The global financial instability will affect the lineup of forces in the post-Soviet countries as strongly as the Russian-Georgian conflict did. Both crises, each in its own way, have shown that pressure will be mounted on the former Soviet republics to force them to make certain geopolitical choices. While the August armed conflict emphasized force, this time it is a question of who will be able to help the CIS out of the current economic plunge. And the benefactor will naturally want something in return.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka has mastered the art of maneuvering in the harshest environment. And now "father", or batka, as they call him in Belarus, has new prospects.
Lukashenka is desperately trying to avoid Russian economic serfdom. His range of possibilities has been shrinking ever since Vladimir Putin became president. Moscow has been indicating with increasing clarity that it had no intention of further paying for assurances of eternal friendship, but expected real rapprochement for its subsidies. Russia's pressure was all the more effective for lack of alternative, because the West regarded Lukashenka as an outcast.
But the situation has changed now. Europeans have worked out a different approach: why ask more of Belarus than of other CIS countries? Europe's earlier bias against Lukashenka came from looking at Minsk in the context of Eastern Europe, with a hypothetical prospect of EU membership. However, if they treated Belarus as simply a part of the CIS - an alliance of Central Asian republics, Azerbaijan and Russia with which Europe is maintaining an active dialogue, they found that Belarus wasn't much different. They decided they could defreeze relations, especially after Lukashenka made a couple of pro-Western statements.
Admittedly, the Belarusian leader might find himself in debt to two creditors, Russia and the IMF, if he achieves the "balance" he wants. On the other hand, it is the only chance amid the current financial panic to obtain the funds while avoiding total dependency. And, as competition for influence on the former Soviet republics is still on, he might even hope for better loan conditions.
As a power, whose capabilities far exceed those of its neighbors, Russia could take advantage of the current crisis to consolidate its grip on the region. Even more so because its rivals' geopolitical competitiveness has decreased due to the world financial crisis.
To this end, Moscow will need to carry out reforms in order to overcome its own problems. In addition, it should launch long-term economic programs, rather than address current issues. In other words, you cannot buy the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia for loans. Moscow's approach towards Minsk and its reaction to Belarus' rapprochement with the West will show whether Russia is able to become the regional leader.
Fyodor Lukyanov, Russia in Global Affairs editor-in-chief