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Putin's 2024 'Belarus Option'

by Gordon M. Hahn

There is much speculation that one of the solutions Russian President Vladimir Putin is pursuing to get around the Russian constitution’s two-term presidential limit is one form of integration or another of Belarus into the Russian Federation to provide Putin a Belarusian golden parachute to a new post thereby preserving his de facto rule over the Russian Federation. The Russian rumor and analytical mills, especially in liberal circles, are convinced Putin will push Belarus’s integration with Russia in order to remain in power in Moscow (See, for example, Dmitrii Travin’s www.rosbalt.ru/blogs/2018/12/17/1753574.html; Matvei’s Ganapolskii’s https://echo.msk.ru/blog/ganapolsky/2560485-echo/; as well as Svetlana Gudkova’s www.obozrevatel.com/russia/putin-pogloschaet-belarus-kakie-tseli-presleduet-glava-kremlya-i-pri-chem-tut-kryim.htm). Moreover, other variations of the Belarus option that would would be acceptable to both him and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka are highly problematic. In sum, the ‘Belarus option’ seems an unlikely exit from Putin’s 2024 dilemma.

There are several reasons why the full integration model — in which Belarus would become part of Russia with the status of either a constituent region and ‘subject of the Russian federation’ or a federal district (which consist of many regions) in some way — is unlikely. First of all, there is nothing in it for Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka, who would be ‘Gorbacheved,’ being left without a state to be president of. In his recent and very long Ekho Moskvy interview, Lukashenka made it abundantly clear that he was not interested in accelerating the integration process or in trading Belarus’s sovereignty for some sinecure established by Moscow. Instead, he was focused on gaining more economically advantageous relations with Moscow – from redressing a $9 billion trade imbalance to payments for Russia’s use of two military bases in Belarus to lower natural gas prices — rather than promoting a full integration project under the Russia-Belarus Union. He claims that he raised all these economic issues with Putin during their early December meeting in Sochi (https://echo.msk.ru/programs/beseda/2559487-echo/).

Second, the overwhelming majority of Belarusian popular opinion opposes the country’s integration into Russia. This distinguishes Belarus from the situation that arose in Crimea after the Maidan revolt, where an overwhelming majority of Crimeans supported rejoining with the former Russian homeland. By contrast, a recent opinion poll by Belarus’s independent public polling agency BAW found that 75.6% of Belarusian respondents prefer maintaining their country’s independence to integration with Russia (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-27/belarus-s-soviet-economy-has-worked-better-than-you-think).

Third, the full integration of Belarus into Russia would mean Moscow assumes the territorial and border defense of, say, the ‘Autonomous Republic of Belarus’ or ‘Belorussian Federal District,’ requiring the deployment of a Russian military contingent larger than that which is presently deployed on Moscow’s two bases there as well as additional border troops and intelligence personnel. This would create a new ‘trip wire,’ obliterating Russia’s buffer zone against NATO. Buffer zones are a valued strategic asset in Russian military thinking, a full-fledged part of the security vigilance norm in Russian strategic and political cultures’ against the dual threats of Western invasion and political meddling. (On the other hand, of course, swallowing up Belarus would remove any future threat of Belarus turning West, joining the EU and then NATO — a development that would eliminate Russia’s Belarusian buffer completely.) The ongoing crisis in Ukraine since 2014 is a good demonstration of how far Moscow is willing (and not willing) to go in order to maintain its western border buffer zones.

But polls also show that Belarusians support the current integration process aimed towards filling the economic aspect of the Russian-Belerusian Union with content, continuing the de facto military alliance with Russia, and even developing loose confederative ties–processes that have been proceeding gradually for two decades, lackadaisically albeit (www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/01/29/a-brotherly-takeover-could-russia-annex-belarus-op-ed-a64326). The Union State plans established by the 2 April 1997 Treaty on a Russia-Belarus Union have led to a customs union and deep trade ties but have failed to achieve the envisaged single economic space, a common currency, tax system, and supranational budget, a joint constitution, and functioning supranational governmental bodies, while maintaining independence in foreign relations. Thus, economic integration has attained some success, despite the lack of a single currency, pricing and taxation systems. Russia and Belarus have maintained or created some 2500 joint ventures and reached $35.5 billion in mutual trade in 2019. Last year Russia invested $4 billion in Belarus, and Belarus invested more than 600 million in Russia. Moscow has given Minsk preferential oil and gas supplies, though Belarusian president Lukashenka remains dissatisfied with them. Russia has two military bases in Belarus, and the two countries maintain a joint air defense space and a regional armed force. However, political integration has gone almost nowhere. The Union Council of Ministers, Parliamentary Assembly, and Standing Committee (the Union State’s permanent governing body) have been left dead letters without agreement on a Union constitution (https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/the-union-state-of-russia-and-belarus-searching-for-a-development-vector/ and https://rg.ru/2016/12/25/reg-szfo/prezidenty-rossii-i-belarusi-ocenili-perspektivy-soiuznogo-gosudarstva.html).

So could a tight economic union or a broader confederative relationship including military-political and even foreign policy functions now be fashioned that could also provide Putin with a golden parachute — a new post as head of a political union, a Russian-Belarusian Union/Confederation — with powers sufficient to make it interesting for him and provide immunity if needed? What powers would the Russian Federation need and be willing to delegate to the union/confederation under such an agreement to satisfy Putin’s requirements? Would a union-confederation control both domestic and foreign policy? All or part of both, one or the other? What if any changes to the Russian (and/or Belarusian) constitution would be required and would they be easier to achieve than amendments to articles regarding the presidential term of office or a redistribution of powers between the Russian presidency, on the one hand, and the premiership and/or Security Council chairmanship that could more easily keep Putin in charge? Who would be Russia’s president in any new configuration? Would Putin simultaneously occupy the posts of union/confederation president and, say, Russian premier and/or head of Russia’s Security Council? Could a system be established whereby the Russian president is the union president and the Belarusian president is the union premier? Each of these are vexingly difficult to resolve in a three -year period both technically and politically, in particular given the slow progress made over the nearly quarter of a century since the 1997 Russia-Belarus Union. Moreover, in any scenario several of these issues would need to be resolved simultaneously.

The original nearly insurmountable problems of forming anything but an economic union remain: the lack of incentives for Lukashenka and the imbalance in power between the two parts of the prospective Russia-Belarusian union/confederation. Lukashenka has little to no incentive to give up a significant share of Belarusian sovereignty to a union with the far more powerful Russia, since it involves ceding his powers. The same is true for the office of the Russian presidency and indeed the entire Russian government. The only or at least by far the chief winner in almost any partial integration scenario is Putin, with few if any advantages for other players and entities.

The imbalance of power in the relationship was made strikingly evident in early December’s agreements made at Sochi between Putin and Lukashenka. Minsk consented to GazProm’s taking full control over Belarus’s gas transport company ‘BelTransGaz’ and subcontracted construction of Belarus’s first atomic energy station to Russia’s state nuclear power company ‘RosAtom.’ Belarus became more economically dependent on Moscow, by making it Belarus’s largest creditor. In all these ways, Moscow demonstrates not only the benefits of cooperation and Eurasian Economic Union membership but also the lack of any urgent need to fully integrate or join a more robust union state or even confederation with Moscow. Indeed, it is more likely that Putin is focused on leveraging economic integration with Belarus in order to advance the EEU’s deeper integration and broader enlargement. This will make it and Russia a more powerful player able to entice greater cooperation with both the EU and with China’s One Belt One Road Initiative.

In sum, a Russian-Belarusian integration scenario that moves much beyond economic integration is unlikely, given the current state of affairs both in Russia, Belarus, and Eurasia writ large.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021) He has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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