A new honeymoon for Russian-Belarusian relations

Nearly all the bilateral problems that have, of late, so afflicted relations between Russia and Belarus have been resolved over the past two days.

On Tuesday, Russia resumed duty-free oil exports to Belarus. The next day, Russia's Central Election Commission approved the outcome of Belarus' December 19 presidential election and Russia was reassured that it would not have to pay for its military bases in Belarus, contrary to statements made by Alexander Lukashenko over the last few months.

These decisions can be seen as being legitimate sovereign acts of independent states, but they are clearly rooted in political considerations. Problems that have accumulated over years simply cannot be resolved in a couple of days.

The oil duty for Belarus, which had proved a major stumbling block in bilateral relations for two years at least, has been cancelled under the agreement establishing a common economic space between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, in exchange for the Belarusian decision to transfer the petrochemical export duties to the Russian budget.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said at a recent meeting with his Belarusian counterpart Mikhail Myasnikovich that Russia's duty-free oil supplies amount to a $4.124 billion subsidy for Minsk.

The related issues of the rule of law and democracy in Belarus have proved another source of discord. Following Lukashenko's anti-Russian statements last fall President Dmitry Medvedev said that Moscow is under no illusions about the nature of the Belarusian regime. But on January 26 the members of the Russian Central Election Commission said that, having monitored the presidential election in Belarus, they could find no reason to doubt its legitimacy.

Does Russia hope that Belarus, which has become a political outcast for the EU, the United States and other Western countries, will set about remedying its mistakes and adopt a friendlier, or at least more realistic, policy towards it?

Before Ukraine's "orange revolution" in 2004 and 2005, Moscow used the same tactics on Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Kremlin politicians thought they could do as they pleased with Kuchma, who had fallen out with his Western partners, and at long last develop good relations with Russia's largest neighboring Slav country.

Sizeable funds were invested in the Ukrainian integration project. Shortly before the "orange revolution," Russia granted Kuchma significant economic concessions and softened its immigration policy for Ukrainians, allowing them to live in Russia for 90 days without registration.

But the revolution that followed fundamentally changed the situation overnight; bilateral relations sank to an all time low, and Russia lost everything it had invested in Ukraine.

Could something like that happen in Belarus? The answer is clear: yes, it could, and it would only take a change in Lukashenko's thinking for the situation to be reversed.

Russia's desire to develop good relations with fraternal Ukraine and Belarus is a legitimate and reasonable goal for any Russian government. But relations with these countries will be stable and predictable only if they bolster democracy, ensure law and order and pursue predictable and transparent policies.

Dealing with a leader who pledges eternal friendship one day and denounces you another is difficult, to put it mildly. That is exactly how Lukashenko has been acting for the past few years, and his Russian colleagues had reasons enough for their discontent. Everyone would like to believe that this will not happen again, but there can be no failsafe guarantees.

Most Belarusians view Russia as a friend. Stricter democratic control over the authorities could prevent Belarusian policy from taking an anti-Russian turn, but in the absence of such control we have what we have, as many observers at the presidential election in Belarus noted.

According to sources in the OSCE mission in Minsk, the December 19 election saw many strange discrepancies and plentiful instances of the law being broken. Although observers were present at polling stations, chairmen of the election district commissions sealed the ballot boxes and the polling stations for the night.

Presumably, they could have unscrupulously reopened the stations at night: election commission members refused to allow observers to photograph the seals on the ballot boxes before they closed the polling stations at night and reopened them in the morning.

When ballot boxes were opened at some polling stations, the voting papers turned out to be stacked carefully in neat piles, as if by hand, instead of the usual jumble of papers folded differently by different people and shoved into the box. There were also other inconsistencies, which were impossible to assess because the commissions consisted almost exclusively of the current authorities' loyal supporters.

Russia has apparently decided to separate economic relations from politics, which could, in principle, be the right thing to do. Ordinary Belarusian workers, pensioners and children must not suffer financially because of their regime's inadequacy. But this move will endanger Russian investment in Belarus as the Belarusian "sovereign" is free to change his country's trajectory, and in particular turn it against Russia, at will.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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