In Europe this month, all eyes were trained on the NATO heads of state gathering in London, followed by the Paris meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymy Zelenskyy and the dramatic election in Britain. These major events, however, largely overshadowed another consequential meeting—one held on December 7 between Putin and the long-term leader of Belarus. Theirs is a relationship that bears watching.
Meeting for more than five hours in the Russian resort town of Sochi, Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenko discussed a roadmap for integrating the two countries. An ambitious plan to harmonize tax, customs, trade, and regulatory regimes, and to adopt a single, common currency, is on the table. Many view this as the Kremlin’s plan for the “soft annexation” of Belarus. In an interview late last month, Belarus’s Ambassador to Moscow, Uladzimir Syamashka, stated that Lukashenko and Putin had even approved plans to establish a common government and parliament.
But ahead of the Sochi meeting, Lukashenko declared, “We never intended and never will become part of any other state—even the brotherly Russia.” After the meeting and upon Lukashenko’s return to Minsk, a top Belarusian military official announced that Belarus is willing to take part in NATO war games—to be called “Defender Europe”—next year. Belarus is even willing to play the “China card”; it announced last week its intention to borrow $500 million from Beijing to pay off existing debt.
Opposition inside Belarus to closer relations with Russia is building. Before the December 7 meeting, more than a thousand demonstrators braved the secret police to protest against integration in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Another demonstration was soon scheduled for December 20, the day Lukashenko and Putin agreed to meet again. Early reports estimated nearly 2,000 people turned out in Minsk that day, many chanting “No Union with Imperial Russia.” Ahead of this second protest, Belarusian authorities detained two opposition figures, Paval Sevyarynets and Maksim Vinyarski—a reflection, perhaps, that the pressure on Lukashenko is growing both internally and from Moscow.
Dubbed “the last dictatorship in Europe,” Belarus can appear to the outside observer as if frozen in time. In power for more than 25 years, Lukashenko is the longest serving leader in Europe and announced last month that he will run for yet another term in next year’s so-called presidential election. The secret police is still called the KGB, statues of Lenin are ubiquitous, and Red Army lore is widely celebrated.
Last month’s parliamentary elections, widely panned by international observers, were like a Soviet redux wherein the regime parties dominated every seat in parliament and the opposition was not even given the chance to compete. “These elections have demonstrated an overall lack of respect for democratic commitments,” said Margareta Cederfelt, leader of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) short-term observer mission. “In a country in which the power and independence of parliament is limited and fundamental freedoms are restricted for both voters and candidates, parliamentary elections are in danger of becoming a formality,” she added.
And yet beneath the surface of the country’s ossified political structure, its social foundations are quickly shifting. Belarus is undergoing three simultaneous transformations. First, a national revival is instilling a stronger sense of Belarusian identity. In this mostly Russophone nation, there is rising interest in the Belarusian language, culture, and history. Second, a growing civic consciousness, especially among the younger generation, is being channeled into an increasingly vibrant civil society. Third, the decades-long acceptance of Belarus’s status as a loyal subject of the Kremlin is gradually coming undone as Belarusians increasingly look to their independent statehood as a value to be promoted and defended.
President Putin has taken notice of these trends and is trying to quash them. The Kremlin has been using many of the same covert techniques it uses in countries like Ukraine or Georgia to shape the political landscape to Russia’s advantage. A new report by the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) lays out the rapid encroachment of Russian malign influence on Belarus. “In the last two years Belarus became a separate target for Russian political, financial and media actors,” the report argues. “Many media involved in the information attack on Belarus, are sponsored and promoted by ‘patriotic businessmen’ close to Vladimir Putin or connected, directly or through proxies to, the Presidential Administration of Russia.”
Many Belarusians are worried that soft annexation is only the beginning. Unlike Lukashenko, Putin faces term limits that require him to step down from the presidency in 2024 after serving two consecutive terms. Speculation in Moscow and Minsk is rampant that Putin will find some other way to stay in charge of the country. The “castling” maneuver with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev whereby the two men swapped jobs spurred massive Russian street protests in 2011-2012. A presumably safer scenario for Putin is therefore to take over a Russia-Belarus union state, eliminating the term limit conundrum by creating a new office for Putin to fill.
First broached in the 1990s when Boris Yeltsin was Lukashenko’s Russian counterpart, the union state seemed attractive to the young Belarusian leader. Given Yeltsin’s aging, doddering, and drunken appearance, Lukashenko fancied that he, not the Russian leader, would take the helm of a union state. Putin’s rise to power changed that outlook.
A union state run by Putin would be a huge blow to Belarus’s sovereignty and independence. As it is, the regulatory harmonization that Putin is pushing would see Belarus, a country of close to 10 million people, completely swallowed up by a much larger Russia of 145 million. Perhaps even more significantly, the Russian economy is 29 times the size of the Belarusian one, meaning Minsk will be a rule-taker, not a rule-maker.
There is little the West can do to prevent a regulatory merger of the two countries or, worse, the establishment of a full-blown union state. However, there are small steps that can be taken to encourage civil society, support the country’s national revival, and resist Russian soft power encroachment. In the current situation where Lukashenko feels compelled to pursue integration, the West’s only option is to play the long game.
One area of particular concern identified by iSANS involves online space and information security. Russian efforts in this area are crowding out Belarusian competitors, degrading the country’s ability to maintain a separate, distinct online identity. Belarusian civil society, bravely struggling against significant odds, has urged Western Internet service providers to help preserve autonomy for Belarusian social media. Not only is this important for preserving and protecting the independence of Belarus, it also helps counter Kremlin efforts to expand its malign influence in Belarus and beyond.
EU countries should also make it easier for Belarusians to travel to the West by eliminating visa fees and investing more in youth and student exchanges. Testimony, including from an iSANS representative before a recent Helsinki Commission hearing, underscored this point. Western financial institutions like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank should also aim to support more direct investments provided Belarus can be coaxed to move forward with market access reforms.
For more than a dozen years, Lukashenko’s regime has been hit with sanctions from both the European Union and United States for its human rights record. More recently, those sanctions have largely been lifted as the West seeks a rapprochement to offset Russian influence. Any additional sanctions relief, though, should be conditioned on further liberalization within Belarus, measured by clear benchmarks established to mark progress on media freedom, human rights, and the broadening of civil society. Both the West and Belarusians have a clear interest in preserving the country’s independence and sovereignty against Putin’s threats, and growing Russian pressure is proving to be a mobilizing catalyst for civil society in Belarus. Lukashenko, however, remains a problematic partner in that endeavor. For the sake of Belarus’s independence and sovereignty, and given the impact deeper integration could have on Putin’s political future, the Belarus-Russia relationship should not be overshadowed any more.