Updated at 13:53,16-05-2022

Day Of Reckoning: As Pressure Mounts, Belarusians Balk At Prospect Of Russia Merger

By Matthew Luxmoore, RFE/RL

Day Of Reckoning: As Pressure Mounts, Belarusians Balk At Prospect Of Russia Merger
People wave old Belarusian republic flags during a rally commemorating the 1918 proclamation of independence from Russia in Minsk on March 25, 2018
His signature helped dissolve the Soviet Union -- and he believes his native Belarus has relinquished much of the independence it gained as a result.

On December 8, 1991, Belarusian leader Stanislau Shushkevich met with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts at a hunting lodge in the woods of western Belarus to ink an agreement dismantling the moribund Soviet Union and launching a loose Commonwealth of Independent States.

Almost 30 years later, the 84-year-old statesman blames Belarus's failure to democratize on the whims of the man who succeeded him in 1994. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has bowed to Russian pressure and built an economic system dependent on Moscow, Shushkevich said, stalling the country's development throughout a quarter-century in power.

"Theoretically, Belarus is separate from Russia today. We have our own laws and our own constitution," Shushkevich told RFE/RL in an interview in late November at his modest Minsk apartment, speaking in a study lined with bookshelves stacked with tomes on the Soviet collapse, among other subjects, and photo albums chronicling his political past.

"But in reality, dependence on Russia remains very strong," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants that reliance to become even stronger, analysts say, hoping that growing economic pressure can pull Minsk even closer into Moscow's orbit and keep the country that lies between Russia and NATO at arm's length from the West.

Shushkevich wants to avert that.

Day Of Reckoning: As Pressure Mounts, Belarusians Balk At Prospect Of Russia Merger

Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk (left), Belarusian leader Stanislau Shushkevich (center), and Russian President Boris Yeltsin on December 8, 1991, after signing an agreement establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Kremlin's hopes -- and those of Shushkevich and others who want less dependence on Russia, not more -- will be put to the test on December 8, the 20th anniversary of a 1999 agreement setting out a road map for integration between Russia and Belarus.

The document signed in the Kremlin that day created a union state that was supposed to be fleshed out with a common legislature, constitution, army, and currency. And with the aging, ailing Boris Yeltsin in his last year as president of Russia, Lukashenka seemed a realistic candidate to lead it.

The ambitious project capped off a decade of economic decline ushered in by the Soviet collapse, but it ultimately proved untenable. Belarus had already secured a major discount on energy imports from Moscow, and a raft of previous agreements had tied it to Russia. Thousands took to the streets in Belarus to protest any effort at returning to Moscow's fold after seven decades of domination during the Soviet era. Lukashenka was loath to cede more sovereignty, and Yeltsin's appointment of Putin as acting president on the last day of 1999 changed the landscape, putting integration on hold. As a political entity, the union state has existed largely on paper alone ever since.

Both Moscow and Minsk have repeatedly returned to discussion of closer integration under the union state, with few actual moves toward the envisioned confederation. Putin seemed to call Lukashenka's bluff at a Kremlin meeting in 2002, proposing speedy integration and the election of a single head of state in March 2004 -- but hinting that the Belarusian leader would become little more than a provincial governor in a closer union.

Belarus's economic stability has been predicated on billions of dollars in de facto Russian subsidies amounting to some 3 percent of the country's GDP, including a cheap supply of crude oil that Minsk purchases at a discount and refines for onward export as petroleum products to Europe.

Even as the government continues to subsidize hulking factories of the kind that were unable to compete after the Soviet collapse, much of the economy has been privatized without the emergence of tycoons whose riches and political ties attract attention in Ukraine or in Russia, where wealth inequality is much more pronounced than in Belarus.

But by the mid-2000s, with oil prices spiking, the cost to Russia of continued energy discounts to Belarus grew significantly, and pressure began growing on Lukashenka to offer something in return. In 2018, Moscow introduced a so-called tax maneuver that will gradually raise the prices of energy and is expected to institute a market rate for exports to Belarus by 2025. The World Bank predicts a major blow to Belarus’s economy as a result, and Lukashenka is now being forced -- more than ever -- to consider bowing to Russian pressure for closer integration in exchange for compensation for the crippling price hike.

The debate over economic integration has reignited this year amid widespread speculation that Putin views a merger with Belarus as a way to retain power beyond 2024, when constitutional term limits bar him from seeking reelection.

According to a leaked document allegedly signed by the two governments in September, a summary of which was published in the Russian daily Kommersant, the two countries will begin unifying their tax, customs, and banking systems with a view to creating a single energy regulator ahead of the formation of what amounts to a confederation by 2022.

But the negotiations appear to have shifted in recent weeks to posit a more modest road map. The common currency and judicial systems that were reportedly on the table are now off it, analysts say, and Lukashenka has made many statements pledging to stand firm in the defense of Belarusian sovereignty. With Belarus's GDP estimated at some 3.5 percent of Russia’s, few believe he’d be an equal partner in any unified system that emerges, and Lukashenka has shrunk from the idea of a common currency in the past.

In comments to reporters on November 17, the day of elections to Belarus's tightly controlled parliament, Lukashenka threatened to walk away from any integration deal with Moscow if his demands aren’t met.

"If our fundamental issues are not resolved -- on the supply of hydrocarbons, on the opening of markets -- no road maps can be signed," he said.

Artyom Shraybman, a Minsk-based political analyst, believes Kremlin advisers may have initially viewed the December 8 anniversary as a pretext to propose a blueprint for Putin’s ascension as leader of a union state after 2024, but have since discarded the idea amid resistance from Belarus.

"Integration with Russia means the handover of power to Moscow," Shraybman said in a telephone interview. "Lukashenka understands that subordinating himself to the center means he could he ousted any day at the Kremlin’s bidding."

Analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin (right, shown here with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka) hopes that growing economic pressure can pull Minsk even closer into Moscow’s orbit.

They also have public opinion to contend with. Polls in both countries show a majority opposed to any merger of the two countries, and in Belarus opposition to the idea may be growing. A survey by nonstate polling agency BAW in August found that 54.5 percent of respondents favored a union with Russia over membership in the European Union -- a 9 percent change from the same poll from 2018. At the same time, support for joining the EU has risen from 20 to 25 percent.

Russia's bloody wars in Chechnya in the 1990s made the prospect of a close union less palatable despite nostalgia for the Soviet era, and Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and backing of separatists in the war in eastern Ukraine has added to concerns in Belarus about Russia’s intentions.

"We must be friends with Russia, but we are already dependent on it," a retired dentist in Minsk, whose son works in Russia, said several days before the December 8 anniversary, declining to give her name for attribution. "Why do we need more integration?"

Opposition activist Mikalay Statkevich at the entrance gate of his house outside Minsk: "What right does [Lukashenka] have to sell our country, our nation and our state?”

Mikalay Statkevich, a veteran opposition activist and one of Lukashenka’s most outspoken critics inside Belarus, predicts major protests if the Belarusian president chooses to cede power to Russia. Between 1996 and 1999, Statkevich was a coordinator of a protest movement that shook the country amid talks over integration with Russia, and he has spent years behind bars since.

In October 1999, some 20,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Minsk, burning the text of the proposed union treaty. Statkevich said the protest potential is much lower today, and the opposition is embattled. But he suggested these dynamics could change fast if sovereignty is under threat, saying that today “Belarusians are not ready to give up independence.”

On October 6, Statkevich once again brought people out onto Minsk’s Freedom Square to protest against any moves toward closer integration with Russia. Referring to Lukashenka, the opposition leader asked, “What right does this man have to sell our country, our nation and our state?”

The days leading up to the December 8 anniversary have seen a flurry of official events aimed at touting friendly ties between Russia and Belarus. On December 3, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the Russian president will meet his Belarusian counterpart in the Russian city of Sochi on December 7 to discuss integration.

In a speech before parliament on December 5, Lukashenka -- who announced in November that he will run for reelection in 2020, almost certainly locking in a new term because no vote under his rule has been judged free and fair by international observers -- forcefully reiterated his determination to safeguard Belarus’s independence and sovereignty, and said he will not sign documents on integration that are detrimental to its interests.

"Remember this: I'm not a kid who's been present for three, four, five years. And I don't want to cross out everything that we have done together, creating a sovereign, independent state in order to put it in a box with a cross on top," Lukashenka said, evoking a coffin. "As long as I'm around, this will never happen. This is our country."

He noted that key energy issues are yet to be resolved but said that negotiations on deepening integration with Russia are at their concluding stage and left the door open for substantially closer economic ties.

Shraybman, the political analyst, predicts either a breakdown of talks amid inability to compromise or, more likely, a symbolic declaration about mutual friendship and ambitions for closer ties.

"If they decide not to ruin the party," he said of the December 8 anniversary of the union-state treaty, "then they’ll sign something with an understanding in Minsk that no one will fulfill it."

Stanislau Shushkevich in his modest apartment on the outskirts of Minsk: "In reality, dependence on Russia remains very strong."

For Shushkevich, who has sat on the sidelines for years as the two countries have continued to promote integration and squabble over the degree of sovereignty Belarus should maintain, the latest initiative will represent another round of concessions by Minsk.

"They'll sign a document that deepens our dependence on Russia. I expect little from it," he said. "It will be yet another Belarusian back-down."