Vladimir Putin Plays with the Old Imperial Nostalgia
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made a provocative statement at a pro-Kremlin youth forum this week. When asked about Belarus and Russia becoming a single state, following the USSR model, the former president said: "It is possible, very desirable and depends entirely on the will of the Belarusian people."
A participant of the Russian Youth Forum in Seliger, described by Russian state media as a "representative of Belarus" said that Belarusian people want to join Russia in a single state. "So you should fight for it", Putin replied. Putin has made almost an identical statement about South Ossetia joining Russia.
It would sound outrageous if the German chancellor expressed a wish to annex Austria or a British prime minister would say that he saw Ireland joining the United Kingdom “very desirable”. However, the reality of the post-Soviet area is that such statements are being made and tolerated.
Vladimir Putin is known as the embodiment of the conservative, moderately revisionist part of the Russian elite. There is no doubt that he would really like to see Russia again annexing Belarus and other former Soviet republics.
Opinion polls, however, speak against what the Forum participant said to Vladimir Putin. According to a June poll by a leading independent institute IISEPS, more Belarusians would prefer integration with the EU than with Russia (25 and 35 percent respectively). The pro-EU sentiment has even risen during the current economic crisis in Belarus - even though Russia's policy contributed more to the situation than any sanctions from the EU.
As parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia are approaching, Russian elite faces struggles to secure public support. According to analysts, Putin’s recent creation of the All-Russian Popular Front to bolster pro-Kremlin party United Russia was a reaction to the party’s inability to gather support by itself.
Facing possible problems with popularity, Putin may use the topic of integration with Belarus to improve the the situation - just as Boris Yeltsin was doing in mid-1990s. Then Belarus and Russia signed a number of integration agreements with Russia with lots of pomp.
The difference between now and then is that in the 1990s Lukashenka's position was much stronger and he even dared to consider becoming president of the restored USSR made of Russia and Belarus.
Today Belarus is experiencing serious economic problems which are one step from turning political. It is likely that as the situation would worsen during the coming year or two, Lukashenka could end up on his knees before the Kremlin and agree to any conditions of his bail-out.
Whether the conditions would include a surrender of Belarus’ statehood will depend on the position of Vladimir Putin and his party at that particular moment.
Russia continues to consistently tighten its grip on Belarus while Europe cannot agree on even the easiest forms of support of the Belarusian civil society. As the time passes by, Belarus in getting closer to fall in Russian hands after the fall of Lukashenka.