Belarus: A Change in Direction?

Belarus has long been Moscow's most reliable ally in the former Soviet heartland, but recent developments have led some to wonder if the country may be re-evaluating its stance. Is Belarus drifting further away from Russia? Where do relations stand currently? What progress has there been toward political and economic integration projects between Minsk and Moscow? Leksika's Breellen Plucknett offers insight. 


Background

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Belarus has remained solidly within Russia’s sphere of influence. After gaining its independence in 1991, Belarus maintained close ties with Russia through a series of treaties emphasizing the importance of cooperation between the states and, eventually, political re-integration.

President Lukashenko of Belarus has been in office since 1994 and remains the only president to be elected since the country gained independence. Lukashenko has cooperated closely with Russian President Putin, especially as joint leader of the Supreme State Council of the Russia-Belarus Union State.

Executive Summary

On February 15, the European Union lifted long standing sanctions on Belarus. Both the EU and the US began to consider lifting sanctions in fall 2015, shortly after the release of six political prisoners from detainment. Belarus also played a central role in mediating a ceasefire in the Ukrainian conflict, hosting talks between Ukraine, pro-Russian rebels, Russia, and several Western countries. These actions have prompted speculation that Western relations with Belarus are improving, and that the West could have a new potential partner within Russia’s sphere of influence. However, it is unlikely that Belarus is shifting its priorities to the West, or that the authoritarian regime is undergoing any sort of ideological or systemic change.

Recent actions taken by Belarus are almost certainly calculated to escape sanctions. While its actions may indicate that Belarus can be leveraged to serve Western interests, the extent is limited. Belarus remains deeply intertwined with Russia economically, and the authoritarian regime headed by President Lukashenko holds a secure grasp over the country.

Economic Entanglement

Belarus has deep economic ties with Russia, which effectively prevents it from opposing Moscow's policies. Russia is its largest trading partner, accounting for over 40% of Belarus’s exports and over 50% of its imports. Belarus relies on Russian subsidies to purchase energy products, with some estimates showing that Belarus has saved as much as $10 billion (16% GDP) in a single year as a result of these subsidies. According to the Economic Freedom Index, a report published by the Heritage Foundation, Belarus’s economy is ranked 157 in the world. The report categorizes it as one of the only “repressed” economies in Europe.

Russia plays a critical role as an energy provider as well as being an economic benefactor. Despite dropping oil prices, and the resulting devaluation of the Russian Ruble, Belarus continues to rely on its eastern neighbor. Estimates show that 90% of Belarus’s energy products currently come from the Russian Federation.

Authoritarian Tendencies

Since 1994, President Lukashenko has worked to consolidate state powers under the presidency. He has been accused of arresting and falsely imprisoning political opponents and using state security forces to crush opposition movements. Lukashenko has maintained power by holding controversial referendums, which he has used as a means to re-election and as a way to amend the constitution and abolish laws such as presidential term limits.  Despite the release of political prisoners, Human Rights Watch maintains that there has been no improvement to the overall human rights situation.

The Union State

During the late 1990s, Russia and Belarus began a slow political re-integration process, forming the Commonwealth of Russia and Belarus, later known as the Russia-Belarus Union State. This Union State has proven to be somewhat obscure, continually being amended and re-defined, and lacking in implementation. Nevertheless, this remains a unique partnership within the larger Commonwealth of Independent States.

Despite occasional tensions between Moscow and Brussels, the two remain deeply intertwined both politically and economically. In a recent visit to Belarus, President Putin and President Lukashenko discussed budget plans for the Union State as well as foreign policy matters. They also agreed to improve coordination of macroeconomic regulations. During a session of the Supreme State Council of the Union State, President Putin said, “Russia obviously aims at further mutually beneficial and equal integration with Belarus within the common Union State." Specifically, the council’s priorities are to develop industry, currency and finance, and the service sectors of the two countries.

Belarus also plays a strategic role within Russia’s military doctrine, which calls for a more aggressive stance toward NATO advances into Eastern Europe. Belarus is situated on the border of some of NATO’s eastern most member states, making it extremely important to Russia’s strategic defense. To improve military cooperation, Russia and Belarus have been developing a joint air defense system and running joint military exercises. Union Shield 2015, the most recent set of training exercises testing the readiness of the Union State’s military forces, took place in September and included over 80,000 troops.

Conclusion

Belarus has been weakened by sanctions and by the effects of Russia’s poor economy, and will only serve Western interests out of necessity. If the Russian economy continues to perform poorly, Belarus may find itself at a crossroad between its historical ally to the east and the economic opportunities of the West.

While a major ideological shift within the government is not apparent currently, Belarus is likely to seek economic diversification through Western partnerships, specifically in the energy sector where it is most reliant on Russia. Future indicators of improving relations with Belarus include attempts at economic diversification, specifically in the energy sector, and improvements to the country’s humanitarian situation.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons