Lukashenko Plays Coy with Russia, Again

lukashenko_cartoon.jpgAfter sixteen years as the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has had one hell of a run, even earning the oft-cited title as “Europe’s Last Dictator” (though the Europeans shouldn’t sell themselves so short … there’s plenty of dictators in waiting!).  Nevertheless, all bad things must come to an end, and the rumors we are often hearing from analysts is that he is on the outs with the Kremlin, and that it’s just a matter of time before he gets punted.

That would, in part, explain some of Lukashenko’s erratic and defiant behavior, most recently exemplified by the decision this week to boycott an important meeting of the “customs union” theoretically being proposed between Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia – the unexpected (and embarrassing, according to some) alternative to the World Trade Organization.  It’s certainly not the first time that Lukashenko has snubbed Moscow as a way to create distance – back in April he voiced criticism and boycotted another CSTO summit, which put a dent in Russia’s reputation to organize and lead new regional alliances.  These disputes have been growing in intensity for some time.

The punishment for Lukashenko’s transgression has been stiff. TodayGazprom announced that Belarus will be required to repay its $192million gas debt immediately, while also rejecting Lukashenko’soffer to give the Russians a controlling stake in Beltransgaz – thecountry’s pipeline network.  Basically, it appears that Igor Sechin hasLukashenko’s head in the vice, andis turning the screws:  “Gazprom now has 50 percent. It paid2.5 billion dollars for it butthere is no great economic sense for Gazprom in this investment. (…)Webelieve that we overpaid for the 50 percent anyway.

This is a big change.  In the past, the Belarus-Russia relationship wasdominated by the issues of gas subsidies, political loyalty, andGazprom’s bid to take over Beltransgaz.  Now that they have been offeredthe crown jewel, they have turned it down, because it comes with theburdensome condition that they have to keep Europe’s last dictatoraround as part of the deal, it would seem.  How did Lukashenko becomeexpendable, at least in energy terms?  Perhaps because Ukraine has beenre-captured.

Don’t be surprised to see Lukashenko making some flights to Washington,and talking up the benefits of democratic transition very soon.  Had henot such a long and ugly history, somebody might actually fall for thisruse.