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22 Jan

David Erkomaishvili, The Point Journal, January 17, 2012 (Uzbekistan)

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Belarus’ post-Soviet Alliances

Ukraine is trying to avoid following the Belarusian model of post-Soviet alignment which offers deep integration only with Russia. Unlike his Ukrainian colleagues, Aliaksandr Lukashenka has not managed to diversify his country’s alliance choices.

Ukraine and Belarus represent contrasting models of post-Soviet development. Ukraine has been trying to avoid close political alliance with Russia since the 1990s. In contrast, for years Russia remained Minsk’s main alliance partner. When the Union State was established in 1996, experts began to debate a possible restoration of the Soviet Union. This restoration, however, has proven to be somewhat exaggerated.

Close military and much closer economic cooperation between Minsk and Moscow, as well as the almost total energy dependency of Minsk on Moscow, have reduced the choices available to Minsk. Lukashenka has been an eager supporter of all integration efforts in the post-Soviet space under Russian guidance. Meanwhile, Moscow has been able and willing to demonstrate – especially after Vladimir Putin’s accession to power – that its concept of energy superpower includes monopolization of energy supplies to the entire post-Soviet space, with Russia as the center and with the purpose of consolidating supplies to Europe. Thus, the loyalty of other post-Soviet states has been generously purchased with reduced gas prices. Unlike other energy-importing states in the post-Soviet space, Belarus, despite occasional disputes, was able to maintain strategic political relations with Russia while keeping possession of key Belarusian assets, even when Moscow was intent on acquiring them.

Due to the severe post-electoral economic crisis and political deadlock, the traditional West-or-Russia balancing strategy has proven ineffective this time and has forced Lukashenka to give concessions to Russia on Moscow’s terms in exchange for a bail-out. The economic and political situation pushed Lukashenka to give up what he has fiercely defended from Moscow for the last several years– the most important of which is full control over the Belarusian gas pipeline system.

The paradox is that Minsk can not really sell its strategic assets to other parties, but only to Moscow. It has no ally other than Moscow. Minsk’s spontaneous attempts to cooperate with the EU and other players – the United States, Venezuela or Georgia – generally do not go beyond building leverage for an attempt to construct equal relations with Moscow or get concessions from it.

This paradox exposes an even more important problem. Belarus is perhaps the best example of the fact that any attempt to construct post-Soviet cooperation on an equal basis is doomed. Moscow does not consider itself as standing on equal footing with former Soviet republics. It had watered down the EU offer to be included into the Eastern Partnership program as a partner state along with six other post-Soviet states. Moscow argued that its status is higher than that of a simple partner state – it is a strategic partner for the EU.

Such a policy of maintaining a number of politically weak states on the Russian periphery, rather than helping to strengthen them, guarantees that their dependence will bring loyalty. Thus, any attempt to construct an alliance in the post-Soviet space without Russian participation or with external players is seen by Moscow as a hostile act (e.g. GUAM). Nevertheless, only relations based on equality may bring a new level of cooperation in the post-Soviet space. Without it, the idea of Eurasian Union will become just another dysfunctional framework.

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