Belarus and Russia “Could Unite Tomorrow, No Problem”, Says Belarusian President
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko signaled that he was open to further integration between Belarus and Russia during talks held at Sochi between the leaders of the two countries. In his statements, given during a Feb. 15, 2019 joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko asserted that “we, the two of us, could unite as early as tomorrow, no problem with that.”
The modern Republic of Belarus was established during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with the Supreme Soviet of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic asserting the sovereignty of the country in 1990 and formally declaring independence on Aug. 25, 1991.
Belarus adopted a fresh constitution in 1994 that created an executive presidency, and elected Alexander Lukashenko as President of Belarus in a two-round election held the same year. Amid political upheaval that gave way to political liberalization (and marked economic transition) in most of the former Warsaw Pact member-states, Lukashenko spearheaded a constitutional referendum effort that extended his term, expanded the powers of president, and dissolved the Supreme Soviet in favor of a new legislature that excluded the political opposition in 1996. Since then, Belarus has engendered a reputation as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” with Lukashenko easily securing re-election in four successive presidential elections recognized as neither fair nor free by most of the international community.
Unlike some of its neighbors that were also former Soviet republics, Belarus at independence pursued diplomatic endeavors that would continue its deep ties with Russia. It joined the Commonwealth of Independent States as a founding member and signed several treaties of friendship and union with Moscow. Belarus and Russia pledged to form a federated political union under the 1999 Treaty on the Creation of a Union State, with treaties on economic and customs integration following suit.
Belarus under Lukashenko mainly spurned closer ties with the European Union and the wider West in favor of increasingly closer ties with Russia in the first decade of the 2000s. However, the issue of gas and oil exports, along with Belarus’s burgeoning outstanding debt to Russia, has caused several episodes of diplomatic friction between Minsk and Russia.
However, after the start of Russian intervention in the Ukrainian civil conflict and Moscow’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014, Lukashenko sought to thaw ties with the West and played up appeals to Belarusian identity at home in a series of actions described by experts as attempts to play “Russia and Europe [along with the wider West] off one another.”
The most recent diplomatic spat over gas and oil exports stems from last year’s revision of a bilateral trade agreement between Minsk and Moscow. While the revision was ultimately agreed to, Lukashenko forcefully protested the terms regarding gas and oil as attempts by Russia to incorporate Belarus and proclaimed that “sovereignty is sacred” for his country. In a “diplomatic breakthrough” in January of this year, Belarus formally lifted restrictions on diplomatic personnel from the United States, a reversal of a policy dating back to 2008.
However, signs that Lukashenko is pursuing permanent changes to Belarus’s international diplomatic disposition are not readily apparent. Russian overtures in mid-January to formally discuss implementation of the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State — implementation measures which have been stalled since the start of the present century — were received positively by Lukashenko, who skipped the Munich Security Conference in favor of talks with Putin.
Lukashenko’s statement apparently endorsing imminent union between Russia and Belarus was conditioned on the question of whether or not the respective peoples of both countries were also ready for union. Said Lukashenko, “If they are not ready — no matter how powerful and huge Russia is — today it is not in a position to impose their will on anybody. And of course, we can’t either, but we don’t need that anyway.”