The Russian and Belarusian leaders have signed off on a series of road maps aimed at deepening the integration of the two neighbors as part of a decades-old plan to create a “Union State,” state media reported on November 4, as Minsk faces growing international pressure following last year's disputed presidential election.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed an agreement providing for a total of 28 integration “programs” at an online meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State.
The document focuses mainly on economic and regulatory issues, including common policies on taxation, banking, industry, agriculture, and energy. In addition, the two leaders approved a joint military doctrine.
There was no mention of issues surrounding political integration.
Moscow and Minsk signed a Union State treaty in 1999 and have been negotiating on and off since then.
The project would be a major step toward uniting the two countries’ economies and political structures, but also could undermine Belarus's sovereignty, something Lukashenka has strenuously resisted for years.
But the authoritarian leader has been increasingly isolated and shunned by much of the international community since a presidential election in August 2020 in which he claimed reelection to a sixth term.
The vote was condemned by Belarus’s opposition and the West as rigged, and prompted months of street protests that Belarusian security forces have harshly cracked down on.
The European Union, the United States, and other countries have not recognized Lukashenka as Belarus’s president and imposed several rounds of sanctions over a sweeping crackdown on the political opposition, civil society, and independent media.
Amid the isolation, Lukashenka has moved closer to Russia, seeking loans and military support from Putin.
Speaking during the televised video meeting with Lukashenka on November 4, Putin promised Moscow's continued backing.
"We will together resist any attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of our sovereign states and Russia will, of course, continue to provide assistance to the brotherly Belarusian people," the Russian president said from Crimea, a Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula that Moscow illegally annexed in 2014.
Lukashenka thanked Putin for his support.
"The unprecedented external pressure has become a serious test of strength for the relations between our countries. We can say with confidence that we have passed that test," he said.
Exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said Lukashenka no longer had the legitimacy to sign such documents and said people were being kept in the dark about the details involved.
“In 2020 our people denied authorization for Lukashenka to sign anything on their behalf,” she tweeted.