Since the beginning of 2019, Minsk and Moscow have been discussing how to deepen the integration between the two countries. Negotiations are yet to produce any tangible progress, however. The goals of the two autocrats, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, are opposite, but public opinion on the topic of integration is surprisingly similar in both countries.

After another round of disputes between Belarus and Russia over the terms of oil and gas supplies in 2018, Dmitry Medvedev, the then Russian Prime Minister, offered Lukashenko a simple choice, which was later referred to as the “Medvedev’s ultimatum”. He said that Moscow can maintain energy subsidies for Minsk but only in exchange for intensified integration based on the long-forgotten Union State Treaty of 1999.

Lukashenko agreed to discuss this matter, but the negotiations reached a deadlock and were halted in 2020 when Belarus’ domestic politics suddenly became turbulent. With a new degree of isolation from the West, Lukashenko was forced to revive the dialogue on integration with Russia in 2021. But no consensus has so far been reached.

The problem that prevented Belarus and Russia from achieving closer integration 20 years ago is the same as that which stands in the way today, that is the fundamental divergence in their goals. Minsk sees integration as a way to obtain trade preferences from Russia. Lukashenko’s perfect model of a union is an open Russian market for Belarusian goods, prices for oil and gas being equal to what the Russian regions have to pay and, at the same time, full sovereignty when it comes to ruling Belarus.

The Kremlin wishes to expand its political influence in Belarus while allocating only minimum subsidies. For that purpose, Moscow insists on institutionalized integration, which includes supranational bodies, a common currency, and unified tax and customs systems.

Since it is impossible to build a parity-based alliance of two states that are so different when it comes to their respective weight, any transfer of power to the supranational level is a loss of sovereignty for Minsk. Lukashenko is known for his craving for absolute power, and this concerns a rejection not only of internal checks, but of external restrictions as well. Supranational bodies controlled by Moscow are incompatible with the notion of absolute power.

However, it would be wrong to simplify the Belarusian regime’s motivation; it is not only an obsession with power. Lukashenko, his family, leading officials and businesses close to them have become beneficiaries of Belarus’ independence. If Russian state-affiliated or oligarchic capital arrives, it would compromise the Belarusian ruling elite’s interests. As the Belarusian regime is personalistic in nature, there are no clearly defined elite groups and clans within it, and the mood of the bureaucracy is poorly understood. This gives rise to widespread speculation that the Belarusian security forces and the military are more conducive towards the alliance with Russia than other groups. This hypothesis cannot be verified or refuted without in-depth research which is almost impossible to conduct. However, it is worth noting that there are almost no generals left among the leadership of the security agencies who built their careers during the USSR period or in Russia. Lukashenko launched an opposite effort – to replace Russia-educated generals with graduates from Belarusian military training institutions.

The Belarusian bureaucracy is also not isolated from the changing society. In recent years, the public has developed something close to a national consensus on the issue of independence. All polls provide similar results: the majority of Belarusians support the current level of integration with Russia and do not want to either reverse or intensify it. According to a poll by the Belarusian Academy of Sciences (in June 2020)[77], 62% of Belarusians want to preserve relations between Belarus and Russia as two independent states, 25% are in favour of an alliance between two equal nations with supranational bodies, and only 7% support incorporation into Russia. Polls by the independent centre “Belarusian Analytical Workshop” in August[78] and December 2019[79] showed that a total of 16% of Belarusians support either joining Russia or uniting into a single new state, while 75-76% wish to keep integration at the current stage – with open borders and a common market, without a political merger.

The pandemic and post-election repression in Belarus in 2020 made it impossible to conduct face-to-face polls which provide the most representative results. However, online surveys, in accordance with all the sampling rules, which were held among the residents of Belarusian cities (that is, more than 75% of the country’s population) show that there is still a consensus on independence. Thus, the poll commissioned by the ZOiS Institute[80] (in Berlin) in March 2021 showed that 7% of respondents want to unite with Russia in one state. Another 11% would like to see a closer union than today – with a single currency and a unified foreign and security policy. But the overwhelming majority still support different formats of free trade or a common market without political integration.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the public opinion of Russians on unification with Belarus does not differ much from the views of Belarusians. First, both Belarusians and Russians perceive each other as the closest peoples – this is a constant in all available polls over the past few decades. At the same time, according to the polls held by the Levada Center[81] in December 2019 and August 2020, only 23-24% of Russians spoke in favour of intensified political integration. Only half of them wish to see Belarus as a Russian region. Russians, like Belarusians, prefer to either leave relations at their current level (about 30% of respondents according to the Levada Center’s polls), or to develop economic cooperation (more than 40% of respondents).

The Russian state-run VCIOM Institute provides just slightly different results. According to their polls in April 2019[82] and September 2020[83], only one in six respondents would like to see Belarus becoming part of Russia. Around the same number of respondents agree on an equality-based union. Some 43-48% are of the opinion that there is no need for further unification. Russian sociologists, who conducted in-depth research through focus groups[84] in 2018, believe that it was then – after the events in Crimea, Donbass and Syria – that the Russian public began to wish that the Kremlin would put an end to its foreign escapades and to spend more resources on internal needs instead of diverting them externally.

The most important takeaway from this data is that there is no desire in Russian society to incorporate Belarus, which the Kremlin could use to distract people from internal problems, as it did in 2014 with Crimea. This makes the forced incorporation of Belarus a dubious undertaking for the Russian authorities. Such actions would predictably have international repercussions, including new Western sanctions. The costs of suppressing discontent among Belarusians and maintaining the increasingly isolated economy of Belarus will also be high. Yet, there are no significant political bonuses to be gained within Russia.

This explains the rather restrained position of Moscow in the dialogue on integration. These negotiations often seem like a veiled attempt by the Kremlin to offer Minsk a priori unrealistic terms for integration and to provide Russia with a legitimate reason to cut economic support when Lukashenko not unexpectedly refuses. That is why, despite the seeming renaissance of the Belarusian-Russian friendship after Minsk was submitted to new Western sanctions in 2020, Moscow does not make significant financial concessions to Lukashenko. The tax manoeuvre in the oil sector, which gradually reduces bonuses to Belarus from duty-free supplies of Russian oil every year, is progressing according to schedule. Moscow also refuses to cut the gas prices requested by Minsk. In fact, the only area where some support continues is the provision of new loans to pay off old ones.

At the same time, the Russian elite are not homogeneous in their attitude towards Lukashenko and integration with Belarus. There are at least three overlapping interest groups here. The first one is the hawks, primarily represented by the siloviki. They look upon Belarus, the same as Eastern Europe in its entirety, as an arena of geopolitical confrontation with the West. They are ready to support an ally, but they also demand more disciplined adherence to Russian military interests. When Minsk engaged in a more intensive dialogue with the West and Ukraine after 2014, Lukashenko then became less trusted. As a result, the FSB strengthened control over the Belarusian-Russian border, while the Ministry of Defence built up military infrastructure near this border (including the deployment of new troops in the Smolensk and Bryansk regions in 2016). Thus, Moscow signalled that it can no longer fully trust Minsk to protect its western flank.

The second camp includes some Russian oligarchs and affiliated government officials, who approach Belarus based on the interests of their companies. This segment of the Russian leadership is the most hostile to Lukashenko. These persons are lobbying to restrict the admission of Belarusian goods to the Russian market (first and foremost, agricultural products), accusing Minsk of subsidizing their production, and, as a result, of unfair competition. On the other hand, it is the representatives of this group within the Russian elite who advocate the more active privatization of Belarusian state assets in favour of Russian capital. Lukashenko’s refusal to enter into these deals is a source of constant conflict with large Russian state-affiliated businesses.

Finally, the third group consists of more pragmatic monetarists, represented by the financial and economic bloc of the changing Russian governments. These persons are less interested in geopolitics or a common history, and, accordingly, they do not insist on Lukashenko’s maximum level of loyalty. But they do profess a financial approach to relations, which means transparent and market-based cooperation, without subsidies and benefits for Belarus. It is no coincidence that the period of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency (2008-2012) was one of the most conflicting in relations between Minsk and Moscow.

Vladimir Putin serves as an arbiter among different factions of the Russian elite. He deals with problematic relations when Lukashenko elevates them to the presidential level after lower departments have failed to resolve them. As Putin wants to appear to be the creator of post-Soviet alliances, not their destroyer, Lukashenko often succeeds in persuading him to adopt a moderate position between the interests of different camps. Knowing Putin’s conservatism, Lukashenko skilfully plays on the lack of pro-Russian alternatives for him in Belarus and on the fact that drastic changes in Russia’s policy could destabilize Belarus. This makes it possible to smooth over both the military-related claims of the Russian hawks and the economic pressure from the oligarchs or the government technocrats. When Moscow’s approach shifts to any of the extremes, new conflicts with Minsk then emerge.

The broader geopolitical context is also a factor here. The more strained the Russia-West relationship becomes, the easier it is for Minsk to earn Putin’s loyalty without major concessions. During such times, Lukashenko actively promotes himself as the most anti-Western ruler of Belarus that is possible, and this convinces the Kremlin to soften its approach. When relations between the West and Russia are stable or are de-escalating, Lukashenko's anti-Western rhetoric and actions cease to be an asset, and the Kremlin’s interest in lessening conflicts in bilateral relations evaporates. At such times, the interests of various Russian elite groups enter the arena. None of them trusts Lukashenko – each for its own reasons. Therefore, Lukashenko is interested in maintaining the escalation of tension between Moscow and the West. The better their contacts are, the more likely Putin and Western leaders can discuss the fate of the Belarusian regime behind Lukashenko’s back. This is his worst nightmare.

Given all these complex interests within the Russian elite and society vis-à-vis Belarus, forced incorporation against the will of Minsk and most Belarusians seems unlikely. This forecast however works as long as the Kremlin perceives the situation in Minsk to be manageable. If the Belarusian political crisis in 2020 had led to Ukraine-like protests – with the seizure of administrative buildings, armed clashes with the police and a real threat of a street revolution – all of the nuanced calculations of Moscow would most likely have given way to the logic that led to the 2014 Crimea annexation. Thoughts about economic and other costs become secondary in Russia when there is even an illusory risk of losing Belarus through what the Kremlin perceives as a pro-Western “colour revolution”.

Artyom Shraibman is a political analyst. He focuses on Belarus-related developments, including domestic politics and foreign policy. He is a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and the founder of Sense Analytics, a political consultancy.
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