As the United States and Belarus continue their war of words, accompanied by freezing the actual or imagined assets of each other’s leading government figures, Minsk played host to a series of summits. At the same time, Belarus and Russia carried out the largest-ever joint military exercises, “Union Shield 2006,” which anticipated the response to an unspecified external military threat.
Though some of these events had long been planned, they nonetheless occurred at a time when the United States and EU countries are increasingly isolating Belarus. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka is also seeking some relief from an anticipated drastic rise in the price of Russian gas, which could force him to make concessions to Gazprom in its lengthy quest for ownership of Beltransgaz, the company that controls the pipelines to Western Europe.
For Lukashenka, the current situation is replete with difficulties. He must develop his official policy of close integration and friendship with Russia while avoiding an economic crisis and concomitant drop in popularity that would undoubtedly ensue if Gazprom, as expected, raises prices for gas exported to Belarus almost five fold by the end of the year. He must also work with Russia in several umbrella organizations of greater or lesser importance: the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc), and lastly the still non-ratified Russia-Belarus Union. He must also dissuade his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, from adhering to demands from the opposition and from some EU countries to address the question of Belarus at the forthcoming G-8 summit in July.
When Lukashenka spoke at the EurAsEc meeting in the new National Library on June 23, his goals were transparent. With the accession of Uzbekistan to the EurAsEc earlier this year, it now consists of six member states: Belarus, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Lukashenka’s key demands were for a full-fledged customs union, a merger of the EurAsEc and the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (with the same four Central Asian states and Russia), and perhaps most significantly, the formation of a common energy policy within the EurAsEc. Implicit in Lukashenka’s remarks is that Belarusians and Russians should pay the same price for energy resources.
The EurAsEc, in theory at least, was created in order to harmonize policies. Its very existence, from its formation in 2000, signified the waning role of the CIS and the often very different trade and security perspectives of its various states. It is based on a carefully weighted voting and financial system in which Russia has the key part (40% in both instances) and Belarus has 20%, rendering it a significant but not decisive player. However, the fact that the current session was held in Minsk offered Lukashenka a public platform during a period of strong international pressure against his regime.
Simultaneously, the 30th session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Russia-Belarus Union (RBU) opened in Navapolatsk. On this occasion, parliamentarians from Russia, led by Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, condemned the U.S. and EU sanctions against Belarus as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Sergei Baburin, deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, went further, demanding that Belarus offer a suitable response and expressing his surprise at the relatively mild reaction to date from Minsk. Belarus’s essentially symbolic response — it is highly unlikely that the 10 leading U.S. officials have assets in the country — soon followed.
Presidential aide Dzmitry Bulakhau described the RBU as the “nucleus of post-Soviet integration in principle” and noted that if Russia and Belarus went down separate paths, then the outside “destructive forces” would be directed against Russia with its vast resources and territories. In this way, Belarus is serving as a protective shield for Russia in geo-strategic terms. Such a stance may help to explain the importance of the joint military exercises, which coincided with yet another high-level summit in Minsk, that of the Council of Defense Ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Belarus then is pursuing several paths: it seeks to be a cooperative partner with Russia in economic, trade, and security bodies that are — at least in theory — directed toward greater integration, especially between the two Slavic countries. Likewise RBU directly threatens Belarusian sovereignty, but has largely been a paper entity and would need a common currency to ensure its deeper development. Gryzlov did say, however, that a working group had “almost completed” the draft of the constitutional act of the union state.
Two questions emerge for the summer of 2006: the first is whether the Lukashenka regime is an asset or a liability from Russia’s perspective, and if so to what extent Putin will accede to Western demands to put more pressure on his neighbor to improve human rights and restore a more democratic system; the second, and far more critical question is to what extent Belarus can survive as a sovereign and independent entity within the various integration structures and particularly with the prospective finalization of the structure of the RBU. There is little indication that the Belarusian government has thought through this question, but it cannot be avoided for much longer.
(Belapan, June 22 and June 23; Belarusian TV, June 23; Interfax-Ukraine, June 22; Belarusian Radio, June 22)