Nostalgia for the Soviet Union or election tactic? Vladimir Putin's calls for a possible annexation of Belarus and South Ossetia into Russia have sparked criticism in Minsk and elsewhere.
Putin may be testing out his presidential election strategy
Russian Prime Minister Vladimr Putin said on Monday that a fusion between Russia and its western neighbor Belarus along the Soviet model was "possible and very desirable." But he stressed that such a move would depend entirely on what the Belarusian people wanted. Putin was speaking at a summer youth camp for Kremlin supporters on Lake Seliger, around 400 kilometers north-west of Moscow. His audience was made up of young members of Russia's reserve military squad.
Putin went even further: he did not rule out a possible annexation of the troubled breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia. But he stressed that it would be up to the South Ossetian people themselves to decide what they wanted.
An election maneuver?
Vinogradov explains there is still nostalgia for Soviet times in Russia
The Russian prime minister is leader of the conservative United Russia party, and it's all about election tactics, according to Eberhard Schneider from the EU-Russia Center in Brussels.
"His goal is to win so many votes in the State Duma elections on December 4 that United Russia parliamentarians reach a two-thirds majority in the lower house of parliament," Schneider said.
Such a large majority would have the power to alter the constitution and even to start impeachment proceedings against the current president, Dmitri Medvedev. Seven months before presidential elections in Russia, Putin still has not indicated whether he will stand as a candidate. He served two terms as president from 2000 to 2008.
Russian political scientist Michail Vinogradov explains that there is a certain amount of nostalgia for the Soviet Union and Putin probably wants to awaken expectations that Russia could expand its borders. It could be part of Putin's election strategy, Vinogradov said.
Mazkevich says Moscow lacks a concrete plan
Belarusian political scientist Vladimir Mazkevich goes as far as to describe Putin's assertions as his campaign manifesto. "The Kremlin has never given up its aim to annex Belarus and to expand Russia again," according to Mazkevich. But he says Moscow is lacking a concrete plan.
The experts are agreed that hopes of a union between Russia and Belarus are futile. Even today the idea of a "Russian-Belarusian Union" only exists on paper, Schneider says. The union was agreed in the 1990s between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and former president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. At the time, Lukashenko was said to have ambitions on the Russian presidency. But he distanced himself from a deeper union with Russia after Putin became head of state in 2000.
Putin and Lukashenko don't see eye to eye on many issues and it seems that Putin would rather see someone else at the head of Belarus. "But the chances must be very slim that Moscow will succeed in removing Lukashenko from the saddle," Schneider said.
Lukashenko and Putin aren't best buddies
By suggesting a possible annexation of South Ossetia, Putin is treading on dangerous ground. The international community has yet to recognize the two breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Caucasus as independent states. Even Belarus has failed to do so.
"That means that the international community is going on the assumption that South Ossetia and Abkhazia belong to Georgia, and I can't see any chances or any advantage for Russia in pursuing this policy," Schneider explained. Georgia lost control of the two regions following a war with Russia in August 2008. Moscow has recognized both areas as independent.
Minsk quickly rejected Putin's desire to unite Russia and Belarus. Spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Andrei Savinykh referred to a statement from President Lukashenko in which he had described the independence of his country as "holy."
South Ossetia has also rejected the idea of uniting with Russia. "Our people voted for independence in a referendum in 2006 and they do not relish the idea of becoming part of the Russian Federation," said South Ossetian Ambassador to Moscow Dmitri Medojev. Politicians in South Ossetia have however said that a possible union with the Russian region of North Ossetia is still on the cards.
Author: Markian Ostaptschuk, Viacheslav Yurin / ji
Editor: Andreas Illmer