December 8 marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Union State between Russia and Belarus. The Union State envisaged a free travel area without border checks, customs-free trade between the two, a joint currency, military cooperation and the creation of new joint political bodies and institutions.
By 2019, only some of these goalss had been reached. While the free travel area and customs-free work sucessfully, such things like a joint currency, and the creation of new joint political bodies and institutions remain under the question.
On December 7, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin held extensive talks on a closer integration between the two countries in the frameowork of the existing Union State. However, no breakthrough was reported. The presidents managed only to strike an agreement to meet for further talks in later in December.
Over the past years, the Belarussian leadership has intentionally delayed a further integration with Russia and palyed a double game in some key questions of the internationa lrelations. For example, Belarus, which is a part of the Union State with Russia, has refused to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia and kept a ‘neutral’, if not a ‘soft pro-EU’ stance towards the conflict in Ukraine.
Minsk is interested in getting economic subsidies (for example, in the form of a gas prices and cheap loans), but wants to provide an independent foreign policy and plays footsie with the European Union and the United States. In an attempt to fight back the Russian cultural influence in Belarus, Minsk in fact allowed activity local radical nationalist and anti-Russian groups, while this activity did not pose a threat to the Lukashenko government itself.
These measures allowed Lukashenko to strengthen ties with the EU and the United States, and, at the same time, continue receiving economic support and trade preferences from Russia.
However, more and more signals appear that the Minsk policy may lead to some ‘unexpected consequences’ from the current Belarussian leadership. On December 7 and 8, pro-EU and anti-Russina protetsts took place in Minsk. According to pro-opposition sources, the December 7 rally collected up to 1,000 people and the December 8 rally collected over 500 people. They chanted anti-Russian and anti-government slogans and waved EU flags. One of the main formal slogans was the demand to not ‘surrender sovereignty’ to Russia. The protest leaders also claimed that the ‘people’ will not recognize any deal between Belarus and Russia.
The Minsk population is estimated at around 2,000,000 people. So, 500-1,000 protesters are a small number. Nonetheless, if one takes into account the strict security and law approach of the Lukashenko government towards any kind of protests, the fact of these protests itself could be considering as a worrying signal. Furthermore, the visual style and approach of protesters mimick that what we saw in Kiev in 2014.
It’s interesting to note that these developments followed a recent rapprochement between Belarus and some European states and an increase of EU and US ‘soft power’ campaigns in the country. If Belarus and Russia really achieve some kind of breakthrough in the upcoming negotiations on the further integration, this could and most likely will be used for a Ukraine-like scenario in Minsk.