President Alexander Lukashenko has never been very well liked by the current Russian leadership. We hear the occasional rumors that Vladimir Putin cannot stand having to spend time with the permanent president of Belarus, while Dmitry Medvedev has had problems with him going all the way back to some early Gazprom price disputes. Yet for many years, Lukashenko has been a useful if unreliable plant for Russian interests on its periphery, and the retrograde political system established in the country is very much a reflection of his shrewd opportunism.
However, that all appears to be changing. Russia is feeling much more secure and influential in its neighborhood, with Georgia invaded and partially annexed without consequence, with Ukraine’s chaotic experiment with democracy toppled, and a comfortable “reset” with both the United States and Europe. The relative importance of Lukashenko’s autocratic stability has been rapidly declining, and the usual games of playing Washington off Moscow off Brussels isn’t working any more. In other words, losing Lukashenko may no longer be as much as a sacrifice as it used to be.
Though the tension has been building for some time, the latest dust-up between Lukashenko and Medvedev appears to go beyond the pale of past scoldings.
Fresh on the heels of firing Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, President Medvedev has got some swagger and momentum – regardless of whether or not we believe it was an act of independence or simply another instruction fulfilled. The latest act of betrayal by Lukashenko which so infuriated the Kremlin were some comments he made on Oct. 2 regarding the decision not to recognize the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Lukashenko also decried the “flow ofunscrupulous lies, disinformation and utter nonsense” about Belarus published and aired in the Russian state controlled media. Medvedev fired back in a video posted on his blog, which sharply attacked Lukashenko for painting Belarus as a besieged fortress. I wasn’t able to detect any sense of irony on Medvedev’s behalf.
“The Belarusian leadership has always been characterized by a desire tocreate an external enemy image in the public consciousness,” Medvedevsaid during the podcast. “The United States, Europe and the Western countries acted as such’enemies’ earlier. Now Russia is declared the enemy.“
The day after, various spokespersons for the Russian president and members of United Russia commented that ties between Russia and Belarus had been significant damaged and were in “deadlock,” yet they would not break diplomatic relations with Kiev because Lukashenko’s anti-Russian rhetoric was meant for “domestic consumption.”
It seems clear that the Russian leadership is sending out all its warning shots that it is prepared to dump Lukashenko, and move ahead by supporting an opposition candidate in the next “elections,” which are coming up this December. It is difficult to predict at this point whether or not Lukashenko will be cowed back into submission – these disputes have certainly come up and then disappeared without further comment numerous times in the past. However the president of Belarus has been working hard to diversify the country’s foreign relations, including a major deal he struck with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is shipping large amounts of crude oil into Belarus for refinement and distribution via pipeline to Europe, thus preempting the reliance of Russia’s subsidized energy flows, in theory. Journalist Yuriy Humber has published a very interesting piece in BusinessWeek on Lukashenko’s new business ties with both the Venezuelans and the Chinese (for potash), which help illuminate some of the moves which have contributed to Medvedev’s hard stance.
It would be understandable if Medvedev would prefer to see Lukashenko gone, and roll the dice on supporting a new government with fresh blood and fresh ideas. If only it were up to him. Judging by past examples, much of the hawkish security elites in control of Russia’s foreign policy strongly prefer conservative continuity, and are likely to resist the risk of change and instability if at all possible.