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Belarus: Putin's Belarus Visit Likely To Stress Economic Ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin on 19 January travels to Belarus for a two-day official visit. The trip appears to signal a thaw in relations between the two countries, which in 2002 hit an impasse over the thorny issue of a Russia-Belarus merger. Putin's visit might mark the beginning of closer economic integration -- on Russian terms.

Prague, 17 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Putin's two-day visit to Belarus might be the first step toward easing a half-year of discord in relations between Moscow and Minsk.

The tensions were spurred last summer when Putin, speaking in Moscow following a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, announced a change of heart on the issue of a Russia-Belarus merger, a Yelstin-era proposal Putin had steadfastly dismissed.

Putin said he now supported the idea of uniting the two countries -- but on terms strictly favorable to Russia. Rejecting the notion of a union of two sovereign entities, Putin said Belarus should become a constituent part of the Russian Federation, subject to the Russian Constitution and a common head of state.

Lukashenka -- who had made the Russia-Belarus Union his cause celebre since it was first outlined in 1996 -- angrily rejected the proposal. Putin only stepped up the pressure, calling for Belarus to quickly adopt the ruble as its official currency.

At the same time, Moscow had threatened to cut gas deliveries to Belarus for failing to meet its payments. Although the issue was soon settled, Lukashenka accused Russia of using its economic sway to force Belarus into toeing the Kremlin line.

Does Putin's visit mean Russia will once again treat Belarus as a near-equal partner, as it did before last summer's dispute?

Dmitri Orlov of the Fund of Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank, says no. He tells RFE/RL the visit is likely to see a continuation of Putin's hard stance on Belarus: "President Putin is presenting this visit as a manifestation of the fact that he is ready for a normal dialogue with the Russian side, but nothing more. I don't think that during the visit there will be any declarations about brotherly feelings or projects that might be useful for Belarus."

Orlov says Russia's uncompromising new attitude toward Belarus is not just a presidential whim on Putin's part. He notes that with the post-Soviet region continuing to evolve -- most notably with the Baltic states likely to soon join both NATO and the European Union -- Belarus is becoming more and more isolated, and more dependent on Russia for support.

"Belarus has been left in the East, and only Putin can be a bridge to the West for Lukashenka. Putin understands this situation clearly. I think that the Belarusian president also clearly understands the truth of this," Orlov says.

Now, Orlov says, Moscow is less inclined to waste time on sentimental pledges of friendship and loyalty. Instead, it is aiming to play a major role in privatizing Belarusian industry and buying up shares in Belarusian companies: "Behind [Putin's] political proposals [about a Russia-Belarus merger] were concrete economic interests, economic issues. There is a lot of evidence to support this claim. It is not only an issue of Russian gas supplies, which come up regularly; it's not only a problem of Belarusian debts. Belarusian oil companies, [Belarusian gas monopoly] Beltransgaz, and many other companies also count. This list [of companies] are likely to be discussed and decisions are likely to be made."

Orlov says the complexity of some of the economic questions might explain why Putin's visit is a two-day affair rather than a same-day stopover. He adds that a number of Russian oil executives are accompanying Putin on his trip.

Valerii Karbalevich is an analyst with the Strategic Center, an independent think tank in Minsk. He agrees that with Russia clearly holding the upper hand, it is free to set aside political slogan-making and focus purely on economic integration.

"[The Kremlin] has chosen a strategy of economic integration and using Russian capital to gain control over the main Belarusian companies. [Russia] gains leverage with gas, with the economic crisis in Belarus. It exploits [Belarus's] political isolation abroad to gain control of its best companies. It is very important [for Russia] to push Belarus toward the monetary union with Russia, toward the Russian ruble. This is one of the most important issues in current Russian policy. All economic issues are pegged to this question," Karbalevich says.

However, Karbalevich notes, the visit might ultimately prove to be more about domestic Russian politics than bilateral relations between Moscow and Minsk. It is no accident, he says, that Putin's visit coincides with the beginning of a key election period in Russia.

"I think this visit is taking place because Russia is entering a period when several elections will take place. This year the Russians will vote in parliamentary elections, next year in presidential elections. I think that Putin's travel schedule is made with these events in mind. The idea of integration [with Belarus] is rather popular in Russia. The contacts with Lukashenka, the visit to Minsk and future visits by Lukashenka to Moscow, I think, are all a part of Putin's election campaign strategy and the strategy of his party which seeks to control the State Duma," Karbalevich says.

Signing advantageous deals on key Belarusian industries might go a long way toward buffing Putin's image at home. Karbalevich and other analysts said many of the deals are being conducted behind closed doors, but that several are already confirmed: Russia's Slavneft oil company has purchased shares in Belarus's Mozyr oil refinery, and Gazprom has gained control over the Belarusian technology and equipment company Gazoaparat.

In a recent newspaper interview, Russia's ambassador to Minsk, Aleksandr Blokhin, said such investments would help increase state revenues and create new jobs in Belarus. He also called for a quick monetary union to bolster economic ties.