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Tuesday 18.02.2020 | Name days: Kintija, Kora

Lithuanian analysts on Russia-Belarus unification plan: actions louder than words

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Baltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RU

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (R) and his Belarusian counterpart Sergei Rumas (L)

Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

The announcement by Belarus and Russia this week of their entering into an economic confederacy by 2022 did not go unnoticed in Vilnius, which is courting the idea of recharging its dusty relations with Minsk. Is it just the Slavic countries’ new attempt to fulfil the endeavour?

Or, to believe some, is it a complicated scheme to help Russian president Vladimir Putin clear the Constitutional barrier and aim at re-election in 2024 as head of a unified state? Most importantly, if Belarus and Russia do finally unify, what it means for Lithuania?

A new round of unification talks

As talks of a Russian and Belarusian confederacy resurfaced, most Lithuanian analysts rather play a waiting game and see how it will play out at the end of day.

«Indeed, Belarus’ union with Russia is one of the ways in which President Vladimir Putin could clear constitutional term limits that bar him now from re-election in 2024. But that would be an astonishingly complex scheme involving many risks,» Povilas Gylys, Lithuania’s former Foreign Minister and ex-MP, told the Baltic News Network (BNN).

According to him, the idea of a single Russian and Belarusian state has been brought up so many times over the last 20 years that now «few» believe in it.

«Just let me remind that a 1999 Russia-Belarus deal envisioned a union state with a common currency, legal system and a joint defence and foreign policy. The decision however did not flesh out,» Gylys accentuated.

To the remark that the intentions have lately gotten more serious, which signals Tuesday’s visit of David Hale, U.S’s Undersecretary of State for political affairs, to Minsk, former Lithuanian Foreign minister answered that the Unites States evidently sees «room» now for restoring estranged relations between Washington and Minsk.

«It certainly gives more means of juggling to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko,» Gylys pondered.

U.S. scrambles to renew ties with Minsk

The U.S. plans to return its ambassador to Belarus, ending a freeze in ties with the authoritarian former Soviet republic which had lasted for more than 11 years. The USA called off its ambassador from Minsk in 2008 in the wake of human-rights abuses and crackdown by the Belarusian government against the opposition.

Asked if possible unification could pose danger to Lithuania, which shares border with Belarus, former parliamentarian reasoned that it would depend on the situation behind the border.

«Should there be any shake-up in Minsk, it will certainly reverberate to Vilnius. But, on the other hand, if unification led to a warming-up of relations with the West, and Vilnius, too, we could benefit,» former Foreign minister said.

Lukashenko’s promise to the U.S high-ranking official Tuesday not to deploy short – or medium-range missiles in his country – something Russia has suggested it might do in response to U.S.  and NATO military moves in Europe – was certainly music to the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius’ ears, who did not feel happy upon hearing the news on the new round of attempts to bring Belarus and Russia much closer. While speaking to the Žinių radijas on Tuesday, Linkevičius cautioned the plans cannot be viewed positively.

Lithuanian Foreign minister frowns at unification idea

According to him, new integration agreements between Minsk and Moscow will bring Russia closer to the Lithuanian border «with all the consequences», which is «not a very positive thing.»

In his words, «it would hardly be correct to draw conclusions» based on Russian media reports about agreements on the unification of the customs systems, trade and financial rules, and the energy market starting 2021.

«Should any changes occur, Belarus’ government will hardly be the initiator. What it means is that Russia is coming closer de jure and de facto with all the consequences this entails,» he said. Linkevičius claimed that Vilnius will continue applying «the principle of selective cooperation» with Minsk.

«Vilnius will continue to underline the risks posed by the Astravyets nuclear power plant, but will not rule out making certain concessions, for example, in talks on visa-free travel if it sees signs of progress,» Linkevičius underscored.

President seeks better relations with Minsk

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, who recently spearheaded a high-profile discussion, involving top policy pundits, on relations with Belarus, noted that there are «clear» attempts to reduce the remains of Belarus’ sovereignty, but refrained from making any conclusions.

«It is just too premature to valuate such non-verified information,» the head-of-state underlined.

In his words, Lithuania is interested in Belarus maintaining as much of its sovereignty as possible.

«And I can also add that I have said numerous times that we are interested in having a long border with Belarus. We have one already with Russia. We also want to have a border with Belarus, not a very long border with Russia,» the Lithuanian president said in a statement.

Andžej Pukšto, associate professor of Kaunas’ Vytautas Magnus University was one the participants of the President-hosted discussion on Belarus in early September. Approached by BNN this Wednesday to comment Belarus’ deeper integration with Russia, the scholar was sceptic about the unification plans.

World community will not put up

«Unless I see some actions along the way, I won’t believe it is set to happen. It is certainly Russia, not Belarus, that wants such unification. I am sure Lukashenko will resist such new attempts by all means and I am sure the world community will not keep its mouth shut. We saw the U.S official’s visit to Lukashenko this week – the U.S is clearly sending a firm message it wants to see Belarus an independent country. We also heard this week Lithuanian PM Saulius Skvernelis and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki discuss how Vilnius and Warsaw can help Minsk with its energy security,» Pukšto told BNN.

«Russia has definitely got more trumps cards in its hands against Belarus due to its being the single energy supplier. Ironically, Lukashenko, excoriated for so many years for his authoritarian style and  crackdown on opposition, now seems to be the only guarantor of Belarus’ independence,» the analyst said.

In his words, with Moscow’s pressure on Minsk, he cannot rule out that Lukashenko will exhort people to hit the streets in defence of independence.

«He enjoys Russia’s attention, but as much he likes the attention from the West. In that sense, he is a little unpredictable, but he is a good player,» he noted.

 Lithuania needs to be in the game

Lauras Bielinis, professor of Kaunas’ Vytautas Magnus University and former director of the Belarusian Institute in Vilnius, also doubted «seriousness» of new unification intentions.

«We see that it (unification) is being sought in a non-democratic way. No referendum, nothing is hold – the decision-making takes place behind closed doors. I’d rather believe both countries can ultimately agree on pursuing a more active model of economic cooperation, one not foreseeing a common currency, leave alone a joint legal system and defence,» Bielinis told BNN.

According to him, for Lithuania, it is «very important» to take advantage of any situation than can arise over the border, rein it in if possible and be part of it upon circumstances.

The analyst doubted if unification could be implemented to give Putin a green light for re-election in 2024. Now the Russian Constitution bars him from seeking third consecutive presidential term.

«It sounds just as a theoretical possibility to me. I’d ask this: does Putin really want it? It will not go like a hot knife through butter. Let’s not forget Putin is aging and what he wants least is political headache. His entourage understands well he is running out of gas and votes, too. The recent Moscow council elections showed this clearly,» Bielinis accentuated.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Monday that the plan of unification cited by Russian daily Kommersant is «preliminary». He said the integration roadmap is expected to be released to the public before the start of 2020.

Signifying two countries’ cooperation, Belarus and Russia are holding weeklong joint exercises in the Nizhny Novgorod region, west of Moscow. Reportedly, the Union Shield 2019 drills involve a total of 12,000 troops and 950 pieces of military equipment.


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