Speculation has been mounting for months that the road for Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend his reign past 2024, when he is obliged by the constitution to step down, runs through Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus. Many expected last weekend's celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Russian-Belarusian Union State to provide a convenient launchpad for the longtime Russian leader to push for the further integration of the two countries and then use it as a pretext to change the constitution, thereby getting around the current limit on presidential terms.
The long-awaited summit, however, turned out to be a non-event. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the collective farm director-turned-autocrat who has ruled Belarus for twenty-five years, fought tooth and nail to preserve every inch of his powers. His Russian counterpart grumbled, but eventually acquiesced to substituting real integration with another set of hazy road maps and distant deadlines.
The two leaders agreed to postpone the sensitive issue of oil and gas sales until their next meeting on December 20, but the Kremlin is unlikely to use the delay to ramp up pressure on Belarus. This is because keeping Lukashenko safely ensconced remains a crucial element of Russia's wider dealings with the ruling elites of the post-Soviet states, and part of the established formula for preserving a modicum of influence over irksome neighbors.
The saga of Russia-Belarus integration is very much a process of the slow but inexorable tightening of the Kremlin's grip over its Western neighbor, though Russia's achievements should not be overestimated. Russia's Gazprom may have swallowed up Belarus's gas monopoly Beltransgaz and constrained Lukashenko's influence over tariffs for the transit of Russian gas to Europe. But Gazprom's control over the gas operators of Moldova, Latvia, and Estonia has clearly not been enough to firmly embed any of them in Russia's sphere of influence.