The coronavirus pandemic has emerged as yet another source of conflict in the relationship between Minsk and Moscow, which in recent years has become strained. Both sides have turned the pandemic into another opportunity to trade complaints and insults. Each country has followed its own path in dealing with the outbreak, with little regard for the interests of the other or maintaining the appearance of the union state.
By the start of the pandemic, the relationship between Russia and Belarus was already suffering from multiple disagreements. The two governments had largely lost trust in one another. Throughout 2019, they repeatedly failed to agree on what their supposed closer integration should look like. For many months, they could not agree on the price of oil—all-important for the Belarusian economy, which is heavily dependent on cheap Russian oil and its re-export downstream to Europe—until oil prices collapsed as a result of the pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, Russia closed its borders to foreign nationals, including Belarusians, who are not used to being treated as foreigners in Russia. As the Russian government explained, the move was triggered by the Belarusian government’s decision to leave its borders to other countries open. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko responded with his trademark outrage, and claimed that the virus was far more widespread in Russia than in Belarus. The Russian government criticized Lukashenko in turn, and then the Russian state media got involved, mocking Lukashenko and lambasting his government’s denial of the threat posed by the coronavirus.
To the present day, the Belarusian government has not implemented a lockdown or a ban on mass gatherings. Lukashenko has given the media plenty of sound bites and headlines, including such bizarre claims as advice to Belarusian citizens to drink vodka, go to the sauna, ride tractors, or play his favorite sport—ice hockey—in order to protect themselves from the virus.
However, along with making fun of Lukashenko, Russian TV and Telegram channels have broadcast some ominous ideas, such as the need to save the brotherly Belarusian people from the impending humanitarian catastrophe—if need be, by force. Belarusian state TV channels hit back by ridiculing some poorly executed lockdown measures in Russia, such as checkpoints set up by Moscow police in metro stations that led to crowds forming.
The war of words has made cooperation between the two countries in fighting the coronavirus impossible. The Russian government has used deliveries of humanitarian aid to Belarus to put down the government of Belarus. The Belarusian government replied by pointing to the poor quality of goods coming from Russia and dismissed them as useless. Lukashenko has criticized Russian coronavirus tests as unreliable.
This atmosphere leaves little room for a positive agenda. Any existing road maps for closer integration have been discarded as useless. But the relationship does not stand still, and is constantly encountering new challenges. Minsk is now demanding a discount on Russian gas, since many European customers are getting discounts on Russian gas or cancelling shipments altogether because of the drop in energy prices caused by the pandemic. Unfortunately for the Belarusian government, it does not have a strong legal argument to demand a price change, since it has recently signed a contract to buy Russian gas at a fixed price for all of 2020. Gazprom’s export revenues have plunged since the start of the year, so it is unlikely to offer Minsk a new discount. Belarus will have to either accept the price and harbor yet another grudge, or raise the stakes by withholding payment.
Another looming problem is the future of two Russian military facilities in Belarus. The lease agreement on the Vileyka Russian naval communications station and the Hantsavichy early warning radar, both in the Minsk region, expires in 2021. The two sides needed to agree on an extension by June 2020. Minsk has not declared it would pull out of the agreement, but is holding internal consultations on its future operation.
Making matters even more complicated is the fact that on August 9, 2020, Belarus is holding presidential elections. Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is running again, but this time the environment is shaped by the pandemic and its economic and political consequences. Normally, Lukashenko would get reelected easily for another term. Now, unexpectedly, he is being challenged by members of the usually docile Belarusian establishment. One of them, Viktor Babariko, who served until recently as head of Gazprom-owned Belgazprombank, was arrested in June. Lukashenko blamed a “foreign power” for interference in the election campaign, leaving little doubt that he suspects Russian involvement. Meanwhile, Babariko’s detention provoked an outpouring of anti-Lukashenko sentiment both at the grassroots level across the country and online.
If the election itself, or the worsening economic situation in the country, triggers political unrest, and if Lukashenko is unable to handle it, Moscow will face a difficult choice—to stand by and let another “color revolution” take place in its most important neighboring country, or to intervene. The Kremlin presumably has little desire for another high-stakes conflict on its border that would create worse tensions with Europe. Nobody in Minsk is predicting such a turn of events as of this writing. But the fact that events in Ukraine in late 2013 took the entire world by surprise should not be lost on anyone.
Right now, Lukashenko is trying to construct a public image that he is staunchly defending Belarusian sovereignty against a close yet overbearing neighbor, Russia. The Russian media, for their part, continue to highlight shortcomings in Lukashenko’s performance as the forever leader of Belarus.
At the same time, no relationship is more important for Minsk than with Moscow and vice versa. In both Minsk and Moscow, the course of the bilateral relationship is decided ultimately by Lukashenko and Putin personally. Together, they have almost fifty years of experience managing this relationship through deals and compromises that only they know and understand. With both countries contending with the many dimensions of the pandemic, neither leader has an interest in raising the stakes and escalating tensions. And although the pandemic has cast a harsh spotlight on the true quality of the Belarusian-Russian relationship, both leaders have an interest in maintaining the pretense of the union state and finding ad hoc compromises even if the old grand bargain no longer applies. The fact that Putin’s first trip outside Moscow since the beginning of the pandemic was to a meeting with Lukashenko in Tver Region testifies to that.