Lukashenko’s integration dreams. Interview with Astrid Sahm
”Belarus Votes” asked Astrid Sahm, political scientist and expert on Belarus, about the current state of the Belarusian-Russian relations. Sahm writes regularly about development in Belarus and is a deputy chairwoman of the German-Belarusian society.
On Sunday, 4 October, hundreds protested in Minsk against the plans to build a Russian air base on Belarusian territory. A day later, Alexander Lukashenko told that there were no such plans. Is it pure political maneuvering for domestic audience before the election or a clear signal towards Moscow?
Evaluation of the Lukashenko’ statements as a purely pre-election calculus falls too short. In the context of Russian annexation of Crimea in spring 2014, the Kremlin has made his interest in an expansion of its military presence unmistakably clear. Already at that time, Lukashenko's public words indicated that he was not impressed by this concept.
However, Lukashenko was forced to initially approve the Russian plans in exchange for a free hand in his pro-active policy towards the new Ukrainian leadership. De facto he maintains a reinforced Russian military presence in Belarus as a potential threat to Belarusian sovereignty – and thus to his own claim of power. It is therefore expected that Lukashenko shows his distance to Russian plans when a situation suits him.
Since Vladimir Putin approved the text of the agreement on the establishment of the air base in Belarus and arranged its signing from the Russian side on 19 September 2015, Lukashenko has been forced to publicly take a stand.
Basing on the president’s recent statements we cannot predict if he eventually refuse the Russian plans. It seems he tries to get the highest possible price for his consent and more consideration from the Kremlin( ie. in the form of financial credits). In addition, Lukashenko could work to ensure that the deployment of new Russian aircrafts and other weapon systems is launched under the aegis of both countries instead of the project of a Russian base. His statement from 6 October aimed explicitly against the construction of a base yet shows his interest in a supply of additional Russian weapons to Belarus.
Belarus is particularly closely linked with Russia in economic and energy terms. Does Lukashenko play a too risky game with his anti-Russian statements? Or does he plan to draw Brussels’ attention?
For years, Lukashenko has been a very skilful poker player: if there are activities against Kremlin’s interest, they are always accompanied by basic professions of loyalty towards Russia or concessions to Moscow in other political areas, reducing the risk. Thus far, this policy allowed Lukashenko to take as many advantages as possible for his regime from bilateral and Eurasian integration processes. It also let him limit restrictions of the Belarusian sovereignty. The Belarusian president uses the option of intensified cooperation with the EU as an instrument of threat to strengthen his position in relation to the Kremlin and to secure a higher reward for his active participation in the Eurasian integration.
Do you see the end of the long lasting – and more or less successfully – operated Belarusian swing policy between the European Union and Russia?
No, quite the opposite: the Belarusian leadership is about to expand this policy. They want to develop the relationship with the EU but not at the expense of relations with Russia, gaining benefits from cooperation with both sides. The ultimate dream is conclusion of a free trade agreement between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union. Accordingly, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly offered Belarus as a possible platform for a dialogue for a rapprochement between the two unions.
However, there is the limited margin of manoeuvre for Belarusian relations with the EU as long as the Minsk is not ready to launch domestic reforms and prioritising an intensification of cooperation in geopolitical and economic issues. It is clear that the EU could never financially support the country to the extent as it has done in recent years by the Kremlin in form of credits and subsidies. Through the cooperation with the EU, Lukashenko will therefore especially expand his room for manoeuvre in regard to Russia, but will not build an alternative for the Eurasian integration.
It is not, however, a fundamental argument against the current EU policy that aims at expanding pragmatic cooperation as long as this does not harm the country’s civil society. Due to the demographic change, sagging industrial modernization or the potential collapse of the Russian market sales, the pressure for reform in Belarus has been steadily increased. The awareness of Belarusian actors for the need of structural reforms is growing. This attitude can be only strengthen by the EU with help of advanced communication channels. The current policy would be conceivable just for case that the survival of the Belarusian economy – thanks to successful reforms – would no longer be depend on massive external subsidies. This is, however, not expected in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the efective EU policy towards Belarus requires time.
Does Vladimir Putin need Belarus?
As seen from the Kremlin’s position, in recent years Belarus has always played a decoy to get other CIS countries to join a Moscow-dominated space of integration. For example, candidate countries were promised the same preferential prices for energy supplies as Belarus has been enjoying for several years – with the exception of a short phase of approach to the EU in the years 2008 - 2010. Furthermore, Belarus is of strategic importance as an outpost at the Russia’s external border to NATO. In addition, the country is interesting for Russian economic operators that can act virtually free of western competition there. Given several failed attempts to influence political change of power in other post-Soviet states in Russia’s sense, the Kremlin finally is not following the goal to replace president Lukashenko by another leader.
All these factors limit Moscow’s tools of exerting pressure on Lukashenko. They also allow the Belarusian head of state to formulate some sensible demands towards Moscow. It remains of course an asymmetrical interdependence. Ultimately, in the worst case, the Kremlin has the upper hand.