Alexander Lukashenko Heads West

// The Belarussian President Searches for New Allies

Yesterday Reuters published an interview with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko in which Mr. Lukashenko asserts that the foreign policy course that Minsk has been pursuing, oriented as it is towards Russia, has been a mistake. Mr. Lukashenko also promises to take Moscow to task financially for the use of military facilities on Belarussian territory and for transit to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. For its part, Moscow has no intentions of making any concessions to Belarus and is already preparing retaliatory measures. In the midst of the fray, however, Mr. Lukashenko has found an unlikely ally: the country's political opposition is ready to help him with his struggle against Russia and his friendly overtures towards the West.

Belarus' U-Turn

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who traditionally keeps the foreign media at arm's length, has given two interviews to the Western press in the last two weeks. On January 29, an interview with Mr. Lukashenko by the German political scientist Alexander Rahr, who was previously well-known in Germany for his favorable opinions of Kremlin politics, was published in the German newspaper Die Welt. Yesterday the Reuters news agency also published an interview with Mr. Lukashenko, in which the Belarussian president openly repents of his previous lack of interest in a relationship with the EU and calls on Europe to be friendly towards Minsk. "I acknowledge the mistakes and shortcomings in our foreign policy, and that our policy was focused only in one direction, towards Russia. And we have basically lost the West. We have been standing on one leg, whereas we should be standing on two," said the Belarussian leader in his conversation with Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire.

Mr. Lukashenko began to show a willingness to approach the West in his interview at the end of January. "We need investors from Europe and the US. I do not want new quarrels with the European Union. To the contrary: we need the EU as a partner in the diversification of our energy policies," exclaimed the Belarussian leader in the interview with Die Welt. To the question of the introduction of the Russian ruble as a common currency between Russia and Belarus, Mr. Lukashenko replied, "They have started trying to push the ruble on us as a common currency in order to gradually strip us of our independence. But we do not want to receive our salary from the Kremlin. Our Belarussian ruble is stronger than the Russian ruble, and inflation here is twice as low as in Russia." He also did not rule out the possibility of introducing the euro in Belarus, saying, "We are hoping that the EU will open its internal market for our products and that we will be able to compete with each other." Finally, Mr. Lukashenko called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to take a greater interest in Belarus, promising to be "a quick learner." "I would like Belarus to someday look like today's Germany or Switzerland. But until now the West has only shoved us constantly from behind. Now it's time to make use of new possibilities for cooperation. Let's start an open, honest dialog," suggested Mr. Lukashenko.

In yesterday's interview, however, Mr. Lukashenko slipped up by saying that he is ready to be friendly to the West only if he retains his grip on the reins of power. "Thus far, all of the demands made on Belarus have eventually been about how we should destroy our political system, and it is implied that the current president is illegitimate and should leave his post. What right does the West have to demand that?" he griped.

The Belarussian president had much more to say about Russia in the interview with Reuters. Taking a leaf from Europe's book, he roundly criticized Russia, saying, "Russian policy is becoming more and more like U.S. policy, which they never cease to criticize. There is something imperial in their style of behavior." He also threatened Russia with new bills to pay: "Russia is going to have to pay with hard currency for what it is used to enjoying for free. These are things like transit, military cooperation, and the Kaliningrad enclave. Belarus is basically sponsoring the day-to-day life of that territory." Mr. Lukashenko even named the sum that he hopes to receive from Russia: $5 billion.

Russia's Answer

Alexander Lukashenko's statements appear to be a psychological attack aimed at convincing Moscow to make energy concessions. However, the Russian authorities have other plans in mind. As Kommersant learned yesterday, various Russian federal agencies are already working on countermeasures.

The state-owned company that operates the Russian railroads (RZhD) told Kommersant that a "minimal volume" of freight is shipped across Belarus to Kaliningrad, because the route through Latvia and Lithuania is "much shorter." Freight destined for Poland and onward into Western Europe does travel across Belarus; payment for those shipments is according to rates set at the annual meeting of the tariff council of CIS railroad transport entities. However, these tariff rates are not binding: each country can raise their rates "depending on economic expediency." "At any moment, Belarus can decide to raise the cost of railroad shipping," said the Russian railways operator. "However, there is no precedent for that in the CIS."

The same source in the railroad industry explained that during the recent crisis in Russian-Belarussian relations, the company calculated estimates for the possibility of transporting 10 million tons of oil around Belarus via Latvia and Lithuania to the ports of Kaliningrad Oblast. It turns out to be feasible. Yesterday, the leadership of RZhD met under senior vice-president Boris Lapidus to discuss the upcoming shipment of 58 freight wagons from the port of Baltiisk in Kaliningrad to Germany, which is scheduled for March 15.

Also yesterday, the Russian Ministry of Transportation released a statement accusing the Belarussian side of ongoing - since January of this year - violation of an agreement concerning the export of Russian goods from Kaliningrad Oblast. According to the Transportation Ministry, "The actions of the customs agency of the Republic of Belarus are leading to tension at the borders," in response to which "the Russian Ministry of Transportation is forced to take adequate measures," i.e., to not give permission for Belarussian goods to be transported across Russia.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has also been carefully analyzing Mr. Lukashenko's statements. Moscow enjoys the use of two military facilities on Belarussian territory: the Volga ballistic missile early-warning radar system in the village of Baranovichi and the Antey super-long-range radio communications hub in the town of Vileika, which the Russian navy uses to communicate with nuclear submarines in its Baltic Sea Fleet. According to the terms of a 25-year agreement between Russia and Belarus that dates to May 1996, all of the installations at the facilities belong to Minsk, while the operating equipment is the property of Moscow. The Russian Defense Ministry pays only utilities, not rent or taxes, for the use of the facilities, which are not classified as foreign military bases. As a result, Moscow spends around 400 million rubles annually for the upkeep of the two facilities; for comparison, the annual rent for the Dniepr radar installation in the Latvian town of Skrunde is $5 million, and use of the Daryal-U station in Gabal, Azerbaijan currently costs Moscow $7 million per year. From Dushanbe, Moscow has acquired a 49-year lease on the Okno space-monitoring observatory in Nurek, Tajikistan for a cool $240 million.

According to a Kommersant source in the Russian Defense Ministry, if Minsk decides to review the agreements that were signed in 1996, Moscow would pay no more than $7-10 million per year in rent for the two facilities. The source also said that any attempt by Minsk to include in the rent expenditures for the maintenance of the whole Belarussian air defense system (more than $40 million), which covers Russia from a strategic western angle, would not hold water.

The Russian government is obviously prepared to pay Belarus not a single cent in response to its demands. However, that does not mean that Moscow is going to pinch pennies in its continuing stand-off with Minsk: on Tuesday, for example, Transneft president Semyon Vainshtok announced that the decision has been made to build a pipeline that bypasses Belarus by going from the Russian town of Unecha, on the Belarussian border, to Primorsk in Leningrad Oblast. "Of course, this will be very expensive, very, very expensive," acknowledged Mr. Vainshtok, adding, "If we didn't face such risks from neighboring states, it wouldn't be necessary to spend so much money."

Europe's Reaction

Alexander Lukashenko's noisy proclamations were met with caution by Europe, whose main concern regarding Belarus is the human rights situation in the country. Yesterday Tadeusz Ivinsky, a Polish parliamentary deputy and the former deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, told Kommersant that Belarus is the only county whose membership in the Council of Europe has been suspended, and there is no point in hoping to see it restored any time soon. "Europe has experienced and mature politicians. They know that this push towards Europe by Belarus is a tactical move by Minsk. There have been no qualitative changes visible in Belarus. The attitude towards the opposition has not changed, as the recent elections showed," said Mr. Ivinsky.

European politicians say that Alexander Lukashenko's first real step out of isolation could be to resolve the issue of political prisoners. Incidentally, Belarussian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich made overtures towards President Lukashenko yesterday with the publication of an open letter in which he offers his support in Mr. Lukashenko's struggle against Russia to "preserve the independence of Belarus." In his letter to the president, Mr. Milinkevich also suggested that the Belarussian leader release several well-known Belarussian dissidents from prison and the dissidents and the president take part together in the holiday marking the proclamation of the People's Republic of Belarus on March 25. If Mr. Lukashenko suddenly decides to prove flexible and accept the proffered hand of his sworn enemies in the opposition, that could have a very strong impact on the EU. And then Belarus' u-turn towards the West will become not an imaginary threat, but a real possibility.

Mikhail Zygar, Renata Yambaeva, and Ivan Safronov