Belarus’s president has rubbished speculation of a potential unification of his country with Russia, amid fears in Minsk that Moscow wants greater control over its western neighbour.
Relations between the two allies, which share a Soviet legacy and deep ethnic ties, have soured over the past month over a decision by Moscow that will raise energy prices in Belarus. Last month Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Moscow was ready for “closer integration” with Belarus, including shared taxation, currency and courts.
“Today there is too much talk about the unification of the two countries . . . I believe these questions are exceedingly stupid and far-fetched for the purpose of discussion in our society,” Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s strongman leader said on Thursday.
“Myself and the president of Russia have decided in no uncertain terms that there is no such item — unification — on the agenda today.”
Mr Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” for his almost 25-year-long regime and persistent repression of political opponents, has in the past decade sought to maintain warm relations with both Moscow and the EU. He has also projected himself as the country’s guarantor of independence from both powers.
But speculation of deeper integration with Russia has risen in recent weeks after an oil taxation change by Moscow, which will curtail cheaper crude exports to Belarus and cost Minsk more than $10bn to 2024. The change prompted Mr Lukashenko to accuse Russia of “blackmail” and using energy as a weapon to gain greater control.
Belarus has long relied on cheap crude imports from Russia, which it refines domestically and sells to Europe at market price, to prop up its budget. But the country bristles at suggestions that it is a de facto vassal state, as well as references to its past under Moscow’s control as a former Soviet republic and part of the Russian empire.
On Thursday, Mr Lukashenko warned the Kremlin that a refusal to compensate Minsk for the tax change could see it lose its “sole western ally”.
“We should not assume that this is a catastrophe. If the Russian leadership chooses to take such a path and accept the loss of its sole ally in the western sphere, it is their choice. We cannot force them,” said the 64-year-old president, who won his fifth term in office in 2015.
After government consultations in December broke down without an agreement on oil export costs, Mr Lukashenko visited Moscow twice for crisis talks with Vladimir Putin, and gave the Russian president pork fat and four sacks of potatoes as a New Year gift.
Mr Putin’s spokesman has also denied unification talks, and suggestions that the Russian president could make himself head of a future joint state to prolong his time in power when his presidential term ends in 2024.
Observers believe that Minsk has few means to challenge Moscow’s oil decision. “Frankly it is obvious to all involved, and Lukashenko included, that he has very few options except to agree with Moscow,” said a senior foreign diplomat in Moscow. “There’s so much dependence on Russia that deeper integration, on Moscow’s terms, seems rather inevitable.”
Under a 1997 agreement envisaged and signed by Mr Lukashenko, Belarus and Russia are part of a union state. But while the Belarusian leader is keen to enjoy benefits such as tariff-free energy imports and preferential trade with its far larger and richer neighbour, he sees proposals for joint monetary and immigration policies as a threat to sovereignty.
Deeper integration with Moscow could also hurt ties with the EU, which Minsk sees as critical to securing external financing and foreign investment.
“The current situation, where the union between the two states exists mostly on paper, is no longer acceptable for Putin. Russia wants control over Belarusian customs and visa policy, as well as over monetary and fiscal issues”, said Jan Strzelecki, an expert in Russian policy at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.
“[Lukashenko] received an ultimatum: limited integration with higher prices for Russian raw materials, or surrendering more power to Putin. Belarus simply cannot afford the first option, as its economical model relies heavily on processing and exporting raw materials from Russia”, he added.
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