Since the beginning of 2016, relations between Russia and Belarus have been noticeably strained. It began with a failure to reach agreement on a mutually acceptable price for gas supplies but relations have since descended into a tit-for-tat scrap on a number of issues. Belarus has rejected Russian plans for an airbase in the country; Russia has restricted the ability of people to cross the Belarus-Russia border; and Belarus has announced visa-free travel for a number of Western countries, including the United States.
These latest developments, in my view, are the expression of divergent identities held by the two state's political elites. Russia, following the fall of the Soviet Union, found itself shrunk and emasculated, and has begun to see itself in a more assertive, influential and forthright position. On the other hand, Belarus, which in its initial post-Soviet weakness tried to attach itself closely to Russia, has begun to see itself as a separate and sovereign state with interests of its own. As Russia seeks to be more in control of its near-abroad and Belarus seeks to have more say over its own destiny, it is not surprising that the two countries would find their relationship becoming more uneasy.
Belarus, to all intents and purposes, is a client state of the Russian Federation. It is to a certain extent integrated with Russia through the Union State and the Eurasian Economic Union. Belarusians overwhelmingly sell their goods to Russia, while Russian oil runs their cars, and Russian gas heats their homes. Belarus’s economic and military power pales in comparison to Russia's and it is in many respects excessively reliant on Russian benevolence.
Being a client state, however, still implies some level of independence and self-identified worth. Consider the significant difference between the relationship to Britain of Dost Mohammed's Afghanistan and Curzon's India. This difference is not just one of essence; it is also one of perception. Belarus understands itself to be dependent on Russia, yet nevertheless perceives itself as independent of the Kremlin's will.
Russia's perception of itself and its environs has undergone a shift over the past 25 years and is now firmly rooted in the philosophical and political concept of the ‘русский мир’ (Russian world). This view suggests that all those who share in Russianate culture are part of a shared cultural world and, importantly, that Moscow is the protector and guarantor of the integrity and security of that world. The concept of the ‘русский мир’, which has been articulated in various ways, is deliberately vague and malleable. However, no matter how one parses the idea, Belarus indisputably is a part of it. In fact, and especially with the perceived ‘loss’ of Ukraine, Belarus is the primus inter pares of the Russian world; it barely needs to be mentioned, because, in the Russian conception of the world, it is not really foreign.
This perception makes sense historically and popularly. Most people in both countries see one another as closely related and good friends. After all, Belarusian culture and Russian culture are distinguishable, but not distinct. This cultural sameness and popular affinity has somewhat disguised the fact, however, that Belarus is a distinct nation-state with its own interests, which do not always coincide with those of the Russian Federation. The situation in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has thrown these differences into sharp relief. It is notable that Belarus has not recognised Crimea officially as part of Russia and has sought to distance itself from the conflict, tacitly accepting Russian policy, but not condoning it.
Part of the reason for this is self-interest; Russia can withstand Western sanctions due to its relatively diverse economy and political institutions, while for Belarus sanctions would hit far harder. Nevertheless, given how linked Russia and Belarus’s economies are, they would not be fatal. It was not the fear of economic retribution from the West that kept Belarus from supporting Russia's behaviour; it was instead an understanding of its implicit negotiating position with Russia. Russia is strong; Belarus is weak. Russia is rich; Belarus is poor. Belarus needs Russia to continue providing it with all manner of resources, both political and economic. However, the Belarusian President, Lukashenko, is not prepared to have its mouth stuffed with gold, he wishes to extract as much as possible in return for his loyalty.
It seems that having existed as a sovereign, or at least semi-sovereign, state for a quarter of a century Belarus has begun to see itself as more separate from Russia. It may express feelings of amity and kinship with Russia, but it expresses that amity as a separate entity not as a vassal looking to be subsumed into the Russian Federation.
These contradictions will grow as long as Russia continues to look to expand its influence and power as the leader of the ‘русский мир’ rather than as a neighbouring state, and Belarus tries to enhance its position in keeping with its view of itself as an independent entity. Belarus is not Ukraine: no one should expect conflagration or annexation just because of different perceptions and a border dispute. States other than Russia exist within the sphere of the Russian world, many of which are less enthusiastic about Russian suzerainty than Moscow's political elites would like them to be. Russia and Belarus’s relationship, therefore, looks as though it will be bounded by the tensions and contradictions caused by these two opposing views of the world – the Russian neo-colonial one, and Belarus’s determinedly post-Soviet approach.
Image from Giancarlo Rosso on Flickr.