Game of Presidents: season 2
In 2021 Belarus oriented itself firmly towards Russia. Belarusian-Russian integration developed in the areas of constitutional reform, economic integration, and military cooperation, all with Russian economic support. Lukashenka managed to avoid major concessions, whilst Russia provided limited support for the Belarusian regime. Behind the facade of major integration negotiations, a tendency towards “soft erosion” of Belarusian sovereignty has emerged.
Communication between the governments of Russia and Belarus was unprecedentedly active in 2021, amidst a wholesale collapse in other Belarusian foreign relations. Lukashenka and Putin were in contact dozens of times and met on at least six occasions. Superficially, 2021 seemed relatively conflict-free, but behind a facade of forced rapprochement, tortuous and tense political bargaining was taking place.
By late 2020, three strategies to ensure Russian support materialised for Lukashenka:
- constitutional reform, which would guarantee Russia continuity and expansion of influence via diversification of political power after Lukashenka's departure.
- unification, implying convergence of economic policy, and harmonisation of tax and customs legislation, etc. within the framework of the so-called “Union State.”
- a military alliance closer than the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
These options are not mutually exclusive; there has always been a shifting emphasis between them. After the Sochi summit in September 2020, constitutional reform was the priority, but integration came to the fore at the beginning of 2021. On November 4th, 2021, the integration roadmaps were signed, and the topic slid back down the priority list such that two months after, no further progress was made.
In March, Lukashenka presented his future strategy, emphasising the militarisation of Belarus and military cooperation with the Russian Federation to form an anti-western axis; such collaboration was on the agenda throughout the year. Minsk gradually escalated conflict with the West in such a way as to simultaneously aggravate relations between the West and Russia. In the summer of 2021, the regime employed a new tactic – escalation of the migration crisis on the western borders of the Union State. It was a desperate attempt to open communication channels with the West and unblock the “geopolitical pendulum”, aspiring to improve its negotiating positions in bargaining with Russia.
Lukashenka was reluctant to address constitutional amendments. He confirmed his interest in political reform in March, but no significant steps were taken. Nevertheless, after the "disclosure" of a failed assassination attempt on Lukashenka, he issued a decree to the effect that in case of his inability to exercise the powers of the president, those functions would be transferred to the Security Council with the simultaneous introduction of a state of emergency. Such a measure is expected to ensure that the power block retains its position during any transition period and that political alignment with Russia is preserved.
On closer examination, constitutional reform (transit of power) and integration are interconnected. Transit means a transition from a personal regime to a regime with fewer dictatorial powers, and for this reason, it is unacceptable for Lukashenka. He preferred to play for time and consolidate the existing state of affairs in the course of the constitutional referendum-2022. Institutional changes through union programs and deeper integration do not suit Minsk because they strengthen private economic power following Russian constitutional templates. Finally, close military cooperation resulting in the Belarusian army operating as a de facto arm of the Russian armed forces does not accrue benefits in other areas (for example, on energy resources or loans). On the contrary, Russia believes that ensuring the security of Belarus and strengthening its army requires a return from Belarus, if not financial, then in terms of the harmonisation of economic policies.
The overall outcomes of 2021:
1. The announced agreement on the unification of the gas markets of Russia and Belarus, which is planned to be signed before December 1, 2023, looks tempting, but the final conditions that will be set for such a “merger” of gas markets (it is also planned to create a single oil and electricity market) are not completely clear. Western sanctions are an obstacle to such initiatives. In 2021, Belarus failed to achieve significant concessions on energy: in 2021, it bought gas at the price of the previous year, in 2022 - at the cost of 2021 (USD 128.5 per 1,000 cubic meters). The situation with gas transit is worse: the surplus of transit capacities arising from the commissioning of the Nord Stream-2 pipeline is covered by Belarus. In Q4 2021, gas transit through the Belarusian pipe decreased from 9 to 2 billion cubic meters.
2. According to Putin, credit resources for Belarus from September 2021 to the end of 2022 should total USD 630-640 million. This amount does not inspire Lukashenka. In the first half of the year, Belarus initiated negotiations aiming to attract USD 3 billion; by the end of the year, the request increased to USD 3.5 billion but has not yet found a response. In late 2021, during a meeting with Lukashenka, Putin queried, “Why do you need money if everything is fine in your economy?”
3. Transport and logistical dependency on Russia is an inevitable side-effect of the significant tensions with the West. Russia profited from Belarusian isolation regarding overfulfilling plans to redirect Belarusian oil products to Russian ports. Belarusian fertilisers may follow oil in taking the Northern Sea Route. After the start of the air blockade, Belarus became an adjunct to Russian airspace with the illusory hope that the Russian Federation would compensate for the losses of Belavia.
4. The thesis about a single defence space and joint defence against external threats is nothing new, given that a “joint defence centre” already exists and joint exercises are being conducted.
5. Other arrangements. Creating a common payment space and integrating currency systems are enshrined in the integration roadmap but remain a pipe dream in reality. The negotiators admit that they are not yet ready for such a transition. Many other agreements regarding the harmonisation of the tax system, equal rights and opportunities for citizens of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus in the economic and social spheres within the framework of the State Union, a unified industrial policy, unrestricted access to government procurement and government orders, etc. appear to be mere declarations.
Forecast for 2022
- Relatively high involvement of Russia in Belarusian affairs.
- A sharp decline in the export transit value of Belarus and, accordingly, the lowering of the importance of the transit-based negotiation arguments in disputes with Russia.
- “Soft takeover”, a partial transfer of some sovereign functions and infrastructure to Russia for “outsourcing”, including foreign policy, transport and logistical capabilities, defence and security, etc.
- Constitutional referendum-2022 does not prevent subsequent haggling over the implementation of the union programs.