There is always opportunity in a crisis, and a major crisis, such as that arising from almost a year of protest and repression in Belarus, contains an equally significant opportunity: for increasing Kremlin influence in Minsk and furthering annexation plan “Union State”.
On April 22, Aliaksandar Lukashenka travelled to Moscow to pay homage to his feudal lord, Vladimir Putin. As MediaIQ.by comprehensively illustrated, government-aligned Russian media coverage of the event reveals much about Kremlin intentions.
Russian media coverage of the turmoil in Belarus following the presidential election of April 2020 has been extensive. Perhaps surprisingly so, given that the Kremlin is a bastion of paternalistic political continuity. However, one cannot fix something unless it is broken. When you already have a solution in mind (such as de facto Russian annexation of Belarus), it is pragmatic to seize upon any problem that circumstance delivers.
The concept of the Russian-Belarusian federal state has been hovering in the wings for over twenty years and kept alive by both sides for entirely different reasons. For Lukashenka, it has served as a useful “or else” when negotiating with the West: press me too hard, and Belarus vanishes back behind an iron curtain. It has always been evident that this would be politically suicidal for Lukashenka personally. He would likely lose power entirely and, at best, be reduced to the status of a Kremlin appointed regional governor. However, the point of a weapon of last resort lies in the threat it poses to others, not whether the user can survive its use.
Kremlin designs are far less Machiavellian. Belarus is the key to the Suwalki corridor, which is a lever the Kremlin covets for its potential to pressure Poland, the Baltic States, and, by extension, NATO. Revealing an open desire to base Russian forces on Belarusian territory would place Lukashenka in a powerful position if pursued by negotiation and would never be fully stable given Lukashenka’s penchant for playing the Kremlin and the West against each other. Converting Belarus to de facto Russian territory (an unavoidable outcome in any “union”) resolves both this problem and other issues arising from Lukashenka’s duplicity at a stroke.
Even without considering continental-scale conflict, Belarus has strategic significance. It opens another front for placing pressure on Ukraine, giving the Kremlin another card to play in the Donbas and Crimea confrontations, and the prospect of stationing tanks on the Polish border and securing vital oil and gas transit routes almost certainly also features in Kremlin calculations.
Media IQ article provides an overview of how the Russian media covered the Belarusian-Russian summit on April 22 and also the preparatory work they have done over the last year to set the stage and establish a zeitgeist for their audience. Press coverage, official communiques and ad hoc comments from officials tend to emphasise different aspects, but they are all integrated components of the same narrative: the inevitability of shared Russian-Belarusian destiny.
President Putin’s official spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, favours an approach based on fear. Time and again, he returns to the threat from the West. Speaking with “Kommersant” on the eve of the meeting, Peskov reminded readers that “both countries are targeted by other states, and must get used to this aggressive and hostile environment” and “the vulnerability of Moscow poses a danger to Minsk and vice versa.”. Fraternal cooperation and ever greater integration are consequently the logical response and of vital importance.
Peskov also assured readers that the leaders will discuss (amongst other matters) the recent coup and assassination plots against Lukashenka and then proceeded to outline the Kremlin’s expectations from the talks, stressing that Russia remains engaged regarding the current political crisis before digressing into vague foreboding about ongoing efforts to meddle in the affairs of both countries from abroad.
Peskov did not directly allude to allegations regarding an American supported coup d’etat against Lukashenka, but Kommersant itself was careful to include the topic while noting that both Lukashenka and the Kremlin are profoundly concerned with attempts to replace the Belarusian President. What they did not stress so clearly is that, while they are both aligned on resisting revolutions in general and the Belarusian democratic opposition in particular, that does not mean they are on the same side.
Moving on to Secretary of State of the Union State, Dmitry Mezentsev, Kommersant reports that it is for Minsk to decide how deeply to integrate economically and that 26 specific programmes (roadmaps) are ready to be initiated. Media IQ also elaborated on Russia’s views in this regard in “Russian support can no longer be taken for granted.”
Meanwhile, Rossiya 1 TV reflected on the previous meeting of the two leaders in Sochi on February 22 and the vital importance of personal meetings between the leaders to address the most critical issues, specifically the recently alleged coup plot and relations with Ukraine.
Dozhd TV, on the other hand, refers to Lukashenka’s press service to suggest that the primary topics for discussion are joint action on COVID19, transport links, regional security and other aspects of bilateral relations. This is followed by an interview with “United Russia” aligned Political Analyst Konstantin Kalachev who believes that “mergers and acquisitions” (presumably by Russia) are not in prospect because conditions have changed since the 2000s. However, he still foresees a strengthened military presence and Russian business investments (acquisitions) of Belarusian enterprises. With admirable balance, he also points out that this is exactly what Lukashenka has tried to avoid for the past two decades because the relative sizes of the Russian and Belarusian economies means that such integration inevitably reduces the Belarusian economy to a mere appendage.
Meanwhile, the Russian media, in general, address the union question subliminally. Belarus is persistently referred to as a “region” or “republic”, thereby establishing in the minds of the Russian audience that Belarus is already largely equivalent to one of the constituent republics of the Russian Federation. In this way, integration/union/annexation becomes an accepted fait accompli long before becoming a reality.
After almost 4 hours of talks, the parties announced that they had discussed union state integration issues and other aspects of cooperation, including “special services”.
The Interfax.ru press agency quotes unattributable Kremlin sources to suggest that economic cooperation was the core focus, not issues of political union and also quotes Dmitri Peskov stressing that the question of Russian military bases on Belarusian territory was not raised.
Rossiya 24 TV showed a short clip from the meeting in which Lukashenka speaks approvingly of President Putin’s statement to the Russian Parliament and supports the proposal to focus on the military and security aspects of the union state.
Rossiya 1, well known for presenting information in a manner that the Kremlin approves, went so far as to cover Lukasehnka’s arrival at the airport and his onward travel to Red Square. Referring to “new topics for negotiations” and “things happening in the life of the union state”, they attempted to inject gravity and portentousness into an event that would not otherwise carry any.
They then quote Putin observing that: “our citizens enjoy equality in pensions, employment, and health care. A lot of positive things have already been done”, and later: “our teams work [together] very effectively, I mean both the government team and the administration team, and now, as we see, also through special services.”
The recurrent references to “special services” cooperation are clarified to refer to the FSB arrest of alleged Belarusian coup plotters sponsored by the USA.
The consistent themes are the shared threat, shared destiny, and the inexorable inevitability of both the path and the destination. The media report progress towards a prejudge conclusion rather than analysis and debate of the course.
Interfax quotes Lukashenka concurring with Mezentsev that almost 30 bilateral programs are agreed and ready to commence, but that two or three crucial economic proposals remain to be resolved.
Rossiya 24 reports that one of these issues is taxation and that Minsk has made a decision, but implementation will take some time. This is conflated with vague comments about the union and security and foreign threats, perhaps to send a message that Minsk is aligning more closely with Moscow because it is under pressure from the West.
Rossiya 1 and Kommersant return to Dimitry Peskov, who reiterates much the same as the other sources, though with an added mention of medical cooperation.
The most significant shift in the Russian media perspective on union state issues is a greater emphasis on the foreign policy and regional security dimensions.
Integration is still inevitable in their world view, but the focus is no longer so firmly on speed and economics.
Lukashenka’s intransigence and duplicity is alluded to from time to time, but not to the point of becoming direct criticism. The media remind their readers and viewers that he is not a reliable partner, but not to the point of alienating him or projecting these faults onto the Belarusian people. The subtext would appear to be that union state integration will occur, but whether Lukashenka is an active part is optional.
It is also clear that despite the summit being about Belarusian-Russian bilateral matters, broader geopolitical considerations cast a significant shadow. Military and security concerns repeatedly arose, even though these are more CSTO concerns than union state matters.
The topic most noticeable by its absence was the discussion of Belarusian political reform. There is no suggestion that Kremlin interest in the matter has waned, but direct references were generally studiously avoided. This may suggest that the position is still finely balanced, and the Kremlin does not want popular opinion disturbing the waters.
Cover photo: Kremlin of Solovki. Photo by Vladimir Suvorov/Izvestia