The Russian political elite appears to be deeply divided over how to react to Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka’s efforts to rule his country indefinitely. While some policymakers in Moscow suggest Russian President Vladimir Putin should follow in Lukashenka’s footsteps and scrap the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency, other strategists argue that the Kremlin would do better to ponder a “regime change” in Minsk.
It was fairly easy to forecast the outcome of the October 17 parliamentary election and constitutional referendum in Belarus. As expected, President Lukashenka further tightened his stranglehold on power and got the green light to run for a third term in 2006. Moscow, unlike most Western countries, was quick to pronounce the ballot sufficiently free and fair, and Kremlin spokesmen criticized the sanctions imposed on the Lukashenka regime by the U.S. Belarus Democracy Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law last week.
The reaction by Russian officials led one group of analysts to suggest that the Belarusian leader enjoys the full and unambiguous support of the Kremlin. Most liberal commentators point out that the logical continuation of Putin’s current consolidation of power would likely be a third presidential term. That is why it would be strange, they say, if Moscow took too critical a stance toward Lukashenka. In the words of one observer, non-recognition of the referendum’s results by Russia could have been “lethal” for Lukashenka. But this will not happen, the commentary continues, “since the Belarusian scenario is such a tempting example for Putin” (Moskovsky komsomolets, October 20).
There are symptoms, however, that suggest that the real picture of Russian-Belarusian relations is much more nuanced and complex. First, there has been unusually aggressive coverage of recent Belarusian political events by Russian state-controlled TV channels. In the opinion of Belarusian officials, the footage aired has had a “clearly scandalous and provocative character,” and the foreign ministry’s spokesman accused the Russian media of an “extremely unfriendly and biased” interpretation of the political processes in the country (Prognosis.ru, October 22).
Furthermore, although Russia and Belarus formally constitute a “Union State,” Lukashenka flatly rejected a reunification plan proposed by Putin in August 2002, whereby Belarus would eventually become one of the subjects of the Russian Federation. Even Lenin and Stalin did not suggest anything this extreme, Lukashenka indignantly noted at the time.
But what makes the Kremlin particularly unhappy is Minsk’s stubborn stance on a number of important economic issues. Recently, the Belarusian leader confirmed his reluctance to have a common currency with Russia, an instrument Moscow is keen to introduce. Lukashenka is still hesitant about giving the go-ahead to his parliament to ratify documents providing for the transfer to Russia ownership of the oil pipelines that cross Belarusian territory. In addition, Lukashenka constantly annoys Moscow by his hard bargaining at the Russian-Belarusian gas talks (Kommersant, October 22).
So it would be fair to suggest that, in reality, the Kremlin is confused about whether it wants Lukashenka to stay or to go. As one influential political analyst put it, “Frankly, it seems that there is no unequivocal answer to this question — each scenario has too many pluses and minuses” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, October 19). The pro-Western opposition in Belarus is clearly unacceptable for Moscow, because the Kremlin fears that Minsk may eventually slip into the “sphere of influence” of the EU and NATO. At the same time, the Kremlin currently does not have a reliable replacement for Lukashenka. As a result, one commentary notes, “Moscow behaves quite passively vis-a-vis Belarus, running the risk of being associated with a politician who is generally regarded as a pariah” (Vedomosti, October 20).
But there are some influential voices in Moscow urging a policy shift. In an article published in the government daily Rossiiskaya gazeta, Sergei Karaganov, chairman of Russia’s Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, argues it is time for a more active and assertive policy aimed at defending Russian interests in Belarus. Karaganov’s policy paper contains three major points. First, Belarus belongs to the sphere of “Russia’s vitally important interests,” and Moscow’s primary objective should be to prevent this country’s destabilization or “even partial transfer to the alien zone of influence.” However, the continuation of the Lukashenka regime’s policies will inevitably cause an undesirable destabilization. Second, Lukashenka is the main opponent to the creation of the Union State, who consistently tries to limit Russia’s influence in Belarus. Third, the view that no alternative exists in Belarus to the current president “is a myth.” There are many people who are well qualified to run this country. The Kremlin strategists should “simply get to know and cultivate them” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, October 22).
Other like-minded analysts echo Karaganov’s policy recommendations. The Kremlin has probably started looking for Lukashenka’s replacement, one commentary suggests. After all, it continues, “The ‘velvet revolutions’ in the CIS should not necessarily go exclusively according to the American scenario” (Kommersant, October 22).