Belarus: Lukashenko after the Georgian Invasion

STRATFOR -- Like other Former Soviet countries, Belarus is reassessing its relationship with Russia and the West after MOSCOW 's conflict with Georgia. While not long ago Minsk may have entertained the idea of gradually opening up to the West, the Georgian example will drive it back forcefully into the Kremlin's orbit. Read analysis by STRATFOR.

Belarus, the only ex-Soviet country to have survived the Union's collapse without major political and economic renovation, is reassessing its relationship with Russia in the aftermath of MOSCOW 's recent conflict with Georgia.

Though isolated, Belarus already has exceedingly strong ties with Russia. The Georgian example will persuade Belarus' autocratic president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, that whole-hearted pandering to Russia is the only way he can maintain his position of power.

The geopolitical ties between Belarus and Russian are indissoluble. Belarus borders Russia, relies on it for military protection, and depends on Russian consumers for the success of its agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Without Russia's military, economic and political backing, Lukashenko would fall - and Belarus might not even survive in its current form. Belarus and Russia were unified under the Soviet flag, and since the Soviet Union's collapse they have spoken frequently of forming a "union state."

Nevertheless, a rift exists between Belarus and Russia that is not immediately visible. Belarus' attempts at full partnership with Russia are often rebuffed, and many Belarusians feel that they are viewed as ethnically inferior. In 2007, disputes broke out over energy prices between Belarus and Russian state-run energy giant Gazprom and Russian state-owned distributor Transneft. Lukashenko has leveled criticisms at Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In short, though Belarus appears pro-Russian, it is ruled with an iron fist by Lukashenko, an opportunist loyal only to himself and constantly wary of his enemies both in the Kremlin and in the West.

Lukashenko's ties to the Kremlin are complicated. He once hoped to become former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's successor using his high-level contacts and his ability to unite both Russian and Belarusian nationalists and unrepentant communists. These groups won Belarus massive Soviet-style subsidies from Russia, notably keeping energy prices low. This enabled Minsk to weather the transition into the 21st century without complete economic overhaul. With Russian financial backing, Lukashenko remained in power and relatively popular, in great part preserving the old collectivist structures that Minsk inherited from its Soviet past.

But in 2000, Putin assumed the Russian presidency, upstaging Lukashenko, whose reputation subsequently diminished. Since then, the Kremlin has occasionally defended Belarus against Western political criticisms, but in turn it expects Minsk to serve as a regional pro-Russian mouthpiece. Lukashenko resents Putin for upstaging him, and keeps a close watch for signs the Kremlin might turn against him.

Lukashenko remains in this precarious situation, isolated and without allies other than Russia, but with desperate yearnings for more independence. Minsk could only reduce its dependence on MOSCOW by launching a series of far-reaching reforms, bringing itself more in alignment with Europe and the West. But aside from being rendered almost impossible by geopolitical realities, such a process would generate social instability and almost assuredly lead to Lukashenko's overthrow. While Central European states like Poland and the Baltics would love to have Belarus join the Euro club, they want Lukashenko and the remnants of the Soviet-era government thrown out of power first, which obviously disposes the Belarusian president against courting their favor and support.

Lukashenko is thus in a tough position, and has therefore played the role of Kremlin cheerleader while furtively looking for a chance to form connections with those outsiders who do not seek to undermine his regime.

In June Lukashenko got a hint of a chance. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a high-ranking Vatican official, visited Minsk and spoke of improving relations. There was even talk of the pope visiting in the fall. Lukashenko smiled on the Vatican's approaches, knowing full well that the Roman Catholic Church offers a broad avenue to the Western world. Minsk's opening a line to the pope carries unmistakable resonances of change in former Soviet Union countries - after all, the church's proliferation in Poland steadily subverted communist doctrine for decades.

Needless to say, it was not long until Russia's Orthodox Church - and the Kremlin's Federal Security Service (FSB), which has connections to the Patriarchate - discovered the potential Vatican inroads in its backyard. Of course, Russia has always been paranoid about its interests in Belarus, which it sees as a crucial buffer zone separating the Russian heartland from its Western rivals. The possibility of the Roman Catholic Church sowing seeds of dissent in this territory only heightened Kremlin paranoia.

On Aug. 12, the day Russian President Dmitri Medvedev ordered the Russian army to stop its advance into Georgia, Russian Ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikov criticized Minsk for not lending more vocal support to MOSCOW throughout the conflict. Minsk has long served as propagandist and provocateur on the Russians' behalf, but at this most crucial time it seemed to be holding its tongue. Surikov claimed that Russia was "perplexed" by the Belarusian silence on the issue, alluding to the countries' special relationship (meaning Russian beneficence) and insisting that Belarus speak in open approval of MOSCOW 's military operations in the Caucasus. A chastened Belarus responded by officially praising Russia's actions, denouncing Georgian aggression and lending humanitarian aid to the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia. Belarus' loud cheer for MOSCOW , following its conspicuous silence, aptly characterizes the country's ambivalent relationship with its domineering neighbor.

Like other former Soviet countries, Belarus is adjusting to the uncomfortable reality represented by MOSCOW 's invasion of South Ossetia. The world now knows that the Russian army has not only the operational capability but also the willingness to deploy forces and secure neighboring regions from Western incursion. Lukashenko can no longer entertain the possibility of gradually opening up to the West, whether through the Vatican or by any other means. Rather, he will have to return to playing the role of MOSCOW 's chief lackey. If he does not, he could suffer worse than harsh words from the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin plans to close the subtle gap between its interests and Belarus' - and rein in Minsk and Lukashenko even tighter. MOSCOW needs a solid buffer to defend against the U.S. ballistic missile facilities to be installed in the Czech Republic and Poland. It may well put missiles of its own on Belarusian turf. The recent events in Georgia have shown that Russia is prepared to take action to secure its flanks, and Minsk understands the implications. Belarus has always been a Russian ally, but now the Kremlin will give no room for even a hint of a question about Minsk's subservience.