All of Russia’s problems associated with the post-Soviet countries are rooted in the “civilizational divorce,” or more precisely semi-divorce. The accustomed format of Russia-Belarus relations represents a dead end. It would seem that both Minsk and Moscow have an interest in Belarus continuing its drift from the former mother country, as this is the only hope for them to get rid of the backlog of old contradictions and start a more rational dialogue.
The Belarusian president criticizing Russia is nothing new. In a narrow sense, it is about the old, mostly economic, grievances of one state against another. But more broadly it is just the latest evidence that relations between post-Soviet countries are far from cloudless. And it seems that relations are becoming even more muddled as countries “grow up” independent of each other.
Despite its routine nature, however, the Russian-Belarusian case is attracting greater attention than usual for a number of reasons. First, the multifaceted integration of these two countries is the oldest project of this kind in the post-Soviet space. Second, Moscow and Minsk are formally allies in a number of organizations. Third, Russia and Belarus are neighboring countries with a common history and culture. If all this is not enough for a stable and conflict-free relationship, what is?
The source of grievances
All of Russia’s problems associated with the post-Soviet countries are rooted in the “civilizational divorce,” or more precisely semi-divorce. The disintegration of the USSR ushered in a new geopolitical reality, but this reality was based on the old trade and economic infrastructure. This created opportunities for reciprocal pressure in a number of areas. All that remained was to wait for a pretext.
The pretext soon emerged as it became clear that Russia and other post-Soviet republics had different views on all aspects of the Soviet legacy. Russia believed that the post-Soviet space should under all circumstances remain united, if only on different terms. Other countries, however, lost that broader vision after gaining independence and had difficulty wrapping their heads around what this (re)integration portended – benefits from economic cooperation or a threat to their recently acquired sovereignty?
Divorced but living together, Russia and the post-Soviet countries found themselves in a very complicated relationship. While successful industrial cooperation continued in some areas, the parties were unable to come to terms on the rules of competition in others. They also had a different understanding of allied or neighborly relations. All of this eventually crystallized into one core contradiction: Moscow believed that it was making a sufficient contribution to political and economic cooperation, while some post-Soviet countries thought differently.
This model of relations was far from comfortable for all participants, primarily for Russia itself. The media published leaks of top-level conflicts, often purely economic, to the public, where they were given a totally different – political and ideological – coloring. In this way, grievances against Russia gradually emerged as a universal excuse for all kinds of domestic problems, ranging from economic incompetence to corruption and inefficient governance.
The most graphic example is not even Belarus (although it applies to that country too), but Ukraine. The political process there evolved in such a manner that it was Moscow rather than the Ukrainian elite and bureaucracy (whose composition has remained almost unchanged for over two decades) that was blamed for all problems. Therefore, a more decisive move toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration emerged high on the agenda of the former Ukrainian government and its successor.
Choosing between bad and bad
Much has been written about the consequences of turning away from cooperation and dialogue with Russia. Ukraine – and, to a lesser extent, Georgia and Moldova – set an example that other post-Soviet countries are highly unlikely to follow. No matter how democratic the ideals and aspirations of their leaders and peoples, it is clear that anti-Russian bias is the wrong tool for national self-fulfillment, which is as illogical as the causal chain drawn between Russia and the domestic problems of these countries.
But that begs the question: Can we regard the model of relations between Russia and Belarus as a reasonable alternative? At first glance, its advantages are obvious. But Alexander Lukashenko’s news conference shows that some ambiguity remains. This model is certainly more peaceful, but it has not proved satisfactory over the past twenty years or so. Judging by the rhetoric of the last few days, this holds true for both sides.
In a sense, the current approach to bilateral integration is not so much strategic planning as an attempt to preserve the Soviet inheritance. But for the reasons I’ve cited, this approach, though capable of solving certain problems, is powerless to put a stop to their constant reincarnation. Russia continues to await a return on its aid, while Belarus believes this aid is not enough to pay even for its existing loyalty.
With that in mind, we have to acknowledge that the accustomed format of Russia-Belarus relations represents a dead end. It would seem that both Minsk and Moscow have an interest in Belarus continuing its drift from the former mother country, as this is the only hope for them to get rid of the backlog of old contradictions and start a more rational dialogue.
The problem with this option, however, is that it destroys the current ineffective format but does not offer an effective replacement. As a result, we are risking another Ukraine scenario (albeit in a milder form), where relations with Russia may become a political bargaining chip. To avoid this, a workable alternative is needed to the problematic format we have now.
In search of an alternative
The main conclusion to be drawn by post-Soviet countries from the history of their relations is that political dialogue should not be based on the past. The effort to dismantle the old and obviously ineffective ties, no matter how painful it may be or what rhetoric it could unleash, should rather be seen in a positive light. It turns the page on ineffective reintegration and clears the way for a new model of relations.
As far as the post-Soviet countries are concerned, common goals are better unifiers. After all, the domestic problems and challenges they face are very much alike. If we cleanse these problems of the negative residue of intergovernmental grievances, it will become clear that the populations (ordinary citizens, businesses, young people and the creative class) want the same thing: free movement, opportunities for self-fulfillment, an efficient government, and a chance to influence its policies. Similarly, Russia and these countries have no fundamental differences over foreign policy either. Russians would be happy to have visa-free travel with the EU countries no less than the Ukrainians, would welcome Chinese investment no less than people in Kazakhstan, and see themselves as a bridge between West and East no less than the Belarusians.
To be sure, even the most advanced cooperation formats, such as international institutions and integration, cannot provide answers to all these questions right away. But they should clearly outline strategic goals. A case in point is alignment with China on the Silk Road Economic Belt project, which placed the economies of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan under the protection of the Eurasian Economic Union’s regulatory framework. A similar agenda in relations with the EU will certainly meet with demand.
Strange though it may seem, this new model of relations does not necessarily require new institutions, for there is an excess of them in the post-Soviet space. Rather, we should phase out duplicate organizations and functions. From the economic point of view, for example, the Eurasian Economic Union holds the most promise.
Most importantly, 25 years after the collapse of the USSR, it is high time we discarded the term “post-Soviet.” In many ways, this term is just a repository of all the negative emotions. Eurasian countries should build their own identity rather than seek to perpetuate an old one.