Russian-Belarusian relations have been changed irreversibly
Alexander Lukashenko has never been an easy neighbor. He has long warned that if Russia decides to change its economic terms for Belarus, he would respond in kind. But for all Lukashenko’s quirks, the Kremlin still viewed him as a guarantor of stability and gave him its tacit support in elections.
“Envy is a terrible thing. Someone simply can’t stand the fact that we have managed to put our country in order so quickly, even without great riches. Someone really wants to bring Belarus back down to the level we started at. That will never happen. We shall overcome everything.” That’s a summary of current events according to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. He doesn’t name the envious “someone” – but there’s no need to do so; obviously, there’s only one country that can use the presence or absence of “great riches” (energy resources) as leverage.
Lukashenko has never been an easy neighbor. He has long warned that if Russia decides to change its economic terms for Belarus, he would respond in kind. And his chief form of leverage is transit: everything from natural gas to a busload of Russian schoolchildren on an excursion to Europe. Actually, the schoolchildren probably wouldn’t encounter any difficulties; Lukashenko is all too fond of playing protector of ordinary citizens’ rights. In contrast, threats against rail and road cargo transport have been made for several years. But Moscow always regarded these threats as mere rhetoric, not a real prospect. For all Lukashenko’s quirks, the Kremlin still viewed him as a guarantor of stability and gave him its tacit support in elections.
The current trade war has changed the political arrangement between our countries – drastically, and apparently irreversibly. Even members of the Russia-Belarus Union’s parliamentary assembly have lost their habitual optimism: “All positive results achieved in the past decade are now under threat: in economic, political, and humanitarian cooperation, as well as in joint defense policy.” The parliamentary assembly is right: after a conflict like this, it will no longer be possible to talk of a Union State or a common parliament.
When the gas contract was signed on New Year’s Eve, it seemed that Lukashenko had still come out a winner: maximal valuation for Beltransgaz, minimal gas prices. The only thing he could offer in exchange was friendship – not the name of the oil pipeline (Druzhba), but literal friendship. Even before the contract was signed, informed sources said that the situation was difficult, but “it won’t go as far as any acts of war” – that is, Lukashenko could be paid more for loyalty than any other leader, and Moscow was prepared to pay. But now, in the oil conflict, each side is holding fast to its own point of view: we are not responsible for the stoppage in oil deliveries. But identifying exactly where the oil disappeared isn’t really the issue. The most important point here is that “acts of war” have started anyway, on both sides, and quite deliberately. There are now two options: either Lukashenko manages to survive in an entirely isolated state, without Russia’s political support – or Belarus, with support from close and distant neighbors, comes to the conclusion that it’s time to get rid of Lukashenko.