Russia and Belarus: a special relationship turning cold

Russia and Belarus: a special relationship turning cold

President Lukashenko’s flirtation with Europe is hurting Belarus’ relationship with Russia

In a recent press conference, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko finally lost his temper. Asked about his county’s relationship with Russia he said, “the situation has gotten to the point where I can’t conceal things anymore”. He then started airing his grievances about Russia’s behaviour towards its small western neighbour. Lukashenko’s comments marked a new low point in the once brotherly ties between the two countries.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and especially since Lukashenko’s ascent to the presidency in 1994, Russia and Belarus have enjoyed remarkably close relations. While many Eastern European and Central Asian countries sought to distance themselves from Moscow, Belarus embraced cooperation with Russia. In 1996 and 1997, the two countries even pushed for the creation of a supranational union-state. But these close ties have begun to fray.

THE HONEYMOON

Photo: Sochi Express

Photo: Sochi Express

Western observers often describe Belarus as a vassal state of its larger neighbour. It is heavily dependent on Russia to keep its economy afloat. Estimates suggest that Russian subsidies, mainly in the form of cheap oil and gas, account for 10 to 15 per cent of Belarus’ GDP. Belarus also heavily relies on access to the Russian market, which is the destination of roughly 41 per cent of its exports. If viewed solely from an economic perspective, the relationship would indeed be heavily one-sided.

However, the reality is more complex – Moscow also needs Minsk. For starters, Belarus is a key transit country for Russian gas destined for Western Europe, which gives the smaller country some leverage. More importantly, Russia regards Belarus as one of the last reliable bulwarks against an ever-expanding NATO. Although Lukashenko and Putin often don’t see eye to eye, Russia will do its utmost to protect the Belarusian president from suffering the same fate as former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE

Photo: Gazprom

Photo: Gazprom

Despite their apparent interdependence, Russia and Belarus have clashed frequently since the Soviet Union’s dissolution. In recent years, conflict has usually sprung from disputes over oil and gas. These disputes centre around Russia’s dual supply to Belarus – the country is not only a transit point for Russian gas but it is also a substantial importer for its own consumption and for re-export.

Disputes in the mid-2000s saw both countries repeatedly violate their pipeline agreements. Russia raised gas prices and reduced flow, causing Belarus to increase transit fees and siphon off gas destined for Western Europe. Minsk decided on a unilateral transit price hike, so Moscow raised its prices again and rerouted its hydrocarbons around its troublesome neighbour. The result has been higher gas prices for Belarus and the sale of 50 per cent of its gas pipeline operator to Russia’s state-owned energy giant, Gazprom.

Because of Belarus’ economic dependence on Russia, these issues are a direct threat to the country’s sovereignty. In response, Lukashenko has begun developing closer relations with the West and showing increasing disobedience to Putin. By making certain domestic political concessions, namely releasing political prisoners, Lukashenko got the West to lift sanctions imposed on him and his inner circle in 2015.  Yet, despite these attempts to improve relations with Brussels and Washington, Minsk has been careful not to alienate Moscow.

LUKASHENKO: BETWEEN TWO FIRES

Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Belarus)

Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Belarus)

Lukashenko’s careful strategy can at least in part be explained by the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Asked about Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea he replied, “Crimea is not dangerous because it has become part of Russia, but… a bad precedent has been created”. On the one hand, Lukashenko’s answer highlights disapproval of Russia’s unilateral move, which he also displayed when it invaded Georgia following the de facto secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. On the other, it shows that the president is a realist and understands that he has to accept the geopolitical situation and make the best of it.

From an outside perspective, it appears that Belarus could actually capitalise on the Ukraine crisis. Not only did Belarus’ president broker the Minsk peace talks, but he also made sure that his country benefited from the sanctions that Moscow and the EU imposed on each other by declaring imported goods from the EU as Belarusian and re-exporting them to Russia.

Yet this action prompted Moscow to impose an embargo on certain agricultural products from Belarus in 2016. Russia further reinstated border checkpoints between the two countries and did not allow third-country nationals to cross into Russia via the land border with Belarus. The same year also saw the re-emergence of the energy dispute, with Minsk unilaterally deciding to pay less for Russian gas and Moscow replying by cutting the oil supply.

As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, Lukashenko’s manoeuvring space is increasingly limited. With Russia and the West once again at odds, attempts to pivot between the two blocs as a bargaining strategy has become fraught with risk. Even without taking Russia into consideration, turning to the West would be a dangerous step as it would entail political and economic reforms that could easily cost Lukashenko power at home.

Similarly, Belarus’ uncompetitive economy remains dependent on Russia. Although the country plans to have two nuclear power plants operational by 2020, it is doubtful whether they will significantly reduce Belarus’ dependence on Russian energy – Moscow will not only supply the nuclear fuel but it also financed the projects with a $10 billion loan. Meanwhile, Russia is keen to expand its military presence in its near abroad and has asked Minsk approve a Russian airbase in the country. Moscow also expects Belarus to participate in large-scale military exercises scheduled later this year.

On the other side of the equation, Russia does not seem to want to continue with business as usual. The political and economic returns generated by aiding Lukashenko are negligible, and the Belarusian president has made it clear that retaining the country’s autonomy is his chief priority. However, Russia’s economic dominance means that it holds all the cards. It won’t be shy to use them in an increasingly assertive manner to get more out of the once special relationship.

Meanwhile, Europe won’t save Lukashenko either. His unwillingness to initiate meaningful political or economic reform means that any closer association with the EU, let alone membership, is out of the question. The Belarusian president knows this, and while he will be tempted to flirt with the idea of closer association with the West, Moscow looms closer than Brussels or Berlin – and will do so for the foreseeable future.