Russia and Belarus mark 10 years together

The Union State of Russia and Belarus is marking its 10th anniversary. Created to provide greater political and economic convergence, nowadays the Union has a dubious future.

Oil and gas disputes between the two countries have poured cold water over the grandiose plans of a decade ago.

What is officially known as the Union State of Russia and Belarus, was established on April 2, 1997.

This was preceded by a year of being a commonwealth of two states initiated by the President of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko.

The purpose was to harmonise the political and economic differences between the two nations.

The treaty of creation, however, was not signed until December 1999. The eventual intention was to form a Federation of two states with a common president, parliament, constitution, citizenship and currency.

Since then, the two countries have lost much of their original enthusiasm.
Perhaps the only sphere where progress has been achieved is military co-operation.

Russia has its military bases on the territory of Belarus and the two countries are successfully co-operating in the sphere of air defence.

Other elements of unity have been collapsing one after the other despite statements of commitment from both sides – the customs union and the Russian rouble as the common currency among the biggest buried ideas.

“The Union is facing problems, quite serious ones. In particular Belarus is not fulfilling four agreements despite our strong demands,” says  Pavel Borodin, Secretary of the Russia-Belarus  Union State.

President Lukashenko has more than once emotionally blamed the Union's failure on Russia.

But the ultimate cooling in relations came with the oil and gas disputes late in 2006 when Russia announced its decision to establish fair market relations with Belarus – a rise in prices which could cost Minsk billions of dollars and shatter its economic stability as well as disrupted energy supplies to Europe for several days.

“We are very upset by the fact that such barbaric actions were undertaken by our ally, our nearest neighbor, the country whose people are very similar to Belarusians”, said then Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko.

At present the future of the union is uncertain.

“The Union for the time being remains real in the minds of citizens of Russia and Belarus. However even if steps have been taken to make it happen, it would be easy for either side to destroy it. The Union exists but it is more of a virtual alliance”, says Mikhail Chernov, Chief of the International department of RBC journal, Moscow.

At a recent Q&A session with the media President Putin said the Union can be made reality but its model still has to be agreed on.

“Our understanding of what the Union State should be is changing all the time, as you yourself probably know. We have heard on many occasions from the Belarusian leadership that they would like a Union based on the Soviet model. Taking the example of the European Union, I proposed using the EU as a model, but I was told that this is insufficient and that the union should be deeper. We need to decide what kind of union would suit us and our Belarusian friends and colleagues,” said Russian President.

While the Union's treaty of creation stipulates that any other state can become its member, it is still unclear whether its original founders – Russia and Belarus – will end up as the single state they wanted a decade ago.