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Belarus: Whose Friend Now?


http://gdb.rferl.org/7091EBD1-E32B-4C63-AB27-228EF9B09AEA_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/7091EBD1-E32B-4C63-AB27-228EF9B09AEA_mw800_mh600.jpg President Lukashenka is looking at his options (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) January 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Following Russia's more than twofold increase of gas prices and imposition of a sizable duty on crude-oil supplies to Belarus in 2007, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka seems  utterly confused and at a loss to decide what course he should take.

Lukashenka has recently made a number of politically incoherent statements, thus reinforcing the general feeling that without Russia's political and economic support, his autocratic regime is vulnerable and insecure. According to his own estimate, because of the new energy prices, Belarus will have to pay $3.5 billion more in 2007 than last year. Some Russian estimates say Russia's energy and trade subsidies and benefits for Belarus in 2006 amounted to as much as $7 billion. Belarus's gross domestic product is roughly $35 billion.


Overtures


In the January 25 issue of "Die Welt," Lukashenka pledged to open the Belarusian economy to Western investors and expressed a desire to cooperate with Europe. He also publicized his idea to "consolidate" energy-transit countries such as Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and the three Baltic states into a sort of formal alliance, presumably to counteract what he sees as Russia's increasing assertiveness in using gas-and-oil deliveries as a political weapon.


While firmly rejecting the adoption of the Russian ruble in Belarus, Lukashenka did not rule out that his country might join the euro zone in the future. He called in "Die Welt" on European leaders for an "open dialogue" and urged them to lift a travel ban on Belarusian officials, which he compared to "medieval savagery."


On the day following the publication of his interview in "Die Welt," Lukashenka said in a speech to recipients of doctoral diplomas and professorial chairs in Minsk that there will be no "radical change" in Belarus's foreign policy, adding that he will not "rush toward the United States or wherever."


This week Belarusian media reported that Lukashenka had sent an invitation to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and that the invitation had been promptly accepted.


The Phantom Union


His statements and moves regarding Russia were no less disjointed. While paying lip service to his unwavering desire to build an "equal" Belarus-Russia Union State, which was conceived as a bureaucratic phantom by himself and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1996, Lukashenka simultaneously announced two steps that appear to be in stark contrast with his integration rhetoric.


Last week the Belarusian president instructed his government to consider charging Russia rent for the use of land under its gas-and-oil pipeline crossing Belarusian territory. And he announced that Russian oil companies will have to pay new, higher duties on oil transit across Belarus if they continue to demand prices "higher than those on world markets" for their oil deliveries to Belarusian refineries.


Belarus has profited from refining Russian crude oil (bymedia.net)

These steps, if actually taken, might escalate the current energy-price row between Belarus and Russia into a full-scale trade war and lead to the reestablishment of a full-fledged customs border between both countries. For many unreformed Belarusian industries, this would probably mean the loss of the only market on which they can still be competitive and, as a result, their unavoidable collapse.


Therefore, Lukashenka's threats regarding Russia seem to be more of a propaganda exercise than a real intention.


Power Base Shaken


But these threats, as well as Lukashenka's overtures to the West, clearly testify that the Belarusian president has understood something: Not only his self-styled "market socialism" in Belarus but the very foundations of his regime may be eroded by the Russian termination of discount gas and oil supplies.


Most Russian political analysts openly admit that the Kremlin has finally become fed up with Lukashenka's lip service to integration with Russia and decided to goad him into action. And the recent tone of the Russian media commenting on Belarus indicates that the Kremlin's new approach toward Lukashenka is a calculated and well-coordinated campaign.


The Gazprom-controlled Russian daily "Izvestiya" wrote on January 18 that Russia needs "an ally, not an arrogant parasite" in Belarus. This assessment was obliquely echoed by Putin during his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel a few days later, when the Russian leader noted that in its relations with energy-transit countries, Moscow says "'yes' to cooperation and 'no' to parasitism."


Sergei Karaganov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy think tank, wrote last week that the Russian policy with regard to Lukashenka -- which he labeled with the well-known political aphorism, "He's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch" -- has suffered a total failure.


According to Karaganov, Russia's unequivocal political and economic support to Lukashenka allowed him to consolidate his regime and reduce Russia's influence in Belarus almost to nil. Karaganov say that by taking advantage of "gigantic preferences" provided by Moscow, Lukashenka has managed to form a political class that does not want any rapprochement with Russia.


Integration With Russia


Like other Russian analysts, Karaganov does not disclose what could be the ultimate goal of such rapprochement. But it should be recalled that the only coherent and realistic scenario for Belarus's integration with Russia voiced by the Kremlin was President Putin's suggestion in August 2002 that Belarus give up its sovereignty and join the Russian Federation as a single federation subject or as six separate oblasts.


A recent edition of Russia's 'Ekspert' magazine: 'Not Our Son Of A Bitch,' the cover says

Stopping short of an outright call to oust Lukashenka, Karaganov urges the Kremlin not to stop "halfway" and "to swiftly finish the business" of increasing the energy prices for Belarus to European levels.


At the same time, Karaganov proposes that the Kremlin starts developing a truly pro-Russian political elite in Belarus. He even goes so far as to suggest that official Moscow should "take notice" of the human rights situation in Belarus, something it has not done even one time during Lukashenka's more than 12-year-long rule.


For a number of reasons, the West -- in particular Europe -- might decide to give a helping hand to Lukashenka if Moscow attempts to politically absorb Belarus.


First, the disappearance of Belarus -- an independent state and a UN member -- from the political map of the world would set a dangerous precedent for any other attempts at such "integration" in the future.


Second, Europe needs secure and uninterrupted gas and oil supplies from Russia. Belarus as a transit country is an essential link in this supply chain. And Lukashenka, in his attempts to oppose the political incorporation by Russia, may disrupt these supplies more than once.


Therefore, it might well be in Europe's interest to enter a dialogue with the erratic Belarusian leader and try to persuade him that Belarus could remain a sovereign country without playing the role of a bandit on the road.


It is doubtful that Lukashenka could accept Western rules of the game in politics. But he may listen to some economic arguments. He might be persuaded that the best way to counteract Russia's recent "integration" push is to launch market reforms and build his country's independence on a sound economy, which cannot be affected by Russia's malevolence or benevolence to such a degree as now.


The political system built by Lukashenka in Belarus, unshakable as it appears at first glimpse, is very precarious. The machinery works solely due to the absolute loyalty of government officials to the "father of the nation." And this "father" has behaved so far as if he were to rule Belarus forever.


The West might be able to convince the Belarusian president and his compatriots that there is life after Lukashenka and that "afterlife" may not be so costly to them -- and Belarus -- after all.

Russia And Belarus

The main Moscow-Minsk railway line(Tass)

TO MERGE OR NOT TO MERGE: For over a decade, Moscow and Minsk have been working on a project to form a single state, the Russia-Belarus Union. However, every time the two countries seem on the verge of making progress, one or the other steps back, leaving the entire effort in doubt.


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