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Analysis: Under Moscow Pressure, Could Belarus's Balancing Act Come Crashing Down?

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka at the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 25, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka at the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 25, 2018.

Speculation that the merger of Russia and Belarus is just over the horizon has become so strident in recent weeks that top officials in both countries have made efforts to refute it.

"I call these suggestions very stupid and far-fetched for discussion in our society," Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on January 10.

"As for the Union State [between Russia and Belarus], I am simply surprised by the inflated uproar about this topic," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during his annual results-of-the-last-year press conference in Moscow on January 16.

Lavrov described the situation as "absolutely normal" and without any "hidden geopolitical agenda."

Talk Of Unification

The speculation, however, came as a result of an extraordinary flurry of bilateral diplomatic activity that included no fewer than three summits between Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- on December 6 in St. Petersburg and in Moscow on December 25 and 29 -- and a meeting of the two countries' prime ministers in Brest on December 13.

Following those talks, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev issued what has become known as the "Medvedev ultimatum," saying Moscow's continued financial support for Belarus's chronically dependent economy would depend on tangible progress on implementing moribund provisions of the 1999 treaty creating the Union State -- common currency, joint customs, a joint audit chamber, and more.

Prominent Russian commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote for Bloomberg on January 8 that unification has become "particularly attractive" to Putin as a way of extending his rule over Russia behind the end of his current term in 2024. He could, the theory goes, become head of a bolstered Supreme State Council, which is the main executive body of the Union State, and thereby retain "a large measure of his power for life without changing the [Russian] constitution."

Ukrainian political analyst Oleksandr Khara, writing for UNIAN on December 28, made essentially the same argument and added that absorbing Belarus is a key element of Putin's "strategic task" of accumulating what he sees as "Russian lands."

"The scenarios where Russia absorbs Belarus look inevitable at the moment," Khara wrote.

Lukashenka added fuel to the fire during a December 14 press conference when he accused Russia of trying to "annex" Belarus and warned his countrymen and the world to be wary of attempts by Moscow to undermine Belarus's sovereignty.

During his weekly news round-up on January 13, one of Russia's most powerful media bosses, Dmitry Kiselyov, dished out a stern warning for Minsk.

"If Minsk opts for being without Russia, the future of Belarus will be ghastly," he said. "Of course, Russia will become weaker but there will be no Belarus at all."

Subsidies For Loyalty

However, many analysts see the current activity as part of a larger pattern spanning the two countries' entire post-Soviet history, in which Lukashenka deftly offers or withholds his support for Moscow in complex bargaining for the Russian economic subsidies on which his country relies.

Kenneth Yalowitz, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the 1990s, told RFE/RL that Lukashenka's appetite for merger is at a low ebb since Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and Moscow's involvement in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. At the same time, he noted, Russia's economy is groaning under the strain of Western sanctions and other priority projects for Putin, leaving Moscow unable to bear the cost of absorbing Belarus's basket-case economy.

Anatol Lyabedzka thinks the pattern of Russia-Belarus relations remains the same.
Anatol Lyabedzka thinks the pattern of Russia-Belarus relations remains the same.

"Given the difficulties [the Russians] are facing -- the war still [going on] in Ukraine and a lot of internal problems that they have -- I'm just not sure that they would be moving in the direction of trying to digest Belarus," Yalowitz said. "What they want more than anything else is a reliable ally to the west and Lukashenka has basically been that."

Belarusian opposition politician Anatol Lyabedzka agreed that the cycle of bilateral relations remains essentially the same.

"Relations between Putin and Lukashenka are a permanent struggle over the length of the leash that Putin gives to Lukashenka," Lyabedzka told RFE/RL. "I think that the Kremlin has noticed that Lukashenka is taking advantage of the weakness of Putin on the international stage and is trying to make the leash a little longer."

The current bone of contention between the two autocrats is a Russian tax reform that began to take effect at the beginning of the year. In an effort to end de facto internal energy subsidies, Russia is phasing out export duties for oil and instead imposing an extraction tax. Because Belarus has been importing Russian oil duty-free under the common economic space and subsequently exporting it with its own duties tacked on, it now stands to lose a major subsidy. Under the plan, Belarus could come up $300 million short this year and lose up to $12 billion by 2024.

The squeeze comes with Belarus facing about $5 billion in international debt payments due in 2019.

"The country lives in a situation of enormous accumulated debts and we take on new ones every year," Lyabedzka said. "We are now looking for billions of dollars to pay off the old ones. So the loss of several hundred million dollars is quite painful for Lukashenka."

But Lukashenka has leverage, too, in a relationship that has come to be known as oil-for-kisses. Russia counts on Belarus as a reliable political ally, particularly in its confrontation with NATO. The two countries hold joint military exercises that regularly engage the West's attention.

"Russia is in a position of pretty serious [international] isolation, and this gives Lukashenka some room for maneuver," Russian political analyst Kirill Rogov told RFE/RL. "[Belarus] is the last bastion. Considering the sharp conflict with the West, Moscow understands that at any moment the West could start pulling Belarus toward its sphere of influence and this creates some uncertainty. In the isolation that Russia is now experiencing, it is losing some of its influence, including over Belarus."

Earlier this month, Belarus was said to have unexpectedly lifted a long-standing limit on the number of U.S. diplomats allowed in the country -- a symbolic gesture that contrasts sharply with the reduced diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States as a result of tit-for-tat expulsions.

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Anatol Hlaz told RFE/RL on January 11 that senior officials from Belarus and the United States have been discussing other ways of improving bilateral relations.

Rather than eyeing the incorporation of Belarus into Russia, Moscow or some Kremlin-connected oligarchs could be seeking a stake in Belarus's oil-refining industry, which remains one of last family jewels left in Lukashenka's inventory. Giving that up would represent a major loss of sovereignty for the country of some 10 million people. Moreover, refining accounts for about 20 percent of the Belarus state budget, so surrendering that sector could create as many problems as it solves for Minsk.

Ironically, Belarus's shambolic economy could be the main defense of its sovereignty against Russia. When Lukashenka met with Putin on December 29, his Christmas gift consisted of four sacks of potatoes and a tub of lard -- possibly a symbolic representation of how little Russia stands to gain in a merger with Belarus.

In addition, over the last two decades, Belarus has developed a significant sense of its own national identity. Even its much-noted Soviet nostalgia is a peculiar type that emphasizes stability and government paternalism while rejecting suffocating central control from Moscow. Any Russian effort to foist unification on Belarus would arguably meet neither the open resistance that characterized Ukraine's Maidan revolution nor the easily manipulated apparent acceptance that Moscow manufactured in Ukraine's Crimea region.

"In Crimea, they had this fake referendum there, but I think in Belarus it would be different," former U.S. Ambassador Yalowitz said. "The country has been independent for more than 25 years and people have gotten used to being a separate country."

And in Russia the prospect of taking on the Belarus economic project would likely not be greeted as enthusiastically as the annexation of Crimea was by a population that has seen significant tax hikes and a painful increase in retirement ages in the last few months.

"At its best, Belarus is not Crimea," Russian political analyst Yekaterina Shulmann told Foreign Policy magazine this month, "but, in an average Russian's perception, is a poorer country to be fed and kept by Russia."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service and RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov

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