Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Belarus tiptoes towards the West

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko appeared to be making signals to the West when he said yesterday he would not immediately recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The normally fiercely pro-Russian president also said he was in no rush to station weapons on Belarus’s western border in response to the US missile defence system to be based in Poland. Taken together the two statements reveal Lukashenko may be about cool relations with Moscow in order to do a deal with the US and the EU.

The EU is happy to encourage these signs that a tense relationship with the West may be on the mend. EU foreign policy head Javier Solana, noted that Belarus had taken the positive step of releasing a number of political prisoners. Solana talked about the EU “rewarding that behaviour”. Neighbour Poland has been at the forefront of the push for normalisation and wants Europe to remove sanctions it imposed on Belarus after a dubious presidential election in 2006 in which Lukashenko won with 82.6 percent of the vote.

While Lukashenko is showing no signs of loosening his iron-clad grip on Belarus’s polity, there are several indications he is about to come out from Russia’s warm embrace. Previously Lukashenko was at the forefront of calls to reunite Belarus with its large Russian neighbour, but now is backing away from that idea. On Monday he said recent events in the Caucasus meant Belarus’ joining the Russian Federation was unacceptable. “You know that there were such ideas in due time. Today many politicians acknowledge, though not out loud, that I was right,” he said. “This is absolutely not needed, either for Belarus or Russia. Otherwise, Russia will simply lose a reliable ally and a subject of international law.”

Belarus has relied on Russian gas to fuel its economy and annual imports 21 million metric tons of Russian crude. This is almost three times as much as it needs for its domestic economy. The surplus allows Belarus to refine the rest and sell the product at profit to the EU. However relations with Putin's regime have cooled since Russia ended subsidised oil and gas supplies last year. The new price, $100 per thousand cubic meters more than doubled the previous price of $46 and was exacerbated by a separate decision by Russia to impose a customs duty of $180 per metric ton on Russian oil. In response Lukashenko imposed a Belarussian transit fee on Russian oil bound for Europe.

Alexander Lukashenko has run Belarus on Soviet economic lines and was a dogged supporter of Russia, even proposing the two countries unite. He came to power in a landslide 1994 election. He deliberately played up to his pariah role in the west by cultivating relationships with the leaders of Iran and Cuba. Lukashenko is a dogmatic leader who harassed opposition voices and removed an awkward parliament in 1996. He rewrote the constitution four years later to favour himself by allowing presidents to serve three or more terms.

His authoritarian style was noted as far back as 1991 when he supported the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev as a then member of the Belarusian parliament. Since 2006, he has been in talks with Russia to form a “union state” But the happy relationship soured after Moscow demanded that Minsk pay market prices for its energy. The regime is now faced with crippling fuel bills and in need of new friends. Hence Lukashenko’s subtle overtures to the west. The US responded last week by suspending some economic sanctions against Belarusian companies. However other key sanctions remain, including the freezing of bank accounts of the state-controlled oil and chemical company, Belneftekhim. Lukashenko’s latest announcements may prove to be the key to defrosting the lucrative oil account in the west.

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