Russia and Belarus: On the verge of change

It's time for Russia to withdraw support for Lukashenko's regime. Tonight's termination of electricity supplies could mark a turning point.

Making nice: Lukashenko and Putin
Daniel Hamilton
On 28 June 2011 14:46

At midnight tonight, Russia will cut off its electricity supplies to Belarus.  Belarus’ disconnection from the power grid follows the country’s failure to settle a 1.2 billion rouble debt to the Russia’s state-controlled electricity export company Inter RAO.

Belarus’ failure to settle what is a fairly small external debt to Russia (equal to roughly USD $43 million) is largely due to a domestic currency crisis which is making it impossible for the Lukashenko’s administration to get its hands on the foreign currency required to make international transactions. 

While the Kremlin continues to exercise significant power over Belarus, there has been a signal shift in the relationship between Moscow and Minsk in recent years. 

Indeed, such heavy-handed action in relation to an unpaid electricity bill represents a dramatic freezing in relations given that the countries are technically bound by a Union State arrangement not dissimilar in nature to the European Union. 

Signed in December 1999 after attempts to formally merge the two nations failed, the Treaty on the Creation of a Union State established a Soviet Union-style federation with the ultimate objective of moving towards a common form of citizenship, shared armed forces and joint Presidency.  Despite receiving full ratification from the Belorussian Parliament and Russian Duma, plans to adopt customs union were abandoned more than a decade ago.  While the people of the two countries enjoy freedom of movement, the treaty lays largely unimplemented.

Today, only the Belorussian authorities show any enthusiasm for the Union State – the country’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko serving as its Supreme State Council.  Indeed, for Lukashenko, the Union State has long represented somewhat of a comfort blanket, giving him a cock-sure reassurance that Moscow would oppose any dilution of his power and underwrite his dubious economic schemes.

Indeed, despite little more than emotional enthusiasm for the concept of the Union State on the part of a Moscow keen to see a return to its Soviet-era sphere of influence, cooperation between the two states has remained strong until recent times.

Perversely, part of the reason for the cooling in relations between Lukashenko and Moscow can be put down to his bizarre triangulation on policy issues.  

Aware of the negative reputation his country has amassed internationally, he has sought to recast himself as a western-leaning reformist over the past three years; warmly praising the EU and United States one minute while seeking to cosy-up to the Kremlin the next. 

Overlooking his continued human rights abuses, even ordinarily sensible politicians such as Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite have been willing to do Lukashenko’s bidding in the EU corridors of power under the misguided belief that his continued hold on power would “limit the influence of Russia” – a curious observation given Moscow’s expressed policy of providing Belarus with cheap energy (which it can no longer afford to pay for) in exchange for bolstering its regional influence.

Other than Grybauskaite, few in the ‘West’ have fallen for Lukashenko’s act. 

Indeed, there was global condemnation of the violent suppression of pro-democracy protestors in the aftermath of the rigged Presidential election in December.  Further criticism of his human rights record was forthcoming last week after the arrest of 200 students jailed on Wednesday evening for chanting anti-Lukashenko slogans in a Minsk marketplace. 

His actions have only sort to alienate his Russian patrons.

A key example of this was Lukashenko’s decision to adopt tough anti-Russian rhetoric during the rigged 2010 Presidential election, describing Russia as the biggest threat to Belarus’ future economic development. 

Russian premier Medvedev, clearly unimpressed with such remarks, issued arguably it strongest criticism of Lukashenko to date, stating that he had “always been characterized by a desire to create an external enemy image in the public consciousness... The United States, Europe and the Western countries acted as such 'enemies' earlier. Now Russia is declared the enemy”.

Further evidence of deteriorations in the links between the two states have been manifested in a tit-for-tat milk export ban (a crucial component of the Belorussian agricultural sector), an increase in the cost of Russian gas imports – and tonight’s disconnection of energy supplies.

While unthinkable just over a decade ago, the Russian government is now contemplating withdrawing all economic support from Belarus – a move which would likely see Lukashenko’s subsidy-dependent government ejected from office within a matter of weeks.

A willingness to remove Lukashenko is, however, tempered by Russian fears that his ousting would lead to the erosion of its much-cherished regional ‘sphere of influence’ in favour of US and EU dominance.

Russia’s experience with the Ukraine proves that they have nothing to fear in this respect. 

While the country’s 2005 Presidential election was characterised as a choice between the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko and pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, the latter’s victory in a 2010 election rematch has produced policies which both strengthen Ukrainian links with both Russia and the European Union.  Such a balancing of diplomatic interests would clearly be implemented by any Belorussian government, if only because a Belarus of 9.5 million will always rely on a Russia of 143 million for the bulk of its trade.

Russia is often rightly accused of displaying intransigence towards regimes which imprison pro-democracy activists, restrict press freedom and impoverish their population through Soviet-style economic policies – chiefly because they can be accused of operating many of these policies themself.  

Belarus poses them with an opportunity. 

In finally withdrawing support for Lukashenko’s regime, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have the opportunity to build on the positive developments which have already been made in improving US-Russia relations under President Obama’s “reset” strategy.  They have a chance to demonstrate a foreign policy based not only on maximising Russia’s narrow regional interests. They have the chance to demonstrate not only to the US, but an increasingly sceptical European Union that their commitment to democracy and human rights goes further than a few mealy-mouthed words at global summits.  

For both Russia and Belarus’s sake, they must seize this opportunity.

Daniel Hamilton is Director of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch.  He writes in a personal capacity. 

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