20 years under Putin: a timeline

Recently, Belarus emerged on the US international agenda as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk to meet President Alexander Lukashenko in what was the first such high profile encounter between the two countries in 26 years. The visit alarmed Moscow, which has long been nursing a plan to absorb Belarus as part of the Union State. Minsk’s latest feud with the Kremlin showcases Lukashenko’s ability to successfully manipulate geopolitical differences between Russia and the West, and to extract surprising concessions from its significantly more powerful neighbor.


Vladimir Putin's rise to power ruined Alexander Lukashenko's plans to head the Union State between Russia and Belarus. Photo: kremlin.ru.


The birth of the Union State

Both Russia and Belarus are members of the so-called Union State—a supranational formation established in 1996 at the end of Boris Yeltsin’s first term as Russia’s president as a result of his desire to please the Russian electorate, which at the time was slipping into nostalgia for the Soviet times.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has never been popular among large groups of the Russian population, and numerous socio-economic issues, including massive poverty, inequality, and violent crime, which emerged during Yeltsin’s tenure and which the president failed to resolve, contributed to his becoming a deeply unpopular political figure, with approval rating as low as 6 percent in January 1996.

According to renowned political scientist and historian Stephen White, Professor Emeritus of the University of Glasgow, “the USSR, meanwhile, remained a popular institution, and not just for Russians.” According to a 1991 referendum, 80 percent of the Soviet citizens, not just ethnic Russians but other ethnic groups too, supported the idea of the USSR in some form;[1] most of the Russian electorate deemed Yeltsin responsible for its collapse. Communists remained popular with the public in the early post-Soviet era, not least through their criticism of Yeltsin’s presidency. Even Western observers noted that the results were catastrophic for the majority: “During Yeltsin’s nearly nine years in power, Russia’s gross domestic product slumped by over 50 percent, millions of people lost their savings in repeated financial crises, and life expectancy plunged to third-world levels. ‘Yeltsin inherited the Russian state in 1991, and left it in a much worse state than he found it,’ says Roy Medvedev, one of Russia’s foremost historians, who has known all these leaders. ‘His legacy was mostly unhappy, and I don’t think the Russian people will remember him with much warmth.’”

Communists exploited this resentment, and their electoral victory in the 1996 presidential election appeared a clear possibility, not discounted by Yeltsin himself. In some regions hit by the economic crisis more than others, Communists were “thought to be running well ahead of Yeltsin in the polls.” That possibility would not play out well for Yeltsin and his inner circle, known as “The Family,” as well as for the oligarchs who had accumulated significant wealth under his rule: they could face a real risk of property confiscation and imprisonment, should the Communists or Russian nationalists (another viable prospect) come to power.

For Yeltsin, expressing fondness for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was intended to change the electorate’s perception of him as the destroyer of the Soviet empire to the creator of a new state, more “natural” in the sense that it would unite “brotherly” peoples—Russians, Belarusians, and possibly Ukrainians. This message appealed not just to the masses, but also to a considerable group of moderate nationalists, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate, widely respected in Russian intelligentsia circles in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet periods.

While Yeltsin clearly wanted a “union” with Belarus to solidify his power and prepare his regime for a new leader, Lukashenko was pleased with the idea for other reasons: he planned to use the arrangement to ultimately replace the unpopular Yeltsin. The creation of the Union State could lead to common citizenship, which would allow Lukashenko to run for the top office in case of Yeltsin’s departure. Another reason for him to move closer to Russia was that Belarus’ highly industrialized economy relied heavily on Russian raw materials, mostly gas and oil.


New Russian imperialism

Vladimir Putin’s rise as Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor and his election as president in 2000 undermined Lukashenko’s plans. Putin’s actions and policies as Russia’s new leader further strained the Belarusian president’s desired path to power.

First, from early on, Putin pursued a policy of consolidating his power and centralizing the Russian state under his personal control. He also made initial attempts to re-nationalize former state assets, but that was yet to be wholesale nationalization. Second, the Kremlin, and the public alike, came to realize that the collapse of the USSR was finite and irrevocable, that the former Soviet republics were not “prodigal sons” who one day would return to Russia’s imperial embrace, but foreign states. This new vision followed Solzhenitsyn’s dictums: in his work, “How Shall We Organize Russia?” (Kak nam obustroit’ Rossiyu?), the writer blasted Soviet leaders for providing cheap commodities to the Eastern European members of the Warsaw Pact (and to the Soviet republics, he implied), while overlooking the interests of the Russian people. Solzhenitsyn argued that these states should have paid market rates for Russian gas and oil—an idea that has since become increasingly popular with the Kremlin. Third, as a result of this attitude shift, Moscow started to treat the former Soviet republics similarly to how European powers approached their colonies in the 19th  and early 20thcenturies—that colonies should benefit their masters, not live at their expense. Consequently, the Kremlin changed its policy toward Belarus, insisting now that Minsk should “compensate” for getting Russian gas and oil at low prices, for example, by giving Russian companies access to the “command heights” of the Belarusian economy (important factories, oil refineries, etc.).

Lukashenko’s reluctance to fall into line with the Kremlin’s new philosophy set the two countries on a tumultuous path fraught with gas wars, political blackmail, and intrigue. Still, Moscow needed Minsk on its side in order to implement other geopolitical projects, primarily the Eurasian Union.


Disguise of Eurasianism

The idea of the Eurasian Union as a confederative state including some of the former Soviet republics was initially put forward by then-president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1993, but was never seriously discussed. As Russia’s relationship with the West deteriorated by the end of Putin’s second presidential term, as indicated by his 2007 Munich speech, the Kremlin began to emphasize that Russia needed its own sphere of influence. The idea of the Eurasian Union was revisited and brought to the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda. By August 2006, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan had already agreed to form a trade union, and in 2010 the Eurasian Customs Union came into force as part of the Kremlin’s integration project. In 2012, the three states launched the Single Economic Space, assuring that their alliance would rival the European Union. On January 1, 2015, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) went live, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan shortly joining the original three member-states.

The Kremlin’s upbeat rhetoric regarding the EAEU did not preclude numerous experts from observing that the project was largely a political association dominated by Russia, even though members of the union denied it. Moreover, despite the declared partnership, the Kremlin refused to provide oil and gas to the EAEU members at discounted prices, nor would it curtail its appetite to gain larger access to their economies. It is noteworthy that Lukashenko, correctly reading Putin’s ambitions, refused to trade Belarus’ sovereignty for Moscow’s overtures, insisting, alongside the Kazakhstan leader, that the Union should remain an economic association.


A new Cold War?

It is curious, however, that despite its relentless gas feuds with Lukashenko, the Kremlin continues to supply Belarus with oil and gas at prices below Russia’s regular export rates. Why would it make such concessions? The main factor in the Kremlin’s rationale is its deteriorating relationship with the West. Following the 2008 war with Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and military conflict in Donbass, and the 2016 interference in the US presidential election, Putin’s Russia has now effectively passed the point of no return, and its relationship with the United States is at its lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. Tensions have been growing for years, as NATO expanded east and now directly borders Russia, which the latter perceives as a major security threat.

While Moscow presumably has allies through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (established 2002), its options on the western border are limited. With the Baltic states joining NATO and Ukraine’s mainstream sentiment being anti-Russian, Belarus remains the only country that could help Russia in case of military conflict with the West. Lukashenko understands his geopolitical importance for Moscow and manages to manipulate his position with relative success.

One of Lukashenko’s routine demands is lower gas prices, which usually triggers difficult negotiations and some sort of energy crisis in Belarus. The Belarusian president then uses this as a pretext to create an outcry in Europe, which still remembers Gazprom’s “gas wars” with Ukraine. The most recent crisis took place last winter, but this time Moscow believed that Belarus was in such poor shape that it would finally cave in to pressure and allow itself to be incorporated into Russia. At that point, Lukashenko engaged in what can be described as “multi-vectorism.” This implied that Belarus would not just start to diversify its energy supplies, but also try to improve its own relationship with the West.

Despite being dubbed once as “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko managed to maintain a relationship with the EU through the Eastern Partnership program for many years. But his recent rapprochement with the United States comes as a truly new effort. In February, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk—the highest-profile US official to arrive to Belarus in 26 years—to discuss “sovereignty issues.” During the visit, Pompeo claimed that the US could cover 100 percent of Belarus’ energy needs. The visit alarmed Moscow, where Lukashenko’s messaged was perceived as a hint that Belarus could drift away from Russia or even turn openly hostile to it, like Ukraine. In a matter of two weeks, Minsk reached an agreement with Russia, once again squeezing the same old concession—gas prices at a lower level than it initially demanded. Most recently, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, Lukashenko called for the Kremlin to show even more flexibility, implying a further price reduction for Russian gas imports. The outcome of this tactic remains to be seen.

The case of Belarus highlights the new geopolitical dynamics in Europe. Whereas during the Cold War, the continent was split into two ideologically opposing camps, in the 90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was the United States which exerted the strongest influence in Europe—and globally. But recently, it became clear that no single country or bloc can now dominate Europe, which creates opportunities for small states, like Belarus, living in the shadows of more powerful neighbors, to exploit geopolitical differences between Russia and the West for its own benefits.


[1] See: Stephen White, “Soviet nostalgia and Russian politics,” Journal of Eurasian Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 1, January 2010, pp. 1-9; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1879366509000049#!.