Avenue of Independence

7 july 2010

Will Russian-Belarusian Relations Take the Ukrainian Path?

Arkady Moshes is Program Director of the EU Eastern Neighborhood and Russia Research Program at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Resume: For all the complexity and diversity of Russian interests in the neighboring country, an adequate model of relations between them requires that Moscow view Belarus as an independent state and an ally whose interests are not necessarily identical with Russia’s.

In the summer of 2010, relations between Russia and Belarus, which formally are the closest allies, have reached a point of open confrontation. On June 15, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev actually presented Minsk with an ultimatum, demanding that it pay its debts for Russian gas supplies within five days. The long-lasting disagreements between the two countries over gas prices and oil duties were aggravated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s refusal to join the Customs Union, which was to go into effect on July 1. On top of that, the Belarusian president chose to oppose Moscow’s position as regards the events in Kyrgyzstan by taking the side of the ousted Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and accused Moscow of supporting the coup in that country.

Relations between Moscow and Minsk have been roller coasting since the spring of 2009. Immediately after a February 2009 meeting of the State Council of the Russia-Belarus Union State, at which the parties seemed to have finally reached agreement on the deployment of a unified air defense system and where they discussed prospects for creating a single economic space, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko publicly accused Russia of economic pressure. In May, it became clear that Belarus would not get 500 million dollars which were supposed to be the last tranche of the previously agreed preferential credit. In early June, Russia’s Public Health and Consumer Protection Agency (Rospotrebnadzor) banned imports of Belarusian dairy products. The Belarusian leader responded by boycotting the Moscow summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and publicly questioned the legitimacy of the organization’s decision to establish a Collective Rapid Reaction Force. Lukashenko softened his negative stance only in the autumn.

Conflicts over gas prices, which are traditionally difficult to settle, in January 2010 were coupled with Moscow’s decision to introduce a 100-percent duty on crude oil supplies to Belarus. Only 6.3 million tons of the 21.4 million tons of oil refined at Belarusian oil refineries are exempt from the duty, which has inflicted serious damage to the country. Minsk has appealed to the Economic Court of the Commonwealth of Independent States against this decision. And although the trilateral Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan has formally been established, Belarus has officially threatened to withdraw from it if any goods, especially food and oil, are not covered by the Union.

Moreover, the conflict has evolved into ad hominem attacks. Lukashenko has repeatedly used language that is not compatible with diplomatic etiquette with regard to Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, and in October 2009, he publicly accused Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of obstructing military cooperation between the two countries and of disrupting integration processes in the Union State. The Russian newspaper Kommersant, in turn, quoted an unnamed source in the Russian president’s administration as saying: “Apparently, someone has got tired of being the president of this country” [Belarus – A.M.]. In March 2010, when Putin came to the Belarusian town of Brest to participate in a meeting of the Union State’s Council of Ministers, Lukashenko unexpectedly left on a visit to Venezuela, which could hardly be taken as anything but a demarche targeted against a particular person.

THE CONFLICT – FROM AN ACUTE TO A CHRONIC PHASE

Yet the main feature that distinguishes the current aggravation of Russian-Belarusian relations is the internationalization of their context. In May 2009, Belarus joined the EU Eastern Partnership program, which is the first ever format for institutional interaction between EU members and post-Soviet states, which does not include Russia. In early November, Lukashenko paid an official visit to Ukraine, his first over the 15 years of his stay in power. The visit was intended to emphasize the similarity of the positions of Minsk and Kyiv and their distinction from Russia’s position.

These developments make one ponder whether we are witnessing a basically new trend in Russian-Belarusian relations or whether they still proceed along a wave-like trajectory and do not go beyond the existing allied ties – especially as their military-political component was graphically demonstrated by a major joint exercise, West-2009.

Despite the latter circumstance, it would be fairly safe to say that relations between Moscow and Minsk have begun to move towards the so-called “Ukrainian model.” This model is characterized by three interconnected elements: a) a high level of conflict with Russia, and the presence of chronic bilateral problems unsolved for decades; b) a principled refusal to follow in the wake of Russia’s foreign policy, and a constant search for regional and other external alternatives to it; and c) reliance on cooperation with the West to neutralize Russia’s pressure. This model is based on a perception of one’s own independence as independence from Russia, which predetermines a conscious centrifugal geopolitical drift.

For a long time, among the CIS countries, all the three elements were observed only in the behavior of Kyiv. Other countries and regions either displayed concern over other neighboring centers of power (for example, over China in Central Asia, Turkey in the Caucasus, or Romania in Moldova), or did not allow their contradictions with Moscow to escalate into open conflicts, or were unable and/or did not want to involve the West as a counterweight. Even Georgia under President Eduard Shevardnadze sought to solve its problems through interaction with Moscow (including membership in the Russo-centric collective security system) rather than through confrontation with it and reliance on the West. It changed this paradigm only after Mikheil Saakashvili came to power.

Today, all the elements of the aforedescribed model are manifest in the policy of Minsk, although not always in a radical form, of course. The sovereignty of Belarus has ideologically and practically become the main instrument for protecting the ruling elite’s powers, which may be threatened by Moscow’s integrationist initiatives, be it a proposal to become part of Russia or introduce a common currency with a simultaneous loss of the right to issue money. The economic conflict with Russia has evolved into a political one. The delay in recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – actually a refusal to do this – is indisputable evidence that Belarus is no longer a country on whose support Moscow can count automatically. The stepped-up contacts between Minsk and the EU show that Belarus has sought and received a new foreign-policy resource. In his annual address to the parliament and the nation in April 2010 President Lukashenko described Russian policy as “consistent activities which threaten the very survival of our state” and thanked “the IMF, Europe and the West” for their help.

Unlike Ukraine, the Belarusian leadership is not experiencing serious pressure from the opposition. All major decisions are made by the president, who has been in power since 1994 and who for many years sought to obtain an image of the main integrator of the post-Soviet space. His efforts to discard this image as politically ambiguous and disadvantageous can only be explained by the awareness of the profound changes in his country. Belarus has not produced a powerful movement for independence; the Russian language still dominates there in the media and in private life; and Minsk still has close economic links with Russia. Yet Belarus is changing the model of its relations with Russia in favor of separation from the latter.

INNER CHANGES

Changes in Belarus provide the key to understanding the situation in the country. Outside obervers have until recently ignored these changes. Yet it is obvious that the formation of the new national identity of the people of Belarus as an independent East European state, different from Russia, has already traveled a long way.

First of all, according to sociologists (the following data were provided by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, IISEPS), the value of the country’s independence has been recognized en masse. In a December 2009 poll, 65.5 percent of those polled described the proclamation of Belarusian independence as beneficial for their country, and only 20 percent had the opposite view. Of these 20 percent, only 10 percent (i.e. 2 percent of all those polled) said they thought so because Belarus and Russia are one nation. Asked to rate the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence in 1991 as a source of pride from 1 to 5 (where 5 was the highest mark meaning “I am very proud”), 31.3 percent rated it as 5, and another 19.5 percent rated it as 4. The proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918 received 42.7 percent of “fours” and “fives,” which was slightly higher than the rating of one’s “pride” in being part of the Soviet Union. “Being a Belarusian” meant struggling for independence from the Soviet Union for 33.4 percent of the respondents (they rated it as 4 and 5). This is a very high percentage, as the struggle against Nazism received 39 percent in the same poll. These figures clearly demonstrate the emergence or even introduction of a new historical myth in Belarus.

Although less than 4 percent of the respondents use only the Belarusian language at home (compared with almost 60 percent of those who use Russian, and the rest use a mixed dialect), 16 percent hold that Belarusian must be the only official language in the country. Sixty-five percent are in favor of two official languages, and less than 15 percent insist that only Russian must be used officially.

The geopolitical benchmarks of the population are changing as well. Asked about a possible “unification” with Russia (however abstract this term may be, meaning things ranging from the present Union State to EU-like integration), 54.6 percent did not support the idea, and only 35.2 percent favored it. In a hypothetical referendum on joining the EU, 40.7 percent of the respondents would vote yes, and 34.6 percent would be against. When the respondents were asked to choose between “unifying” with Russia and joining the EU, both options received about 42 percent each. However, over the past five years, the percentage of advocates of the European choice has increased by almost 9 percent, while the pro-Russian part of the population has decreased by 7 percent. The European choice is more widespread among people younger than 44 years.

Another change, manifest both among the population in general and elites, is the spread of consumerism and consumer expectations. This change was noted, in particular, by Belarusian researcher Vitaly Silitsky. The idea of Belarusians as people “content with a glass of vodka and pork rinds” today is absolutely untrue. The production system inherited from the Soviet Union is unable to meet the increased demands. This factor, on the one hand, causes the country’s leadership to look for new elements of the social contract outside the previous model, which was oriented primarily towards Russia (“the past”), and on the other hand, it increases the attractiveness of the EU, including neighboring Poland, as a “territory of success.” In addition, the more affluent segments of the population associate the West with a possibility to legitimize and preserve their savings, because property rights are firmly guaranteed there. And on the contrary, they view as unacceptable the risk of visa restrictions, the distraint of property and other obstacles to doing business, which largely result from the pariah status of the political regime in Belarus. So they are beginning to advocate for changes.

These developments shed a different light on the change of personalities in the upper echelon of political power in Minsk. In the second half of 2007-early 2009, Lukashenko fired several key security officials, including the KGB head, Stepan Sukhorenko, whose services he had highly praised after the suppression of a wave of protests following elections in 2006. Other officials included Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov and Security Council Secretary Victor Sheiman, who had for many years been considered an eminence grise in Belarusian politics. They were replaced by technocrats, among them the new head of the presidential administration, ex-diplomat Vladimir Makey, who had been Belarusian ambassador to the Council of Europe; and the president’s son, Victor Lukashenko. It is believed that the influence of Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky and some other Cabinet members, characterized as economic nationalists by Belarusian analysts, in particular Andrei Lyakhovich, has increased. Although the matter at issue is not a radical change of the socio-political model, the government has begun to move from coercive and administrative methods of state governance towards economic ones.

It is widely believed among Belarusian analysts that advocates of a pro-Russian orientation are gradually replaced from supreme state power bodies and are even leaving the country. I cannot confirm or refute this view, but such developments would only be logical: at a time when Russia is viewed as posing the main challenge to the sovereignty of Belarus, it would be dangerous to leave pro-Russian officials at important posts. This refers, above all, to security elites.

The global crisis is only accelerating all the processes. Although the recession will likely cause part of the Belarusian population employed in industrial production to think of preserving Russian markets for their goods, the new people in the government will be guided by the incommensurability of the economic resources of the West, which controls international financial lending institutions, and Russia which is returning to the loan market. In December 2008, the IMF easily approved the allocation of a 2.5-billion-dollar stabilization loan to Belarus. If this country is covered by programs of the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as well as by investment instruments of the European Neighborhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership, financial advantages of rapprochement with the EU would be even more obvious.

RUSSIAN POLICIES –INTERESTS OR “VALUES”?

It is also common belief among analysts that it was Russia’s hardening its policy towards Belarus, which began in the middle of this decade, that was the main factor in the centrifugal development of the relations between the two countries. This is a simplistic view of the reality. In fact, Russia’s policy towards Belarus has been mixed over the years. Russia kept subsidizing the Belarusian economy directly and indirectly by way of loans, selling its energy to Belarus at relatively low prices, and providing privileged access to the Russian market for Belarusian companies. Thus Moscow wanted to demonstrate to the West that it has allied relations with Minsk, and to keep control over the situation in the region. In addition, without the aforementioned inner changes, the pressure effect would have been different.

Nevertheless, two components of Russia’s policy surely frightened the Belarusian leadership: they could give the impression that Russia sought to turn Belarus into a weak and dependent state and, possibly, change the ruling regime there.

First, Belarus, with its supercritical energy dependence on Russia (only 20 percent of Russian gas exports to Europe go via Belarus; and there are no strategic gas storage facilities there; therefore, as distinct from Ukraine which is a transit monopolist, the relations between Moscow and Minsk are not those of mutual dependence), has come under Russian energy pressure. Moscow cut off gas supply to Belarus to strengthen its negotiating positions for the first time in February 2004. Then followed the gas and oil crisis of 2006/07, accompanied by mutual cutoffs of energy supply and transit, and the already mentioned sharp reduction of duty-free oil supplies to Belarus in 2010. The price of natural gas for Belarus increased from 22 to 25 dollars per 1,000 cubic meters in 2002 to about $170 in the first quarter of 2010. Russia’s plans to build the Nord Stream gas pipeline and the Baltic Pipeline System-2 can deprive Minsk of all transit revenues.

Characteristically, the coming of the Belarusian pipeline infrastructure under Gazprom’s control (the Russian monopolist became the owner of 50 percent of shares in Beltransgaz, a gas transportation company of Belarus, in the spring of 2010) has not made the country’s energy situation any easier. This factor only adds to doubts about the expediency of allowing Russian companies to privatize major oil refineries in Belarus, which is one of the main knots of contradictions in Russian-Belarusian relations.

Second, Belarus has not lived up to Moscow’s expectations concerning the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Apparently in the hope of winning its ally’s support, Moscow ignored the fact that relations between Minsk and Tbilisi had always been different from those between Russia and Georgia and had never been fully broken. In addition, Moscow did not attach much importance to the fact that Belarus, like Central Asian countries, cannot ignore the position of China, which gives primacy to the principle of territorial integrity. Finally, Russia somehow ignored the obvious fact that for any post-Soviet country, including Belarus, the legitimation of changes of the borders as a result of the use of force, no matter what could have caused it, is a dangerous precedent, which all of them would like to avoid.

In fact, Moscow expected self-limitation of sovereignty from Minsk. Putin’s statement during his visit to Brest in March 2010 that the non-recognition of Sukhum and Tskhinval was the price that Belarus had to pay for the normalization of its relations with the West was only a belated attempt to save face and, at the same time, a forced recognition of the diplomatic failure.

Apparently, in its policy towards Minsk Russia has been unable to separate a pragmatic approach and “values.” While in the energy sphere, Moscow advances specific interests of companies and the state budget, in foreign policy it seems to proceed from the presence of some “commonality of values” which a priori implies the coincidence of the positions of Russia and Belarus with regard to the West.

For all the complexity and diversity of Russian interests in the neighboring country, an adequate model of relations between them requires that Moscow view Belarus as an independent state and an ally whose interests are not necessarily identical with Russia’s. At the strategic level, Russia should renounce thinking in terms of exclusive spheres of influence, and recognize Belarus’s right of choice. At the tactical level, such an approach implies transparency and a clear distinction between various aspects of bilateral relations. This would help to prevent the unlawful extraction by Belarus of a rent from the re-export of Russian energy resources, and, at the same time, it would require fixing Russia’s financial obligations with regard to military cooperation, payment for the use of bases and even modernization of the Belarusian armed forces. Economically, it would still be advantageous to Russia; in addition, it would help to avoid accusations of defense dependence at the expense of Belarus.

Instead, Moscow treats Belarus as a client state which it can support occasionally on certain terms but which must not have a profile of its own in international politics. But when Russia’s behavior begins to be viewed through the prism of bypass pipelines, unambiguous proposals for the transfer of property, and expectations that Belarus should automatically support Russia’s policies in Europe, it is no wonder that Minsk starts seeking external support. For a long time, Minsk tried to find counterweights outside the Russia-West axis, expanding its contacts with Venezuela, Iran, Arab countries and China, but at some point, it required additional resources.

EU POLICIES – RESULTS OR PROCESS?

No decision taken by Minsk would have been enough, if the West had not given it room for foreign-policy maneuver. It is no secret that until recently Western countries tacitly admitted Russia’s dominant positions in Belarus. On the one hand, they saw little opportunity to influence the situation and confined themselves to the usual criticism of the illiberal regime; on the other hand, before the EU enlargement in 2004, Belarus could in no way be viewed as a priority.

Later, however, the situation changed. The European Union has had to step up activity on its eastern borders, because without the establishment of stably functioning economies on its new periphery, the wealth gap would pose a direct challenge to EU security. For the new EU member states, this region is an area of first-priority interests, and the farther they are, the more successfully they attract Brussels’s attention to it. After the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 and the Russian-Ukrainian gas conflict in 2009, it became obvious for many people in the EU that, on the one hand, countries should reinvigorate their interaction efforts, and, on the other, there was little chance for the establishment of regional cooperation with Russia in the short term. Hence the EU’s desire, fixed in documents, to pursue the Eastern Partnership “in parallel” with the EU’s strategic partnership with Russia, rather than in the process of consultations with it.

Without involving Belarus, the implementation of the new regional initiative would be simply impossible. Even more important, the Belarusian regime and its leader do not at all look the most problematic ones in the region and among the Eastern Partnership members – which include, for example, Azerbaijan – from the point of view of standards of liberal democracy. At the same time, the EU does not have to completely renounce the “values” approach. Suffice it to note the progress (the release of political prisoners, the improvement of the business environment, the enhancement of the competitiveness of elections, etc.), start the process of changes and, without waiting for the results, declare the policy a success. So, the EU is intrinsically ready for a resumption of dialogue with Minsk.

In turn, the Belarusian leadership is now also confident that the EU’s policy is not aimed at changing the regime but at its long evolution in the process of harmonization of positions. The building of partner relations with Brussels does not imply any risk that Belarus may lose its sovereignty. On the contrary, it is opening a direct path to the international legitimation of the Belarusian elite as the ruling establishment of an independent European state, which is its direct interest.

It is too early yet to discuss various cooperation projects between Belarus and the EU in detail; yet it is clear that they are largely aimed at strengthening the energy security of Belarus – not only by introducing energy-saving technologies or investing in the local resource base but also by securing a place for Belarus in the energy transit system. In this context, it should be noted that the contract concluded by Gazprom and Polish consumers in early 2010, valid until 2037 and providing for the growth of Russian fuel supplies, directly benefits Belarus. As Poland is not planning to receive natural gas from the Nord Stream, all of its contracted fuel will go via Belarus, yielding revenues for the latter.

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The central street of Minsk is called Independence Avenue. This street goes through the city and is continued by a highway leading to an international airport and by a highway to Moscow. The word “independence” thus becomes the main notional symbol which the capital of Belarus demonstrates to foreigners. During the first few years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the avenue was named after 16th-century enlightener Francysk Skaryna. It was given its present name only a few years ago. Fifteen years passed between the appearance in Kyiv of the now widely known Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and Independence Avenue in Minsk. It took as many years for the Belarusian foreign policy to start demonstrating similarities with that of Ukraine, although the political systems of the two countries are still fundamentally different.

Like with Ukraine, there are no guarantees that, having separated from Russia, Belarus will at some point become part of political Europe. Nevertheless, the present process is a natural element of the decay of the post-Soviet space, when differences in the behavior of countries that once were one state begin to be viewed by society as a norm and not as a whim of politicians.

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