Putin’s Visit Demonstrates that Geopolitical Choice is Inevitable
Putin’s visit to Belarus on May 30 has been presented as evidence of primary importance of post-Soviet integration for the leaders of Belarus and Russia. In the near future, cooperation between Belarus and Russia will continue to be relatively conflict free. However, Russia’s support of Belarus will not go beyond what is necessary to maintain a minimal stability.
Within the international context, Putin’s first foreign visit to Belarus, after which he will make short visits to Berlin and Paris, is associated with his refusal to join the G8 summit in Camp David.
The visit is also linked to Putin’s first decree as President on the measures for the implementation of foreign policy, which prioritises the relations with Belarus and integration within the EurAsEC Customs Union.
The visit was staged by the Russian side. Its format of a Lord’s visiting his land was supported by the Belarusian side. It should be stressed that while Putin was listing the topics for discussion with the Belarusian party, it looked as if the previously prepared list had little to do with the actual subject of conversation with the Belarusian side.
Meanwhile, topics prepared in advance, namely, the allocating of a long-awaited third tranche of the EurAsEC loan of USD440 million, two contracts for the loan to finance the preparatory work for the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant (USD204 million + USD285 million) indicate quite extensive and positive developments in the current situation.
No conflict issues such as trade of oil and petroleum products without paying customs duties to the Russian budget or delays in privatisation have been publically discussed. It is likely that they have not been seriously considered at all.
The major objectives of the visit were mostly of symbolic character: to demonstrate close ties and alliance. After a break, Putin faces difficulties in his third term of presidency.
The consequences of the pre-election boost of the economy, drop in oil prices, decline in the authority of official establishment within the Russian political account for an emergent need to focus the foreign policy on the immediate environment. In the international arena, Russia has only to be engaged in minor attacks and boycott advances of major actors’ interests.
The trend of expansion is logically replaced by the trend of defense. The value of an ally that fully guarantees observation of major Russian interests on his territory grows. For a certain time, it allows not to notice minor mischief and treat it as a payment in exchange for loyalty in controversial issues.
Lukashenko is now in a similar situation. His tasks are to keep power and strengthen his authority within the country, which does not leave him any possibilities for even a little transformation. Consequently, it increases his dependence on Russia’s economic support and deprives him of freedom to maneuver in his foreign policy.
It is evident that for some time Russia and Belarus will keep an agreement on major issues of cooperation. However, it does not rule out minor disputes over how soon Belarus will join the regulatory norms and standards of the Customs Union or over the privatisation of the Belarusian enterprises.
Russia will continue to provide a limited financial aid for the Belarusian economy sufficient to maintain social stability in the country. However, the financing can not provide for the modernization of economy, increase in wages and salaries to such a level that can be compared to Russia. Such a short leash will encourage the Belarusian leadership to seek alternative opportunities.
Amid budgetary cuts on social protection, the Belarusian public sector is experiencing a management crisis and a balance shift in the state resource redistribution system. The authorities are forced to revise their most unpopular decisions during the implementation due to the pressure from affected social groups. The state is unlikely to oppose to some civil society and opposition organisations in strengthening their role in society in order to retain touch with the population and to be able to respond to the most harsh criticism of state initiatives.
The Architecture and Construction Ministry has acknowledged that the decree No 585 on assistance to large and young families in building and buying housing was prematurely rescinded.
The authorities are often forced to revise their decisions on curtailing social assistance to different social groups during their implementation, without preliminary impact assessment and feedback from the population, so as they lead to the growth in social tension. Due to the centralised decision making, languishing state resources and the lack of public debate as a balancing instrument in issues related to social protection, the state administration is losing control of the population.
Perhaps, the compensatory mechanisms of the state apparatus lack the time to adjust to dwindling state resources for supporting the existing social model, even in a reduced form. The authorities have completely or partially paralysed operations of independent public institutions and representative bodies, through which they could monitor public moods and receive feedback from the population, such as local councils, the parliament, political parties and NGOs. Last year, under the pressure of the authorities, the last independent institute for measuring public sentiment, IISEPS, suspended operations.
President Lukashenka’s self-removal from the decision-making on current socio-economic issues, also could have affected the state apparatus’ operations. The president has always been very sensitive about adopting unpopular decisions which could lower his popular support, hence demanded a careful preliminary assessment of such decisions. However, recently, especially after the introduction of the tax on social dependants, the president has mainly focused on the foreign policy agenda.
Hence, a lacuna has formed in the state decision-making after the president reduced participation in the current socio-economic policy formation, which leads to an increase in manifestations of dysfunction in the public administration.