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Belarus: Analysis From Washington--The Belarusian Dilemma

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 21 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Both Moscow and the West have a great deal at stake in the resolution of the deepening political crisis in Belarus, but neither has yet found an effective way to intervene and moderate the dispute now raging between that country's president and its parliament.

Until it offered to mediate the dispute this week -- an offer that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka rejected out of hand -- Moscow has watched the crisis there with increasing concern but without deploying its enormous economic, military and political equities in Belarus to bring about a reconciliation.

Moscow's concerns are obvious: Instability in Belarus would inevitably affect Moscow's communications with Europe and its relations with both that country and the other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Moreover, problems there will only increase East European interest in joining Western institutions, including NATO. And Moscow's unwillingness to use its power to prevent such instability will inevitably raise questions about its real intentions there and elsewhere.

But Moscow's unwillingness to use its leverage thus far has entirely understandable roots.

First, many Russians recognize that the constitutional modifications the Belarusian president now seeks at the expense of his parliament resemble those Russian President Yeltsin obtained in December 1993 at the expense of the Russian legislature.

Second, few Russians want to take any steps that might change Lukashenka's past commitment to closer ties with Moscow. Should the Russian government push him and Minsk hard on this or any other point, the often unpredictable Belarusian president might quickly reposition himself as a committed Belarusian patriot.

And third, the Russian political leadership understands that any use of its powers, economic or otherwise, would have an impact on Ukraine, other members of the CIS, and on Eastern Europe. Too strong a Russian move would certainly push these countries away from Moscow rather than attract them to it.

The West, both Europe and the United States, find themselves in a far more difficult situation. On the one hand, these countries too fear the consequences of a large, unstable country in Eastern Europe. And they are especially concerned about increasing the powers that Lukashenka personally enjoys.

That is because the current Belarusian president has often said outrageous things. And even more seriously from the Western perspective, he has threatened to go back on agreements concerning the transfer of nuclear weapons to Russia.

But because few Western countries have serious equities in Belarus and because most have neglected the development of close ties with Minsk, the West finds itself in a position where it can denounce the actions and statements of Lukashenka but can do little to reverse them.

Thus, over the past few weeks, the United States, even while calling for compromise, has made it clear in public that it backs the parliament's view on the upcoming referendum rather than Lukashenka's. And the Council of Europe has spoken out against Lukashenka's position as well.

Curiously, Russia's on-again, off-again engagement and the West's apparent inability to go beyond statements appears set to have an impact in Belarus very different from the one that many in both Moscow and the West profess to want.

Moscow's statements, if not actions, appear to have convinced ever more Belarusians, including their president, that they will be far better off as an independent country than as an appendage of a greater Russia.

And Western criticism of Lukashenka, following what many Belarusians see as Western neglect of their country, appears to be convincing at least some of them that they must look first and foremost to themselves because they can count on no one else.

Not surprisingly, such conclusions in Belarus about both Russia and the West provide a fertile field for the growth of precisely the kind of nationalism that might ultimately lead Lukashenka and possibly his country in a direction that no one -- including many Belarusians -- wants.

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