Belarus – Russia’s only ally in Europe – remains firmly in Moscow’s geopolitical orbit. The two countries have been negotiating deeper integration into the Russia–Belarus Union State for decades, yet the Eastern European nation has always been looking for a way to preserve a significant portion of its sovereignty. Has the time come for Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko to finally accept the Kremlin’s economic integration roadmap?
International sanctions imposed on Belarus in 2020 and 2021 have pushed Minsk deeper into Russia’s sphere of influence. Belarusian authorities are effectively breaking their ties with the West. In spite of that, over the past year there has been no significant progress regarding the former Soviet Republic’s integrations into the Union State, formed in 1999. Although in 2021 Lukashenko traveled to Russia five times to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to this day the two leaders have not agreed on crucial issues such as common institutions of the supranational entity, currency, and political integrations.
“It is understandable that not all the knots in our relations have been untied yet. It is normal considering such a volume of interaction “, said Lukashenko after his meeting with Putin on September 9, pointing out that they intend to avoid mistakes that were made in the Soviet Union.
Traditionally, meetings between Putin and Lukashenko last for five to six hours. In the past, the results of their summits were hidden from the media. This time, the two leaders held a joint press conference, and openly answered questions about the future of the Union State.
“We agreed to pursue a common macroeconomic policy, harmonize monetary policy, integrate payment systems, ensure information security, and deepen cooperation in the customs and tax spheres”, said Putin emphasizing the economic base had a priority over the political aspect of integrations.
Indeed, the economic part of the integration process has long been one of the major subjects on the agenda of bilateral contacts between the two leaders. Although the governments of Russia and Belarus will approve the deal made by their presidents, there is still a long way to go for the Union State to be transformed into an efficient entity. Given the preservation of Belarus’ sovereignty has always been Lukashenko’s major political goal, there is no guarantee the Eastern European country will implement all points of the integration program any time soon, if at all.
The Belarusian president expects financial and political support from Putin, but is carefully trying not to make too many concessions to the Kremlin. In other words, even though his room for political maneuver has been limited due to the Western sanctions, Lukashenko is still trying to balance. In the past he was balancing between Russia and the West, and now his is balancing between the country’s sovereignty and integrations into the Union State.
Russia, on the other hand, is seeking to capitalize on Lukashenko’s international isolation by pressing him to accept deeper ties with the Kremlin. That, however, does not mean that Moscow plans to annex Belarus, as some Western critics fear. At this point, the Kremlin seems mostly interested in economic integration with its ally, although military ties with Belarus certainly play a very important role in relations between the two countries. In March, the two allies agreed to build a joint combat training center for the Air Force and Air Defense near Grodno, in Western Belarus. According to reports, the facility will host Russian Su-30 aircraft. In August, the first Russian military arrived at the site of the future center, and on September 10 the two nation’s armies started their joint military drills Zapad 2021.
When it comes to economy, anti-Belarusian sanctions have already forced Minsk to start transiting its oil products through Russian seaports, after having withdrawn from more profitable ports in the Baltic states, notably in Lithuania. Economically, Belarus is now dependent on Russia more than ever, but in spite of that the integration process remains the subject of fierce bargaining between the two countries.
Minsk, for its part, is interested in integration projects for the sake of energy subsidies. Its primary goal is to purchase Russian energy at domestic Russian prices. With record-high prices of natural gas, and winter approaching, it is quite understandable that Belarus wants to get the energy issue resolved as soon as possible. Given that not all Russian regions pay the same price for oil and gas, the future of a common energy market is yet to be discussed.
As Putin pointed out, on 1 December 2023 an agreement on the unification of gas markets will be signed. Meanwhile, the gas price for Belarus in 2022 will remain at the current year’s level – $128.5 per thousand cubic meters. In the spring of 2020, Lukashenko strongly criticized Russia for selling gas to Germany at the price of $65-68 per thousand cubic meters, while Belarus had to pay $127. This year, aware of his international position, Lukashenko had very little choice but to agree to Putin’s gas policy. The coming days and weeks will show what other concessions Belarus has made to the Kremlin. One thing is for sure – Moscow is actively creating conditions that will keep Belarus in the Russian sphere of influence even after Lukashenko eventually leaves his post.