Within recent months, Russian and Belarusian officials have been constantly assuring the public that all the problems in the bilateral trade (bilateral trade is the only thing that the relations between Moscow and Minsk consist of now) will be solved in the near future. If we get back to forecasts of members of the both governments, experts close to the power circles, or leaks from “sources close to the negotiations,” the current oil-and-gas conflict must have been settled as early as in the fall on the Belarusian terms. However, a new year has begun, but no issues are solved regarding those vital for Minsk, i. e. concerning questions of commodities supplies and Russian loans to Belarus.
Belarusian economy: galvanizing a dead body
Well, if things took a different way (had Russia forgiven the Belarusian gas debt, secured as much oil supply as Minsk wanted and continued giving loans to it), nothing would have changed. The current economic model in Belarus cannot be revived, which is a fact confirmed many times before. In various years, Russia gave Belarus everything it wanted: gas at the lowest possible price, duty-free exports of oil products from the Russian oil, extremely favorable terms for Belarusian goods in the Russian market.
However, every time it turned out rather soon that the privileges were too few and after that Minsk started feeling offended and showing its disappointment in the economic cooperation with Russia and participation in Russia-led integration projects. As one may see, the disappointment can take various forms, from non-payment for the received gas to arrests of pro-Russian journalists, who keep on stating that the current economic policy pursued by the Belarusian government is taking the post-Soviet republic directly to ruins.
The Belarusian economy has long ago turned into a black hole swallowing new billions of dollars, millions of tons of oil and cubic meters of gas, countless privileges, donations and preferences. The most paradoxical thing here is not that Minsk is constantly refusing to come to terms with Russia on military and political issues – this can be explained by some logic. Much more interesting is the fact that it does not want to help itself, and since 1991 this has been the main Belarusian secret. For the money Russia has invested in the Belarusian economy, a small country in the central part of the European continent could have become if not a Switzerland than at least an adequate East-European republic securing decent living standards for all its citizens. At the same time, one cannot state definitely that the money that came to Belarus was fully stolen: there is no Ukraine-style corruption beyond limit. It means that the Belarusian leadership has a special talent in managing the economy. As a result, one can see there a serious economic degradation, collapsing industry and decreasing living standards. Official statements on soonest and unavoidable economic modernization have been mere words for many years. All this is accompanied by growing nationalism and regular buckjumping of the ruling elite that finds itself in a constant neurosis.
A pipe dream of “going West”
Threats to “go West” have been a part of the image of the official Minsk. “Lukashenko’s geopolitical pendulum” has become an idiom, and it looks like the official Belarusian propaganda has its hand in it. Recently, Belarus has been lucky in this direction. Starting from 2014, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei has done much work in the western direction. He was a success: the sanctions were lifted, Alexander Lukashenko was deleted from the list of “last dictators,” the European Union suggested to start from scratch. Leaders of major European powers started paying visits to the Belarusian president, as well as representatives of the US State Department and Pentagon. However, it turned out soon that closer relations with the West had no financial consequences. Russian experts warned repeatedly that no one would be willing to finance “the Belarusian model” besides Russia. Russia was giving money, while the EU limited itself to discussions about allocating some mythic “investments” and technologies.” In particular, Minsk has been no success in opening a new credit line of the IMF (which is quite small) even taking into account the “warming in the relations” which the Belarusian officials are so proud of. And millions of euros invested in Belarusian provinces to develop local governance are in practice aimed at establishing networks of their supporters among local leaders.
Belarus can offer only one thing to the West – a consistent anti-Russian policy, Lukashenko might have dared to do this only with guarantees of his political future and redundant financial inflows. However, the EU and the USA are not ready to make a decision admissible for Minsk either on the first or on the second issue. In this connection, it becomes evident that practical sense of all movements made by the Belarusian leadership in the western direction has been extremely scarce in recent years. Further rapprochement with the new “partners” will inevitably result in washing away Lukashenko’s power with consequent “Ukrainization” of the domestic political situation in the post-Soviet country. It looks like the Belarusian leadership will have to abandon the formula “if you are not paying for our living, we shall go West”: any childish manipulations in politics become outdated very quickly.
A very special alliance
Minsk has been acting in such a special way, that both in the West and in the East they have started forgetting that Belarus is an official political and military ally of Russia. A lot has been said about total neglection of Minsk obligations as Russia’s ally, so we shall just state some of the facts here. In 2010, Russian president’s aide Sergey Prikhodko said it was possible to make public a transcript where Alexander Lukashenko was giving a promise to recognize independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time, Russian military officials announced that Moscow had agreed with Minsk on deployment of a Russian aerospace forces base in Belarus, however later the Belarusian leadership denied this. Belarus has been actively cooperating with Ukraine in the military field, assisting it in maintenance of fighting vehicles, supplying military equipment for the “anti-terror operation” in Donbass and selling fuel oil for Ukrainian land battleships at favorable terms. Russian expert Yevgeny Satanovsky also reported that Minsk was selling Soviet-time weapons to Qatar and the UAE which are then sold to their allies among terrorists fighting in Syria. At the same time, Belarus is part of the Union State with Russia, which of course has been discussed not so often in recent time, but which is still here by the way.
Thus, it is evident that the foundations of the Russian-Belarusian relations need to be revisited to make them correlate with more adequate and effective principle. These principles are simple:
- Belarus is a sovereign independent state recognized by the UN and other major international organizations. So, it would be logical to expect that it acts correspondingly in its foreign policy. In practice, Minsk aspirations towards strengthening its independence are basically confined to constant claims for Russia’s support. Hence, it should be stated officially that the sovereignty of Belarus is its own problem. Russia is not obliged to pay for someone’s independence. It is like in men-women relations: a woman may be directly or indirectly financed by a man, but insists she completely independent and replies to all questions with: “but I do love you, honey”. This does happen and it is not uncommon. Should the man make it with it? This is the question to be solved by any man on his own, however, a man who has been tolerating such relations for a long time is often laughed at. In this situation, the best gift of Russia for the Belarusian independence will be to stop donating it, because sovereignty at someone’s expense is no longer sovereignty.
- All above mentioned does not mean that Russia must forget about its interests in Belarus. The matter is not about stopping giving aid to Belarus. It should, of course, support in fulfilling its union state obligations. In this sense the current aspiration for integration through development of purely economic cooperation will be profitable for one party only. This what Minsk wants. That is why all economic issues must be officially (there is no need to worry about it) bound to politics. Any wanted preferences must be given only along with certain steps in politics and military field, as only such relations can be called truly allied. What is now a matter of closed-door talks and under-the-carpet fighting must be put on the official agenda of the bilateral cooperation which will help avoiding harmful ambiguity and speculations. As for cooperation within already existing integration projects, first of all, the Eurasian Economic Union, it should be developed very carefully using all means to evade making it a matter of new bargaining.
- Apart from political issues, humanitarian ones should be put on the agenda. The Russian leadership has been traditionally understating these questions, confining the wanted image of the bilateral relations to the scheme: “It is enough if they pay for the gas and do not join NATO.” Under the current scenario, it looks inevitable that the next generation of the Belarusian elite will be completely nationalistic, and it will stop paying and it will join NATO. That is why the amount of preferences given to Minsk must correspond with the number of monuments to Lithuanian dukes, restored palaces and other “embroidered shirt days.” There is no and will be no money for embroidered shirts. Besides, the fight for historic truth announced by both countries must be confined to shared view upon the events of the Great Patriotic War. For instance, the 1812 war must become a patriotic war, while now the Belarusian Academy of Sciences states that the Belarusian population was its victim. Figures like Wincenty Konstanty Kalinowski should be called whom they were for Belarusians: assassins and terrorists instead of “fighters for Belarusian people’s freedom.” The Polish moguls Radziwills who exploited hundreds of Belarusian bondslaves should be treated as the Polish moguls instead of some “Belarusian szlachta” that has never existed. It would irrational for Russia to pay for bringing up another Ukrainian-style nationalistic ideology.
- Arrest of three pro-Russian journalists including EADaily columnist Yuri Pavlovets has shown vividly the true essence of the state which is persistently portrayed by its government as a European one. One needs to admit that such steps are taken more and more seldom even in the uttermost Asian tyrannies. The response of pro-government advocates eagerly joined by members of the “democratic opposition” who urged in unison to punish supporters of the Russian World was not a surprise. However, the key paradox is that statements made by Russian Ambassador Alexander Surikov who practically supported arrests of employees of media officially registered in the country he represents were not a surprise either. Those who used to communicate with Surikov say that his key goal is to have everything calm. He is an ambassador of the Chernomyrdin-Zurabov scheme acting in accordance with norms of the past political era, when many Russian diplomats in neighboring countries saw any pro-Russian actions as a challenge to their peaceful existence. Appropriateness of Surikov being the ambassador when the whole structure of the bilateral relations is subject to profound changes is a rhetorical question. The whole foreign-policy toolkit in the Belarusian track must be reformatted in accordance with the needs of the current agenda.
The Russian-Belarusian relations most of all lack the key element of human existence, which is sincerity. The more sincere, clear and transparent they are, the higher are chances to secure a comfortable future for them.
Vladimir Zotov, editor of EADaily Western Bureau