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Minsk, Moscow likely to mend fences ahead of elections in Belarus

Relations between Russia and Belarus have been extremely testy this summer. But as Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko stands for reelection, the two sides have few options other than letting bygones be bygones.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko

Putin is keeping his eye on Lukashenko

Belarus has traditionally been one of Russia's closest partners - indeed the two countries have flirted for years with the idea of forming a political union. But one wouldn't have known that necessarily in the summer of 2010, as squabbles broke out over natural gas, a customs union and the geopolitics of the Caucasus.

The sniping came to a head when Russian TV ran a documentary about President Alexander Lukashenko entitled "The Godfather," claiming to reveal criminal activities by the Belarusian leader.

In response, Lukashenko staged a friendly public meeting with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili - a leader highly disliked by the Kremlin. He has also dragged his feet on officially recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia - the two areas that broke away, with Russian encouragement, from Georgia in 2008.

Lukashenko has hinted he may want to take the country he has ruled since 1994 closer to the West. Meanwhile, there have been noises coming from Moscow that Russia could potentially support an alternative candidate when Belarus holds its presidential elections in early 2011.

Gas and personalities

The tensions between the two countries have various causes. For one, Russian-Belarusian relations have suffered under Moscow's recent policies of reducing subsidies to allies. This has chiefly been in the form of demanding higher rates for supplies of natural gas, which have been sold at below-market prices.

A Belarusian worker on duty at a gas compressor station

Turning off the gas is one lever the Kremlin can use to ensure pliancy

"The Ukraine has already felt this, being forced to accept price hikes before getting them lowered again in return for political concessions," Alexander Rahr, an Eastern European expert at the German Society for Foreign Policy, told Deutsche Welle. "I think Belarus is about to experience the same thing."

In June, Moscow cut gas supplies to Belarus for four days, claiming that Minsk hadn't paid its bills. But the cut-off was also interpreted as a warning to Lukashenko, whom Rahr credits with successfully pursuing "an autonomous position" and making "autonomous demands."

The current tension can be traced to a long-running personal antipathy between the Belarusian President and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as well.

"There's no love lost between Lukashenko and Putin, who's the one really calling the shots in Russia," explained Jakub Kulhanek, head of the Eastern Europe Program at the Association for International Affairs in Prague. "Under Boris Yeltsin, Lukashenko was thinking of running for president in a potential Russian-Belarusian union. Putin put an end to that. It then became clear to Lukashenko that Belarus would lose out in such a union. He wants to keep Belarus independent so as to retain his own power."

Belarus also delayed implementing a planned customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan, before finally doing so in early July. This was interpreted as an intended message from Lukashenko to Moscow that Belarus would not be bullied.

The testing of strength is taking place as Lukashenko gets ready to stand in an election that, according to Belarusian law, has to be held by February 7, 2011.

Marriage of necessity

Minsk and Moscow may not like one another much at present, but neither have very many alternatives.

A Belarusian woman puts wood into a stove

Per capita income in Belarus is around $6,000 a year

"Lukashenko has been toying with the idea of moving Belarus away from Russia and closer to the European Union, and there's a rumor that Moscow is considering supporting another candidate," Kulhanek said. "But they're probably condemned to working together."

Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia for imports of raw materials and for exports of its own goods. And Lukashenko, who is often called the last dictator in Europe and who himself has described his style of leadership as "authoritarian," hardly enjoys the best of reputations in Western Europe. Indeed, he has been banned from even traveling to the EU in the past.

Meanwhile, Russia needs allies and would hardly consider it beneficial to expend the energy needed to topple Lukashenko.

"As long as Lukashenko can maintain a sort of economic well-being in Belarus, he can hardly be challenged," Kulhanek told Deutsche Welle. "Only Moscow could decide to make life difficult for him by cutting all its subsidies. But that would alienate the Belarusian public and isn't in Russia's best interests."

So the Kremlin is likely to live with Lukashenko, just as the Belarusian president is expected to de-escalate this summer's media row with Moscow, according to analysts.

Change you can't believe in

Another entity that, barring the unforeseeable, lacks any real alternatives is the Belarusian electorate.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko casts his ballot

Lukashenko's last election win was considered dubious

Belarus is arguably the most Soviet-style of the former Soviet republics, with more than half of the population being employed by the state. Even on the Web, freedom of speech is restricted, if indeed existent at all.

"The Belarusian Internet doesn't have a lot going for it in terms of political opposition because it's totally controlled by the state," Kulhanek explained. "If you want to start a website, you need to register it with the government."

Moreover, the Belarusian political opposition is so fragmented and ineffective that it's considered more a source of legitimating Lukashenko's rule than a locus of viable alternatives.

In the last presidential election in 2006, Lukashenko boasted that he had instructed authorities to give him 86 percent of the vote - and not the 93 percent he said he had actually received. This was intended to make the result more plausible to Western observers.

EU heads of state and human rights organizations were nearly universal in condemning the vote as neither free nor fair.

"It's a farce," Kulhanek said. "Everyone knows that, also in the West. But that's the way the cookie crumbles."

As a result, unless there's a very unlikely Russian intervention or the 55-year-old Lukashenko develops health problems, Belarusians are in for seven years of more of the same.

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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