Russia and Belarus inch closer to a full-blown merger

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia September 9, 2021. Sputnik/Mikhail Voskresensky/Kremlin via REUTERS
President Vladimir Putin of Russia threw his embattled, authoritarian ally in Belarus a fresh lifeline Thursday, pledging cheap natural gas and more than $600 million in new loans as part of a push to more closely integrate the post-Soviet neighbours.

Putin and President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus met in person for the sixth time in the past year, hammering out a long-delayed integration plan that some analysts had speculated could bring the two countries to the brink of a full-blown merger.

Late Thursday evening at the Kremlin, the two leaders finally announced the contours of such a plan, but one that focused on aligning the two countries’ economies while leaving aside thornier political questions.

“We must first create an economic base, an economic foundation, in order to move forward, including on the political track,” Putin said.

The announcements, made in a joint news conference by Putin and Lukashenko, amounted to the Kremlin’s latest signal that it would stand by the Belarusian leader despite the storm of Western criticism over human rights abuses inside the country. It also showed that Putin was determined to block Belarus from following the path of its southern neighbour, Ukraine, in drifting out of Russia’s orbit and into the West’s.

Putin once again endorsed Lukashenko’s rule, declaring that the political situation inside Belarus had “notably stabilized.” He upbraided Western countries for refusing to engage with Lukashenko — whose regime was hit by further Western sanctions after it forced down a commercial airliner carrying a Belarusian dissident in May — by comparing him to the Taliban.

“Everyone in principle wants to talk directly to the Taliban movement,” Putin said, noting that it is sanctioned by the United Nations. “But the president of Belarus, Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, did not come to power as a result of armed conflict.”

Russia and Belarus have already eliminated immigration controls for each other’s citizens at their shared border, and they are close military allies. A vast, quadrennial military exercise known as Zapad-2021, scheduled to begin Friday, will see 200,000 Russian and Belarusian service members drilling in a thinly veiled rehearsal of a possible conflict with NATO.

Putin said he and Lukashenko also discussed closer military cooperation Thursday, but he did not offer any details.

The establishment of a “union state” between Russia and Belarus was first agreed to in the 1990s, envisioning a common legislature and currency. But to Putin’s apparent frustration, Lukashenko dragged his feet on closer political integration with Russia for years — instead of making overtures to Europe and profiting from playing Moscow and the West off each other.

The strategy ended last year, when Belarus erupted in protest over Lukashenko’s fraudulent claim of having won a landslide reelection to a sixth presidential term. Moscow, after a few days’ hesitations, swung to Lukashenko’s support. That helped him stay in office but left him almost entirely beholden to the Kremlin for his political survival — accelerating the long-delayed integration talks.

The agreements announced Thursday did not include a common currency or legislature but laid a foundation for closer ties in the years to come. Putin said that both sides had agreed to focus on economic integration first, including closer alignment on taxes, pensions and labour law.

Russia agreed to provide Belarus with about $630 million in new loans, Putin said, and to set up a single market for natural gas that would help Lukashenko keep his country’s energy costs in check.

“If we need closer military, political or economic integration, we will do this immediately,” Lukashenko said. “We will do everything that is in the interest of the people.”

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