Putin’s Crimean Move Won’t Lead to Unification of Belarus and Russia, Experts Say

April 3, 2014
Photo: RIA Novosti / Mikhail Metzel

Staunton, April 3 – In the wake of Crimea, Moscow is likely to increase pressure on Belarus to cooperate, but experts say there is little chance that the two countries will unite any time soon. Instead, Putin’s Crimean Anschluss is likely to make Belarus and other former Soviet republics even more leery than they already are of yielding sovereignty to Moscow.

Many expected after Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed agreements for a union of their two countries in the late 1990s that the two would soon fuse. That has not happened, and Aleksey Polubota of Svobodnaya Pressa says experts don’t think Crimea will change that.

What Crimea has done is change expectations in both countries. On the one hand, some Russians think that Belarus should come to the aid of the Russian Federation which now faces sanctions given that Moscow has in their view helped Belarus out on numerous occasions in the past.

And on the other, many in Belarus looking at what Moscow has done in Crimea are even more cautious about yielding power to any combined state, although it is clear that they are at least equally concerned, given Western attitudes toward Minsk, that their country not take any step that might provoke a harsh Russian response.

According to Vyacheslav Tetyokin, a KPRF Duma deputy, the Crimean events underscore how important closer integration is “not only for Russia and Belarus but also for Ukraine and Kazakhstan.” Belarus needs Russian raw materials and markets for its economic success, and consequently, Crimea should “push” Moscow and Minsk closer together.

But Boris Shmelov, head of the Moscow Center for Political Research at the Academy of Sciences, says that it has long been clear that “a full fusion” of Russia and Belarus is “now impossible. A union state would involve a significant loss of sovereignty, something the Belarusian side” – including both “the elite and the population” — is not prepared for.”

From the very beginning, “it was not very clear” just what such a union state would be, Shmelyov continues. A federation or a confederation? And more generally, it was not specified “on what foundations we must jointly exist.”

As a result, “today in Belarus, the dominant point of view is that it is necessary to have close contacts with Russia in economic, military, cultural and other spheres, but under the condition that [the two] countries remain sovereign and equal in rights.”

Consequently, “in the full sense of this word, a Union state of Russia and Belarus does not exist and hardly will anytime soon. There is no common Constitution, currency or foreign policy.” Instead, the Moscow scholar says, “our union today is a certain political-economic form of relations between two states.”

Belarus has avoided constructing a nation state for the Belarusians, one in which ethnic Russians living there might feel second class citizens, Shmelyov continues, and along with that, there exit “many objectively positive trends which create the foundation for further cooperation.” That will continue unless Moscow puts too much pressure on Minsk.

The events in Crimea, however, have raised questions in the Belarusian capital, the Moscow expert says. Belarusians are very cautious about Moscow’s absorption of the peninsula. They aren’t celebrating but they aren’t displaying “sharply negative” reactions either. The same thing is true at the government level.

Lukashenka for his part, “as a pragmatic politician,” Shmelyov says, “is seeking to find something positive for Belarus in this situation. For example, he declared that Western sanctions against Russia will open new opportunities for the sale of Belarusian goods on the Russian market.”

Much of the Russian-Belarusian relationship depends on the personality of Lukashenka, Shmelyov says. If the Belarusian opposition came to power, it would almost certainly seek to conduct “a more multi-vector foreign policy” and expand contacts with the European Union. That is what the West would like to see, just as it has in the case of Ukraine.

For the time being, if Russia conducts “a wise policy” toward Minsk, Belarus will remain “a reliable economic partner.” But there are problems ahead, Shmelyov adds. A new generation is growing up in Belarus “which already does not have the experience of living in a single state with Russia” and which has far greater interest in Europe.

Pavel Salin, the director of the Center for Political Research at Moscow’s Financial University, adds that “the new political reality” after Crimea is likely to “force the president of Belarus to be more careful in his relations with Russia.”

Lukashenka has to be concerned, Salin says, that Moscow in Crimea has crossed “a certain psychological barrier” which had restrained it even after the August 2008 war in Georgia “and demonstrated that it is ready to conduct itself in a new way in the post-Soviet space.” He was more comfortable with “the earlier and ‘predictable’ Russia.

Given that, the Moscow scholar continues, it is “not excluded that Lukashenka will try to re-insure himself in order to feel himself less dependent on Russia. Perhaps, he will make certain steps toward the West which after the events in Crimea is trying to play the Belarusian card against Russia.”

But the Minsk leader’s possibilities are limited in that regard, Salin says. The West remains suspicious of him, and there is in Belarus neither an oligarchy nor a population that has as yet expressed much interest in integrating with Europe given how radically Belarus would have to change in order to do so.