Belarus set between independence and integration

On September 10, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the security council of Russia, visited Minsk. Patrushev and discussed regional security and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. This is the second meeting with foreign security officials Lukashenka has hosted within two weeks. John Bolton‘s coming to Minsk on August, 29 and the much-talked-about Belarus-Russia integration plan have provoked a discussion on whether Lukashenka is set to choose between independence and integration.

Lukashenka’s independence signals

On the eve of Boltons visit to Belarus, Russian media speculated that it might be a sign of the start of the country’s Westernization. The Belarusian leader and the then US national security advisor discussed issues of security, independence, and Belarusian sovereignty. In 2019, Lukashenka has repeatedly made a point of Belarus’ independence in public; Russia being the target of the message.

29 August 2019. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and US National Security Advisor John R. Bolton, phot.

“…In these two years we will be tested on whether we deserve, if you specify, the independence that we always and everywhere talk about,said Alyaksandr Lukashenka as far back as January, 2019.

Later, in the interview to the Wall Street Journal, the Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey noted: “Sovereignty and independence are the sacred for us, and even if someone in Belarus wanted to surrender sovereignty and independence, it would be impossible.”

At the same time, declaring the value of independence, Lukashenka and Makey have never expressed the intention to change the foreign policy priorities from East to West.

Reactions to Belarus-Russia integration plan

While the foreign minister has been working on the image of Belarus as an independent country ready to cooperate with the West, the other vector of policy has been developing too. To be more specific, Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhei Rumas has been preparing the plan of integration of Belarus and Russia.

The plan of integration has been actively pushed by Russia since 2018. It was agreed upon by the Belarusian and Russian governments and handed over to Lukashenka on September, 4. According to Rumas, the plan focuses exclusively on trade and economy.

Despite this, the news about the integration plan has caused serious concerns among different groups of Belarusians who are apprehensive about political integration items included in the plan. Philosopher Uladzimir Matskevich publicly called on Belarusian to join the initiative Constitution (Канстытуцыя). On the website, one can present their protest against threats to the Belarusian independence and urge citizens to send an official appeal to the Belarusian Prime Minister.

Opposition MP Hanna Kanatskaya, phot. Belsat TV

Dzyanis Tsikhanenka and Hanna Kanapatskaya, one of the two oppositional MPs in the Belarusian parliament, launched the public campaign Belarus Go! The activists were collecting signatures for our country’s withdrawal from the Union State treaty. Around 8,000 people have signed the petition.

However, some experts believe that the integration plan should not be treated as an urgent threat to Belarusian independence.

Balazs Jarabik, the expert of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, claims that Russia has barely some intentions to annex the neighbouring country. As in 2006, Russia just wants to pay less for Belarus, Jarabik told Euroradio. Yanov Polesski believes that the integration would rather mean ‘several small’ ‘bottom-up’ integrations in different fields rather than the danger for the Belarusian sovereignty.

Red and Blue pill for Lukashenka

On September 12, Lukashenka said: We are aimed at building good-neighbourly and pragmatic relations with the [European] Union, which do not imply a choice between East and West. But, the truth, the European Union does not demand this from us<> I am convinced that this would be greatly facilitated by the progress in combining European and Eurasian integration processes.

In his comment to Belarusian military expert Alyaksandr Alesin claims that Russia and the US aim to maintain the balance of forces in the region, and none of the countries want to either demonstrate power or miss the moment to deter aggression. In these circumstances, Belarus can benefit from equally embracing both Russian and Western cooperation initiatives.

Building closer relations with the West and integrating with Russia, Lukashenka demonstrates that he wants the red and the blue pill together. It probably would be possible in any other case, but today many believe that there are serious risks for the country if Lukashenka takes one side. Under one scenario, choosing Russia as the main ally would imply losing the part of Belarusian sovereignty. Making a strong partnership with the West, on the other hand, would make Belarus look as a betrayer in the eyes of the Russian government and harm the Belarusian economy for some years considering Belarus’ current economic dependency from Russia. In the long term, though, Belarus would benefit from finding alternative sources to support its economy and cooperating with the West that respects Belarusian independence and sovereignty. However, so far it remains unclear whether Lukashenka will be able to take the red and the blue pill together without consequences for Belarusian independence.

Alesia Rudnik,