Alexander Lukashenko allies himself with Boris Yeltsin

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Dmitry Shusharin) - A change in the Russian government eclipsed all the other events of last week. There was even no time to pay attention to interviews of foreign presidents with the Russian media.

Few noticed what Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said in a conversation with writer Alexander Prokhanov at Echo of Moscow Radio, which was reproduced by the newspaper Zavtra. This is a real pity.

This interview dispels the myth that Lukashenko is an emotional and charismatic leader who prefers improvisation. He displayed enough charisma, though, in replying to a question prepared by Prokhanov in advance, and did not fall into the trap. Clearly, a good team of analysts and speech writers was working on this interview.

The exchange was aphoristic, very well structured, and based on the repetition of the main idea. Lukashenko devoted this interview primarily to Russia and how Belarus is going to build relations with it.

Let's start with Russia's image. Here are some excerpts from it:

"Gazprom is not to blame for this conflict, Mr. Prokhanov. We would have settled it with the corporation on easier terms. They understand that the future of their empire depends on Belarus. As you said, Belarus is a direct corridor to Europe, to paying markets. It is not Gazprom, but the Russian leaders that created the problem. The increase in prices was the result of the Russian president's direct order."

"The media have convinced your people that the Russian authorities are pursuing the 'right policy.' But you keep afloat only because you have loads of greenbacks, although the same amount of money is leaving Russia as well. You can still pay pensions, wages and salaries. What are these 'national projects' all about? Maybe you need them before the elections as PR?"

"Today, Russia does not have any effective policies except those that pursue someone's personal interests. It is a myth that you have major state-owned corporations, where 30% belongs to the government. This is a cover-up. The spoils have been divvied up here time and again, and everyone has his or her own personal interests. And they are fighting for their piece of the pie with fingers that are blue with greed. They are taking the money to the West and concealing it there."

"Russia will never be an empire again. It does not have the required resources. You have lost everything in bits and pieces. You are being driven out of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. You are being driven out of Ukraine, and it is all your fault."

In this context, Belarus is planning to act as follows:

"We will now use every opportunity to promote relations with the West. Why should we squabble? At first, we supplied you with 85% of our goods, and our exports to the West were many times smaller. Now we are giving you 36% of our products and sending 45% to the West. If they push us on oil, we will upgrade our super-refineries and will achieve even deeper conversion, although ours is already 50% deeper than in Russia. We will sell the products of conversion to the West in order to overcome the shortages which you are creating for us."

To tone down this harsh criticism, Lukashenko made a curtsy at the end by inviting Vladimir Putin to follow his own example and hold a referendum on his participation in the 2008 elections. But on one occasion, he compared "early Putin" to "late Putin." On many occasions he recalled Yeltsin to prove that in his time it was better, that Yeltsin was more sensible.

The reader may get the impression that it would not be bad to return to the good old days. There is an analogous incident from Russian history, when the successor to the throne, Alexander I, promised at the funeral of his father that everything would be like it was during the reign of his grandmother, Catherine the Great. Needless to say, he did not keep his promise, but life was very different from how it had been during the reign of his assassinated father.

Yesterday, nobody would have expected Lukashenko to refer to Yeltsin as a wise ruler. His whole ideology rested on the premise that Yeltsin, Kravchyuk, and Shushkevich committed a crime by burying the Soviet Union. For years the Belarusian regime suppressed all manifestations of nationalism, campaigning for a special Belarusian identity - in alliance with the Russians.

In Russia, the current regime has been repudiating the legacy of the 1990s. The official pledge of continuity with Yeltsin is accompanied by an unofficial rejection of his era.

Now Lukashenko has made an about face by praising Yeltsin. The Belarusian leader is very popular in Russia, but not among democrats and intellectuals, so his conduct is therefore all the more stunning.

Apparently, he felt more comfortable when Yeltsin's Russia was developing partnerships with its neighbors. Now he is not so sure about the aspirations of Russian politicians. Like many others, he can explain why Moscow is at loggerheads with Ukraine and Georgia, but why is he being treated like that? He said that he could come to terms with Gazprom, but not with the Russian authorities.

The problem is that the Russian political elite could not care less whether the new national identities in former Soviet republics rest on the desire to integrate into Europe or ally themselves with Russia. It perceives as a threat the very fact that this sense of national self-identity exists, that it has created an entity claiming the right to partnership and cooperation. In this sense, the conflict with Belarus is in no way different from clashes with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

Many domestic political actions taken by the Russian authorities are reminiscent of the reign of Paul I. Likewise, in their resistance to the new national identities in the former-Soviet space, the Russian political elite are acting like Nicholas I. He did everything he could, and even risked a military invasion of Hungary in 1848, to prevent the development of national identities in Europe, but he eventually brought Russia into a confrontation with the major European powers. The whole ideology of his reign was expressed by Dubelt, the head of the Third Department (the Political Police), who wrote in his diary shortly after the start of the Crimean War: "What rogues these foreigners are!"

But by that time, the Russian troops paled into insignificance when compared with the army that won the 1812 war against Napoleon...

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