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Russia/Belarus: Where Do We Go From Here?

Presidents Lukashenka (L) and Putin (file photo) (CTK) It has been nearly 10 years since Russia and Belarus declared their will to form a common state. In September, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka promised "landmark" decisions to be taken by the end of this year regarding Belarus's integration with Russia. However, his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week did not provide any clue as to what those decisions might be.

Prague, 19 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It was long expected that Lukashenka and Putin would meet in Moscow, in mid-November or mid-December, within the framework of the Higher Council of the Russia-Belarus Union State. That forum also includes the prime ministers and foreign ministers of both countries.

Back in September, Lukashenka suggested that this upcoming meeting would be "significant, momentous, and landmark, particularly in furthering our unity."

But Lukashenka's meeting with Putin in the Russian sea resort of Sochi on 15 December was held at very short notice. And, contrary to expectations, it was devoted to economic matters, not political. At least this transpires from what Putin told reporters after the meeting.

"I want to confirm our agreements regarding relations between our financial agencies. You will recall our talks about the need to support our Belarusian partners and achieve balanced decisions with respect to energy supplies," Putin said. "The Russian government has prepared the necessary documents and I hope they will be adopted by the end of this year."

Primacy Of Politics

Did Lukashenka really want to meet Putin just to confirm that Belarus will receive Russian gas in 2006 at the same price as this year, that is, at $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters? Putin promised not to increase this price for Belarus as early as in April, and Gazprom officials have reconfirmed this pledge on more than one occasion.

It was indirectly confirmed that Lukashenka may have discussed political issues with Putin when, the following day, Belarus's lower house of parliament hastily and unexpectedly announced that next year's presidential election will take place on 19 March. The election will take place four months ahead of the latest date allowed for the vote by the country's constitution.

Many Belarusian and Russian commentators have said that Lukashenka met with Putin primarily to communicate his decision to hold the presidential election at an earlier date and seek the Kremlin's approval for his anticipated third term. Whatever answer he might have received from Putin, Lukashenka looked rather pleased when thanking the Russian president for continuing gas and oil supplies at discount prices.

"I want to thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], because your government and your energy companies have carried out your order and we have practically finalized our contract for gas and oil supplies to Belarus. We have learned to save, and to save well. This year we may have not even imported the agreed volumes of gas and oil in full because our supplies have been sufficient for our economy," Lukashenka said.

Colored Revolutions

It is likely that, once again, Putin will back Lukashenka's bid for the presidency. After the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, Moscow seems to have developed an allergy for any other "colored revolution" in the post-Soviet area. Therefore, Lukashenka, a loyal political ally of Russia since his inauguration in 1994, could count on the Kremlin's political and economic support for his reelection this time as well.

It is not clear, however, what Lukashenka had to promise to Putin in exchange for such support.

Last year, Moscow unambiguously indicated that it wants control over Beltranshaz, the state-run operator of Belarus's gas pipeline network. Lukashenka, who promised in 2002 to set up a Belarusian-Russian venture to run Belarusian gas pipelines, backed down on his decision in 2004. That provoked an angry response from Gazprom, which even cut off Belarus's gas flow for one day.

Earlier this month in Moscow, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka said the talks about the purchase of a stake in Beltranshaz by Gazprom have been reopened.

The most recent Lukashenka-Putin meeting also appears to signal that Moscow has shifted its attention from political to economic issues in its relations with Minsk even further than before.

Earlier this month, Russia-Belarus Union State Secretary Pavel Borodin divulged to journalists that both sides are currently working on no fewer than nine versions of the Constitutional Act of both states, that is, a common-state constitution. However, neither Lukashenka nor Putin found it necessary to say a word about this issue after their talks in Sochi.

This may not be so surprising when one recalls that Russia's clearest stance so far on integration with Belarus was formulated by Putin in August 2002. Putin then proposed an "ultimate unification" of both states by incorporating Belarus into the Russian Federation as a whole or dividing it into seven new federal regions. Arguably, such a form of integration hardly needs any additional constitution at all.

At that time Lukashenka indignantly rejected this incorporation proposal. But will he be able to withstand such an integration scenario during his anticipated third term, when economic considerations might force the Kremlin to increase gas prices for Russia's staunchest post-Soviet ally as well?