Year LXII, 2020, Single Issue, Page 118

 

 

BELARUS, RUSSIA AND THE EUROPEAN UNION

 

 

When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, fourteen new, independent republics rose from its ashes. For the new Russia, these former Soviet republics were poised to serve as buffer states both westwards, towards the EU, and eastwards along its extensive Asian borders. One of these new republics, entering the international political stage as a sovereign state for the first time, was Belarus.

In the early 1990s, all these fledgling republics adopted new constitutions and presidential forms of government. The Republic of Belarus, whose Constitution was adopted in 1994, chose to preserve the old Soviet administrative and economic system. Thus, the country’s transition from member of the USSR to independent state did not really change life for its citizens. The year of the new Constitution also brought free elections in Belarus, the only ones to date recognised as such by the Western world. The winner, among the six contenders, was Alexander Lukashenko, who came from the ranks of the CPSU. He has governed the country, as its president, ever since. Lukashenko is known to have boasted, on more than one occasion, that he voted against the decision to dissolve the USSR (he had been a member of the State Duma of the Russian Federation); unsurprisingly, therefore, from the outset, he took steps to confirm an institutional structure reminiscent of the Soviet one. This is a position he has maintained rigidly, in spite of Vladimir Putin frequently remarking that “those who do not regret the passing of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those who would like to see it resurrected have no brain.”

Lukashenko has always remained attached to the model of state and politics that he previously defended in the USSR, particularly as an officer in the Soviet military (1975-1982), latterly also serving as a political instructor. In short, he is a man who was very much part of the Soviet state system.

From the start, Belarus, like most of the other new republics, was careful to maintain close political and economic ties with the new Russia.[1] However, more recent years have seen a weakening of this bond. Indeed, the relationship, increasingly strained, might even have reached breaking point, had it not been for the crisis of August 2020, which put it back on track.
  

Belarus and Putin’s Russia.

Ever since the time of the Soviet Union’s industrial transformation, the region’s most important oil and mineral refineries have been concentrated in Belarus. From here, refined products were, and still are, exported mainly to Russia and the other three republics that, together with Russia and Belarus, form the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).[2]

The economy of Belarus is based mainly on industrial activities linked to mining; the country’s dependence on Russia is due to its need to import crude oil and gas, of which it has none of its own. Belarus’s energy needs are met almost entirely (99 per cent) by imports from Russia, to which it sells back refined products. As a result of this reciprocal arrangement, Belarus and Russia have become complementary countries; accordingly, in Belarus’s 30 years of independence, Lukashenko has not felt the need to alter the industrial structure of the country, which, moreover, has a weak farming industry.

Since the 1990s, this energy dependence has forced these two nations to maintain close relations, and to begin with, Belarus, in particular, benefited greatly from this. Russia, lacking the large refineries necessary to meet the demands of its domestic market, resorted to a form of dumping, cheaply exporting huge amounts of raw materials (oil and gas primarily) to Belarus, which returned the favour by selling refined products to its main trading partner at advantageous prices.

However, this mechanism ultimately had the effect of putting Belarus entirely at the mercy of Russian energy policy, and produced a situation with an inevitable outcome. Up until 2013, with oil costing around 100 dollars a barrel (with peaks of over 110 dollars) and Russia selling it at below-cost prices, the Belarus economy flourished, its GDP increasing by around 7 per cent per year. This trend made it one of the richest of the new post-Soviet republics with the highest per capita income (over 6,500 dollars per year) and the most efficient health system, not to mention a literacy rate of almost 100 per cent. This rosy economic situation made Lukashenko popular, even though he was ruling the country with an iron fist, and silencing opponents through exile or persecution. For years, he was in fact considered Europe’s last dictator.

Russia has long been known to use energy policy as an instrument of power and coercion in its external relations, both with allies and with countries with which it has commercial arrangements in place, such as the EU member states it supplies with gas. However, in late 2013, with the demand for oil falling, and the West introducing sanctions targeting Russian sales of this raw material, it started to become clear that this political use of oil exports was becoming less effective.

Indeed, since 60 per cent of Russia’s GDP is linked to the extraction of oil, gas and other natural resources,[3] a collapse or sharp dip in oil prices[4] was bound to hit the Russian economy hard; and so, Moscow, to make up the loss of revenue, started to consider revising its pricing policy, which included charging some countries (including Belarus), which had previously enjoyed favourable terms, more for their oil. The event that prompted this change in policy, i.e., the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine, came in 2013. In November that year, the Ukrainian government’s unexpected decision not to sign the planned Treaty of Association with the European Union triggered a political crisis that rocked the country, and plunged it into a civil war between those in favour of association with the EU, and those who instead wanted greater integration with Russia, which, under Putin, was offering EAEU membership as well as immediate and substantial aid to prop up the disastrous Ukrainian economy. In short, Ukraine was split in two, and there followed rival demonstrations between these factions in many cities (with pro-EU protesters even waving EU flags). This split led the easterly Donbass region, Ukraine’s richest, to proclaim its independence, and it did so with the full support (including military support) of Russia. From then on, a silent war has been playing out in this mainly Russian-speaking region, causing thousands of deaths and the migration, to Russia and Ukraine’s interior, of almost two million citizens. Ukrainian-Russian relations broke down definitively in 2014, when Crimea held an independence referendum with a view to its subsequent integration with Russia. This referendum, which was not recognised by the West, resulted in Crimea’s detachment from Ukraine.[5] Since 2018, a 19 km bridge, built in the space of just over a year, has physically linked the Crimean Peninsula to Russia, and its presence bears witness to the latter’s interest in this region and determination to keep up the pressure on Ukraine’s rulers, notwithstanding the intervening years of USA and EU sanctions.

In fact, as a consequence of Russia’s aggressive policy towards Ukraine, the United States, followed by the EU, applied a series of economic and financial sanctions that, as mentioned above, led Putin’s government, in 2014, to change its raw material pricing policy. As an effect of the new, higher prices, the Belarus GDP began to fall and inflation to rise, and these trends encouraged a revival of opposition to the regime. The period 2015-2017 brought protests in Belarus, which were repressed with violence. Moreover, in 2015, new presidential elections were held, which delivered Lukashenko, re-elected with over 90 per cent of the votes, his fifth consecutive mandate. In a half-hearted attempt to quell the protests, some timid liberal reforms were introduced, while nevertheless leaving 70 per cent of economic activity in the country under strict state control.

With the crisis in Ukraine in full swing, the protests mounted in Belarus during that period did nothing to change Western policies or attitudes: the aim of US foreign policy, supported by the EU, was still to weaken Russia. This indeed explains why, in the period 2014-2015, the USA invited Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to join NATO, a move that had the effect of further entrenching Russia’s position. Although the fall of the Berlin Wall had, symbolically, marked the end of the Cold War, fear and wariness of Russia had remained woven into US foreign policy, so much so that the Americans even managed to persuade all the former Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO, too. At the same time, the European Union displayed an openness towards these same countries, embracing them as new member states and thus taking its membership to 28 countries. Russia responded to these initiatives by forging ever stronger military and economic ties with China, and in 2015 Putin’s regional market (EAEU) was launched. The EAEU member states also created the Eurasian Fund for Stabilisation and Development (EFSD),[6] to be used as a source of financial aid in the event of internal or international crises. Under this scheme, Belarus applied for a USD 500 million loan to help its finances, but it should be pointed out that a good 300 million of this was earmarked to settle old debts, linked to the supply of gas, contracted with Gazprom, the main Russian gas and oil provider. The granting of this loan coincided with Lukashenko’s refusal to accept one offered by the IMF, conditional upon the implementation, in the country, of restrictions designed to contain the spread of coronavirus infections. Lukashenko is among the national leaders who deny the coronavirus threat.[7]
  

Belarus and the EU.

The EU’s relations with Belarus highlight, once again, a more general problem linked to the stance the bloc should adopt towards Russia.

As mentioned, Lukashenko’s latest and umpteenth re-election as president triggered protests that were suppressed with unprecedented violence. The EU responded to the repression by expressing its indignation and offering full solidarity to the protesters and opponents who were imprisoned or forced to flee the country. As on previous occasions, the EU did not recognise the legitimacy of the election; this time, however, rather than merely issuing a simple statement of condemnation, it sanctioned and implemented restrictive measures against members of Lukashenko’s entourage held to be involved, yet without touching the president directly. This response, albeit dictated by the circumstances, illustrated the considerable and grave political weakness of the EU.

Considering that Lukashenko has ruled Belarus, with an iron fist, since 1994, periodically being returned to power through elections that each time have been condemned as illegitimate, the question we must surely ask is, how can this be allowed to happen in a country that borders with Europe? In actual fact, the situation in Belarus is common to a number of former Soviet republics: Azerbaigian, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tagikistan have all had the same presidents since the 1990s, and also seen a series of sham elections. Moreover, this list should also include Russia, given that Putin, switching between the roles of prime minister and president, has governed the country since 1999, and, following the constitutional referendum held there last July, could continue to do so until 2030. As Putin himself made clear to the Financial Times in 2019,[8] liberal democracy cannot be adapted to Russia and its former republics. In these countries, therefore, elections and referenda serve only to give a semblance of popular legitimacy to what are, in fact, authoritarian governments.

Attacking Lukashenko politically and directly, demanding his resignation, would make it necessary to do the same with Putin. The latter, after initially failing to comment on Lukashenko’s sixth re-election, eventually opted to confirm his unlimited support for his ally. Relations between the two had soured in recent years after Russia, hit by the Western economic sanctions mentioned earlier, had increased its raw material prices, plunging Belarus into recession, and causing it to record a drop in GDP and a sharp decline in wages (back to 2010 levels), and to run up ever-increasing debts with Gazprom.[9] In 2019, Putin had suggested that Belarus could be merged with Russia, becoming to all effects, a part of it, a proposal that Lukashenko rejected with indignation. The recent popular protests, however, saw Lukashenko moving back into Russia’s orbit: the president forcefully accused the EU and the US of fomenting the protests and riots, even to the point of exacerbating the KGB-led repression.[10] However, this show of strength failed to stop the demonstrations in the country. These popular protests and the accounts given by opponents of the regime who have fled abroad should be reason enough to prompt the EU to step in and act in a mediating, peacekeeping capacity, thereby avoiding the mistakes made in response to the crisis in Ukraine, the price for which is still being paid today. This role could be particularly significant, given that the US has maintained a low profile vis-à-vis the situation in Belarus. Indeed, the US administration’s response to the police violence has been confined to general statements of condemnation and talk of sanctions. Nothing more. The crisis in Belarus coincided with the US presidential campaign, during which foreign policy matters were not key issues either for Trump or for his challenger, Biden.

The protest demonstrations in Belarus have been staged entirely under the Belarus flag, with the protestors seeking neither a break with Russia, nor closer links with the EU. In Ukraine, on the other hand, the country was clearly split between two opposing factions, and saw the US, fully backed by the EU, supporting a clear break with Russia, and even proposing that the country should join NATO. The events in Ukraine seem to have induced the Belarus protesters to look for a “national way” in order to avoid either siding with or opposing either the West or Russia. Such a route would allow the country to play a bridging role between East and West, an opportunity that was missed in the case of Ukraine.

Since the end of the Second World War, a key, and consistent, aim of US foreign policy, under both Republican and Democrat presidents, has been to weaken the USSR, and subsequently Russia. This choice, legitimate (given America’s role as a global superpower) and supported by Europe has had the desired effect: US foreign policy weakened the USSR, and has perhaps weakened Russia. However, it has also brought the EU face to face with all its limits and left it economically fragile and in a position of political subjection. The EU could potentially play a mediating role between East and West, but in order to do so it would have to have its own foreign and defence policy, as well as its own energy policy — one that would not (in the case of some EU countries) leave it dependent on Russian gas.[11] However, not having these instruments, the EU, in order to show the world that it has its own voice, can at present only issue condemnations and timid sanctions against some of Lukashenko’s men. The fact is, as long as the EU continues to limit itself to supporting US foreign policy, the credibility of its declarations will remain weak and its actions ineffective, as the Ukrainian situation has sadly shown. Credibility has to be built on and supported by real power, and this is what the EU lacks.

The popular protests in Belarus thus seem unlikely to lead to a democratic outcome, but rather a worsening of the repression, also due to the interventions in support of the regime on the part of Russia, which is keen to avoid having hostile states on its borders.[12] Unfortunately, as things stand, it seems impossible to imagine a scenario in which dialogue with Russia does not inevitably lead to open confrontation, replicating what happened in Ukraine. To change this, Europe needs to be able to act autonomously, and avoid limiting itself to issuing formal declarations of condemnation that unfortunately do nothing to advance the cause of the Belarus people seeking democracy. Debate at the imminent Conference on the Future of Europe is expected to focus on the question of how to lend credibility to EU policies. There is only one possible answer: Europe must have a government answerable to its Parliament for actions taken in the context of its own foreign and defence policy. Otherwise, without power, there will continue to be no credibility.

Stefano Spoltore


[1] The three Baltic states are the exceptions to this rule, having chosen to follow a different path after gaining their independence. In 2004 they became EU and NATO member states.

[2] The five members of the EAEU are the Russian Federation, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (or the Kyrgyz Republic). Putin, in 2011, took the initiative of promoting a regional market, which came into force in 2015.

[3] Source: www.ispionline.it, 2 December 2019.

[4] The price per barrel of Brent crude oil fell down from USD 108 in 2013 to 43 in 2016. It rose to 71 in 2018, before falling to 64 in 2019. In September 2020, because of the pandemic, it dropped to 41 dollars.

[5] For more on the crisis in Ukraine, cf. Stefano Spoltore, Ukraine Caught Between East and West, The Federalist, 56 (2014), pp. 55-66.

[6] The charter capital of the Eurasian Development Bank amounts to 7 billion dollars. The EFSD member states hold the following shares in this capital: Russia 65.97 per cent, Kazakhistan 32.99 per cent, Belarus 0.99 per cent, Tagikistan 0.03 per cent, Armenia 0.01 per cent, and Kyrgyzstan 0.01 per cent.  

[7] Lukashenko recommends treating Covid-19 with a sauna and a bottle of vodka. Even though he himself has been ill, he has called fear of coronavirus a dangerous psychosis, Il Messaggero, 9 May 2020.

[8] Financial Times, 27 June 2019.

[9] These debts with Gazprom were paid off with a loan from the EFSD, which is financed mainly (over 60 per cent) by Russia. The funds lent were thus returned to Russia’s coffers.

[10] Lukashenko’s ideological attachment to the old USSR is illustrated by the fact that, after independence, the initials of the Soviet state police were not changed.

[11] The Czech Republic, Hungary and Bulgaria are totally dependent on gas supplies from Russia. The other EU countries import, on average, 25 per cent of their gas from Russia. Cf. Il Sole 24 ORE, 24 April 2015 and www.insideover.com, 31 October 2019.

[12] Another former Soviet republic currently caught up in strife is Kyrgyzstan, a small country squashed between Russia and China. For the past 30 years, this country has seen repeated political struggles involving armed groups opposing the presidency. The latest elections, clearly rigged, have rekindled the armed struggle. Cf. Corriere della sera, 29 October, 2020. Elsewhere, tensions have resurfaced between Armenia and Azerbaijan (supported by Turkey) over control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

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