Kyiv, Ukraine — Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it seemed that the West should thank him for fulfilling his decades-long dream of merging Russia with neighboring Belarus.
“Unprecedented political and sanctions pressure from the so-called collective West has prompted us to speed up the merger process,” Vladimir Putin said on July 1 at a forum in the western Belarusian city of Grodno, a short distance from the EU border. Just a stone’s throw away.
“Because together, it will be easier to minimize the damage caused by the illegal sanctions imposed by the West on Russia and Belarus,” Putin said.
A week ago, his Belarusian counterpart, Aleksandr Lukashenko, urged the leaders of other ex-Soviet states to get closer to a “confederate state” of Russia and Belarus — or risk losing their independence.
“Today, post-Soviet space states must be genuinely interested in their reconciliation with the federal states — if, of course, they want to maintain their sovereignty and independence,” he said in a video address.
“Those who are hesitant must understand – without the quickest unification and reconciliation, stronger inter-state ties and simple interpersonal relationships, we may not be like this tomorrow,” said the president, who has ruled Belarus since 1994. Lukashenko said his re-election has been increasingly marked by violence against his opponents and protesters.
In the late 1990s, Lukashenko was eager to merge his former Soviet state of 9.2 million people with Russia — and signed a deal to create a “union state” with a common constitution and parliament.
The former collective farm manager, nicknamed “Bat’ka” (Dad), hopes to succeed the alcoholic Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose mental and physical condition is rapidly deteriorating.
However, Yeltsin named Putin, a non-alcoholic intelligence chief, as his successor in 1999, while Lukashenko hit the brakes on the merger.
But he has been milking the Kremlin for billions of rubles in loans, gas discounts, trade concessions and benefits for Belarusian labor migrants.
Russia’s support has helped Lukashenko, long known as “Europe’s last dictator”, stay ahead politically and economically, especially as Western sanctions on Minsk intensify a crackdown on opposition and critics.
Lukashenko has also been looking for wiggle room.
He has tried to free his economy from the profits of state-run collective farms, chemical plants and large refineries that use cheap Russian crude.
Reversing the image of ex-Communist officials with Chevron beards and heavy country accents, he created the Belarusian Hi-Tech Park, Belarus’ “Silicon Valley” where thousands of IT engineers have developed impressive software and startups.
But the IT industry shrank after reaching a 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 imprisonment.
Tens of thousands left Belarus, including many IT specialists, mainly to neighboring Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine.
Lukashenko appears to be cornered, with Moscow remaining his only backer — and the Kremlin constantly pushing him to complete the merger.
Russian officials vividly remember how Putin’s approval rating rose to 88 percent after Moscow’s last “acquisition”, the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The Soviet Union is resurrected?
For some observers, the merger is a foregone conclusion. They see it as part of Moscow’s plan to revive the truncated Soviet replica, announced in December.
“In view of the centenary of the Soviet Union in December 2022 and Putin’s plans to create a [succeed czarist Russia and the USSR and] Including Belarus,” said Kyiv analyst Aleksey Kushch.
“What’s happening now is just a technical step to prepare public opinion for this act,” he told Al Jazeera.
But other analysts said Lukashenko was still trying to fight back.
“Lukashenko is in trouble, but appears to be resisting a final solution,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based analyst at the Jamestown Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C., told Al Jazeera.
A Belarusian-born observer said that while Putin’s announcement about the merger was an opportunity to boost his approval ratings in Russia, Lukashenko’s remarks about coalition states were nothing more than a “warning signal” to the West.
“Lukashenko’s words are more of a warning sign [other] Countries, mainly in the EU – you are pushing us towards Russia,” Kyiv-based Igar Tyshkevich told Al Jazeera.
For the Belarusian public, unification is far from popular.
The number of Belarusians who firmly support it rose to 9% by July 2021, up from five in 2020, according to the latest independent investigation into the matter by British think tank Chatham House.
The poll showed that 11 percent of respondents wanted Belarus and Russia to have a “single market, single foreign policy and military”, and about a third supported a “single market” and “free trade area”.
“With such sentiments, it’s difficult to merge,” Tyshkevich said.
Even if state-backed Belarusian media backed the idea, it would not change public sentiment, he said, as only a quarter of Belarusians rely on these channels.
“No matter how harsh your advocacy is, if 75 percent of people don’t watch, even if your advocacy is genius, you don’t have any mechanism to influence those people’s opinions,” Tyshkevich said.