Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 109

The CIS summit just held in Minsk has highlighted two Red flashpoints on the western fringe of the CIS, along the line of contact with Europe. One of them, Belarus, is a case of Soviet continuity by authoritarian presidential regime. The other, Moldova, has freely entrusted its fate to an unreconstructed Communist Party, now ruling in a single-party mode.

The power of the Belarusan and the Moldovan leaderships rests on a mix of real assets, hollow promises and the Russian connection, the latter an active one in the case of Belarus and a latent one in the case of Moldova. The chief asset to either leadership is, in a nutshell, the enduring legacy of Soviet isolation and political socialization of Belarus and Moldova. The promise, underlying either leadership’s claim to legitimacy, is that of maintaining or restoring basic elements of the Soviet past. The Russian connection capitalizes on residual popular deference–stemming from an underdeveloped national awareness–in either country toward Russia, as well as on actual or expected economic favors from the Russian government.

The Russia-Belarus connection includes political support on the international level for the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. At the CIS summit in Minsk, Russian President Vladimir Putin assented to Lukashenka’s request that Russia send observers to the presidential election, tentatively scheduled for September in Belarus. Putin, moreover, urged presidents and parliaments of other CIS countries to assign their representatives to a collective CIS observer mission. In 1996 and 2000, Russian observer missions–and, last year, Putin as well–blessed the parliamentary elections in Belarus as impeccably democratic, in spite of the international community’s judgment to the contrary. This year, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and other international organizations, as well as the old and new democracies, have already refused to send their observers to the upcoming presidential election in Belarus. They have found no conditions in place for a democratic election, and they consider withholding recognition from a president reelected under such circumstances. Russia and several CIS countries, however, signaled at this CIS summit that they are prepared collectively to support Lukashenka.

At the summit, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov came down on the side of the Belarusan regime in its dispute with the OSCE’s Minsk Mission. The government is threatening to terminate the mission’s activities and to expel its chief, the German diplomat Hans-Georg Wieck, mainly over the mission’s seminars for local electoral observers. Ivanov, in a joint appearance with his Belarusan counterpart Mikhail Khvastou during the summit, endorsed Lukashenka’s thesis that the OSCE Mission is exceeding its mandate, and implied that Moscow might use its veto power to support official Minsk in the organization.

Also during the CIS summit, Putin and Lukashenka laid the foundation stone for the building of the new Russian embassy in Minsk. At the ceremony, Lukashenka predicted that “the time will come when we change this building’s destination from embassy to something else; that will be the measure of our success.” He meant the successful completion of the Russia-Belarus Union State, in which the respective embassies in Minsk and Moscow would be downgraded to the status of representations as in Soviet times.

The new Moldovan leadership made its debut at a CIS summit on this occasion. The delegation volunteered the promise to send, for the first time, Moldovan observers to the upcoming session of the Russia-Belarus Interparliamentary Assembly. That would put the Moldovan Communist deputies in the seats briefly held by Slobodan Milosevic’s parliamentarians, before the new Serbian authorities withdrew their representatives to that assembly. The Moldovans also expressed a keen interest in joining the newly founded Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC), which includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Moldova’s Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev attended, with the status of an observer, the parallel meeting of EAEC countries in Minsk. Tarlev and the Moldovan President, Vladimir Voronin, expressed regret over Moldova’s noncontiguous location, which prevents the country from joining the EAEC outright, but they hoped aloud that Ukraine would eventually join that group, or facilitate Moldova’s access to EAEC countries. Voronin waxed enthusiastic over that prospect, “which would open up a vast market all the way to the Pamirs for Moldova’s agricultural exports.” Meanwhile, Belarus is rapidly emerging as a major importer of Moldovan produce.

Moldova and Kyrgyzstan each expressed interest in bartering produce and, respectively, cotton for Belarusan tractors. While Kyrgyzstan is, however, striving to diversify its external economic, political and security links, the past-oriented Moldovan leadership seems for the moment primarily interested in exploring the possibilities of restoring Soviet-era ties (Belarus Television, Itar-Tass, ORT, Kyrgyz Television, Flux, Basapress, June 1-3; see the Monitor, May 9, 11, June 4-5; Fortnight in Review, May 11).