Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Putin’s Man in Minsk Unlikely to Achieve Putin's Purposes, Yegorov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 28 – Many are worried that Vladimir Putin’s new man in Minsk, Mikhail Babich, the new Russian ambassador and special representative of the Russian President, will oversee the ouster of Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the annexation of Belarus by Russia, Andrey Yegorov says.

            But there are compelling reasons to think that Babich will not achieve either of those goals and even that Putin is not at present interested in them. To that extent, Babich’s posting in Belarus may become the first job at which he has clearly failed to achieve what was expected, according to the head of the Minsk Center for European Transformation.

            He tells the ThinkTanks.by portal that it is clear that with Babich, Putin wants to “lower the rank of Lykashenka to the leader of a region and change the current format of Russian-Belarusian relations to one in which not all issues must be resolved by a meeting of the two presidents (thinktanks.by/publication/2018/08/28/andrey-egorov-minsk-mozhet-i-slomat-uspeshnuyu-kareru-spetspredstavitelya-putina.html).

                Put in simplest terms, Yegorov continues, “Putin is trying to put Belarus into a more subordinate position. But to speak about Babich’s appointment as the start of an operation of absorbing Belarus [into Russia] is conspiracy thinking.” At present, the Kremlin “does not have the desire or the need to make Belarus part of the Russian Federation.”

            The reason for that, the Belarusian political scientist says, is that “Belarus is not too profitable and Russia doesn’t need yet another region it would have to substitute.” At the very least, “Russia is not now prepared to pay for the deep integration of Belarus.” It wants greater control “but without investment.” Hence, it has dispatched “a controller.”

            According to Yegorov, “Russia would like to have a more loyal Belarus and a more loyal Lukashenka.” It is prepared to take some steps in that direction but is unlikely to decide on anything too radical once it weighs up the arguments for and against taking them.  Consequently, it is unlikely even to work to oust Lukashenka now or in the elections.

            Of course, he says, “Russian cannot shift to some purely pragmatic format of relations with Belarus since these relations from the outset have not presupposed a rational element.”  What Moscow wants in the form of loyalty is not based on rational calculations but more on emotional ones. 

            “The authorities,” the analyst argues, will “exploit all this ideology of fraternal-sister-like relations which Russia needs in order to support its image of influence on the post-Soviet space. Now, of course, Belarus is not the only country which allows Russia to do so,” something that limits Minsk’s ability to exploit this rhetoric.

            But “nevertheless,” Yegorov continues, “the essence of these relationships has not changed. Yes, Russia now has more opportunities to put pressure on Belarus and that is what it is doing. But there was never any pragmatism in these relations and there is hardly likely to be any while these two countries are ruled by their own governments.”

            Babich’s installation represents an effort by Moscow to impose greater administrative control over Lukashenka and Belarus, but the question needs to be asked, Yegorov says, “How possible is this in general and how will Russia achieve it?”

            There is no question that Moscow wants this, and with Babich’s appointment, Putin is sending a message to the Belarusian authorities: you need to solve problems “no not with me but with my man.”  But Babich in Belarus “does not have administrative authority, power, or resources comparable to those he had in Russia.”

            In Minsk, Lukashenka remains the man with the political resources and power, Yegorov says; and “after a certain time, Minsk will begin to tell the Kremlin: ‘Forgive me but you have appointed a man here who cannot resolve a single question.’ And then again everything will go up to the level of the presidents who will meet and decide things.”

            Moreover, the Belarusian analyst says, Lukashenka has “an idee fixe” about power. He isn’t going to take orders from anyone at Babich’s level.  From Putin perhaps, but not from Putin’s man. He may be willing to reach agreements with the ambassador on marginal issues but not on central ones.

            Thus, Babich may be able to achieve something, but far less than many now think.  And it is not beyond the realm of the possible that “he will be forced to accept this game” as Lukashenka defines it “and transform himself into a new version of Surikov, his predecessor as ambassador.

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