From Vague “Harmonization” To A Training And Combat Centre Near Hrodna

The foundations of sovereignty loss were laid by the agreements of the late 90s. Fortunately, most of these have not worked.

On September 16, 2021, weekly Belarus in Focus analytical monitoring in partnership with the Press Club, the “Our Opinion” Belarusian expert community website and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) held an online meeting to discuss the prospects for the next round of Belarusian-Russian integration.

The main speakers were:

Pavel Matsukevich, Senior Analyst at the Center for New Ideas, former Charge d’Affaires of Belarus in Switzerland;

Pavel Slunkin, Fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), former First Secretary of the European Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus;

Anatol Pankouski, editor of the Belarusian Yearbook and Our Opinion – the website of the Belarusian expert community;

Valer Karbalevich, a political columnist for Radio Liberty.

The meeting was also attended by representatives of international organizations, the diplomatic corps, analysts, and journalists, including Yury Drakakhrust, Genadz Korshunau, Agnieszka Komarowska and others.

The discussion was moderated by Vadim Mojeiko (BISS) and Natallia Gantievskaya (Belarus in Focus/ Press Club).

Key Issues Raised

  • “Union Programs – A Plan for Planning” (Anatol Pankouski)
  • “Hide from Russian integration harassment” (Pavel Matsukevich))
  • “The basic contradiction between Lukashenka and Putin – they both want power over Belarus” (Pavel Slunkin)
  • “Lukashenka’s vulnerability is not his confrontation with the West, but his lack of internal legitimacy” (Valer Karbalevich).

How important are The Integration programs?

The participants agreed that until the full texts of the agreements are published, it is premature to talk about both breakthroughs (as state media do) and an absence of threats.

Pavel Matsukevich drew attention to the fact that it was the political crisis of 2020 that forced Lukashenka to reanimate the road maps, and their coordination in the form of union programs became a landmark event in the integration process. However, Valer Karbalevich believes that both sides have compromised and signed a watered-down version of the proposals. In order for Minsk to enlist Moscow’s support in the face of upcoming sanctions, the Kremlin insisted on a demonstration of foreign policy progress before the Russian Duma elections.

Pavel Slunkin noted that the legal status of the documents under discussion is still unclear. These may be binding agreements with deadlines and obligations, or vague roadmaps leaving details to be resolved later. In the meantime, he classified the components of the Union programs according to keywords:

  • “Harmonization” – the parties either have no interest in creating common norms in these sectors (such as finance), or there is an understanding that this is impossible.
  • “Unification” is perhaps not just a rapprochement, but a common basis. These are less critical areas, such as consumer rights.
  • “Integration” is the transition to common standards, possibly based on Russian ones. These are areas where there is a demand for greater transparency, a more effective fight against smuggling, acceleration of cross-border inspections (including customs labelling systems and payment systems). But due to the conflicting interests of lobbyists of different business schemes, success here is unlikely.
  • “Formation” + “one” are the most ambitious parts (energy, agricultural markets). However, it is unclear how to resolve the basic contradictions that have prevented the creation of single markets all this time. Specific deadlines are either not outlined, or the tasks are blurred: for one, for gas, by December 2023, not a single market is planned, but only “common principles”.

Anatol Pankouski calls the programs “a plan for drawing up plans”; an inverted version of the Union Treaty, where instead of a failed top-down progression, a bottom-up strategy is proposed, assembling general integration from individual elements.

Do the union programs threaten the sovereignty of Belarus?

“Anschluss did not happen for the seventh time in a year,” states Pavel Slunkin, ironically, “and it should not be expected soon (although a general threat remains)”. Moscow is not trying to force Minsk to surrender sovereignty abruptly but prefers slow strangulation and systematically strengthening its position for the future when there will be more opportunities.

Pavel Matsukevich draws attention to the fact that the key sovereignty compromises arise in the agreements of the late 90s, leading up to the Treaty on the Creation of the Union State. There are provisions for designated and unified state bodies, and the possibility of a single membership in international organizations. Fortunately, most of these arrangements never worked.

However, now the situation of Belarus is quite different from the early 2000s. There was space for multi-vector manoeuvring “to hide from Russian integration harassment”. In contrast, the current conflict between the regime and the West narrows such opportunities and allows Moscow to proceed towards integration at a leisurely pace. In addition, Russia has learned from Lukashenka’s mistakes and understands that even if Lukashenka agreed to force integration, there would be the same risk of rejection by Belarusian society as followed the fraudulent election results of 2020.

Anatol Pankouski characterizes what is happening as “outsourcing sovereign functions to Russia “: “The foreign policy structure tells lies, [minister of foreign affairs] Makei works as a TV presenter, and the regime is forced to talk to the West via Moscow.”

Why has military cooperation intensified?

The panel regarded the combat training centre near Hrodna as the most significant recent development. Russian combat aircraft and anti-aircraft missile forces are deployed there on a footing that appears closer to combat readiness than training. This is not a matter of a dozen teachers in a classroom, it is a deployment of Russian military equipment and Russian troops.

Pavel Slunkin believes that Russia’s agreement to certain other agreements in their current form is predicated upon military cooperation. Lukashenka calculates that conceding sovereignty in the military sphere poses less of a risk than political and economic integration.

After relations with the West and NATO deteriorated, a vacuum formed that Lukashenka seeks to exploit. He sells anti-Western rhetoric to Moscow, and then uses the spectre of Putin and the Russian Army to threaten the West: “If you attack me, we will integrate even more.”

Pavel Matsukevich notes that Minsk is still not happy about military agreements as this infringes on Belarusian sovereignty simply by the fact that the boots of foreign soldiers are on Belarusian territory. This combat training centre is of significance as a symbol rather than as a matter of practical defence. “All the years of independence sought to avoid this, and now it is becoming a reality.”

How will the signing of allied programs be perceived by the West?

According to Pavel Matsukevich, Europeans are more concerned about the increased Russian military presence in Belarus than economic integration programs. After all, even in the best years (2014-2020), the West perceived Belarus as a proxy for Russia’s interests. Pavel Slunkin recalls how Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius said at the time of the Zapad-2017 exercises that little remained of Belarusian sovereignty. Naturally, the Baltic States will continue to assess threats more strongly than countries on the other side of the EU, such as Spain. Valer Karbalevich also expects an apprehensive reaction from Ukraine, which, in the context of military exercises and allied programs, Lukashenka now characterizes in terms of an enemy rather than his previous emphatically expressed neutrality.

Karbalevich also believes that the activation of allied programs will simply reinforce the existing policies of the West. Pavel Matsukevich draws attention to the fact that the sanctions policy of the West already ignores the arguments that sanctions are pushing Minsk towards Moscow.

However, overall, Karbalevich reminds us that Lukashenka’s vulnerability lies not in confrontation with the West, but his lack of internal legitimacy. Lukashenka sitting on two chairs began only after 2014. Before that, he always lived in conflict with the West (although not as intense as it is now).

Pavel Slunkin believes that direct dialogue with Moscow on the Belarusian issue is attractive for the West (more so for Western Europe than Eastern). However, the problem with such negotiations is that Putin is not able to change the situation in Belarus by fiat. The common Western perception of Lukashenka as Putin’s puppet is inaccurate: “The basic contradiction between Lukashenka and Putin is that they both want power over Belarus.”

Author: Vadim Mojeiko

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