Russia and Belarus Relations: Where Are We Now?
By Clayton Chudleigh
With talks currently in place between the two countries in preparation for further integration, it is important to understand how both Russia and Belarus got to this point in their somewhat strained relationship. Looking at the two countries from a westerner’s perspective, one might think that the two countries have always been allied forces with a one-track mind, but when you dig a little deeper you may find that appearances aren’t always true to what is really going on underneath.
Post-dissolution Russia was in a very difficult situation in the early 90s. They had just lost the control of 14 union republics and were recovering from a large-scale failed attempt to modernize the Soviet system under the direction of Gorbachev. Economically the Soviet economy had been stagnant for decades, but Gorbachev’s attempted reforms led to full economic collapse.
In order to maintain control over the post-Soviet states and keep their decimated economy alive, Russia oversaw the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a regional organization of post-Soviet states. Through this organization, union republics could basically stay afloat but would largely benefit Russian interest, especially its interest in keeping these Eastern European states tied to them and not to Western Europe. In order to solidify this bond with Belarus and integrate the two countries, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a Treaty of Friendship with President Alexander Lukashenko that led to the Union of Belarus and Russia one year later. This once again mostly benefited Russia and kept Belarus from forming lasting relations with Western Europe like other Eastern European countries around them.
Having proclaimed sovereignty in 1990 and following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus officially declared their independence on August 25, 1991. Though viewed as a victory to many, the Soviet Union’s dissolution turned a world superpower into a dozen impoverished and weak states overnight, including Belarus. Though Belarus was initially happy with the Union of Belarus and Russia, tensions rose once Vladimir Putin took office and proposed a new plan in which Belarus would join the Russian Federation. Belarus refused to agree, yet Russia still maintained a firm grasp on Belarus. From that time on, Belarus has gradually become more and more independent and has grown to establish its own national identity that was perhaps partially spurred by the growing trend of nationalism that we are seeing worldwide. President Lukashenko was quoted saying “We are not Russian, we are Belarusians,” distancing their country even further from Russia. He also later commented on the military cooperation between the two countries, comparing Belarus to a human shield for Russia against the West.
The Situation Now
The partnership between these two countries has been far from smooth sailing. That being said, they have both benefited more from each other when they have focused on integrating with one another instead of focusing on their differences. This is why we have been seeing official declarations made by both countries stating that they will be passing joint memorandums on deeper political-economic integration. Though they planned to negotiate a roadmap for further integration on June 21, that day has come and gone, and neither party is any closer to making an agreement. From the U.S perspective, Belarus not agreeing to further integration with Russia would be a positive, and would open Belarus up to talks with our allies in Europe and to secure a relationship with them. If the United States were to get Belarus to side with more “Western” policies and practices, it would put more pressure on Russia to listen to international laws that they seem intent on disobeying.
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