Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 89

No one–not even the leader in the Kremlin–can safely expect Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to deliver on a done deal. Barely two weeks ago, Lukashenka and his military brass finalized with Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev a set of seemingly hard-and-fast agreements to create a “joint group of military forces” based on the territories of both countries. On that occasion, Lukashenka broadly hinted that Russian troops would, under the agreement, return to Belarus and repossess ex-Soviet bases there (see the Monitor, April 28). The Russian side then disclosed that its troops would be deployed in two eastern Belarusan oblasts–one of them the Orsha Oblast–while some Belarusan troops would be quartered in the contiguous Smolensk Oblast of Russia. The latter aspect appeared designed to lend the agreement a semblance of reciprocity while obscuring somewhat its real significance–the return of Russian ground forces westward into Belarus.

On May 5, Russian President Boris Yeltsin forwarded to the Duma for ratification an agreement on the “joint use of military infrastructure” by Russia and Belarus. Yeltsin’s accompanying commentary stated that this document–originally signed in October 1998–underlies the formation of the “joint group of forces in Russian oblasts adjacent to Belarus and on the territory of Belarus.” Although the Duma’s approval seems a foregone conclusion, Yeltsin delegated three top generals to testify in support of the agreement on his behalf for maximum political effect (Itar-Tass, May 5-6).

Yesterday, however, Lukashenka suddenly reneged. In a speech to military industry workers in Minsk, the president stated that “setting up Russian military bases in Belarus is unnecessary”–it is “even absurd. Russia has neither the means to set up the bases nor the funds to pay for them” [the latter apparently a reference to rent]. To buttress his position, Lukashenka offered profuse assurances that Moscow can count on a “friendly and allied Belarus” to defend Russia’s western flank. Belarus’ own forces are fully adequate to the task, Lukashenka insisted (Russian agencies, May 6). This apparent repudiation should not necessarily be taken as Lukashenka’s last word. He has patented a tactic of offering major concessions and then holding off their implementation in order to squeeze the maximum political and economic price out of Russia.