Russia’s borders: while Moldova shivers, is Belarus beginning to thaw?

Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko grasps Moldova’s Nicolae Timofti on a recent state visit. EPA

Belarus and Moldova are two former-Soviet states which have moved in very different directions since the end of the Cold War. Moldova has looked firmly west, but struggled to escape Russia’s influence entirely. Belarus has remained Russia’s strongest ally in Europe, but looks anachronistic next to the Baltics, Poland and Ukraine. In this fourth part in our series on Russia’s relations with its neighbours, we look at where the two countries head next.


Elena Korosteleva, University of Kent

Belarus often seems like an unwavering constant in international relations: a maverick, isolated from the West, and increasingly entangled into the Russian sphere of influence. On the surface, it looks like business as usual: Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime remains unchallenged, customarily depicted as “the last dictatorship in Europe”.

Belarus’ relations with the EU and the international community have changed little since the mid-1990s, and could be described as spasmodic at best. All official attempts to improve them, from the 1995 partnership and cooperation agreement down to the 2012 dialogue on modernisation, have either been thwarted or had no effect. Meanwhile Belarus’ relations with Russia and her allies continue deepening. In 2010 it became part of the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) with Russia and Kazakhstan, before the three countries jointly signed the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) launch agreement in May this year.

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But if this all indicates that Belarus’ international relations reflect a predictable status quo, two important undercurrents need to be appreciated. The government has quietly but persistently resisted Russia’s overbearing influence, fighting petty battles over trade/economic issues and making moves to sabotage its ECU membership — for instance, Russia and Kazakhstan signed the ECU agreement on July 1 2010 but Belarus made them wait until July 6 for its signature. In reality, it joined the customs and economic unions more through compulsion than by free will. Most tellingly of all, Belarus has publicly endorsed President Poroshenko’s leadership in Ukraine and objected to Russia’s demands that it join an economic and political embargo of the war-torn country.

Public opinion has also profoundly changed in the past five years. My own research indicates a significant rise in public affinity with the EU; a growing understanding of EU competencies and their potential benefits; and most essentially, a new sense of identity that takes a different view of individuality and the Belarus government. Relations with Russia (and ECU) are no longer seen as a default option for Belarusians. Many people are now seeing themselves as Europeans for the first time.

If Belarusians are gradually being socialised into the wider European space, it suggests that despite a limited official dialogue, the EU might have been doing something right in its efforts to expand the boundaries of public learning in the country. Partly this is thanks to a decision by the European Commission (EC) in 2011 to change its approach to the partner-countries in the eastern neighbourhood: this was after years spent struggling to secure allegiance from certain eastern signatories, Belarus above all.

The EC has become more versatile in how it implements its policies, having expanded its instruments and outreach. In 2012-13 alone, Belarus received almost €60m (£47m) from the European neighbourhood and partnership instrument, six times more than 2007-11 combined. In Belarus there are currently 59 projects in progress. Over 150 have been successfully completed in the past 10 years and many continued after positive EC assessments.

The new approach is more inclusive, targeting all levels of society. Above all, it is more sector-driven, low-key and technocratic – introducing lots of technical norms and guidelines for how projects should be run, which are practical, non-political and easy to follow. This seems to be helping to inculcate European values on the ground and to present the EU as an attractive alternative partner to Russia.

Lukashenko doing his bit to bring Russia and the EU together, as Ukraine’s president looks on. EPA

Despite these successes, joint ventures are still scarce. For example Belarus was excluded from participating in EURONEST, an assembly with representatives from the EU and numerous southern and eastern neighbours. That looks politically short-sighted. Neither is Belarus being much incentivised to join the World Trade Organisation community now that it is part of the ECU.

The overall picture, however, is that the EU appears to be slowly bringing about change in Belarus. It is said that democracy-building is less about high politics and more about the relevance of problems to people’s daily lives. This is where de-politicisation of democracy is vital, as the gradual change in public attitudes in Belarus can attest. Where it leads within the country is not yet clear. At the very least it offers some useful insights into how low-level pragmatic engagement with local stakeholders may alter public understanding of politics, and of the workings of democracy.

Andrew Williams, University of St Andrews

In all the discussion about the Ukraine there has been much less emphasis on its smaller western neighbour Moldova. Yet the two countries need to be seen as part of the same problem. Both achieved an uneasy independence from the Soviet Union at the same moment in 1991. Moldova’s secession was (arguably) preceded in 1990–91 by the “internal secession” of a territory known as Transdniestria or TD (also sometimes Transnistria). Translating literally as “across the Dniester river,” it is a sliver of land about 20km wide with a population of about 505,000, compared to 3.6m living in the rest of Moldova.

This then led to an “invasion” by the new Moldovan government in the summer of 1992, and a brief but bloody civil war. It was stopped by the intervention of very well–armed elements of a former Soviet army based in the TD capital, Tiraspol. Indeed the region still has defence forces which are mainly local but include Russian “peacekeepers”.

The population on both sides of the Dniester are a mixture of Romanian, Russian and Ukrainian speakers, with Russian and Ukrainian speakers predominant in TD and more Romanian speakers in Moldova. Since the war there have been numerous official and semi–official attempts to “reintegrate” TD into Moldova, to use the EU’s favourite term. The TD parliament, elected according to what the EU deems to be undemocratic principles, has always claimed it wants to be part of Moldova but with a great degree of autonomy.

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But after the events in Ukraine, in April that parliament declared its wish to be reintegrated into Russia. This has come to nothing so far, but there is now the distinct possibility that Vladimir Putin will see the opportunity of recreating a Russian Black Sea empire from the Sea of Azov, past Crimea and up to the Dniester – or even the River Prut, which is the Moldovan border with Romania. Until 1991 this was the border of the former Soviet Union.

As is always the case in eastern Europe, the dates, events and interpretations you accept as significant depends on your version of history. But certainly both Ukraine and Moldova have been under the constant influence, before and since 1991, by the (now) Russian Republic. Both have political elites which received their initial political culture from the old imperial power, as well as having economies that still look east at least as much as they look west.

Russia has been able to use this leverage to significantly influence the economies and political events of both Ukraine and Moldova. This has included support for pro–Russian heads of state and corresponding sanctions against those less well–disposed to Russia.

As the historian Tom Holland has pointed out, Russia sees itself as the “Third Rome”, inheritor of the role of the Byzantine Empire, and “guardian” of Russian speakers across a wide region. Putin is a model Byzantine emperor, and “byzantine’ is no insult in Russian. Neither are terms like "empire” or “patriotism,” contrary to the distrust we have for such words in western Europe. Death or injury in a “patriotic” war is seen with unequivocal pride. Russian spies (such as Anna Chapman) are treated as heroes, and there is a constant barrage of historical propaganda reminding Russian speakers of the role of Ukrainian and Romanian “fascists” during the “Great Patriotic War”.

Putin the new Constantine? EPA

Moldovans and Ukrainians who see Russia in a negative light, of whom there are many, bitterly resent these caricatures, even thought they have some historical veracity. They long for integration into a western Europe where the presentation of history is generally less divisive and used to reconcile nations and peoples.

It is difficult to see how these cultural differences can be overcome unless there is a change of heart among the present Russian elite. I feel it is unlikely that economic sanctions will have much effect. They may just inflame those in Russia who have felt humiliated and disrespected by the West ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. They see this as a potential pay-back time. We must prepare for the possibility of a further Russian push west. At the very least Russia will demand – and get from a largely supine and economically–focused EU – a much larger formal role in the future running of both countries.

To read the previous instalments in the series, click here.

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