What would a key power change in Belarus signify for its relations with Russia and the European Union?

A woman waving a Belarus flag

Capucine May

Capucine has recently graduated from UCL SSEES with an MA in political analysis, specialised in Central-Eastern European and Russian politics. Her interests lie in democratic institutions and consolidation, security studies, the politics of identity and the political economy. Her research has recently focused on the use of security discourses in altering popular perceptions of democratic representation, notably in Hungary. She is the online editor for SLOVO, UCL SSEES' postgraduate journal on Eastern Europe and Russia, and regularly writes about EU foreign policy in her own blog, Me & EU.

3rd September 2020

Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

The fabricated geopolitical implications of a domestic revolution

 

As Belarus enters the third week of protests since its presidential election on the 9th of August, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has once again firmly stated that the country’s revolutionary movement will not give up. This statement came as a reaction to the arrest of two members of the coordination council, set up by the opposition to lead the country to a peaceful regime change. On Monday, the Belarusian police arrested strike leader Sergei Dylevsky, as well as Olga Kovalkova, Ms. Tikhanovaskaya’s political aide, both of which formed part of the council. However, protestors and members of the opposition continue to call for free elections which they hope will lead to a change of power, many taking to the streets despite widespread police brutality and arrests with reports of torture and heavy physical abuse. 

 

Analysts have speculated about whether Russia will intervene in the country to bolster Lukashenko’s hold on power or replace him with a pre-approved successor. Others have written about the EU’s role, attempting to decipher whether the Union would apply quick and effective sanctions, and if so whether these would help or hinder the situation. A third perspective has attempted to understand the geopolitical consequences of a change of power in Belarus. Would a regime-change towards a more democratic, liberal government suggest a reorientation of the country towards Europe? Analysis of Belarus’ strong dependence on Russia, even in the context of recent disputes and partial reorientation away from Russian energy sources, suggests that – even if a new Belarusian government actively advocated for a rapprochement with Europe and reduced ties with Russia – this would be hugely detrimental to the country’s economic and social wellbeing. 

 

Belarus has historically been intimately connected to Russia, both culturally and institutionally. In the Russian Empire, Belarus was thought of as fundamentally Russian, and processes of Russification actively promoted the adoption of the Russian language and traditions in Belarus. Though it became more culturally independent in the USSR, its economy became tied      to that of the Soviet Union, its center located in Russia. Furthermore, its economy – based on the Soviet model – became heavily centralized. Following the breakup of the USSR, Belarus attempted to modernize its economy through liberal reforms but these quickly lost momentum. Today, 80% of industry remains state-owned, foreign investment is severely lacking, and Belarus’ dependence on Russia lives on (CIA World Factbook, 2020)

 

Following the dissolution of the USSR, Russia and Belarus signed the Union State Treaty (1999), which retained the states’ sovereignty and independence, whilst promoting the alignment of their social, economic, and foreign policies. It also imagined a future in which the two states would eventually integrate further, merging into a federal unit with a single set of governing institutions. Belarus has also been a fundamental supporter of Russia’s attempts at retaining control over its sphere of influence. Indeed, it is an original member state of all international partnerships in the region, including the EAEU, CSTO, and CIS. Belarus is therefore deeply tied into political partnerships with Russia. 

 

Most significantly, Belarus remains economically dependent on Russia. Chatham House estimates Russia’s economic contribution to Belarus to amount to around $10 billion a year. In 2019, Russia was Belarus’ largest source of foreign investment, representing 45.1% of the total. The agricultural sector, which makes up a significant proportion of Belarus’ GDP is dependent on the Russian market to which it exports 90% of its produce (Nordea Trade, 2020). More broadly, trade with Russia makes up 50% of Belarus’ foreign trade.  Belarus’ economy is therefore highly dependent on Russia.

 

Foreign Investment in Belarus by main investing countries (2019) (percent of total)

Foreign Investment in Belarus by main investing countries (2019) (percent of total) / National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus

 

Foreign Trade Partners Belarus

Foreign Trade Partners Belarus (2019) / National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus

 

 

Moreover, Belarus is heavily dependent on subsidized crude oil from Russia, which it refines and subsequently sells at market price. This makes up about 8% of the country’s overall GDP. Subsidized natural gas imports from Russia are also of utmost importance. According to the IEA, Belarus is one of the least energy self-sufficient countries in the world. It therefore depends on subsidized Russian natural gas for electricity production. Practically all of Belarus’ oil and gas imports come from Russia (Russian Analytical Digest, 2017)

 

Russia’s provision of subsidized resources to Belarus forms part of the common energy market, tied to the Union State Treaty, which guaranteed that Russia would not sell natural gas to Belarus for more than it does in Smolensk, a Russian city right next to the Belarussian border. However, Belarus and Russia’s relationship has recently deteriorated, as Putin demanded deeper economic integration in exchange for continued economic support and subsidized resources. Since the beginning of the year, talks on renewing resource trade deals have stalled, resulting in low crude oil and natural gas deliveries from Russia, paralyzing Belarus’ refinery sector. Russia has also imposed a tax reform which has forced Belarus to pay higher import prices for oil and gas. Though resource deliveries resumed in April, since January, Belarus has vowed to try to diversify its energy portfolio to gain greater independence from Russia. 

 

Belarus has developed a plan to build a new domestic oil pipeline, and has brought in shipments of oil from Saudi Arabia, the US, and Norway. Mike Pompeo visited Belarus in February and expressed the US’ willingness to provide the country with oil at competitive rates, the first shipment of which departed on the 15th of May. However, these shipments are expensive, and buying crude oil at market prices remains less attractive for Belarus than Russian oil and gas, even after Russia’s tax maneuver. Talks had begun with Kazakhstan, but do not seem to be particularly fruitful, since the country would be making Belarus pay export duties up to $60 per ton of crude oil. Further, Belarus does not want to lose its natural gas deal with Russia, which remains profitable.

 

Belarus has also increased its cooperation with the EU. It is part of the Eastern Partnership Program, has received an increasing amount of financial support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and EU-Belarus trade is growing. In fact, Macron has volunteered the EU as a mediator in Belarus-Russia relations in an attempt to find a peaceful solution to current unrest in the country. It has previously been claimed that the only impediment to further rapprochement between Belarus and the EU is the nature of the regime. So would a change in government, as a result of the ongoing ‘revolution’ in Minsk, bring about a move towards the EU and away from Russia? 

 

The answer is no, for two reasons. The first is, as established above, rooted in deep economic dependency between Russia and Belarus – which cannot be replaced by a relationship with the EU. The EU, already experiencing enlargement fatigue and lacking resources to run the Union in its current state, cannot supply the economic aid or the resources Belarus needs. More important, however, is the second reason: neither the protestors nor the opposition leaders in Belarus  have expressed interest in such a geopolitical reorientation. 

 

Although public opinion has exhibited an increase in pro-EU sentiment in recent years, rising from 24% to 32% at the end of 2019 according to a poll carried out by the Belarusian Analytical Association, the revolution and popular unrest currently taking place has nothing to do with Belarus’ foreign relations. It has become clear in the past few weeks that the political turmoil is fundamentally about anti-Lukashenko sentiment and a call for the restitution of democracy in Belarus. This is illustrated by the fact that, when a protestor waved a European flag at a march, he was aggressively told by other activists to put it away. There are no EU flags flying at rallies in Minsk.

 

Protest leaders have even suggested that, were they to come to power, they would maintain a pro-Russian position. In fact, Maria Kolesnikova, one of Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s close colleagues, stated that Lukashenko’s government had been damaging Belarus’ relationship with Russia, and that rebuilding it would be a top priority for a government led by the opposition. The majority of the population of Belarus, though speaking out against abuses on their democratic system, is still overwhelmingly pro-Russia. This also explains why Russia has been relatively passive in responding to the crisis – it theoretically wouldn’t mind a change of power, as long as the opposition candidate still has a pro-Russia stance. 

 

Even if a change of power takes place in Belarus, which we have yet to see, it will be unlikely to lead to a reorientation of the country towards the EU. This is partly to do with Belarus’ dependence on Russia for economic aid and subsidized resources. However, more importantly, this revolution is not about geopolitics – it is a popular manifestation of a desire for a fair and just democratic system. This has nothing to do with geopolitics – though the West and Russia have tended to try and make yet another internal conflict, about them.

 

Further reading

 

CIA World Factbook. 2020. Belarus. [online] Available at: <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bo.html

Nordea Trade. 2020. The Economic Context Of Belarus – Economic And Political Overview. [online] Available at: <https://www.nordeatrade.com/dk/explore-new-market/belarus/economical-context>

Heinrich, A., 2020. Energy Issues in Russia’s Relations with Belarus. Russian Analytical Digest, [online] (206). Available at: <https://css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/pdfs/RAD206%20%28002%29.pdf>

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