Vladimir Putin’s surprise firing of Russia’s government and unveiling of constitutional changes that would weaken the presidency may only be Plan B for retaining power after his final term ends in 2024.
In the month before Putin’s January 15 announcement, he’d pushed hard to convince his longer-serving counterpart in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to revive a moribund agreement to create a superstate between the neighbouring former Soviet republics, two Kremlin officials said.
So far, Plan A has failed, even after another face-to-face between the leaders in Sochiy. And Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss who’s run his country of 10 million for a quarter century, is paying the price for rejecting Putin.
On January 1, Putin started squeezing the lifeblood of Belarus’s economy — cheap crude oil, which Belarus refines and exports for badly needed hard currency. Russian oil supplies to Belarus plunged by three-fourths in January and officials in Moscow say flows may stop altogether if Lukashenko doesn’t agree with its producers on market prices.
Absorbing Belarus would allow Putin to sidestep term limits by becoming the leader of a new “Union State.” Lukashenko, though once a supporter of the merger, is adamantly opposed, people close to the Kremlin said.
The idea was first agreed in principle in 1999 between Lukashenko and Russia’s then-ailing president, Boris Yeltsin.
“Putin sees himself as a world leader and it’s very hard for him to disassociate himself from the role of president,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin adviser from 2000 to 2011. While the constitutional amendments Putin is advocating would give him some oversight over his successor as head of a strengthened State Council, the “ideal option is Belarus,” he said.
The standoff is becoming an issue of international concern, especially in light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in the wake of the overthrow of a Putin ally in Kyiv in 2014.
The Defense Ministry in Lithuania, which borders both Russia and Belarus, warned in its 2020 threat assessment that Lukashenko has few cards left to play to resist Putin’s pursuit of “deeper political integration.”
The Lithuanian report followed the first visit to Minsk by a US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, since 1994. Pompeo told Lukashenko on February 1 that American companies stood ready to meet Belarus’s oil needs at competitive prices.
That marked a stark turnaround from previous US administrations.
In 2005, Condoleezza Rice, then-President George W Bush‘s secretary of state, called Lukashenko’s Belarus “Europe’s last dictatorship.” The following year, Bush imposed sanctions
on Lukashenko’s “regime” for undermining “democratic processes,” penalties that were prolonged and widened by the Obama administration.
Lukashenko, 65, has proven deft at playing East and West off one another to maintain his country’s independence.
Public support in Belarus for the Union State has fallen to about 40 percent from 60 percent in the last year, inversely tracking the rise in tensions over energy supplies, according to Andrei Vardomatski, an independent pollster in Minsk.