NO HONOR AMONG THIEVES? RUSSIA AND THE BELARUSIAN CRISIS
"I confront the great tendency of the Russians to be overbearing, by a cool, even distainful manner, and although is indirect on our part; and it should stay that way until it is obvious that there is an actual and genuine improvement here. The Russians like all Asiatics are only impressed by the crude treatment to which the Tartars and the Tsars have accustomed them for centuries".
Graf Bernhard von Bulow [the Younger], German charge d'affairs in Saint Petersburg
5 January 1888.
"I simply do not understand how one can fail to look upon Russia as the common hereditary foe of all Western civilized states". [emphasis in the original].
Graf Agenor Goluchowski[the Younger], Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, 13 January 1897.
The heightened tensions between Russia and its erstwhile junior ally Belarus, over the increased energy prices to be charged to Minsk by the Russian state controlled energy giant, Gazprom, beginning on the 1st of January, has in recent days worsened. On the 6th of January 2007, Minsk began in tit for tat fashion for higher Russian fees on exports to the latter, to shipon off, oil shipments which were headed to Western and Central Europe, via the Druzhba pipeline. In response to this move by the government of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, on the 8th of January, Moskva suspended oil shipments going through Belarus (see the build up of the tensions progressively in the Russian news service Novosti: www.en.rian.ru). In view of the perception held until recently, that Moskva was Lukashenko (dubbed by American Secretary of State, 'the last dictator in Europe') closest ally, how exactly does one explain this change of front by Putin et. al? In the words of Robin Shepherd, in the Financial Times given the fact that:
"Mr. Putin's Russia has nurtured the Lukashenko regime for years as a Soviet style ally that could be relied on to reject the west. When the rest of Europe was slamming the farcical elections held in Belarus last March as blatantly fraudulent, the Kremlin stood alone in upholding them. When the riot police went hell for leather against peaceful demonstrators protesting against those elections, the western world denounced Mr. Lukashenko, and Mr. Putin supported him". in www.ft.com.
Indeed, how can one explain this change of front by the regime in Moskva? Is it merely, as Shepherd would put it, a "miscalculation" by Putin et. al? Or is something of more substance? Can indeed this indicate that in fact, Russian foreign policy, in the words of the Russian commentator, Vladimir Frolov, has shifted to a new phase, in which it is able to deal with the world 'from a position of strength'. To look further into this topic, and explore the nature of the current crisis between Moskva and Minsk, we present the following article by the Russian commentator Dmitry Babich, which first appeared in the online journal Russian Profile.
And, while not agreeing with everything that Babich says, I would like to concur with him in his argument that Lukashenko and Putin are not political twins, tied together, but, merely allies (if that) of convenience. Formerly perhaps but not now. As per Western reactions to the crisis, while one notices a certain hypocritical tendency to denounce Moskva for employing 'energy blackmail', `a la the the Russo-Ukrainian energy crisis of last year, thankfully the amount of it, is much reduced. Ideally of course, if (a big if surely but still) the EU were to build a golden bridge to Moskva by supporting Russia in the crisis, it might just present a chance to begin a realignment of Russia, with the EU, after last year's tensions over energy issues, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the crisis with Georgia, among other things. While of course such a realignment is not a certainty by any means, the opportunity is too
rich to be missed.
Fraternal Tensionsby Dmitry Babich of Russia Profile
Some Mistaken Assumptions about Belarus and Russia
As the trade war between Russia and Belarus has escalated, putting Russia’s credibility as an energy supplier to the EU further in doubt, the flamboyant Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has continued to reveal many surprising peculiarities of his regime and policy style. Instead of just acquiescing to the gas price suggested by Gazprom, $100 per one thousand cubic meters of natural gas, Lukashenko imposed a transit duty on Russian oil flowing through his country. When Russia said it would not negotiate until Lukashenko removed this new transit duty of $45 per one ton of crude oil, Belarussian authorities disrupted the supplies of Russian oil flowing to Poland, Germany, and other major clients in the EU through the so-called Druzhba (Friendship) pipeline.
Analyzing Lukashenko’s every new move is useless as he adjusts tactics at every time of day and night, especially during the last week. So, it probably makes sense to talk instead about the ideology of his regime, which is often incorrectly perceived by outsiders. There are several widespread stereotypes on the matter which were shattered by recent events.
Stereotype number one: Lukashenko’s regime strives to reestablish some form of the old Soviet Union by merging Belarus with Russia.
Lukashenko went out of his way to assert the opposite. “Sovereignty and independence are sacred words; in fact, they are as sacred as some dogmas of Christianity,” Lukashenko said on Jan. 7 after a church service on Orthodox Easter. “I never said we should make Belarus a part of some other state. I just always supported the idea of a union of states, especially the ones where our brothers live.”
This “union of states,” however, is not the old Soviet Union, but a strange economic centaur, where the bigger reformed partner (Russia) subsidizes the economy of a smaller unreformed one (Belarus). Thanks to the cheap energy from Russia, the old-fashioned Soviet plants in Belarus could continue operating and their workers could continue getting their salaries. The Soviet Union was partially recreated, but on a smaller scale, in a single small country named Belarus.
Stereotype number two: The Belarussian regime is dependent on Russia; it abhors Belarussian patriotism and gears its policy to Moscow.
Again, this is not completely true. Russia is often criticized on Belarussian state-controlled mass media as a “traitor” to the old Soviet (or, in modern newspeak, Slavic) cause. The media even summons up the notion of “good people – bad czar,” so familiar to Western readers. However, if the Western media preaches about “Putin’s backsliding on democracy,” Belarusian state-owned television lectures on “Russia ruled by oligarchs and corrupt politicians,” who prevent it from “backsliding on democracy” completely and becoming a true heir of the Soviet Union, as Belarus has already done.
“We were not the initiators of the Soviet Union’s collapse,” Lukashenko said on Jan. 7, hinting at the role which the government of the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin played in the liquidation of the Soviet Union in 1991. “Jealousy is a terrible thing. Someone envies us, someone envies the fact that we brought our country in order even without the riches which this someone had.”
It is very easy to see Russia behind this “someone” as a country blessed with vast natural resources.
Stereotype number three: the Belarusian regime’s power is based solely on fear, it has no public support either in Belarus or Russia. Meanwhile, Putin’s regime is “bullying” its neighbors and disregarding public opinion.
In reality, both Lukashenko’s regime and Putin’s tough new policy towards the former Soviet countries are based on certain sentiments shared by Russian and Belarusian public opinion. One of them, which Lukashenko used often during his reign, is the nostalgia for the Soviet Union. The other was best summarized by Valery Fyodorov, the director of VTsIOM, a Moscow-based think tank specializing in public opinion studies. “One section of Russians prefers isolationism, while the other one is nostalgic about the Soviet Union, despite the utter impossibility of the latter’s recreation,” Fyodorov wrote in his article for the book Integration in Eurasia. “There is a certain mistaken dualism here: either give us back the USSR in its entirety or we don’t need any integration at all, especially if it requires a payment.”
While Lukashenko promises a return of the USSR in a country of 10 million people, Putin accuses Lukashenko of sabotaging a union state and imposes added payments on gas and other Russian resources. Both enjoy the support of large sections of their respective constituencies. A more realistic approach – a step-by-step integration based on a compromise between the two countries – is much less appealing in terms of its potential for building populist political careers. But if there is a way to save the Joint Economic Space (JES), Eurasian Economic Community (EvrAzES) and other post-Soviet integrationist projects, it is bound to be based on mutual compromises.
9 January A. D. 2007 In www.Russianprofile.org.