Belarus, Russia and what the heck is a Union State?

April 17, 2024
IMA Research Team

By Tyler Kruzshak & Marissa Wood


Since the beginning of the current Russo–Ukrainian War in February 2022, Belarus has been given particular attention from Western audiences for its role as a Russian launching point in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Stemming from an increased visibility in international affairs, questions regarding the relationship between Russia and Belarus have become commonplace. Their contemporary relationship is largely based upon efforts made throughout the 1990s to establish what is known as the Union State of Russia and Belarus.

The Union State is a result of a roughly half-decade long process of developing agreements aimed toward reintegrating key facets of Russian and Belarusian security, economics and statecraft under a supranational state authority. Since its creation, this authority has been endowed with the responsibility to direct and ultimately homogenize the separate institutions of the respective members to establish a unified Belarusian–Russian State. It will be the purpose of this piece to surmise the origins of the Union State and its implications for sovereignty.

The End of the Soviet Union

The basis for support of the Union State in Belarus and Russia can be traced to the final months of the Soviet Union’s existence. Throughout 1991, the Soviet Union faced unprecedented political and economic chaos. It was proposed that the Soviet Union be politically and economically reoriented as a way of hoping to end such turmoil, an effort that Soviet citizens within Belarus and Russia both strongly supported.

A map of the Soviet Union from 1962 from the Library of Congress.

However, efforts to preserve the Soviet Union failed due to infighting within the Communist Party and the growing power of the various nationalist movements across the constituent countries. On 8 December 1991, the leaders of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine signed the Belovezha Accords, which officially declared the Soviet Union as dissolved and created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). This was followed on 21 December 1991 by the Alma-Ata Protocol, signed by eleven of the former republics, which also declared the dissolution of the Soviet Union and expanded the membership of the CIS.

Belarus and Russia constituted two of the founding member States of the CIS, and they continued to maintain relatively close bilateral ties with one another. The particular historical context of the two countries as former Union Republics, as well as the tumultuous political, military and economic chaos of the 1990s, led Belarus and Russia to be inextricably incentivized to cooperate across a variety of issues with the aim of stabilizing the post-Soviet world. This range encapsulated such issues as aiding in market development and stabilization, maintaining security and limiting social strife.

Between 1992 and 1995, a contentious debate within Belarus developed regarding Belarus’s geopolitical orientation. Geographically located between Russia and the rest of Europe, Belarus occupied a particularly unique position wherein both Europe and Russia would vie for influence over the country. Supporters of furthering relations with Russia or reintegration occupied significant influence over the legislature, in addition to widespread popularity among the general population. Meanwhile, some Belarusian officials were adamant on a policy of neutrality towards Russia and the West, and an even smaller nationalist current were strongly supportive of European integration at the expense of relations with Russia. During this period, Belarus became increasingly economically dependent on Russia, reinforcing the pro-Russian political position. A multitude of treaties with Russia regarding economics, defense and security were signed during these years, and by 1995, following the 1994 victory of Alexander Lukashenko in the Belarussian Presidential Elections, Belarus began to pursue integration with Russia.

Russia also struggled with its own identity during this period, briefly flirting with diplomatic Westernization. However, by 1993, its focus had shifted to a much more assertive foreign policy of political and economic reintegration with post-Soviet countries through existing organizations such as the CIS, in addition to establishing new organizations, of which Belarus would play a central role. Belarus occupied a pivotal position in Russian military and security thought as the primary buffer between Russia and the rest of Europe. Military and nationalist leaders in Russia viewed Belarus as a vital historical and political ally for Russia.

A Multitude of “Union” Oriented Agreements

By the mid-1990s, Belarusian and Russian relations began to evolve much more rapidly. Both countries signed a series of agreements with the explicit aim to rekindle the economic and security ties between them. This section will give an overview of the agreements signed by the Parties throughout the 1990s and how they impacted international boundaries and security.

On 6 January 1995, Belarus and Russia agreed to form a bilateral customs union which primarily sought to develop a common economic zone. On 21 February 1995, the States signed the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighbourliness and Cooperation which established “mutual respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity, [and the] inviolability of [their] borders.” The Agreement also established a framework for collaboration in economics, foreign policy and military strategy, as well as the establishment of a visa-free border regime.

Belarus also acted unilaterally to confirm its close relationship with Russia. In May 1995, Belarus held a referendum which addressed, among other things, whether Belarus should adopt Russian as a national language equal in status to Belarusian. The referendum also assessed interest in economic integration with Russia. Both measures passed overwhelmingly and set a legal precedent for the continuation of Belarusian–Russian relations.

A year later, in 1996, Belarus and Russia signed an agreement forming what they called the Association (sometimes translated as Community) between Belarus and Russia, which focused on further strengthening the economic ties of the two States. Each State continued to retain “its state sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” but would collaborate on issues of foreign policy.

In 1997, Belarus and Russia signed the Treaty on the Union of Belarus and the Russian Federation, which continued the commitment of the States to further develop and integrate economic, social, political, security and legal matters. While this agreement called for the continued respect of each State’s sovereignty, it did note that the eventual goal was voluntary unification. Union citizenship was established, meaning citizens of either State were now legally considered citizens of both. Belarus and Russia also made efforts to establish a unified border policy and respond jointly to sovereignty threats and military developments.

By the late 1990s, the two countries appeared to be legally approaching a unique form of integration with one another. But in reality, Belarus and Russia were continuing to pursue individual goals, with their commitment to an eventual union wavering.

As the development of the Association reached completion, Belarus and Russia continued towards the goal of greater economic and security collaboration. In 1999, the two States signed the Treaty on the Establishment of the Union State, which reaffirmed the content of previous agreements but emphasized the “sovereign equality of the participating States,” with explicit reference to each country’s “independence [and] territorial integrity.”

To Unify or Not To Unify?

Since its establishment, the Union State has been most successful in the development of its security fields, despite many other stated purposes. The close relationship between Russia and Belarus on the security front has been tangibly observed by the presence of Russian military forces and infrastructure located on the border of Belarus during the initial escalation and continued violence with Ukraine.

Despite the military successes of the Union State, the economic and political aspects of integration have been more challenging, with trade wars and economic restrictions occurring between Russia and Belarus throughout the 2000s and 2010s. The political leaders of both countries, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, viewed the Union State as an opportunity to expand their own political power. When this proved difficult, the importance of some aspects of the Union State faded away.

Furthermore, the future for the Union State as a territorial unit is largely uncertain. Despite various iterations aimed at voluntary territorial integration, both Russia and Belarus have sought to maintain their post-Soviet era borders and independence.

Belarus has played an important role in Russia’s territorial expansion into Ukraine, while preserving its own independence. Despite military cooperation between Belarus and Russia, it is unclear what the long term impact of decades of development towards economic and potential territorial integration will mean. Belarus and Russia continue to maintain good relations with one another, but the goals of its political leaders will likely have an outsized impact on the future potential of a fully unified Union State, maintenance of the current status quo or the creation of something else entirely.

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