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Ukraine Crisis Opens Up Wiggle Room For Lukashenka

  • Robert Coalson

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has continued his decades-old policy of remaining within Russia's orbit, but avoiding getting completely caught in Moscow's gravity by occasionally adopting an independent position and maintaining relations with the West that do not threaten his grip on power.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has continued his decades-old policy of remaining within Russia's orbit, but avoiding getting completely caught in Moscow's gravity by occasionally adopting an independent position and maintaining relations with the West that do not threaten his grip on power.

The May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe will be a big, international prestige moment for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It offers him a chance to celebrate the heroic high-water mark of the Soviet Union and to project an image of confidence despite his battered relations with much of the world over the crisis in Ukraine.

But when Putin greets the military parade from the Moscow tribune, his fellow Eastern European autocrat, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, will be absent. Many conservatives in Russia are viewing Lukashenka's decision as unbefitting the leader of a country they view as an integral part of "the Russian world."

The crisis in Ukraine and the rupture of Moscow's relations with the West have given Lukashenka leverage in his relationship with the Kremlin. In addition, Russia is no longer in a position to subsidize Belarus as generously as it has in the past -- meaning that Lukashenka needs new arguments to present to voters as he prepares for the presidential election expected in November.

Length Of The Leash

Lukashenka continues his decades-old policy of remaining within Russia's orbit, but avoiding getting completely caught in Moscow's gravity by occasionally adopting an independent position and maintaining relations with the West that do not threaten his grip on power.

"As far as Lukashenka-Putin relations are concerned, they can be summed up in a simple formula -- it is all about the length of the leash," says Belarusian opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko. "Lukashenka has been, is, and for the foreseeable future will be on the Kremlin's leash. Naturally, he is now trying to make it a bit longer, while Putin wants it a bit shorter."

The Belarusian president went out of his way to stress his country's abiding ties with Russia during his annual state-of-the-nation address to parliament in Minsk on April 29.

"Everyone needs to understand -- we have been and we will always be together with Russia," he said, although he acknowledged that he did not always see eye-to-eye with Putin.

"We are your brothers," he said in the same speech, addressing Russia directly. "We have always been together and always will be. However, kindly let us have our own point of view, our own impressions of the world."

The Lesser Evil?

And Lukashenka has been demonstrating his own point of view lately. In addition to passing up on the Moscow parade (and it should be noted that Lukashenka traditionally spends Victory Day in Minsk), he was recently in Georgia, where he expressed support for Georgia's territorial integrity although Moscow has recognized as independent the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

He is also pursuing a policy of quiet support for the Belarusian language and culture, building up the country's sense of an identity separate from Russia. He has not recognized Moscow's annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

And Belarus remains a participant -- albeit, a laggard -- in the European Union's Eastern Partnership program.

"I'm not Europe's last dictator anymore," Lukashenka said recently. "There are dictators a bit worse than me, no? I'm the lesser evil already."

"I'm not Europe's last dictator anymore," Lukashenka said recently. "There are dictators a bit worse than me, no? I'm the lesser evil already."

In an interview with Bloomberg News earlier this month, Lukashenka criticized those in Russia who "still think imperialistically and see Belarus as nothing but a northwestern province [of Russia]."

He also seemed to jab Putin directly in a reference to a 2005 comment by then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Lukashenka was "the last dictator in Europe." "I'm not Europe's last dictator anymore," he said. "There are dictators a bit worse than me, no? I'm the lesser evil already."

That interview also raised hackles in Russia. In a comment on Gazeta.ru, journalist Eduard Birov wrote that "Lukashenka must give up his ambitions as the leader of a 'sovereign country'" and make a choice "in favor of a home in the Russian world."

Lukashenka clearly doesn't see things this way, and the Ukraine crisis has given him a chance to carve out a role as a bridge between Russia and the West. The European Union has expressed gratitude to him for hosting the Minsk process on regulating the Ukraine conflict. Moscow, too, is indebted to him, since Belarus is one of the only international venues where leaders of the separatist regions of Ukraine are welcome.

Election Season

And, as Russia's international position weakens and its ability to subsidize Belarus wanes, Lukashenka is grateful for the opportunity to bolster his legitimacy as he prepares to be elected for his fifth term as president, says political analyst Andrei Suzdaltsev of Moscow's Higher School of Economics.

"The Ukrainian factor is really helping Lukashenka [politically]," Suzdaltsev tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "But there is a problem -- while earlier Russia's recognition as the dominant power in the post-Soviet space was sufficient for Lukashenka, and Russia really did legitimize many various regimes, including some quite bloody ones, I'd say -- now Russia is really weakened and [Russia's legitimization] is not enough for him. He needs some legitimization from the West."

Of course, Belarus's relations with the West are far from ideal. The country remains under sanctions following Lukashenka's brutal crackdown on civil society following his contested 2010 reelection. During that crackdown, he infamously jailed many of the opposition figures who had run against him.

He also used a $3.5 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan in 2010 to fund populist gestures -- he raised the average salary in the country to $500 just before the election -- instead of carrying out structural reforms. So further IMF support is unlikely.

However, he could gain legitimacy from the West by sealing a deal on visa facilitation with the EU or by being invited to attend the bloc's Eastern Partnership summit in Riga next month.

Alyaksandr Feduta, chairman of the opposition United Civil Party of Belarus, says that just being invited would be an image booster for Lukashenka at home, but that it would not signal any sort of break with Putin. "If he does go, it would only be with the Kremlin's consent and would not in any way be anti-Russian or anti-Kremlin," he says.

Moscow Life Preserver

Fellow oppositionist Lebedko agrees, adding that Putin might want Lukashenka to attend the event so that he could play up Putin's role as a stabilizing factor in the region and keep the issue of cooperation between the EU and the Russia-led Eurasian Union on the table.

Feduta stresses that the only way to really improve relations with the EU would be to democratize public life in Belarus -- which would be political suicide for Lukashenka "because the public is really very tired of him."

As a result, when push comes to shove, Lukashenka will always stay within the boundaries set for him by the Kremlin, he concludes. "His only ally -- even if he hates it or is afraid of it or betrays it -- are the rulers of the Kremlin," Feduta says, "and he is going to hold on to that like a drowning man holding a life preserver."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov
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