In his state-of-the-nation address this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not say a word about Belarus. But the fate and the future of Russia's smaller western neighbor could be affected by the proposals made by Putin.
In his address, Putin unveiled plans to recalibrate Russia’s power structure by changing the constitution more radically than at any time since its adoption in 1993. Many Kremlin watchers interpreted it as one of the clearest signs yet that Putin does not plan to exit the Russian political stage in 2024, when his current term ends and he is barred from seeking reelection.
So, how does that relate to Belarus? Simple. Growing Russian pressure on Belarus to integrate more closely, consummating a merger that was set in motion years ago but exists mainly on paper, suggested that Putin might be eyeing the top spot in the so-called union state as a way to stay in power after 2024. But those efforts have sputtered amid objections by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and protests on the streets of Minsk.
And now Putin’s plans to rejigger Russia’s constitution and shift the balance of power between government branches suggests the post at the head of a full-blown union with Belarus could be seen by the Kremlin as superfluous -- or just harder to nail down than changes in Russia itself.
“Putin’s project means that the union state through which it was assumed he would extend his power has been rejected,” Belarusian political analyst Valer Karbalevich said in a commentary for RFE/RL’s Belarus Service.
Should Belarusians, worried their nation was on the verge of being swallowed by its far bigger, more powerful neighbor, now breathe a sigh of relief?
Not exactly, said John Lough, an assistant fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at London-based think tank Chatham House.
“Deepening integration with Belarus is definitely not off the table but a union state does not look like the vehicle that will keep Putin in power,” Lough told RFE/RL.
And while Putin may have a range of options for remaining in power, Belarus is limited in its ability to choose geopolitical partners, Lough said.
“Belarus is going to remain in Russia’s orbit since it has no alternative,” he said. “But for now, Russia remains dependent on Lukashenka.”
Russia and Belarus have been discussing deeper integration for more than two decades, and their leaders signed a treaty in 1999 to create a union state. But there is little to it in reality because they have failed to agree on key points, including a single currency.
In December, the Kremlin had been hoping the sides would mark 20 years since the union treaty by signing off on dozens of “road maps” setting out specifics of integration. But that did not happen and the government of authoritarian leader Lukashenka -- who has repeatedly pledged not to cede Belarusian sovereignty -- allowed street protests against a closer merger play out without a police crackdown.
The December developments suggested that Lukashenka, who was warned by Putin back in 2002 that integration might make him into little more than a regional governor, had once again headed off a merger on Russia’s terms. But pressure may persist.
Cheap energy has long been the carrot Moscow has dangled in front of Minsk to get its way. Belarus is heavily reliant on Russia for fuel and funding and is a key transit route for Russian energy supplies to Europe.
Moscow suspended oil supplies to Belarus earlier this month amid the stalled integration talks.
Some supplies of Russian oil resumed on January 4. Two Russian oil firms, controlled by tycoon Mikhail Gutseriyev, supply Belarus with oil essential to minimum operations at its two refineries at Navapolatsk and Mazyr.
On January 21, Lukashenka said Belarus could not secure from other sources the total amount of oil that it now receives from Russia. He said Belarus needs to diversify and should work to import no more than 40 percent of its needs from Russia.
“Another 30 percent we should import from the Baltics, and the remaining 30 percent through Ukraine,” Lukashenka told a government meeting.
His comments came the same day Belarus announced its first oil shipment from Norway.
Belarusian state-run oil company Belneftekhim said its subsidiary bought 80,000 metric tons of crude from Norway, with the shipment to be delivered via rail to Belarusian refineries in the next few days.
That announced shipment comes amid other recent efforts to diversify the country’s energy providers.
On January 14, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Dzmitry Krutoy said Minsk had asked several European countries, as well as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, to sell Belarus oil.
Importing oil from alternative sources is more expensive for Belarus than cheap Russian supplies, said Karbalevich. He said Minsk is trying to gain leverage, to “blackmail” Moscow as negotiations plug on.
Belarus has long complained about the gas price it gets from Russia, saying Minsk should be paying the same as the neighboring Russian region of Smolensk given that the countries are trying to set up a union state.
The Belarusian government also says it stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year from changes to Russian tax policy and wants compensation.
Russia says the subsidies it pays to Belarus cost its state coffers billions of dollars.
At his annual press conference in December 2019, Putin said he saw no point in providing Belarus with a gas discount until the integration project had advanced.
“Decisions that were made...related to the build up of the union state. At best, the key decisions have not been implemented. Simply speaking, 90 percent has not been done,” he said.
According to Lough, alternative energy sources are not a realistic choice for Belarus, offering no clear way to escape Russia's grip.
“Moscow is trying to push [Lukashenka] to accept closer integration but he is resisting any moves that will undermine the country’s sovereignty,” Lough said. “He is currently looking for some alternatives to Russian oil and gas supplies but it is hard to see how these can be obtained at more competitive prices. He and the Russians both know this.”
Ultimately, Lukashenka has only himself to blame for Belarus’s predicament, Karbalevich said, because he has failed to reform the country’s largely Soviet-era economy and has relied on cheap Russian energy.
“But everything will soon change. From 2024, Russian oil will be supplied to Belarus at world prices,” he said.
Besides alternative energy sources, Lukashenka seems to be seeking closer ties with the West, an oft-repeated tactic the wily Belarusian strongman resorts to in times of trouble with Moscow.
Seeking closer ties with the EU, which in 2016 lifted most sanctions imposed against Belarus over its record on rights and democracy, Lukashenka visited Vienna on November 12 for his first trip to an EU country in three years.
Relations with the United States have been on the mend as well. The two countries announced last September that they plan to resume hosting ambassadors after an 11-year hiatus.
Washington and Minsk began to reconsider their frosty relationship after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and began supporting separatist formations in eastern Ukraine, raising concerns in Belarus about its own territorial integrity.
WATCH: What Belarusians Think Of Possible Unification With Russia
Amid a sign of those warmer ties, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to travel to Minsk on February 1 in a visit originally scheduled for early January but postponed by Washington amid heightened tensions with Iran.
Pompeo would be the highest-level U.S. official to visit Belarus since diplomatic relations with the United States were frayed more than a decade ago. He would also be the second U.S. secretary of state to ever visit independent Belarus, after Warren Christopher in 1993. A year later in 1994, then-President Bill Clinton visited Belarus.
According to Lough, however, such overtures can only go so far.
“The EU remains wary of dealing with Lukashenka and has no desire to further aggravate relations with Russia. It has a short-time horizon and is not yet thinking of the post-Lukashenka scenarios,” he said.