The nonchalance with which the Russian ambassador and his sparring partners in Minsk are raising the stakes in their rhetoric is a symptom of deeper forces at work in Belarusian-Russian relations. Both sides are starting to sense that they have reached some kind of historic threshold. But the old format of friendship is so worn out that there is little to lose.
On February 24, Moldovans vote in parliamentary elections, which are seen by many as critical to the country’s future. The ruling Democratic party and its de facto leader have been accused of abuse of power and facilitating corruption. The EU has suspended its financial assistance program. The party faces a challenge from the Socialist Party led by President Igor Dodon, who is more sympathetic to Russia, and a new pro-European bloc named NOW.
In the Macedonian settlement, Russia chose a tactic that did not even theoretically allow for the possibility of success. The results of its involvement are, consequently, woeful. Greece has expelled two Russian diplomats. The Macedonian government sees Russia as an enemy, while the Macedonian opposition has no intention of orienting itself on Moscow, and continues to support Macedonia’s entry into NATO. The country will join the alliance far more quickly than people there could ever have dreamt not so long ago, and all of this has turned into yet another source of irritation in the already fraught relations between Russia and the West.
The Kremlin’s recent demand that Belarus integrate further with the Russian state in return for financial support has sparked concerns that Russia may annex its neighbor. Such a move, some analysts suggest, would allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office after 2024. But this scenario is rife with unpredictable risks for Russia and is based upon several incorrect myths about modern Belarus.
Moscow has repeatedly taken a hard line on Kosovo, forcing Serbia to take similarly uncompromising positions and thereby jeopardize its EU membership.
To an outside observer, Russia’s passive sabotage of the Kosovo conflict resolution looks like all-out support of Serbia. Assurances that Russia will never abandon Serbia, will protect it from Western pressure, and do everything possible to preserve its territorial integrity come across as gestures of unswerving friendship toward the Serbs. In reality, the Serbian leadership doesn’t know how to rid itself of this support, which leaves Belgrade no room for maneuver at the Kosovo negotiations.
Mutual accusations by Russia and the EU in the Balkans are virtually indistinguishable from their dialogue on any other subject. Even the Western Balkans, where there are ostensibly no grounds for geopolitical rivalry and where the sides complement each other well, are turning into a source of apprehension, miscommunication, and irritation simply due to the overall atmosphere of distrust and the differences in basic approaches to international relations.
A new confrontation between Belarus and Russia over oil revenues and political integration has delivered a serious blow to the two countries’ long-standing alliance. There are talks that even the Belarusian independence is under threat. Faced with a choice between more money and more sovereignty, Minsk will inevitably choose sovereignty. In the long run, this conflict demonstrates the gradual breakdown of Russian-Belarusian “brotherhood.”
Widely regarded as the EU’s most pro-Russian member-state, Hungary is, in fact, cooling to Russia. The two countries’ leaders are focused on old projects instead of looking to the future, while Viktor Orban is growing more critical of Russia both at home and abroad. For Orban, Vladimir Putin is increasingly useless, having been replaced with an even better ally: Donald Trump.
Recent changes in the Belarusian government only affect the socioeconomic sector. The doves from the Foreign Ministry and the hawks from the security services remain untouched, because the reshuffle has little to do with the foreign policy agenda: it’s the economic situation that concerns President Lukashenko the most.