the Russian ruble as a monetary unit in Belarus. However, he used to emphasize that it would be possible only if the Central Bank of Belarus was authorized to issue currency alongside the Central Bank of Russia.
Russia considers these requirements unacceptable.
Andrei Liakhovich is a contributing author. He directs the Center for Political Education in Minsk.