Belarus-Russia Unions: Empty Shells Or Geopolitical Cord?

Amid numerous recent talks and publications about Russia’s plan to take over Belarus, some may remark it has already happened – for the bonds already uniting the two states. Belarus is part of many Russia-led blocks and therefore not a sovereign country, people may say.

Belarus and Russia together take part in four post-Soviet integration projects.

These four unions are the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Union State of Belarus and Russia.

belarus russia unions CIS CSTO EEU

Some believe these are Kremlin’s instruments of control over its neighbors, including Belarus. A reality check shows this is not exactly the case. The organizations are not rigid enough to restrict Minsk’s sovereignty.

In BelarusFeed project Insights the political editor of TUT.BY Artyom Shraibman breaks down key political developments in and around Belarus to help you make sense of them.

CIS, an orderly divorce

In its early days, the CIS first was merely a civilized divorce mechanism. Twelve ex-Soviet republics wanted to remain friends after USSR dissolution.

Over time, it has become more of a club, where CIS heads of states can annually meet to discuss the current affairs.

Some of the members left the CIS after wars with Russia: Georgia did it formally in 2009, Ukraine – just de-facto in 2015-2016.

There is some practical sense in the commonwealth – it gives the basis for cooperation between law enforcement agencies, visa-free regime and free trade area, with many exemptions though.

But there is little beyond that. The club has no mechanisms to enforce its decisions onto any member against its will. It’s easy to leave, and, frankly, to ignore, as Ukraine has demonstrated.

CSTO, joint defense with little solidarity

The CSTO is a more narrowly focused group, uniting just six post-Soviet nations: Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Tajikistan.

The six have mutual defense obligations. Just as in NATO, the attack on one member is formally treated an attack on all of them.

However, there are no obligations to support in the offense. That is why Russian wars with Ukraine and Georgia met little if no sympathy among other CSTO members.

Apart from that, Belarus, for instance, has a legal ban on sending its troops abroad except for peacekeeping missions.

The solidarity within the block is far from perfect. For example, Belarus and Russia sell arms to Azerbaijan, the military foe of the CSTO member – Armenia. The arms dealings cause huge dismay in Yerevan, but it has no levers to change allies’ behavior.

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The organization is based on a consensus principle. It means any serious decision cannot pass without everybody on board.

It occasionally tempts member states to use their veto power to make a point. In 2009 Belarus boycotted a summit and hung up the adoption of an important CSTO agreement because of its trade dispute with Russia.

In 2019 Armenia left the organization without the Secretary General for 1.5 years over a disagreement with Belarus about whose turn is to nominate the boss.

EEU, the demo of the EU

EEU is an economic union of five countries – Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

In theory, it was designed as an EU twin – with its Commission, free trade area and customs union, but without single currency and Schengen-like visa policy.

However, several features (or rather – bugs) make it leaky and superficial, compared with the EU.

The EEU doesn’t have any political or value-based dimension. All the parties joined it for their own pragmatic causes, and sometimes they simply hog the blanket.

There are dozens of exemptions from the free trade area in EEU, most importantly for Belarus – the integration doesn’t cover gas and oil till 2024-2025.

It is still vital for Minsk to have access to the Russian market, especially for food supplies, and EEU facilitates this access. But Moscow often uses the fito-sanitary regulations to overcome EEU free trade rules and prevent one or another Belarusian product from entering Russia.

All the meaningful decisions in the union still have to be unanimous. On the one hand, it stalls the lifting of existing trade barriers. On the other – it enables Belarus to block any attempt of the union to limit its sovereignty.

Union State, a state that isn’t there

On paper, the Union State between Belarus and Russia is the closest and most comprehensive alliance the two countries have.

In reality, though, according to the Union State treaty of 1999, by now the countries should’ve had a single currency, customs, budgetary and tax policy, audit chamber, court, parliament, flag and the coat of arms. After that, they were to approach the joint constitution. None of that came into being.

Belarus and Russia managed to keep free movement of people and more or less working equal conditions of welfare and employment for their citizens.

The two coordinate foreign and security policies, but in the recent years Belarus have occasionally departed from Russian course, most notable on Ukraine crisis.

On security, the countries to have a joint air defense system and joint Regional Forces Group. Agreements in this area give Minsk veto power and control over the military forces deployed on Belarusian soil.

The allies fail to finalize the Union State project because Belarus always refers to the principle of parity, which the treaty mentions, while Russia as a stronger and larger actor wants to dominate in the Union.

After the recent dispute over oil trade, Moscow proposed to deepen the Union State integration. Belarus agreed to discuss it.

By the end of June 2019, the parties are supposed to produce a plan to move ahead, but it is hard to imagine what they actually can do given the diametrically opposite interests.

Summing up, all four integration projects give smaller countries, like Belarus, a power to block any suspicious or unfavorable development.

The four unions are merely the tools Belarus uses to sort out its own relations with the most important ally. These organizations do not enchain Minsk to Moscow –  the underlying economic, military and cultural dependence does.

Related image: Vadim Zamirovski/TUT.BY.