The Cable

What Exactly Is Going on Between Russia and Belarus?

Lukashenko is speaking as though there’s a new development to watch. In reality, it’s a repeat performance.

lukashenko

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is speaking as though there’s a new battle being waged between Russia and Belarus. In reality, it’s the same old fight.

For years, Lukashenko has tried to play Russia and Europe off one another. He’s redoubled those efforts since the fighting erupted in Ukraine in 2014, criticizing Putin’s annexation of Crimea and hosting peace talks in Minsk. In January, Belarus announced visa-free travel for citizens from 80 countries — including the United States — to Belarus, effective Feb. 9.

This time, he may have overplayed his hand, flirting too forcefully with the European Union. Russia now seems to be pulling the Belarusian pendulum back to Moscow. On Wednesday, it announced it would establish a security zone on its previously virtually open border with Belarus.

The border issue is perhaps a stand in for a larger conflict. On Friday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko criticized this move by Moscow, and said that his country’s ties with Russia are deteriorating because Russia is afraid of Belarus turning toward the West. He also spoke of a much larger problem: Russia recently threatened to cut oil exports to Belarus by half. The two countries have been arguing about the price and delivery of oil and gas for months.

Lukashenko said Russia had grabbed Belarus “by the throat” by using oil and gas supplies to get its way, declaring, “Independence cannot be compared with oil.” But even as he vowed to find other sources of energy if necessary, he he took care to say that Belarus would not leave the Russia-helmed Collective Security Treaty Organization or Eurasian Economic Union.

Belarus’s departure would be a blow to Russia, and Lukashenko has complained about unequal membership conditions. But still, he made clear his country, over which he has ruled as “Europe’s last dictator” since 1994, would not threaten Russia in this way.

It seems the message has been received. On Monday, the FSB, Russia’s state security service, told the Russian media that the border zone was meant to prevent illegal migration, drug trafficking and the illegal movement of goods. It was not, it said, meant to impose travel restrictions on Russians or Belarusians, who will perhaps follow their president in moving, once again, from the West back toward Moscow.

Photo credit: MAXIM GUCHEK/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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