Correspondent in Moscow
Amid the international isolation suffered by the regime of the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has decided to shore up its neighbor with the development of 28 economic, political and energy integration programs. It is thus intended to compensate the sanctions adopted against Belarus by the United States, the European Union and other Western countries in order to prevent the fall of Lukashenko, although in exchange for losing sovereignty in favor of Russia.
After more than three hours of talks with his Belarusian counterpart, Putin announced at the joint press conference held on Thursday night that the 28 agreed integration programs provide for “the unification of Russian and Belarusian laws in different economic sectors.” including banking and energy. In this regard, the head of the Kremlin assured that “before 2023 we will have a unified gas market.”
Putin also spoke of “a common industrial and agricultural policy” for the two countries, as well as a transport and telephone network perfectly connected, starting with the reestablishment of air connections and the elimination of ‘roaming’.
Plan for the unification of currencies
The Russian president said that the 28 agreed programs also refer to the future “unification of currencies, the implementation of an integrated system for the administration of indirect taxes and the fight against terrorism.”
However, the president of the Central Bank of Russia, Elvira Nabiúllina, has warned that “the creation of a single currency for both states is still premature.” Putin also admitted that, although among the objectives is the creation of a joint Parliament for both countries, “it will be necessary first to create an economic base and advance on political issues (…) to provide us with a common Parliament, we will still need to grow” .
Russian deputy Leonid Kalashnikov estimates that the creation of a parliament as a result of the union between Russia and Belarus “could take about a year and a half.” Lukashenko, for his part, ruled out for the moment the merger of both countries. The first meeting of the “unified” Council of Ministers took place this Friday, presided over by the prime ministers of Russia and Belarus, Mikhail Mishustin and Dmitri Mezéntsev.
As Putin explained, Moscow will grant to Minsk a new loan to be delivered in 2022 worth around 600 million euros. On the other hand, according to what was announced by the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, the president of Russia will pay a visit to Belarus this autumn on a date yet to be determined. The five meetings held so far in 2021 have all taken place in Russia, in Moscow, Sochi and St. Petersburg.
This Friday, also within the framework of the consensual agreements, Russia and Belarus have begun a military maneuvers jointly, the Západ 2021 exercises, called to launch a warning to NATO and more in particular to Poland and Lithuania, both countries that are fighting to prevent the flow of illegal immigration from Iraq and Afghanistan, which Lukashenko encourages through their territory. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, “some 200,000 military personnel, more than 80 planes and helicopters, 760 armored vehicles, including 290 tanks and 15 ships participate in the maneuvers.”
In search of the Unitary State
The creation of a Russian-Belarusian Unitary State is an issue that has been postponed over and over again since 1999. If completed, it would be a covert annexation from Belarus. The objectives that Putin seems to be pursuing, taking advantage of Lukashenko’s current weakness, are fundamentally military in nature, since he would control the corridor that leads to Poland, leaving the Baltic republics to the north and with Ukraine in the southern part. All of them members of NATO or related.
The advantage for the Kremlin would be not only strategic, but also of image to its own population by showing that Russia would dominate Crimea, eastern Ukraine, part of Georgia and Belarus. The advantages or counterparts for Minsk will be economic, commercial, access to credit, debt refinancing, as well as cheap oil and gas.
Lukashenko, the initial promoter of the Russian-Belarusian Union, then turned his back on Moscow, to the point that in Russia there were many who believed that the project was nothing more than a ploy to obtain perks without the slightest intention of giving up sovereignty.
Lukashenko and Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, they pompously signed in the Kremlin, on December 8, 1999, the agreement for the creation of a unitary state, which was the fourth document after three previous attempts that failed. He envisaged the creation of a confederal structure with the same economic and defense policy with a single currency.
But the plan was left unfinished. Of course, with some advances. Taking the European Union as a point of reference, they created a common economic space and eliminated border and customs controls, which were later restored. Moscow, however, imposed an embargo on some Belarusian products – meat for example -, did not want to lower the price of oil and gas, and did not want to restructure its debt.
Several factors had degraded relations between the two countries in recent years: the Belarusian president’s refusal to privatize his state-owned companies in favor of Russian corporations, the refusal to recognize Crimea as Russian territory, the rapprochement of Minsk to the West and, as a consequence, the elimination of the visa for citizens of the European Union and the United States on short visits to Belarus. Russia also repeatedly accused Lukashenko of profiting from Moscow’s sanctions on the EU, using the advantages of the free trade zone with Russia to become a transit point for banned goods.