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Analysis & Opinion
22.10.10 Is Russia Engineering A Regime Change In Minsk?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger, Alexander Rahr, Alexandre Strokanov & Vitaly Strokanov

The Kremlin’s relations with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, also known as the “last dictator of Europe,” appear to have reached the point of no return. On October 3, president Dmitry Medvedev recorded a video message to the Russian and Belarusian people, in which he made it clear that the Kremlin no longer views Lukashenko as Russia’s strategic partner and for all intents and purposes wants “regime change” in Minsk. What does this mean for Belarus ahead of its presidential elections this December?

On October 13 Presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Naryshkin met with members of the Belarusian media, including opposition media outlets, to deliver a blunt message – that Russia might not recognize the results of the Belarusian presidential elections next month if they are not held in full compliance with Belarusian laws and international criteria for free and fair elections.

Naryshkin also made it clear that Moscow has a problem only with Lukashenko personally, and were that problem to be somehow removed (were Lukashenko to retire from the scene or suddenly come to his senses), wants to return to normal relations with Belarus.

Lukashenko, who is running for his fourth five-year term, responded to the Russian threats of not recognizing the legitimacy of his likely reelection by threatening to pull Belarus out of all integration projects with Russia and the CIS bodies. He also made the bad move of holding a meeting with Russian regional media on October 1, where he permitted himself some very humiliating and disparaging comments about president Medvedev personally and about his recent firing of ex-Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, crossing the line by meddling in Russia’s internal affairs.

The Kremlin seems to be signaling to Belarusian elites that it wants Lukashenko out of the way and is prepared to deal with almost any other Belarusian leader. It is, however, somewhat less clear if Moscow has a viable strategy to deal with Lukashenko after his almost assured reelection.

Not recognizing the election results opens a host of touchy issues, especially with Russia’s own less-than-immaculate record on elections. This could also deal a mortal blow to some high profile integrationist projects in the former Soviet space, particularly the Russia-Belarus Union State, the Customs Union, etc.

Allowing Lukashenko a victory despite the Russian counter-effort would be too humiliating for Medvedev internationally and would make Moscow look very weak. The strategy seems to be to maintain economic and psychological pressure on Lukashenko to prevent him from savoring the fruits of his likely electoral victory, and to keep telling the Belarus elites that they would be better off without Lukashenko at the helm, thus encouraging conspiracy scenarios in Minsk.

Is Russia engineering regime change in Belarus? Could such a strategy, if this qualifies as a strategy, be successful in Belarus? Were it to prove successful and were Lukashenko to go under Russian pressure, what would this say about Russia’s ability to affect democratic regime change in the CIS? What would be the likely consequences of Russia not recognizing the results of the Belarusian presidential vote in December? What would the United States and the EU do in such a scenario? Would they present a united front with Russia, or would they seek to play Lukashenko against Russia? Could this be another tangible deliverable of the Obama-Medvedev reset? How would Belarusian people react to Moscow’s pressure to remove Lukashenko? Would they rally behind their leader or would they shun him? Do Belarus opposition candidates have a better chance of unseating Lukashenko with Russian pressure on? What does the Lukashenko spat say about Medvedev’s qualities and inclinations as president?

Alexander Rahr, Director of the Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, Berlin, Germany:

The quarrel between the Kremlin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko is not new. It has been going on since the beginning of Vladimir Putin's first presidential term, when the latter bluntly told Lukashenko to give up his country's sovereignty and join Russia.

The quarrel reached a head during the energy conflict at the beginning of 2007, when Moscow raised the gas prices for Belarus and introduced import tariffs for Russian oil.

The current militant rhetoric is a culmination of the worsening relations between both countries. Dmitry Medvedev actually used the same methods to attack former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko for the latter's anti-Russian stance in the summer of 2009.

But while Yushchenko is out and Ukraine is now closer to Russia, Lukashenko will not share Yushchenko's fate. There is no Belarusian Viktor Yanukovich around who could replace him. So, indeed Russia must think twice before accelerating its attacks on Lukashenko.

If he is reelected and Russia decides to treat him like an outcast – what this will mean for future reintegration processes on the post-Soviet space? Probably the end.

But at the same time, how can the Kremlin and Minsk come to reconciliation after the recent verbal attacks against each other? Will Putin become the mediator between Medvedev and Lukashenko? Or is Putin the real architect of the split?

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, Australia:

It would be overly simplistic to believe that, having recently fired Luzhkov as Moscow’s mayor (following the dismissal of several other heads of the Russian Federation’s political subdivisions) and participated in efforts to create an environment that made possible the election of Viktor Yanukovich as Ukraine’s president, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is actually intent on devoting considerable efforts toward “regime” change in Minsk.

Even if Medvedev genuinely wanted to promote political change in Belarus, he will have to do considerably more than post a video message hostile to Lukashenko on his blog, or give his blessing to the recent Russian media interest in reporting Belarusian political developments and buried skeletons. While the Russian political leadership may have reached a consensus on whether it is now desirable to “replace” Lukashenko as the Belarusian head of state, it knows that its tools are limited and that it lacks a credible replacement.

I doubt the Russian political leadership is eager to see Andrei Sannikov (European Belarus) or Anatoly Lebedzko (United Civic Party) as the next Belarusian president. As long as Lukashenko remains Belarusian president, his grip on power is sufficiently strong that I find it inconceivable that he will lose an election when he determines who counts the ballots.

Undoubtedly, both Medvedev and prime minister Putin find the mercurial and ruthless Lukashenko to be an annoyance. Nonetheless, he does not represent a real threat to their domestic and foreign policy agendas. Lukashenko’s flirtation with the EU countries is a unilateral infatuation that offers him no real alternative to finding working solutions to bilateral disputes with Russia.

While Medvedev and persons involved in the conduct of Russian foreign policy may believe there might be tangible benefits from distancing themselves from Lukashenko, any gains will be ephemeral.
Any Belarusian president who enjoys genuine support among the segment of the Belarusian elite that longs for closer relations with the EU and the United States is unlikely to have warm feelings toward those exercising power in Moscow.

Several days ago, the Russian president and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez observed the signing of a series of contracts, pursuant to which Rosneft acquired Petroleos de Venezuela’s oil refining capacities in Germany, which represents approximately ten percent of German refining capacity, increasing Russian control over Germany’s energy supply. The financial terms are apparently very favorable for Rosneft. In addition, Rosatom agreed to construct Venezuela's first nuclear power plant. Chavez’s popularity continues to decline at home as his relations with his neighbors remain fairly tense, so for him to have a Russian shoulder to lean on is critical to his survival.

The Russian leadership’s willingness to extend a hand to a friend at such a time (although at a price), casts a shadow of suspicion over the motives behind Russian foreign policy. Russia’s assertive foreign policy with respect to Venezuela weakens the credibility behind claims that it has abandoned its “zero sum game” approach. In any case, Lukashenko will almost certainly remain Belarusian president for the foreseeable future because he has atomized the political opposition through political repression, allowing many of those unhappy about conditions in Belarus to leave the country so long as they have been restrained in acting upon their sentiments.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT, and Vitaly Strokanov, Senior Lecturer, Izhevsk State Technical University, Chaikovsky, Russia:

Nobody would deny that the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko is not an easy partner, and that he deserves to be criticized for much of his action inside his country as well as in his foreign policy.
His desire (if it actually exists) to be liked and supported by the West in return for shunning Russia is nothing but na?ve. That said, all or at least most of the accusations directed at Lukashenko for his “games with the West,” “links to Boris Berezovsky”, and “anti-Russian rhetoric” may be nothing more than the “creativity” of the Kremlin’s propaganda masters, who want to distort the understanding of the real nature and causes of Lukashenko’s recent actions.

It is quite obvious today that the Union State of Russia and Belarus is just a virtual project that will never materialize into anything serious. The leadership in both counties can be blamed for it, but as it becomes clearer now, it was actually never supported by the elites in the two countries. One of the parties was quite surprised when this truth was stated to him very bluntly by a Belarusian official many years ago. Today only blind people can’t see this reality. There are many explanations for it, and this is probably not the place to address the question in detail.

We will provide only one example. What was the point of the North Stream pipeline if it was clear that it would at the very least significantly limit the flow of revenue into the Belarusian budget from the transit of Russian natural gas to European markets? In our understanding, a Union State should act in favor of both partners in it and not just one. Today a significant part of the Belarusian budget is filled by transit fees on the existing Yamal-Europe and Northern Lights pipelines. What is going to happen to the country’s budget when North Stream will begin to operate? Obviously, the Russian leadership decided that the economic interests of Russia and Gazprom are above the interests of the Union State and their partner in this case.

Lukashenko understands perfectly that the Russian leadership does not treat him as an equal. However, he is the president of his own independent country and expected to defend the interests of those who elected him to his position. Everybody, even his opponents in Belarus, will probably agree that he works really hard to defend the interests of the Belarusian people and his state.

The post-Soviet model in Belarus is quite interesting and has at least a few attractive aspects in comparison to Russia today. Belarus has much less corruption, a much smaller gap between rich and poor, and did not experience a near collapse of state and social infrastructure in the 1990s. This is exactly why people in Belarus still support their leader and will vote for him in December 2010 election, despite the Kremlin or the European Union’s displeasure.
The problem for Lukashenko is that he is not needed by or even of interest to anybody in the European Union, except perhaps for Belarus’ neighbors. It is unlikely that European leaders after the December election will begin to support Lukashenko’s Belarus. The country is not going to fit into the European Union; neither can it be saved by China, Venezuela, etc. Belarus (with or without Lukashenko) will have to continue to live with two giants as its neighbors: the EU and Russia, and to balance between them.

Of course, Russia for Lukashenko is a more preferable partner than bureaucrats from Brussels, even taking into account all the Russian selfishness. That is why after the elections Lukashenko should correct his major foreign policy error and recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This will be a good sign that he is ready for reconciliation with the Russian leadership. The Kremlin, in its turn, should stop the smear campaign on Russian television against him. The Russian leadership should also learn from its own mistakes and not consider the willingness of Lukashenko to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as his defeat and capitulation. It is unlikely the smear campaign and Medvedev’s video blog have played any positive role in the development of relations with Belarus, and they still will leave a bad aftertaste for people in both countries, further increasing the vision of politics, even between brotherly people, as an exercise in cynicism and hypocrisy.

All of these things also suggest that the political arsenal of the Kremlin is rather poor, since in fact the same methods were applied in very different situations: in Ukraine under Yushchenko and in Belarus under Lukashenko. Many of the critical statements against Lukashenko made by Medvedev in his video blog could easily be addressed to the Russian president himself.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., United States:

Lukashenko's record as a reliable partner is less than stellar. This would be a frank assessment not just from Russia, but also from Brussels and Washington. It should be remembered that Lukashenko and his entourage have been subject to restrictions of a very personal nature imposed by the West. The designation "last dictator of Europe" is not of Russian coinage; for the United States or the EU to get involved, the "dictator" label must be nullified, and this is not an easy volte-face to accomplish.

Lukashenko's foreign policy gyrations over the past two decades would try the patience of a saint – it was notable that the Russian government has put up with such a roller-coaster. Evidently Lukashenko was (and remains) the "only game in town" for Russia regarding several foreign policy initiatives. One must wonder whether the recent pronouncements from Moscow may not indicate a substantial revision of these objectives. It is notable also that very recently there were overt discussions in Moscow with at least one prominent Minsk politician (and there may have been other, more discreet conversations.)

No elections in any country today are free from the suspicion of minor or major manipulation. After all, political campaigns are in fact themselves legally sanctioned attempts to manipulate voter opinions in favor of one candidate or another. Nevertheless, Lukashenko may win re-election even in mostly clean elections – voters are funny like that, and bizarre outcomes have been observed in other countries. The real difficulty of course is the lack of term limits and of viable opponents to the incumbent in this election.

Therefore, one does wonder how Moscow plans to continue working with Lukashenko after his expected reelection. There is another hidden consequence of the recent demarches against the gentleman from Minsk. Should he fail in his reelection bid, he might vociferously accuse Moscow of having interfered with the politics of Belarus and claim to be a victim of imperialism.

So in a sense Moscow appears to be in a bit of a dead-end, "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of situation. In light of this, one notes that Lukashenko must have truly irritated the Kremlin beyond all realistic boundaries.

But Lukashenko is in a dead end of his own. He has burned the bridges in his only valuable foreign relationship. The West long ago declared him persona non grata; now Russia appears to be doing the same. And Belarus is not North Korea – self-isolation and autarky are not viable options. Of course, a kind of informal axis of marginal and outcast rulers may form, but the ability of such a network to even function is highly debatable.

Moreover, the evident relative success of Russia in comparison with its northwestern neighbor cannot be hidden from the Belarusian electorate. Lukashenko's attractiveness to his voters is predicated in a significant degree on his ability to tap into Russian wealth and Russian opportunities. The word from Moscow is that now Lukashenko is no longer welcome as a partner, and this time amends apparently will not be accepted.

A sophisticated politician in Lukashenko's place would seek a graceful personal exit. Smart poker players know "when to hold'em and when to fold'em." But a sophisticated politician would not have placed himself in Lukashenko's predicament in the first place.

Finally, Russia has other constructive prospects on its Western flank – Poland, Finland, the Baltics, Ukraine. Lukashenko lacks such luxuries.

Indeed, the near future will be interesting in Minsk.
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