For three years, relations between Russia and Belarus revolved around talks on three dozen integration programs, but when the two countries finally signed the documents on November 4, there was no catharsis. Despite the years of speculation and fears for Belarusian sovereignty over what form closer integration might take, the programs were ultimately reduced to mostly nonbinding rhetoric.

Back in 2019, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko fiercely resisted Russia’s demands to create an entity that would be more integrated than the European Union, with joint political institutions, a single currency, and supranational regulatory bodies. In 2021, weakened by the mass protests that followed his contested reelection in August 2020 and increasingly isolated from the West, he seemed cornered and doomed to bow to Moscow’s pressure for closer integration.

Yet the Kremlin has now removed any hint of radical changes in the two countries’ relations, turning the notorious integration programs into a vague declaration of intentions for the distant future: something Belarus and Russia have seen more than enough of already. Even less ambitious goals, such as a common tax system and monetary policy, are gone. The unification plans that remain concern mainly trifling issues like the postal system and travel agency policies. Plans to send a Belarusian cosmonaut to the International Space Station can hardly replace the single currency and unified energy regulator anticipated not so long ago.

Even where the programs do promise truly important changes, their realization is far from certain. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarus is already getting an excellent deal on Russian gas. Moscow is unlikely, therefore, to improve the terms by creating a common energy market by the end of 2023 as the agreement envisages. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has already suggested that the implementation of the signed documents will require the adoption of about four hundred other legislative acts and bilateral agreements, which will no doubt take at least as long to agree on as the twenty-eight integration programs.

Rather than taking advantage of Minsk’s isolation, therefore, Moscow has backtracked. This begs the question of how accurately we understand the opaque saga of closer integration, and where the true priorities for Russia and Belarus lie.

It appears that freedom of maneuver in the West was not the decisive factor that helped Lukashenko to withstand pressure from Moscow in the past after all. The list of new integration programs is full of compromise, and certainly reflects many of the wishes from the Belarusian side.

Even at the peak of the thaw in relations between Belarus and the West in the late 2010s, rapprochement mostly consisted of symbolic steps. But no number of bilateral visits could replace cheap Russian oil and gas. When it came to practical projects, the tensions with the West were still salient, and the scale of the projects couldn’t compare with Belarus’s continuing economic dependence on Russia.

It wasn’t flirting with the West, therefore, that hindered Russia’s advances on the Belarusian front. A greater problem for Moscow was the Belarusian leader’s total control over the country. Lukashenko is at the core of the Belarusian government machine, so it is dangerous to get too heavy-handed with him. Little has changed in that regard in the last year and a half, which is why the current bargaining between Minsk and Moscow over integration programs is very similar to their relationship ten or twenty years ago.

Of course, Lukashenko’s maneuvering in the West somewhat strengthened his positions, but the prevailing logic in Moscow was still reluctance to take a risk by putting too much pressure on Minsk. In any case, there wasn’t much need for such pressure: Russia was generally satisfied with the state of its relations with Belarus.

We can conclude from the heavily watered-down integration agreements that it is reasonably satisfied now, too. The Kremlin most likely would like to see the introduction of a single currency and supranational regulators, but not at any cost. Stopping Belarus from defecting to the West is a much higher priority.

In 2019, Lukashenko himself was looking to the West, so he had to be restrained with demands for deeper integration. But in 2021, that problem is no longer relevant, and the risks mostly arise from the Belarusian domestic crisis. In this respect, excessive pressure to integrate may do more harm than good, since it would set the ruling Belarusian elite against Moscow. After all, it would hardly want to risk losing its status by merging into a virtually unified state with Russia.

It’s far more effective to deploy constitutional reform and the controlled transition of power to stem the risk of Belarus going over to the West as a result of its domestic political instability. The Belarusian elite and even Lukashenko himself are to some extent prepared to cooperate with Moscow on this issue. They are concerned about maintaining their privileges in the long term, and understand that they will most likely need Russia’s support to do so.

It’s no accident that the signing of integration maps coincided with another important event in Belarusian politics on November 4: Lukashenko accepted the final draft of a new constitution and stated once again that a referendum on it will take place next February. The document’s final wording is still unknown, which suggests that Lukashenko won’t run for president again. He understands that would be too risky for everyone.

If the Belarusian leader were planning on serving more presidential terms, there would be no problems with the text of the new constitution. It would be enough to make some minor alterations to the old one, with slight nods to current trends: outlawing gay marriage, and reaffirming the wartime glory of the past. As a token of democratization, the president would be limited to two terms, which could allow Lukashenko to run for two more five-year periods on the basis that his previous six terms were under the old constitution and therefore should not be taken into consideration.

But that isn’t what is happening, evidently because Lukashenko understands that he should not run again, and that it’s time for him to go. But he has yet to come up with a safe exit strategy, hence his vacillating between finished and unfinished drafts, the new status for the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, and so on.

In the current situation, the main objective for the Kremlin is to maintain a controlled, pro-Russian transition of power. It wants to prevent Lukashenko and the Belarusian elite from casting around in search of new allies and hatching harebrained schemes. Such behavior might escalate the domestic situation and prompt the EU and the United States to look for new approaches, which might again steer Belarus toward the West.

Of course, Moscow might still try to get some small bonuses from Minsk along the way, like opening a missile defense training center near the Belarusian city of Grodno or unifying the two countries’ visa regimes. But that won’t change Moscow’s top priority: to make sure that things don’t get any worse. And if that requires sacrificing closer integration in favor of the orderly transition of power, so be it.

This material is part of the Russia-EU: Promoting Informed Dialogue project, supported by the EU Delegation to Russia.

By:
  • Maxim Samorukov