The Road to Russia is Paved with Good Intentions
On 16 December two Belarusian citizens were added to the EU visa ban list, and EU assets of three companies associated with the Belarusian regime were frozen. The European Union continues to impose different sanctions on Belarus at the request of human rights activists. However, this policy fails to provide the EU with additional leverage in the country.
Today the EU can neither offer Belarus the prospect of EU membership nor significantly increase the amount of Eastern Partnership funding. If the Union wants Belarus to be more pro-European, it should try to develop a new engagement policy as Russia is steadily increasing its influence in Belarus with far-reaching political and economic consequences.
Putin to Belarusians: “Fight For Joining Russia!”
The Russian state is interested in gaining control over Belarus' economy and it has been coming closer to realizing this task step-by-step every year. Recently Gazprom became the owner of 100% of the shares of Beltransgaz – the Belarusian national gas transit pipelines operator. On 8 December Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller promised Beltransgaz employees a threefold increase in their salaries at the request of Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin.
Russian policymakers are trying to buy the loyalty of Belarusian citizens and convince workers of other Belarusian enterprises to “fight for joining Russia”. Putin made this statement on 1 August when he was answering question about the possibility of the Belarusian and Russian people to live in a united state.
What Russia Owns in Belarus
Russian bankers are actively penetrating into the Belarusian banking sphere. Now they exercise control over 7 of 32 Belarusian banks: BPS-Bank (owned by Sberbank), former Mezhtorgbank (owned by Alfa-bank), Belgazprombank (owned by Gazprombank), VTB-Belarus and Bank Moscow-Minsk (owned by VTB), BelRosBank (owned by Rosbank) and Belvnesheconombank (owned by Russian Vnesheconombank).
Apart from the widespread penetration of Russian TV channels in Belarus, Russian businessmen also possess certain Belarusian mass media assets: leading Belarusian business and political newspaper “Belgazeta” and popular daily “Komsomolskaya Pravda” (Grigoriy Berezkin), Planeta journal (Gazprom), satellite TV and internet operator “Kosmos-TV” (Victor Vekselberg), newspaper “Argumenty i fakty” (Alexey Ananyev and Dmitry Ananyev), Interfax-Zapad (Mikhail Komissar).
Russian businessmen have also bought almost all the leading insurance companies of Belarus: TASK (Sberbank), Belvneshstrakh, Belingosstrakh (Oleg Deripaska), Brolli and Alvena (Sergey Sarkisov and Nikolay Sarkisov merged these two companies into “Belrosstrakh”). They also possess significant assets in the leading leasing companies (VTB-Leasing, BPS-Leasing), gambling business (Shangri La casino, Columbus), construction (Itera, Su-155), pharmaceutical industry (Ferain-Bryncalov), restaurant business (Il Patio, TGI Fridays), mobile retail (Euroset’, Sviaznoy) and milk industry (Unimilk).
Construction of Polatsk Hydropower Plant and the first Belarusian nuclear power plant is also led by Russian companies (Rosatom and Rostechnologies). Moreover, in November Russian oligarch Mikhail Guceriev was granted the right to construct a new potash processing plant in Belarus named “Slavkaliy”.
Selling Sovereignty to Keep the Status Quo
All these facts clearly demonstrate that while the European Union is trying to put on pressure, Belarusian policymakers adjust their foreign policy and investment priorities without any significant changes in its internal politics.
Some opposition groups appeal to the Western community to ban the 2014 World Hockey Championship in Minsk, and urge the withdrawl of Western companies and investments from Belarus. They also demand to stop any cooperation between Western corporations and institutions with Belarusian authorities and companies (as in the case of Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas). Ironically, none of the groups picket Russian embassies or Gazprom offices although it is Russia which provides billions in economic subsidies to the Belarusian regime while Western investment in Belarus is almost non-existent.
The "pro-isolation" group within the Belarusian opposition hopes that pressure on Belarusian authorities will contribute greatly to the democratization of Belarus through the fall of the regime or alterations in its behaviour. However, the authorities want to keep their grip on power without changing their policies, so they simply ask Russian counterparts for help. And they do get this help in exchange for further concessions on economic and political sovereignty of the country.
When Europe Turns Away, Russia Steps In
Nowadays there is a very popular thought among the Belarusian opposition that Lukashenka uses the argument for the strengthening of Russian influence in order to intimidate Western policymakers and manipulate Western public opinion. Nevertheless, this logic still works: the more Western countries prefer to isolate Belarus, the more Russia gains control over the Belarusian situation.
When there are no competitors to determine the future of Belarus' economy and politics, Belarusian assets lose their value and Russian businessmen can easily buy them at lower prices. This is just business and market laws in action. Following the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union, it is extremely important for the European Union to offer convincing incentives for Belarus and Ukraine or at least not to impede European companies and NGOs from working with Belarusians.
Russia is not a much more democratic country than Belarus, but the European Union considers it as one of its main partners in a globaized world. The existence of large private independent media outlets, international organizations, international business and international investments in Russia prevents its leaders from a final crackdown on its civil society and opposition.
The same situation could be true in Belarus. Lukashenka is just a functionary of the Belarusian political system that is shaped by different variables. When Belarusian exports to European countries surpassed the amount of Belarusian exports to Russia, Lukashenka began to behave more friendly towards the EU. Of course, he is prone to cooperation with Russian leaders who are more similar to him in terms of their mentality and policies.
However, when he understands that collaboration with the West is beneficial, he becomes less radical in his statements and actions. There were no political prisoners in Belarus from September 2008 to December 2010 when Belarusian authorities believed in the will of Western states to significantly support the Belarusian economy.
On 30 November Russian Ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikov expressed Russia's interest in privatizing the Belarusian Naftan and Mozyr oil refineries, as well as Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ). Earlier Suleiman Kerimov wanted to buy the biggest potash manufacturer in the CIS, Belaruskali, for 15 billion US dollars, but Belarus was dissatisfied with the price offered, so the issue has been put off for now. Consider also that Russian mobile service operator MTS opted out of buying the state's 51% stake in one of three Belarusian mobile service operators - MTS Belarus.
Does Russia Want or Need to Incorporate Belarus?
Russia does not need to annex Belarus as it would provoke tension on its borders, international condemnation and discord with such an action. However, with the large amount of control exerted over the Belarusian economy and its military potential, in the future it is not unforseeable that Russia could create in Belarus a puppet government controlled by the Kremlin, which will significantly influence Belarusian internal and foreign policy. When Russia reaches this point, it will defend its Belarusian assets and rulers as its own, which will make it even difficult for the West to influence politics and human rights in Belarus.
If the European Union wants to determine something in Belarusian politics, it needs to strengthen its lobby and economic presence in Belarus. It also needs to offer the Belarusian population, businessmen and civil society encouraging incentives to be pro-European. Europe can dramatically liberalize its visa regime, offer better opportunities in education such as the recently launched Open Europe Scholarship Scheme and encourage Belarus participation in the Bologna process and should not be afraid to deal with Belarus.