Russian president Vladimir Putin and Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenka during negotiations between their two states in the Kremlin, 2015. (c) Sergey Guneyev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.There’s disquiet in Minsk and murmurs in Moscow. The latest press conference by Belarus’s president Aleksandr Lukashenka, in which he held his own for some seven hours, has hardly helped. In one of many provocative statements (link in Russian), he even threatened to imprison Sergey Dankvert, the head of Russia’s agricultural and veterinary regulatory body Rosselkhoznadzor.
Arguments over gas prices have dragged on for over a year now, and conflict over oil supplies has continued for over six months. Russia has introduced various restrictions on food imports from Belarus after introducing counter-sanctions against the US and the EU. Moscow made these in response to western sanctions, triggered by its annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The latest bone of contention is Moscow’s decision to reinstate border controls that were removed 20 years ago.
Thin red lines
Belarus and Russia are close allies and together comprise the Union State. Citizens of both states enjoy freedom of movement across the territory. Apparently, Russia’s move was provoked by Lukashenka’s decision to introduce five day visa waivers for citizens of 80 countries, including the US and EU member states, entering Belarus through its Minsk-2 airport. But this appears to be just a pretext.
The order to restore a formal border zone between the two countries, issued by the head of the FSB, actually came before Lukashenka’s announcement of the visa waiver. There is also no certainly that his decision will significantly increase the number of foreign visitors to Belarus, nor the theoretical visitors who may consider entering Russia through Belarus without a Russian visa.
Kazakhstan, another close partner of Russia, actually introduced a similar visa waiver scheme some 15 years ago (with, moreover, 15 days’ access). So if Moscow sees Minsk’s recent decision as unfriendly to Russia, it is no more unfriendly than Astana’s innovation. To put it mildly, the new “closure” of the Belarus-Russian border has also been carried out in a peculiar and unnecessarily harsh manner. For the past 20 years there has been no formal border control for vehicle traffic, apart from the odd selective check. Admittedly, Russia may not have totally approved of this state of affairs.
The Kremlin’s decision has been in some ways reminiscent of those taken by Donald Trump’s administration
But now the pendulum has swung back. People from third countries driving to Russia through Belarus have found the border closed in the most literal sense. Up to now, nobody even checked whether or not travellers had Russian visas. Now, even those who hold a Russian visa cannot use the crossing. All travellers are henceforth informed that there is no longer an official border crossing, and that the only way for them to get to Russia is through Lithuania, Latvia, or even Ukraine. In fact, any other way they please — but not through Belarus.
There are reports that citizens of Ukraine and Moldova, who until now have not required visas to enter Russia, are also being turned back at the border, so only Belarusians can still use it. This absurd situation doesn’t apply to any other Russian border.
Moskovskaya station on the Minsk Metro, Belarus. Photo: CC-by-NC-2.0: GTravels / Flickr. Some rights reserved.In some ways, the Kremlin’s decision is reminiscent of those taken by Donald Trump’s administration. Yet there’s an important distinction; Trump refused entry to the USA to citizens of seven countries, via any border. Moscow has effectively blocked entry to Russia to citizens of every country except Belarus through one particular border.
Perhaps official border formalities will eventually be re-introduced if the crisis in the two countries’ relations is not resolved. Meanwhile, there’s a growing impression that Russia’s main aim is to punish its neighbour, to “put it in its place.” And the reason for such drastic measures is about much more than the situation on the border.
You say yes, I say no
As I see it, it’s more about a change in Minsk’s demeanour and mood than its politics per se. After all, nothing has really changed in any of Belarus’s alliances with Russia, whether economic, military or political.
Due to Belarus’s role as a go-between in the Donbas conflict and the release of political prisoners, there’s been a modest thaw with the west — but this has yet to take any institutional form. At least not yet. At any rate, nobody in Minsk is calling it a “rapprochement”. This semi-thaw has yet to pay off financially for Belarus: talks with the IMF about a three billion dollar loan have been dragging on for a couple of years with mixed success and no concrete results.
As high ranking Western negotiators queue up to visit Minsk, their Belarusian counterparts now head for Western capitals
But there’s something in the air. Two years ago, no western representatives had yet set foot on Belarusian soil and there were sanctions in place against many Belarusian officials. Now these have been lifted and an intensive dialogue has begun, with high-ranking western negotiators queuing up to visit Minsk and their Belarusian counterparts heading for western capitals.
And then there is Ukraine. Belarus’s attitude to the conflict between that country and Russia has been non-committal, with every “Yes” followed by a “No” or at least a “Yes, but”. It hasn’t recognised Crimea as Russian – or as Ukrainian either, for that matter; it has diligently voted against UN resolutions denouncing Russia’s annexation of the peninsula, but has promised the first post-Maidan Ukrainian government that it need fear no attack from the north. Tick-tock, yes-no. Its high point was the Minsk Agreements, invoked by everyone – from Kyiv, Moscow, and Washington to all the EU capitals and the Donbas separatists. Minsk has become not only the place where the agreements were signed, but the go-to place when you need a ready-made infrastructure for negotiations. The agreements haven’t proven their worth yet, but what’s the alternative?
Is the wind coming round again?
In some sense, it’s all “been there, done that”. In 2008 Belarus didn’t recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; in 2008-10 it enjoyed a “honeymoon” when it normalised relations with the west - another move that irritated Moscow. There was nothing concrete about it, but a jealous husband always gets annoyed on principle when his wife flirts with someone else. Whatever the consequences.
There have also been “wars” – over gas, oil, foodstuffs, information and so on. During the first gas “war” in 2004, when Russia cut off gas supplies to Belarus, Lukashenka described this act as “terrorism of the highest order.”
Lukashenka’s relations with his dear ally can best be described as “shouting match diplomacy”
This is an interesting peculiarity of Russo-Belarusian relations, in part the result of the two countries’ political cultures and in part of Lukashenka’s own personality. The style of his relations with his dear ally can best be described as “shouting match diplomacy.”
To use a boxing analogy, Lukashenka’s best tactic is the “political clinch.” In a purely economic conflict it is hard for little Belarus to stand up to its huge neighbour. But in a political clash, the playing field is a little more favourable. Still, the results have varied in the past.
Minsk, the capital of Belarus, in 2011. Photo NC-by-ND-2.0: Marc Veraart / Flickr. Some rights reserved.It’s said that change is the only constant. Yet it’s not so much Belarus that is changing, but Russia. Dmitry Medvedev once said that “there’s no money, but you’ll deal with it.” Now, it’s not that there’s no money, but Russia is less inclined to share it with to Belarus.
Secondly, Russia’s criteria for alliance and leadership are changing. The Kremlin is wondering why, when their army is fighting in Syria (and in Donbas, but don’t tell anybody), those Belarusians not standing shoulder to shoulder with us? What kind of ally are they, anyway?
There were even times when Russians saw Lukashenka as an ideal, or at least attractive alternative occupant of the Kremlin. A stable, authoritarian manager in true post-Soviet style. This is what was behind Minsk’s “soft power” in Russia: the Kremlin could have refused money to Belarus then as well, but public opinion is of some significance even in authoritarian countries.
“A quiet, calm and comfortable country”
But everything’s different now. Putin took Crimea and Aleppo, but what has Lukashenka taken? During his recent press conference, Belarus’s president formulated his idea of the Belarusian national dream: “a quiet, calm and comfortable country.” You couldn’t say that about today’s Russia. At a stretch, you could try and claim that about Russia in general, or Russia at some points in its history. But that’s certainly not today’s Russia.
Should this imply that tomorrow Belarus will leave its various alliances with Russia and join NATO, or that Russian “little green men” will appear and start telling Belarusians what their geopolitical choice must be?
No, it doesn’t. Russia will continue to put pressure on Belarus, mostly along the lines of the well-worn saying, “to my friend I give everything; to my enemy only what the law demands.” But Belarusians now find themselves in a grey zone, teetering between these two options.
The lack of a border is a hangover from the Yeltsin years, when it seemed that various parts of the former USSR might reintegrate in the future
At the same time, Belarus will mount a counterattack, just as Lukashenka did at the end of last year when he refused to attend summits of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO) and didn’t sign up to the EAEU’s new Customs Code. The fallout will be mostly be felt in the political sphere. Russia, of course, will survive Lukashenka’s absence at these summits designed to foster further post-Soviet integration, but it would regret the demise of the EAEU, as a formal symbol of unity between post-Soviet countries.
Sooner or later the economic quarrels will end, as they have often done in the past. The arguments over the border will also sooner or later be resolved. In fact, there’s nothing to resolve there. Russia has proper borders with all its neighbours, including its ally Kazakhstan. It even has visa free movement with its emphatically non-allied neighbours in Ukraine.
The lack of a border is a hangover from an earlier time, the Yeltsin years, when it seemed that various parts of the former USSR might reintegrate sometime in the future, even if that time was a long way off.
We shouldn’t expect any drastic changes in the immediate future. Nevertheless, the direction is changing; as is the tenor of future relations between the two countries. The border conflict is in a way symbolic: the doors are closing. And this has less to do with the complex personal relations between Lukashenka and Putin as with the divergent interests of national states — and that applies to both Belarus and Russia.