The Belarusian President Won’t Go Down Without a Fight

Tensions between Moscow and Minsk have sparked worries over another Russian annexation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko walk in as they attend a session of the Supreme State Council of the Union State at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 3, 2015.  (Sergei Karpukhin/AFP/Getty)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko walk in as they attend a session of the Supreme State Council of the Union State at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 3, 2015. (Sergei Karpukhin/AFP/Getty)

The president of Belarus on Thursday cautioned that Moscow could lose its only ally on its western border if the two countries could not resolve an ongoing dispute over energy, and he dismissed speculation that his country could soon be unified with Russia.

“I call these suggestions very stupid, far-fetched for discussion in our society,” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said.

In a relationship known as “oil for kisses,” Russia has long provided generous energy subsidies, especially discounted oil, to Minsk to prop up the anemic Belarusian economy. In return, Belarus serves as a loyal buffer state between Russia and Europe. Both Napoleon and the Nazis came through Belarus when they invaded Russia, and Moscow has not forgotten, said Kenneth Yalowitz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the 1990s.

While the two have fought over the price of Russia’s energy exports in the past, this round has been particularly bitter as changes to the way Moscow taxes oil are expected to cost Belarus between $8 billion and $12 billion by 2024.

This past December the Belarusian president accused Russia of doing away with subsidies to hobble Belarus and force it to join Russia. “I understand what all those hints mean: You get the oil but you break up your country and join Russia,” Lukashenko said at a news conference on Dec. 14.

But there’s a new wrinkle in the spat this time: Belarus could provide a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to prolong his political career. Putin, who won re-election last year, is slated to leave office in 2024 under constitutionally mandated term limits. But a 20-year-old treaty with Belarus could provide a way for him to take leadership of both countries, potentially offering a way to keep ruling while technically complying with the Russian Constitution.

Putin, Russia’s longest serving-leader since Joseph Stalin, has gone to great lengths to respect the letter, if not the spirit, of presidential term limits. After his first two terms in office, Putin stepped down to become prime minister in 2008, although he was widely understood to wield outsized power during President Dmitry Medvedev’s four-year stint in office.

While president, Medvedev signed a law extending presidential terms from four to six years. That means that Putin, who regained the presidency in 2012, could stretch two terms until 2024. The question of what happens then is the single-minded focus of Russian political elites.

Russian leaders are suddenly paying more attention to a 1999 treaty of union with Belarus, which was intended to create a confederation in which the countries would remain sovereign but would share a legislature and a currency—and, crucially, a head of state.

While little progress was made on the union beyond open borders and free movement of labor, Moscow has lately taken a renewed interest in the treaty.

In December, now-Prime Minister Medvedev said that Moscow was ready to deepen ties between to two countries under the 1999 union treaty. Before the New Year, Medvedev established a working group on Belarus-Russian integration headed by Maxim Oreshkin, the Russian minister of economic development. In July 2018, Russia appointed Mikhail Babich, a former KGB and Federal Security Service officer, as ambassador to Belarus, which sparked concerns about Moscow’s intentions.

Lukashenko, whose nearly 25-year rule earned him the moniker of “Europe’s last dictator,” has sought to squash talk of a full union. “If someone wants to break [Belarus] into regions and force us to become a subject of Russia, that will never happen,” he told a group of Russian reporters in December.

Belarus and Russia have historically been close. But when Moscow fomented a war in neighboring Ukraine, it spooked Minsk. Since then, Belarus has extended a number of olive branches to the West and pursued closer economic ties with China. Foreign Policy reported Thursday that Minsk was to lift its cap on the number of U.S. diplomats it would allow to serve in the country.

“There is really now a firm understanding in Minsk that unless they are able to make stable relations with several world powers, including the [European Union] and U.S., that in these times of political turmoil the Russians may deprive us of sovereignty,” said Yauheni Preiherman, the head of the Belarus-based think tank the Minsk Dialogue Track-II Initiative.

Just the thought of Russian encroachment on Belarusian sovereignty has rattled Minsk, where independence from Moscow is a rare point of political consensus.

“The only thing Russia can do is raise the stakes dramatically by using force or threatening to use force or orchestrating a coup,” said Artyom Shraibman, a political editor at the independent news outlet, the most widely read news site in Belarus.

“I can’t promise that this will never happen, as no one foresaw what happened in Crimea,” Shraibman said, but he added that it would be unlikely, because any such show of force by Russia would be extremely costly and provoke a harsh response from the West.

Russia over the last decade has pulled off some audacious land grabs. It essentially occupies about 20 percent of Georgia, is still waging a quasi-covert war in eastern Ukraine, and gobbled up the Crimean peninsula in 2014. But Belarus, a poor and landlocked country, doesn’t have the same geostrategic appeal for Russia, making annexation less likely, experts said, especially given the likelihood of a tough response from the West.

“I think it’s pretty much impossible in practical terms,” Preiherman said.

While Russia’s annexation of Crimea boosted Putin’s popularity, grabbing Belarus would not pass muster with the public, said Ekaterina Schulmann, a senior lecturer at the School of Public Policy of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.

The land grab agenda has been totally exhausted by the Crimea-Ukraine adventures and their sad aftermath,” she said. “At its best Belarus is not Crimea, but, in an average Russian’s perception, is a poorer country to be fed and kept by Russia.”

Preiherman, the head of the Belarusian think tank, said renewed discussion about the union state had more to do with sour relations between Russia and the West than the question of Putin’s continuity.

“The more the Russians are into this confrontation with the West, the more unpredictable they will be with their closest allies in the region,” he said.

“But when Russia becomes unpredictable, for Belarus it’s a big deal,” he added.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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