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Belarus: Foreign Policy Looks To Russia And The West

Prague, 5 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus appears to be conducting a two-track foreign policy: one is focused on a drive to unite with Russia through a web of bilateral ties; the other is to patch up its own relations with the West. It is not certain, however, whether either of these goals will succeed any time soon.

Integration into Russia has long been the main goal of Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Openly nostalgic for the Soviet-era Moscow-centered unity, Lukashenka has been disdainful of any form of a separate Belarusian identity. He has repressed the national language, put down national aspirations and replaced the white-and-red national flag with the one used in Soviet times.

Belarus and Russia signed a formal union treaty last April. It envisaged close bilateral economic, political, and military ties.

The Belarus economy has always been heavily dependent on Russia, its main supplier of energy and most important trading partner. In 1995 the two countries formed a joint customs union which calls for unifying customs legislation and creates a single customs area. Russian customs officers are stationed along all of Belarus' external borders.

Similarly close ties link the Belarusian military to the Russian defense establishment. The two countries have signed a series of cooperative agreements. Belarusian troops and Russian defense units from the Kaliningrad group of forces maintain joint operations.

In April, Russia and Belarus decided to create a single regional military air defense system by the year 2000 that, in the words of Belarusian commander of air defense forces General Valery Kostenko, would "control the air space in the western direction, guard and defend it."

Only yesterday, a delegation of the Belarusian armed forces arrived in Moscow to discuss practical measures on joint operations and training. According to the head of the Operational Department of the Russian General Staff General Yuri Baluyevsky, these were to "adjust" the two countries' defense preparedness in response to NATO's eastward enlargement.

Lukashenka has long been a vocal critic of NATO expansion. He also recently threatened to send troops to Kosovo in case of a Western move to end the conflict in the Serbian province.

Meeting earlier this week in the Russian city of Yaroslavl, Belarusian parliamentarians --all hand-picked by Lukashenka himself-- joined their colleagues from the Russian Duma to propose a joint parliament to deal with legislation on union matters and to move toward a joint citizenship for both countries.

At the same time, there have been indications that Belarus may be preparing for some form of rapprochement with the West.

These moves appear to be rather tentative and taken reluctantly. And they seem to be forced by a dramatic economic decline rather than a political change of heart on the part of the leadership.

A senior Belarusian official told a Western correspondent (Reuters) two days ago that "the situation is forcing us to find a compromise with the West and with financial organizations." But he was quick to add that "Belarus will not make radical reforms." Yet, "radical reforms" seem to be needed. While only earlier this year, (March) the government claimed substantial economic growth (10 percent) and low inflation, the current official figures show a decline in production (by 4.5 percent in September) and rapid inflation (from 3.8 percent in August to 17.6 percent in September). The Belarusian ruble slid at interbank exchange to 300,000 to one dollar (the official rate remains unchanged at 58,600 to a dollar).

More important, the prospects are pointing to further economic decline, largely owing to the continuing crisis in Russia. Indeed, the initial "boom" was closely linked to exports to Russia but now the exports have suddenly dried up, with little or no visible chances of improvement any time soon.

This explains Belarus' turn to the West. A mission from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank is in Minsk this week, presumably to listen to the government's pleas for help. Both organizations suspended loan programs earlier this year, discouraged by the lack of economic reforms.

And there is little prospect that this will change. World Bank Vice President Johannes Linn was reported to have told the Belarusian officials two days ago that economic reforms must be implemented "immediately" or the economy would further deteriorate.

In the meantime, the Minsk government has offered to allow foreign, mostly Western, diplomats to move back to their residences in the diplomatic complex at Drozdy, a suburb of Minsk. The complex was closed in June, ostensibly for repairs.

But this may be insufficient to change the Western concern at Lukashenka's methods and intentions. The U.S. ambassador Daniel Speckhard is not coming back. At least not yet. The U.S. embassy, in a statement this week, said "The American side has made it clear that is not an issue about housing but about principles".

Lukashenka gained popularity with promises of resolving economic and other problems in Belarus through integration with Russia. Increasingly, the policy of integration looks insufficient to cope with and resolve the country's problems.