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Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s scandalous press conference last week was all over Russian media. Over the course of a seven-and-a-half-hour address, Lukashenko slammed Russia over a variety of grievances that have accumulated recently: what may have seemed like a sudden burst of anger was, perhaps, the logical next step in spiraling Belarusian-Russian relations.
The dispute between Minsk and Moscow is multifaceted, and new tensions are drawn out each month—from oil and gas to borders and foodstuffs. The crisis nourishes itself: negative news stories and mutual frustration give rise to new, unnecessary scandals—the arrest of pro-Russian publicists, Lukashenko’s refusal to attend the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) summits in St. Petersburg, and Minsk’s decision to extradite Russian-Israeli blogger Alexander Lapshin to Azerbaijan, for example.
The most recent source of tension is the decision of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to establish border controls between Russia and Belarus. This step indicates the de facto introduction of passport controls between the two countries for the first time ever. Had the FSB not announced its decision a few days before Lukashenko’s press conference, the Belarusian president’s address might not have been so emotional, but it would have been every bit as withering. And indeed, Lukashenko’s speech was more emotion than politics: it was a way for him to get out his frustration.
At the beginning of his record-length address, Lukashenko avoided using the word “Russia” in much the same way Vladimir Putin avoids using the last name of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. But when he received a direct question about relations with Moscow, Lukashenko spoke for nearly an hour and a half, beginning with “the situation has gotten to the point where I can’t conceal things anymore.” And Lukashenko returned to this theme later, even when responding to a question about a different topic.
Lukashenko accused Moscow of violating international agreements on oil, gas, and shared borders. He said that a suit had already been filed against Russia as a result of an oil and gas dispute, and that Belarusian representatives from the EAEU customs authorities had been recalled. Speaking about the drawn-out signing of the Customs Code of the EAEU, Lukashenko announced that he wouldn’t touch the document until the oil and gas dispute was resolved. Lukashenko seemed to be reproaching Russia for not treating Belarus like an independent state.
Lukashenko was unapologetically expressive: “We’ve been flying with one wing—and you know where we flew to,” said Lukashenko, referring to Belarus’s need to develop relationships with neighboring countries besides Russia. And then there were the details of high-level, closed-door meetings.
Still, Lukashenko didn’t lose complete control over himself. Between dozens of scandalous declarations that became media headlines the following day, Lukashenko did make several measured statements: in the wake of the FSB’s announcement about setting up border controls, Lukashenko promised not to tighten security on the Belarusian side of the border in order to avoid creating problems for Russians.
In a modern-day version of “good tsar, bad boyars,” Lukashenko laid the blame not on Putin but on his advisors: “Unfortunately, now there are different [powers] leading the country. And it’s very bad, a few things differ from the views and decisions of the president himself.”
Lukashenko is an experienced negotiator, and the meaning of this rhetorical move is clear. He is giving Putin the opportunity, if he wants it, to save face by blaming existing problems on his subordinates. This is how the sides have proceeded for the last fifteen to twenty years: when arguments build up at the state corporation and ministerial level, the presidents intervene in the name of a centuries-old brotherhood, and everything is resolved amicably.
That’s not what is happening right now. And this brings us to another reason for Lukashenko’s anger: he wants to get back to negotiating with Putin directly rather than having to deal with the many hostile interlocutors that Minsk has had to engage with over the past several months. Certainly, there is a personal dislike and psychological incompatibility between the two leaders. But in recent years, only Putin himself has had enough power to improve relations between the two countries.
Traditionally, there have been three approaches to the conduct of relations with Belarus among the Russian elite, two extreme and one moderate. The first of the extreme approaches is supported by the pragmatist free-marketers within the government. Dmitry Medvedev and Arkady Dvorkovich are the spokesmen of this faction—before them, it was Alexei Kudrin and Anatoly Chubais. The pragmatist bloc, revered by some Russian intellectuals, has been the most unpleasant faction for Belarus to negotiate with, as officials and experts in this cohort have actively promoted the idea that Minsk is a freeloader and should no longer be supported.
The second extreme bloc is composed of imperial nationalists, and is popular among security hardliners in the Kremlin and adherents of “Russian world” and Eurasian ideologies. Their agenda is simple: the game of independence on Russia’s northwestern border is fun, but sooner or later it will have to end. As long as Lukashenko follows the path of integration, he’s OK; but when he starts to flirt with the West, he needs to be reminded that Belarus is Russia’s younger brother. Lukashenko, naturally, does not like this bloc, because on their map of the world, he’s at best a regional governor.
Putin plays the role of centrist arbiter between these two blocs. The Russian president has always had the same approach to Minsk, which suits Lukashenko: on the one hand, Putin’s integrationist ideas have always been palatable because he isn’t obsessed with pan-Eurasian ideologies. On the other hand, Putin has periodically reined in his government’s use of oil and gas levers to influence Belarus, as he is not deaf to notions of a “Slavic brotherhood.”
In the past, conflicts between Minsk and Moscow have arisen when the Kremlin’s line has moved toward one of the extremes. Today, the problem for Lukashenko is that the middle ground is beginning to disappear. The extremes, which had been marginalized, have become independent and equal forces in Russian foreign policy: Vladimir Putin seems to have become caught up in global politics and forgotten to pay attention to the little things—like disputes with Minsk, which have been delegated to hard-liner imperialists and pragmatist technocrats.
Lukashenko wants Putin to make decisions himself rather than shift problems onto his subordinates. And this is why Lukashenko took such a scandalous tone in the press conference: the Belarusian president wanted to draw the attention of his Russian counterpart to the poor state of relations.
As in a lover’s spat, one side sometimes needs to cry it out, and Minsk is doing just that. But soon, the spat should calm down. The oil and gas dispute, for example, if it is not decided at Lukashenko’s meeting with Putin, will be heard by the Court of the EAEU.
But the conflict won’t be gone forever. Returning to the nuptial analogy, the romance between Russia and Belarus, which began twenty years ago, is finally dead. The marriage of two emotional partners with authoritarian tempers and a tendency to engage in blackmail has become a scam. Sooner or later, they’ll have to settle on a new living arrangement.
Are we moving toward a formal divorce? In the foreseeable future—no, that’s not the Slavic way. Elites in Moscow and Minsk will likely cling to multiple types of integration, including the Union State of Russia and Belarus, CSTO, EAEU and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Still, this won’t change the core fact that the relationship is deadlocked. Any attempt by Moscow to convert Russia’s long-term investments in Belarus into expanded influence on Minsk will be met with opposition. Just as Belarus itself has become used to independence, its permanent president has become unable to share power with anyone. Attempts by Minsk to return to the previous model of support, which Belarusians called “gas for kisses,” will also be fruitless; the Kremlin isn’t interested in this kind of relationship anymore.
Even if Minsk and Moscow are able to resolve their current dispute, the standoff will go down in history, at least in Belarus. After Belarus’s declaration of independence and the creation of its state infrastructure—its bureaucracy, currency, and armed forces—this conflict will be one of the most important stages in the country’s movement away from Russia.
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