Staunton, April 28 – The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the problems in the relationship between Minsk and Moscow, making it clear that the old paradigms of their ties no longer function and that a new paradigm is not yet on the horizon, according to Belarusian commentator Artyom Shraybman.
Relations between the two Slavic countries had deteriorated in the weeks and months before the pandemic began, but the spread of the coronavirus in both and the impact of the pandemic on their economies have exacerbated their disagreements and become the occasion for new differences (carnegie.ru/commentary/81595).
What has happened, the commentator says, is that “national interests in decision making have almost completely driven out union state ones.” Even the partial agreement on oil reflected that because the fall in oil prices internationally made it possible for Minsk to get a better deal than it had expected.
But on other issues, the two have acted ever more independently. “With the start of the epidemic, Russia closed its borders and banned the entrance of citizens of all countries, including Belarus which was not accustomed to being treated that way and was not consulted in this case. This decision seriously complicated the return of Belarusians from abroad.”
That led to an exchange of charges and complaints, with each side accusing the other of behaving in anything but a collegial and cooperative way, Shraybman says. Some Russian telegram channels even suggested that Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s behavior in the face of the pandemic was so reckless that he had to be removed to prevent “a humanitarian disaster.”
“Belarusian television responded in kind,” noting that the Kremlin was helping corporations not people and forcing the latter into lockdown. These exchanges “made it impossible for the two countries to cooperate in the struggle with the virus,” the analyst continues.
Lukashenka made it clear that his country doesn’t need Russian help and instead sought assistance from China, Uzbekistan, the IMF, the EU and European Banks.
Given all this, Shraybman says, “there is little place for a positive agenda” in discussions between the two countries. Past road maps have been taken off the table at least for now, and the postponement of the Victory Day parade in Moscow, something Lukashenka had planned to attend, leaves few opportunities for any warming of ties.
Moreover, “there are new disputes already on the horizon,” especially over gas prices since they have fallen below what Minsk agreed to pay Moscow. Legally, Belarus can’t back out; but it could put pressure on Moscow by threatening not to renew the lease Russia has on two military facilities in its western neighbor. Those leases expire next year.
And the presidential elections in Belarus now set for August will create more problems because Lukashenka will undoubtedly seek to stress his and his country’s independence to undercut the Belarusian opposition. Thus, he is likely to say and do thinks that will annoy Moscow.
“Belarusian-Russian relations today have gone into a phase of strategic indeterminancy,” the analyst says. “The old forms for seeking consensus have ceased to work, and new ones have not been developed.” Eventually new arrangements will emerge but whether they will leave Moscow and Minsk closer or further apart is very much an open question.