By Paul Goble
Minsk has both delimited and demarcated its borders with Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, albeit after many delays and long talks; but it has not done so with Russia up to now, largely because as the two are members of a union state, neither Minsk nor Moscow felt any immediate need to do so. (The Belarus-Polish border was demarcated in Soviet times.)
But now, in the wake of events in Ukraine, Ilya Zakharkin says, Belarus is more interested in doing so; and Moscow has agreed to begin the task first of drawing a precise line on maps (delimitation) and then putting up signs to indicate where it is (demarcation) by 2026 (ritmeurasia.org/news–2018-07-09–belorusskaja-granica-bez-demarkacii-ne-obojtis-37405).
“At first glance,” the Belarusian analyst says, “the demarcation of the border between our two countries which are part of a Union state isn’t necessary since it is only a formal sign designating the territorial limits of the states.” But in fact, there are many symbolic and practical reasons for doing so.
In May 1995, Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russia’s prime minister at the time, Viktor Chernomyrdin, put up a symbolic border post, but the border services of the two countries did not move up to that border but rather remained where they had been, in Pskov and Smolensk for Russia and Brest for Belarus.
According to official information, the analyst continues, “the Belarusian border guards from that time forward never carried out any defense of the segment of the state border between our two countries.” Instead, they shared it with Russia which assumed responsibility for Belarus at Russia’s external border and vice versa.
Up to 2014, the Russian-Belarusian border was relatively stable, although there were occasional bureaucratic problems. Tariff barriers were formally annulled in 2011. But from the time of the Maidan in Ukrane, the situation changed in a radical way. Border fences went up, the Northern Fleet expanded patrols, and free passage across the border effectively ended.
In February 2017, Moscow announced that it was establishing a border zone along the Belarusian border, and fights from Minsk to Russian destinations were shifted from domestic to international terminals with their passengers required to go through customs (news.tut.by/society/529900.html).
These Russian actions came in response to Minsk’s decision to allow citizens from 80 countries to visit Belarus for up to five days without a visa, Zakharkin says. Russia tightened up passport control in other ways as well. Minsk was upset, viewing the Russian actions as a violation of earlier agreements; and Lukashenka insisted that “there was no need for any additional controls between the two states.”
But three other problems, including the illegal flow of goods, contraband and migrants, meant that both countries began to recognize that they needed a real border, with real controls to prevent one country from dumping its problems onto the other, something Minsk feared Russia would do, especially with illegal immigrants.
But despite these concerns, the Belarusian side did not consider it necessary to revise the existing status of the border until the beginning of this year. In February, Lukashenka declared that he “did not think that Russia wants to restore a full-blown border with Belarus” because if it did, that could lead to “a serious conflict.”
The events of the last several months, however, “have demonstrated that the situation is ever more getting out of Belarusian control: in Moscow ever more often officials began to speak about the need of introducing border controls” to limit the influx of goods banned by Moscow’s counter-sanctions regime.
In June, Lukashenka was forced to declare that “the Russians ‘themselves do not understand what they want and what they are doing at the Belarusian-Russian border.’” They need to make up their minds; that is not Minsk’s task, he insisted. But Belarus is prepared to respond to whatever the Russians do.
The problem is that establishing a real border will not be inexpensive. Estimates are that Minsk would have to come up with “more than 20 million US dollars” for fixed costs and pay “no fewer than 5,000 border guards,” as well as additional soldiers for the military. Thus, forming a real border for Minsk will be “an extremely complex and costly task.”
The situation at present is this, Zakharkin says. “Minsk has made clear to its partners that control of the border is a prerogative of the Belarusian authorities and that no one will be allowed to interfere in this, including its closest ally, Russia. The leadership of the republic view this as one of the last real signs of its independence.” And it won’t yield on this point.
“However,” the analyst continues, “in a situation in which Belarus has frequently talked about its desire to build a Union state, the republic must approach this issue more carefully. Yes, from the Russian side our peoples have the right to expect greater tolerance in the search for a consensus” especially given NATO’s new activities in Poland and the instability in Ukraine.