The Commonwealth of Independent States and Russian and Belarusian Unification
The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Council of Foreign Ministers opened on April 5 in Moscow. The ministers began shaping an agreement to form partnerships between member states’ diplomatic services, an initiative proposed by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. Cooperation in international law enforcement, especially cybercrime, and transport and logistic connections were also important agenda items, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’sto the press following the meeting.
However, much of the focus was on bilateral discussions between representatives on the sidelines, rather than on official events and agendas. Belarus and Russia drew the most attention, aspredicted that the two countries would use a meeting to take steps towards a political union. proposed that Russian occupation was more likely. Both arguments rest on the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s term will end in 2024, and he may be getting too old to install another Medvedev figure and wait four years to run again. Instead, he could circumvent the law forcing him out of office by assuming control of a new political entity formed by the union of Russia and Belarus. Belarus, meanwhile, is headed by a long-serving dictator, President Alexander Lukashenko, who is publicly critical of Russian expansion but privately aware of Belarus’s heavy reliance an economic relationship with Russia. The tight economic ties could be a source of vulnerability. Namely, if Lukashenko has to choose between standing up to Russia or sustaining the Belarusian economy, he may be willing to cede certain measures of sovereignty.
A completely voluntary political union certainly seems unlikely, and the events of the CIS did nothing to change that. The Belarusian and Russian ministers did not meet outside the regularly scheduled format. However, the prospect of occupation with little resistance is not out of the question. Lukashenko could be persuaded to accept Russian supervision, and his citizens could be convinced as well. Cultural ties between Russia and Belarus are strong. Most education and official business are conducted in Russian to the point that many Belarusian school children are only taught Belarusian as a foreign language. Russian productions make up about 80 percent of the state television channel ONT’s content, though it is censored to remove any reports critical of the Belarusian government.
Language and media ties are not enough to spur anyone to give up their national identity, but that may be the angle Russia is pursuing in Belarus. A sizable portion offocused on the importance of cultural preservation in the context of World War II. He lamented “increasingly frequent attempts to falsify and rewrite history, primarily the history of World War II,” and spoke of the “need to preserve and provide proper care of military burial sites and military monuments.” The Soviet Union’s contributions to the war have long been a source of national pride in Russia and the rest of the post-Soviet states. In many cases, Russian propaganda appeals to the patriotism and sense of heroism that World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, invokes to create a pro-Russian, anti-local-national-movement narrative.
It is a long journey from Minister Lavrov discussing war monuments to Russia annexing Belarus and Belarusians accepting the outcome, and there are many alternative explanations for Lavrov’s decision to focus on the issue. For now, Belarusian and Russian unification seems a very distant possibility, but given the widespread speculation, the thought has likely crossed each leader’s mind.