The union between Belarus and Russia has come a long way. The pragmatic side of these relations has been redefined on several occasions. The project of the union was implemented only partially.
For Moscow, the project of the union, which dates back to the mid-1990s, was important primarily as a way to show off its integrative appeal, which proved to be a success, as centrifugal trends in Russia had given way to centripetal ones by the 2000s. For Minsk, at that time, the union was the only viable chance to save its own industrial identity and to secure for itself a share of the Russian market.
The project of the union was implemented only partially. It didn’t lead to building any common political decision-making institutions, nor did it result in unifying an economic space: in Belarus, unlike Russia, the state has retained ownership of national fixed assets. Nevertheless, the union has become successful in a third, humanitarian, dimension: the legislative recognition of equal rights of Belarusians in Russia and Russians in Belarus to property, education and healthcare services has created a sought-after space for building and consolidating confidence among nations.
Problems arising in the economic space were addressed using traditional interstate cooperation instruments. In the 2000s, with an increase in hydrocarbon prices, Russian-Belarusian partnership focused on oil and gas exports. The role of Belarus as a key transit country, providing secure transit for Russian oil and, to a lesser extent, gas, has grown substantially. This resulted in an increase in Russian investments in the Belarusian gas transportation system. Today, Russia owns the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline, running through Belarus, and the Gazprom Transgaz Belarus gas transportation system (former Beltransgaz).
In addition to creating the Union State, Minsk and Moscow sealed their partnership using other post-Soviet integration projects. Belarus is one of the three founding members of the Eurasian Union. It is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and was granted observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2015.
However, the effectiveness of cooperation between Minsk and Moscow is limited, which is due not only to weak functionality of the joint political institutions, where decisions are made solely by top-level officials, but also to an obvious need for reformatting the Eurasian Union, which today is the key integration project within the post-Soviet space. The new political and economic reality makes its underlying liberal economic model an anachronism, and it clearly cannot be implemented in its original form. However, there’s no alternative to it yet. This means lost opportunities. The industrial capacity of Belarus and Russia’s import substitution programs have not yet connected, despite the obvious relevance of such a scenario.
Dramatic developments in Ukraine have revealed the disparity of the positions adopted by Russia and Belarus, which, however, do not conflict with each other. Belarusian society was split, with 80 percent of Belarusians taking the side of Russia, and about 10-12 percent siding with Kiev.
This led to the Belarusian authorities judiciously distancing themselves from making any value judgments and pushing the Ukraine issue to the periphery of public focus. With the emergence of the Minsk platform, Belarus has finally found a comfortable format for being present in the Ukrainian theme, thus finding its political place and securing its role as a mediator.
The Minsk platform’s potential still has much to offer. So far, Belarus hasn’t taken advantage of the obvious opportunity to use it to build its own alternative to the discredited Eastern Partnership and to use it to gather around itself all Eastern European countries interested in a peaceful future for the region.
The state of elections in Belarus is not as simple as it may seem. On the one hand, the domestic political configuration has changed. The events in Ukraine and the migrant crisis have dramatically dampened the appeal for democratic slogans. As a result, the Belarusian pro-European opposition is approaching the elections without any meaningful program. On the other hand, the sanctions war between the EU and Russia, plummeting oil prices and the devaluation of the Russian ruble cut foreign trade revenue by almost a third, which immediately affected people’s living standards. This creates the mental ferment effect, which external stakeholders could potentially take advantage of. Clearly, even a mild version of the Maidan in Belarus would automatically write off the vast majority of the West’s mistakes in Ukraine, thus making it possible to speak about Ukraine as part of a general trend, rather than an artificially created exception. These factors determine the mobilization type of the current presidential campaign: the authorities prefer to take preemptive measures and play it safe.
The current campaign may have implications for Belarus’ foreign policy status. The devaluation of traditional European values during the Ukraine crisis has made Western rhetoric about the "last dictatorship in Europe" largely nonsensical, the tacit acknowledgment of which were the European leaders’ regular visits to Belarus as part of the Minsk platform. Lifting Western sanctions on Belarus has now become the logical next step in the bargaining process. Most likely, some of them will be lifted after the elections.
However, the absence of a clear strategy remains the presidential campaign’s key problem. Essentially, the authorities propose maintaining the status quo, but aren’t really sure of how to go about this in the current crisis. Importantly, developing both political and economic policy is a problem. The former is hampered by the originally awkward linguistic formulation by the Russian expert community of the concept of the Russian World, which, in fact, was a mirror reflection of the victorious Galician nationalism during the Maidan protests in Kiev. It was assumed that the Russian World includes everyone who speaks Russian.
It can be clearly seen that this definition can potentially cause as big a split as the Ukrainian nationalism. Thus, the Russian world and, in fact, the Eurasian space, strikes out the Belarusian, Kazakh, Armenian and other national languages and cultures, too. Notably, in the past, the Russian Empire successfully avoided such gaffes. Being Russian meant being Christian Orthodox, i.e., sharing the basic values of the state. This made Russian Armenians, Russian Georgians, Russian Belarusians, etc. part of the nation. Moreover, in the case of Belarus, we can talk about the centuries-old tradition of partnership and cooperation between the Belarusian and Russian nations. Already the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Belarusian project based on the Russian language, was a close partner of Muscovy, with a deep mutual division of labor, heavy trade and close relations between aristocratic families.
Anyway, neither Russia’s imperial experience, nor the shared historical past in promoting the concept of the Russian World were taken into account. Hence, the position of Lukashenko, who vehemently criticized this concept, makes sense. Remarkably, a little bit earlier, he was likewise critical of the linguistic conceptualization of modern Ukrainian nationalism, and warned during his first trip to Kiev after the coup that “this could lead to a gunfight among ourselves.”
The development of the economic strategy remains difficult due to the lack of clarity regarding the future of the Russian import substitution projects. Using the Belarusian industrial infrastructure for these purposes could provide Minsk with sustainable growth opportunities for years to come. However, the impossibility of providing effective loans to industrial enterprises remains a challenge for the entire Eurasian Union. As a result, import substitution, which could serve as another building block to improve the Eurasian Union integration basis, has so far turned out as missed opportunities for its members.
Belarus remains structurally tied to Russia more than any other post-Soviet country. Russia is the main market for Belarusian industrial goods whereas Belarusian exports to the West include mainly refined oil products made from Russian oil. In this regard, the West is unable, and, in the foreseeable future, unlikely, to try to make a competitive offer, compared to Russia, to Belarus.
Thus, the upcoming presidential elections will be not so much a choice on the part of the authorities – since they have, in fact, already received a mandate for their own reproduction – as a choice of a strategy for further development. As we’ve seen, there are still many uncertainties. However, Russia can remove these uncertainties by offering, within the Eurasian Union, a setup that would become the basis for further long-term development of any and all of its participants.