Belarus: An end to friendship

EurActiv LogoBelarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's geopolitical game has reached a dead end – EU dialogue has halted, Russia is turning against him and the country is now facing the prospect of Russia-initiated regime change, writes Balazs Jarabik, associate fellow at Madrid-based think-tank FRIDE, in a July commentary sent exclusively to EurActiv.

This op-ed was sent exclusively to EurActiv by FRIDE.

''Belarus's eccentric President [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka has reached a dead end in his own geopolitical game. He halted the dialogue with the EU thinking that Brussels would accept all his preconditions for partnership, while also managing to turn Russia's leaders against him. As a consequence, the upcoming presidential elections – expected by February 2011 – will now be a judgement on his own fate. The EU is facing the prospect of Russia-initiated regime change in its neighbourhood.

The recent gas row between the two countries officially committed to building a Union State was evidently provoked by Moscow. The main aim was not to settle the relatively small gas bill. It was about turning Russian public opinion against Belarus, and depriving Lukashenka of his Russian media weapon.

A campaign against Lukashenka, the 'Tell the Truth' initiative running from February this year, is a Russian soft power projection. Russian state television NTV has been airing movies about Lukashenka depicting him exactly as the West dubbed him – Europe's last dictator. The gas row has helped verify that the West is lukewarm toward Lukashenka's fate.

Minsk has made no steps towards political reform. This has effectively scuppered EU-Belarus dialogue. The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly's decision to freeze contacts after the obviously fraudulent local elections infuriated Lukashenka. High-level EU officials lament the president's unwillingness to make any political concessions.

Geopolitics, the most important of Lukashenka's cards, is beginning to turn against him. Belarus alienated its most important advocates in the West, especially a Poland disgusted by Minsk's treatment of the Polish minority.

Moscow footed the bill for Belarus's 'economic miracle' for a decade. Now it wants to assert its political influence as well. After Russia's subsidies dried up, Belarus has lived on Western credits. As Russia is finishing a new oil terminal close to Saint Petersburg, the 'Druzhba' (Friendship) oil pipeline from Russia through Belarus into Europe could be shut down in 2013.

The end of 'Friendship' would be a fatal blow to the economy as the two largest and most modern refineries of the former Soviet Union on this pipeline are in Belarus – and they are responsible for around a third of Belarus's GDP. Russia is in a position to call Lukashenka's bluff.   

Timing is important for Moscow. Russia considers that Ukraine has returned to its sphere of influence. Moscow's attempt to encircle Georgian President [Mikheil] Saakashvili by engaging with the entire opposition may make relations with Russia the single biggest issue for the Georgians.

The similarities with the West's strategy to encircle Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia is striking. It is time to 'fix' Belarus while there are resources available in Russia and the West is mired in its own crisis. The current reset with the US and the new talks between Germany and Russia about a new European security architecture are forcing Moscow to speed up efforts to re-establish influence over its own neighbourhood.

Lukashenka has established a capable and loyal regime. With the post-2004 turn away from Moscow toward a 'patriotic' Belarus, in which independence has become a mobilising issue for the nation, Lukashenka has been creating a new, pro-Belarusian elite. However, this new elite may itself already see Lukashenka as part of the problem – a leader incapable of addressing the mounting challenges the country faces. Soft power projects are good for show, but Moscow must have access to the new elite if it is to engineer a smooth transition.

The crucial factor will be whether the new elite rallies behind Lukashenka against the Russian campaign. Given that neither the opposition nor the West has real access to the government, this closing act will be played out between the Russians and Lukashenka.''