More than 20 years ago, leaders from Belarus and Russia signed a treaty on creating a union state, drawing the two former Soviet republics tightly together. Details, however, have never been agreed on by the two sides.
Now, days before he sits down with his Russian counterpart in the latest of a series of top-level meetings, there are strong signs that longtime Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko may be about to do what he has for years resisted doing: sign a deal that could radically undercut his country's sovereignty once and for all.
On August 31, Belarus's ambassador in Russia announced that all the so-called road maps – or chapters – to a union treaty, which Minsk and Moscow have been negotiating on and off for two decades, were nearly ready and could be signed soon.
"We, thank God, have come to the finish line three years later, when only one of the 28 [road] maps remain," Ulazdimer Syamashka said, adding that negotiations could end this week. "I'll think we'll finish ironing out the last one on the 7th."
Lukashenko and Putin's September 9 meeting, in Moscow, is their fifth face-to-face meeting this year. It comes just over a year after Belarus was plunged into turmoil by unprecedented mass protests, the biggest challenge to Lukashenko since he took power in 1994.
Were a final road map to be signed, it would signal a seismic shift in relations between Belarus and Russia, binding them even tighter politically, militarily, and economically, including with a single currency.
"If the integration agreements are signed, it will be a significant surrender on the part of the Belarusian authorities under pressure, which they were unable to resist," political analyst Syarhey Bohdan told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.
This time, it's different
Negotiations over a so-called union state have been going on since 1999, when the leaders of Russia and Belarus signed a treaty pledging themselves to such an entity.
Over the years, few concrete details of the content of the negotiations have emerged, with talks occurring behind closed doors, shrouded in secrecy. Analysts say the main disagreements have focused on tax policy, energy prices, and a single currency.
And it's not the first time Lukashenko, or his underlings, have made such announcements, only to back out at the last moment, apparently over fears any such deal would diminish his personal power.
But this time things are different.
Never that friendly to begin with, relations between Belarus and the West have plunged since August 2020 when Lukashenko claimed re-election in a vote the opposition and the West deemed was rigged, like all other elections during his 27-year rule.
When tens of thousands took to the streets to protest, Lukashenko cracked down brutally.
Since then, more than 34,000 people have been detained, hundreds beaten on the streets and in prison, independent media have been shut down, and opposition leaders are either in jail or in exile, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whom the opposition has declared the likely winner of the presidential election.
With the West refusing to recognise the election result and already imposing four rounds of sanctions on Lukashenko, his inner circle, and businesses linked to him, the 67-year-old mustachioed strongman is dependent more than ever for support from Putin.
Russia has for years subsidised the Belarusian economy, in part by allowing cheap crude oil exports to Belarus, which are then refined and sold on to Western markets with a sizable added value.
The Kremlin has provided $1.5 billion in loans and other backing, including possible military aid announced by Lukashenko last week.
That likely will come at a steep cost. Analysts fear the Kremlin is exploiting Lukashenko's vulnerability to extract tough concessions.
In late 2018, Russia suggested that Belarus would have to accept deeper ties if it wanted to benefit from greater economic cooperation. The sides engaged in intense talks throughout 2019, hoping to reach an agreement on 28 so-called road maps by December 2019 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the signing of the union treaty.
"Those 28 union road maps should be understood as a whole, comprehensive annex to the union-state treaty of 1999," said Kamil Klysinski, a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based OSW Center for Eastern Studies. "After the signing of all agreements Belarus will still remain a separate country, formally independent but integrated into the Russian economy and law system on an unprecedented scale," he said in an email to RFE/RL.
But that did not happen and Lukashenko – who has repeatedly pledged not to cede sovereignty – allowed street protests against a closer merger to play out in December 2019 without a police crackdown.
As a result, Russia first stopped, then cut, deliveries of crude oil and gas. That escalated tensions, but also led to a further thaw with the West, including with the United States, which made its first crude oil shipment to Belarus in March 2019.
A month prior, Mike Pompeo became the first US secretary of state to visit in more than two decades.
But Lukashenko's postelection crackdown, including the forced diversion in May of a Ryanair flight to Minsk to arrest opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, sparked Western outrage, and pushed Lukashenko away from the West and firmly back into the arms of the Kremlin.
High price to pay?
US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher, who has been refused a visa to assume her post, told a Senate committee in June that "Lukashenko has been steadily ceding Belarus's sovereignty to Russia for personal gain since he assumed power more than two decades ago", before issuing a dark warning.
"For as long as Lukashenko remains in power, Belarus is under threat of absorption into Russia under the union-state agreement, with dire consequences for the people of Belarus, their voice, their agency, their culture, and their identity," Fisher told the Foreign Relations Committee on June 9.
Tikhanovskaya told the same hearing that Lukashenko was turning Belarus "into the North Korea of Europe: nontransparent, unpredictable, and dangerous."
Lukashenko is adamant any deal would not result in any loss of sovereignty. "Today, we are so educated and smart that without losing the sovereignty of either Russia or Belarus, we can build such relations, which neither federal nor unitary states have," he said in August.
Lukashenko also said the union treaty could be signed in October or November, when the Supreme Council of the Union State is due to meet. "If we finally agree with the Russian president on the 9th, the government will meet on 10–11th, consider and adopt these programmes. And then we'll approve them at the Supreme State Council," he said.
Union state still far way off?
Analysts are skeptical.
"We've all heard many times various statements that integration agreements would be signed in the near future," analyst Andrey Kazakevich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "I don't think that any 'road maps' that seriously limit Belarus's sovereignty will be signed, but Russia is using the process to increase its influence over Belarus, which is already quite strong."
After saying all documents would be ready by September 7, Syamashka later said that "some road maps not only require a single intergovernmental agreement, but a whole package of documents".
Harmonising tax and customs legislation could take up to two and a half years, he said. (In fact, Prime Minister Raman Halouchanka recently said implementing some of the agreements could be stretched to six years, until 2027.)
Klysinski, the analyst, said the ambassador's statement might signal a negotiating ploy by Lukashenko, whom he said had a "very narrow window" and "limited number of tools".
"One of them is his signature on these road maps," Klynski said. "At stake, of course, are energy subsidies (gas and oil prices), new loans and other forms of financial support. I think the task for Syamashka was to gauge Russian reactions, to figure out what Belarus could get for such 'fast concessions' from Minsk."
While Putin was applying pressure in 2019 to get a deal done, he may not be as eager now, given "radical changes" in Belarus since then, political analyst Artsyom Shraybman said. "One can proclaim success in negotiations on deepening integration, but everyone understands that Lukashenko will never agree to become the governor of a Russian province," Shraybman wrote in an analysis for the Carnegie Moscow Center. "And if you force him, it will not be supported by the Belarusian people and will not be recognised by the West, given Lukashenko's problems with legitimacy."
The union treaty is ultimately the final card Lukashenko can play with the Kremlin, making it unlikely for him to relinquish it, Klysinski said.
"A Lukashenko who handed over the most independent asset – Belarusian independence – would be much less important to Moscow, and after that the Kremlin could look to replace him with someone more stable mentally and predictable," he said.
This story originally appeared at Radio Free Europe/Raio Svaboda, partners of LRT English.