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Tensions between Moscow and Minsk

by Dr. Wolfgang Sender

What the West ought to do now

After Minsk introduced a minor visa liberalization for foreigners within the framework of its gradual opening towards the West in the past months, political tension between Russia and Belarus have been mounting. What is this caused by and which scenarios exist for the West therein?

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Russlands Präsident Wladimir Putin und Belarus' Präsident Alexander Lukashenko (rechts), hier im August 2014 in Minsk. | © EEAS / V. Drachev / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 EEAS / V. Drachev / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Russlands Präsident Wladimir Putin und Belarus' Präsident Alexander Lukashenko (rechts), hier im August 2014 in Minsk. | © EEAS / V. Drachev / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In early February, the Russian Federation somewhat unexpectedly announced the introduction of controls on the border with Belarus. This is a noteworthy development, as border controls between the two countries have been suspended since 1995/1996 and a customs union between the two states has been in place since 2000. This unilateral measure by Moscow was carried out in an environment in which Minsk has been trying to improve relationships with the West for months. The release of all political prisoners in 2015 and the circumstances of the Parliamentary elections in 2016, when for the first time two independent delegates gained a seat in the lower chamber of parliament – all these steps increasingly become evident as elements of a strategy. In Minsk, there is talk of an intentional irreversible strengthening of the Western vector of foreign and economic policy.

This strengthening is happening against the background of decided economic challenges in Belarus. The gross domestic product is - after a notable decrease since 2014/2015 - currently at the level of around the time of the financial crisis in 2008, while most European countries have stabilized their numbers again. In 2016 alone, the decrease of the GDP was at 2.7 percent according to the World Bank. A further decrease by 0.9 percent is expected in 2017. Take-home-pay of the Belarusian population decreased by four percent in 2016. Domestic real investment has been decreasing for three years and amounted to only 19.2 percent of the GDP in 2016 - significantly below the 25 percent designated by the state development program as a minimal threshold. Foreign trade balance was negative at -49.8 Million US Dollars in 2016. President Lukashenko has been trying to raise the monthly median income in the current year to at least 500 US-Dollars with all his powers. The dramatic fall in the exchange rate and economic downturn of the past years were substantially caused by phenomenally extensive trade with Russia. The current economic crisis in Russia affects Belarus with a delay but has considerable effects and must - according to all logic of economic policy - result in the diversification of trade in Belarus, nonetheless. This diversification in the Republic of Belarus, that has previously been cooperating closely with Moscow, is solely implemented due to a new factor in political considerations: A significant loss of trust in the Kremlin.

Loss of Trust in the Economic Sphere

There is a lack of trust in Moscow in Minsk, for one part in the sphere of economics. After long periods of reliable but not always tension-free cooperation, Moscow in 2016 unilaterally reduced the contractually stipulated oil supply to Belarus by 27 percent, reflecting its own but also the Belarusian economic crisis. For the Belarusian state, sales of oil products to the West are essential for survival, as it is one of the most important sources of foreign currency. Additionally, Moscow delayed negotiations on the gas price with Minsk and hence stirred up insecurity in Belarusian planning. In recent years, Russian authorities time and again introduced non-tariff trade restrictions for singular Belarusian competitors, that more or less extended to an industry character. Alleged violations of hygiene and other technical regulations repeatedly excluded Belarusian enterprises from the Russian and Eurasian market, that actually offering economic mobility and is essential to their survival. Even Russia’s unilateral decision to close the only international border crossing to Russia from Belarus in Krasnaya Gorka near the Russian town of Smolensk, that has been used by foreigners to cross into Russia from Belarus without any problems in the past 20 years, confirms this trend: Moscow has de facto been reducing its previous benefits to Minsk, and in doing so not only diminishes Belarusian market access to Russia but to the entire Eurasian Economic Union. Thus, Moscow not only complicates current action but nothing short of questions the existing future plans of the Belarusian government, to position the country as a hub between the East and West. It comes as no surprise, then, that president Lukashenko publicly accused Moscow of drying-out the Belarusian economy.

Dispute over Visa Liberalization

Minsk is now looking for a way out due to these unexpected challenges and dire prospects. Hence, an economic opening towards the West is as consequential as offering a minor visa liberalization as leverage: From February 12th on, foreigners from 80 states are allowed to travel to Belarus without requiring a visa for the duration of five days. This ease of entry was nothing short of revolutionary in Belarus, that traditionally has had a strict visa regime. The measure also led to fears in Moscow, that Russia would lose control over movement of individuals into its territory due to the allegedly open border. However, this scenario is hardly real, as visa free arrival and departure is only permitted through Minsk airport and a stay in Belarus within this framework is limited to five days. Furthermore, comprehensive security measures are still in place in Belarus and all travelers subject to the visa liberalization will likely still be verified with the Russian-Belarusian data base. As this minor liberalization of the visa regime doesn’t change the security situation, it remains to be examined why Minsk and Moscow have become embroiled in such a profound political dispute, that even international media, that hardly cover the neighboring state of the EU, are currently reporting on the matter comprehensively. In the past days, especially the Belarusian and Russian press have covered the discord between the two capital cities intensively. President Lukashenko saw himself obliged to take a clear stand on Russian economic policy towards Belarus in a press conference and in doing so stressed that the sovereignty of the country is a greater good than oil supplies. Experts are currently debating whether Moscow is planning a hostile takeover or will intent to remove Lukashenko from office or whether Lukashenko will re-evaluate the relationship between Belarus and Moscow that has existed for a quarter century. Considered rationally, the situation doesn’t appear too dramatic yet. However, the visa situation and economic matters are only two factors in growing tensions that need to be acknowledged more greatly in the West.

Significant Worsening of the Relationship since the Annexation of Crimea

Ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea against international law and due to its role in Ukraine, there has been a general loss of trust in Russia with regards to the regional politics it pursues. As time passed, officials in Minsk increasingly realized that Russian regional politics essentially run counter to the principles of the Belarusian state doctrine that is aimed at sovereignty and independence and a peaceful solution of conflict abroad. For a country like Belarus, whose security policy so greatly depends on Moscow, initial and ongoing attempts at gaining more independence are unprecedented. After long negotiations, Lukashenko succeeded in preventing Moscow from opening an exclusively Russian military base on Belarusian territory in 2016. Currently, Minsk attempts to position itself as a peacemaker in the region with partial success. At its core, this role emphasizes that Minsk doesn’t tolerate Russia’s actions towards Ukraine and its violation of international law.

However, increasing taunts in the relationship between Moscow and Minsk are concerning. A meeting between Putin and Lukashenko in November of 2016 was de facto degraded to a meeting of two heads of state on the occasion of the birthday celebrations of the Russian-Orthodox patriarch Kirill by the Kremlin. In the weeks thereafter, there were provocative declarations by Russian experts with proximity to the state that may be interpreted to the effect that Belarus is deprived of its right to national identity and sovereignty, in accordance with the concept of Russkiy Mir. Minsk, having previously been tolerant of Russian boorishness, reacted harshly for the first time: Belarusian journalists, accused of a pro-Russian-nationalist orientation, were arrested in Minsk and the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted with a sharp rebuttal of all recent statements from Moscow that concerned independence, sovereignty, or cultural-linguistic autonomy of Belarus.

Dissatisfaction with the EAEU

At the turn of the year 2016/17, Alexander Lukashenko appears to have finally lost patience with Moscow. As the only one among the invited heads of state, he cancelled his participation in the central summit of the Eurasian Economic Union EAEU and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), both centerpieces of Russian regional control, in St. Petersburg in December of 2016 on short notice. In doing so, Lukashenko apparently intended to demonstrate his discontent with the fact that there is not even a hint of a solution to the problems that consist within the EAEU and between Russia and Belarus. Vladimir Andreichenko, Chairman of the National House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus, was very outspoken during the Parliamentary Assembly of the Belarus-Russia Union State on December 26th of 2016 in Moscow. On that day, when the heads of state signed the customs code of the EAEU in Lukashenko’s absence, Andreichenko said: “The situation in the EAEU doesn’t reflect our interests. Ever since the initiation of the EAEU on January 1st of 2015 not a single serious economic decision has been made effectively . The union is increasingly turning into a political project . Protectionist resolutions, that violate not only the agreements of the Union State but also the EAEU, are regularly being adopted.“ Minsk is increasingly starting to doubt the Eurasian Economic Union, that is dominated by Russia - in a manner that is not all that different from Kazakh opinions, by the way. There is profound disappointment in Minsk that this integrative project that has been in existence since 2014/15 is showing too few successes and perspectives. With that said, the strong influence Russia takes on decision makers in Minsk, the security policy situation between the NATO and Russia, Belarus’ hardly competitive economy, and the still at best lukewarm relationships with the West alone seem to bar Minsk from distancing itself more drastically from its larger neighbor.

Loss of Trust in Security Policy

While the Belarusian state economy may be re-directed in the medium term and political relationships with the West improve, Minsk can’t allow itself a more pronounced distancing from Russia, despite all the dissatisfaction, especially in terms of security policy: Not too few experts in Minsk - and rightly so - are concerned about becoming part of a new military block confrontation through an usurpation by Moscow - a doomsday scenario deeply rooted in society and politics due to the traumatic history. Recent Russian troop deployments near Smolensk (in the immediate vicinity of the Belarusian border and the most important thoroughfare between Moscow and Minsk) and in Klinsky (45 km from the border with Belarus and near Ukraine), declared a reaction to the strengthening of NATO defenses by Russia, are ultimately close to the border with Belarus - and not that of a NATO country. The expansive and aggressive behavior by the present Russian leadership must lead Minsk to conclude that any threat to the sovereignty and independence of the state doesn’t originate in neither the west, north, nor south. This is even more so the case as the promotion of democracy from abroad by western donors is greatly reduced. The uncertain future of Belsat, an international broadcaster for Belarus financed by Poland, is only one proof of that. Currently, Moscow’s actions arouse more suspicion in many observers in Minsk. At the core of the present focus stands the Zapad exercise announced for the fall of 2017, that is part of the still-existing defense union between Russia and Belarus.

Zapad 2017

The Russian Ministry of Defense wants to send nothing less than 2000 train cars to the Zapad exercises in Belarus in 2017. In light of the current tensions between NATO and Russia, but also between Belarus and Russia, observers are concerned that a Russian military base might be established in Belarus through a loophole, once Russian forces are in the country. However, doubts are in order not only for Belarus - even within NATO this development should be closely monitored. According to some reports, nothing less than a nuclear attack on Warsaw was rehearsed during Zapad 2013 - something that Russia and Belarus demented. Even though Belarus was close to Moscow during Zapad in 2013: Ever since, president Lukashenko doesn’t tire of increasingly stressing the sovereignty and independence of his country and more and more undertakes measures to defend it more strongly. This explains Minsk’s announcement of exercises for the reserves in the beginning of February with an emphasis on the antitank defense. Inquiring into the reason for the exercise just now, considering it was announced shortly before the beginning of the border disputes with Russia, should allow the identification of a potential adversary. Is NATO really the opponent, whose only significant change for Belarus consists in the German Federal Armed Forces having stationed six Leopard tanks in Lithuania, and thus on the border with Belarus?

Careful Steps

Many of Minsk’s intents for delimitation from Russia in security policy have been conducted below the West’s threshold of perception. The first-time assumption of chairmanship of the Central European Initiative is more of a decorative measure. In doing so, Belarus seeks to document its standing as a country orientated towards Central Europe. The new military doctrine from 2016 was a more important step in this process, as it defined the goal of establishing good relationships with the NATO and EU for the first time. Additionally, Minsk has invited the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly for the first time - an organization that Minsk has likely endured political tensions with so far. This gradual opening - countering the current trend in Russian politics - is understandable, also because it is politically smart: Minsk cannot afford, neither contractually nor due to its position, to make its demonstrated economic, political, and security policy diversification more visible or conduct it in a more radical manner. On the one hand, the West seems to be prepared to make significant offers - cue political syste m and human rights situation in Belarus - only when the changes suggested in Belarus over the course of the past months prove to be substantial. On the other hand, large parts of the Belarusian security structures remain closely connected to Moscow. Especially winning over these traditionally thinking elites for more active action in Belarus’ own interest cannot succeed overnight in a hitherto largely apolitical system. At present, Lukashenko appears to be more attuned to liberal-national arguments within the political establishment and less so to the pro-Russian orientation of large parts of the security apparatus. However, this doesn’t need to remain this way, especially if liberal-national ideas in connection with the opening towards the West cannot yield sufficient economic impulses.

Process not Irreversible

The current opening and repositioning of the Republic of Belarus ought to be considered a type of political trial balloon - on the one hand within the apparatus of power, on the other hand towards Moscow and the West. It’s important to stress that this tendency neither appears irrevocable nor a value-oriented repositioning of the country by its elites. The credo is real politics, allowing for the individual functional elements in government to represent somewhat more liberal or structurally conservative orientations, according to their range of duty within the apparatus. Lukashenko permits this - not to develop alternative leadership ideas, but rather in the sense of checks and balances within a system that he still firmly controls. In this competition, the professionally more progressive forces now need to attract foreign investment to the country, especially from the West.

The current minor visa liberalization firstly ought to be evaluated within the sense of this trial balloon - not only towards the West but also Russia, and secondly as a measure to strengthen the state airline and Minsk’s airport, as visa free arrivals and departures are only possible via the capital’s airport. Thirdly, the visa liberalization followed the example of another door opener: Kazakhstan - a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and often in a situation with Russia comparable to that of Belarus - recently eased its process of visa liberalization.

This process necessarily isn’t irreversible. Lukashenko is a master of the art of the political somersault, in the least. Each summit with Putin may alter the course again. Especially so, if Lukashenko is credibly assured by Moscow that no efforts are being undertaken to undermine Belarus’ stability, but that Russia furthermore offers credits and reliable sales markets and energy supplies. The West, however, doesn’t take advantage of similar chances. While there recently has been a greater engagement of the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, higher-ranking political meetings are still rare. The causes for this aren’t solely rooted in the widespread perception of Belarus as a steadfast sister state of Russia in the West, that isn’t objective any longer. Currently, the situation doesn’t appear to be as black and white anymore. Nonetheless, Alexander Lukashenko is still considered a persona non grata - in spite of all recently initiated reforms, slightly improved circumstances during elections, and the release of political prisoners, that led to lifting of all EU sanctions against the country. Lukashenko and his government have been making every effort in signaling readiness to engage in a dialogue with the West - but to no avail so far. Especially Germany is high in demand as an example of development and avowedly continues to be considered a potential political partner by the leadership in Minsk.


Against this backdrop, which scenarios consist for a further development in Belarus and what should the West prepare for? Initially, it seems very unlikely that Minsk will take back the minor visa liberalization on short notice in order to improve relations with Moscow. Minsk depends too much on economic investment by the West and is keen on demonstrating legal compliance, as it cannot afford to do without new impulses in this area. Certain groups within the Belarusian security sector may not be in favor of these new regulations - however, as long as they cannot provide impulses for modernization themselves, their arguments have little weight for Lukashenko. Furthermore, it can be assumed that Russia will uphold or expand its controls. Firstly, there still are Kafkaesque ideas in Russia that the West seeks to destabilize the country and that Belarus would be a point of entry for that. Secondly, Moscow and Minsk have been embroiled in a discord on various matters of import and export. This concerns the notion that Minsk would undermine the ban on imports imposed on the West by Russia. It is more likely then, that Russia will increase its border controls and examine not only people but also goods more carefully.

It is important to stress that developments in border controls in the Eurasian Economic Union always have an effect on internal security in the West. Hence, it ought to be examined whether visa free entry into Belarus for some states will lead to new migratory patterns to the borders of Europe and vice versa for refugees, but also terrorists. Internal security in Belarus traditionally is comprehensive, however changes in border control regimes always bear an opportunity for new loopholes. One scenario could be caused by Russia letting refugees from Chechnya on their way to Germany move to Belarus, as before. However, can it be precluded that Russia won’t let refugees who were denied entry at the Polish-Belarusian border back into the country? In that case, Belarus and the EU might be confronted with new, certainly veritable problems.

Overall, it is very unlikely that the visa liberalization and the worsening relationship between Moscow and Minsk will lead to a dissolution of the Union State or even the Eurasian Economic Union. While relationships may be suffering, Moscow knows about the value of its closest ally. Belarus doesn’t only serve the foreign policy interests of Moscow - the Russian state and Russian businesses have invested billions in Belarus, as well. If anything is at disposition from Moscow’s perspective, then not the integration of Belarus but the extent to which president Lukashenko will be supported in the future, at best. It is unlikely that Russia’s intention of integrating Belarus will decrease, but the opposite - an increase of the intention of strengthening integration - may occur. In turn, Minsk cannot forget whose oil and further help significant parts of Belarusian public revenue are being generated with and where the real opportunities for the country rest at present. In spite of it all, fundamental changes to the strong bond Belarus-Russia are improbable.

Nevertheless, Minsk’s willingness to risk the relationship with its main trading partner Russia, to such an extent for a visa liberalization, shows that the situation of the Belarusian economy is not only dramatic, but that there is an urge to find ways out. As supporters of seeking closer cooperation with the West within the government are now under pressure to deliver; this raises the question for the West as well, whether it shouldn’t support Belarus’ independence and sovereignty more strongly. If one is convinced that an independent Belarus has a right to exist - solely due to historical experiences, then the West must make a point of offering Belarus developmental perspectives. The current opening of opportunities for investment in Belarus may be taken advantage of much more. It appears incomprehensible why the number of German companies investing in Belarus has been stagnant in years - in a country that has shot up in the Doing Business ranking by 13 spots now to a worldwide rank of number 37 within only years. Challenges in legal security continue to exist in Belarus: Not least because entrepreneurs were arrested in recent years and investment projects occasionally are difficult to implement. However, this doesn’t deter Russian and Chinese businesses: The speed of growth of Chinese foreign direct investment at almost 50% in 2016 is considerable, even the Russian portion in overall volume has been stable at around 50% for years. Even if investment decisions are made by businesses - and Western enterprises have more alternatives to investing in Belarus, European polity could consider providing investment incentives by overarching security political stability interests in the case of Belarus. Such incentives aren’t provided by constantly demanding economic reform from Belarus without at least noticeably envisaging greater engagement in the West, by the way. Too little has happened recognizably. Previously difficult relations, matters of human rights, or the present design of the political system ought not be a hindrance for a greater engagement, but should downright be the reason for doing so.

In an optimistic scenario, Germany and Europe then use the chance that visa liberalization and Minsk’s current call for greater cooperation with the West offers. However, the West shouldn’t realize this with the intention of creating a disadvantage for Russia but under the auspices of co-operations and as a proof that it is able to increasingly use the instrument of dialogue with the Republic of Belarus - just as it intends to have a dialog with Russia aside from the necessary determent. Especially when dialogue with Russia is a difficult as in the present, it should be the easier with Belarus that is oriented towards dialogue.

Recommendations for Action

Measures to promote foreign trade and a general new openness towards the country currently appear equally possible as support in training managers and research on innovation. A focus on matters of agriculture, energy, transport corridors, easing of trade and travel, and significantly intensified academic exchange would be immediate fields of action. International projects and those oriented towards the integration of Belarus, among them strengthening Minsk as a place of negotiation for regional conflicts, as well as challenges such as the chairmanship of the Central European Initiative and the European Games in 2019 may be supported, too, if Minsk’s current process of modernization is to be promoted.

Despite all remaining internal political and human rights challenges in the country, it ought to be verified whether Belarus should be increasingly supported on eye level in an active manner and as concretely and benevolently as possible, according to its position. In doing so, symbolic measures in foreign policy offer themselves: No foreign minister has visited the neighboring country in seven years, parliamentary contacts only exist rudimentarily.

It is about time to intensify bilateral relationships on a higher level. This is even more so the case since German troops will be stationed in an immediate neighboring country of Belarus, Lithuania. This can be used as an opportunity to focus more on the entire region from a German perspective and take into account the developments in Belarus. A stronger military and security political presence in the region certainly doesn’t exhaust all current possibilities.

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Dr. Wolfgang Sender

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