‘None of the powerful forces in Belarus bet on dismantlement of Belarusian statehood. Such forces do exist in Russia’
Lev Shlosberg on the next aggravation of relationships between Russia and Belarus, steadfastness on Belarusian sovereignty and upcoming Belarusian presidential election
Russia and Belarus are in conflict again — Aleksandr Lukashenko doesn’t like prices for Russian oil supplies, which have stopped since early 2020, neither have gas prices been regulated. Besides, the Belarusian leader declared his readiness to cooperate with the USA relationships with which had been quite cold for a long time. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, political expert and journalist Lev Shlosberg says what caused the aggravation of relationships and if Lukashenko could face surprises in the presidential election in autumn.
“The economy of Belarus isn’t competitive, and it is a very important circumstance of Belarusian life”
Mr Shlosberg, we see the next spiral of aggravation of relationships between Russia and Belarus — oil supplies to the bordering country have been suspended due to a price that is high for Belarus, the countries can’t agree on gas prices. At the same time we see that the US state secretary visited Minsk, after a meeting with him President Lukashenko said that the period of cooling in the relationships between the countries had passed, moreover, Belarus began looking for new markets to purchase oil. Is the allied state distancing itself from Russia or is it the next stage of the conflict (Editor’s Note: the interview was recorded on 7 February) that will be resolved in Sochi at a meeting of Putin and Lukashenko?
An aspiration to save the independence of the Republic of Belarus is the most important thing that unites all Belarusian society and the political elite of Belarus now. It is a consensus of all political forces of Belarus: conservative, socialist, pro-European, nationalist. None of these groups will agree to lose the state independence and be annexed to Russia, and there can’t be any changes in this position, moreover, this position in general coincides with the position of Belarusian society.
Considering that Belarus is a very non-free state, it is very hard to compare the real public opinion with results of public surveys — in a non-free society, it is hard to find and almost senseless to conduct such surveys. But in Belarus there is an idea of public moods — there are social networks, there are open discussions. It is obvious judging by the whole range of opinions that the loss of state independence doesn’t meet almost anybody’s interests in Belarus.
Aleksandr Lukashenko’s policy on Russia, the European Union and the USA is a separate issue, but it can be combined with the issue of possible state future of Russia and Belarus. The essence of Lukashenko’s stance is that he needs to provide stability of his power, and the stability of power for the Belarusian president is linked with balancing between different external forces.
There is Russia with which Belarus is linked historically, there is Europe with which Belarus is no less linked historically, there is the USA, a global political player, and Lukashenko should cooperate with all these forces to keep his power and avoid external isolation of the country. That’s to say, the gist of his policy on all foreign policy partners is not to create a situation around which Belarus would have a political and economic blockade.
But it is almost impossible to create a blockade, in my opinion, because it is impossible to imagine a chain of events in which Russia, the European Union and the USA surround the Republic of Belarus as one — such a situation isn’t seen even hypothetically.
However, it is obvious that when Russia tightens conditions of economic cooperation with Belarus, Lukashenko starts activating the cooperation with the European Union and the USA because he needs loans and feedstock. It is completely clear that the economy of Belarus isn’t diversified, by its set-up it remains Soviet, that’s to say, it isn’t modern, and it is a very important circumstance of Belarusian life — its economy isn’t competitive.
The economy of Belarus isn’t diversified, by its set-up it remains Soviet, that’s to say, it isn’t modern, and it is a very important circumstance of Belarusian life — its economy isn’t competitive
The economy of Belarus keeps state subsidies in most manufacturing sectors, Belarus undercuts prices for a number of commodities, its commodities are freely exported to the territory of Russia. As a result, in Pskov Oblast we see an expansion of products from Belarus that brought to an aggravation of the situation of many local dairy, bread and meat producers, and in some private markets of the region, there are only Belarusian entrepreneurs because pricing in Belarus (considering the policy on state subsidies) and the quality of life significantly differ from Russian. I personally know companies that operated in the cheese market in Petersburg, while the production was based in Pskov Oblast that closed as early as 10 years ago because they weren’t able to compete with Belarusian produce in terms of prices — all gates are open for Belarusian produce in Russia. Russian agriculture experiences significant pressure from foodstuffs from Belarus.
At the same time, it doesn’t come to anybody’s mind to draw a border between Russia and Belarus (though there have been such talks) like with the European Union, with customs, border checkpoints, phytocontrol. Why? Also, because in Russia there are still supporters of the recreation of the Soviet Union and they see the Republic of Belarus as the first state to determine this factor. And it is plain to see that a transition to official border relationships between our countries stops the discussion about possibilities of such a union. In general for Lukashenko access to external resources, including feedstock, is the key economic issue. And in this respect, he doesn’t like the relationships with Russia. Because the same Belarusian gas is mainly Russian, and Russia dictates prices, it is Russia again that dictates loan terms. Lukashenko wants other terms, but to have different terms he is offered to make political concessions, including the integration in which the chances of recreating the united state increase. And it isn’t acceptable for either Belarus in general or Lukashenko. He won’t agree to become a gravedigger of Belarusian statehood in under any circumstances.
“They don’t respect Belarus and want to use hard power towards it. But Belarus doesn’t capitulate”
Is there really serious concern about independence in Belarus? Is a union under Russia’s conditions real?
I think that now there aren’t the conditions that might take this process from intellectual planning put in political practice. None of the powerful forces in Belarus bet on dismantlement Belarusian statehood. There are such forces in Russia, in Belarus, they are considered as inimical forces, and this is why their initiative won’t be supported.
Both countries, in fact, created the union of Russia and Belarus with different purposes, but they are afraid of saying this. And this is the main problem in the relationships of two countries: hushing up real conflicting goals.
Russia went for this union hoping to absorb Belarus, take integration processes to a level that would envisage a common currency, a united issuing centre. Russian plans assumed integration of the Belarusian economy to the Russian one and this cancellation of the juridical and political possibility of making independent decisions in the monetary system, loan system by Belarus.
They created the Union State (Union of Belarus and Russia) hoping that each of the sides will take advantage of it. And now this Union turns out useful for both Russia and Belarus, as real goals of the participation in it stop being attainable
Russia’s real goal was to create such an economic model that would categorically reduce Belarus’s possibilities of independence as a state, while Belarus’s goal when creating the Union was a desire to use Russia’s resources maintaining its independence, that’s to say, real goals of Russia and Belarus didn’t coincide.
Neither of the sides admitted to each other its goals — they created the Union State (Union of Belarus and Russia) hoping that each of the sides will take advantage of it. And now this Union turns out useful for both Russia and Belarus, as real goals of the participation in it stop being attainable.
What forces are interested in the “absorption” of Belarus?
Different people. First of all, it is politicians who want to move towards the format of the USSR: everybody understands that it is impossible to recreate the Union of 1991, but some politicians would like to increase the area of Russia as much as possible as a factor of its greatness, and Crimea is a case in point.
These politicians would like to annex the Pridnestrovian Republic to Russia, but Romania and the European Union are against it. Also, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are in the zone of Russian influence. We can be speaking about the imperial vector of Russian foreign policy — the quality of land reclamation and the quality of life of people in it don’t matter, only the area of occupied territory and the level of ambitions matters.
Some businesses aren’t politicised in itself but interested in reclaiming the territory of Belarus, including its strategical key facilities, developing economic sectors on this territory considering benefits of the close situation to Europe.
Of course, such a policy isn’t modern, it is a 20th-century imperial policy, it is unviable, moreover, it is dangerous for Russia itself because it raises fears of Russia. If you want to develop economic cooperation with Belarus, everything you need is economic cooperation with Belarus and providing it with a chance of mutually beneficial cooperation.
But politicians in the Kremlin consider the cooperation with Belarus as domination, absorption and suppression, not as a relationship of equal partners. And this is the strategic mistake of such politicians — they don’t respect Belarus as an independent state and want to use hard power towards it — ultimatums, theatres to material resources so that Belarus will capitulate politically. But Belarus doesn’t capitulate, it is impossible.
Who is Vladimir Putin in this situation? Is he a referee?
No, he is a player here, and he is a player who is very interested in maximum absorption of Belarus. And he is not hiding it, he is holding talks with Lukashenko personally, imposing conditions on him.
Lukashenko in this situation is doing his best not to become a junior partner, this is why he is playing on several fronts. And this game on European and American fronts allows him to behave towards Putin as equals. The resources Belarus itself has, of course, don’t allow Lukashenko to hold a dialogue with Putin as equals, but he can blackmail Russia, the European Union, the USA. So he is trying to find a balance in which Belarus keeps the resources — both economic and financial. And the country’s political independence won’t be lost. While Lukashenko manages to do it, he should be paid tribute. He is successfully performing the task of conserving the state sovereignty of Belarus, which he considers as a task of conservation of himself in politics, amid all complaints about him, about both human rights protection and politics.
Lukashenko in this situation is doing his best not to become a junior partner, this is why he is playing on several fronts. And this game on European and American fronts allows him to behave towards Putin as equals
It seems that this year, in autumn, Aleksandr Lukashenko who has been chairing Belarus for over 25 years will stand for the next presidential term. Will everything go smooth for the Belarusian leader?
Lukashenko will unlikely have significant problems in the presidential election. He has built such a state model and such public relations in which he is an irreplaceable politician. And nowadays a politician who would be able to legally participate in the election in Belarus and accumulate a considerable number of votes against Lukashenko does not exist.
Lukashenko is a sample for Vladimir Putin in the model he creates himself. I mean Lukashenko gathered a considerable part of Belarusian society around himself in a situation of potential political threat, in the situation of “sieged fortress” he created himself. It is a paternalistic, dependent society that doesn’t have enough information now.
But the real picture of the presidential election in Belarus will get clear only when it becomes obvious what politicians will stand for the presidential election and if there will be at least one good rival for Lukashenko, that’s to say, a person who sets priorities of another state policy. If such a person appears in this election and reaches the voting, he can get a significant number of votes. But the difficulty is also that the electoral system of Belarus remains very dishonest, and it is unclear how it will behave in case of mass voting for another politician in the key political election.