Arkady Moshes, December 2010
The World Today, Volume 66, Number 12
Belarus is a land between, now neither part of Russia nor a real European nation. Its president, intent on rallying the voters in this month's election, has cast Moscow as a threat to its very survival. The reality, as he is re-elected, is likely to be another balancing act between Russia and the west.
The Presidential election in Belarus comes at a critical point in the country's post-Soviet history. The political environment, and the geopolitical context, have shifted substantially since the last polls four years ago. Enlarged Europe has rediscovered its earlier forgotten neighbour, and the Russian-Belarusian relationship, once thought to be an alliance based on shared soft authoritarianism, as well as serious mutual economic and security interests, is in deep crisis.
On a strategic level, Minsk openly refuses to join Moscow's efforts to reintegrate the post-Soviet space, thus putting the entire political project in jeopardy.After the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko chose not to follow Moscow in recognising the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Instead, he maintained official contacts with Tbilisi, and more personally with the Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili.
Belarus also joined the European Union's Eastern Partnership initiative,which Russia does not belong to. In the course of his presidential re-election campaign Lukashenko has portrayed Russia as a threat to the sovereignty and very survival of Belarus, apparently intending to use the 'rally-around-the-flag' effect to its own benefit.
On a practical level, year after year Minsk has resisted the expansion of Russian capital and influence into Belarus. It has retained government control over the 'crown jewels' such as oil refineries, fearing that the transfer of these assets into the hands of Russian investors would be the first step towards a gradual loss of power.
Personal relations between Lukashenko and the ruling Kremlin 'tandem', Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, have worsened to such a degree that in March he left Belarus for an impromptu trip to Venezuela to avoid meeting Putin who was about to visit.
Moscow has made clear its displeasure at these developments. This year, the official Russian media launched an extraordinary defamation campaign against Lukashenko. But more importantly, the Kremlin introduced a set of measures aimed at decreasing economic subsidies to his regime.
The flow of tax-free crude oil, which Belarus had received as a member of the customs union with Russia, was limited to the amount the country needed for its own consumption, essentially banning re-exports and inflicting a severe blow to state finances.
Dialogue between Russian and European diplomats has even created the impression that there could be a convergence of approach on Belarus, implying that both sides would support political change there.
This would put a lot of pressure on Lukashenko. If Minsk receives converging messages from Moscow and Brussels, there is a greater likelihood that the presidential elections will be closer to democratic standards.
However, the EU and Russia are still divided over Belarus. The reality is that whereas the EU and the west in general are primarily interested in its political liberalisation and economic reform, Russia wants it as a reliable participant in its project to reintegrate the post-Soviet space.
Moscow will no longer be willing to subsidise Belarus if Lukashenko merely pays lip-service to the idea of post-Soviet integration centred on Moscow. But it might be willing to help financially if there were some tangible signs that Belarus was willing to reintegrate with Russia.
Looking For Change
The difference between the two sets of interests is clear. It is doubtful whether the EU is seriously ready to pursue regime change in Belarus at this point. Though it is viewed as a pariah state by the United States, its human rights record is not notably worse than some other countries which are members of the EU's Eastern Partnership.
Brussels will quite probably settle for some signs of democratisation and care more about the direction than the speed of the process. This can still be achieved with Lukashenko in power.
Moscow, by contrast, despite its harsh rhetoric, has little interest in regime change. There is no guarantee that a new face would not turn to the west in earnest. After all, there is no pro-Russian opposition in Belarus, which should not come as a surprise toMoscow. In fact, it has helped Lukashenko to occupy the niche of Russia's 'best and only' partner by refusing to deal with his opponents, and left the task of supporting Belarusian political prisoners to the west.
Backing an alternative candidate in the elections would demonstrate to Russia's own population that an opposition politician can actually come to power through the ballot box. This would be too risky since Russians themselves are scheduled to vote for a president in two years time.
In reality the Minsk regime has maneuvering space and knows how to use it. It can offer the west privatisation and economic liberalisation instead of democracy. For Russia there could be further intensified security cooperation - fromjoint air defence to participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization - in exchange for joining its customs union, which has lower energy tariffs. And, tomake the a balancing act even more intriguing, Belarus is trying to bring China, with its credit and investment resources, into regional play.
Under these circumstances it is quite conceivable that after the December elections, Moscow, aware that it cannot overthrow Lukashenko, will propose a truce. Another temporary and shaky compromise will be reached.
This approach will not be sustainable in the longterm. Belarus will remain caught in the lands between Russia and the west. But, a tactical muddling through will suit both Moscow and Minsk for now.
Fortunately, this is not the whole story. Muddling through will win the Lukashenko regime some time. And time is what the nation needs to build an independent identity, to overcome post-Soviet nostalgia and move from its self-perception as a western appendage of Russia to that of a modern European nation state.
Arkady Moshes, Director, Research Programme on Russia in The Regional and Global Context at The Finnish Institute Of International Affairs, Helsinki, and Associate Fellow, Russia And Eurasia Programme, Chatham House