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Russia May Need to Say ‘Do Svidaniya’ to Belarus

Belarus is making an unprecedented tilt away from Moscow.

RUSSIA-BELARUS-POLITICS-ECONOMY
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and his visiting Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko walk while meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 25, 2013. Putin met yesterday Lukashenko to discuss progress on a fledgling state union the two neighbours had first agreed to forge nearly two decades ago.AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL / MIKHAIL METZEL (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL METZEL/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the course of his two decades in power, Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus’s autocratic president, has perfected the art of weaving between Russia and the West. But with the fighting in eastern Ukraine approaching his country’s doorstep and Russia’s struggling economy weighing down his own, Lukashenko has begun an unprecedented tilt away from Moscow.

Despite occasional swipes at the Kremlin, Lukashenko has rarely strayed too far from Russia in the past, but the Ukraine crisis seems to be slightly altering his calculations. At his annual news conference Thursday, the Belarusian leader made his most overt maneuver yet away from the Kremlin. With Belarus hampered by Russia’s struggling economy, Lukashenko said that if these problems persist, his country would consider leaving the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, which has left Belarus — and the other members — sharing in Russia’s fiscal woes.

The union — a trade bloc consisting of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia that came into effect on Jan. 1 — is off to a rocky start. About 40 percent of Belarus’s exports go to Russia, and much of the rest goes to other former Soviet countries closely linked to the Russian economy, according to Belarus’s Foreign Ministry. Due to Western sanctions, the collapse of the ruble, and global oil prices hammering Russia, the Eurasian Union has already been marred by a series of currency devaluations and trade spats, which have brought the union’s founding premise of economic growth into question.

For Belarus and Russia, the two have found themselves at loggerheads over a series of issues, including food exports and fighting in Ukraine. In November 2014, Russia banned meat imports from its neighbor, saying Belarus had been re-exporting European foods blocked under the Kremlin’s counter-sanctions against the West. Lukashenko responded by calling Moscow’s move “indecent” and found himself in a very public fight with Russian food regulators.

With Lukashenko threatening to leave the union, he will also play host on Friday to another round of peace talks between Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE. Indeed, throughout the crisis Belarus has played a key mediating role between Kiev and Moscow, brokering the Sept. 5, 2014, cease-fire agreement that has largely collapsed amid intense renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine.

As Moscow and Kiev have drifted further apart, Lukashenko has consistently defended Ukrainian sovereignty and tried to protect his country from the Kremlin’s creeping reach. On Monday, his government announced its largest-ever peacetime exercises of military reserves, involving some 15,000 troops.

On Feb. 1, a new military doctrine will take effect that appears to warn against Russian military intervention. That doctrine states that the “sending of armed groups, irregular forces, or mercenary groups who use arms against Belarus will trigger a declaration of war,” which would appear to be a reference to the so-called “little green men” who appeared in Crimea prior to its annexation by Russia.

Putin justified that annexation — as he has Moscow’s broader interference in eastern Ukraine — by arguing that his forces were moving to protect ethnic Russians and speakers of the language. On that front as well, Lukashenko has moved to protect his power by promoting the Belarusian language.

Last week, state media in Belarus announced a new policy of “de-Russification” of its schools, a move seemingly aimed at reviving the Belarusian language, which has been losing ground to Russian. According to a 2009 poll, 53.2 percent of Belarusians consider Belarusian their native language, down from 73.6 percent in 1999. The announcement was a clear shift for Lukashenko, who once said “nothing significant can be expressed” in Belarusian.

Despite his maneuvers to shield itself from Russia’s economic decline and its geopolitical pull, Lukashenko there is still a chance that Belarus may not yet be ready to completely abandon the Kremlin. For years, the Moscow-Minsk relationship has been vital for maintaining the president’s grip on power, with Russian subsidies helping to prop up the Belarusian economy. Moreover, the Belarusian ruble has lost almost 30 percent of its value against the dollar this year, forcing the central bank to hoist interest rates to 25 percent.

Major questions also remain about how Lukashenko can reconcile his atrocious human rights record, which Moscow has had few qualms about, with the EU. At Thursday’s press conference, the strongman was asked if he would pursue closer ties with Brussels and responded by saying that “there will be no major shifts in relations prior to the presidential election” scheduled for October. The Belarusian president then added that if he was “alive and healthy” he would run again as the country’s leader. If he wins, which he is all but guaranteed to do, it would be his fifth term in office.

Still, Lukashenko has made some concessions to his critics in Brussels by releasing several activists arrested following a crackdown in the aftermath of Belarus’s 2010 presidential elections. A small, but important gesture that has further raised the possibility of a genuine rapprochement with Europe.

Moving forward, the Belarusian president will have to decide what is worse: lessening his autocratic grip or leaving his country exposed to a revanchist and economically wounded Russia.

MIKHAIL METZEL/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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