The “Union State” Can Happen Only Within the Structure of Russia

The Union State started to be formed in April 1996 as the Commonwealth of Russia and Belarus. Since April 1997 it has been the Union of Russia and Belarus. The main task of the project is the phased implementation of a single political, economic, military, customs, monetary, legal, humanitarian, and cultural space.

There could be fewer terms describing a single space (political and economic would be enough), and there could be more (we can add multi-confessional and scientific, humanitarian, and cultural, and at the same time diplomatic, which is no worse than customs). It wouldn’t change anything. In any case, it is obvious that the builders do not know what they are building. No matter how many terms describe a single space, it is clear that it is a single state. However, states may exist in the form of a confederation, federation, or unitary formation. And depending on what one wants to see at the final stage, it is necessary to work out the integration documents accordingly.

In this regard, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is a much more understandable entity. Vladimir Putin described it as an international structure based on the same principles on which the EU was created (taking into account the latter’s mistakes). If we take a retrospective look at the EU, we will see that it, created in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community, a highly specialised economic union (more functional than the EAEU), between 1981 and 1992 turned into a fully-fledged confederation and started to move towards a federal (not excluding unitary, given the tendency of the European Union to dictate and unify) union. This movement was halted by the emerging systemic crisis of globalism, but the Franco-German project to preserve and reform the EU presupposes a return to the idea of political unification under Franco-German hegemony.

From this we can conclude that as long as the EU had access to unlimited external resources, then internal “democracy”, which relatively equalised the rights of donors and recipients of the organisation, could be supported by an influx of external resources. But as soon as it became necessary not even to save money, but simply to make a meaningful target (without waste) spending of available resources (access to an unlimited influx of external resources disappeared), the countries that are the economic locomotive of the EU declared their exclusive right to form a pan-European policy. And whoever does not like it can leave the Union (which Britain is trying to do) and either together or separately live at their own expense.

Taking into account this problem that has arisen in front of the EU, the EAEU is not yet in a hurry to follow the path of political integration (creating supranational structures, with the right to make binding decisions). At this stage, within the framework of the EAEU, economic integration mechanisms are being developed that allow to bypass the “curse of the EU” – division into donors and recipients. The main idea of the EAEU is to create an integrated economic space in which each participant, through synergistic effect, earns more than they could earn being outside of this space.

This is a very ambitious idea, which if implemented will allow to create a new format of international union. But it is not yet possible to say exactly how feasible it is. In any case, there will be the effect of a large economy, which, like a vacuum cleaner, sucks small economies, leaving them only the function of serving the interests of the large economy. In the EAEU the big economy is Russia. In addition to financial-economic power, Russia is also the absolute military-political leader of the Union. In fact, it provides it with a service of military protection that, as Trump correctly reminded his European NATO allies, is also not free. Thus, the objectively existing state and economic interests of Russia (which in the EAEU is not balanced, as in the EU Germany was balanced by France, Great Britain, and Italy) conflict with the idea laid down in the foundation of the EAEU. Time will tell how this contradiction can be overcome, and if so, how.

Let us return, however, to the Union State. Unlike the EAEU, it has created a significant number of political supranational structures (the Supreme State Council, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Council of Ministers, and the Standing Committee of the Union State). To date, their powers are limited, and accordingly their decisions do not limit the sovereignty of Russia and Belarus. But this situation can be changed at any time. It is sufficient to sign and, in accordance with domestic procedures, ratify the relevant instruments, as the supranational bodies in the Union State will acquire decision-making powers, and the volume of their influence may well reach the volume of influence of the central apparatus of the USSR, which absolutely dominated republican elites. By the way, during the last round of talks between Putin and Lukashenko about the further development of the Union State, the start of the process of providing supranational bodies with decision-making powers (when their decisions are binding on the state structures of Russia and Belarus) was discussed.

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It was not possible to reach an agreement this time, like many previous times. Belarus is absolutely economically dependent on Russia. The alternative to economic interaction with Moscow can only be the destruction of the Belarusian economy according to the Ukrainian model, but several times faster (Ukraine, although not quite successful since 1992, has tried to establish alternative economic ties with the EU, and to this day can trade in the world market some raw materials and agricultural products). Therefore, Belarusian elites are particularly vigilant about the issue of political sovereignty as the basis of an independent state, emphasising their equal status with other world elites.

Belarus is ready for political integration on a fully parity basis. But Russia is not ready for it. The point is not only that with full equality of political opportunities, Belarusian elites will have access to Russian wealth that is equal with Russian ones, although this is also the case. The main danger, from the point of view of the interests not even of Russian elites, but of the Russian state and people, is that the economic model built in Belarus by Lukashenko implies a constant influx of external resources and the creation of exclusive conditions in those foreign markets where Belarusian products gain access. So far this has happened and is still happening at the expense of Russia, with every attempt to reduce free aid (not to mention real cuts) causing a kind of hysteria in Minsk.

Whilst we are talking about the relationship of two states that only formally constitute a “Union State”, which everyone has heard about, but nobody saw, it is possible to say that the financial-economic losses of Russia are offset by certain military-political advantages. Accordingly, the less (or more) financial support for Belarus there is, the more important it is in terms of the realisation of strategic Russian military-political interests. But in case of absolute equality between the two countries in the supranational bodies taking binding decisions for fulfilment, the Belarusian elite will govern the Union State in the same way as it ruled Belarus (i.e., to count on a constant influx of external resources, and I even don’t speak about their attempts of directive state management of “Gazprom” as a collective farm somewhere near Orsha).

Naturally, the Russian elite will resist such actions. At best, it will simply block the work of Union bodies, which will not be able to make a single decision. At worst, to the split of the elites of the Union State (when part of the Russian elite will be on the Belarusian side, and part of the Belarusian on the Russian side) and to the beginning of an acute internal political conflict that splits society and leads to a civil confrontation. This will dramatically weaken the ability of the Union State (in fact Russia, as Belarus did not have one as such) to pursue an active global international policy, which in turn will lead to additional financial-economic losses, exacerbating the crisis and exacerbating the situation in the Union State. The loop will close, and it will be a vicious circle.

Many colleagues believe that if the elites cannot reach an agreement, two presidents (Lukashenko and Putin) can personally reach an agreement, putting the elites in front of the fact. However, it must be borne in mind that for all Putin’s popularity and for all of Lukashenko’s bravado, the head of state (even if he is an autocratic emperor) can lead only as long as his position is in line with the position and interests of the main elite groups. The absolute unattainable ideal is a nationwide consensus. But there will always be marginalised disaffected groups, even in a society of welfare and harmony. Moreover, marginalisation will lead to radicalism, and accordingly these groups will be completely revolutionary and terrorist. More real (achieved in Russia and Belarus) is the agreement of most elite groups and most of society. Compromise doesn’t mean everyone is happy. It is only the best of the worst options in the classic conditions of the absolute impossibility to realise the best of the best.

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Accordingly, Putin and Lukashenko at the talks express not their personal position, but the positions of Russian and Belarusian societies, concentrated in the positions of their elites.

Optimists are considering another option for accelerated unification. Putin and Lukashenko are no longer young. Moreover, Putin is running out of a fourth presidential term in 2024. Even if he goes into the premiership again, most of the elite will no longer believe (like in 2008-2012) that he will return to the position of President. Accordingly, a large part of the Russian elite will play “Russia after Putin”. The President of Russia faces the question of the handing over of power and ensuring the continuity of policies of the last two decades that are not only successful, but also saving for Russia.

Free elections cannot be hoped for on this issue. If the presidential office is not claimed by the clear favourite recommended by Putin, a lot of demagogues and populists will jump into the arena, promising everything to everyone and accusing their opponents of all mortal sins. In addition, Putin’s team consists of several competing structures that are united in a single mechanism only by the president’s personality. It’s even possible to approximately name the hypothetical ones in the government: power, financial, economic, and humanitarian blocs. It is Putin who connects these people (who see Russia’s domestic and foreign policy priorities in very different ways, who are supporters of a dozen different financial, economic, and humanitarian policies) into a single effective team. If left unattended in a fight for power, there will be not just competition between them, but a brutal confrontation on the verge of open conflict with the possibility of the latter going beyond the constitutional framework.

Similarly, Belarusian elites “after Lukashenko” (and this “after” will come in at most 20 years, but may come within the next decade) will be in a state of struggle for power in the system formed by Lukashenko.

Optimists believe that by accelerating the launch of the Union State, the above-described problem can be solved. In general, it is a classic political solution. If at this level of a system you deal with an unsolvable problem, the system should be complicated or simplified. At a different level of complexity, this problem will generally not be present. Accordingly, optimists advise us to move to a new level of complexity (to launch the Union State in the form of an superstructure over the political systems of Russia and Belarus) in order to resolve, within the framework of a new, more complex, system, the contradictions of the two old systems.

However, as I wrote at the beginning of this material, within the framework of the Union State, contradictions between the Russian and Belarusian elites have not been removed, but only intensified. The price of the decision becomes too high: equal representation in Union bodies gives an advantage to the Belarusian elite, which can block any decision and thus squeeze concessions out of the Union State; quota representation (for example, in terms of economic or population size) gives absolute superiority to the Russian elite, which in such an option may not take into account the interests of Belarusian colleagues at all, reducing them to the level of provincial performers. Accordingly, if a decision can be made, it will still be strongly opposed (using the sovereign resource still available to it) by the elite of either one or another state. Thus, integration could be blown up rather than accelerated.

If we consider the creation of supranational bodies only as a solution to the problem of the next presidential term for Putin or Lukashenko, there is no such problem in principle. Lukashenko can already be elected president just as much as he wants or as much as his growing intra-elite competitors will allow him. After all, Khrushchev also considered himself to be an absolute and irreplaceable leader until it was found out that his homely surroundings were quietly gets along without such a bright star.

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This does not solve the problem of handing over power from Lukashenko to his successor, nor does it solve the problem of handing over power from Putin to his successor and the transfer of the decision-making center from Russian state structures to allied ones. On the contrary, since the existence of Union decision-making bodies presupposes one or another form of elite integration, Belarusian and Russian-Belarusian contradictions will be added to inter-Russian elite ones.

Therefore, it is obvious that the acceleration of the real launch of the Union state at the expense of the quality of decisions will not happen. By and large, we already see how the process is being designed and where it is moving. After several decades of sabotage by the Belarusian elite of the creation of a really working structure of Union State bodies under the pretext of fighting for “equality”, it became finally clear that this contradiction in the framework of simple negotiations is irreparable – it is necessary to change the general context of the relationship against the background of which negotiations are taking place.

In recent years, Russia has shown increasing toughness in negotiations with Belarus on economic issues. It is proposed to solve all problems not resolved within the framework of the EAEU either within the framework of the Union State (with binding to the solution of political issues) or to solve them “on a general basis” (in this case Russia considers Belarusian producers in the same way as Canadian or European producers, which dramatically reduces their competitiveness).

The aforementioned complete dependence of the Belarusian economy on the Russian economy does not leave Minsk with space for manoeuvre. It is possible to scare Moscow as much as you like with its “European integrators”, Belarusian Maidanists/”opposition”, and” Litvins”, but the Kremlin is well aware that the Belarusian elite cannot put them in power, because then it will surrender its economic interests (due to the death of the national producer), and in political terms will be almost immediately lustrated. As for Belarusian “European integrators,” they, like their Ukrainian colleagues, are ready to live off grants from the Soros Foundation, so they do not need an economy.

Thus, slowly but surely, Belarus is increasingly adapting its economic rules to Russia’s. The process will take more than one year, but it’s unstoppable. In parallel, Minsk is being forced into increasing political concessions. They are still virtual and are formalised in the form of demands made during negotiations over the same Union State. But the longer the Belarusian elites resist real integration, the worse the conditions for this integration become for them – the less political autonomy they have left. If in the late 1990s/beginning of the 2000s it was possible to talk about a very soft confederation of the two states, now Russia does not want to hear anything even about a real, and not popular, federation. The Union State becomes only a form of integration into Russia with the preservation of ranks and titles (for example, in Russia not only in national autonomies, but even in ordinary regions, there are continuous governments and ministers, this does not change the essence of the matter).

The duration of this integration process is its reliability. Belarusian elites resist persistently and surrender every next frontier only after it becomes clear that it is necessary either to accept Russian proposals or to surrender to the mercy of the West. I.e., they consciously and voluntarily recognise the Russian option as the best possible option. But such resistance will last not three and not five, but a whole ten, or even more years.

The handing over of power in Russia should be a turning point for the Belarusian elite. Once Minsk realises that “after Putin” will be like Putin, resistance will start to weaken quickly, as elite groups, aware of the inevitable integration on Russian terms, will start to compete with each other in terms of who is more pro-Russia.

Rostislav Ishchenko

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