Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Belarus-Russia Union State

For about the last ten years there has been talk of making an economic and social union with Russia which would form a entity known as the Union State. The idea came about early during Belarus' independence as a means to help quell rampant inflation and stabilize things economically for Belarus. For an unending series of reasons, and probably most of all to preserve an image of independence and democracy for the west, this idea was never consummated. At the moment however, Belarus seems on the brink of actually signing the papers. Whether or not this is actually a popular notion though is hard to say.

Economic times were very hard in the 90's for independent Belarus. Average wages were lucky to see $2 or $3 a day and twice during the decade, the banks faltered and took all of the savings of its investors with it. The results of all of this were a breaking of people's communal ideologies and the beginning of a "sam sebya" -only for yourself-style of living. But of course because there were nowhere near the resources or opportunities available in the west, the result was a complete social catastrophe.

However, over the last several years, there has been a re-genesis in Belarus. Wages have come up, social services have become more dependable and the budgets for city infrastructures have grown to the point that there is something resembling competence and normal available to the eye. A lot of this has been attributed to the president's wanting to stay around for a third term but also because of the ability to sell natural gas abroad, which has brought actual money into the country for the first time since the conclusion of the Soviet Union. Yes, times are better for most people: There is economic stability to an extent and since pegging the Belarusian ruble to the dollar two years ago, though there is still inflation, the appearance of stability of the currency has also built consumer as well as national confidence. The results of all of these positive happenings were an 83% victory for Alexander Lukashenka and the re-establishment of a much desired Belarusian unity; appreciation of Belarusian nationalism has never been higher.

At this moment however, Belarus also seems absolutely and resolutely interested in merging to a large extent with Russia. And the question is whether or not this is the will of the people of Belarus now?

For sure there was a time when the desire to reconstruct the Soviet Union was absolutely on the minds of everyone as the sole answer to "The Problem". But now, with times seeming better and the possibility of that independent, self-sufficient Belarus, the image most attached to Lukashenka's re-election campaign, why should Belarus now wish to diminish its own independence?

Robert Meyer's Publiius Pundit page today has a remarkable article about Moscow that is really worth a read. Certainly, it seems as though Belarusians are not as interested in re-joining with Russia especially because of their obvious problems. Almost universally here it is agreed that Belarus functions much better than Russia; there is less corruption, the money is more dependable and the streets are generally safer. Workers who migrate to Russia for higher wages ALWAYS complain how the mafia creates problems, how there is corruption with the police and that if there is ever a sign of success, their deals are always renegotiated downward. And then there is the game of hardball which is still going on between Gazporm and Belarus over the cost that must be paid for Russian oil. Ukraine's capitulation aside, the deal has left a dirty taste in the mouths of Belarusians everywhere.

Evidence of Belarus' reluctance to do reattach can also be found in the president's reassuring insistence that Belarus will "retain their sovereignty" regardless of any merger. Such a statement is obviously political and designed to be a compromise for those who are opposed. Belarus right now is wondering if Russia isn't more problems than they are worth. Russians would be the first one's to agree that this is so.

However, there is also the thought that the only reason for such a merger now is that it would give Alexander Lukashenka the opertunity to become the first secretary of the second Soviet Union. And do not believe for a moment that the thought of such an entity is not a popular one. And this would especially be true should Ukraine, Georgia and all of the rest of the former soviet satellites agreed as well.

Lukashenka's speaking of a return to a bi-polar global political situation is a very popular notion in Belarus and this ideology is not only attached to anti-American sentiments. The feeling here is that if America can claim that its two party system of checks and balances works for them, why shouldn't the principal also apply to global politics? Certainly, there is much resentment towards the west because of the poverty and problems of the last decade and a half. Acquiescing to western desires did not turn out to be anything that the east expected, and therefore, they are no longer interested as last week's issues in Ukraine illustrate. Most people of the former Soviet Union thought that there would been more support and opportunity than there was during the glasnost and perestroika years; that there was nothing but slick opportunism and abuse from the west has also left people cold. And also there is the almost unanimous feeling amongst those who immigrated to the west that life at home was more real- except of course for the money.

In any case, Belarus is marching forward and preparing for winter. Whether that winter will be spent trying to redo the calculations of how the dollar relates to Russian rather than Belarusian rubble is yet to be seen. But in either case, the people here, just as they always have, with simply deal with it.

  • Note: We are waiting for Mr. Robert Meyer's arrival at the moment. News of the visit hopefully should be available shortly.

    More soon…

    Anonymous Ganna Shamyakina said...

    I read in Robert Mayer's blog about his arrival in Pinsk. It is indeed interesting to hear about his impresions, especially American-Belarusian nexus that found it way to a provincial city such as Pinsk.
    People say a lot about "make up" of Minsk and other big cities, where a beautiful facade masks low income, depressing stability, and absence of prospects for most of Belarusians. Do you feel that difference in Pinsk?

    Wednesday, August 16, 2006  
    Anonymous Mike MIller said...

    (a response to "The Belarus-Russia Union State")

    Adam, I enjoyed reading your recent story article "The Belarus-Russian Union State". You also made a reference to a Publis Pundit article entitled "The Neo-Soviet Economy: No Dollars and Even Less Sense." written by Kim Zigfeld, publisher of the Russia blog " La Russophobe". You question whether or not the belarusian population as a whole wants to go forth with the Union State. It was clearly part of Lukashenka's re-election platforms, and he won by 83%. I believe the answer is yes. The Belarusians likely have questions about how a union state will function with Russia and not allow for Russias socio-economic problems to unfairly burden them.
    This is a reasonable concern for the Belarusian public to have. The solution to this question will be problematic, but I have confidence in the Lukashenka administration to know a workable solution to this problem before the union state is actually finalized. I very much agree that the multiple catastrophies that happened to the Belarusian economy were clearly harmful to the public psyche, both as individuals and their group identity.
    However, it should be noted that the relative good condition retained by the Belarusians in spite of these problems are a testament to the high level of
    positive social engeneering that took place during the soviet period.
    I would also like to propose the idea that there are certain countries in the world today that wouldn't likely be in as good shape as Belarus is today if the same socio-economic pressures were suddenly placed on them.
    Again I mention this as a reminder of the large amount of positive social inertia that was in place in Belarus as a result of competent social engeneering by the soviets. I think it is only fair to give credit where credit is due. You seem to elude that the Belarusian infrastructural rennasaince is because President Lukashenka wanted to stay in office another term. You have constructed your message to imply that the gains made during the last presidential term were instituted to primarily benefit the president at election time and not for the general public good. If I have correctly understood your message, then I disagree with this point.
    You also imply that the completion of the Union State would diminsh Belarusian "independence". I agree that the Union State would likely bring new obligations to Belarus, but wouldn't this same Union State also bring new benefits as well?

    Wednesday, August 16, 2006  
    Blogger BEING HAD said...

    Mike, I think you make a couple of really good points and I know that you are behind Lukashenka all the way but I am going to argue with you over a couple of items.
    First of all having second thoughts abut the Union State is an issue in Belarus and a lot of Belarusians are really thinking twice about whether or not such a union is in their best interests and the Kim Zigfeld piece does a really good job of pointing out why. There was a time, and this is back in the dark days of incredible economic woes that the Union State was seen as the only salvation. But this is simply no longer the case except insofar as how that Union might relate to a new economic entity which might include all of the CIS States i.e., a new Soviet Union.
    And as far as attributing the "economic miracle" to Lukashenka's rewriting the constitution and staying on for a third term, again this is simply a popular local theme. and don't forget that only three or four years ago, Belarus was at its absolute lowest possible point. There was widespread alcoholism and discontent, people were receiving only $40 to $50 a month for their jobs, crime was rampant and NO ONE was thinking of Belarus as a proper place to live. And though it is still a very, very difficult place to get by in, it is really only over the last two years or so that people have had their hope rekindled.
    But really make no mistake that other than allowing for gas to be sold at 1/2 the market price, there was not an awful lot that Russia has done for Belarus. And even that small handout got renegotiated almost immediately after the elections and a review of the Russian Newspapers will show you a lot of bad will over that deal from their side.
    Living in Belarus does have its feel good side to it these days. There is some hope here and it has been a long time since this has been the case. But this hope does not necessarily come from joining with Russia and this was the main point that I was trying to make.
    And I must correct you because making the Union State was ABSOLUITLY NOT on the president's re-election platform. What was said at that time was that Belarus has pulled itself up from the muck and has done it with its own hands. Russia (and China, though this connection has also be derided by the Russian press) was referred to as being a great friend during the elections, and that the future of Belarus would not be dictated by the EU and the US. These are the words that got 83% agreement. Belarusians liked the idea of being a feisty, self sufficient and growing independent entity. They did not do all of this work just to become a county under the jurisdiction of Russia.
    I mean, Belarusians might be poor, but they are not stupid when it comes to economics. A good deal works and a bad deal doesn't and everybody knows this here.

    Wednesday, August 16, 2006  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Posting a link to an article written by 'La Russophobe' diminishes your otherwise well-written article. The name should tell you everything! But if not, read some of her entries. The woman is a lunatic. She hangs on and magnify any piece of bad news coming from Russia, and invents some if they are none. She obviously roots and fervently hopes for Russia to fail. You cannot take anything she says for anything but the garbage it is. The truth is that despite all of the problems it has, Russia is getting back on her feet. And that drives the russophobes crazy.

    Regarding your article, you briefly mention but fail to emphasize a crucial fact. The reason behind the economic miracle in Belarus is Russian largesse in oil and gas. Maybe this is an uncomfortable fact for you to acknowledge, but if Russia stops the Belarus subsidy, the Belarussian economy would collapse. From the Russian point of view, I don't know that it makes sense to create a union state with an unreformed socialist economy that has a parasitic relationship to Russia, but it is clearly in Belarus interests to do so.

    Friday, August 18, 2006  
    Blogger BEING HAD said...

    On the contrary, I absolutely acknowledge that the payments for transporting Russian oil across Belarus and its own natural gas exports are at the center of Belarus current solvency. However, though a billion dollar hit would hurt almost any country, I do not believe it would drown Belarus at this time. And in fact, I am betting that even if the future price should turn out to be more than $80 or $90, which is the latest real quote that seems to be out there, I think they would carry on quite well. But if anything, the drive to join with Russia into a Union State might be the big buffering tool. In fact, if the allowance of the $46 dollar price was attached to the elections, one of the reasons for it was to get Belarus into the fold. To me it is a complex issue because I am also one who would back a New Soviet Union- a conglomeration of all of the CIS states, but not specifically a Russia/Belarus Union. I think Belarus could handle its own independence if it allowed itself to, even at double the cost even if this does not seem to be what the future will bring. However, the obvious reality seems to say that it was a done deal long ago.
    But Posting a link to Ms Zigfeld's article was not a mistake. The points that she made are exactly the mind of Belarusians these days who want no part of Russia's lack of stability. I understand what you are saying about Ms. Zigfeld's perspective, and you are not the only one who was opposed to her opinion, but to me, she simply hit the nail on the head; to many Belarusians, Russia is the parasite.

    Friday, August 18, 2006  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    First, you underestimate the size of the Russian subsidy to the Belarussian economy. A recent article in the Harvard Review estimates the subsidy (all things included, such as the reexporting of gas, refined oil products, etc) at close to $3 billion. About 10% of the GDP of Belarus. If Putin goes ahead and cuts this off, I don't think that the consequences will only be mildly painful as you seem to imply, but rather catastrophic. Lukashenka uses these profits to subsidize the other sections of the Belarus economy keeping a semblance of prosperity, but many of these sectors are antiquated and innefficient and would not survive in a free market. Lukashenka had made Russia the fool for a decade, talking about brotherhood and union state, and in effect doing nothing. As a matter of fact, not just doing nothing, but in many cases acted against Russian capital in the Belarussian economy. But the game is up, Putin has made it clear that Russia will not tolerate being played the fool any longer. That is why Lukashenka is thinking of folding and actually doing some of the things he promised.

    The 'chaos' that you mention in Russia is a product of the transitional state of Russia's economy and political system. Russia, despite Putin's centralizing policies, has several centers of power. Belarus has one. In the end, despite the apparent problems that the various voices produce, and the corruption that has ensued, the system in Russia is less brittle than Belarus'. Despite the strong figure of Putin, there are many players, and it does not depend on one person. The chaos and corruption will subside as the law organs of the country grow stronger. Putin has made great progress in this direction.

    Saturday, August 19, 2006  

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