We often read that Russia and Belarus are unable to agree about the prices and delivery conditions of oil products and natural gas. This was the case in 2017, and it is the case now as well: the particular issue resurfaces with certain frequency and it seems it will continue to do so.
It is no secret that many see Russia and Belarus as fairly close nations, to the extent that both of them could even unite at some point. The story of unification, however, is much older than one could think. On 8 December 1999 in Moscow, Alexander Lukashenko and Boris Yeltsin signed a treaty on the creation of a union state; it is, however, highly unlikely that Vladimir Putin had nothing to do with it.
Naturally, in 1999 he could not predict what the year 2020 will bring, but one thing is certain – Putin saw the treaty as a means of renewing talks about the restoration of the Soviet Union. Putin has openly stated that in his eyes the collapse of the USSR was one of the greatest tragedies of our time. He was even more specific, saying that it the one historical event he would like to change.2
So when we talk about Putin and his plans, we have to keep in mind his overarching goal – his longing for the Soviet Union – as this will improve our understanding of other aspects.
The intentions of Russia back then and those of Putin at the present are quite clear; but what exactly motivated Belarus to sign the treaty? We have to look back: in 1995, Lukashenko announced that the cooperation agreement signed with the EU is the first step of possibly becoming a member state. But in the light of the 1994 economic crisis public support for the president was dropping, so Lukashenko was forced to act quickly. He decided not to wait for the EU’s response, but instead turn to Boris Yeltsin for help.3
We can conclude that Belarus had its eyes on economic benefits, while Russia was interested in political ones. We should keep this in mind along with the fact that Putin wants to correct “a historical mistake” and restore the USSR.
The disagreements between Minsk and Moscow were only resolved after a meeting between Lukashenko and Putin in spring 2017.4
As I already mentioned, currently the issue of oil and gas prices and delivery conditions is at the top of the agenda for both countries. On 7 February, Lukashenko arrived in Sochi to meet Putin. They were able to negotiate gas prices, but Belarus was unable to secure discounted oil.5
I will add that on 11 February 2020 Belarus began acquiring technical oil from the Druzhba pipeline. It was explained that the technical oil is taken from the pipelines that are not part of the transit.6
Just as in 2017, the meeting between Putin and Lukashenko concluded with a partial agreement. Both sides were able to agree on natural gas prices, but failed to reach an agreement concerning oil prices.
Lukashenko has already begun seeking alternatives to Russian oil, and this was the reason US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Belarus on 2 February this year. Pompeo expressed that the US is the largest producer of oil products in the world – all Minsk needs to do is call him.7 Already before the visit, Belarus had announced that it will import oil from Norway.8 The reaction by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Belarus’ attempts to acquire oil from other countries was surprisingly neutral, stating that Belarus as a sovereign state can procure oil from whomever they want.9
We will return to the meeting between Lukashenko and Putin later. Now, let’s look at what Putin has said about the union of both nations. Putin has verbally stated that both countries will not unite, but Putin’s words have a tendency for not matching his actions. In reply to a question about the implementation of the treaty signed in 1999, Putin said that it is not about uniting both nations into one, but rather about establishing a union.10
So what is the treaty really about? It intends to establish a single currency, joint customs and courts and a unified political, economic and military direction. And on 7 February Lukashenko and Putin met in Sochi to discuss closer integration between both nations.
Therefore, the meaning of Putin’s statements is twofold. First – indeed, there are no plans to fuse Russia and Belarus into a single entity, but the establishment of a federal union where the two largest subjects are Russia and Belarus has not been ruled out. As we know, a federal state is an entity consisting of partially self-governing subjects under a central federal government. In case of establishing the Russian and Belarusian federation, Putin will no longer have to be sad about not being able to be the president of Russian anymore.
Putin’s announcement during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on 7 June 2019 is crucial here: “I believe Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians are a single nation.” He stressed multiple times that the establishment of a union state is in the interests of the entire Belarusian and Russian nation.12
We can conclude from Putin’s statements that he is firmly hanging on to his goal of establishing a union that would be similar to the USSR – the collapse of which upset him terribly. But what will he do if he realizes his plans with Belarus will not come to fruition? We can only guess, but seeing what happened between Russia and Ukraine – nothing good. Everything was good while Ukraine was on Russia’s path, but the moment it decided to take a different route… we know how it ended.
Now we can return to the 7 February meeting between Lukashenko and Putin. Some of the facts seem meaningless without the necessary historical knowledge, but they are not. Lukashenko said: “We talked a lot, we went way back in our shared history in our shared state, discussed several historical dates and events, they are well known.”13 In the meeting, Putin and Lukashenko also agreed to continue discussing the issue of integration.
Lastly, in order to show how friendly both nations and their leaders are, a hockey match was held with Putin and Lukashenko on the same team. Surprisingly, the presidential team was victorious with 16:1. But the key aspect was the fact the team had only one captain – Vladimir Putin. It also went largely unnoticed that Lukashenko left without holding a press conference.
What can we conclude from all this?
In 1999, Lukashenko in order to receive economic aid from Russia, signed a treaty on the establishment of the union state, hoping that economic obligations will have to be fulfilled only by Russia. Consequently, Belarus “got hooked” on Russia’s natural resources and became dependant on Russia’s kindness to the extent that if the support would cease, Belarus would be faced with an economic disaster, which in turn would increase public discontent; and searching for any other alternatives takes time and resources. The desperation of Belarus is also evidenced by its willingness to accept technical oil. At the same time, Russia is using its economical leverage to achieve political goals, which are quite evident. The fact that Russia in confident in the strength of its positions is also suggested by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ neutral statement about Belarus attempting to procure oil products from other sources. The events in Ukraine also serve as a warning to Belarus – Russia clearly showed what it will do to countries that decide to take a different route. It is safe to say that Putin has Lukashenko cornered and even humiliated him in his favorite sport, hockey, by showing who is the real captain.
One could ask – why do we care? The answer is quite simple: as painful as it seemed back then, the only strategically correct decision was to stop being dependent on Russia’s energy resources. For this reason, it is necessary to continue our path of becoming less and less dependent on Russia in every sphere. There is no doubt Russia will exploit its economic leverage to further its political goals. However, the possibility of military means being used against the Baltic states is minimal.
Lastly, what will happen to Belarus? The answer is quite harsh – if Putin is able to achieve what he has intended, the situation will be very similar to the hockey match, i.e. Lukashenko will be part of the team, but someone else will be the captain.
*Zintis Znotiņš is an independent investigative journalist