Swapping repressive practices. What to expect from Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko’s ever closer union 

Posted: Fri, 12 Apr 2024 20:02:03 UTC+3

Two years into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus appear to be intensifying their dialogue about the future of the Union State, the supranational body to which the two countries formally belong. On a visit to Russia this week, Alexander Lukashenko spent two days with Vladimir Putin, discussing issues related to the “regional and international situation” and “the coordination of actions in response to existing challenges and threats.” Earlier, the two sides announced that for the first time in 20 years, they were raising the Union State’s budget — by 38 percent. However, this money won’t be directed towards economic integration, but rather funneled into a “number of defense-related programs.” Journalist Roman Chernikov, who specializes in covering post-Soviet countries, explains how a shared affinity for political repression is bringing Moscow and Minsk closer together than the Union State ever did.

Russia and Belarus signed the treaty that created the supranational Union State back in December 1999. But the official holiday marking the Day of Unity of the Peoples of Russia and Belarus falls on April 2, the anniversary of an earlier Union Treaty between Moscow and Minsk. To mark the occasion this year, the Rossiya Segodnya Press Center in Moscow hosted a conference on the “Union State in a Multipolar World,” while Belarusian propagandists debated who should join the Union State next, bandying about such candidates as Abkhazia, Syria, Iran and, perhaps, a “de-Nazified Ukraine.” 

Discussions about the integration project’s ideological underpinnings intensified, as well, with the Belarusians insisting that the Union State should be left-leaning, combining Soviet aesthetics with a dash of Putinist conservatism — namely, “spirituality,” “traditional family values,” and the memory of the USSR’s victory over fascism in World War II. 

But if you look beyond the philosophizing about identity politics, it becomes clear that the Union State project hasn’t achieved much — aside from launching a joint crew into space and growing trade turnover (a logical result of Russia and Belarus’s isolation on the world stage). Even the promise to cancel roaming charges between Russia and Belarus by the end of 2024 seems like a joke: after more than a decade of talks, all they’ve managed is to systematically reduce the fees. Efforts to share information about traffic offenders and launch a joint car insurance system also have yet to be implemented fully. 

Sovereignty first 

Lately, Belarusian propagandists have taken to repeating the claim that the Union State doesn’t pose a threat to Belarus’s sovereignty. On the Day of Unity, for example, TV presenter Marat Markov assured that Belarus and Russia are not only “absolutely independent” within the Union State, but also “much more so than any country” in the European Union. “In the E.U., a supranational elite dictates rules to absolutely all members, to the detriment of their national interests. This is completely off the table in the Union State,” he claimed. 

Back in January, Lukashenko pedaled this idea himself: 

“I just read a think piece that [said,] ‘That’s it, Belarus is losing its sovereignty.’ We aren’t losing anything. You can see that on this sovereign territory, which belongs to our people, only we make decisions and we only act under conditions that are beneficial to us.” 

Generally speaking, this is true — but only because integration remains nominal, even after the anti-government protests in Belarus in 2020 and Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The last time Moscow and Minsk touched on the topic of the Union State was in November 2021, when Putin and Lukashenko signed a package of 28 “union programs” aimed at economic integration. At the time, Lukashenko claimed that he and Putin had “thrown out” an additional program that had “political overtones.”


In essence, this program would have turned the Union State into something like an off-brand European Union, with supranational bodies (to handle taxation, for example), a single issuing bank, and, later, shared political bodies (along the lines of the European Council and the European Parliament). This was discussed in greater detail back in 2019, when the Union State was supposed to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Though Kremlin officials perhaps hoped to mark the occasion with a full economic takeover of Minsk, Lukashenko turned out to be more cunning and foiled their plans, in part by leaking the details of the negotiations in an interview with the radio station Ekho Moskvy.

Back then, informed sources told RBC that Russian officials expected to implement the most difficult integration programs by 2023–2024. But as of April 2024, we can safely say that there haven’t been any serious steps towards economic integration. What’s more, experts say that the steps that have been taken can be easily reversed in the event of changing political winds. If Western countries were to lift sanctions, for example, Belarusian exports would be redirected towards Baltic ports and European goods would flood back into Brest. The Russian and Belarusian Central Banks are even developing the digital ruble separately, even though this could be a convenient platform for combining efforts. 

However, since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow and Minsk have been integrating in other ways — namely, through coordinating repressions and propaganda. 


Synchronized dictatorships

In February, news broke that Belarus and Russia are combining their extremism watchlists. According to Belarusian Ambassador to Russia Dmitry Krutoi, this was the result of multiple conversations between Interior Ministry officials from both countries. 

Both Russia and Belarus have seen their watchlists balloon: Russia’s “terrorist and extremist” blacklist includes more than 14,300 individuals and organizations, while Belarus’s has nearly 4,000

But while this measure is in the early stages, the synchronization of the two countries’ propaganda machines is practically a fait accompli. In late February, the Belarusian Embassy managed, for the first time, to pressure a Russian publication (Forbes Russia) into deleting an article that was critical of Lukashenko. Then, in April, the embassy decided to extend this practice to much bigger media players, including the business daily Kommmersant and even Russian state television’s Channel One

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By all appearances, Minsk is chasing the prize of being considered Russia’s unique and unconditional ally (as distinct from other members of the Eurasian Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization). But it also seems as though Moscow is interested in borrowing its neighbor’s political and repressive practices.

As Belarusian propagandist Vadim Gigin suggested, “one of the reasons for the union project stalling is the different development models” in Russia and Belarus. Whereas Russia formally maintained a multi-party system, Gigin argued, Belarus effectively developed a “non-party” system despite having no fewer than 15 political parties. According to Gigin, Belarusian political parties have “negligible” influence since their representatives hardly hold any positions in the government’s executive and legislative branches. 

Gigin also said that since 2020, the most important change was to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (set to convene in late April), which is meant to serve as a source of legitimacy and act as a kind of crutch for the aging Lukashenko. 


A possible equivalent for the Putin regime would be the All-Russia People's Front, if this political coalition were to become a separate government body. East Germany’s National Front is another possible precedent that could hold some appeal for Putin, who served as a KGB foreign intelligence officer in the GDR in the 1980s. 

Lukashenko’s experience could be all the more relevant since the results of the 2024 Russian presidential vote showed that the previous party configuration has collapsed completely. If candidates from the nominal opposition, like the Communist Party (KPRF) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), only net three or four percent of the vote, this could be considered a non-party system. Moreover, talk of forming a “new, patriotic civil society” is fully in the spirit of the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly. Similarly, attempts to hand over control of youth policy to Putin’s domestic policy tsar Sergey Kiriyenko smacks of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union. 

Read more about election rigging in Russia

There is only one silver lining to this situation: thanks to the Union State, Russian citizens facing problems with the law have the Minsk airport as an additional escape route. Although document checks still take place on trains and regular buses, border guards do this selectively and often neglect to run passports through the database, as they’re mostly on the lookout for third-country nationals. Since the political upheavals in 2020, a number of gray carriers have popped up that take back roads, minimizing the likelihood of such inspections. 

That said, Moscow and Minsk still share databases of citizens subject to entry and exit restrictions. But this system remains flawed and a time lag could be enough to save someone from prison or conscription.

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Story by Roman Chernikov

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