Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 22

A grumbling but loyal ally, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus is quietly collecting his rewards from the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems clearly more willing than his predecessor Boris Yeltsin to reward Lukashenka. Some of Putin’s favors may even be stretching the ability of an impoverished Russia to deliver.

On November 14 in Moscow, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov announced a decision to grant Belarus a US$100 million credit on soft terms for the stabilization of the Belarusan ruble and for balance-of-payments support. The credit’s first tranche of US$30 million is to be disbursed as early as next month.

Moscow’s move aims to shore up Lukashenka after an embarrassing setback in last month’s parliamentary elections and in advance of the 2001 presidential election. Lukashenka has ordered salaries to be raised, food prices and utility tariffs to be frozen, and currency to be printed at an accelerated rate. The Russian loan seems intended to help Lukashenka ride the inflationary wave he has unleashed and to postpone reforms in Belarus.

In Minsk on the same day, the management of the state gas company Beltransgaz announced that Belarus is currently paying only half as much as other CIS member countries pay for Russian gas. According to Beltransgaz General Director Pyotr Pyatukh, Russia’s Gazprom company supplies the gas to Belarus for only US $ 30 per one thousand cubic meters. At the same time, and within the same geographic zone, Gazprom charges Ukraine and Moldova between US$60 and US$80 per thousand cubic meters. Moreover, Gazprom and the Russian government seem easily tolerant of Belarus’ arrears. Those are inching steadily upward and are now close to the US$300 million mark.

Russia’s intelligence agencies are also propping Lukashenka. When the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director, Lieutenant-General Sergei Lebedev, paid a “working visit” to Minsk last week, Lukashenka publicly thanked the SVR and its sister agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), for sharing intelligence information “on a regular basis” with him personally and with the Belarusan KGB. The latter carries on the name of the parent agency from which these three services stem. “After the Soviet Union dissolved, the special services stayed together,” Lukashenka remarked in receiving Lebedev. He went on to thank Russian intelligence for “invaluable assistance in overcoming various problems… and ahead of some serious events which we have survived calmly in Belarus next to you.” That appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to Lukashenka’s internal and international political difficulties.

The chief censor of Belarus, meanwhile, was picked this week to head a newly established CIS committee on the press and book publishing. Mikhail Padhainy, chairman of the Belarus State Committee for the Press, became at Russian initiative the first chairman of the CIS Interstate Cooperation Committee for the Periodical Press and Book Publishing and Trade. Padhainy is well known in Belarus for his vigilant political supervision of the state-owned press and for harassing the few opposition publications that survive on the margins of a Soviet-like media landscape.