The Batka Stoops to Blackmail

// Why Russia Should Not Fall for the Belarussian Gambit

With his characteristic candor and directness, President Lukashenko has suggested to his Russian colleague that they compare lists of grievances to see whose list is longer. The Belarussian side is trying feverishly to remember what else should be included in the bill that is about to be presented to Russia so that the relationship between the two countries no longer looks like the relationship between a breadwinner and a dependent. It isn't hard to guess that in the near future we will be witnessing some engrossing haggling, which for a galled Minsk will be an attempt to settle the score. Or at least the appearance of such an attempt, which will allow the "batka" to demonstrate his ability to land a punch.

That events in the new year would evolve according to such a scenario became apparent already in the beginning of January, in the early days of the Russia-Belarus oil and gas conflict. However, we will leave the question of who owes whom how much to the economists and the ministers. For our part, we are going to take a look at a less obvious and less predictable aspect: the geopolitical aspect.

By pretending that he is prepared to turn his face to the West (or to the East) and his back to Russia, the main hero of Belarussian political folklore is offering a new fairytale to his fellow citizens. A fairytale with a happy ending, in which the small proud republic, betrayed by its big brother, finds an even bigger brother and hides behind him like behind a stone wall. However, in reality everything will turn out differently. Minsk's feasible options for quickly finding a new big brother or even just some bosom buddies are few. China is far away, and anyway China is always crafty like a fox. Venezuela is even farther away, and its president is obsessed with the compulsion to hammer together an anti-American coalition, which accounts for his main interest in President Lukashenko. Thus, it would be mistaken to maintain that Belarus will walk away from Russia tomorrow. What's going on today more closely resembles a political tender or auction. Up for auction is Belarussian foreign policy, which in itself isn't overly valuable to President Lukashenko anyway. Because his main value is power. And if, in ceding his foreign policy to someone, he can thereby strengthen his grip on power, the goal will have been achieved.

So far there is no evidence that the West is ready to agree to the deal that President Lukashenko is offering. However, it doesn't follow that this "item" will not sooner or later finder a buyer. Today's world is divided into spheres of influence, the struggle for which is becoming ever more fierce. "Orphan" territories, those that are not under the control of the world's central powers, are practically nonexistent. Russia, in order not to lose in this situation, must not under any circumstances attempt to pay back Minsk with the same coin and thereby wade into battle along the whole Belarussian front. Only then will Alexander Lukashenko's attempt at blackmail not achieve its goal. For if we soon learn that Belarussian furniture is made out of ecologically-harmful material and that Belarussian shoes cause rheumatism, and if Rospotrebnadzor head Onishchenko discovers heavy metals in Belarussian cottage cheese and sour cream, then Belarus' geopolitical plumb will move away faster than we thought.

Sergey Strokan