Eastern Europe, Imperialism

Belarus-Russia integration talks reflect deepening imperial tensions

Outlining the key players and their stakes in the region, Clare Lemlich takes an anti-imperialist look at what’s behind Russia’s integration push in neighboring Belarus.

During the last few months of 2019 Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko met several times to discuss closer integration between the two countries. No agreement has yet been reached, but the negotiations sparked long-standing fears that Belarus will be subsumed as a province of greater Russia. 

Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus has traditionally been an ally to Russia and heavily dependent on its powerful neighbor for most of its trade. As geopolitical alliances and imperial interests have shifted over the last decade, Belarus has sought trade partnerships beyond Russia, especially in China. Chinese investment in Belarus has grown by 200 times in the last decade, according to Belarusian state media. 

Although Belarus has a strained relationship with the West and has faced sanctions over its human rights abuses, the country has recently oriented more toward the European Union. Last year Belarus and the US reopened diplomatic relations after a long period of hostility between the two. Eyeing China and the West, these latest integration talks are Russia’s attempt to pressure Belarus back into its fold. 

“The last dictatorship”

Nearly any English-language article about Belarus will refer to the country as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Lukashenko has ruled the country since 1994, elections are not democratic, and he oversees an extremely authoritarian state. Media and labor unions are state-controlled, opposition movements are repressed, and the right to protest is seriously curbed. Surveillance is rampant and the country has one of the highest police to citizen ratios in the world. 

Most former Soviet countries went through complete economic restructures at the end of the Cold War. In Russia and Ukraine, which border Belarus to the east and south, post-communist “shock therapy” lead to massive economic crisis and the rise of an oligarchy. In places like Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, which border Belarus to the west and north, the economies have recovered and grown with Western investment and EU membership. But Belarus did not pursue the same neoliberal path as its neighbors and has retained many Soviet economic and social vestiges. In fact, Lukashenko was the only politician in Belarus to vote against the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

Soviet symbolism is everywhere. There is still a Lenin statue in nearly every town square across Belarus and streets are still named after Marx and Engels, revolution, and internationalism. This is not to say Belarus observes any kind of socialism. For instance, Lukashenko recently introduced a regressive “social parasite” tax that fines people for being unemployed. Popular hatred of the tax forced Lukashenko to backtrack, but this gives a sense of the kind of anti-worker policies pushed from the top in Belarus. Much like the Soviet Union before it, Belarus is a repressive and corrupt state-managed capitalist country, whose ruling class uses a veneer of communist rhetoric. In order to prop up this kind of economy, Lukashenko has relied on a combination of loans and cheap energy from Russia. 

But things have shifted in Belarus over the last few years. In limited ways, the country seems to have softened some of its domestic authoritarianism. The social atmosphere in Belarus, especially in metropolitan areas, is freer and more open than it was even two years ago. Lukashenko has historically clamped down on Belarusian cultural activism and enforced a strong Russian language and culture agenda. But in an apparent attempt to contain opposition and as part of his moves away from Russia, Lukashenko has made some concessions on this front. Crucially, Belarus has relaxed visa and travel restrictions, and is pursuing new international trade partnerships. This troubles Russia.

Energy prices, term limits, and China

The integration negotiations have included joint tax, customs, and trade plans, and the adoption of a single currency across the two countries. One of the major sticking points is energy. Discounted Russian crude oil props up domestic Belarusian markets and the economy relies on export revenue from processing and transporting the oil to the rest of Europe. Russia has gradually rolled back energy discounts, but Belarus still pays as low as half of what Western European countries do for Russian gas. 

Putin is now threatening Belarus with full-price oil by 2025 and says that in order to keep getting subsidized energy, Belarus needs to agree to integration with Russia. Lukashenko says Belarus should be able to retain access to cheap energy in exchange for existing military and strategic collaboration with Russia. 

Putin is also pushing integration for domestic reasons. His term as Russian president expires in 2024, but if Belarus and Russia integrate further or even form one nation, it would trigger constitutional changes that could both allow Putin to stay in power longer and run for president again in the future. Putin has maneuvered around term limits before. He once switched jobs with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for several years so that he could run for president again. This was met with protests in Russia and Putin is looking for a way to keep the presidency with less backlash this time. 

It’s a difficult position for Belarus, a country of just under 10 million people with a per capita GDP half the size of Russia and China’s, a seventh of the EU’s, and a tenth of the US’s. Although Lukashenko has pushed for alternative geopolitical partnerships the last few years, the country is still heavily reliant on Russia. Recently one Belarusian military official claimed the country would consider participating in NATO’s 2020 “Defender Europe” project — a suite of US-led military exercises that will take place across the continent, which will be the third largest of its kind since the Cold War.

Belarus also announced plans for a $500 million Chinese debt relief loan that was originally slated to come from Russia. This is in addition to the $15 billion line of credit China extended to Belarus and the potential $5.5 billion China says it plans to invest in a new industrial park near the capital Minsk called Great Stone. Even with these international overtures, without cheap Russian energy and subsidies, Belarus would likely face an economic crisis. This is why, at the time of writing, the integration negotiations stand at an impasse. 

Another Crimea?

Despite Belarus’ recent history of violently repressing protests, several thousand people have demonstrated against integration plans over the last month. Many Belarusians consider integration to be a “soft annexation” akin to Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea (formerly part of Ukraine).

Their fears are legitimate. Many of Russia’s former provinces and satellite states have joined NATO and the EU over the years and since taking power, Putin has fought to keep a ring of buffer states and allies around Russia as a bulwark against the West. He has clear aspirations to restore Russia as an empire and needs consistent subservience from countries like Belarus to do that. Russia would rather win loyalty through geopolitical negotiations and economic pressure, but Putin has been prepared before to invade (as in the south-western border states of Chechnya in 1998 and Georgia in 2008) or annex (as in Ukraine in 2014).

While Belarus matters a great deal to Putin, the Belarusian integration talks haven’t yet grabbed US headlines in the same way that comparable imperial tensions in Ukraine did in the past. This is partly because of the US’s generally shambolic foreign policy since Trump was elected. But it is also because Belarus plays a less important (although not insignificant) role in US imperialism compared with Ukraine. 

All eyes were on Ukraine in 2014 because Crimea provides naval access to Black Sea ports. In 2008 Russia won the war in Georgia against pro-West forces because it had access to these ports, so regaining Crimea in 2014 was a huge boon to Russia’s regional power. Also, much of Europe’s energy flows from Russia through Ukraine. At the time of the Crimean annexation and ensuing civil war on the Russia-Ukraine border, disrupting Russian energy exports through Ukraine would have thrown Europe back into recession, which would have had repercussions for the US.

The US is still keeping close tabs on these negotiations. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was set to visit Minsk this month during a trip to Europe and the Middle East, but this was postponed due to the recent attack on the US embassy in Iraq. The EU is starting to panic because around 10% of Europe’s oil and 6% of its gas comes from Russia via Belarus. As the integration talks stall, Russian energy companies are now diverting crude oil exports away from Belarus. The US is, of course, vexed that Russia is trying to reassert full dominion over Belarus. But both Russia and the West are especially concerned that China is encroaching, particularly since Belarus shares a border with the EU. 

What next?

Whether integration happens, and exactly what that will look like, remains to be seen. Whatever the result, ordinary Belarusians are caught between the deepening imperial rivalries of Russia, the West, and China. 

Global competition has intensified in the last decade and this polarization means people feel like there are no political alternatives to the major imperial blocs. The opposition groups in Belarus are mostly united against Russian integration, but the scale of state repression makes it extremely difficult for them to develop a viable political alternative to Lukashenko. In general, opposition to Russian influence in Belarus also goes hand-in-hand with a set of pro-EU politics and an uncritical stance on Western imperialism. This is understandable. Belarusians have lived under a Russian-backed dictatorship for decades, which makes the EU look like an appealing alternative. Popular support among Belarusians is always couched in terms of the EU’s original rhetoric: human rights oversight, economic opportunities, and freedom of movement — not the neoliberal loan packages, vicious austerity, and racist immigration controls that the EU is better known for now. 

No ordinary Belarusian stands to gain much from the geostrategic jockeying of the international ruling classes over oil prices and spheres of influence. A local Belarusian campaign rejecting all imperialisms, supported by an international solidarity movement also united against all imperialisms, could change the situation in Belarus and beyond. But until that kind of movement exists, integration with one imperial bloc or another seems inevitable in Belarus for the time being.

Clare Lemlich