Russian designs on Belarus indicate that President Putin has no intention of ceding power when his term limit is up. Could the Soviet Union rise again?
At the end of the Cold War, President of the Soviet Union Nikolai Gorbachev found his position ripped out from under him when the Soviet Union was disbanded by the newly independent states. Boris Yeltsin, as President of the Russian Federation, inherited de-facto and de-jure control.
Now, as current President Vladimir Putin stares down the term limit of the Russian Presidency, he may be looking to reverse this turn of events in the course of staying in power.
Vladimir Putin’s term of office doesn’t end until 2024, but there are signs that he is already looking to extend his time as President. The Russian constitution prohibits a president from serving more than two consecutive terms. Putin has been keen not to succumb to the lure of direct constitutional change which might see him labelled a dictator. In 2008, at the end of his first two terms in office he effected a job swap with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Despite pulling Medvedev’s strings, Putin was said to be unhappy with Medvedev’s attempts to improve cooperation with the US. It seems unlikely that he would want to play second fiddle again.
Medvedev did change the constitution to increase presidential term limits from four to six years, meaning that Putin will have effectively already served three old-style terms by 2024. However, it seems unlikely to most Russia-watchers that Putin will glide quietly into retirement at that point. He would never be safe from prosecution for his actions in power, no matter who his successor was.
So where does that leave Putin? The answer to his dilemma might well lie in Belarus. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a 1997 deal between Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko saw Belarus and Russia tied together once again.
In 1999 a more detailed version of the document was produced, essentially describing a federation between Russia and Belarus. As well as a unified currency, flag, market and judiciary, the federation would be run by a Supreme State Council, the presidency of which would rotate between the two countries. The document allowed the two nations to ‘agree otherwise’ and Lukashenko has been head of the Supreme State Council since 2000. This has mattered little as the treaty has never been fully operational and in reality, other than the ability to work in either Russia or Belarus, the general population has seen little impact.
In the past, it was President Lukashenko who had been pushing for further integration with Russia. In recent years however, Lukashenko has expressed concern over the Russian annexation of Crimea and tried to pursue a somewhat independent foreign policy, courting the support of the West by releasing political dissidents from prison.
There are signs, however, that Putin is eyeing the union with Belarus as a way to circumnavigate the constitutional limits on his presidency. As president of a federation of Russia and Belarus, the limit of two consecutive terms would not apply. Putin is also in need of an easy foreign policy win. The Russian annexation of Crimea may have been popular with the people, but further occupation of Ukraine is likely to prove difficult. Similarly, a possible solution to the Kuril Islands dispute with Japan is likely to prove unpopular with the Russian people even if it is economically advantageous for Russia. Belarus could, therefore, provide a quick win and help shore up Putin’s wavering popularity.
Russia has certainly upped the pressure on Belarus. However, Lukashenko did not become Europe’s longest-standing dictator by ignoring prevailing winds. He knows that Belarus is dependent on Russia and he is unlikely to put up any serious opposition to a Russian take-over, instead relying on soundbites that will play well at home. Indeed, he and Putin have met at least twice in recent months and it seems clear that Russia is pushing for closer ties.
Belarus has relied on cheap oil imports from Russia to keep its economy afloat, but Russia is phasing out oil export duties and replacing them with a mineral extraction tax. The stated aim of this is to lower domestic fuel subsidies by ensuring that all oil, whether sold domestically or exported, will be taxed the same. This ‘tax manoeuvre’ will hit Belarus. Currently it buys Russian oil ‘duty free’ and adds its own duties when exporting this oil. Belarus has asked to be compensated in the form of lower oil prices or even direct monetary transfers. Russia has stated a willingness to do this only if Belarus implements the 1999 Union Treaty.
The most ‘moderate’ Russian plan involves Russia taking over many of the functions of the Belarusian government, including monetary and taxation policy. Russia is making it clear that this is the price Belarus will have to pay to ensure they are compensated for the dramatic effects of oil tax changes on their economy. Ultimately, Russia could force Belarusian cooperation by turning off the oil and gas pipelines. Whilst Lukashenko might speak of Russian ‘blackmail’ and vow to fight off the Russian push for more integration, it seems unlikely that he will be able to count on support from the West. With a US president sympathetic to Russia and an EU mired in Brexit issues, it would be surprising to see much support for a Soviet-style dictator.
Ultimately, Belarus’ independence depends on the political ambitions and needs of Vladimir Putin. He once remarked that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe”. In recent years, the Russian state apparatus has been influenced by the work of a man named Alexander Dugin. Dugin is a far-right Russian nationalist with a fondness for the Soviet Union, who played an influential role in shifting the Communist Party of the Russian Federation over to a nationalist line – a party which now enjoys a status of being the only major ‘opposition’ party in the county.
Alexander Dugin’s book The Foundations of Geopolitics serves as a kind of ‘Mein Kampf’ for Russian nationalists and lays out a strategy for defeating ‘liberal values’ – an aim which Putin appears to share. Written in 1997, many of its proposals ring true in the light of Russian foreign policy of the last few decades. It calls for the spreading of disinformation and discontent in Western countries via Russian security agencies, splitting off the UK from Europe, annexing Ukraine and feeding isolationist policies via both the far left and far right in the US.
Swallowing up Belarus might be politically expedient for Vladimir Putin, shoring up his own grip on power, but it could also be seen as the next step towards recreating a new, more aggressively nationalist, conservative or even fascist version of the Soviet Union in the twenty-first century.