Staunton, October 3 – Having the example of the evolution of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich from “a pro-Russian politician” to “a convinced supporter of European integration,” Russian leaders cannot fail to be concerned that Belarus’ Alyaksandr Lukashenka may follow the same path, a “loss” that would call into question all of Moscow’s regional integration plans.
That is the somewhat surprising conclusion offered by Innokenty Adyasov yesterday in a 1300-word commentary for the Lenta.ru agency entitled “Could Russia Lose Belarus?” that already has been picked up by a number of other Russian Internet outlets (lenta.ru/articles/2013/10/01/belarus/).
The joint appearance of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Kaliningrad for the West-2013 military exercises clearly shows that the two countries remain allies, and Lukashenka has said as recently as May of last year that “Belarus is the closets and truest ally of Russia. Such it was, is and will be.”
Moreover, Adyasov says, “it is perfectly clear” that neither capital wants several disputes about businesses to undercut the broader cooperation between them and that Belarus wants to continue to enjoy the various subsidies and special preferences it has been receiving up to now. Nonetheless, there are concerns about the future in both Moscow and Minsk.
“Russia is obviously concerned,” the Lenta.ru commentator continues, “that Belarus, following Ukraine, could be draw into the orbit of influence of the European Union via the mechanisms of the ‘Eastern Partnership.’” That is something both Poland and Lithuania have been pushing, and Brussels for its part has begun to cut back on its sanctions against Minsk.
In addition, the EU has offered Belarus within the framework of its Eastern Partnership a new program of cooperation including expanded economic ties and business contacts and the strengthening of cooperation in transportation, energy, and customs procedures. But it is not yet clear whether Belarus will go to the Eastern Partnership summit in November.
According to Adyasov, “the thesis that only the figure of Alyaksandr Lukashenka is preventing Belarus from a rapid drift toward the EU is extremely popular among both Russian and Belarusian opposition political analysts.” The Lenta.ru commentator says that this assertion is “at one and the same time both true and not true.”
At present, Lukashenka remains in Western public opinion “the last dictator in Europe,” although that phrase is used less often and Brussels has “more than once” shown its flexibility in order to promote its geopolitical goals. But it is also true that “the number of backers of European integration in Belarus is growing, “especially among the young and in major cities.”
And it must be acknowledged, Adyasov says, that Russia over the last decade “has done a great deal to strengthen European integration attitudes in Belarusian society by proposing that the republic join the Russian Federation as some kind of ‘North-West kray’” and by suggesting that it will limit imports from Belarus to force Minsk to do what Moscow wants.
But there are also reasons why Belarus is unlikely to drift away from Moscow and toward Europe: Moscow’s subsidies keep oil and gas prices there low and preferential trade policies have helped Belarus to increase exports to Russia, to boost wages at home and to send “up to a million” of its citizens to work in the Russian Federation.
However, all these things may not be enough to keep Belarus within Moscow’s orbit given the worsening economic situation in Belarus in recent months and the prospects that the country will have to significantly devalue its currency. The latter step could help boost exports especially to Russia but only as long as Belarus has free access to that market.
One event looming on the horizon that could trigger dramatic change is the presidential election now set for 2015. Lukashenka can count on “the conservative Belarus electorate” as long as he maintains economic ties with Moscow, “doesn’t convert Belarus into a ‘North West Kray’ of Russia, and doesn’t allow privatization on the Russian model.”
“But even among voters loyal to Lukashenka, there is a definite sense of tiredness concerning the irreplaceable Belarusian leader,” Adyasov says. Net year, Lukashenka will mark the 20th anniversary of his rule.” Consequently, he needs “the support of Moscow and above all financial support” to continue in office.
“On the one hand,” the commentator concludes, Moscow doesn’t have an alternative to him. But “on the other, there exist concerns that unless he gets the necessary support from Moscow, Lukashenka will want to play the card of a certain ‘path for Belarus separate from Russia,’” as he has hinted at , in order to win “the nationalistically oriented electorate.”