Opinion: Does Russia Want EU Sanctions Against Belarus?

Vladimir Putin, Russia's president elect

Yesterday Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin talked with Alexander Lukashenka over the telephone. On the same day Lukashenka announced at a meeting with Belarusian foreign policy officials that he may release some of Belarus' political prisoners.

The relation between these two facts is unclear. However, this coincidence once again provokes thoughts as to Russia's real and possible role in influencing the Lukashenka regime.

Over the past few weeks Russia has called upon the EU several times to lift sanctions against Belarus and start a dialogue with Lukashenka. This demand was made by Russia's foreign ministry, in a joint statement with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and in a joint statement by Medvedev and Lukashenka.

It can be argued that these calls clearly contradict the most popular argument for the lifting of economic and political sanctions against Belarus. The argument says that the Kremlin is interested in strengthening the sanctions against the regime in Minsk. Sanctions would strengthen the dependence of Belarus on Russia and enable Russia's businessmen to get access to the privatisation of strategic Belarusian enterprises.

In fact, Russia is strategically far more interested in the West lifting its sanctions on Minsk. Belarus plays an important role in Moscow's long-term vision for Europe, where Russia, its post-Soviet satellites and the EU would create a common economic area. For this, Russia needs Belarus to be eventually accepted as a legitimate participant in the integration between the European Union and a Russian-led bloc of post-Soviet countries. This may be the strategic reason why Russia is interested in Lukashenka's eventual resignation - but not  before having Belarus' key companies land in the hands of Russian investors.

Russia's long term foreign policy strategy: EU + Eurasian Union

Putin's articles show the two main directions of the Kremlin's foreign policy for the coming years. One concerns the traditional integration (as is stated, mainly economic) with former Soviet republics. This includes the construction of a single economic area with Belarus and Kazakhstan, with a possible future involvement of other countries, especially Ukraine.

The second vector, which usually remains in the shadows, is economic integration with the European Union.

In his recent article about Russia's foreign policy, published by the newspaper Moskovskie novosti, the President-elect Vladimir Putin wrote the following:

Russia proposes to move toward the creation of a common economic and humanitarian area from the Atlantic to the Pacific - a community which the Russian experts call the Union of Europe.

Prior to that, Putin wrote the same in an article published by Izvestiya which was dedicated to the possible creation of a post-Soviet integration body referred to as the Eurasian Union:

The Eurasian Union will be based on universal principles of integration as an integral part of Greater Europe, united by shared values of freedom, democracy and the laws of the free market(...)

The Customs Union [of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] and later the Eurasian Union will be the party holding the dialogue [on the creation of the common economic area] with the EU from our side.

We can conclude that in the long run, current Russian foreign policy is aimed at some form of economic convergence between the EU and the would-be Eurasian Union.

Russia (the Russian elite) has perhaps even stronger ties with the EU than with the countries of the former Soviet Union. Western Europe is the main market for Russia's exports, the source of investment and technology. The EU attracts Russians by its lifestyle, investment opportunities and education.

Russia has not recovered from the gloomy 70 years of communism and is not able to form a separate civilization. In today's globalising world it will therefore inevitably see itself more and more as a distinctive part of European civilization and strive to integrate with other European countries, given its closer ties to them than to the Muslim East or China.

Lukashenka as an Obstacle to the Implementation of Russia's Strategy

Needless to say that Belarus, at the junction of the European Union and the so-called Russian "near abroad", plays a notable role in this picture. If not a nodal point, it can (and has) become an obstacle to the realisation of Russia's strategy of building a "harmonious community of economies from Lisbon to Vladivostok" Putin writes about.

Russia is interested in Belarus as a full-fledged subject of the pan-European economic integration process. Economic and political sanctions against Belarus are clearly inconsistent with Moscow's vision of a future Eurasia.

Thus, Russia is naturally interested in the lifting of Western sanctions against Minsk. The question is what  the costs and the instruments available to do this are.

Obviously, there are two options with regards to how to get the sanctions against Belarus lifted. One is to force the regime in Belarus towards democratisation. The other is to force the West to accept Lukashenka as a full and respected partner in pan-Eurasian integration.

The second approach has been repeatedly tried in the past years and has consistently proven to be ineffective. It is likely that Russia would oppose, and possibly prevent the imposition of, new sanctions by the West against Belarus. But Russia will never succeed in returning Belarus to the status of a full member of the Eurasian-European integration as long as Aliaksander Lukashenka remains president of Belarus.

Forcing Lukashenka to dismantle his authoritarian regime (and, if possible, to resign) is the only measure that ensures the lifting of sanctions against Belarus. It is easier for Russia to help Lukashenka resign rather than trying to force the EU to engage in a dialogue with his regime, which has proven to be absolutely unable to negotiate, naively referring to "artificial barriers to trade".

What Stops Russia from Making Lukashenka Resign

It took the Russian government ten years to realise that the construction of a "Union State" between Belarus and Russia has no future. Let us see how long it will take to realise that the easiest way to get the sanctions against Belarus lifted would perhaps be to join these sanctions at first.

The only thing that stops Moscow from deciding the fate of Lukashenka is the illusion that he may give Russia preferential access to the privatisation of the few attractive assets in Belarus. This presents a contradiction between the strategic interests of Moscow in pursuing pan-Eurasian integration and tactical interests in the privatisation of specific assets by Russian companies. This is the issue which provides the main uncertainty for the coming one or two years and the only area for speculation by Lukashenka's regime.

One must realise that the contradiction is not stable and cannot last too long. For instance, against the status quo works the critical situation of the Belarusian economy. In addition, Russia may soon find out that negotiations on the privatisation of strategic companies would be far more productive with almost any future government of Belarus. Most importantly, deals with a future government would be less likely subject to a future revision and cancellation - never forget that Lukashenka has been holding his position illegally since 2006 or  perhaps even 1999.

Despite a common discontent with the situation in Belarus, the West and Russia have been reluctant to publicly cooperate on this issue or to even form a single position. One may argue that no change may be expected until the international community acts jointly and leaves Lukashenka with no space for manoeuvring between Russia and the West.

Alexander Čajčyc is a PhD candidate at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation in Moscow.

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