Turning point: Lukashenka, Putin deciding upon two countries’ integration

December 2019 may become one of the most turbulent months in the history of independent Belarus: Minsk and Moscow are expected to sign a news agreement on deepening Belarus-Russia integration. According to a number of experts, this could lead to Belarus losing its sovereignty. Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka were reported to discuss the agreement on December, 7 in Sochi. In response, the movement Fresh Wind (Svezhy Vetser) urges Belarusians to join a peaceful protest for independence and sovereignty. Not everyone, however, shares such anxiety. The details of the document have never been published, but it is now clear that closer integration is the case. How dangerous it would be for Belarus?

Union State: utopia or future?

In 1999, Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin signed the treaty on establishing the Union State of Belarus and Russia; its long term goal was the integration of the two countries, having a single parliament, central bank, and court system. Back then, some Belarusians voiced fears about the country’s sovereignty. However, the integration remained at the level of declarations.

Signing the Union State treaty, Lukashenka hoped he would take the helm of the new country when Yeltsin retired. But the tables began to turn when former KGB officer Putin, who had its own political ambitions, came out of the blue. Seeing the competition, Lukashenka tried to slow down the process of convergence with Russia. At first, it worked quite well, but later, the Kremlin responded with economic charges and integration pressure on Belarus. In the past few years, the Belarusian regime has been trying to diversify economic resources, while Russia continues to drive Lukashenka into a corner. Thus, a union state which seemed to be a utopia in the early 2000s may become reality.

Boris Yeltsin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka signing the union treaty, phot. TASS

The anxieties were reignited in the summer of 2019, when the Belarusian and Russian governments began to work on complex road maps aimed at deepening integration. All attempts of journalists to get at least some information about the content of these maps failed, which contributed to increasing tension.

On November 29, the Belarusian ambassador to Russia Uladzimir Syamashka said that the two presidents agreed to create a single parliament and government. Later, however, he claimed that reporters misinterpreted his words.

ISANS International Initiative has recently published its report in which the authors argue that Russia will seek ‘as deep as possible’ integration, because Putin considers it as a step that reinforces the ideological and political basis.

On the one hand, the agreements to be signed might become a symbolic procedure and lead to a closer economic integration. On the other hand, the Russian leader who, according to Russian electoral law, does not have the right to run for another presidential term, will be able to become the president of the new country, if a joint parliament is created. Which scenario is a reality and whether the Union state is utopia or reality is highly likely to become clear on December, 7.

Do Belarusians support integration with Russia?

On the eve of the signing of agreements, the Russian newspaper Kommersant published an article titled ‘Almost 90% of Belarusians are in favour of an alliance or partnership with Russia’. Later, the study that outraged many Belarusians, turned out to be unreliable. Referring to the leading Belarusian sociologist Andrey Vardamatski, Thinktanks.by stresses that a nonprofessional pollster used questionable methods when carrying out the survey . In turn, the Belarusian Institute of Sociology claims that about 49.9% of Belarusians believe that relations with Russia should be based on international treaties. 36.1% are ready to cooperate with Russia in the framework of one state, and 7.7% were in favour of Belarus joining Russia.

Political flirting in exchange for economic preferences?

The World Bank predicts an economic decline in Belarus in 2020, as Russia offers higher fuel prices. In such circumstances, Lukashenka’s political future may depend on the project of the Union State, as the EU that demands democratic reforms is unlikely to invest in Belarus. Therefore, some Belarusian experts believe that the documents to be signed will be of declarative nature and will not result in Russia’s immediately swallowing Belarus.

“I don’t think that Belarus will lose its sovereignty overnight, rather, such integration will be irreversible, slowly but surely expanding Russian-led economic, legal, and eventually political rules,” says Katsyaryna Shmatsina, a political analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.

Moreover, visits of Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey to various EU countries, Lukashenka’s trip to Austria and Latvia, receptions of US diplomats in Minsk, as well as numerous Lukashenka’s statements about independence are indicative of an apparent intensification of the pro-independence vector of the Belarusian regime. In this context, the yield of sovereignty by Lukashenka will look irrational.

When giving a speech at the meeting with deputies on December 5, Lukashenka said:

“I’m not a kid who worked for three, four, five years, as the head of state. I had enough! And I do not want to undo everything made with you and the people, creating a sovereign independent state, to put it in some box with a cross on top – and to throw or pass it somewhere. This will never happen to me! This is our country. We are sovereign and independent, and we should be proud of that!”

Belarusian political analyst Artsyom Shraibman is also confident that the agreements do not threaten the sovereignty of Belarus. It would be very difficult to bring about such changes in, say, the tax system, in such a short period, he stressed.

Sovereignty issue

As a response to the integration project, a group of Belarusian activists and analysts founded the initiative Fresh Wind. Over the last months, the initiative has been raising awareness of the dangers of the signing of documents between Belarus and Russia. Fresh Wind calls on Belarusians to take part in the street protest and form a human chain on December, 7. The leader of the initiative, Uladzimir Matskevich, voiced their proposals for ‘saving’ the country:

1. Reboot or re-establishment of a bankrupt and self-discredited state; 2. Constituent assembly; 3. Launching reforms in key areas and industries.

Many parties and organizations have joined the campaign. Others showed their support through social networks, such as the Belarusian Telegram community that collected signatures of 60 channels that reached about 125 thousand people.

“In response to the rumours about deepening integration and the signing of road maps with the Russian Federation, the Belarusian Telegram community states:

– The independence of Belarus is not a bargaining chip;

– The signing of any documents that are detrimental to the sovereignty and independence of our country is unacceptable;

– Deepening integration with Russia harms the national interests of our country,” the statement said.

Fresh Wind activists

Uladzimir Matskevich draws attention to the upcoming meeting of Lukashenka and Putin, saying there is a real threat of yielding the sovereignty of Belarus:

“Any documents have to be ratified in the parliament, moreover, these documents can come into force only when the Constitution is changed. The current Constitution does not allow for the creation of supranational structures. But Lukashenka has already ordered to develop a new version of the Constitution. We will have about nine months to prevent it. If bloggers, opinion leaders, politicians unite to preserve independence, nine months may be enough. And then it will be possible to disrupt this integration.”

Integrity test

Ambassador Syamashka’s statements about the details of the Union State agreements might have been merely a litmus test of how the Belarusian society may respond to tighter integration with Russia. It ismore likely than not that the documents signed by Putin and Lukashenka will be posing a threat to the sovereignty of Belarus, but in the longer term. In other words, political integration will be happening, but the process will rather be slow. For Lukashenka, an agreement within the Union State, on the one hand, is a way to remain in power and avoid pressure from the opposition. On the other hand, there is a risk to deprive the country of independence. In addition, Putin can make a try to qualify for the post of Head of the Union State. Apparently, the integration issue has caused a stir among Belarusians, but will they take a stand for independence if such a need really arises? That is the question.

Alesia Rudnik, belsat.eu