Clipping de Relações Internacionais

ARTIGO – Ditching the Big Brother

Posted in Política & Política Externa, Rússia & Ásia Central, Regiões by Ariel Boldrini on 02/06/2009

By Sergei Balashov

Russia Profile – 01/06/2009

While Lukashenko Claims to Have Alternative Allies, Experts Believe that His Latest Outburst Is Just a Bluff

The latest attack on Belarus was perpetrated by the Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who offered a rather gloomy forecast for the Belorussian economy in late May. Kudrin noted that Belarus had spent a third of its international reserves in the first quarter of 2009 to keep the national currency afloat, and that at this pace the country would soon lose all of its accumulated foreign currency and find itself insolvent. Predictably enough, Alexander Lukashenko was furious upon hearing this. He went as far as to say that Kudrin was acting along with “yapping crackpots funded by Western money.”

Lukashenko ordered the Belarusian government to stay away from Russia and “look for happiness in other parts of the planet.” He then took a few more jabs at Russia and even personally at Vladimir Putin, suggesting he was behind Kudrin’s “tirade.” The Kommersant daily suggested that these comments basically signaled the severing of diplomatic ties between the two countries, and while this may be a bit of an overstatement, Lukashenko certainly crossed a new line.

Despite the supposedly friendly relations between the two countries, the Belarusian president has a long record of criticizing Russia. Most notably, he blamed Russia for the gas supply crisis in January of 2007, while simultaneously courting Europe and the United States. Lukashenko said that his relationship with Russia has now been “poisoned by gas,” and equated cutting off gas with terrorism.

In the wake of the financial crisis that severely crippled the Belarusian economy, heavily dependant on agriculture and on the industrial sector, Lukashenko stepped up his criticism. This is a drastic change from the Boris Yeltsin era, when the two countries agreed to create a union state and to eventually merge the two countries. However, Lukashenko was reluctant to give up power to the Kremlin, and the Russians eventually cooled to the idea.

But the two states still remained politically and economically bonded. Belarus had a lush export market in Russia, while Russia saw Belarus as a reliable outpost in the unfriendly West. The two countries signed a joint air-defense pact, with Russia promising to send more money to its ally in return for a mostly formal agreement that was supposed to send a message to NATO. Belarus’ friendship thus came with a price tag. Russia has granted Belarus $3 billion in loans since 2007, but Lukashenko appeared insatiable and kept asking for more, particularly after the global financial crisis struck the country.

Now Lukashenko claims that he has alternatives to Russia in “other parts of the planet.” He didn’t even have to go too far. For one, he bragged about successfully selling some 40,000 tons of sugar to Kazakhstan. Yet he can hardly count on the EU as a potential partner, since Belarus is seen as an outcast in Europe and even in the CIS. Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko threatened not to participate in the EU’s recent Eastern Partnership Summit if Lukashenko showed up to represent Belarus.

But Belarus is globally perceived as a Russian protectorate, which keeps Lukashenko from meeting the fate of other authoritarian Eastern European leaders like Slobodan Milosevic. Now Lukashenko seems to think that he has political alternatives. The Ossetian news agency OSinform reported that Lukashenko is prepared to negotiate with Abkhazia and South Ossetia to explore the possibility of recognizing them as independent states. “This is not for Moscow to decide, it’s the business of Minsk and these states that we have good relationships with,” OSinform reported Lukashenko as saying.

While Belarus could gain a few more allies in these two powerhouses and a new market for Belarusian goods in Kazakhstan, there still don’t seem to be credible alternatives to Russia. Despite having been recently invited to participate in the Eastern Partnership program, under its current leadership Belarus can’t make any considerable progress in its relations with the EU or with the United States. “Nobody in the West wants Lukashenko. Russia is interested in Belarus as an ally, but at a reasonable price,” said Alexander Shatilov, the deputy director of the Center of Political Trends.

With his recent comments Kudrin could be playing the “bad cop” as a way to make Lukashenko aware of the major problems his country will face without Russia’s aid, meant to keep him on a leash. Lukashenko recently refused a $500 million loan due to its being in Russian rubles, which also contributed to Kudrin’s outburst.

Lukashenko appears to be catering to his domestic audience, which no longer seems to be happy about the prospects of a union state with Russia. According to a poll conducted by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, almost 75 percent of Belarusians want an independent Belarus. Thirty three percent of respondents said that they wanted Belarus to join the EU, while one fifth of all interviewees wanted a union state with Russia. Almost 55 percent said that they would not favor such a union.

Writing in the Solidarnost newspaper, journalist Anastasia Zelenkova said that this number would only increase in view of Lukashenko’s recent comments, while opposition politician Nikolai Statkevich told the media that the idea of a union state was doomed from the start, reported. “The relationship between Russia and Belarus has been defined by mutual bluffing and media campaigns to get concessions from one another. This anti-Russian rhetoric helps him appear independent from Russia and make himself more appealing to the domestic audience, and not just the pro-government forces, but those in the opposition as well. It is also a way to apply psychological pressure on Russia and figure out how far Russia would go in making concessions to Belarus. So it is not a diversification of Lukashenko’s foreign policy, but a new stage in the psychological war with Russia,” said Shatilov.

Disponível em: Acesso em: 01/06/2009

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