Will Western pressure trigger Russia’s ‘merger’ with Belarus? | War news between Russia and Ukraine

Kiev, Ukraine – Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it sound as if Western nations were thanking him for making his decades-old dream of merging Russia with neighboring Belarus a reality.

“Former political pressure and sanctions pressure from the so-called collective West are pushing us to speed up the merger process,” Vladimir Putin said on July 1 at a forum in the western Belarusian city of Grodno, a stone’s throw away from the EU border.

“Because together, it will be easier to minimize the damage from the illegal sanctions,” as the West has imposed on Russia and Belarus, Putin said.

One week earlier, his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko called on leaders of other former Soviet nations to come closer to the “union state” of Russia and Belarus – or to face the loss of their independence.

“Today, the nations of the post-Soviet space must be genuinely interested in their rapprochement with the Union state – if, of course, they want to retain their sovereignty and independence,” he said in a video speech.

“Those who are hesitant must understand – without the rapid unification and rapprochement, stronger intergovernmental ties and just simple human relations, we may not be tomorrow,” said Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and whose re-election is on the rise. degree has been marked by violence against its rivals and protesters.

In the late 1990s, Lukashenko was eager to merge his 9.2 million ex-Soviet nation with Russia – and signed an agreement to create a “union state” with a common constitution and parliament.

The former collective farm manager, nicknamed “Bat’ka” (father), was hoping to succeed the heavily drinking Russian president Boris Yeltsin, whose mental and physical condition was rapidly deteriorating.

However, Yeltsin anointed Putin, an ordinary intelligence chief, as his successor in 1999, and Lukashenko put the brakes on the merger.

But he kept milking the Kremlin, getting loans of billions of rubles, discounts on natural gas, trade preferences and perks for Belarusian labor migrants.

Russia’s backing helped Lukashenko, who has long been called “Europe’s last dictator”, keep its head above water politically and economically, especially as the West sanctioned Minsk for its intensified repression of opposition and critics.

Lukashenko also continued to look for leeway.

He tried to wean his economy off the profits of state-run collective farms, chemical factories and a giant oil refinery that used cheap Russian crude oil.

He defied his image of a former communist official with a Chevron mustache and a strong rural accent, and created Belarus Hi-Tech Park, a Belarusian “Silicon Valley” where tens of thousands of IT engineers developed impressive software and startups.

But the IT sector shrank after the boiling point in 2020, when hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest his sixth re-election.

They clashed with police and went on strike – but Lukashenko’s law enforcement agencies responded with violence, torture, arrests and prison sentences.

Tens of thousands left Belarus, including many IT experts, mainly for neighboring Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine.

Lukashenko appeared to be in a corner, and Moscow remained his only backer – while the Kremlin kept pressuring him to end the merger.

Russian officials remembered all too well how Putin’s approval ratings rose to 88 percent stratospheric after Moscow’s previous “acquisition” – the annexation of Crimea in 2014 from Ukraine.

The Soviet Union revived?

For some observers, the merger is a closed deal; they see it as part of Moscow’s plans to announce the revival of the abbreviated copy of the Soviet Union in December.

“The issue has been resolved in the light of the USSR’s centenary in December 2022 and Putin’s plans to create a ‘third empire’ that would [succeed czarist Russia and the USSR and] include Belarus, ”said Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch.

“What is happening now is simply a technological step to make public opinion ready for this action,” he told Al Jazeera.

But other analysts say Lukashenko is still trying to push back.

“Lukashenko is bad in a corner, but seems to be resisting the final solution,” Pavel Luzin, a Russian-based analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

While Putin’s statements about the merger are a chance to boost his approval ratings in Russia, Lukashenko’s words about the union state are nothing more than an “alarm signal” to the West, a Belarusian-born observer said.

“Lukashenko’s words are more of an alarm signal for [other] nations, mostly in the EU – You are pushing us closer to Russia, ”Kiev-based Igar Tyshkevich told Al Jazeera.

And when it comes to the Belarusian public, unification is far from popular.

In July 2021, the number of Belarusians who fully supported it rose to nine percent from five by 2020, according to the latest independent study on the case conducted by Chatham House, a British think tank.

Eleven percent of respondents wanted Belarus and Russia to have a “single market with a common foreign policy and army,” and about a third stood for an “internal market” and a “free trade zone,” according to the poll.

“With moods like these, it’s hard to implement a merger,” Tyshkevich said.

Even if state-sponsored Belarusian media were to support the idea, this would hardly change the public mood, as only a quarter of Belarusians depend on these channels, he said.

“No matter how harsh your propaganda is, if 75 percent of the population does not see it, you have no mechanisms to influence the opinion of these people, even if your propaganda is ingenious,” Tyshkevich said.

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