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  Does Belarus really want to disengage from Russia‘s embrace?

Aivaras Bagdonas, VU TSPMI doktorantas
2009 08 03

The first half of this year could be referred to as a period of Belarus‘s attempts to reduce its dependence on Russia.

In January the press was overloaded with statements on disagreements between the two countries in the sphere of economy/energy, including political claims. Certain problems  (concerning the price of the Russian gas, development of common anti-missile defense system etc.) were temporarily resolved, but because of Minsk‘s delay to immediately recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia relations remained tense.

On 10 February A. Lukashenka‘s regime declared that Belarus was not going to send its troops to conflict zones abroad and, consequently, refused to execute its commitment concerning the establishment of the Collective Rapid Response Forces.  At the end of March top management of the Byelorussian Parliament announced that it was not going to consider the issue concerning recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the near future.

Moscow is also irritated by the decision of the Byelorussian authorities to participate in the EU Eastern Partnership Initiative. On 29 May A. Lukashenka said that Belarus shouldn‘t take off the hat to Russia anymore and that its future would depend on „the other part of the planet“. These words also demonstrate Belarus‘s hostility towards Russia.

Probably the most drastic political step in the relationship between Belarus and Russia was A. Lukashenka’s refusal to participate in the meeting of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) states held in Moscow on 20 June.  His argument was that Russia started „the milk war“ and economic pressure toward Belarus. In response to the decision made during the meeting concerning the establishment of the Rapid Response Forces, the Byelorussian leader referred to it as an illegal since the decision „was made not by all CSTO members“.

Why has the Byelorussian policy regarding Russia become tougher?

This was predetermined by several factors.  Firstly, after having elected D.Medvedev as president, the economic and political pragmatism of Russia toward Belarus increased. Russia demonstrated that Belarus could expect its support, but only in exchange of Lukashenka‘s decisions favorable to Russia.  This made the governing Byelorussian regime take reciprocal measures.

Secondly, the increasing Russia‘s pressure makes A. Lukashenka search for alternative allies in the Western countries. During the recent half a year position of the West toward the Byelorussian regime became significantly milder. At the end of 2008 the IMF agreed to allocate a USD 2,5 billion loan to Belarus; in May the EU suggested Belarus to take part in the Eastern Partnership Program; the EC considers a possibility to revise visa regime restrictions applied to Belarus etc.

With a view to retaining friendliness of the West, A. Lukashenka has to make decisions not complying with Russia‘s interests, e.g. to delay recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Therefore, the policy of „snorts“ against Russia of the recent half a year could be referred to as economically and politically well-founded gravitation of Belarus toward the West.

Thirdly, A. Lukashenka seeks to reduce Russia‘s influence on the internal processes in Belarus.  One of examples is the decision of Belarus to take the credit from IMF. Actually, the Fund provides credits to beneficiaries by imposing strict economic and financial requirements. This step limits Russia‘s possibilities to control the Byelorussian tax and monetary policy and is evaluated as one of the measures for reduction of impact of the Kremlin on Minsk.

Fourthly, A. Lukashenka’s regime understands huge military and political importance of Belarus on Russia.  Therefore, its policy could be evaluated also as an inducement addressed to a neighbor to weigh consequences of possible gravitation of Belarus toward the West on Russia.

Finally, relationship between Russia and the United States has improved, including the resumption of Russia‘s dialogue with NATO, strengthening of consolidation between Russia and the West in the struggle against terrorism etc.  In this context A. Lukashenka’s decision to supplement the pro-Russian policy by elements of the pro-Western policy could be evaluated as its unwillingness to remain one of the „outcaste“ (dependent on the mercy of neighbors) states.

What could we expect of the Byelorussian relations with Russia?

The answer to this question was provided in February of this year by S. Martynov, the Byelorussian minister of foreign affairs during his interview to the agency „Elta“. He said that „relations of Belarus with Europe cannot and should not improve alongside its worsening relations with Russia or Russia‘s relations with the EU“. It could be stated that Belarus intends to further pursue strategically useful intermediate position between Russia and the West.

Despite a possible A. Lukashenka’s curtsy to Russia, in Western countries the idea of Belarus‘s direction toward the West is evaluated positively. This position was also illustrated in the statement of the Lithuanian Prime Minister A.Kubilius after the meeting with the Byelorussian Prime Minister S. Sidorski on 27 June. He said that „the EU Eastern Partnership Program opens good opportunities for closer cooperation between the EU and Minsk, but this depends on actions of both sides“.

On the other hand, Russia also does not intend to release Belarus from the sphere of influence. According to the Kremlin‘s statement on 1 July, „Russia committed to strengthen economic relations with Belarus, increase bilateral cooperation in the social and humanitarian sphere, make closer contacts in the area of defense and security and search for a compromise on various international policy issues“.

In any case, relations between Russiaand Belarusshould remain dynamic. Their intensity would depend on strategic ambitions of both states, as well as on their will and determination to negotiate and submit, and, certainly, on the role of the Western block countries in solving various problems relevant to Belarusand/or Russia. Therefore the likelihood of A. Lukashenka’s political kicks undermining relations between  Belarusand Russiais still huge.

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