Integration on Hold for Russia and Belarus

Despite intense efforts by the two governments to finalize plans for deeper integration between the countries, agreement remains elusive.

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Katia Glod

Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenka at a Collective Security Treaty Organization meeting in Kyrgyzstan in November 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenka at a Collective Security Treaty Organization meeting in Kyrgyzstan in November 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Two December meetings between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenka failed to deliver Moscow’s hopes of securing Minsk’s acceptance of closer alignment between Russia and Belarus.

Over the past year, relations between Belarus and Russia have been under unprecedented strain as Moscow has tried to encourage Minsk to sign up to a different format of relations designed to keep Belarus firmly in a Russian orbit. Details of the negotiations have remained secret, yet issues on the table appear to include unification of tax and customs systems, a common energy regulator and joint governing bodies.

The Kremlin believes that Belarus needs to deliver more in return for Russia’s continued economic support, worth around $10 billion per year. In December 2018, it issued an ultimatum: Belarus would only continue to receive a discounted price for oil and gas and enjoy preferential access to the Russian market if it agreed to reanimate the largely dormant 1999 Union Treaty that called for the unification of Belarus with Russia.

During 2019, frantic work took place on both sides to prepare a detailed framework for achieving deeper integration between the two countries. This did not succeed in overcoming a set of long-standing issues related to economic relations.

To step up pressure, the Russian prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, signalled in early December that Russia would withhold economic privileges for Belarus pending full implementation of 30 integration road maps that he claimed had already been agreed. To the alarm of Minsk, he also suggested that discussion of a 31st roadmap would follow to include the creation of a single currency and supranational institutions. The Belarusian authorities view this level of integration as a threat to national sovereignty.

On the surface, Belarus’ negotiating position is weak. By resisting market reforms that could have diversified imports and exports, Lukashenka has instead kept the economy tied to Russia; 40% of Belarusian exports go to Russia. In addition, Russia has decreased its reliance on imports from Belarus as part of a broad policy of import substitution.

Raising the gas price will deprive Belarusian companies of their comparative advantage. Approximately 90% of Belarus’s electricity and heat is generated by natural gas imported from Russia at below market prices. Petroleum products refined from Russian crude oil that is supplied duty-free to Belarus account for the largest source of the country’s export earnings.

Minsk fears that the current oil taxation reform in Russia could cause Belarus losses of up to $9 billion by 2024 as a result of higher prices for Russian oil and the loss of export duties. Economic growth slowed from 3% in 2018 to just over 1% in 2019 and could fall further if Russia does not grant concessions on the oil price.

The country’s high level of public debt denominated in foreign currency makes the need to find cash more urgent and exacerbates the Russian pressure. Russia is Belarus’ biggest creditor, accounting for 38% of state debt.

However, Lukashenka is a master of negotiation with the Kremlin, with a talent for turning weakness into strength.

First, by eliminating political competition in Belarus, he has given Putin no option but to deal with him personally. Second, he understands that Moscow needs to present integration between the two countries as voluntary and does not want to use economic sanctions or other tools of persuasion that could destabilize Belarus. Third, he knows that there is no consensus in Moscow on creating a single currency. Unification of the tax systems would also be problematic because of their different structures. If these measures were implemented, Moscow could end up paying much larger subsidies to keep Belarus stable.

Minsk is therefore likely to pursue three options: dragging out the negotiations with Moscow, while continuing to declare its commitment to closer union with Russia; seeking alternative sources of energy and credits; and reforming the economy to lower its dependency on Russia.

Although Lukashenka is mindful of potential risks and threats to his power from economic liberalization, he is open to changes in some areas, such as further developing the successful IT sector, privatising non-strategic state-owned enterprises and increasing trade with EU countries.

These reforms will most likely continue, although this year’s presidential election may distract attention, as Lukashenka seeks a sixth term in the knowledge that his popularity is falling. He may also need to divert some economic resources to maintain the support of his core electorate.

For the moment, Moscow does not appear to be in a hurry, believing that Lukashenka and Belarus are going nowhere and that concessions by Minsk are only a matter of time.