Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual state of the nation address, given April 25, was remarkable for one glaring omission. It was quite surprising that Putin did not say one word about Russia’s “brotherly” relations with Belarus, providing only an abbreviated sketch of the whole area of foreign policy. Yet just days earlier, Belarus had been one of the most contested issues at the NATO ministerial meeting held on April 21 in Vilnius.
The high point of the NATO ministerial meeting certainly was the clearly spelled out disagreement between Russia and the United States about the policy aims towards and the substance of relations with Belarus. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took — and essentially set for the whole Alliance — an extremely tough line, declaring that the dictatorial regime of President Alexander Lukashenka would not be tolerated and should be swept away by a wave of public protests. This “revolutionary” rhetoric – unprecedented even by the old Cold War standards — does not signify that Rice lacks basic diplomatic skills; even her critics in the Russian media acknowledge that her political expertise and instinct are as sharp as her fashion sense (Rossiiskaya gazeta, April 21). Her choice of words was careful as usual and the ostracism is a considered political course focused on support for the powerful grass-roots pressure on the semi-authoritarian post-Soviet regimes. After the breakthrough in Georgia in November 2003 and the triumph in Ukraine in November-December 2004, there simply could be no other treatment for the truly outrageous political order in Belarus, which even Moscow finds hard to justify.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was remarkably restrained in his rebuttal, confirming the negative attitude to the export of democracy and warning against violent regime change (Strana.ru, April 21). That was definitely a subdued criticism, compared with Putin’s emotional condemnation of the “barracks-style principles of unipolar world” enforced with the help of a “missile stick” during his December visits to India and Turkey (Kommersant, December 6, 2004). The mainstream Russian media also played down Rice’s statement and her meeting with the leaders of Belarus’ opposition but emphasized that Lukashenka remained composed and unconcerned (Komsomolskaya pravda, April 23). There was probably no need to make a loud declaration, since Putin was greeting Lukashenka in the Kremlin on the day of NATO meeting in order to mark a further joint step in deepening the Russia-Belarus “union” (Vip.lenta.ru, Strana.ru, April 22).
Putin’s extreme reluctance to admit mistakes is not the only reason for his unsubstantiated claim that Russia would remain “a major European nation.” The Kremlin analysts and speechwriters simply cannot provide any comprehensible net assessment of the chain of setbacks in managing relations with such minor allies and clients like Moldova, Abkhazia, and Ajaria, not to mention the major disaster with Ukraine (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 26). Lukashenka, making his own address a week earlier, with few doubts characterized the tide of public anger against corrupt regimes as “banditry” (Gazeta.ru, April 19; Rosbalt, April 20). In Putin’s “narrow circle,” many probably share this opinion but find it difficult to explain how their best efforts have failed to stop it. Each “event” appears to be caused by its own peculiar combination of miscalculations and coincidences but it also adds a new feature to the accumulating body of evidence. Georgia established the basic proposition that a corrupt regime could be overthrown by street protests; Ukraine proved that enormous people power could be mobilized for this cause; Kyrgyzstan showed how easily a pyramidal structure of power could collapse; and Belarus, for that matter, could demonstrate that falsified elections are not a necessary prerequisite for a determined popular uprising.
It is not just the centrifugal flight of old allies that scares the Kremlin; it is also the undeniable relevance of each of these lessons for Russia. Key members of the presidential administration have tried to exorcise the specter of revolution by demanding a “consolidation of elites” against multiplying “internal enemies” (Vedomosti, April 26). Putin has taken this campaign a step further in his address by distancing himself from “corrupt bureaucrats” and confirming his commitment to democracy (Polit.ru, April 26). Characteristically, the MPs — most of whom consider “democratic values” to be just a meaningless figure of speech — gave 26 rounds of applause to this low-content speech that lasted just 48 minutes.
Putin knows perfectly well that these loyal troops of his colossal army of bureaucrats would cheer any slogan he chooses to advance – but he feels the need to continue the dialogue with Rice. Visiting Moscow before going to Vilnius, she asserted that the United States did not foresee or sponsor any “colorful revolution” against him since a vibrant democratic Russia was perceived as an important partner (Ekho Moskvy, April 20). That was perhaps not entirely reassuring, and Putin now seeks to demonstrate that his “presidential vertical” fits that description. This super-structure, however, appears to be vibrating rather than vibrant, since corruption – facilitated by the immense inflow of petro-rubles – has eaten deep into its hard core. There is nothing wrong with upholding the democratic façade, but Putin cannot convince even himself in the solidity of his political construct. This may explain the absence of the key word “stability” in his address. He is worried about a revolution in Belarus only so far as its resonance is certain to shake the Kremlin walls, but the sinking feeling inside this enclosure is caused more by the “perfect storm” gathering around Moscow.