Relations between Russia and Belarus are Increasingly Complicated

By Thomas Gomart

The current internal political situation in Belarus is unusual. It was not that long ago that President Lukashenka was re-elected in elections seen as unfair by the international community. Unlike other leaders in a similar position, Laurent Gbagbo for instance in Ivory Coast, Lukashenka has been much more successful: he has managed to remain in office, there has been no intervention. The international community is much less interested in the domestic situation inside Belarus by comparison with that in other countries.

Relations between Belarus and Russia are growing increasingly complicated, in part as a result of President Lukashenka’s personal evolution, but also in the light of the Customs Union project (comprising Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan). Although the Customs Union project has undeniable importance for Moscow, dealing with President Lukashenka is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for Russia. In particular, the way President Lukashenka’s regime has evolved has made it ever more difficult for the Kremlin, and especially for President Medvedev, to continue to deal consistently with this leadership.

The upcoming presidential election in Russia, whatever its result, is highly unlikely to have any impact on the tension permeating Russian-Belarus relations. It is, as yet, unclear what the choice between Medvedev and Putin means, or what competition they will face. The outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion, and in any case will not exact any structural change in relations between the two countries. Belarus will of course continue to hold a significant place in Russian foreign policy, largely because of its importance in the Customs Union project, but it is devoid of the kind of significance of, say relations with the EU. This is the fundamental paradox underlying Russia-Belarus relations. So if Russian foreign policy is limited to the “near abroad”, then Belarus is a key player, but if there is a more global vision of this foreign policy, then Belarus is not a priority.

Domestically, the terrible terrorist attack in Minsk will certainly be used by the leadership to justify political restrictions and heightened political control. This is a process that can be observed in many countries, it is common for terror threats to be used to justify the introduction of additional security measures, which can have an impact on civil liberties. So from this point of view I do expect the political leadership will use it to justify an increased concentration of power.

I do not expect any great consequences of this terror attack on security cooperation within the CSTO framework. Whoever was behind this attack, the terrorist threat will be at the core of the discussions between CSTO members. In many countries of the organization, terrorism is viewed as a domestic threat. This is true of Belarus and Russia: especially in Russia because of the situation in the North Caucasus. But they also view it as a domestic threat with external supporters. So the crucial point is to discern what external supporters will be identified by the Belarusian leadership over coming months, and that, so far at least, remains unclear.

Thomas Gomart is Director of the Russia/Newly Independent States Centre at IFRI (French Institute of International Relations based in Paris and Brussels)

Photo by: RIA Novosti
RIA Novosti