Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 9

Belarusian vote continues to echo in Moscow, Kiev

by Volodymyr Zviglyanich

The Belarusian vote in favor of closer ties to Russiaand the Belarusian failure to elect a new parliament have ledboth Moscow and Kiev to revise their respective foreign policies. Moscow has viewed the results of the referendum and the electionas a green light for the restoration of Russian domination, ifnot sovereignty, over Belarus and perhaps other former Sovietrepublics. Kiev, on the other hand, has seen the Belarusian voteas a warning of what could happen to Ukraine if the governmentfails to pursue more popular policies. Because these calculationswill have extraordinary implications for the future developmentof relations among the three large Slavic countries, the echoesof the original vote may prove even more fateful to Belarus itselfthan did the actual voting in May.

A Green Light for Moscow

For many in Moscow, the results of the Belarusian referendumprovided a kind of compensation for the political, economic andmoral losses of Chechnya, and suggested that Moscow could pressahead with its plans to more tightly integrate the Commonwealthof Independent States. Four days after the referendum vote, BorisYeltsin sent the Russian-Belarusian friendship treaty to the Dumafor ratification. It was ratified almost immediately by a voteof 333 to 1. On May 19, the Duma voted 249 to 0 to prepare fora national Russian referendum on reunion with Belarus. Nationalistleader Sergei Baburin pressed for holding that referendum on December12, the same day that Russia’s parliamentary elections are scheduledto be held. The communist paper Pravda suggested that sucha referndum would mark the first step toward the reconstitutionof the Soviet Union. And on the same day, Russian and Belarusiancustoms officials began work on dismantling the customs barriersbetween the two states.

Until recently, Moscow has paid lip-service to Belarusian pleasfor closer relations, calculating that such ties might be desirablein theory, but were too expensive to realize. But the changedpolitical climate in Moscow as a result of both Chechnya and theBelarusian vote appears to have tilted the balance there. In anattempt to capitalize on Russian longings for the stability ofthe past, Boris Yeltsin used a rare television address on May24 to promise closer ties between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Yeltsin’s remarks were the opening salvo of a new game of "GoodBelarus–Bad Ukraine." Yeltsin notably did not mention Ukrainein his list of countries that would be willing to have closerties with Moscow. And he continued this line at the CIS summitin Minsk on May 26. At that time, the Russian president suggestedthat the next candidate for closer integration with Russia wouldbe Kazakhstan, not the culturally more closely related Ukraine. He added that developing ties with Ukraine would be more difficult. Indeed, at the airport before leaving for Minsk, Yeltsin avoidedmentioning the Ukrainian president by name and restated his unwillingnessto sign a friendship treaty with Ukraine, or to visit Kiev untilUkraine made concessions on the Black Sea Fleet.

At the same time, Moscow praised Belarus for its stance and offeredspecial assistance to Minsk. On May 19, for example, the Russianenergy ministry said that it was willing to supply Belarus withenergy at negotiated, lower-than-world-standard prices. Belarushad been paying Russia $54 a ton for oil instead of the worldprice of $120; Russian officials said that they were preparedto cut the price still more. They justified this move by pointingout that Belarus does not charge Russia for leasing military facilitieson its territory. And in a related move, the Belarusian governmentagreed to include 12 Belarusian gas and oil enterprises undera joint Russia-Belarus energy concern.

A Yellow Light for Kiev

Belarus, after the vote and especially after Moscow’s subsequentapproach to Minsk, underscored for all to see just what the sloganof the "restoration of broken ties" with Russia reallymeans. The country has lost control of its language situation,returned to Soviet-era symbolism and holidays, and its economyis virtually a branch office of the Russian one. How long Minskcan sustain itself politically remains to be seen. That is themajor lesson being read in Kiev. The voting in Belarus was a strategicvictory for Russia. Moscow obtains an obedient satellite in Europewithout being forced to pay a high price. Russia effectively expandsits territory and the market for goods which it cannot sell elsewhere. Moreover, it guarantees itself a pipeline route that bypassesmore independent-minded Ukraine. As a result, Ukraine and itspresident Leonid Kuchma stand before a strategic choice of theirown: joining the integrationists in Belarus or seeking supportfrom outside the CIS in order to undergird Ukraine’s independence.

In looking for allies abroad, Ukraine also has two basic choices:linking itself with the Visegrad countries of Eastern Europe,or hoping for ties with the West more broadly. To date, Ukrainehas been less than active in pursuring the former, despite theobvious benefits such a strategy could have, and has put its hopeson the latter. Ukraine hopes to join the European Union and evenNATO. Kuchma suggested as much in remarks in Riga last month

after the Belarusian vote. And the Ukrainian president has goneout of his way to indicate that nonalignment is no longer an optionfor Ukraine–it must be tied to the West or it must fall underRussian domination once again.

The Belarusian vote was a wake-up call for many in Kiev. Theysaw the implications of the vote for themselves, and decided totake a more independent line, one linked to the West and necessarilyagainst Moscow. American officials say that they do not wantto do anything that will draw new lines in Europe; Ukraine’s positionsuggests that the West and Ukraine have no other choice. Kievwill be on one side of the line or the other. As Kuchma’s statementsin Riga show, the Belarusian vote has convinced him and his governmentthat Ukraine must follow the Visegrad and Baltic states to theWest, or risk being swallowed up again by the Russian state.

Volodymyr Zviglyanich is a Professor at George WashingtonUniversity.