Another day, another provocative comment from Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka. On Thursday he announced to the world that the Russia Belarus Union is an ‘incomplete project’ and should be shelved. He confirmed that he would like to establish trade links with the US and that he is seeking further co-operation with the EU, as reported in the Russian newspaper, Kommersant. This comes after a somewhat dubious outburst a couple of months ago following a bitter spat over a loan instalment. Lukashenka then claimed that Belarus would have to try its luck in other parts of the world if things didn’t work out with Russia. Thursday’s comment, however, gives more reason to think that Lukashenka is actually serious about making concessions to the West.
Following the squabble over the loan and the subsequent ‘dairy war’ it could be said that Lukashenka’s proclamations were little more than an effort to get noticed by the international community. Belarus is neither politically nor economically prepared to integrate with the West despite its promising, albeit cosmetic, democratic makeover. There is also good reason for both Russia and Belarus to continue co-operating despite the limp state of the union, namely Belarusian dependency and Russia’s enjoyment of a buffer to the ever-encroaching NATO. Furthermore, Belarus is an important energy transit country whilst Nord Stream remains a project on paper. For the time being, it seems like these squabbling brothers will have to like it or lump it.
However, there appears to be more weight backing up Lukashenka’s latest attempt to woo the West. Last year, the Belarusian government refused to tow the line following the war in Georgia and did not recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. This indeed seemed like a very bold – and also brave – step away from Russia. Alongside Thursday’s announcement, Lukashenka pushed this highly sensitive issue further by telling Belarusian citizens not to enter the Georgian enclaves via the Russian border.
Although once again this has served Lukashenka’s aim of achieving international press coverage, it really does show that he wants to establish ties with the West. Georgia remains one of the most important obstacles in the way of Russian/Western co-operation and if Lukashenka insists on sticking his oar into the somewhat heated debate, then he is certainly taking his chances by rubbing the Russians up the wrong way. Other more credible evidence of steps towards the West include the release of a US lawyer from prison at the end of last month and an official pardon from the Belarusian government.
But why would a small-town dictator want to pander to the West? After all, he secures his leadership election after election using highly undemocratic methods and yet still enjoys popularity amongst a substantial amount of Belarusian citizens. Other than the fact that Russia is beginning to look untrustworthy following the milk disputes and the loan squabble, Lukashenka has realised that total dependence on Russia is a strategically unsound option.
This is particularly evident with regards to energy following the 2006/7 gas dispute. It is clear that Belarus is keen to diversify its energy supplies away from Russia, shown by plans to build a nuclear power plant. However, it is ironic that Lukashenka has asked for the $9 billion loan to pay for the plant from exactly those whom he is trying to lessen his dependency on; the Kremlin. The desire to diversify has also been shown by the claim that Belarus wants to start trading with the US. A nice idea, but Belarus will have to start producing something that the US actually wants to buy. Nevertheless, the Belarusian leader has identified an important area of weakness and is setting about rectifying this through his concessions to the West.
So, for arguments sake, let’s say that Lukashenka is serious. He’ll make democratic reforms. He’ll stop being a megalomaniac. He’ll release political prisoners and shake up the economy. But should the West trust him? Can a dictator really shave off his moustache overnight? The constitution still states that Lukashenka can run for presidency indefinitely. It is still highly unlikely that the West will embrace Lukashenka, but will simply welcome the move and try to encourage democratic reform with a series of promises of economic help.
And how will those on Belarus’ eastern border react? It is reasonable to think that many Russian politicians will be glad to see the back of this parasitic embarrassment. However, the Belarusian government seems keen to maintain ties and it is also likely that Russia will want to keep a working relationship ticking over. Lukashenka stressed that co-operation with the West was not to be developed at the expense of relations with Russia. Lukashenka is hedging his bets; he wants to lessen his dependency on Russia, but realises that he still needs their help – financially more than anything.
But one shouldn’t knock him too much for such a move. He is simply being realistic; Minsk needs to emerge from its isolationist state, but links with Moscow are too important to make a break. However, Lukashenka seems to think that the only way to please the West is to display animosity towards Russia; the instruction concerning travel to the Georgian enclaves has provoked outrage in Moscow. If he still wants to keep receiving his billion dollar loans, then Lukashenka will have to tread more carefully.
The move should be welcomed, but with caution. Much more needs to be done to improve the state of Belarusian politics and Lukashenka could be in danger of deepening dividing lines if he continues to aggravate the Kremlin. But if making concessions to the US and the EU can invigorate Belarus through increased trade, a more diverse economy and democratic reform, then it will be the people of Belarus who should ultimately reap the benefits. Opening up to the West will also hopefully mean that more aid will be directed to Belarus and those who need the help of the international community – particularly Chernobyl victims.
It would be even better if Lukashenka were to move on, and a trustworthy, democratic reformist were to take care of this oft-forgotten and economically stunted country. However, this really is the stuff of dreams.