Staunton, February 12 – In the case of Belarus, the Kremlin has become hostage of its longstanding policy of backing whoever is in power among its CIS allies, Vladislav Inozemtsev says. That has given Alyaksandr Lukashenka the opportunity to act as he likes with apparent impunity.
But that policy needs to change at least in the case of Belarus, the Moscow economist says, because Europe is not going to embrace Minsk anytime soon and because any leader who did replace Lukashenka could be counted on to be more pro-Moscow than the current incumbent president has been (echo.msk.ru/programs/personalnovash/1925324-echo/).
Indeed, replacing Lukashenka by one means or another would not only be a sign of strength rather than weakness as far as Russia’s position in Belarus is concerned but would also give Moscow greater leverage over other CIS countries by reminding their leaders that there is a limit to Russia’s patience and that the Kremlin will look to alternatives if it feels so inclined.y
The current back-and-forth between Lukashenka and Moscow has crossed a line, the analyst says. Lukashenka has shown himself too free in his words and too demanding of Moscow for the latter to “completely satisfy” him. Indeed, according to Inozemtsev, “Moscow shouldn’t.” It has already poured too much money down the drain in Minsk.
The clearest indication of this is that Vladimir Putin’s press spokesman for the first time ever mentioned in public just how much assistance Moscow has provided Belarus over the last five years. In the past, Peskov has acknowledged difficulties in the relationship but not put a clear price tag on them.
For too long, Inozemtsev continued, Moscow has always supposed that “the indicator of its influence is the success of the preservation of a specific leader in power in this or that country of the Commonwealth of Independent States.” That gives those leaders, if they are so inclined, incredible freedom of action, a possibility that Lukashenka has exploited once too often.
Some in Moscow think the Kremlin has no possibility of doing anything else because Europe will come to Belarus’ rescue if Moscow tries to crack down too hard. But that misreads the situation, the economist says. Europe will help individual Belarusians, but it won’t help Belarus against Russia.
Once that is recognized, Inozemtsev says, it is clear that “today, Moscow has an enormous degree of freedom of action” and that a failure to exploit it would be a “stupid” mistake. Russia should stop subsidizing Belarus until Lukashenka is replaced, and it should make clear that it will help again only after he is gone.
And in seeking to push Lukashenka out, the Kremlin can be certain that he will be replaced by someone prepared to be more cooperative with Russia and not in any case “a radical opposition figure or pro-European. Replacing one technical ruler with another would be a show of force by Moscow and not a manifestation of weakness.”
In short, the economist suggests, although he does not use these words, Moscow should approach its neighbors from a position of “Russia first” rather than simply being a status quo power for CIS countries and their rulers. That might prove disruptive in some cases, but such a shift would serve notice to all concerned.
Inozemtsev, of course, is not part of the foreign policy establishment in Moscow. But his words should not be ignored not only because he is one of the most thoughtful economic commentators in the Russian capital but also because he has repeatedly demonstrated that he has good connections with those making foreign policy there.
And to the extent what he is suggesting is the view of many of them, Putin may be under some pressure to move more quickly and decisively against Lukashenka than many in Belarus and the West may think. If that happens, the next few weeks or at most months could be filled with dramatic developments not only in Minsk but in other CIS capitals.