Earlier this month, the presidents of Belarus and Russia met in Sochi to discuss a merger of their two states. Nothing came of the meeting. Another is due on Friday. It is unlikely to produce results either.
At this rate, the annual talks about closer integration are becoming a tradition without meaning.
Alexander Lukashenko may not mind, but Vladimir Putin does.
Belarus and Russia have a close but complicated history
In 1997, Belarus and Russia signed an agreement that anticipated close economic, political and military ties. The so-called Treaty on the Union between Belarus and Russia was meant to pave the way for Belarus’ full integration into the Russian Federation.
That didn’t happen. Belarus did join the Eurasian Economic Union (Russia’s version of the EU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (a counterpart to NATO). Belarusians and Russians can travel freely between their two nations. But Lukashenko has played hard to get when it comes to unification.
Why Putin wants unification
There is speculation Putin sees unification with Belarus as a way to stay in power.
The Russian Constitution limits the president to serving two consecutive four-year terms. Putin circumvented the law in 2008 by having his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, serve a single term. When his current term expires in 2020, Putin may hope to accede to the presidency of a new Union State to effectively serve a third term.
Russia’s leverage is slipping away
That’s not Lukashenko’s problem, who has eliminated term limits at home and ruled uninterrupted since 1994.
The Belarusian army and security services remain largely independent of Moscow. Lukashenko has refused to allow Russia military or missile bases in his country. (Russia does have an early-warning radar post in Belarus, but it’s only partly operated by Russians.)
Putin’s leverage is economic. Belarus relies on cheap Russian energy and trade exemptions to maintain its planned economy.
But even that advantage is slipping away. Last year, China invested $185 million in twelve economic projects in Belarus, including the construction of a China-Belarus Industrial Park that could eventually attract billions in investments.
Belarus’ IT and services industries have been growing rapidly even without Chinese money. Viber, an instant-messaging platform, was largely developed in Belarus. World of Tanks is a massively successful Belarusian video game. This type of activity barely existed twenty years ago, but now it earns the country around $9 billion per year. Almost three-quarters of Belarus’ services exports go to non-Russian markets.
Belarusians don’t want union
Putin’s task is convincing Lukashenko to change his mind. Belarus, even more than Russia, is a highly personalized system. If Lukashenko doesn’t want something, it doesn’t happen.
But Lukashenko cannot ignore public opinion either, and it has turned against unification.
When the Treaty on the Union between Belarus and Russia was signed, about one in three Belarusians wanted to join Russia. By 2016, that support had fallen to a mere 10 percent.
Opposition was visible in Minsk the day Lukashenko and Putin met in Sochi. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against Russian “occupation”. Despite the threat of arrests, another rally has been announced for Friday.