Belarus dictator makes eyes at West

Russian editorialists were fuming today (24 July) after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told his citizens not to use Russian crossing points into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saying the move was comparable to "recognising the territorial integrity of Georgia".


Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, known as 'Europe's last dictator', has long been accused by the West of repressing dissent, muzzling the media and rigging elections. But as relations with Moscow have soured, he has tried to improve relations with the West.

Ties between Moscow and Minsk have been strained since 2007. Minsk is angry at rising prices for Russian gas, while Moscow resents Lukashenko's growing overtures to the West.

On 7 May, the EU launched a plan to foster closer political and economic ties with six former Soviet republics, including Belarus, while attempting to persuade Russia that it is not trying to muscle in on its sphere of influence (EurActiv 08/05/09).

Russia froze a $500-million loan to Belarus last May. Lukashenko said Moscow refused the money because he turned down Kremlin demands to recognise the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

In June Russia announced it had started building a $4 billion oil pipeline to cut off Belarus from a key supply route to Europe (EurActiv 11/06/09). In reply, Lukashenko snubbed a security summit in Moscow in protest against Russia's "trade war" against his nation (EurActiv 15/06/09).

Russia, the world's second-biggest oil exporter, has been trying to use the global crisis to tighten its grip on poorer neighbours, which are largely dependent on trade with Russia, analysts say.

Authorities in Belarus warned their citizens that they should only use Georgian entrance points when visiting Abkhazia and South Ossetia, according to reports in the country's press.

Although few visitors will be affected, the move is seen as an insult to Russia and an overture to the EU and US.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from Georgia following a five-day war in August 2008 and have since been recognised only by Russia - which de facto controls the two regions - and Nicaragua.

Grigory Karasin, Russia's deputy minister of foreign affairs, called the Belarus recommendation "strange". "After what we had been told by the Belarusian government earlier, this [move] seems illogical," the Russian diplomat said, quoted by Interfax.

Russia-Belarus union shelved

This was not the only move Belarus made to woo Western powers. On Thursday (23 July), Lukashenko received foreign ambassadors in Minsk and told them that a project for a state union between Belarus and Russia hit an impasse.

The Russian daily Kommersant remarked that Lukashenko has in fact shelved this geo-strategic project.

Dmitry Polikanov, a political analyst from Russia's Centre of Political Studies, told the Russia Today website that in his opinion Belarus was putting pressure on Russia in a bargaining game.

"Belarus has always been Russia's major ally on the post-Soviet space [:] Belarus' economy is highly dependent on economic aid from Russia. Belarus has always been fond of bargaining, and maybe we are now witnessing a new stage of Russia-Belarus relations," Poliakov said.

After Lukashenko rejected Moscow's pressure to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the EU has lifted some sanctions against his country, including a travel ban on Lukashenko and other officials, writes Russia Today in an editorial. It adds that after new overtures, Lukashenko hopes that Washington might also become amiable.



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