Last month’s acute conflict between Moscow and Minsk over natural gas prices has carried into the New Year as an oil-pricing dispute. This week the transport of oil through the Soviet-era Druzhba pipeline system from Russia to Europe has been disrupted (see EDM, January 8, 9). Yesterday, January 9, bilateral talks in Moscow failed to solve the problem.
For several days Russian national state-owned TV channels — well-tuned, Kremlin-controlled propaganda machines — have been heaping abuse on “the Minsk regime” in more or less the same manner as in previous months Georgia and its president, Mikheil Saakashvili, were targeted. Anti-Georgian propaganda was coupled by the imposition of an embargo on Georgian fruit, wine, and mineral water. Now the cutoff of the oil flow to and through Belarus may be followed by other restrictive actions. A year ago Ukraine was accused of stealing Russian gas, now TV First Channel, Rossiya, and NTV have accused Belarus of stealing Russian oil.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told government ministers yesterday it was “necessary to continue negotiations with our Belarusian partners” and to “do everything to secure the interests of Western consumers.” At the same time he announced that it might be necessary to cut Russian oil production due to the shutdown of the Druzhba pipeline, a decision the West will hardly appreciate (RIA-Novosti, January 9).
As in previous disputes with other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Russian officials have denounced the undemocratic nature of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka’s regime in an apparent attempt to win Western sympathy. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the International Affairs Committee in Russia’s Federation Council told a pro-Kremlin website: “Lukashenka has shown that his interests don’t coincide with ours. Friendship with undemocratic rulers cannot be reliable and association with Lukashenka only tarnishes Russia’s reputation” (Strana.ru, January 9).
Clearly many would agree with Margelov. But there is a problem: Most of Russia’s other close friends today — Iran, Syria, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, China, and Venezuela — are authoritarian. Singling out Belarus does not change the overall picture.
Margelov (a former KGB undercover agent in the Arab world in Soviet times) is a well-informed and well-placed Kremlin insider, a member of the so-called liberal faction of Putinites that believe close partnership with the West will better serve their (and Russia’s) interests. A Russo-Western alliance seemed close at hand after 9/11, but Putin’s authoritative policies, in particular the murder of Putin’s critics Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and Alexander Litvinenko in London last fall, have seemingly crashed the idea irreversibly.
Perhaps the pro-Western Kremlin “liberals” still hope that mounting a joint assault with the West against Lukashenka, often described as the last dictator in Europe, could help reverse Putin’s growing isolation. This hope is apparently unfounded. Calling contemporary Belarus the “last dictatorship in Europe” seems in itself an example of Western double standards, since it in effect denies Russia the right of being a European nation.
Other Moscow-based observers are more coolheaded. Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Kremlin-funded For United Russia Foundation, noted, “My impression is that in such a situation, both Europe and America would probably side with Belarus rather than Russia. They would say that Russia is punishing Minsk for Lukashenka’s refusal to dance to Moscow’s tune” (Komsomolskaya pravda, January 4). Boris Makarenko, deputy head of the Political Technologies Center, argued, “The gas wars with Ukraine and Belarus had been handled badly, and the crisis with Georgia had dented Russia’s reputation.” He believes that within the CIS Russia behaves “like a bull in a china shop” (Politcom.ru, December 29).
Putin’s attitude toward those he perceives as enemies inside Russia and in the CIS neighborhood (Chechen separatists, unfriendly oligarchs, Ukraine, Georgia, etc.) has always been highly aggressive, unscrupulous, and revengeful. Nikonov once told me that of all the world leaders, there are two Putin personally despises to the extent that meeting them makes him physically sick: Saakashvili and Lukashenka. It is a well-known fact in Moscow that the present fray with Belarus is political, economic, and personal all at the same time, which, as in the case of Georgia, complicates the possibility of reaching a genuine long-lasting negotiated solution.
In the 1990s Lukashenka actively pressed for a unification of Russia and Belarus, apparently hoping to succeed the unpopular Russian president Boris Yeltsin as leader of a joint state. After Putin’s accession to power in 1999 Lukashenka lost any prospect of taking over the Kremlin and the unification plan was put on hold. But the idea of a merger with Belarus, which would increase Russia’s Slavic population and partially restore the Soviet Empire, remains very popular among the Russia elite and masses.
The present pressure put on Belarus will most likely misfire, instead of pushing Lukashenka into a union. This may undermine the Kremlin’s authority, cause oil export revenue losses, and provoke internal high-level acrimony, while at same time weakening the Lukashenka regime. Beginning this fight was senseless and finding a negotiated solution is a necessity, but, as happens with dictators, personal whims often overpower all other arguments. This simplifies the process of national decision-making to an extent that Western politicians and analysts refuse to understand.