ALAFF’s author’s translation of a recent article by Rostislav Ishchenko, one of the leading Russian political scientists. Ishchenko’s materials are distinguished by a deep understanding of the issue, a skillful handling of facts and simplicity of presentation. What is indicated in square brackets is ALAFF’s additions.
The following article addresses the issue of intensifying contradictions in relations between Russia and Belarus.
2018 in the Russian-Belarusian relations ended with a heated discussion about the Russian tax maneuver, which, in the opinion of the Belarusian side, caused not just damage (no one argues this), but damage that Russia is obligated to compensate.
To make it clear, the logic of the Belarusian demand was that Russia should build its internal, tax, economic, financial and international policies in such a way that the Belarusian budget does not lose anything. Belarus, on the other hand, has no similar obligations with regard to Russia. Moscow is considered solely as a financial donor.
This approach is not new. The growth of the contradictions between Moscow and Minsk is not the first year and it can be stated with confidence that this trend will continue in 2019.
The system of relations between Minsk and Moscow was built in the 1990s. At that time, Belarus, led by Alexander Lukashenko, was under strong pressure from the West, who declared the Belarusian president “the last dictator of Europe”. Without the support of Moscow, the Belarusian authorities would have been difficult to not fall. But Russia was not interested in losing its last ally in the western strategic direction and allowing the United States to close the sanitary cordon that lined up along the Russian western border to break the economic (at that time almost only energy) ties between Russia and Western Europe.
We remember that in the 90s Russia was frankly weak. She was unable to provide Minsk with substantial diplomatic or military support. The only way it could help was to maintain the internal stability, to prevent the creation of a critical mass of discontented people in Belarus who were capable of organizing a coup (the term “color revolution” was not yet used).
Lukashenko bet on maintaining stability, at the expense of preserving the majority of social bonuses available in the USSR. By the mid-1990s, Belarus was probably the most Soviet of the post-Soviet republics. This bet was obviously correct. At that time, any changes led to a weakening of state power and the country falling under the decisive influence of the West. However, the social gains of the USSR were expensive and the Belarusian resources would not be enough to support them.
Under these conditions, Russia, supporting an ally, not only repeatedly issued concessional loans, but also opened its market for the products of the Belarusian industry and agriculture, while the energy carriers for Belarus were supplied at prices significantly lower than the world market. In fact, Moscow financed the Belarusian social sphere, supporting Lukashenko as an effective manager.
I stress that from the Russian side it was not charity or simply “fraternal assistance”. It was quite a pragmatic move aimed at preventing the deterioration of its geopolitical position due to the loss of a strategic ally.
However, since then much has changed. The point is not only that Russia has sharply strengthened, has gained many new allies, and the pressure of the West on Belarus has weakened and Minsk has gradually begun to resort to foreign policy maneuvering. This, of course, led to the emergence of a bad feeling when Minsk refused to recognize [the independence of] Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but [it] could not and did not cause the Kremlin’s gradual refusal to finance the Belarusian “economic miracle”. In the end, everyone knows that under Lukashenko Belarus will not go to the West. At least because it barely falls into the Western sphere of influence, Alexander Grigorievich will be changed to a more acceptable figure for the US and the EU. And in the Kremlin they know that Lukashenko knows this, and Lukashenko knows that in the Kremlin they know that he knows this.
All these years — Alexander Grigorievich in 2019 celebrates the 25th anniversary of his presidency — the Belarusian and Russian economies have moved in different directions. As already mentioned, in Belarus, largely for objective reasons, the semi-Soviet social system has been preserved. Russian enterprises have long been switched to the most capitalist principles of operation. The Belarusian leaders, when they conduct economic negotiations, have the task of preserving the excessive staffs of production teams and the social sphere of enterprises. For Russian negotiators, profitability comes first.
This is not because Belarusians are so kind, and Russians are so evil. It’s just that behind Russia’s back there’s no one being able to cover the economic losses resulting from insufficient profitability. Russia must live on its own, and help Belarus survive (and not only it).
Under these conditions, Russian enterprises are not willing to bear the losses caused by the low profitability of the Belarusian partners due to their obligations in the social sphere. Overpaying for products of Belarusian enterprises, Russian enterprises informally finance the Belarusian social programs.
Minsk has repeatedly been offered to resolve the issue through the full implementation of the financial and economic provisions of the agreement on the creation of a union state. I emphasize, not political (not Belarus’s entry into Russia, as some say), but economic [provisions], that is, the admission of Russian business to the privatization of Belarusian enterprises, creating a truly single market and a single financial system, with a single emission center that would work according to the same rules.
Minsk authorities say that in this case the Russian business will absorb the Belarusian economy. It’s true. But the big always absorbs the little. Sooner or later, Belarusian enterprises will either have to leave the Russian market and go bankrupt, because no one else needs their products on the scale produced, or start playing by the same rules as their Russian colleagues. This will mean that the Belarusian state bureaucracy loses control over its own economy, and will also lead to a restructuring of the social model of statehood according to Russian templates. Belarusian enterprises will not be able to compete effectively on the world market in another way.
However, the Belarusian elite is in the same state in which the Soviet [elite] was in the last years of perestroika. On the one hand, it is clear that it is high time for the reforms, on the other hand, they do not know how to lead within a different economic model and understand that a change in the economic structure will also entail changes in the political structure. Yes, this will happen mildly, since Russia, not interested in destabilizing a friendly state, will support [Belarus], but many managers, especially middle managers, will lose their posts.
Therefore, as long as one can change nothing, the Belarusian elite, like any other [elite], will strive to change nothing. Hence, the “Belarusian shrimp”, and the scandal around the tax maneuver and other scandals, both past and waiting for us in 2019.
Belarus to maintain the existing system requires constant financial support. Attempts to move to Western lending several times, including obtaining IMF loans, have shown that the allocation of money will be accompanied by far more stringent economic requirements than those put forward by Russia.
Most importantly, the primary will be the demand for political reforms, which in fact will consist in a gradual transfer of power to the pro-Western opposition. Consequently, this option was not passed, since most of the Belarusian elite understand that in the Western system there is definitely no place for them. However, Russian support every year is also surrounded by more serious conditions.
Loopholes with [Russian] oil, “Belarusian shrimps” and others give Minsk an opportunity to raise additional money into the budget without taking loans and formally asking nothing from Russia. Hence, the not always adequate reaction when Russia closes these loopholes. After all, when Lukashenko is counting the billions that Belarus has lost and is still losing from the Russian tax maneuver, we must understand that these billions are not falling from the sky, but were taken out of the Russian pocket, in which they now will remain.
At the same time, Russia is not going to destroy the Belarusian statehood, nor to destabilize Lukashenko’s power. Russia makes compromises, negotiates, and does not put forward ultimatums. Russia needs controlled changes that will lead to a genuine integration of the two economies, rather than the destruction of the Belarusian industry due to higher energy prices and the closure of the Russian market.
But Alexander Grigorievich puts forward ultimatums. The last one sounded last week and is still being discussed in the media. Just about the “compensation” of the Belarusian losses from the Russian tax maneuver, Lukashenko threatened [Russia] that he could go to the West, at the same time instructing [his subordinates] to develop the delivery of oil through Latvia (or, in general, through the Baltic ports).
As for the possibility of “going to the West” for Lukashenko personally, it’s said above. He is a hostage to his social policy. The fact is that “Belarusian socialism” began to hinder Russia only in recent years. Not very much, by the way. Russian business has a place to develop both in its homeland and in the world.
Let us be frank, with the exception of certain industries (mostly oil and defense) oriented to the Russian market, Belarus is not the most attractive place for investment. But Lukashenko caused concrete and very substantial damage to both Western speculative capital, which planned to make money on Belarusian privatization (less, of course, than on Russian or Ukrainian, but still it was about dozens, and even hundreds of billions of dollars), and political plans of the West which was never able to close the Russophobic front from the Crimea to the Baltic, and now it is too late.
Such things cannot be forgiven. So Lukashenko, “gone to the West”, will have to choose between the fate of Milošević, Gaddafi and Yanukovych.
But there are more significant moments.
First, in spite of the fact that the Belarusian authorities (in the face of the so-called “Makei group”) actively support local “European integrators”, who, by accident, like everywhere in the post-Soviet space, are part-time Russophobes, in Belarus there is no compact Russophobic ethnic reserve, comparable to the Ukrainian Galicia.
That is, any “European” regime in Belarus will have even less support from the population than in Ukraine. If in Kiev the authorities had to move to openly Nazi terrorist rule, then in Minsk (in the conditions of zero public support for “European integration” and the absence of a territorial base of nationalism), the “European” power would have to just be fully armed, most likely by foreigners. It is so uncomfortable that no one could do so for long.
Secondly, unlike Russian capital, which is interested in Belarusian enterprises integrated into Russian industrial chains with the aim of preserving and developing them (albeit with a substantial reduction in the social burden on them), Western [capital] is interested in destroying the Belarusian economy in the way the Ukrainian one was destroyed.
It cannot be said that Russia will not suffer any losses from this. Some problems will arise, but they will not be in any comparison with the problems brought about by the break in cooperation ties with Ukraine (there were more volumes [of cooperation], and the possibility of rapid replacement of some components was less).
The problems delivered by Ukraine were solved in four years (in six years the issue of gas transit will be resolved). The problem of replacing Belarusian suppliers can be solved twice as fast. At the same time, the West will destroy the Belarusian economy to zero.
What we have as a result of a hypothetical reversal of Belarus to the West?
- The enormous personal problems for Lukashenko and his family, organized by the West and the local “new power”.
- The destruction of the Belarusian economy by the West (as the Ukrainian experience shows, almost instantly, in three years).
- The destruction of social, communal and transit infrastructure by the West (also almost instantly).
- The beginning of an acute social conflict (with giving it an ethnic effect), in which power can be held only by relying on external forces (on the Polish contingent, if to be specific, — for the West, there is no other, quite numerous forces [there]).
The prospect of turning the country into a territory completely uninhabitable is obvious. And we must bear in mind that, unlike Russians and even Ukrainians, who are accustomed to survive in the rakish 90s without any government support, Belarusians are accustomed to a strong state social sphere. For them, the blow will be stronger. Plus, the experience of Yanukovych shows that you still have to be able to escape to Rostov. You may not be so lucky. The West, too, learns from mistakes, and they don’t like Aleksandr Grigorievich [Lukashenko] longer and more than the naive Viktor Fedorovich [Yanukovych].
In general, Belarusian blackmail looks like the threat of a schoolboy in puberty to suicide so that everyone (who did not appreciate him) would cry. Russia, of course, doesn’t give a damn about Belarus, just as it didn’t give a damn about Ukraine. Ukraine was even more important [for Russia]. There are more people there, and, as already mentioned, there were more production ties [with Ukraine] and they were much more substantial.
Nevertheless, the Ukrainian experience shows that Moscow is not going to either give in to blackmail by a fraternity, or force anyone to be friends. If the national government takes an inadequate decision, and the people are not able to cope with this power, Russia simply does everything to minimize its own losses, protect its strategic interests, and in the future even extract geopolitical dividends from the current situation.
Moscow does not force anyone to anything and does not allow itself to be forced. The burden of the “empire contrariwise” (in which the outskirts prosper at the expense of the imperial center) is not just tired of the Russian authorities, they can’t take this [burden] anymore. Not only and not even so much in terms of resource costs. Although it is also important.
Simply the messianic desire to remove the last shirt for the sake of friendship, to give a life “for your brothers”, to rush into the poor villages and hamlets, leaving after you the palaces, gardens, museums, universities, — all this left the Russian people. Left, not least because, as it turned out, not only the national suburbs do not have historical appreciation and are ready to respond to the Russians with genocide to the care of preserving and educating their own people, but also accidentally separated Russian suburbs, from mercantile reasons, first declare themselves not completely Russian, then not Russian at all, then they begin to make claims “for occupation”, thus it’s not far to the genocide of those who preserved their Russianness.
In such conditions, quite a sensible idea prevailed in Russian society. No need to give the last shirt, even the [something] extra should not be given just like that. People do not appreciate what was received gratis. Only what was earned is valuable.
Now, even if the Russian authorities wanted to, they would not be able to switch to a policy of content of social and national dependents at the expense of the Russian budget. People would not understand this. The tension in the society would sharply increase. Under the conditions of the ongoing geopolitical struggle, no one will destabilize their own society for the sake of someone’s inadequacy.
So, Aleksandr Grigorievich has been forgiven much, including the fact that in difficult times he really was the only ally (though he had his interest). This is not Lukashenko who is bad, this is “Belarusian socialism”, within which the whole system of Belarusian power was built, ends. And the system, like any other system, is trying to maintain stability, by replacing the missing resource from other sources (if Russia does not give it, we must take it from Europe). This will not work, but any system always seeks to restore stability.
Nobody will leave Belarus to the mercy of fate, and Russia will never work in Belarus against Lukashenko. But Russia cannot save Lukashenko from Lukashenko, and [save] Belarus from Belarus. If in Minsk they finally decide “to freeze your [own] ears to spite mom”, then so be it.
Rostislav Ischenko, specially for the alternatio.org website.