Eurasia: Is Belarus the next Crimea?

Eurasia: Is Belarus the next Crimea?

Russia tries to tighten its grip while simultaneously decreasing the resulting budget burden. On the other hand, Belarus is not willing to sacrifice its sovereignty but is acutely aware of its economic dependence on Russia.

To the informed observers, the dynamics of Belarus’ relationship with Russia are different. To the uninformed, it is an independent country. An outright invasion or annexation is unlikely in the short term, but Kremlin is mobilising mechanisms for tighter political integration.

So, is Belarus the next Crimea? The short answer is no.

In April 2017, GRI published an article exploring the domestic dynamics pertaining to Belarus’ sovereignty. This article re-examines the topic with a focus on Belarus’ relationship vis-à-vis Russia. These developments will shed a light on Russian strategy in its ‘near abroad’ and consequent prospects for post-Soviet markets, as well as on the EU’s and NATO’s backyard tolerance.

Intensifying propaganda

For the majority of Belarusians, Russian is the first language of informational and entertainment sources, education, and of everyday life. This exposes Belorusians to pro-Russian narratives. To counter this, the Security Council recently adopted measures to increase “information sovereignty”. Russian state-sponsored think-tanks, many with significant influence over foreign policy, tend to agree that Belarus needs to be protected by Russia from Western influence. A geopolitical outlook by MGIMO published in September 2018 suggests that Lukashenko was fostering Belarusian ethnic nationalism. As a result, Russia should be ready to respond with Crimea-like measures. Generating a due amount of outrage, the publication was shortly pulled from the institute’s website. Kremlin spokesman Peskov denies any intentions to extend control over Belarus. However, state-sponsored media, research, and policy outlets present narratives to the contrary.

Economic and resource dependence

Russia provides more than half of Belarus’ $20b foreign investment inflows; It is the source of more than half of Belarusian imports, and the destination for nearly half of its exports. Moreover, Belarus buys 60-70% of its commodities for oil refining and manufacture from Russia. As a result, even exports directed elsewhere are dependent on the partnership. Looking back at the past decade, no bilateral agreement between Belarus and Russia seems to be safe from renegotiation, adding to the instability of the relationship. Belarus has also suffered from inflation and financial crisis, due to its interdependence with the Russian economy.

The country holds periodic negotiations with the IMF, but there are no concrete plans for structural reforms required for access to cheap loans. Further cooperation with European financing bodies would be conditioned by the rule of law. Moreover, the introduction of a customs union within the Eurasian Economic Union continues to face challenges. Consequently, Belarus will depend more on bilateral talks with Russia for the near future.

The history

Belarusian national identity is a complex issue. It does not see itself as European in the sense that the three Baltic states do, and it rejects becoming dependent on Atlantic solidarity”. It falls into the realm of what many Russians see as Russkiy Mir, i.e. ‘Russian World as a cultural, linguistic, and religious brotherhood. The Levada-Center survey found that 67% Russians view Belarus as a domestic affair. This is somewhat understandable as that was the reality under the Soviet Union, which many Russians still remember vividly.

In October 2018, President Vladimir Putin promised his Congress continued focus on the Compatriots Doctrine – the claim that Russia has legitimate duty to protect the Russkiy Mir. It serves as a legitimising tool to gain domestic support for interventionism in the former Soviet republics. And just like Crimea, Belarus is an obvious candidate.

These are some of the similarities which position Belarus as the potential next target of any Russian expansionist foreign policy. However, there are also significant differences between Belarus and Crimea which must be highlighted.   

Looking West

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ president, knows what is at stake. The occupation of Crimea and the destabilisation of Ukraine shine a clarifying light on every policy of cooperation or coercion coming from Moscow. He recognises Belarus’ dependency on Russia but also sets a red line: any loss of sovereignty. In a documentary about the Crimean annexation, Putin affirms that it was a response to EuroMaidan. Ukrainian domestic politics was hostile to Russian influence and flirting too courageously with the EU and NATO. Minsk has not really expressed interests in joining the West, despite recent calls for increased dialogue.

Simultaneously, the domestic atmosphere is not actively anti-Russian either. The society is divided and its own nationalism is a complex issue. However, many identify with Russia linguistically and culturally, while the number of “Westernisers” is estimated at about 25-30%. Furthermore, the Belarusian Orthodox Church has denounced the self-proclaimed Ukrainian Autocephaly, and Minsk has remained neutral on the question of Crimea.    

The strategic value

Crimea has strategic significance because of the Kerch Strait, i.e. access to the Sea of Azov, and because of significant Black Sea ports, such as Sevastopol. On the other hand, Belarus does not have the same value with respect to seaports and access routes. Belarus serves as a transit country for Russian oil pipeline Druzhba and natural gas pipeline Yamal, both supplying Europe. Lukashenko has recently threatened to cut these off. However, the continued strategic importance of these pipelines is uncertain. The value of Druzhba has come under scrutiny as EU members halted oil imports over quality concerns. Secondly, the value of Yamal will be challenged significantly upon the completion of Nord Stream 2 and Turkstream.

The domestic value

Crimea has an extremely symbolic value for Russians. Irrespective of one’s views on the referendum, a significant part of the Crimean population voted in favour of reuniting with Russia. The same dynamic does not exist in Belarus. From the Russian perspective, there is demand for an all-encompassing Russkiy Mir, for restored greatness and assertive foreign policy. However, annexing Belarus would not bring Putin the same popularity he basked in after 2014. Since then, the Russians have seen their pension age rise and their domestic budget cut. Additionally, there seems to be no end to spending in Syria and to sanctions, which have had an asphyxiating effect on Russian GDP and future growth prospects of major industries. Risking further sanctions or even an armed conflict would pose too high a risk and not enough of a reward domestically.

What to watch out for

Outright invasion or annexation of Belarus in the near term is unlikely. It is too close to home for the Baltic states and Poland to tolerate Russian expansion. Additionally, annexing a territory, i.e. the Crimean peninsula, is easier than invading an entire country and overthrowing its government. Kremlin is, however, keeping a tight grip through energy prices, military cooperation, and information distortion.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has recently conditioned continued economic aid to Belarus on tighter integration and full commitment to the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Founded in 1996, its ambitions are a customs union, a single market, and a common government. The Union has been in existence and largely irrelevant for over twenty years. A sudden increased Russian interest is a cause for suspicion, already highlighted by Belarusian opposition. And while constructivist alarmism does not help, complacency is not advised either.

The ideal scenario for Russia is keeping Belarus within its sphere of influence and simultaneously lowering the budget burdens that its subsidies pose, as seen from the recent tax manoeuvre.  Belarus has the exact opposite goals: it wants to retain both its political autonomy and Russian economic support. Clearly, neither party can achieve its goals to the fullest.

Next up is Georgia, whose new president is vocal about its plans to join the EU & NATO club. The situation will be watched closely. 

Categories: Eurasia, Europe

About Author

Lucie Rehakova

Lucie Rehakova is currently pursuing a Master’s in International Security at SciencesPo in Paris. She is specialising in Russian foreign policy and the security of Central and Eastern Europe. Previously, she worked at Goldman Sachs Asset Management as a senior compliance analyst, advising the business on financial law and regulation across EMEA. She earned a BSc in Government from the London School of Economics. She speaks Czech, Russian, Italian, waning German, and un petit peu of French.