As a former member of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Belarus maintained strategic and symbolic ties with Russia post the Soviet disintegration of 1991. As part of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Belarus came to be part of what was then perceived to be an important regional organization in the post-Soviet space. With NATO expanding eastwards, it became imperative for Russia to maintain or even strengthen its ties with its near abroad to keep a check on the expansionist tendencies of NATO in what Russia considered to be its sphere of influence. Since then, Russia has remained the most significant international partner for Belarus, which has a heavy dependence on Russia, especially in the economic field. In December of 1998, both countries jointly signed the Treaty on Equal Rights of Citizens between Belarus and Russia which primarily focused on education, health facilities, and employment generation. They also, in effect, represent a “Union State of Russia and Belarus”, an organization comprising of the two countries that were established in 1999. According to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Belarus and Russia had a commonality concerning centuries of shared history. This, he believed, justified a deeper integration of the two countries. The procedure for integration started in April of 1996 and ultimately led to the establishment of a Union State of the two countries. Although the original idea was aimed at uniting the two countries, Belarus has continued to maintain its independence and sovereignty even with a heavy dependence on Russia.
The Economic, Military, and Political Dimensions:
i. Economic relations:
Economic relations between the two countries are skewed heavily in favor of Russia and portray a heavy economic dependence of Belarus on the Russian Federation. According to a 2009 estimate, Russia accounted for approximately forty-eight percent of Belarus’ external trade while Belarus accounted for only about six percent of Russia’s external trade. Energy relations are a key aspect of economic relations and account for a huge chunk of trade that takes place between the two countries. Before 2004, the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom supplied gas to Belarus for domestic Russian prices, not just as a gesture of goodwill but mainly to strengthen the process of integration. However, as integration processes stagnated soon, Gazprom attempted to make the transit of Russian gas through Belarusian territory more dependable and definitive. They tried to do so by attempting to buy the Belarusian company Beltransgaz. Nevertheless, many disagreements and differences of opinion overpricing culminated in the Russia–Belarus gas dispute of 2004, wherein Gazprom stopped supplying gas to Belarus on the first of January 2004. A subsequent gas contract was signed in June of the same year, somewhat resulting in an improvement in relations. However, in early 2020, Russia imposed a temporary suspension of the sale of oil at discounted prices to Belarus, after which an understanding was reached at post negotiations. As a response to this, Belarus attempted to diversify its oil imports, leading to oil imports from countries such as Norway, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus, blamed Russia for using their enormous energy resources to force Belarus into a subsequent political integration with Russia. A rise in border and trade issues is also a characteristic of Belarus’s unwillingness to be dependent on Russia for its economic sustenance. However, more recently, the Russian-made vaccine Sputnik V will be produced in Belarus based on Russian technology.
ii. Military ties:
Both Russia and Belarus have strong military ties with high levels of military cooperation. The two countries have carried out various joint military exercises. One such significant military exercise was conducted in September 2017. In the aftermath of the Ukraine Crisis of 2014, Russia sought to replace its strategic defense partnership with Ukraine due to rising tensions. This in turn gave an impetus to boost defense ties with Belarus by increasing the frequency of joint military drills and exercises. Additionally, Russia also possesses many military bases and radar facilities in various parts of Belarus. This includes the famous Hantsavichy Radar Station which serves as an early warning system to trace any launch of ballistic missiles from Western Europe.
Belarus’s importance to Russia as a strategic partner has substantially increased over time due to a culmination of a multitude of international events and developments. Examples of these developments include the United States’ increasing military undertakings in Eastern Europe, a shift from pro-Russian sentiments towards favorable opinions of the West in a few former Soviet states, and the emergence of what is known as “color revolutions”. Due to all this, despite an occasional stalemate in economic and political relations, the military ties continued to be strengthened.
iii. Political relations:
Political relations between the two countries have had their highs and lows, with occasional political tensions. In the 2000s, Russian President Vladimir expressed dissatisfaction with the way relations were moving forward with Belarus. The proposal that was put forward revolved around integration with either a federation model of Belarus joining the Russian Federation or building a union of the two countries, in part similar to the European Union. This proposal was, however, refused by Belarus which chose to continue with the status quo. The Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has supported the independence and sovereignty of Belarus, which has led to tensions in more than one instance. Following the Ukrainian Crisis and Russian annexation of Crimea, Lukashenko pushed for a restoration of the Belarusian identity in many ways and even famously gave a speech in the Belarusian language rather than the Russian language which is spoken by most people. He has since emphasized strengthening the Belarusian language and the importance of a separate Belarusian identity as distinct from a Russian identity. The border between the two countries, which had earlier been destroyed in 1995, was rebuilt along the Belarusian side. In response to this, Russia created its border along the Smolensk oblast. In January 2020, tensions again rose between the two neighbors when Belarusian President Lukashenko accused Moscow of pressuring them into a Union. As a result, economic subsidies that provided immense benefits to Belarus were cut by Russia. Tensions further rose following the arrest of more than thirty Russian military contractors in the capital city of Minsk. Lukashenko had also accused Russia of attempting to destabilize the country prior to the presidential election. This was not the first major political row that occurred between the two countries. As far back as in 2009, a major diplomatic row occurred between the two when President Lukashenko accused Moscow of offering a huge loan amount worth a few hundred million dollars which hinged on the condition that Belarus recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He stated however that Belarus’ stance was not for sale and that all citizens of Belarus were to follow Georgian laws in both those provinces, entering solely from the Georgian side. Belarus had also made public their will to introduce Border and Customs controls on their side of the border and had refused to take part in the Collective Security Treaty Organization talks held in Moscow, Russia. President Lukashenko had also publicly criticized any need for strong diplomatic relations with Russia as he believed that Russia was “blockading” Belarus.
Challenges and the Road Ahead:
For years, Belarus tried to maintain its strategic autonomy. It did not completely ally with either the European Union or the Russian Federation, even with escalating tensions between the two blocs. This benefitted Belarus greatly since they could leverage their position and benefit from both the EU as well as Russia. This however could not be sustained after the presidential elections of 2020, results of which are not recognized by most of the Western countries due to allegations of political repression and violent suppression of freedom. Belarus had to abandon its policy of maintaining strategic autonomy and lean excessively on Russian support. This led to Belarus giving in to several demands put forward by Russia, including the longstanding demand related to oil products. Belarus‟ oil products would be exported through Russian ports. Lukashenko had been opposed to this demand for seven years but had to give in after losing favor from the Western countries. Before this, Belarus the Lithuanian and Latvian ports for the same since it made for a logistically rational choice due to the proximity of Lithuanian and Latvian ports from Belarus. However, both these countries condemned the political repression and undermining of freedom in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 elections and refused to recognize Lukashenko as the democratically elected leader. With these recent developments, Belarus has become even more dependent on Moscow. Although there could be a possible strengthening of relations with China to balance out it’s over-dependence on Russia, especially with China building a new eco-city in Belarus, to what extent this could work is not guaranteed. With Russia increasingly becoming the more powerful player that can unilaterally dictate terms of the bilateral relationship to the much smaller former Soviet republic, it remains to be seen to what extent Russia can influence Belarus and in which direction the bilateral relationship heads from here on.
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