PUTIN’S ASCENT SPOILS LUKASHENKA’S CALCULATIONS.
Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 11
The Belarusan leadership seems confused and worried by Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intimations that his policy toward CIS countries, including its union partner Belarus, will be governed strictly by Russian state interests. Both immediately before and after his elevation to the presidency (Itar-Tass, Federal News Service, December 15-16, December 22, 1999; January 3-4). Putin clearly implied that he would push for closer “integration” without paying a price in the form of Russian economic concessions to partner countries. Belarusan president Alyaksandr Lukashenka, however, vitally needs such concessions, which is a motivating factor behind his initiatives for unification with Russia.
Lukashenka has also been hoping to use the Russia-Belarus Union as a vehicle for his seeking the presidency of Russia. His scenarios to share, rotate into or succeed to that presidency may have had a degree of plausibility while the ailing Boris Yeltsin occupied the office, but Putin’s sudden ascent and his all-but-certain election in March has dashed Lukashenka’s hopes and plans. He is, moreover, disturbed by the powerful influence that Anatoly Chubais and Boris Berezovsky wield on the new Russian government. Chubais has all along advocated a form of unification amounting to outright annexation of Belarus by Russia, without preserving Lukashenka’s presidency in Belarus. Chubais and Berezovsky have in the recent past attempted to pressure Lukashenka into turning Belarusan industries over to Russian financial capital. Lukashenka has managed by and large to resist the pressure thus far; his counterstrategy consists of forging direct economic and political links with Russia’s regions.
Lukashenka’s long-time confidant Syarhey Posakhau, who is now the permanent Belarusan representative to CIS bodies, observed on January 5 that “one of Putin’s first steps has been to strengthen the positions of the opponents of Russia-Belarus unification,” namely of Chubais and Berezovsky. On January 11, Posakhau predicted that the Putin government would “base its policy on two principles: unilateral advantage and force.” Posakhau came out against Putin’s nomination of Pavel Borodin, the former Kremlin property manager, to the key post of state secretary of the Russia-Belarus union state. The holder of that post is, in effect, the chief executive official of the union’s joint presidency and joint cabinet of ministers. Posakhau implied that Lukashenka has his own candidate for that post; he called, moreover, for bilateral negotiations over the distribution of senior posts in the Russia-Belarus joint governing bodies, instead of unilateral announcements of Russian nominations. On January 14, Anatol Malafeyeu, chairman of the House of Representatives of Belarus–the lower chamber of Lukashenka’s parliament–criticized the Russian government for underestimating the value of Belarus as an economic partner. Malafeyeu underscored the value of Russia’s regions as economic partners to Belarus.
Yet Lukashenka has not abandoned the hope that the tactics he used with the successive governments of Yeltsin might also work with Putin’s government. Those tactics focus on offering the services of Belarus as a military ally, and political support to the incumbent Russian president, in return for at least some economic handouts and the hope for more sizeable ones to follow. On January 5, the Belarusan president vowed that “Belarus will always be a loyal and reliable ally of Russia. On January 6, Lukashenka publicly reminded Putin that progress in developing the Russia-Belarus Union represents “a very strong trump card in Russia’s upcoming presidential election,” “significantly enhancing Putin’s prospects.” And on January 14, Belarus and Russia exchanged the instruments of ratification of the bilateral agreement on the use of military bases and installations in Belarus by Russian troops, as part of the joint “regional group of forces” designed to offset NATO in Central Europe (Belapan, January 5; Belarusan Television, January 5, 14; Minsk Radio, January 6; Segodnya, January 11; izvestia, January 13; Sovietskaya Belorussia, January 14; see the Monitor, October 7, December 8-10, 15-16; Fortnight in Review, October 8, December 17, 1999).
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