Will Minsk shoot itself in the foot? Possible consequences of economic rapprochement between Russia and Belarus
Speaking about the rapprochement between the Russian and Belarusian economies, we must first deal with certain confusion in terminology. For some reason, many in Ukraine use the term "unification". However, even Russian sources do not use this term, "unification". I could argue with anyone claiming unification. If you find in the original source of the news, the piece by Kommersant, the phrase "unification of economies", you deserve a great prize.
This example reminds me of an old Soviet joke.
A man on a bus turns to a young lady: "Sweetie, please, pass me a ticket!" The woman thinks to herself: sweetie means sweet. Sweet means sugar. Sugar means fat. Hey everyone! He called me fat!"
This reflects the system by which certain Ukrainian journalists work. This is "information war". In fact, even the word "Confederation" in Kommersant's piece was used in a sense that is very similar to a confederate arrangement. But in the end, the Ukrainian media reported that Ukraine and Belarus would form a confederation, and now it is about uniting economies. If so, what kind of quality in journalistic work can we talk about…
In fact, now we are talking about a different thing. The Belarusian and Russian sides have come up with a certain "road map" and certain provisions of the agreement on the harmonization of their laws in the economic sphere.
Six months ago, when Babich led the Russian embassy in Minsk, Ukrainian media spoke about the political union of Russia and Belarus. And back then, earlier this year, I said that Belarus would discuss political issues by shifting the conversation toward compromise in the economic field, and that these compromises will be of a long-term nature, that is, they will take a long time to agree.
The Belarusian and Russian sides have come up with a certain "road map" and certain provisions of the agreement on the harmonization of their laws in the economic sphere
Talking about harmonization of laws in the economic field, in particular, the civil codes… I'm sorry, but the Civil Code of Belarus is about 490 pages long. Can you imagine how much it will take to discuss harmonization? It will be an endless process!
Lukashenko today pursues a policy aimed at bringing other centers of power to Belarus. He recently agreed with the United States to resume work of diplomatic missions.
Therefore, in the negotiations with Russia, Lukashenko's task now is to remove the political component of the issue and start the economic component, and at the same time to play the same game of "slogans in exchange for money", which was formulated in the early 2000s. In this game Belarus, will be talking about its will to strengthen the Union State, the will to achieve economic integration with Russia, and at the same time, discussions will drag forever to agree on any specific plans.
Judging by what Kommersant wrote, it is likely that one of the steps will be implemented, and very quickly – this is harmonization of legislation to protect foreign investors. The Belarusian legislation will take the Russian model because it is really worth doing, in terms of Belarus's interests.
Working groups will be dealing with the tax code – and that will be a long negotiating process, with the offers of various "road maps", as it was in 2006 and in 2013. This way, they will just try to sabotage the practical component of the process.
In any case, the Russian Federation is starting to play long in Belarus. It is trying to reach a format where Russian businesses will come to Belarus and buy up Belarusian assets amid the lack of other competitors because of the rapprochement of economies.
Therefore, in the negotiations with Russia, Lukashenko's task now is to remove the political component of the issue and start the economic component, and at the same time to play the same game of "slogans in exchange for money", which was formulated in the early 2000s
That is why Belarus pursues a policy of withdrawing from under sanctions, tries to draw China as a player in its territory, and pursues a policy of rapprochement with the U.S.
Russia will certainly seek to increase its influence on the energy, oil, chemical, electronics, and engineering sectors. This is what the Russian defense industry depends on. This is a critical issue for Russia, so they will try to do all they can to this end. And the question here is how strong a resistance can Belarus deliver against this encroachment.
All this is not posing a threat to Ukraine so far. Such threat will arise though if Belarus follows the "shooting in own foot" approach – that's about quickly (6 to 12 months) harmonizing with Russia the approach to sanctions. In this case, Belarus will fall into a political trap because it will have to impose similar countersanctions on the EU, and then it will come under sanction pressure from the EU as well. But it seems that Minsk realizes the impeding risks.
Igar Tishkevich is an expert on international and domestic policy with Ukrainian Institute of the Future