Monday, October 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Minsk Forming Its Own ‘Near Abroad’ at Moscow’s Expense

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 21 – Most politicians and analysts in Moscow dismissed Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s suggestion ten days ago that Minsk play a larger rule in the economic development of Kaliningrad as a reflection of his “eccentricities” or as part of Minsk’s efforts to gain leverage on Moscow or promote its own privatization effort.

            While such dismissals and interpretations are at least in part correct, they fail to capture another aspect of the situation: efforts by Belarus to play an economically dominant role in neighboring regions of the Russian Federation, efforts that suggest some in Minsk view these areas as Belarus’ “near abroad.”

            Most people in either Moscow or the West who use the term “near abroad” assume that only Russia has one in the former Soviet space, but in fact, other countries do as well as quite often on the territory of the Russian Federation. Among these is Belarus which was doing so in Russia’s Smolensk Oblast long before Lukashenka’s comments about Kaliningrad.

            Indeed, in summarizing what Belarus is doing there, Minsk’s Yezhednevnik” and “Biznes-Revyu” pointedly used the term “near abroad” to describe what their writers said was “the conquest of Smolensk” by Belarusian business and “the flourishing of a real Belarusian economic autonomy” in that Russian region (

            The result of more than 20 years of largely unnoticed Belarusian efforts, these two journals say, this “unique Belarusian economic autonomy on the territory of Smolensk” has”practically everything that eists in a sovereign economy: its own bank, numerous factories and plants, stores and thousands of businesses.”

            “On the one hand, the Smolensk region is “the most native region in Russia for Belarusians, closely tied with Belarus geographically, historically, economically, by infrastructure, and even mentally,” the Minsk journals say.  “And on the other, it is the most convenient place logistically” for Belarusian economic interests into Russia and beyond.

            Minsk’s activities in Smolensk provide a useful context for understanding what Lukashenka was talking about, however strange his words appeared to many. Clearly, as various analysts have pointed out, he has specific interests involving the extensive rather than intensive nature of the Belarusian economy and its need for access to the sea.

            But Minsk’s interest in neighboring regions of the Russian Federation is broader and more important than that because it highlights a reality that many now ignore: Moscow’s promotion of economic integration is a two-edged sword, on the one hand, allowing for Russian influence in the territories of other, but on the other, opening the way for non-Russian expansion Russian influence on Russian territories.

            Such “cross border” patterns had their roots in Soviet times not only among the union republics of the USSR but between the republics and countries in the Soviet bloc.  None of that should be surprising, but it is unfortunately the case that in recent times, analysts have focused only on the Russian side of things rather than on both.

            Lukashenka’s remarks about Kaliningrad and how Belarus could promote its development, however odd and even perverse, nonetheless are useful to the extent that they help redress this imbalance in attention and lead to a recognition that Russia’s current economic problems are likely to make the non-Russian “near abroad” even more important in the future.

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