Russia – Belarus: integration processes are coming to the finish line

Date of publication: 13 September 2021
The Presidents of Russia and Belarus have agreed on a package of integration programs of the Union State

On September 9, President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko paid a regular working visit to Russia. And although the previously voiced assumptions about the signing of integration documents in Moscow on this day were promptly disavowed, the four-hour talks between the leaders of the two countries, as Vladimir Putin stressed, “were rich and constructive, which fully corresponds to the nature of relations between our countries”.

According to the Russian leader, the emphasis in the negotiations was placed on economic relations between the countries, as well as on issues of integration within the framework of the Union State established back in 1999. For more than three years, the governments of the two countries have been working on a package of documents from 28 union programs, the purpose of which is to unify legislation in key areas of economic activity, equalize the conditions of economic activity of enterprises and form a joint industrial and agricultural policy.

The rapid approval of the documents was repeatedly announced, but every time there were some “pitfalls”, accompanied by mutual reproaches and bickering in the media. Admittedly, the depressing frequency with which this happened caused disappointment even among the most consistent supporters of integration. The impression was created (and sometimes not unfounded) that the cunning “father” was engaged almost exclusively in knocking out unilateral preferences in exchange for some vague promises to “integrate”, but sometime later. In turn, the Belarusian media suspected Russian oligarchs of trying to “pocket”  the most promising industries, which would mean curtailing the socially oriented Belarusian economic model.

And this is only a small fraction of mutual accusations, which noticeably hindered a constructive dialogue. Perhaps, the bickering would have continued for an infinitely long time, if not for the sanctions war unleashed by the “collective West” against Minsk (as before – against Moscow). The  “multi-vector” foreign policy course, which involves constant balancing between Russia, the United States, the European Union and partly China, has obviously exhausted itself. Minsk’s relations with Washington and Brussels, which were so carefully built up by the Foreign ministry headed by Vladimir Makei, sharply declined after the August 2020 presidential elections, followed by mass protests of the pro-Western nationalist opposition.

Another “Maidan” was prevented, and after convulsive tossing in June 2021, Brussels announced the introduction of another, already the fifth and most painful package of sectoral sanctions against Minsk. In particular, the restrictions applied to the trade in petroleum products, potash fertilizers and raw materials for the tobacco industry; the supply of dual-use products to Belarus was prohibited. Financial restrictions imply the closure of access to European capital markets, a ban on insurance of the Belarusian government and state agencies.

The European Investment Bank has stopped financing projects in the public sector, and EU countries have also restricted the participation of their banks in projects of the “last dictatorship of Europe”. Loyal Kiev vassals of the West joined the anti-Belarusian sanctions, which led to even more serious losses, including due to the closure of some “gray” export-import schemes. After the well-known “Protasevich incident”, the United States suspended the agreement with Minsk on the mutual use of airspace, and in July the transport department of this country suspended the sale of air tickets to Belarus.

In parallel with the emotional reaction of the “father”, who was not shy in his expressions, to all these openly hostile actions (including threats to block Russian-European transit), Minsk once again talked about the need to strengthen allied relations with Russia, the states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, with China and with the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In mid-August, at a meeting with Lukashenka, the First Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus, Nikolai Snopkov, announced that a package of integration documents had been almost fully approved. According to the official, during the bilateral negotiations, the preferential interests of each side were clearly defined: “For Russians, these are issues of tax and customs regulation, and for Belarusians, the conditions of cooperation in the energy sector and access to the Russian market. In the entire package of economic integration agreements, the main difficulty in negotiating issues was the mutual linking of these mutual interests.”

As follows from the words of the Belarusian leader following the September talks in Moscow, the main thing for Minsk is the economic conditions for enterprises of both countries, “various representatives of Belarus, including me, as president, have been talking about the need for them for many years. This is the basis of the basics. We are full-fledged partners. It was for the sake of equality, profitable cooperation, and fruitful cooperation that the Belarusian-Russian integration was started. The union programs clearly prescribe the mechanisms for the development of a single economic space: the formation of unified industry markets, the implementation of a harmonized financial, tax, credit, price, and trade policy.”

The agreed documents lay down the terms of energy supplies to Belarus, the growth of transport services, the financing of new investment projects, increasing the level of social guarantees and much more. Until December 1, 2023, it is planned to sign an agreement on a single gas market, while the price of Russian “blue fuel” for the coming year remains at the level of the current year, namely $ 128.5 per thousand cubic meters, which is much lower than on the European market.

As the Russian president noted, the integration plans also include the conclusion (no less sensitive for the Belarusian side) of an agreement on the unification of the oil and petroleum products markets, as well as an agreement on a single electricity market. In addition, Moscow and Minsk are moving to a unified industrial policy and mutual access to public procurement and state orders, which implies unification, in particular, of tax legislation and a number of other measures. At the same time, the question about the prospects of the single currency remains open: “When we studied this problem, then the Central Bank of Russia and our National Bank asked not to approach this issue yet. They said that our countries are not ready for this,” the Belarusian leader noted on this occasion.

The next day, on September 10, a meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Union State was held in Minsk, the participants of which approved all the programs previously agreed by the presidents, which must be approved by the Supreme State Council of the Union State by the end of 2021. As the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Mikhail Mishustin stressed, the integration of Russia and Belarus is carried out with the full preservation of their political sovereignty.

The heads of state quite logically distanced themselves from the topic of a possible political unification, emphasizing the need to form a solid economic basis for the Union State. The process is obviously not fast, but it is extremely important for millions of citizens. So, from January 1, 2022, roaming should disappear on the territory of Russia and Belarus, the very existence of which on the territory of the Union State raised legitimate questions. Since September 21, the Russian side has lifted all restrictions on air traffic with the neighboring country. As follows from the statement of the heads of government, general actions were also agreed in response to “destructive actions of a number of Western states and structures that contradict international law” against Russia and Belarus.

It has long been known that nothing unites us more than the need for a joint response to external challenges. It seems that Moscow and Minsk are really optimistic this time, but it is important that good intentions are finally implemented in concrete cases. Despite the importance of the military-political and socio-economic areas of bilateral cooperation, insufficient attention to its cultural and humanitarian component (including educational, historical and language policy) can lead to undesirable public sentiments for integration processes.

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