The appointment of the former Saratov governor, Dmitry Ayatskov, as the new Russian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Belarus has resulted in a protracted scandal that has complicated relations with Russia and the proposed formation of a Union state. It indicates a clear hardening of attitudes in Moscow toward the regime of President Alexander Lukashenka.
The appointment of Ayatskov was anticipated by the Secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union (RBU), Pavel Borodin, in mid-March, when there was also a possibility that the outgoing governor, implicated in a corruption scandal, might also receive a senior position in the RBU (Moscow Times, March 15). President Vladimir Putin signed the decree on his appointment on July 15. Once officially appointed, and prior to his departure, Ayatskov held a press conference in Saratov, at which he reportedly remarked that: “It is hard to break Lukashenka, he’s very steady on his feet. Of course in his mind, he needs to separate Russia from Belarus and Putin from Lukashenka. And under no circumstances must he puff himself up. He’s been working there for some time and someone has to run errands for him” (Kommersant, July 29). Another report modifies the last sentence as follows: “And he should not put on airs and think that someone has to run errands for him because he has been there a long time” (RIA-Novosti, July 29).
Ayatskov also said that he would become the “last Russian ambassador to Belarus” and that Lukashenka would become the first citizen of the new state (Narodnaya volya, August 4). These statements caused much offense in official Minsk, particularly as they were highlighted on Russian Television. Though Russian embassy officials stated that Ayatskov would be arriving in Minsk at night on July 28, and an official of the Russian Foreign Ministry provided a date of July 29, Ayatskov did not appear in Minsk on either of these dates.
One analyst, Igor Shatrov of Rosbalt, has surmised that there are two conflicting points of view in the circles close to the Russian president, both of which have as a goal the resolution of the “Belarus problem” by 2008 with the formation of a Union state. One attitude is that the Belarusian regime is still beneficial to Russia because of the positive reflection of Russia, when it compared to the harsh regime in Minsk. The West is unlikely to take action against Putin as long as Lukashenka is in office. The second opinion is that the “flirtation” with Lukashenka is dangerous, and that if Russia does not intercept the Western initiative to produce a democratic state in Minsk, there will be an “Orange Revolution” in the Belarusian capital (Narodnaya volya, August 4). In other words, Russia must control the situation and initiate the removal of the Belarusian dictator. Arguably the second viewpoint has now superseded the first.
A source in the RBU commented on August 4 that either Ayatskov would be required to apologize for his comments, or his appointment would be annulled (Narodnaya volya, August 4). In a letter to President Putin, the leaders of the inter-regional public organization “Rossiisko-Belorusskoye Bratstvo” and the Russian Academy of Sciences (Alexander Vorontsov and Dr. Leonid Maiboroda) protested the appointment of Ayatskov, citing his past indiscretions with land sales in Saratov, his proposed legalization of prostitution there, and his reportedly rude insinuations against the Belarusian president unworthy of any ambassador. The authors of the letter maintained that one of the main missions of Ayatskov as ambassador is to “destroy Lukashenka” (Narodnaya volya, August 6).
To date, however, there are no signs of either a forthcoming apology or a change of decision on the appointment of Ayatskov, despite the protests coming from Minsk. Borodin has stated that Ayatskov will now arrive to take up his duties between August 15 and 20, and would then comment on his statements. Neither the Russian nor Belarusian foreign ministries have confirmed this arrival time. The appointment is a critical one given the impending referendum on the new Union state, which will take place in November, and could be followed by the adoption of a common currency on January 1, 2006 (Narodnaya volya, August 12).
The ostensible purpose of Ayatskov’s appointment is to accelerate the departure of the Belarusian president. It is inconceivable that such a high-level and politically sensitive appointment could have been made without due consideration or that Ayatskov could have been expressing personal views counter to those of his president. At a recent meeting with the “Nashi” youth movement at Zavodovo, Putin stated, “We do not want to offend those who value Belarusian culture, language, and history, of which we are also proud. However, in a broad sense, we are a single nation and we will only benefit if we unite….” (Belarus segodnya, August 2-8).
In short, whatever the platitudes offered about the RBU from both capitals, Russia appears to have decided that the irascible Belarusian leader has become a liability at a time of potential political change and following the “loss” of Ukraine as a geostrategic partner. Further delay in the formation of a Union state controlled by Moscow is unacceptable.